The Consistency of Dirt

I always had dirt between my toes, beginning when I was old enough to toddle, and my parents did not care, having come out west from Chicago, land of the freezing, and I do not remember any scolding for it, surely I would if it existed, walked on blistering asphalt too, never caring if my feet hardened into hooves, all the better to play horse, romping and galloping around the yard;

I went to Hamilton Park bare chested in only white underwear, more like shorts back then, and I will never forget the boys that made fun of me on the merry-go-round, free as they likely would never be, instead targeting a smiling little girl, sun streaking her chestnut hair blonde, but you know, I never went without a shirt after that day, so it must have made quite an impression, the end of innocence, perhaps we all recall this in our lives;

Five years old and off to school, I do not recall rebelling at shoes, only the delight in learning, and walking with neighborhood kids picked up along the way, a small gang of non-thugs back then, the place was safe, ridiculously so compared to these times, our school tucked neatly into the arms of a huge mountain range; breathing fully, natural as a mountain goat, and to think city folks need yoga to teach them what came naturally to children raised
in sunshine and lush surroundings;

Moving to New England after high school gave me another sort of grounding, bare feet tucked into thick socks and boots, but oh, the forest! The lakes! I never missed those barefooted excursions, I would always be nature’s child, wild as the fisher cats and foxes roaming the woods, swimming with the loons and giant bass, naked as there was no one to notice; my new form of bare feet for over three decades, a dance with nature that would always be, both girls raised in the forest, free as too many children will never experience;

Then it was off to Moloka’i, the girls choosing public over homeschooling, local kids walking barefoot to school, their wide brown feet slapping red dirt roads and the one short sidewalk on the way up the hill from the ocean, no chastisement from teachers, families recently freed from pineapple plantation work, and who was there to mandate otherwise? Still I wonder, thirty years later, have the rules changed? Or will there always be places that subconsciously realize we need bare ground under our feet in order to heal this fractured species of ours?

Sand Crabs

The ocean pulls up, pulls away, hisses,
leaving tiny air holes in the sand;
I am fourteen, in love with creation,
full of life and dreaming possibilities;

Still on the beach I lie, slim belly
pressed down against earth’s beating heart,
looking not at the tossing sea, the foam
and sand sucking out with the tides;

I am watching instead the minutiae
as it dances before my bright brimming eyes
trained on a world underfoot, place familiar
and yet not, Alice’s drink-me bottle
clutched in my imagination;

Out of tiny cavities pop the crabs,
size of my thumbnail, eyes swiveling
on longish stems, scuttling sideways
to a clear and shining surface;

What they are about I will never know,
for in the blink of a moment, back they dart
to the safety of the known and commence,
tiny clawfuls at a time, to toss up overhead
the sand encroaching upon their inner sanctum;

Then once again the sea washes ashore,
sweeping hand over flat hand,
smoothing sand free of footprints
while the crabs, for all I know,
seek retreat in the epicenter
of the earth.

all photos ©2020 Bela Johnson


Christmas was ever my favorite time of year,
and though I knew brother John was shaking
sleigh bells just outside near the prized gardenias,
it did not matter, there was harmony, excitement
building toward that magical morning when,
tiptoeing, little eyes spied most of the living room
strewn with gifts of every size and color spilling
out from the bowels of the flocked and brightly-
lit tree never fake, always fresh, as music wafted
from the hi-fi stereo ensconced in its own polished
oak cabinet, Mantovani, Andy Williams, Burl Ives,
Tchaikovsky in colorful paper jackets sequestered
away except in this season where they would appear
as if by magic, all was in a dream and there were
leaflets of carols we knew by heart anyway
as we sang together in harmony and played
Mille Borne and rummy, legs crossed or kicked
out and back to the sides which I was told would
ruin my knees, but this time of year there were
no admonishments;

The tree perpetually chosen from its temporary
lodging place near Foothill and Rosemead, fir
and balsam smells confounding the asphalt
they were corralled in, strands of blush fiberglass
angel hair and clumps of cotton wool besmirching
a sign that might have read Santa’s Playland
or Workshop, memory fails now and there were
real reindeer sometimes discomfited in the heat
of the Southern California winter, strung together
in wood and wire wheeled cages decked
with red and green embellishments;

Then there was Santa looking resplendent
in fur-trimmed velvet with a long flowing beard
and we could sit and we could ask and fairly expect
that at least one of our dearest wishes would be granted,
though we dared not ask for much in a family so large
that it soon sunk under the weight of its own excesses
and insufficiencies;

Still, there was Christmas dinner with ham not turkey,
pierced with cloves and brown sugar, candied yams,
bright flush of crimson cranberries, a requisite jello
in garish technicolor hue shot through with ruby-red
seeded grapes and chunks of banana and chopped
dates, Grandma Howell’s egg white-topped sugary-
milky float, brown and white egg-glazed bakery rolls,
unremarkable canned green peas looking ever
so grand in antique bowls and serving dishes,
glass and glazed ceramic which our eyes beheld
only during the holiday season;

We ate at the glass dining table usually reserved
for special guests, sat in cream-colored velveteen-
covered chairs adjacent to the antique white baby
grand mom stripped and refinished and played
often, arthritic fingers dancing over ivory keys
smoothed by marching time and an observer,
should there have been such a one, would surely
have believed we were one big happy family
and it was true, on those sparkling holy days.

