Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Slow One

weeks of May 10 - 16 and May 17 - 23 plus
Memorial Day with pictures!

“Here – we’re going to be late – toss me the keys – I’ll drive.”

“Mom.” And Eldest waits until I meet her eye. “I can’t in good conscience let you drive when we’re running late.”

“And you're trying to say what?”

But she just shakes her head and I laugh as she fastens her seatbelt and looks up into the rearview mirror until her brother and sister have their belts fastened, too.

Because I know. I am a speeder. Who married a conscientious toe-er of the line. Who has obviously passed down his conscientiosity. And I have always hated going slow.

Waiting for people to get to the point. Reducing my long-legged pace to a picky dawdle. Driving with my grandfather (another conscientious stickler to the speed limit). These were all small martyrdoms, years past.

I am more mellow now. Or slower, anyway - the consequences of age maybe. No one out here in the West, where I live now, has to say any more, “Whoa – I can’t understand – you’re talking way too fast!” I can walk hand-in-hand with Fritz now without trying to drag him onward! And I don’t roll my eyes visibly any more when we start the third time ‘round the same old points in a meeting – at least not so much that anyone seems to notice. I’ve learned to take in details of faces and hands, mannerisms and intonation – revel in the non-verbal a little when the verbal gets stuck in repeat – repeat – repeat. So I’m making progress.

But I still hate going slow.

Which makes it so galling that – when it comes to biking – I AM SLOW.

I didn’t train this winter for our annual ride to the coast. And when I finally started biking in the spring I was slow.

Because I AM SLOW.

In fact, I was so slow, I thought I’d have to drive sag wagon instead of pedaling because we have to finish in one day, before dark, and I was sure that there was no way in God’s green earth that I was going to be able to make it. But my marathon friend – who is so fit and so fast and about 15 years younger than me – got me out riding the hills, pushing my pace.

I came home the first ride and lay on the basement floor.

The next ride when I said she was a good soul for going so slow with me, she pulled a face and rolled her eyes. “I don’t mind,” she said which I decided to take on faith and I shut up and pedaled. And made it up the Monster Hill that had been scaring me all spring. “See,” said my marathon friend, “you broke its back. You faced it. You can do this.”

After that, my addiction to exercise-endorphins finally started to kick in. I biked Monster Hill front and back. Then my elegant friend – who is so fit and so fast and about 15 years older than me – rode Monster Hill and Monster’s Other Brother both ways with me. “You’re strong, Emma J,” she said. “You don’t realize it, but you are strong.”

Yes, I am. I am still slow, though, so I planned to rely on superior planning and organization to compensate for speed. I forced everyone to pack two days early.

“I want to leave by 5:30!” I told them.

“No later than 6!” I insisted when they complained.


The morning of: “I’m going to leave whether you’re ready or not – 6:30!”

We left at 9. Which is still earlier than in years past. And the ride was good. Nice weather. Low traffic.

And we made good time. Despite derailed chains (Middlest’s) and a flat tire (mine)

. . .  waiting . . .  aha! the piece of glass that did the mischief . . . still waiting . . . .

And despite long rest-stops.

First, at the Birkenfeld country store: eating Ben & Jerry’s mint chocolate chip (the girls) and trading biking stories with the Tattooed Man and admiring his custom-built Harley, all brilliant chrome and new-penny-orange sparkle-paint with dinosaur-hide seat (the boys) (okay, we girls admired some, too).

Second rest stop was at the elk overlook: lying in the grass, laughing for sheer pleasure, in each other, at the slightest thing, until the volunteer caretaker chugged over on his mowing tractor to let us know that there was no camping there at the reserve and moreover, we were about halfway to anywhere so we'd better get a move on – and then talked another hour to us about his adventurous life and his vagabond retirement now, splitting his year volunteering at the elk reserve, visiting his daughter in the Rockies, and summers fishing on the Madison River.

Further up the road we actually saw the herd of elk - about 50, Fritz estimated, more than 20 anyway, says I. We made it up the last climb over the Coastal Range and into Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River with daylight to spare. And all in good shape.

Okay, there was that blubbering woman at the top of the final hill, “I can’t do anymore. I can’t go any farther. I can’t . . . ”

– what was that all about? We were already there. Eldest, Middlest, YoungSon gathered around, distressed. I was hovering somewhere above the group there on the hilltop above Astoria, wondering at this hysterical, illogical woman. Fritz said, “Give her something to eat.” A honey stick and some salted pretzels and she subsided back into normalcy.


And all weekend, glorious weather. In all the years we’ve  been at the coast this early in the year we've never had warm blue skies all weekend long.

