Apparently You CAN Go Home Again #ouchylovehurts

I’m on a train, headed back to the bay. Awaiting me is a classroom full of books and mementos to be packed up, and an apartment with more of the same. After about four years of living in the beautiful bay area I am moving back to Fresno.

This was not an easy decision. Have I mentioned that I love the bay? And perhaps you have noticed that I have fallen in love with the students at the private high school where they have miraculously allowed me to teach English and Drama the past two years.

And there’s the Fresno heat. My gawd, the HEAT.

But, the thing is: family. I’ve been away from them too long.

In the fall I will begin teaching English 1A at Reedley College. I’m excited for this job. Reedley College was my first choice, as I have always appreciated their focus on and attention to local authors. I’m excited at the prospect of being around other writers and professors. I’m excited to teach at college level. I’m excited to meet new students and colleagues.

The heart, though. It’s a tender muscle. These days it feels stretched, and pulled, and it aches.

I partly blame my students, who upon hearing of my departure began the process of torturing me. This took different forms: hugs, loving notes, and warm sentiments were dished out in a much lesser degree than sarcastic comments, messages on my white board about my desertion of them, and lots of comments like, “Hey Barker–maybe next year we can–oh wait, never mind. I forgot YOU ARE LEAVING US.”

Together my students and I have walked across Spain, studied the stories of others, learned each other’s stories, played games, pranked our principal, eaten meals, slept in cabins, toured San Francisco, put on plays–even Shakespeare (sort of), prayed, worshiped, laughed, cried, danced, and so much more.

I’m also leaving some amazing colleagues, who found various ways over the two years to show their love and support–not the least of them being providing transportation for me when riding my bike just wouldn’t work. They have made me laugh when I needed it most, showed immeasurable patience, and extended a lot of grace. I love them truly.

I’m pretty old now, and have said a few goodbyes in my day.  You’d think I’d be used to it. But nope.

On this day I am grateful for so many things. Perhaps, most of all, I am thankful for the people who live in my heart. I may have said goodbye to them, but they are still with me. They always will be.


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I’m Leaving the Country Today #mycamino

I’m leaving the country today. If I weren’t, I’d be marching in the city with other women in protest of the debacle that we all are bearing witness to.

But I don’t want to talk about that.

Today I am leaving the country with a fellow teacher and seven high school students. We’re walking across Spain on the El Camino de Santiago. 

Years ago, I learned about the Camino from my (most honored) English professor Craig Bernthal. He showed us stunning pictures of lush green hills, crumbling old cathedrals, and a long winding path marked with sea shells to help pilgrims find their way.

He spoke of a spiritual journey, a time to ponder, to test yourself, to question.

I thought it to be the most astounding thing.

I never thought I would do it.

The school where I work gave me the chance and I took it. In about two hours I leave for ten days. img_5682-1

We will walk long days in the rain, have lunch at cafés, and sleep in albuerges surrounded by people from all over the world.

I will be in Paris tonight.

I’m leaving the country today–grateful, expectant, and a bit troubled to leave my husband and family so far behind. I’ve written all their initials on the shell that is dangling from my pack; I’ll be carrying them on my back and in my heart.

It’s my 60th year. I’m walking across Spain.

I’m always given more than I deserve.



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Just before I heard you died
just a moment before
I heard you’d gone
I’d been holding this
worn copy of Beowulf
and I’d laughed because
how you loved Beowulf
and I didn’t?

how you could
sit with a person
sit next to a person
and make them feel
so smart
and so significant?

how you had such darkness
and such light
and one did not diminish the other?

And did you know that your presence
was so tangible
I think,
because you had so much
mind and heart
that your body could not contain it. But–

how you made me laugh
and made me think
and taught me
and pushed me
and Middle Earth days
and sonnets we spoke
and the professor we loved?

the girl who struggled
in class and you–
no one knew it–
but you–
you got her through it,
didn’t you?

how we–
my husband and I–
we danced to your music and
your soul was on your sleeve
and in the song?

but this is where I had to stop
because the thing is

it’s too hard
right now

to believe

that you

are gone.

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The Puzzle

In a cabin on a creek
alone which is so
unfamiliar and

as strange as the sound of rain on the roof
in this drought.
Even the sound of thunder
and not just the teasing of the air with electric shivers
we’ve known as of late
but real thunder so loud you remember that poem and the line
what the thunder said
as you stand in the doorway watching water drip from pine trees.

