Monday, August 31, 2009

Now Would I Fain Some Merthes Make . . .

. . . . All only for my lady sake,
When her I see;
But now I am so far from her
It will not be.

Today is my mother's birthday. And I have (as per our usual custom) not yet sent the package I've had sitting on my bedroom floor for lo these many days.

My mother deserves better. My mother, who raised seven children who all still like her and then squared and cubed her omniscience by finishing a PhD in psychology. My mother who has taught me all the naughty jokes I know. My mother who has designed and built a house, who can put up bead board and refinish furniture, who has painted murals on our walls. My mother who always finds things she likes about the people she works with - even the most depressed and the dangerous. My mother who counsels me for free by phone and has been my first and longest friend.

I realized today I'm going to have to cut - from the chapter I'm working on - this bit which is, let's admit, autobiographical (just this part, because of course the novel itself is ENTIRELY FICTIONAL - which is why I'm going to have to cut this part, it being not quite so fictional . . . except the rappelling which was symbolic . . . )
An earliest memory: . . . Outside it is early, the sky exciting. Mom is walking up to the house with Dad after an early turn at irrigation—heavy gloves and boots, shovels on their shoulders, laughing and bending their heads together, towering against the red sky.

She is a tall, long-legged woman.  Square shoulders and strong, long-fingered hands.  Enthusiastic walker, hiker, a climber of trees. She could do everything mothers were supposed to do: bake and sew, bandage our knees, kiss our tear-stained cheeks.
But she also took us rappelling. Emptied mousetraps. Taught us how to stand on our heads.
When anything broke around the house, she went at it with her kitchen drawer full of tools, taking it apart and putting it back together. Sometimes it would work again. Always her face beamed with pleasure at fitting the pieces back together.

When she spoke in church, her chin lifted high, her perfect teeth so white, taking her turn at giving the sermon the way we do, we children would sit in the congregation sneaking smiles at each other, glad that everyone could see her and hear her warm voice, clear and deep. Thinking it must do them as much good as it did us to have her there before us.
And oh, I am glad she's been always there before me. 

And Mother dear, for all the things I've never thanked you for ~

For those pink flannel pajamas with the tiny rosebuds you sewed for me when I was sick with fever during junior high and especially the way you brought them in and folded them up on the clean white counter, waiting for me after my bath.

For rubbing calamine lotion on my back when I had chicken pox in third grade.

For the slices of perfectly ripe peach you brought into me on a little plate when I was first nursing my first baby.

For that paperback Pride and Prejudice you picked up at the store for me one day when I was ten, tossing it to me as I sat at the kitchen table, "Here, you might like this."

For making me make my own phone calls and for sitting quiet, if white-knuckled, when I learned to drive.

For the hours of tearful conversations and the years of listening to my dreams.

And for the embroidered sheets on the bed upstairs when I came to visit last month - because you know how I adore them even though I would never buy (nor launder) anything but plain white sheets for myself.

Thank you for being who (yourself)
And what (a woman) you are.

Vat a vooman!

Oh, and also for that time one of your sons gasped, "I just realized this is a matriarchy."

"Well, yes," you laughed, shrugging.

"Not really," I interposed, full of postgraduate knowingness. "That's not really the term that . . . "

"Isn't it?" you looked at me, lifting your eyebrows.

When she is merry, then I am glad;
When she is sorry, then I am sad;
Good reason why,

I wish today I were there to tell you all this in person.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

catching feathers

“The Blank Page,” by René Magritte

Many good things happened this week. It rained some days. And then was sunny. And then cool. Fritz came home every day like he always does. Middlest ran nearly every day like she does. I walked our hill in the mornings with the sun coming up. The blackberries ripened.

On Monday, YoungSon went swimming with a friend. Our photographing friend came to the house bringing Eldest's senior pictures for us to choose from. Friend Photo sat off - with a skinny spoon and a blue glass bowl of Breyer's vanilla and sun-warm-glistening-black-and-fat berries - while we scrolled through the pictures on her laptop. "It's so nice," she said to my daughter after awhile, as we settled in on the three shots we liked best, "I'm loving sitting here and listening to you. You like them all! And not viciously tearing apart the way you look the way usually people . . . "

And I read a curious (to me) history of beans through the ages and three satiric fantasies by Terry Pratchett - even though it is August and officially an OFF month for reading, but, hey, it's August, and the last week before the last week before school starts.