No aches, no pain, and after a long soak in the motel’s hot tub the first morning, no tiredness. Astoria (and our motel) likes to make the most of its Scandinavian heritage - except aren't these door ornaments Pennsylvania Dutch (so German)?

At least, Home Bakery, our regular and requisite first stop Saturday morning, has been owned by the same Swedish-Finnish family for generations. Cardamom flecking the pastries, cherry fritters . . .

outside the Children's Firefighter's Museum which has a cool door, but whose real attraction is its position just across the street from Home Bakery

carb and cardamom joy!

Middlest teaching her brother a great pick-up line
 (how does she know these things?)
"So once upon the time there was a boy turtle and a girl turtle . . ."

". . . and why are we still talking about TURTLES!?"

Saturday was sunshiny and warm, but only when out of the wind. We pedaled from windbreak to windbreak and soaked up the sun.

Leeward of the Maritime Museum (as opposed to windward, right?)  In the distance, between Fritz and Eldest, you can pick out the hilltop tower of the Astoria Column.

The wind comes straight down the estuary from the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific. Even a low hedge blocks enough, though, to make a cosy corner.

One of the perqs of having ridden so hard the day before is that it feels so good to laze about the next day.  Any of the old irritations and worries having been burned away some fifty miles back on the hills yesterday.


Even warmer and brighter. Not wanting to arrive over-perfumed, we walked our bikes up the hill to the church building - and then coming out once more into the warmth and sunchine we figured we were so close to the top, we might as well bike up to the actual peak of the Astoria column hill - which we've always meant to do but never been able to convince our recovering muscles it was worth doing.

We've been here before by car, but the view is even better by bike!

Coasting back down the hills - and they ARE hills - we admired the bright-colored Victorians and the stained glass of old churches.

And basked in the sunshine.

Once down at sea-level once more, and pedaling along the river path back, we had to stop by to see the Biggest Losers in Town (lonely, grumpy bachelor sea lions - the ones no sea lioness would hook up with this year) . . . 

. . . and then taking the woodsy little side trail that winds back to some side streets below the motel.  I felt good and strong and not so slow after all. And if I was last in line it was just to take pictures - yeah-huh!

Fritz and YoungSon took an afternoon ride (30 miles!) to the beach (or per YoungSon: "Thuh Beagch," repeated ad nauseum à la Mr. Bean). The chicas and I took a nap, then soaked in the hot tub.
I was so looking forward to the ride home on Memorial Day – my muscles strengthened by the ride there, my body all loose and rested up over the weekend.

And we could really get an early start . . .


. . . except no one would pack up the night before. And that morning Fritz and unnamed offspring discovered they had mold in their water-pack tubes.

Which would make them sick if they sipped.

Because they hadn’t cleaned them out when we arrived.

Emergency environmental mop up ensued: 

essentials: heavy needle, dental floss, tissue paper . . . oh, and bleach

Once the dental floss is threaded through the tube:
tying the wad of tissue and gently pulling through.

Aren't you loving the details?

Believe me, I was in ecstasies myself.

Swish . . . .  . . . . . . swish!

Rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse . . .

This is so incredibly thrilling and enjoyable.

Time for Happy Kola gummies!

By the time it was nearing noon I’d exhausted my scanty store of patience (i.e. my disposable camera was full) and I was now nicely consumed with anxiety and irritation - yes, yes, trying to keep it pleasant - but chompin’ at the bit to get going.

At last! following the riverside path out towards the ocean where we'll circle around Astoria instead of climbing up over the hills and link up with the road to Jewell on the other side of town.

Because I knew who was going to have to pick up the pace to make the difference so we didn’t get caught in the dark. That's right.  The SLOW One.

And it was not a fun ride. Which is a shame because it was absolutely beautiful – my assessing brain took note of
  • sunshine (check),
  • blue skies (check),
  • scent of summer woods (check),
  • wildflowers (check check check)
As I steamed up hills I tried to listen for birdsong, but if it was there it was drowned out by the buzzing chant of overheated blood in the veins.

I had to make it at least to the campground 24 miles from home where I could stay with YoungSon while the speedy ones raced home and got the car to come back for us before dark.

And we had to pare two hours off our journey to beat sundown. Which meant I had to keep up a pace about 4 mph faster than I was used to. Which also meant no lolling in the grass and only the briefest bathroom breaks in the few sparse towns we biked through. At each of which I practiced deep yoga breathing to fake myself into thinking we'd really rested.

 In cooler weather, Olney store often has a crock pot of hot chowder waiting - but we barely stopped this time.

