Monday, January 16, 2017

52 questions | Why my name?

a continuation of  52 questions | name game?

Mary Luella, Marilyn, Janice
My mother named me for the women of her family.  For her sisters Marilyn and Janice and her beloved grandmother Mary Luella and for Mary Luella's mother Mary Ann.  When I sign my name or say it, or hear others call me by that name, I hear those other names echoing in it.  And perhaps that is why my mother chose to name me so.   

I remember (did you ever do this?) lying on my bed when I was supposed to be taking a nap and saying my name over and over to myself, thinking about the boundaries my name laid out for me.  Who I could be.  What I had in me.  Where I could choose to be going.

Janice with my mother
Maybe I would be like Janice, good and gentle and very smart, who listened, who bent down with her soft eyes to talk right to people's faces and who sent tiny little letters in the mail that were barely big enough to hold a stamp.  She had a silvery-warm voice that made people calm and she became a pediatrician which probably was what all older sisters did, also she laughed with her lips together which was a skill I would sometimes try to practice to see how it was done. She lived in Bowling Green with a wooden screen door that slammed satisfyingly and  outside there were fireflies and the soft sense of rain all summer long and then she moved to Seattle which seemed like a very nice idea because there she had raspberries growing over a wooden fence near her house and a dirt road nearby with daisies and her bearlike bearded husband barbecued salmon while her interesting, soft-spoken children read Superman comic books that told the original backstory on the planet of Krypton.  

Marilyn with my mother
Or what if I could be like Marilyn, outrageously funny and never afraid, friends with everyone all over the world in all the different places that she lived, who made the light in the room brighter the moment she came in.  She could do an impression of a lighthouse and of an eggbeater and she sang better than anyone, plus she had beautiful long fingers with pretty nails.  When I was little I thought she was going to marry a tiger (Taggart) which seemed rather daring but pretty exciting.  That was the same year Santa came to visit a park near where I lived (maybe it was Highland Park) in a helicopter and tossed candy and prizes down.  I couldn't catch one which was disappointing but then she found a real elf who gave her a candy cane and she didn't eat it herself but brought it to me.  She painted murals and portraits of her children who were all boys (at that point) and all funny and fearless and she was also an artist who made things out of clay like dolls that weren't to play with but were old ladies sitting on a bench with stockings down around their ankles feeding birds out of the wrinkled cup of their hands.  And when she and my mother got together they would laugh so hard they would begin to cry.

Mary Luella with my mother
Maybe I couldn't do that life all the way though, because I was awfully quiet and got embarrassed, but how about Mary Luella, who was the heart of love and so everyone loved her?  She grew up in Old Mexico where it was so hot they kept their milk in a large crock inside the well and once she bent down to sip up some cream but the tip of the lavender bow on her dress dipped into the crock and she couldn't figure out how her mother knew she had stolen it.  But she became honest later though she was so poor even before they were chased back to the United States and once when she went into the big city of Colonia Juarez there was a beautiful pair of silk stockings at the store, just out on the counter without a shopkeeper standing guard.  Her friend told her they were free samples and though she didn't completely believe her she snatched a pair and took them home -- but then when she wore them to church she felt terrible and could never wear them again, which seemed a hopeful kind of story of attainable virtue that was something I could do.  On the other hand she was so industrious when she grew up and married a railroad man that she went out and swept her grassless yard every morning until she could get flowers growing and she was so clean and so good at fixing things that the landlords over and over could raise the rent much higher than she could afford to pay after she lived there just a little while.  But I thought it might be nice to learn to play the harmonica so when my grandchildren came to visit me I could sit up in bed if they were scared with my knees making a tent of the sheets and play "How Great Thou Art" with a lonely but comforting sound.

Mary Ann with her daughter Mary Luella (lower right)

And her mother Mary Ann was very brave and good at helping her mother, which I was, too.  When she was an eight-year old she and her parents and brothers and sisters pushed a handcart across the plains to their new mountain home.  Her mother whose name was Eliza became snowblind from looking at the snow for so many hours and so Mary Ann held her mother's hand and helped her walk along the path and never stopped.  She was a little girl but stubborn enough to survive even when her father died after he caught a cold while guarding their camp at night and then it became pneumonia and they had to bury him in frozen ground so hard they had to chop at it to make a hole.   I wasn't sure when I would have a chance to be exactly that brave but I did like to walk and I would like holding my mom's hand if she needed me to, all day long while we walked along and walked and walked until we came to the valley-O.

These were good names, the names of my mothers and my mother's sisters.   Names I could live into.