But earlier,
before the rain fell,
when the air was still
and thick with promise
you found the dusty puzzle box
and the soft tussling sound you heard
as you lifted it
brought your father’s face before you.

Or not his face so much but him,
and the way he tapped the
bright, snug cardboard pieces
when he found the one,
that one piece that fit just so
right there
and made a bit more sense
of the farm scene
or the seascape,
or the raccoon faces peeping at you between fall leaves.

And the way you felt when you
were permitted to sit there
right next to him
working with him
to find that one piece
you know the one
the one that’s shaped like this
“Like this right here,” and we would
bend our heads together to find that one piece.
That one piece that would solve the puzzle.

But the puzzle is always too
big. It is too
intricate; and
you are certain some of the pieces
are missing.

The thunder stops and the rain, too.
But you stay inside because

you like to pretend

that the water still pours down on you and
the drought is over and

your father sits next to you

with his clean-shaven cheeks.


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Yes. All Women.


photo credit: Vase Petrovski

Yesterday I was at Fruitvale BART, as I often am, riding down the escalator in the midst of the evening commute. It was really crowded, and I was over to the right of the narrow stairway, since I wasn’t in a hurry. (Typically people rushing to make a train or bus or get to work on time move at a faster pace and stay to the left.) The crowd started shifting around to make way for a group coming quickly down the left side. From behind I felt someone pressing against me so I tried to lean forward, but it was so crowded I couldn’t move much. In that second or two that I was somewhat trapped, the man behind me leaned into me, grabbed my ass with his whole hand and squeezed it, digging his fingers into my flesh; he laughed in my left ear, his breath and spit hitting my neck. He stepped to the left and hurried down the steps before I could even recover or respond and I watched him scurry off laughing and smiling back at me. A smallish black man in his 30s, in a baseball cap. When my own feet finally touched the unmoving floor I felt unsteady, as if I might fall over, or collapse in some humiliating way.

It’s not the first time something similar to this has happened to me and I’m sure most women would say the same. I think now that I am older I become even more enraged when something like this occurs. Maybe because I am coming at it from a place of more understanding about how women are valued, or more accurately: the twisted ways in which women are valued and devalued at the same time.

Women are shooting shit into their asses and their lips, slicing open their breasts to shove packets of crap into them, and paying lots of money to have their skin scraped, pulled, or otherwise manipulated. Our value seems to be found in the level of desirability we can achieve—at least the level and shape that the media touts before all of us as desirable—and women are doing terrible things to their bodies in their desperation.

When we walk down the street our bodies are vulnerable to leering and comments and even aggressive and unwanted groping. In that recent moment on the escalator I felt inexplicably and maddeningly embarrassed, as if I had done something shameful, and that infuriates me; I am still angry at not only the grinning man in the baseball cap, but at myself for my vulnerability, and my inability to stop or prevent this—my failure to retaliate or protect or punish.

It’s time to evolve. Time to raise our daughters to believe that their bodies are their own and not created for the pleasure of men’s eyes or hands or fantasies. Time to raise our sons to value women as more than flesh designed to gratify them. And—perhaps most difficult of all—time to look at ourselves and our own behaviors to determine how much a part of the problem we are. In countless subtle and powerful ways we tell ourselves and those around us what we think of women. Our words, actions, behaviors, and expectations scream out our true thoughts, and often they do damage that does not undo itself for generations, if ever.

One afternoon I sat at a sidewalk café in San Francisco with my son, Nate, and a young woman wearing a short skirt walked by. Nate and I witnessed a whole lineup of men either outwardly leering or trying to sneak looks without being detected. Nate turned to me and told me about something he’d read that was sticking in his mind.

“Say you’re a young girl,” he said, “and you’re out to lunch with your dad, and you’re telling him something about school, or your sports team, or whatever. You’re telling your dad, but the thing is, while you’re telling him his eyes are following a woman who just walked by. You know what that says to the young girl?” my son asked me. “It says: ‘your dreams and accomplishments aren’t as important as this woman’s ass.’ Now she’s probably going to spend more time in her life improving her ass than herself as a person, because she’s figured out that’s what matters to the most important man in her life.”