(Photo: Me in mom’s arms before our new home in the hills and two other boys came along to round out our family of nine.)


I recall these cakes of dry earth, so tight they could barely admit the rains once they finally arrived; nearby trenches termed ‘washes,’ because that’s what happens to stormwater once it comes, as it does, unpredicted; without warning, thunderheads gathering on distant horizons, long-lost friends reconvening over variegated rosewood mountains, indigo distance, ink of twilight, luminous quarter moon, nothing but space this Mojave; gone, the Yuman and their language, all that’s left, vast and yawning, stretching lowland contemplating eternity;

Once was sea floor; then, we combed it for fossils now locked up by the Feds, regulated, and though I understand ‘why’ years later, greed and avarice, my girls need not have been admonished for plucking wonder from the ground to examine details, while in the distance, someone watching, lightning quick to the spot on which we stood, finger accusing, ‘You’re collecting!’ Threatened punishment, wide-eyed wonder, they’re just children, no harm looking, but they dropped them on that cracked ground, hot and aching, distant memories cannot banish; lost, the magic.


Born Open

I think most of us come into life this way. Open, free, arms and legs flailing, lungs gulping air and expelling futility. We have no idea of the world until we do. We find it safe or frightening, depending on luck, circumstance, and perhaps fate.

I wonder about children in foreign lands – countries that seem always on the brink of civil unrest. How must it feel to fear the night, to keep one’s head down during daylight hours, to roam the streets with armed guards patrolling every block? Yet somehow growing up, I became imprisoned inside myself. I admit this because I hardly think I am alone. Half of me pulled inward while the other part learned how to play the outside game. I wonder how many never reconcile these disjointed factions, once maturity liberates us from the need to placate them.

How often have I repeated Scene I, Take II, over and over again? My story, and unknowingly I stuck by it. For years. Was I attempting to reinvent the past, to right innumerable wrongs? Did I simply forget to ad lib? How attached the guileless seem to the script we have been handed through no fault or direction of our own, as if the gods struck stage marks and we are loathe to step away.

Is free will a disease? For, although I possessed a plethora of choices all along once I attained adulthood, contagion seemingly took forever. But oh, when it caught on! It was like clamping my eyes shut and praying to grab the most fragrant, the loveliest bridal bouquet; watching in disbelief as it sailed right through the molecules of sky, straight into my eager hands.

copyright Bela Johnson

Middle of Nowhere

Cruising the low deserts of California conferred much pleasure in my youth. Flat stretches of landscape frighten some, but I thrilled to the sensation of expansive space; the purple hills hanging in the distance; the shimmering waves of heat hovering just above the asphalt. At times the yucca sprouted buttery blooms; other times the ocotillo waved red flags of flaming blossoms. I never tired of watching the miles roll by; the washes, the jutting striated rock formations, the places I knew desert dwellers concealed themselves, waiting for the indigo dusk of evening when the cool luster of starlight signaled relief from the heat of day.

Desert driving was not for the weak of heart in those days of rutted two-lane roads undulating across the landscape like roller-coasters, crisscrossed by train tracks every hundred miles or so. Signs warned of flash flooding, and one only had to experience a single rare deluge to understand for eternity where rainwater goes in places it rarely falls. Dips in roads became perilous ponds that could swallow tires and seep through doors and crack a car’s engine. Service stations were sparse as poplar trees, and we filled the gas tank at any opportunity.

Desert Center was a parched, dusty, windswept patch of earth containing a handful of wizened humans, mobile homes, a fuel stop and general store/cafe. I often wondered, even as a young child, who on earth would choose to live in such a formidable location. Without air conditioning, a person could die.

It was the newly air conditioned cream-colored Mercury with the wooden sides whose radiator regularly overheated in the most extreme conditions. Our urban-loving mother rarely accompanied us on these wilderness expeditions, but on one memorable occasion, she tagged along. Though Dad always carried jugs of water for emergencies, I still remember the rabbit fear in her dark eyes which did not diminish until we pulled into Blythe, steam billowing from the hood of the Merc. As we chugged into the first gas station that presented itself, both parents palpably relaxed. A curious child, I observed the tall dusty uniformed attendant as he raised the hood to carefully crack open the silver hued radiator cap with only a red cotton rag protecting his bare blackened hands.

Fifty years later, I can instantly conjure the smell of rain on creosote bushes; recall the mechanic’s grease-encrusted fingernails and the silver wedding band encircling his left ring finger. A warm desert wind wafts a unique mixture of odors to the nostrils, and Squirt soda never tasted so good as when, fresh out of the ice chest, we swilled it down like elixir of the gods alongside that isolated stretch of highway in the blistering scorch of afternoon.

Desert Center 2



Sweet Forgiveness

Recently I came across a quote which prompted thoughts about what we accomplish as we get past the ‘stuff’ of childhood we drag into our adult life:

“My mother didn’t touch me, but you can’t give what you didn’t get. ~ Maria Shriver

Why has it taken me most of my life to understand parents as fallible human beings rather than the perfect archetypal models my Inner Child yearns for? Don’t I already understand that a lack of forgiveness only hurts me in the end? Of course I do. Now.

