Later I would write a short story—my first—that was a hodgepodge of fact and fiction:

It was the end of the school year, and she felt utterly oppressed by her situation at work—a class full of four-turning-five-year-olds, who seemed to become more heedless and willful as the last weeks wore themselves out. One little boy who had been relatively well-behaved at the beginning of the year was now insufferable—would strike out for any offense, however small or unintentional. She looked in her bag of tricks and found it gapingly empty. She didn’t know what to do anymore and was tired of trying. She wrote:

“A rutted road winds down behind the school, and a small bridge carries it over a canal to its end. No one uses the road, for the acres to the right have been leveled, the eventual floor to some construction, and to the left there is only a field of wild mustard flowers, as stridently, dizzily yellow as can be imagined. It was there I took refuge in the middle of one workday last week and ate my lunch in the company of the bugs. I remembered seeing such a field—all yellow—from above, last year, and now I realized that this was the same one. I gazed up at the school on the hill and thought about what it meant to me—the only reason I’ve had for living for a number of blank years. Then I tried to forget. For a brief moment I beheld the flowers at sea, eddying and blowing in the wind, and I wanted to laugh. They appeared loosed from their stems, all flitting their own ways, like a fairy swarm.”

That same morning she took a little girl’s face in her hands and said tiredly, “Sweetheart, I like you very much…I just wish you wouldn’t act so rowdy.”

The child looked back at her plaintively awhile and asked, “Why do you like me?”

And she felt, as she looked into that face, with its pathos and uncertainty, that it was her own reflection that she saw.

She was surprised by the phone call and couldn’t imagine later why she had accepted his invitation. She had told her girlfriend she wasn’t interested in going out with anyone, but her friend had gone ahead and given him her phone number anyway.

He was a pleasant-looking man, as it turned out—hefty, with lightly freckled skin and bushy bleached-out eyebrows. He reminded her of someone…or maybe of several people, she thought. His manner was easy and hearty, and she felt much more comfortable with him than she had expected to.

After buying some exotic cheeses in a specialty shop, they sat in lawn chairs under a willow tree, a flurry of ducks at their feet.

“When I was a little girl,“ she mused, “my father drove me home from school one day and stopped in a shop. He came out with a pink cardboard box, tied with a string. He told me it was a cake and put it in the shade in the back seat of the car…so the frosting wouldn’t melt, he said. He stuck to his cake story even when I insisted I heard peeping sounds coming from the box. He had bought me a duckling, a downy little yellow thing…”

One thing she liked about him, she decided as they drove on towards Bolinas, was his sense of timing. Just when she felt a length of silence pulling taut between them, when she began anxiously casting about in her mind for something worth saying, he would speak up, easily, naturally. She was grateful that he was good at both—quiet and conversation.

They took an army blanket and their bag of food into a scruffy field by an estuary and snacked on crackers and brie and wine. He told her about his recent adventures abroad.

“I hitchhiked across Castilla to the Costa Brava,” he said, “and lived for a while in the hills behind a little fishing village. They were terraced in stone a thousand years ago for growing olive trees—but desolate now. I camped out in an ancient stone shelter—square on the outside, dome-shaped on the inside, like an igloo.” He reconstructed it in the air with his hands. “It had a hole in the roof to let out smoke from the fire. I worried the first night it rained that it would leak…but in the morning I discovered that the cobwebs covering the hole had caught all the raindrops.”

“I’ve never been to Europe,” she said wistfully. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

They gathered up the blanket and food and walked down to a dilapidated pier.

“Would you like to fish?” he asked.

She shook her head. She didn’t like the idea of catching and killing things, but she didn’t want to say so—she didn’t want him to feel she was criticizing him. As she watched him, bent over his tackle box, she noticed how his sandy hair spiraled from a small bald patch at the top of his head. It lit up in her—that bald spot—a glow of tenderness, small and brief as a match flame. She noticed too how fair his skin was at his lower back where his T-shirt gaped above his jeans. Suddenly, standing out on the blustery end of the pier, she started back as though struck a blow by the wind. Only it wasn’t the wind, she knew. It was fear. For she was feeling a swell of physical longing for this man, and it was the last thing she wanted to feel.

