Posts Tagged ‘Stinson Beach’

Sea glass and Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2012

I spent the weekend at our Stinson Beach house with Leslie Laurien, one of our co-owners, creating mosaics on two bare concrete steps. Leslie has been going to Stinson for more than a decade, collecting sea glass the entire time, and so had amassed a fabulous collection of smooth, rounded pieces in a variety of colors. There were various shades of clear glass, from milky white to slightly blue and even violet. There were beer-bottle-brown pieces, and green, a few tiny cobalt blue ones. In addition, Leslie had gathered broken tea cups, tiles, marbles and shards of mirrors. Before going any further, I need to say that she is an incredible artist (some of whose work you can view here) and I was more the — shall we say — sorcerer’s apprentice. :-)

Here is a picture of the project underway, and one of what we ended up with. It still needs to be grouted.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Even sitting in piles on the stoop, the sea glass pieces were beautiful. Washed and rubbed and ground by the waves for decades until smooth enough for a child to hold, they start out as trash but look like exotic gems by the time you find them on the beach. Some of my favorites are the ones that are barely larger than dots — tiny green or blue or cloudy pearls.

Then last night, I woke up in the dark thinking of those pearly glass dots in tandem with some comments that our rabbi has been posting on Facebook. It wasn’t any conscious connection; those two things just slid together in my sleepy mind.

As part of Elul, the month leading up to the high holy days, Rabbi Andrew Straus has been posting a short question or story each day, designed to spark reflection.

Just little questions, in the oh-so-flippant and distracting world of Facebook. I guess they are like bits of precious glass found on a beach. So I thought I’d reprint a few:

If I could live this past year over again: what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
For the things you would do the same – what lesson can you learn?
For the things you would do differently – is there a pattern? What can you learn from that?
What can you do at this point to change the things that you want to change?


The story is told of Jacob and Eliezer who were on a difficult journey together. They helped each other out of many tough situations. One day as they crossed a raging river Jacob nearly drowned. Eliezer saved his friend’s life. Once they were safely on the other side Jacob chiseled into a nearby rock, “In this place Eliezer risked his life to save the life of his friend  Jacob.”

Several days later Jacob and Eliezer got into a terrible fight regarding who would carry the food. Jacob took a stick and wrote in the dirt: “In this place Eliezer broke the heart of his friend Jacob during a trivial argument.” Eliezer watched and asked; “Why did my heroism get carved into stone, but the fact that I broke your heart only get scratched into the dirt?”

Jacob smiled and responded; “I will forever cherish how you saved my life, risking your own to do so, but as for the insults and hurtful words, these I hope will fade as quickly as the words I have scratched in the dirt.” With that, Jacob rose and wiped the inscription away with his foot.

How many of us are carrying minor hurts with us that can be wiped away? How many of us are holding on to words said in anger and forgetting the words said in love? How many of us are remembering the hurt and forgetting the mitzvot the good deeds done for us? What would it take to wipe the words away?

And another:

“It is a cornerstone for Judaism …, that however great a person’s transgressions may be, they fail to penetrate to the innermost core of one’s soul. Always and under all circumstances, there remains something pure, precious and sacred in a person’s soul.” (Rabbi Soloveitchik)

Who are you at your core? What is precious and sacred in your soul? What makes you, you?
How do you get in touch with your innermost core? What can you do to let your core shine brighter?

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday. Shanah tovah! 

May your coming year be as sweet as apples and honey, and as shiny as sea glass pieces, smoothed and polished into gems from our unwanted, discarded trash.

Photo by Ilana DeBare


Stinson alone

March 25, 2012

I drove out to Stinson Beach on Saturday afternoon by myself to spend a couple of days writing. I haven’t touched my novel since the fall. Now I finally had a little window of time. This was what I imagined when we bought the Stinson house with our co-owners two years ago. It was on my mind when I took the half-time job at Golden Gate Audubon. Having Mondays and Tuesdays free gives me a solid block of time to have my own mini “writer’s retreat” every few weeks, especially once Daughter is in college next fall.