No Ben & Jerry's this time

Eldest and Middlest left us in the dust repeatedly.  They would wait, graceful and nonchalant, if somewhat unwillingly, at the tops of hills for us slower ones.

Or should I say, Slower One.

Fritz with YoungSon on the tagalong stayed back with me, laughing and talking.  “Hey," said Fritz, "you’re going to write about this and it will be a great story.”

"That’s not the way it works,” I spluttered. “You can’t count on the writing beforehand like it’s credit to cover other people’s lack of thoughtfulness and refusal to prepare the night before!” (or something to that effect – there were more gaps - gasps - between the words and possibly more plosives from between gritted teeth).

So I’m not going to write any more about it. Except to say that I pedaled past the campground. Very slowly and not too happily. But I pedaled. And I pedaled over Monster’s Other Brother, then up and over Monster.

With hardly any blubbering.

And the sun was still above the hills when we coasted downhill into the outskirts of our community.

But I did walk up the hill to our house.

And I was the last . . . because I am the Slowest One . . . home.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Her Clever Hands

I woke this Mother’s Day – not to the worst news a mother can get – but to the sound of Fritz’s voice talking into the telephone, “Oh, no. . . . Oh, no. . . . Oh, no, ____ ” and he named a dear friend of ours, a stubborn and strong-minded woman whom we came to know during the years we drove her to dialysis after her husband died. We still drop by whenever we bike through her part of town. Fritz still gets after her if she doesn’t let him know when she goes into the hospital. And she kept me company, poking around the antique stores down along our riverfront, on the mopey first day of school when YoungSon started 1st grade. We’ve spent years now hearing each other's news, laughing together, giving each other a hard time.

Now Fritz opened the closet, getting ready in a hurry. I pushed back the covers, croaking, “Do you need me?”

“Yes.” Grave trouble had come to our friend, he told me in very few words, some of the worst news a mother can get.

I have no desire to make copy from her tragedy: our local papers are full enough of the police reports. And I played no part in it, except to dress quickly, rather bleary-eyed, and go with Fritz to her house.

I had been thinking the day before, while weeding and mowing to get the yard more presentable for Mother’s Day, about my mother’s mother. A bright, vibrant, endearingly exasperating woman. She was a potter, a sculptor, a painter. She sang and wrote short plays and organized things – more especially - organized people. Very generous. Very opinionated.

She said many foolish things during her life though she always meant to be wise. She disapproved of my dad because she thought his slight stutter was a sign of insanity and tried to bribe my mom with a trip to Europe if she’d only reconsider. She maintained that childbirth didn’t hurt one bit (after all, she’d never felt a minute of pain! My mom took me aside, “It’s been awhile for your grandma.”) Grandma would tell her grandchildren we could be anything at all if we worked hard enough (after all, look at her!) and then warn a grad-school-bound granddaughter against getting too much education because boys didn’t like that (after all, as a pretty seventeen-year-old in high school, she hadn’t needed fancy degrees to land my grandpa, who was a college man who became a chemist and later a professor at Princeton, as she retold and retold us.)

My brother tells what for him is the defining story of our grandmother: She’d planned – or caused to be planned – a big party for her and Grandpa’s 50th anniversary. We’d traveled cross-country for three days, cramped together in our family van to be there. Coming out to meet us in the driveway, she had carolled, “Here are the workers!” and before we even entered the house set us immediately to weeding and mowing, so that their beautiful yard would be ready for the party.

I remember that story, too. But I remember how really wonderful it was to get out of the car and to enter the green fragrance of her yard. I remember kneeling beside her, my knees next to her grass-stained knees, in the cool grass at the foot of some flowering tree. And I remember her hands next to mine with dirt under the fingernails and muddy and stained green.

These were the hands that divided clay and threw wedges down to pound out the air bubbles. Hands that held the clay to the center of the wheel and brought it to life, lifting it into vases and bowls and funny little pear-shaped people and birds called Cheer-ups. Hands over my hands, teaching me how to feel the shape in the clay.

These hands had braided my hair up from the nape of my neck to a straggly little tail left hanging over the middle of my forehead (because that’s the way I wanted it) when she got me ready for school one morning after the birth of one of my brothers.

Hands that held my hands all through one night when my parents were away for the weekend and I’d begun hallucinating with high fever: all night holding my hands in her hands to keep them from swelling and shrinking away from their right size.

Hands that smoothed down the skirt of the dress she’d helped make for my wedding and adjusted my veil.

When my other grandmother died and I was heartbroken and swollen with my second pregnancy, my mother’s mother took me by the hand and sat me down in front of the mirror and braided my hair. Her hands in my hair were the only words of comfort I still remember.