She moved behind a barricade of weathered wood built on one side of the pier. When he stood up and saw her shivering, he started to put an arm around her, with a look of concern, but she turned deftly away, pretending she hadn’t read his intention.

“I think I’ll take a walk down to the beach,” she said. “Maybe collect some rocks…” She made herself smile.

All the rocks she found looked more or less the same—gold-brown and coarse—and she threw down as many as she picked up.

I wish I’d married a childhood sweetheart and lived…any way whatever…ever after, she thought almost bitterly. She couldn’t deal with contemporary courtship, she told herself—the precipitate advances and retreats. He would try to embrace her or kiss her soon, and she would have to let him or explain herself. Either way would feel like a violation—to be touched before she was ready to be touched or to have to explain before she felt ready to explain.

He stood beyond the wind-block at the end of the pier, his baggy T-shirt flapping in the wind. As she approached he turned his palms up to show her he was empty-handed—he hadn’t caught anything.

On the way back to the car, he started up a narrow path at the foot of a low cliff. She shied back, seeing the thickets of poison oak that bordered the path.

“I’d rather not go that way,” she said.

When he looked at her quizzically, she flushed. “Poison oak,” she said lamely. ’’It seems all I have to do is look at it and I break out.”

So they took the road instead.

Driving back to town he told her about his plans. He had been living out of his truck since his return from Spain, but at the end of the month he was moving into a small ranch house in the country outside of Danville. He was going to plant a vegetable garden and build a shop for cabinetmaking.

When they found that the restaurant didn’t open until 5:00, he asked if she would mind if he fished until then. She said no. So he walked down the road to the beach with his fishing pole while she sat in the car, where it was warm, with her notebook and pencil. She tried to write, but couldn’t. She had wanted him to stay with her, she realized. She should have told him so. Only she hadn’t known what she wanted then. In fact, she never seemed to discover what it was that she wanted until it was too late. And feeling unaccountably forlorn, she began to cry. She laid her head down on the seat and wept. After a while she dried her face, itchy from tears, and began to write.

She had the odd sensation that he was being careful with her—or of her—after that. Maybe her nose had been red or her eyes over-bright when he got back to the car, and he guessed that she had been crying.

They sat in a corner of the restaurant, the fronds of hanging plants trailing almost to their shoulders. They talked about their parents.

“My father was extravagant,” she said, shaking her head. “Every year at Christmas he brought home a magnificent tree, so tall he had to lop off the top to stand it upright in the living room. He and I used to decorate it together. One year my mother told me my father would be away for Christmas. And I knew with a child’s logic that because there was no tree there, my father wasn’t coming home…” She paused. “He never did. He left my mother for someone else.”

“My father died two years ago,” he said. “He was in a coma when I went to visit him in the hospital. He lay straining forward in the bed, gasping for breath. With his hair so disheveled and his jaw sunken in, I would never have recognized him—they’d taken out his dentures. It was strange… For the first time in my life, I could feel compassion for him—the compassion I’d feel for a stranger because he looked like a stranger. I never expected to feel anything but relief when he died, though the relief was mostly for my mother’s sake. He was always so hard on her, and she was so…gentle. She couldn’t stand up to him.”

He was looking down at his hands, thick-fingered, strong hands, splayed out on either side of his plate.

“My greatest fear growing up was that I would turn out like him,” he said. “I half-believed that becoming a man meant becoming a brute.”

They continued to talk as they ate, and there was suddenly a moment when she knew who he reminded her of—a lively little freckle-faced boy she’d known in kindergarten. She remembered now that she had invited him over to her house after school one day, showed him every acrobatic trick she knew on her backyard swing set…but the following afternoon he had gone to play with her next-door neighbor, and older girl who had stuck out her tongue over the back fence.