Mary the mother
And further back there was also Mary the mother of Jesus who was always reading books in her pictures, if she wasn't taking care of her little child.  She knew how to be quiet and though her life was hard and sometimes frightening she heard angels sing and was as brave as my grandmothers to travel as far as was needed, whenever she had to.  

Martha and her sister Mary 
And Mary Magdalene who liked learning things and didn't like to do the dishes, but Jesus loved her anyway and she loved him, too, and washed his feet with her hair and was brave enough to face the soldiers and come back with her sweet-smelling spices to take care of his body and so she got to be the first to see him walking in the garden outside his tomb.  I heard those Marys' stories, too, and they seemed to be part of my name and part of the same family whose stories I heard from my mother, snuggling under the blanket as she sat on the side of my bed or eavesdropping on her side of phone conversations with her mother or listening at the table as my mother and her sisters talked and laughed until they cried.

Marilyn, my mom, Janice, their brother Dex
My mother was the middle sister and I always felt that my name was a valentine she made for the sisters she loved and had to leave to become my mother, for her grandma who died a little while before I was born.  A little birthday candle my mother shone back into the place she stepped out of when she broke out of her natal home to start the home that would be mine.  A little flower she planted beside the bridge to scent both sides of divide, saying to the mothers up ahead, "Here is another one of us," and saying to me, "Hurry.  You can catch up.  You belong right over here with us."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

2016: a year in books

This wasn't much of a year for reading.  During the school year, work took all my time and filled all my mind.  And the moment school was out, I was either in and out of hospital rooms and arranging home health solutions for my mother-in-law, or scrubbing and repainting an old house that had to be sold, or out-of-state scouring the countryside for a new house.

When I did read it was to reread the familiars like Georgette Heyer  and Barbara Pym, which I did, over and over.  These landscapes at least hadn't changed.  Excellent Women and Less than Angels by Pym and The Grand Sophy and Frederica by Heyer are such reliable delights.  There must be a special place in heaven for the authors whose books bring such comfort in times of confusion and pain.

The few other memorable books I read this year were a comfort in other ways:

The Forest Garden Greenhouse: How to Design and Manage an Indoor Permaculture Oasis 
Jerome Osentowski, 304 pg.  
As it became increasingly clear that we would be moving to a colder climate, the idea of a greenhouse became more and more appealing.  This book has plans for building a greenhouse with a climate battery -- storing geothermal heat in the ground and letting it release into the air of the greenhouse when it gets cold.

High and Dry: Gardening with Cold-hardy Dryland Plants
Robert Nold, 420 pg.
Obviously.  I saw this book on the shelf of a local library during my house search (house search for me always includes checking out the library).  It's a bit exhausting to think of the time and money I'm going to be expending in the near future on this green-thumb habit of mine. But I do love looking at plants that will be able to survive in my new garden.

The Luck Uglies
Paul Durham, 316 pg.
I came across this book at the St Helens library while chaperoning a service project there for our Achievement Day girls. The story is fun and inventive. The later sequels don't live up to expectations, but this one was an enjoyable read.

A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman, 337 pg.
No wonder this book is on everyone's list this year.  I picked it up to read while flying out with my mother-in-law to get her settled in a new apartment and to continue looking at houses for ourselves.  This book gave me hope to continue as I followed angry Ove's climb up out of despair and into life once more.  I loved his feisty new neighbor, the very pregnant Parvaneh, especially.  And the slow unfolding of Ove's backstory made sense of his pain as a poignant counterpoint to the redemptive unknotting of the plot.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Chris Cleave, 432 pg.
Honestly, I decided to read this book because its cover reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See.  While not nearly so incandescent as that book was, this was a book of blind perseverance which I needed, as I read it the first week in my new house, facing the reality (which though not at all dire is still reality with all its attendant unbudgeability).  Unlike All the Light this novel is just usual.  The expected tropes, the expected plot twists -- though there are a few moments that still live in my memory months after the reading -- particularly the point where the beautiful main character is saved from drowning by her ambulance-nurse best friend.  Come to think of it, the friendship between Mary North and her less beautiful chainsmoking friend Hilda was far more engaging to me than either of the romances. (As was the relationship between Tom and his army buddy.) I believe I would have liked to have Hilda's story rather than Mary's and certainly I wanted to see more of the interaction between Hilda and Mary -- especially since Hilda is the only one who isn't bowled over and controlled by Mary's beauty.  But it was good to read of survival, even if soppily delivered.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand, 473 pg.
This book on the other hand is the real deal.  I had begun the book early last year and had flipped through the end (because with my level of anxiety at the time I couldn't bear to read it if it was going to end too badly) -- I should have just read the subtitle, because the bits I read at the end were sad and hard enough that I decided I couldn't bear it.  Which is just as well -- I needed it more right now, when because of an invitation to a book group I had to read it.  A great, true story of a brave man whose innate cussed courage and physical hardiness in the war are outshone only by his powerful forgiveness and embrace of peace when the war is over.  Hillenbrand is a great researcher and an even greater storyteller.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Week 68 - switchel, christmas, and the perfectly imperfect