I watched her hands, holding her hand in my hand, the days before she died. Clever hands that were finally done with all their doing.

The only kind of wisdom I will ever likely attain is the continual re-acquaintance with my own varieties of foolishness. But I do know enough to sometimes be still and just offer my hand, to hold hands, hold a heavy head to my shoulder and let troubles shake themselves out in almost silent sobs.

When Fritz and I came home in the afternoon of Mother’s Day to our own house – where Saturday’s yardwork was pointing out even more dramatically what still needed to be done – I was surprised at how worn I felt. Like I'd been carrying something heavy all day. But it wasn't as if we’d done anything after the first few minutes of holding our friend’s hand, patting her back – nothing other than sitting there and keeping company while other members of her family gathered around. We were only there to be quiet, to keep the conversations calm and easy until shock wore off and whatever was next could emerge.

Walking up to our house late that afternoon I tried to think what I could pull together for dinner – no time now for all my planned culinary involvements – but with my hand on the door, my nose told me there was no need. My Eldest had looked in the fridge and stirred up some homemade broccoli soup and hot spiced applesauce. Middlest had baked cornbread and there was a deep dark aroma of double moist, double chocolate cake. YoungSon had gathered flowers from the yard and now he came running up to hold my hand.

That night I lay thinking of my grandmother's hands brushing the hair back from my brow, softly and slowly, until I slept.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Less Imaginary. More Bicycle.


Twelfth Night -
Viola shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, disguised as Cesario, revealed as herself at the end -

Eldest is passionate about this part. Practicing Viola's lines her voice throbs with emotion. Musing over Viola's character - such faithfulness, energy, willingness to try, to change, to make things happen, to stand true – my daughter's hands scoop up the air, trying to mold and give shape to the ungraspable, to imagine and make that image flesh and action.

Watching rehearsal this week what strikes me most is how cynical the play is, how world-weary . . . and the rain it raineth everyday. Drunkenness and faithlessness and paralysis of will, paltry betrayals, pretension, pride, loneliness, empty jest. It’s a challenging play for a young cast.

And wandering through it all, my own sweet Viola (the shipwrecked soul of innocence) lost and bereft, disguised in a blocky cape that hides her willow waist and most of the movements of her arms and a false mustache that covers most of her mouth, but ever gallantly footing it forward.

I had come into the dark auditorium from a day training for our hundred-mile Memorial Day ride over the Coastal Range: a glorious day of mild blue skies which darkened into downpour then turned itself back into bright and fragrant sunshine. For the rain is not, after all, over and gone.

But I can bike in it – thanks to sunglasses (rain goggles?) to keep water-pellets out of my eyes and lightweight rainslicks. The rain it may still raineth every day, but I’m over and done with rain and worry keeping me trapped in gloomy inside spaces, and besides Mary Oliver keeps chanting into my inner ear:

the flourishing
of the physical body—rides

and so I do.

And it is exhilarating: To zoom around the long curve beneath the cottonwoods with the wind over your shoulders as it rushes out to dry the rippling grasses. To fill your lungs with air rising freshly from the wide green bosom of the field. To see the grasses’ heavy seedheads darkening to blue-violet, dipping in the wind. To hear the birds swooping up into the sunshine, brighter than ever, calling their new and everlasting calls.

This is the real world we live in. What Inger Christensen in her grand alphabet calls “the real real world” as opposed to the unreality of places like Eniwetok and the other atomic bomb test-sites. The unreality that we make real through our unwise imaginings.


 Not that we need to go about inventing disasters.

“Remember my cousin Angela?” asks Fritz the next evening.

“Brown eyes? Blonde? We sat next to her and her mom at the picnic last summer? About our age? Or younger?”

“Your age.”

“Yes, I remember her. She was a school counselor? Quite pretty, very friendly? I liked her.”

“She died this morning.”


“It was just sudden. She’d had a cold and then it was pneumonia and they said it turned septic.”

“What? Does that happen these days? – You don’t think it’s swine - ?”

He cuts me off, “No indication that that’s the case. Her mother’s pretty bad, pretty broken up.”

I have only a short moment for real compassion towards this other mother, imagining her grief, before I have to turn my mind away from the sudden sharp memory of my younger daughter’s sleeping face a few days ago, right after we heard that swine flu had been reported in our own state - at a college where my daughters' friends had spent the weekend. The closing of the campus and the urging of campus officials that students stay put for a week had been a hot topic on the radio talk shows during Fritz's commute home - preposterous draconian fear-mongering, thundered one side, while the other side trumpeted on about heroic medieval villages who quarantined themselves and refused to pass on the bubonic plague.