Ogling a woman passing by is a small and subtle thing, I suppose. But the message it sends is powerful and pervasive. And what of a son in that situation? Pretend the girl’s brother is at the table. What is he learning from his primary male role model? That the accomplishments, dreams, words, thoughts, ideas of a woman are not as important as her ass (I’m using “ass” to stand in for body, breasts, legs—whatever is being leered at). Insert ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’ into this story, and think about how that might affect the ability to feel appreciated, understood, equal, desirable.


Now that we have diminished women to body parts and flesh existing for men to enjoy, it seems some of those men feel perfectly entitled to grab and stare and otherwise use our bodies to get them off in some way—with or without our consent. #YesAllWomen is a movement that seeks to expose the treatment that all women endure. On the daily, tweets pop up in my feed with women relating stories like my escalator one; most of them are worse. I like that the emphasis is on all women, as I’m hoping and imagining that this helps dispel the idea that this sort of thing only happens to certain women who dress a certain way. Have I mentioned that I am 58 years old, and at the time this happened was wearing a t-shirt (with a high collar—not a V neck), jeans, and red chucks. Not exactly the attire of a woman who is trying to attract unwanted (or any kind of) male attention. Yes. All women. Even your daughter, your sister, wife, friend. Your mother.

I started to apologize, just now, for this rant, and to thank you for sticking with it. But then I thought better of it. I don’t apologize for this rant. I apologize to my daughters, my son, and my grandson, for the ways in which the world will (and has) hurt them, and for the ways I have hurt them in my own ignorance. For that time I didn’t say anything to the man who was so familiar with me in the grocery store that it made my six year old son feel angry and protective. For the times I valued my daughters’ beauty too much, or failed to teach them how to function in the world as a pretty girl and still know who you really are—I couldn’t do it for them; I couldn’t do it for myself.

To the man on the escalator, and to all of you with your leering eyes, your shouts and whispers, your laughter in our ears, and your spit on our necks: I think you are losing more than you are gaining. You are losing your ability to see women as they are: complex and brilliant, capable of deep love and intellect that goes beyond the bounce of our breasts or the meat on our thighs. You are pushing us away with your meager understanding, and with your foolish lack of control in the presence of our flesh. You are more than all of this, and so are we.

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Brackish Water

This is a hard and exhilarating season. I am in between one life and another—not really, of course—not in the Samsara sense, or in the “I see a tunnel, and a bright light” sort of way. But I am nonetheless perched between my former life and my new one, at the age of 57, and I’m feeling a little like I’ve jumped into a river that is about to meet up with the enchanted sea but I’ve got to get out of the whirlpool I am in first. Let me explain.

I am only living in two geographic locations: Fresno and the bay area, but in the past week I have slept in five different beds, and I’ve been engaging in this sort of gypsy behavior for the past two months. I’ve started a new job in San Francisco, doing something I have never done before—teaching English courses to middle and high school Chinese-American students in a private learning institution. I am still trying to be proficient at using the bus, BART, and Muni to get me around, which has resulted in a couple of “Oh crap I’m on the wrong train” sort of moments, which aren’t terrible but at the end of a long work /travel day when it’s time to eat/pee/chill/sleep (none of which I can do on the BART—though some people do) it makes me feel stupid, and a little pathetic, sitting there with my suitcase at my feet and my smart phone in my hand; it makes me miss my husband, who I don’t see nearly enough these days. It makes me miss my dog.

I think I’m very tired.

One of the first things I learned from my beloved/irritating writing professor—who shall remain nameless but who, I will say, has an affinity for Melville and an aversion to the word “issues,” because, he claims, it’s a weak euphemism for what it really means, which is big fucking problems—is that writing is not therapy. Or, at least it’s not supposed to be a therapeutic endeavor. Is that what he was saying? I’m not really sure, even after hearing him say it repeatedly over a span of years. Because it never made sense to me. Like math, I couldn’t make his philosophy fit into my brain.

But out of respect for my mentor, and courtesy for my reader, if I still have one, I’ll keep the analysis and self-examination to a minimum.

IMG_7684A couple of weeks ago I was hooded for a master’s degree in creative writing out of Fresno State’s MFA program. I had amazing and inspiring professors and creative, hilarious, talented fellow students; I hope and pray to stay connected with this wonderfully strange family of people I have grown to love.

I walked away from a volunteer job that I loved, and it still hurts to think about it. The inmates I met, and soon adored, who were in my writing group at Fresno County jail, greet me in my dreams almost nightly; they want to know why I left without saying goodbye. In real life, they know why, because I told them repeatedly months in advance that I would be leaving, that I was graduating, getting a job in the city, and that I had a grandson coming. But still. In my dreams they look at me without trust.