I love the music of Christmas and though I sing with more enthusiasm than skill, was looking forward to singing in the church choir this morning. But I went to bed Christmas Eve as a soprano and awoke a basso profundo. And so Christmas morning I sat in the back near the exit so we could slip out without passing germs along with handshakes and hugs.

The service was beautiful - beautiful heartfelt words, beautiful heart-filling music. I spoke my James Earl Jones narration to all the congregational carols and then closed my eyes, closed my mouth and sang along in my heart with the choir - filled with gratitude and a deep happiness though I had no throat to give it voice.

And so another imperfect Christmas to honor His most perfect gift -- a celebration flawed but happy, as they almost always are, as I am myself.

The house still has boxes (and the garage has more) but we've made the best of it, brought out the familiar decorations, hung up lights to brighten the darkness.

I still don't know what I'm doing here.  Though it's lovely here and everyone has been lovely.

I had put aside this past week to bake the boys' favorites (and mine), namely Limey Lambs, Nutmeg Bears, Cocoa Crackles, Almond Crescents. But a nasty cold bug saw that window and jumped right through to grab me by the throat.

If it weren't for our darling neighbors here who have provided a generous parade of cookies and homemade candies and other holiday treats, I'd worry about my boys feeling deprived. Instead, in a last bid for health and vigor enough to inflict (and not infect) ourselves upon my parents, I made switchel Christmas night :

8 cups water
1 lemon, zested and juiced
4 Tbs real apple cider vinegar
6 Tbs local raw honey
4 inches ginger, peeled and grated
a couple of cinnamon sticks
You can buy this natural ginger ale in small bottles already made up in the health food section where it costs a pretty penny, but it's only about a dime and as many minutes to mix up a large jar and leave overnight in the fridge.

I'm believing with a vengeance all the folklore/ science about unfiltered raw apple cider vinegar  tonight and believing even more that once I get through this rough spot, this cold, this dark, I'll be whole and hale with useful work to fill my hands and light my heart.

Until then, this perfectly imperfect Christmas, with its good that outbalances any bad, is like a postcard from that warm, well-lighted place that I'm going to trust is waiting just ahead.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Week 67 - living in a Dickens novel

The news is full of characters straight out of Dickens.

Mr. Trump, meet Mr. Honeythunder --
" . . . Is he a large man, Ma?" 
"I should call him a large man, my dear," the old lady replied after some hesitation, "but that his voice is so much larger."
Scrooge, you need no introduction to Bannon, abandoned banner carrier of the alternative right (which is not the left, but is certainly wrong).  And humble, hungry Uriah Heep is already giving his two-cents-worth to Pence.  Meanwhile, and I quote, "Jessica Ditto, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, said . . . " and meanwhile Sean Spicer, seasons facts for public consumption.  Ditto and Spicer, too apt a change from Joshua Earnest, the outgoing press secretary of the Obama White House.

Needing to get out of my head, we drove down into the city.  Caught a movie, The Arrival.  It's slow and mirky, but never loses my attention.  I emerge from the story only with the closing credits, feeling cleansed and energized.  The action of hope working on me, I guess.  Fritz says, "I can see your antennae twitching. There's something there for you, isn't there?"

We had found an old-time cheap-ticket movie theatre and for $2 I think I'd like to see the movie again, right then.  But there's no late show for Arrival and instead we go see some profane shoot-em-up slug-fest.  It feels like a violation -- the gentleness and stubborn thought broken and trampled by brainless violence and shallow noise.  Whatever light I'd caught is lost.

On the screens at home: Aleppo

Aleppo is one of those towns that always showed up in the books I read. The crossroads of the Silk Road, the world's first consular city -- which means that in Aleppo, diplomats from Venice, France and England were allowed to look after their nationals in the region rather than just live at court to represent their king.

The name Aleppo is from the Italian Aleppo, from French Alep, from Ottoman Turkish حلب ‎(halep), from Arabic حَلَب ‎(ḥalab), of uncertain origin -- as so much of everything these days is.