Not that this has any link with that - except that despite penicillin and the X-ray and every medical wonder since, we still are heir to illnesses we can't contain and sure to die of something sometime.

But that is a danger still imaginary. What is real is that for now we are here and together and well. Middlest had fallen asleep at my feet watching a
movie. She’s had a slight cold and coughed in her sleep without waking.

“Cover your mouth,” I said, though she would not hear me, my eyes tracing every jot and wiggle of her profile, imagining nothing but that she would wake soon, imagining her laugh when she comes in from running in the rain.

Tomorrow I will ride again.

Monday, May 4, 2009

tres cool

Did you know you can add a Google translator function to your site by going to Tools - Google Translate?

And then you can read your own blog in French or Filipino.

And long-lost cousins from all over the world can read about your third-grade memories in their very own tongue*. What a great way to celebrate the multiglossia of Pentecost (coming up at the end of May)!

I think I'm going to teach myself Danish first . . .


*okay, so maybe those long-lost cousins will not be reading in quite their own language. Interesting things my unknown French cousins will learn about American children's May Day traditions of yesteryear:
  • that we attach crepe paper ribbons to the top court on the other days and the weaving and the bridges and in the arms of our comrades of the class who are coming in the inverted sense (oh, those naughty French!)
  • that our fondly remembered teacher has the odor of curly hair (possibly from Nice?)
  • that we must always leave someone on the front step
  • that we fill our "petit panier" with some bread and butter of the "plante sauvage" and odorous morning glory of bad plants
  • that in the midst of filling baskets we demand to be given "cheesies" (are we beginning to understand why world diplomacy is as it is?)

And I do not think my long-lost cousins de Gaul will seek to contact me nor want to know any of my offspring when they learn
  • that my son knows I do my proper work on days which are very very uncommon
  • that my son hangs the little basket on his sisters
  • that we also refer to these unfortunate young women as the Chamber of the Handles of the Door.

So maybe not such a great way to learn Danish after all, hein?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May Basket

When I was in third grade and school lunches were still cooked in the school kitchen and milk came in little square cartons, my teacher Miss Wilkes had us save our milk carton on May Day.

We spent P.E. dancing around the maypole in the gym: our fingers holding the end of a colored crepe paper ribbon whose other end was attached to the top of what was a volleyball standard on other days and then as the music played we were sent weaving in and out under the bridging arms of classmates coming the opposite way.

Once we got back in class, Miss Wilkes, who smelled nice and had curly hair, lined us up at the sink to wash out our milk cartons. Showed us how to cut the tops off. How to cover our cartons with colored paper.

We glued on colored paper handles. Then let the tiny,square,boxy baskets dry in a jumble-colored row beneath the window. After school, on the walk home (uphill both ways) we'd fill them up with dandelions, purple alfalfa, shepherd’s purse/bread-and-butter plant, wild salsify (deep purple and yellow), the mallow we called "cheesies," and sweet-smelling morning glory weed. Then, leaving our basket on someone’s front step, ring the doorbell,run to hide.

We still trick-or-treat in October, but who does May baskets?

Well, this year, we do. This Friday afternoon, May Day, YoungSon and I suddenly found ourselves with an open field of time.

“Hey, do you want to make a May basket?”

He’s a little old for this. And grumbled some. Except that, at the same time, he knows my craft-doing days are so very very rare that novelty alone was already starting to win him over.

“Oh, come on. What color should we make it?”

And then he was picking out construction paper to make
this basket. I helped him tape it together when the glue didn’t hold and then he ran around the yard and came back with apple blossoms, forget-me-nots, blue bugle, creeping charlie, Spanish bluebells, English daisies – so many they could hardly fit in the tiny basket. Once the basket was full of flowers he hung it on his sisters’ bedroom doorknob.

And then hovered around, urging them to their room when they came home at last, "Don't you need to put that away in your room? Do you feel like taking a nap?" Both girls were pleased. He was pleased. And I am pleased.

I wish I were handy enough to make baskets of blossoms for all of you. And I would put in them:
my favorite May poem (also here)
and the picture to go with it (from a photo blog I love)
something that made me laugh

do yourself a favor and read this, too.

Have a joyful May – we’ve mourned long enough.
For, lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come;
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land

Love that singing turtle!

(okay I know it means turtledove, but I've always imagined something more like the joyous YAWP of a happy Yertle content in his pond.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

The river is famous to the fish . . .

"Carp," by Hokusai

"Famous"by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anyone said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
Related Posts