But it was hard coming here yesterday. I always feel torn leaving Sam and Daughter, homesick, even when they are busy with their own activities. It was pouring rain. I arrived and it was almost dark, the house was cold, and I forgot a bag of groceries I’d meant to bring. The only heat is a wood stove, so the first thing I had to do on arrival was make a fire, which is an area of chronic anxiety for me. I am a bit of a pyrophobe and feel like there is some magical art to starting fires that I will never master. We all have our “oh, I can’t xxxx” activities, and this is one of mine.


Photo by Ilana DeBare

The house gradually warmed up. And this morning we had a break in the rain. The clouds were high and blue sky started to emerge. I took a long walk to the end of the beach. On the way there, I wore my iPod and practiced the Torah portion I’ll be chanting at my nephew’s bar mitzvah service in May. On the way back, I thought about the structure of my novel. By the time I was back at the house, I had taken off two of the three layers I’d started out in, and I’d visited the little Stinson market to replace the missing groceries.

Stinson hills / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Stinson Beach between storms / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now it’s enough procrastinating and time to work!

My favorite place to practice chanting Torah…

September 12, 2011

… is the beach.

I did this when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah service, and I’ve been doing it again with the portion I’ll be chanting on Yom Kippur morning.

Stinson Beach / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Stinson Beach is long, wide and mostly empty, even on weekends. It takes me 45 minutes to walk to the end, and then another 45 to walk back. I take my iPod with our cantor’s recording of my portion, and I walk along and listen and chant. None of the other beach walkers seems to notice or care, and it’s much safer than the other place I practice chanting — in the car.

Don’t even ask about that. One of these days I will rear-end someone, and when the officer eyes me suspiciously and asks if I was texting while driving, I’ll say “Of course not. I was chanting.”

Learning to chant a Torah portion is different from anything else I do in my daily life.  It involves spoken sounds rather than written words. It’s not intellectual or analytical. There’s no tangible, material goal like there is in writing a news story or cooking a meal or planting zucchini.

It’s harder than simply learning to sing in a foreign language. When I listen to pop songs in Hebrew or French or Spanish — the foreign languages I sort of know — the choruses tend to stick in my head. They repeat, they rhyme, they use familiar daily sentence structures. All of that makes them easy to remember.

Fog and sun / Photo by Becca Schuchat

With Torah, the grammar is often archaic and convoluted. (For instance, the Torah typically uses future tense when it means past tense. Why? I’m sure there’s a historico-linguistic reason, but no one has told me.) There are weird sentence constructions, and obscure words like “ephod” that don’t exactly pop up in daily conversation.

The melody shifts back and forth at random between minor and major keys. There are no patterns of repeated melodies, no rhymes, no ABAB CDCD verses and choruses. It would be a lot easier if God had hired Woody Guthrie and the Torah read, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Jezreel Valley to the Jerusalem highlands.”

To be fair, there is the skeleton of a system.  A limited number of melodic phrases are used again and again in chanting Torah, and there are symbols to represent those phrases (cantillation). Sometimes the melodic phrases even correspond in a systematic way with certain points in the text, like the ends of verses.

But it’s still a lot less systematic and structured than modern pop songs or western classical music or the various bits of poetry we all had to memorize in grade school. And for a relative beginner like me, it remains pretty inscrutable. So I turn on my iPod, listen to the cantor, and imitate what she does. Phrase by phrase, line by line. I look for familiar words and am ecstatic when a difficult, unfamiliar word turns out to share a root with a word I already know. Those words are like rafts in the middle of a long, exhausting swim.

Andie at Stinson / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Between the Torah portion I learned for my Bat Mitzvah service, the one I learned for a service in July, and my current Yom Kippur portion, I’ve now done this enough that I can see a pattern in how I approach it.

Phase 1: Feel overwhelmed. (“How am I going to learn all that?”)

Phase 2: Take it one phrase at a time.

Phase 3: Get enough phrases down that I can chant a verse or two without getting stymied.

Phase 4: Learn enough verses to realize I am almost done. Yay!

That last phase is the one I’m in now, having learned five of six verses pretty securely. At this point it becomes fun. I find myself humming the melody without thinking about it. I can go back to some of the more troublesome lines and make sure  the phrasing and notes are exactly right. I can start to think about the meaning of the words while I chant them rather than just worrying about what the next word/note should be.