Plus YoungSon finally put in order all the rocks and fossils on his desk. Eldest mopped the floor. Middlest put all her clothes away. I nearly caught up on laundry from all our camping/travels/whatever and organized the red-tin French-bakery breadbox which is our family's version of The Kitchen Drawer and emptied the terracotta flowerpot next to it which is Overflow and defrosted the freezer (which wasn't a good thing until it was done). In one night, Fritz and I and Mid and Young watched Pink Panther 2 (which made us laugh) and watched again from years ago The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain (which was almost of the stand-up-and-cheer, throw-your-arms-around-your-companion caliber). Then I stayed up to hear Eldest tell about her trip downtown with friends to see Topol perform Tevye in a farewell performance of Fiddler on the Roof.

So many small good things, the Grandmothers-of-the-Mind were keeping up a pretty constant murmur - or would it be a susurrus? - nicenice Aren't you? nice And nice blessings And nice so nice count them. . .

But I must be honest, there were only three and a half times this week that were true-good, where I was acutally and not just virtually happy, three and a half when all the citizens-of-the-mind chimed together vibratingly into One Sound.

I think I must pay attention to these - as I want more of them.

Worth at least a half-hurrah was the thing I read that Pratchett said in his acceptance of the 2001 Carnegie medal:
For instance, this book is about rats that are intelligent. But it is also about the even more fantastic idea that humans are capable of intelligence as well. Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking. The fantasy of justice is more interesting that the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic. In the book the rats go to war, which is, I hope, gripping. But then they make peace, which is astonishing.

Oh, yes. And for the other three true-goods: One night after dark I drove toward the river to sit on a friend's back porch and talk in the light of tiki-torches.

One evening YoungSon and I popped open dry garbanzo pods and gathered our small bowl of beans. The pods do pop and the dried and drying leaves smell as heavenly as hay. An activity utterly and repetitiously satisfying - my son's shoulder leaning in against mine as he stands against me, his hair smelling of sunshine. It is this activity, I deduce, that we replicate and are programmed to find so absolutely satisfying in popping bubble-wrap: the pouff as thumb breaks through the papery husk, the sharp pebble-like clink of the hard seeds into the bowl.

And one afternoon, midweek, nearly midday when Middlest had gone to run daily doubles for cross-country and Eldest was gone babysitting, YoungSon came and draped himself over my shoulder as I sat at the computer writing and he said "We never do anything," and I said, "But we do. You better call up a friend. We're on our way to the creek."

"We are?"

And I left my desk and shouldered the folding camp-chair and tucked someone else's book manuscript that came in the mail the day before under my arm and headed for the car.

Two skinny little-not-so-little boys walking over the dried-up yellow grass in gorgeous flowered and/or geometric swimming trunks. Tap,tap the water - then jump! Glow of sun off their wet backs brighter than the glow from their hair. Skinny little frog arms starting to bunch with muscle-buds.

White splash falling back down into the gentle brown and slow-moving creek, bubbles and sun-dapples and the shining ridges of their wakes as the boys race on floating logs up and down. As I keep watch from my chair on the bank in the shade. Above me the swirling lava-lights reflecting off the surface of water onto the pale underside of the leaves. The banter bounces off the water as lightly as it bounces off the boys ("Hey, you just got water in my nose." "You can't do that." "You're still faster." "Hey, you're walking." "You're not the one that started this race." "Well, it definitely wasn't you." "Whoa!") I note it all down on the big white envelope of the manuscript I'm reading.

Even the prickle of vigilance makes me happy: awareness flicking like the ears of a deer from the splash and laughter in the creek to the man walking this way with a dog (friendly? too friendly?) who warns us about glass down in the rocks, sits at the picnic table, leaves messages on his cell phone, walks away.

This is not Nature pristine. Beyond the trees on the other side of the creek comes the sound of a car turning on gravel, then a little later the steady pace of a race-walker. Nothing particularly photographable about this place, but some memory in my DNA says this is a good place - a human place - the open shade, the sound of water. A man with army cap and ponytail rides his bike down into the water, walks the bike across and back up into the trees on the other side.

"I have to get my Stone of Justice out," says YoungSon, wrapped in some game of superheroes.