I am still trying to do my job at Dakota House, where I have been the founding director for fifteen years. I am doing a bad job, though. I’m too scattered. And I miss the kids so much sometimes it makes me want to drop everything and run back to that little neighborhood, just in time for prayer and announcement time, where I can wrestle and snuggle and hang out with kids I love and with whom I can entirely be myself.

And then there is my grandson Mason. Nobody prepared me for this sort of love. Oh yes, they all said things like “It’s wonderful. You get to play with them and then send them home to their parents. It’s great!” This sort of sentiment doesn’t even touch the feelings I have for my grandson. He is only 2 ½ months old, and I am completely smittenphoto, out-of-my-head in love, and would basically climb any obstacle, put up with any inconvenience, and sacrifice nearly anything just to stare into his face and watch him drool and blow spit bubbles. It’s ridiculous. But seriously, can you blame me? I mean, look at that face. And he already has a personality that outweighs him by twice his size, which is not surprising in the least if you know his parents.

Wikipedia defines brackish water as “water that has more salinity than fresh water, but not as much as seawater” and states, rather obviously in my opinion, that “it may result from mixing of seawater with fresh water.” I’ve always liked this idea: the coming together of two different things to make something new, something that contains elements of both, but is neither. It is brackish.

My life in this season still has elements of the life I have been living for years now: our big old house that I love, with its crumbling walls and lush garden and bright kitchen; my noble and neurotic weenie dog, Hector; my Dakota House family; my extended family; my four amazing kids; and of course my husband, Brad—they all have my heart and my love and that has not changed.

But so much has. I am no longer a student. Wait. What? Yes. I am no longer a student. I had to say it twice to make it go in. I’ve been a student for so long—literally been in and out of college since 1990, and that doesn’t even count the early half-hearted, mostly social and debauched semesters in the 70’s and 80’s when I racked up some units at Fresno City College and C.O.S. in Visalia. I don’t remember what it’s like to not be learning, doing homework, complaining about doing homework, and commiserating with other students who are complaining about doing homework. I can’t recall what it’s like to read whatever I want, without taking notes or wondering how I could work this in to my next paper. I can’t remember what it’s like to NOT have an assignment hanging over my head. I have vague recollections, and I am starting to feel it now, but I think I don’t trust the feeling yet and haven’t given it permission to settle in just yet. I’m not even sure I like it.

More things that are different: I don’t sleep in the same bed as my husband every night anymore. I live out of a suitcase most of the time. I don’t get to have my dog with me. I rarely have time to cook and eat my own food. Half the time I don’t know where my stuff is. I don’t get to see my DH kids enough. Ever. But these are just the bad things.

I get to see my kids who live in the bay more. I actually spend several nights a month staying at their place(s). I get to see the amazing adults they have become; I get to enjoy them and hang out with them in their world. I have a new son, the father of Mason, who I coincidentally have loved for many years (I’ve even, in former years, been accused of making him my favorite DH kid–a preposterous notion, of course).

Sf cable carI get to breathe fresh salt air all the time now, which always has and still does feel like a gift, a precious, lovely, moist, not-valley-air gift. I regularly move through and stay in a beautiful city, taking in sights, and encounters, and discoveries that often astound, delight and intrigue me. I am not bored. I am learning new things all the time—I am teaching so I am learning along with my students. I have exposure to a new (to me) culture and am learning about it through kids that are funny, smart, curious, angry, happy, bold, shy, serious, and silly—just like all kids everywhere.

And there’s my grandson. The boy with the moon and star on his head, the boy who holds my heart in his chubby little hand, the boy who makes all the world right when I look into his eyes.

Hopefully, someday Brad and I will have our own place in the bay, and things will be easier; I will have more time with my husband, and a place for our grandson to come play, and I won’t be traveling back and forth so much; I’ll feel (and look) less like a tired and disheveled gypsy.

But this brackish season has its beauty. It’s not my old life, but it’s not my new one either. It’s something in between: a time to figure out some things about myself, my family, and my priorities. A time to discover what is out there besides everything I already know and live. A time to make good decisions while still recovering from the bad ones. A time to make bad choices and really figure out, for sure, that they are bad. A time for our family to grow and morph into what it will be in the years to come.