It was pivotal when I comprehended forgiveness as a two-way street. I thought absolving another was an offering, my own noble gesture to another. It seemed a thankless task, then, when crushed expectations boomeranged that gift back into my own lap. It took me years to discover the root of forgiveness arising organically from a combination of spiritual desire, cerebral understanding, and a heart longing to be free from the burdens of recurring disappointment and perpetual sadness.

I was not a happy child, though I pretended to be upbeat to fit in. If I could garner recognition and acceptance from others, that elusive prop of ego known as I must exist. In fact for years I felt as though I only lived for others, as if the mirror in another’s eyes would reflect my precious heart back to me. Then I could begin to love myself enough to justify my life, such as it was.

I always felt like an impostor well into my forties, if not fifties. Cynical about all things including happiness, you couldn’t have told me anything different. Like most human beings, I needed to learn the hardest lessons myself, experiencing enough adversity that the messages finally stuck. As I acknowledged my own suffering, it became easier to empathize with all living things following a similar directive to survive and thrive.

Finally what arises quite naturally these days is the desire that all beings discover clarity of heart, encouraging a dissolution of anger and acrimony. We all possess history that we either learn from or are unable, for whatever reason, to rise above. Perpetuating a state of antipathy and confusion cripples us emotionally, poisoning others we might least wish to harm. Forgiveness is key to unlocking many liberties, not the least of which is the freedom to express more fully that which our inner nature has ever intended.


Mother’s Lament II

Growing up was a nightmare of fear and violence.

I am played out repeating this bold truth;

thought I was doing better by protecting and guiding them;

Did not realize memories would be so easily erased.


Do not be impatient with me then,

though I well remember the skewed priorities of youth.

I am not an unredeemable experiment in failure,

simply human, and imperfect.


Be grateful the plant growing from a crooked stalk

still seeks the light of the sun

with an ever-straightening

illustrious jewel crown of flowers.


~ bj


2013-09-07 08.17.23

Observations On the Train – Part Three

The tall, well-nourished Japanese man smiles as, with a tight smile, he manually indicates that it’s okay for me to sit near him in the Parlour Car. A somber looking ten year-old sits across from him, raven hair spilling into dark eyes riveted upward. It’s clear he’s either uncomfortable greeting strangers or merely ill at ease in his own skin; perhaps a little of both.

The dad is talking on his cell phone in soothing tones. He sounds like a professional therapist; the language is indulgent yet matter-of-fact. What one does in the situation. What one can expect from the other person causing the first obvious distress.

An older couple approaches the boy’s open booth seat tentatively, as it’s large enough to accommodate four adults comfortably. The atmosphere is relaxed as rays of morning sunlight stream through the curved glass flanking the train’s metal roof. As the young man begins to shift over, the father executes rapid hand and arm movements demanding his son relocate next to him. Unnecessary, I speculate, for these people seem openly delighted to share space with a child.

Presently the dining car attendant fetches father and son for breakfast, and, still cooing his most soothing voice into the cell phone receiver, the father gestures impatiently for his boy to follow and together they evaporate from the car, leaving behind traces of anxiety and distress.

Post Script: On the day I am to leave this moving hotel, I part curtains to my sleeping module, only to discover the same father and son traversing the car. The boy is smiling and, though the father seems rushed, he also appears more relaxed. My pleasure in this observation can hardly be disguised, as I disembark the train.


2013-05-20 06.16.15

Round Peg, Square Hole


I never wanted to be smart. It hampered social interactions with the most desirable element. No cute boys were in my ‘brain classes,’ and friends I had since grammar school began drifting away, dividing like so many cells in a petri dish. (Never mind that these same ‘dorky guys’ ended up being far more interesting, and in many cases better looking, in later years. But that’s for another story.)

In high school, I actually elected to take a course that lay outside my ‘gifted’ program. I wanted fresh faces; new opportunities. It resulted in the only “C” grade I ever received. The class simply did not capture my attention, despite the plethora of new faces. What misery it was to discover my GPA falling like winter temperatures in that faraway place I was soon to call home, though little I knew of it at the time. Life was about to hang a sharp right, unraveling at lightning speed on several fronts.

Forty years later, these impressions seem lifetimes away, yet memories arise from time to time and I observe them as if animated in 35-millimeter frames. The film unwinds from the flat black metal reel; runs out. A small burn mark sears itself in the tail’s end, while the reel click-click-clicks until the projector is shut down.

Perhaps there is more truth than fiction to this analogy; for life, if fully and cognitively experienced, continues to surprise at every turn. Reflection is a fabulous tool to assess how cyclical is existence; how it catches us as we revolve around the wheel of opportunity and instruction.  Suffering seems less pointless in the face of one’s spiritual maturation.

I think humans learn best from what stamps itself into memory, much like holes singed in celluloid. Taking refuge in this knowledge, I discover redemption. Nothing is regrettable; all experiences ultimately culminate in gratitude.