Folk-etymology of this ancient city's name explains that it is from Arabic حَلَبَ ‎(ḥalaba, “gave out milk”), reflecting the even-more-ancient tradition of Abraham giving milk to travelers, the man of hospitality so renowned that even angels came to visit.

Aleppo was famous for its souks -- its rich and intriguing bazaars--for its large Christian population, for Baron's hotel, a required stop on the Grand Tour, British headquarters during WWI, where T.E. Lawrence stayed and the Lindberghs and the Roosevelts, archaeologists, royalty. In the books I read of wandering archaeologists, round-the-world cyclists, and others of their ilk, Aleppo is always the safe place they get to rest, the gracious and generous welcoming city in that tradition of Abraham rushing around to provide a meal for the three angels.

Now in Aleppo children have no milk and there is no safety there.

I know this has been happening in other places. But here is a storied place - a place made real to me through years of reading about it - and it is being destroyed. And the people who live there are posting videos they fear may be their last asking someone in the world to help them.

But the best I can do is sign up for a training for working with refugees that will happen in February. None of this seems real.  All around me a hard relentless plot grinds on.  Bleak House.  Great Expectations.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Week 65 - taking the plunge

It's official.  

The family tradition our son-in-law brought with him has been enacted in this new place.

Polar Dip 2016

Now I just need to find a way to immerse myself here, too.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Week 61 - transfer

Thanks to my dad, who believes in me, I've just hauled one of two trucks full of all our movables from the past into the future.   In caravan with my still all-able dad, who drove the lead U-Haul,  I've maneuvered this second immense and weighty vehicle along the Columbia, over the Blues, across the volcanic flats of Idaho's Treasure Valley into the long bowl of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch range.

What's next?  This is week 61 of 78.  I have to remind myself I'm still in the middle of a commitment to live with more intention, to serve.  The young adult women of my church serve an eighteen-month mission -- and sixty-one weeks ago I thought I could do at least that much.

But I knew what was needed in my former home -- I knew how to speak to the people around me there -- I knew the language outside the words -- the pauses and important rhythms, the shibboleths, the code words, the panic buttons to avoid.  I had listened for enough years that when it came time to persuade or encourage, the right words and the right approach and the right formation often came as if instinctively.  I knew where to go for support and who to talk to.  I don't know if I have the same luxuriously long stretch of a learning curve ahead of me here.

And this town doesn't have the same obvious needs.
How can anyone in this peaceful valley need me?
What can there possibly be for me to do?
But then what's a mission without a transfer?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Week 59 - home again home again

We've found a house.
Which of course we were going to do eventually.
Everyone knew that.
Just as everyone knew it would entail trimming our demands and expectations.

Not quite as short a commute as I insisted was essential, not quite the acreage that Fritz declared necessity.  One broken window.  A remodeling job still in media res.  Some unfortunate paint choices.  No fruit trees.

And still it feels like a gift, this finding.

First of all, because of the poplar trees that line the boundaries of the yard, making the air around the house redolent of a hundred hundreds of Saturday hill walks with my dear walking friend these past twenty years. The air around this house is the spicy-sweet balsam of poplar, cottonwood, which is also the air around my childhood visits  to my grandparents. And the torch-shapes of the trees are those familiar great candles of hope.  I knew I was home when I waded through the front yard full of sweet drying leaves -- so rich, so sweet, so real, so exactly the smell of my favorite perfume, discontinued now, which I dab out only when it is truly needed.

I was home. Am home. Amazing.

Even earlier though, first-first of all, even before the poplars, it was the stone around the door.  Real stone in varied colors. Stones in fair colors, pleasant stones, as if those words I had opened onto when I was tempest-tossed and uncomforted were actually true.  Had been true all along.  A home whose foundation had been laid long before I would know I would be needing it.

Before that though, the very first of all, it was the manner of finding.  Only this one valley had called to us in a deep unspoken way.  All through our summer searches, the storm of loss, the dispiriting voyeurism that is looking at other people's houses with the thought of making that house your own --

 -- all through this long and frustrating summer, we kept making our way up here to this one valley as a respite from the search.  Though the valley, we were told, "never had houses come up for sale."  Certainly never in our price range. Most houses, we understood, were passed down within families.  Or bought up by Californians who used them as second homes, driving the price of houses up out of reach.

We'd looked at some over our budget, wincing, wishing, wondering if we could make it work.  We'd looked at some too small, with dry rocky yards. Trying to squeeze ourselves into any possibility in this mountain valley where we could hear our longtime totem, the sandhill cranes who mate for life and raise their chicks with careful attentive partnership.

But at last, good sense had prevailed.  Prudence and practicality had told us to get down to business, down out of the mountains, and find a place to settle down.