That night as they were driving home, they stopped along a cliff, and she got out despite the cold and stood beside him—a little ways away, looking at the stars. She kept her arms folded, hands tucked inside the opposite cuffs. She was afraid that if she let one hand drop, he would take it. She felt herself becoming overstrained with the effort of maintaining a separateness from him—like the effort it took to hold two magnets close, but apart. Yet the very strength of her attraction made it necessary to resist it. He didn’t make any move towards her, and she thought, with relief, maybe he will give me time, after all.

At her door he said good-bye gently and a little awkwardly, one corner of his mouth pulling into a half-smile. She had the impulse to reach out to him then but stopped herself. There would be another time, she told herself.

That night she dreamed she was a child again. Her father had rigged up a wonderful swing from the great oak branch in the backyard. Instead of merely swinging back and forth, she could swoop around and over the top of the branch, dropping down as smoothly and gracefully as on a ferris wheel ride. A man stood below her—it was supposed to be her father, but it didn’t look like him—and watched protectively, watched and waited while she swung, until the sun set and the stars came out.

The next morning she woke up scratching. She had poison oak on her bottom. At school the children tittered as she gingerly let herself down onto chairs, and she laughed too, half-enjoying the preposterousness of her affliction. By late afternoon, though, she felt her skirt alternately sticking to, then tearing from her skin. The sores were weeping and drying the way they did. The next day she stayed in bed, on her stomach, reading and writing. Silly as it was, she realized that she was glad she could tell him she had come down with poison oak. She was afraid he had thought her skittish—now she felt vindicated.

The week passed, and she didn’t hear from him. Only then did it occur to her that she couldn’t get in touch with him, since he was living out of his truck. She would have to wait until he called her. The fact of his inaccessibility made her suddenly anxious. She waited. The next week she told herself that he would be busy moving, probably too busy to think of anything else. The week after that, she didn’t know what to tell herself. One Friday afternoon she sat by the phone, thinking she would call her girlfriend and ask if she knew where to find him. She sat immobile for a half hour. Then she wrote a poem:

“A mind littered with broken inventions

Hands too tired to touch or tend

Where is…?

Yellow hills in smoky tableau

Look like a backdrop to me

Children fight and tumbling

Crush my rainbow tissue paper

Don’t call me

I’ll call you when…”





Throughout my years at Seven Hills School, I poured my creativity into my job. Besides the playhouse I created in an alcove and the card and board games I designed, I made hand puppets and a puppet theater out of wooden crates and fabric and scoured the thrift stores and ransacked dumpsters looking for anything my imagination could recycle; I even rescued a charming high-backed bench from the Pier 1 trash bin, one of my favorite hangouts. I constructed a cardboard dollhouse for a pair of small Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, fashioning all the furniture out of bright-colored poster board. Since I don’t have a photo of it, I’m posting a snapshot of a similar, more elaborate dollhouse I made years later—for Arielle when she was two. (This time, the inhabitants were Kelly dolls, Barbie’s younger siblings).

Should I also mention that my first year as a co-teacher I fell in love?—with a little boy named Michael, whose mother told me he loved me too. It was all I could do not to show any partiality toward him, but in summer day care I looked forward to each morning—and the chance to hold him in the swimming pool.

Then at the end of the summer Lu called Karl and me to her office. She’d decided that, in the fall, the kindergarten would take over our space in the main building and we would have to move into the Rainbow House, a one-room bungalow. While Karl was cavalier about the change, I was stricken, anticipating what a hard time he and I were going to have. The fact that our kids had been free to roam between our two rooms and visit the Art Room and the kindergarten, as it suited them, and that we had direct access to the garden and pool had been a boon because neither Karl and I were good at controlling a large group of kids, as I’ve said.

That summer in my woodworking class, I designed and built long benches and tables to divide up the area in Rainbow House into little centers for one kind of activity or another—a reading corner, a science area, a playhouse, etc. The instructor even gave me the keys to the shop so I could close up at night when I was ready to leave. At the very least, I reasoned, I could create physical barriers so our students couldn’t run all over the place.