It occurs to me that this, in a very abbreviated way, is the same process as revising my novel. I’m in the overwhelmed/one-step-at-a-time phase with that right now. I still haven’t worked out my problems with the middle of the manuscript. It just occurred to me this morning that I may need to completely overhaul the ending. I hope sooner or later to reach  the point I’m at with my Torah portion — where the big, blunt work is done and I can relax and focus on making the phrasing just right.

Huh. What was that I was saying about this having nothing in common with the rest of my life?

Mt. Tam wildflowers after the rain

March 28, 2011

As a born-and-bred city girl, I’ve never had the vocabulary to describe things I see in nature. I can reel off street names and ice cream flavors, but when I walk along a trail I’m left with “little yellow flowers on a bush” or “fuzzy leaves of something or other.”  This has been an occasional frustration when I’ve tried to write novel scenes set on the hillsides or beaches that so blessedly surround us here in the Bay Area.

On Sunday I had an opportunity to hike the Matt Davis Trail down the western slope of Mt. Tam to Stinson Beach with Libby Ingalls, a true wildflower expert. This was the first dry morning after a long spate of rain, so everything was moist and happy and the streams were about as full as they get. We’re probably still two or three weeks away from peak wildflower season, so there weren’t an overwhelming number of names for me to learn.

Still, I took photos and wrote down the names to help me remember. Here are some:

Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa) / Photo by Ilana DeBare
We were just at the right moment of spring to see Calypso orchids, which grow in the shade under Douglas firs. They’re tiny — maybe five inches tall, the blossoms only a half-inch wide — and easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention.

Hound's tongue (Cynoglossum grande) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Milkmaids (Cardamine californica) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The next photo gives a sense of how full the streams were after the rain. A few months from now, some of these won’t be flowing at all.

Stream on Matt Davis Trail / Photo by Ilana DeBare

In our three-mile walk down the side of the mountain, we went through five different habitats — pantoll chaparral, Douglas fir forest, open grassland, bay/laurel woodland, and coast chaparral. The flowers in the previous photos were from the shady Douglas fir forest. Then we came to these in the open grassy meadows:

California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The California buttercup is very common! But I never knew what it was called.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Of course there were comments about the name of that one, even if we didn’t have any teenage boys hiking with us.

Popcorn flower ( (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

You can see how tiny the popcorn flowers were, from the size of my shoe.

Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

There is Coyote brush all over the coastal hills of the Bay Area. But again, I never had a name for it.

And here we are with Forget-me-nots, from the shady bay/laurel woodland part of the walk. They’re an invasive species from Europe so would be considered “ecologically incorrect.” But they’re so cheerful in their profusion, and their leaves are an almost iridescent green.

Forget-me-not (Myosotis latifolia or sylvatica) / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Forget-me-nots / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This was a strikingly beautiful fungus, but I neglected to ask Libby for the name. Click on the picture for a closer view of the red stripes on the orange background.

Fungus / Photo by Ilana DeBare

At about this point, my camera battery died so I didn’t get pictures of  plants from the coast chaparral habitat close to the beach: Eupatory, Bush Lupine, California Sage, French Broom, Echium, Thimbleberry. Those are all common enough that I hope my feeble brain can remember them even without photo reminders.

I often think about how our vocabularies — our entire vision, in fact, and what we do or don’t notice as we go through our days — reflect our environment.  Native American children must have learned the names for hundreds of different plants and wildflowers. Meanwhile, I remember my neighbors’ son Daniel coming home from elementary school at the age of 6 or 7 having learned the Nike “swoosh” logo and asking for sneakers with it.

Libby Ingalls donated her guide services on our walk as a benefit for two worthy environmental organizations:

  • The California Institute for Biodiversity, founded by my sister-in-law Carol Baird, which provides curricula, teaching materials and teacher training about California ecosystems.
  • Great Old Broads for Wilderness. This may be the best name of an advocacy group I’ve ever heard. And the good news is that anyone can be a Great Old Broad, regardless of age, gender or personal greatitude.

Marin County or Middle Earth? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Little foxes

May 16, 2010

We recently read Song of Songs for my Bat Mitzvah study group, including the line that inspired the title of the Lillian Hellman play:

Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.