Wikipedia also says this: “Certain human activities can produce brackish water.” I’ll have to agree with that. It’s taken a lot of activity to get me where I am, some of it good and admirable, some of it not so good and admirable, but all of it mine, and all of it very human.

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Soggy in the Emerald City

I’ve been in Seattle since Saturday morning. It’s Tuesday morning, and it is miraculously not raining. For the first time since I’ve been here. seattle blu sky Here is proof. That’s blue sky you see just over the light rail streaking by. I am beside myself.

Yes, I am from California, where lately we beg the heavens to let water fall, where we do rain dances, and shake our fists at the cloudless sky and curse. Where it is currently 78 degrees. In February. I’m happy when it rains in my hometown. But this.

A friend of mine lives here and while trying to make some dinner plans he sent me this message:

“Let me plan on picking you up at [my hotel] so you don’t have to walk in the rain. You Californians sometimes freak out when it rains too much.”

I wanted to send him a reply message that said “WTF? I’m not made of sugar, you know.” But I didn’t. Because he is right. I have been freaking out a little. I have three pairs of soaking wet shoes in my hotel room right this minute, and one of them I bought at a City Target after walking all day in the soggy streets, my trusty pair of TOMS having given up trying to be shoes in this watery onslaught.

Last night I walked over to the Century Ballroom, where a free screening of RuPaul’s Drag Race was hosted by Ben DeLaCreme, seen here looking quite lovely. I had fantasies of mingling with fabulous drag queens, sipping wine and nibbling cheese with all sorts of folks I rarely come into contact with. I’ve been to a drag club twice, both the same one–LIPS, in Greenwich Village. I took bendelacremetwo of my daughters there on trips to NYC to celebrate their high school graduation,and both times it was a wonderful night of fun and laughter and amazing entertainment.

But it was not to be for me here in the Emerald City (FYI: STILL no idea why they call it that, but it sounds so great, right? ) The line at the Century Ballroom was so long–it snaked up three flights of stairs and around several bends. The people waiting in line looked disappointingly normal, too. Very few wigs. Hardly any sequins. Most everyone looked pretty much like me. In fact, I was more dressed up than most, thinking I couldn’t show up to a drag show wearing my Fresno State sweats and a baseball cap, though I could have, because most everyone there was dressed as dull and drab as the gray Seattle sky. After waiting for a half hour or so, we were told that they had crammed as many people into the ballroom as they possibly could. The rest of us didn’t stand a chance.

I did meet several nice very nice people while waiting in line. I was invited to go to The Wild Rose–a bar down the street–by a nice young man and his compportandia dudeanions. but I declined. He was so friendly, and so earnest in trying to get me to see the beauty of his city (he looked a lot like that guy on Portlandia), but my colleagues (I like calling my peeps that) from my MFA program will be here soon, and we will be doing plenty of drinking in bars; I decided to save up my energy and cash and head back to my hotel. Before I left, the young man told me that when the sun does come out, it’s glorious. “We really appreciate it,” he told me. I likened it to Tolkien’s theory (nerd that I am) of eucatastrophe, where you must endure the suffering before you can enjoy those “piercing glimpses of joy.” The young man, nerd that he is, loved my comparison, and wrote the word on his arm so he would remember it.

I goru pault a glimpse inside the ballroom, but the doorway was so crowded I couldn’t see much. In all it was a bit disappointing.

I made the walk back to my hotel through the rain. Have I mentioned that the GPS on my phone doesn’t work for crap here? All the clouds, I suppose. So I do a lot of walking in circles and staring at my phone, occasionally shaking it; that does nothing yet I can’t seem to stop myself. But last night I didn’t even need my GPS. I’ve begun to figure out the streets here, and besides, it was early, and I had nothing to do. (Having nothing to do is such a foreign feeling  for me; I find it exhilarating and terrifying.) I strolled through the wet and shiny city, breathing in the moist air, and enjoying the luxury of solitude in a city where I know almost no one.

seattle at nightBack at my hotel I changed into those comfy sweats and headed down to the lobby–the only place you get free internet in my hotel. I snuggled into one of the couches, ordered a glass of wine, and watched the final episode of House of Cards on my laptop, the letdown of which was similar to missing out on RuPaul.

But today the sun is out. Tomorrow my peeps begin arriving. I’ve got four more days here. Seattle, show me the green.

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