But Karl and I were in for an even worse year than I’d imagined because for the first time we had several really difficult students—kids with behavioral problems—which was incredibly stressful. I no longer remember at what point I decided to quit at the end of the school year, but what I didn’t anticipate was that Karl, who’d worked at there longer than I had, would follow suit.

And I had another reason for leaving too. Because teaching was so all-consuming—there was always so much more you could do—I found myself working full-time, though I was only being paid for half that, and I began to long for a job that would leave me time and energy for other creative ventures. Which was why, at thirty, I decided to leave Seven Hills School and took a part-time job as a babysitter/ housekeeper instead.




“Dear Ella,

“I’ve had your letter on my mind for many days now, and though I’ve meant to write you back, I haven’t been able to get past the first few lines. This week has been so eventful, however, I now have something to write about besides my usual melancholy complaints.

“Last Monday afternoon I drove to Berkeley to pay my friend Linda a surprise visit, only to wind up on the receiving end of a surprise myself. Anne, Linda’s roommate, told me that Linda had been missing since midnight the night before, and she’d just gotten a call from someone who’d seen her at the Unitarian seminary near campus and said she’d been behaving irrationally.

“I drove up to Seminary Hill to look for her, retrieved her purse—somebody had found it on a sidewalk—and tried to talk a policeman out of towing her VW bug, which she’d left parked in the middle of an intersection. ‘Couldn’t we just push it to the curb?’ I wheedled. I also talked to various people she’d crossed paths with that day. She didn’t seem to know where she lived, they said. When asked where her home was, she said she didn’t have a home, and she was so suspicious she wouldn’t part with her car keys long enough for anyone to repark her car.

“I walked and drove around the neighborhood until dark but couldn’t find her anywhere. Anne had promised to keep me posted and called me the next evening to say that Linda was at Highland Hospital—in the psychiatric ward—because she’d set off a fire alarm in an apartment building and been picked up by the police.

“At the hospital the next morning, I rapped on the door of the locked ward, but no one came to let me in. Through a small window in the door, I could see people milling around, but they’d just stare at me vacantly, then wander off. I wouldn’t have figured out the protocol at all if another visitor hadn’t arrived just then and pressed a button over a grill—a buzzer over an intercom, of course.

“When I was admitted, I saw Linda shuffling into the TV room, eating ice cream.   She gave me a hug and convinced me that she was OK, explaining that she was on a three-day hold and expected to be released Friday; still, I couldn’t help noticing how badly her hands were shaking. That would have been that—I phoned her the next day and she seemed to be herself—but Friday, when I tried to reach her at home, I got Anne again. Though Linda seemed fine during the day, she told me, she got wild at night, shrieking, shoving furniture around, and tearing off her clothes. One night they’d even had to put her in restraints. Her psychiatrist’s diagnosis (and my mother’s): manic-depressive illness.

“Then yesterday, when I went for a second visit, she was so drugged, her arms stuck stiffly out from her body and she mumbled mostly incoherent things about her therapist coming on to her and the CIA being out to get her. At one point she actually dragged me into her room, then shut the door, which couldn’t be opened from the inside, so we were trapped together. Again I found myself rapping on a door to no avail…and I have to say, it felt like a long time before someone finally heard and let us out. Later it occurred to me that maybe Linda had wanted me to understand what it was like to be locked up that way.”


When Earl and I were at Black Hawk recently, and I was stretched out under a tree to ease my back pain, he told me that sometimes Linda used to stay at his place during her psychotic episodes, and that he would hold her while she screamed.




These days I feel like being with people, but not like being with the people I know. This afternoon I was supposed to go with my new roommate, Meredith, and a company of strangers on a picnic, but it was cancelled in the night by…

Rain, blasting out of the sky when I woke, like the jet of a fire hose trained on our roof. Now it’s quiet, except for the trickle of rivulets down the sloping path behind the back porch. A slatted wood screen, stapled on a wooden frame, runs along the path and forms a flimsy stockade between this property and the next. Evergreen branches, heavy with rain, hang over the top from the other side, like children’s arms dangling over a banister. Raindrops are glistening like budding icicles on spidery twigs that have shed their leaves. Gazing out of my large triptychal window, I make believe I’m in the midst of a wood.