I thought of that when we found out that we have a family of foxes living outside our new vacation home at Stinson Beach. Check out these photos by our co-owner Gary Yabrove:

Mother fox on our deck / Photo credit: Gary Yabrove


Fox in the yard / Photo credit: Gary Yabrove


Fox with dead rabbit on the deck / Photo credit: Gary Yabrove

We’ve spotted a mother, father and four kits in the early morning hours. They aren’t ruining our vineyards — we have one grapevine, which doth not a vineyard make — but the kits have been trampling a garden bed filled with succulents and strawberries.

BUT we are happy to have them and, unlike the Biblical poet, will not try to catch them.

Knowing a place, and its nature

March 24, 2010

We spent the weekend at Stinson Beach, a little town tucked between the steep western slopes of Mt. Tam and a 3.5-mile-long strip of sandy beach. Until last year, I could count the number of times I’d been to Stinson Beach on one hand. Since January, though, we’ve been there three times. 

I’ll be spending even more time there in the future. In December we bought a house at Stinson, jointly with two other families. So our family has use of the house every third week. 

Stinson Beach

It’s all still new enough that we don’t have routines yet. (My uncle and his wife visited on Saturday and kept asking things like, “So is it usually windy in the afternoon?” and I kept giving non-answers:  “I have no idea what is ‘usual’ — yet!”) 

Both Saturday and Sunday mornings, I walked down to the northern tip of the beach, where it ends at Bolinas Lagoon, about an hour and a half down and back. 

The beach was the same both days. I mean, this wasn’t a Yahoo! home page that changes every  ten minutes.  Same houses. Same ocean to the west. Same mountainside to the east. Same lagoon at the end. 

But there were also all these little differences. On Sunday  I saw a flock of 13 tiny shorebirds skittering at the edge of the incoming waves like ball bearings, their legs a blur. On Saturday the waves had carved out a kind of basin in one section of the beach, where water calmly pooled between a sand bar and the shore. Both days I found a lot of sand dollars. Other times, I haven’t found a single one. 

Now, I grew up in Manhattan and have spent virtually all of my life in urban landscapes. I think a lot about how I – and most Americans – are well versed in the sensory cues of urban industrial life.

We can discriminate among a half-dozen brands of sneakers by their wordless logos. We hear a police siren, or a cell phone ring tone, or a truck backing up with beeps, and we know exactly what it is and how to respond.

Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors could identify a hundred different kinds of plants, we can identify Oreos and Rice Krispies and Paul Newman dressing and Big Macs with just a split-second glimpse of their packaging. This is the information that we inhale with the air as we grow up; no less than our ancestors’ knowledge of the difference between poisonous berries and nourishing ones, this is the information we need to survive. 

By contrast, when I walk down the beach at Stinson,  I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe what I see. There were four different kinds of shorebirds on Sunday. I knew that some were willets, from their mid-sized bills and their white-striped wings in flight. But the others – curlews? dowitchers? godwits? sandpipers? I need to fetch the bird book and teach myself the names and signs. 

Is it easier for you to tell a willet from a godwit...

... or a Coke from a Pepsi?

I look forward to having a piece of natural land – the beach, the hillside — that I come to know well. No, I’m not about to go all Annie Dillard or Thoreau. I am bored to tears by most nature writing! But I’d like to notice the daily and seasonal changes in the sand, water, vegetation. I’d like to develop an eye for quiet, small changes. I’d like to learn the names of things in the natural world as well as the industrial, commercial one. 

When I used to commute to San Francisco, I took the same walk down College Avenue to BART each day, along a pleasant strip of cafes, boutiques, bookstores and restaurants.

The shop windows changed slightly from week to week, but the walk still got boring. 

I don’t think walking the beach will get boring, even if I do it every time we visit. But it will require an eye and a vocabulary for those small, quiet changes – changes in how the sand is shaped, the shells washed up, the birds. 

On Saturday a young woman rode down the beach on a horse, so fast that she was soon a dot in the distance. Then she turned around and rode back, posting perfectly, so that the horse moved up and down and her torso moved up and down, but her head and shoulders remained still, straight, as if suspended by thin wires, looking ahead into the breeze.