On the eve of our Oregon house closing, we gave up dreaming of the valley and found a house down in the city, in the suburb with the good schools, a nice house, a close commute.  We made an offer. They were getting ready to accept it over the weekend.

"Let's drive up and say good-bye to the valley," I said to Fritz.
Or maybe it was Fritz said to me.

And so we did.

Home.  There it was again, that feeling.
But not for us.

We drove around the quiet shaded streets, saw boys in Sunday white shirts cutting through orchards and back fields with their heads together planning mischief, saw tanned couples gliding past on their bikes, saw older ladies sweeping the front porch.  We parked next to the city park with its towering pines (that other fragrant column guarding the way to my childhood's holy of holies - poplar and pine my own Boaz and Jachin).

Across the street the carillon bells in the church tower rang the hour.  We sat there, listening to the peal from those round mouths, those metal tongues.  We offered up our own nearly wordless plea.

"Well," Fritz said.
Or maybe I said.

"Well," the other answered.

"Let's drive once more past that apple orchard street and then . . . "  we didn't have to say.  We knew it was the last good-bye.

But just before the apple orchard, Fritz said, "There's a For Sale sign  down that road."

"No.  Really?"

Really.   Though it didn't show up on any of the realtor sites.

Not a good sign, this sign stuck in yard full of dying leaves.  We'd had that happen before, a sign in the yard but no listing online.  Usually it meant the house had already sold and no one yet had thought to take the post down.

But the realtor we finally reached said it wasn't actually on the market -- yet.  We insisted it had to be. There were issues with the keys.  There were issues with repairs the realtors wanted made so they could sell at top dollar.  We had our realtor call again and then again.  I was driving home (not home, back to Oregon) the next day and we had heard the suburban house was going to accept our offer -- it was now or never.

It had to be now.  And then it was.  Now, after months of confusion and frustration and second-guessing ourselves, everything seemed clear.  Obstacles just something to be brushed aside.  We'd found our home.

Even the dog is happy about it.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Week 58 - closing credits

You know it's really the end of the story when you finally carry out the last laundry basket with only the dish pan, dish soap, packing tape, sharpie pens and the tail end of bubble wrap inside.

All day shampooing carpets, washing out cupboards alone in this house, it was like an archaeological dig back through the layers of our life here - erasing our steps, tracing back to the first day we heard our two very little girls' running footsteps echoing through the empty rooms.

The weather changed throughout the day through all the seasons of Oregon's year - except for winter which I'll soon get enough of elsewhere.

And then standing out on the front walk barely weighed down with my last light load, amid the purple asters and glowing yellow leaves of the sweetspire bush, looking back at that familiar blue door, at those windows into rooms that have held so many moments, I felt such affection for this funny old house, the way it turns its back to the road so it can bury its face in the warmth and fragrance of its sunny bank of herbs and flowers.

It was like looking into the face of a very old friend.

"Thank you. You've been a good house. You've been such a perfect place to raise my family," I said this to my old house and I said it out loud.

Turning at last, walking on toward the car, my heart could hold only an overwhelming gratitude. I couldn't pray for any future, just thanks for all the years, all the days and hours of rain and sunshine, snail shells, blackberry-stained fingers, bike tires in this gravel, meteor showers overhead. I turned the ignition key and instantly the exact song (thanks to a playlist one of those little girls full grown made last year to pull me through a dark spot) came on.

I turned it up loud with all the windows rolled down, singing along at the top of my voice as the closing credits rolled, all the way down the hill and into the next story in my life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Week 54 - rootless

A friend last week scolded me lovingly, "You just need to move and get it over with. You're making this harder than it needs to be. You'll be fine on the other side of this."

Or actually, more accurately, she laughed and said she had been tempted to scold but she knows I know. And she is right.

It's just that I've loved this place and living here and the people and stories it has brought into my life. It's not that I'm sad. Just rootless.

We have no home waiting for us there.

though there is a valley where I can hear my totem bird -
  sandhill cranes --
no house though will have us yet
as far as we can tell

And we feel like mere renters here.

Our old house (we say that now, our old house) emptying around us. Bare floors revealing themselves like the unavoidable realities they are. And pools of time wasted looking out the windows, asking, Did I look out at this sky often enough? 
Did I choose the right things to leave undone? 
And how can this be ending right now in what feels like the middle of the story?

Of course we'll be fine.

I am so of the moment that wherever I am I know I can find reason to fall in love with it. But right now I am here in the place I have lived the longest among people I have loved with some of the best that's in me and for now this present moment seems infinite and impossible to go beyond.

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