I roll down the matchstick blinds and crawl beneath my embroidered Indian bed cover. Through an opening in the blinds, I watch the undulating treetops. Entangled in those branches, I begin and end my dreams.




Lafayette is a small, upscale suburban community that once had a slum one short block long—a few ramshackle houses facing a one-story, five-unit-long apartment building on a street that was little more than an alley, called Bell Street. It was there that I moved when I left my mother’s house. My apartment had dark brown asphalt tile floors throughout, an inexplicable interior window in the dining area overlooking a tiny “laundry” room with a deep gray sink (no washer or dryer), and two bedrooms, which meant, on my meager salary, I had to find a roommate fast.

“Dear Ella,

“I’m typing to you from the dining room floor of my new apartment. My fingers can hardly locate the right keys in this position. The usual position wasn’t negotiable, however, since it would have involved bringing the only table in the house, a hinged contraption that folds out from the kitchen wall, and the only seat in the house, the toilet, into close proximity.

“It’s nighttime. I have every door and window open to cool off the rooms. The crickets are chirping raucously. The house is dark (I don’t own any lamps), except for a shaft of light from the kitchen.

“I moved in the night of the afternoon you left, taking one knife, fork, spoon, plate, etc. and some bedding. Before I went to sleep I turned on my clock radio for the first time ever and listened to a not so ‘mellowdrama’ about an Indian called Chief Edipo Rex who murders his father, etc. I was simply waiting for the announcer to announce the time so I could set my clock and retire. He never did. I slept with the window above my nose open out of paranoia about my gas stove—and dreamed a cyclone hit the house.

“I felt very lonely the next day and missed you. That morning, minutes after the store opened, I bought the shower curtain we saw with the coral shells.

“When I got back from dropping you off at the airport, a prospective roommate was waiting at the apartment. A divorced the mother of three teenage daughters who live with their father, she talked nonstop, mostly about her unstrung landlady, and found at least two occasions to use the simile ‘like a fart in church.’

“Enough old news. My several quarts of water and few hard peas have been on the stove struggling to become pea soup for more than two and a half hours. My itch is back. I bought my first two bottles of spice today—momentous decision: whether to buy the cheap little tin boxes and start a collection of those or the more attractive Spice Island bottles and start a collection of those.

“In the meantime I’m having trouble figuring out where to park my car. The first evening I tried to parallel park in front and ran my front tire over my neighbor’s brick entry. He came out and glowered at me. The next day I parked against the fence, but found if I allowed enough room for passing on the right, I couldn’t get out the door. Yesterday I left my car down the road for the night, expecting someone or other to object. When I went out the next morning, I discovered I’d been cited by a tree—there was a large leaf tucked under my windshield wiper.”




I’ve become depressed again, but the clarity hasn’t left me, which means it’s not simply an absence of depression—it’s a visionary state, which until now has made me happy but persists even when my spirits have plunged. I find myself with a Sunday afternoon on my hands and feel I can wring nothing out of it but distress. I’m alone, and it’s raining outside, and because tomorrow is a holiday, I feel no urgency to plan for school.

This much, however, is clear to me—that somehow I’ve got to make good with the limited choices I have—I can’t simply collapse and mildew in a heap because they’re so poor or because I have so few. I was happy this morning when I was writing, but now I feel all written out. Writing is a kind of massage that eases out the painful psychic cramps. But I doubt it’s good for me to spend so much time at it—it only aggravates my already acute case of introversion. Still, it seems the only dignified refuge.

This higher state of consciousness lasted only a matter of weeks, but it gave me the impetus to move out of my mother’s house—though, working only part-time, I would be a pauper.




“Today I saw a grove of fruit trees in a field of yellow flowers, and I relived, for a split second, the strange sublime scene along the road to Cuenca in Spain—where the trees were giant burls with shoots that exploded in yellow leaves like sparklers, backlit as they were by the sun; where the shadows were, for that once in my life, violet; and the grass, beckoning me like soft fingers, was pale and spider-spun. When I suddenly flashed on this memory, I broke out in goosebumps and somewhere I hurt. I got home and lay down and found myself smiling at something that got sweeter and sweeter…but later I couldn’t remember what it was.”



“I dreamed a child in my class came to see me and told me that he had seen poison oak up in a woody region where the children often played. I followed him under trees and up the hill to investigate. We came to the edge of a cliff. There the world dropped away to a green wilderness so far below I might have been seeing it from the window of a plane. Suddenly the ground beneath me gave way and I pitched down the slope. I had a fleeting hope for salvation—two plastic bags, a story in height, full of white gravel, were directly in front of me. But on impact, they jarred loose and tumbled down into that picture postcard abyss, with me free-falling after them. With unqualified belief, I knew that oblivion was at hand. I felt a first heave of fear against a door in my mind, but I threw my will against it, so that I could meet the end in full self-possession. In dazed waking astonishment, I experienced a transcendent sense of spiritual poise and power.”




“I went swimming early this morning. The air was cool, the water warm. Sunlight on the wavelets cast a pattern on the aqua floor of the pool—a shimmering undulating net, like meshed lightning. With a child’s absorption in her toes, I trod that enchanted trap.


“The chilliness impelled me toward the pool gate with a clumsy, frantic patter. Barefoot, tanless, goose-fleshed, I hoped no one noticed me. It was late afternoon on a day of grayness and rain. Along the surface of the pool, a cloud of steam drifted, and became blindingly radiant when the sun glanced out. I dived into it, as into a snowdrift, and hung suspended upside-down in the water. Then, with a forward thrust, I propelled myself heels-over-head-over-heels, tumbling like an astronaut in deep space. When I surfaced, everything was quiet, except for the crickets, and the quake of my own laughter.”





An orange Italian cup I held at breakfast

made me happy—it was so fanciful—

and remembering how my own voice adorned me.

Selyna, now I do know I’ve got to go.

Maybe it was seeing a forgotten name on a notepad

that reminded me of that old metamorphosis by the piano,

when my voice became warm as coffee

and singing made me believe I was beautiful.


Selyna was an opera singer and teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music whom I studied with briefly after Mrs. Unruh’s stroke.

I have no memories of the work we did together, beyond a few words of a German lieder—and the fact that I felt at my lessons that I was straining. Concerned, I recorded myself singing on a little tape recorder I had—and was reassured because, though the fidelity wasn’t great, my voice sounded sweet.

When I played my recording for Selyna, however, she exclaimed, “That’s not what you sound like!” and promptly made a recording of me on her superior equipment. In it I heard all the strain and tension that I’d been experiencing all along—and realized that I if I continued, I was going to destroy my voice.

Years later I would read in the Contra Costa Times about an aspiring singer whose voice became so damaged during training that she now could hardly speak—and she’d had to turn to painting as a creative outlet instead. Like her, I finally accepted that I was going to have to find myself another dream.




“I could say that Karl and I have junked our old classroom schedule, to our mutual relief. I could say that my voice teacher and I are confiding like conspirators of long-standing. I could talk at length about the evening I spent playing charades with Kay and company, and how I enacted the courting of two moose—mooses? But I don’t want to write a diary, although right now it seems all I’m up to. I feel like there’s some leap of faith I’m not making—a leap off the literal structure of my life into the airier realm of art.”



“The last few days have been novel. Instead of tucking in all sorts of questionable feelings, like an unsightly beer belly, I’ve been letting them all hang out. Karl laughed uproariously when he realized I was worried about sounding like a bitch. He kissed me on the cheek, saying, ‘We’ll make it.’ And afterward he looked as bashfully stricken as a Walt Disney dwarf. Even Lu and I gave each other a clumsy unpremeditated hug. So I’ve things to ponder with chagrin and relief. I wonder if this red-faced effort will make a difference. Sometimes I think that my being neither a singer, nor artist, nor writer, nothing can.