"You are FROGGY-FACE OF JUSTICE," says his friend, a little showman with a booming voice. Then suddenly he's boy again, "I have a rock I've been meaning for you. It's from where my family started. Well, my family is from Sweden but where they homesteaded it's by a mine and there are these very famous polka-dotted rocks."

A woman with her two daughters walk up the creek through the water. Solid-built with long black hair they stand in a row on the pebbly sandbar near the deep shade, fishing with breadcrusts(?) dangling from a string. Another older girl joins them. The mother gives her the net - it's one of those little green nets for scooping goldfish out of fishbowls. The woman and her daughters toss, toss their strings, dragging the white bit (which can't be breadcrusts) through the water. The older girl stoops, scooping with the net, shaking something out into a small white bucket.

I can't stand not knowing what they're doing - so unitedly and businesslike. "Crawfish." And the bait? "Chicken. Any kind of meat - they just come after it." So who eats them, all of you? "She does," the woman nods toward her oldest girl. "Put a little dill spice in the water. They taste like lobster. Really. Like lobster tail."

Two older boys bike over. One of them pulls a collapsible pole out of his backpack. The other settles himself on the bank, snipping blades of grass with his fingertips. "What are they fishing for?" he asks his friend.

"I don't know," the fishing boy sets up his equipment.

"I only set my bike down in the grass."

"No, you don't. You set your bike down all the time."

"Look, there's a cigarette."


"Have you ever smoked in your life?"

"I've like smoked, but - I think I want to skip stones."

"Dude, look at that!"

"Do you think I'll catch some fish?"

"A little guppy maybe."

"Look, I caught a feather."

When the boy - crewcut, camo shorts & tee - does catch a fish it's to me (because I look friendly? motherly? like a teacher with all the papers in my lap?) that he brings his fish over to show, "Hey, look! I caught a fish!" I admire it - the iridescent green along its side. The whole fish is only a little longer than my finger. "I better throw it back," says the boy. But as it hits the water, "That was pretty big - really!"

After awhile his friend stands, shakes grass blades off his lap, "She said half an hour. Catch you later." In the creek YoungSon and his friend are building bridges now with their logs, "1-2-3 - now lift!" They tug, tug. The woman and her daughters move further downstream, tossing their lines, dragging their bits of chicken, scooping, shaking out the net. The fishing boy sighs, starts to pack up. He calls out to me, "Have you ever seen a collapsible pole?" I haven't. He shows me, "And see, I'm ready to go! Just like that. Fits in my backpack and everything!" He zooms off on his bike.

"Is it time for us to go?" calls my son's friend from the water.

"Are you ready to go now?" I ask him

"Yeah, maybe in half an hour."

"Two hours," says YoungSon who would be content to float above the water on his log for the rest of the afternoon. "It's fun, isn't it?" he asks his friend.

"Yeah, it's fun. But it's getting less and less fun," his friend's voice drops and he avoids glancing back up over the bank toward me, wanting to be polite.

"Forgot the hooks!" The fisherboy in camo is back, rattling up, rattling away.

Splash-clunk of rock against rock in the water.

"I'm going to sun myself," says YoungSon's friend.

Sparkle of sunlight rippling over dark water.

Friday, August 28, 2009

These Are Not Worry-Beads

Though you might be excused for thinking so - all these posts coming one right after the other - full of empty and high-volume chatter.

But the Grandmothers-of-the-Mind don't think there's any call a-tall for worrying. In fact, were an errant thought so much as to slouch over a bowl of juicy grapes, were to even think of thinking - while biting down on the bubble of juice that a ripe grape is - about how much one would wish for this very grape were one in, say, prison camp -

YOU KNOW - that far-fetched, futuristic, not entirely impossible captivity we keep imagining for ourselves - scheduling it in right after the world twists nihilistic - that world we travel to by handbasket. That place. Built on the sly. Built from the foamy shapelessness of avoiding the clear-and-present we do not care to name. That -

the Grandmothers tut-tut and bustle over, wiping the thought's face and bidding the thought to sit up straight, "That's ridiculous, dear. And you know it. Stop making up scary stories. Here you are on a sunny hillside. And you have a nice big bowl of grapes. And your children run by in their strong and healthy bodies. And there's your dependable Fritz driving up the road right now. Everything's so NICE. Aren't you lucky?"

Though luck calls up the idea of un-luck, which the Grandmothers disapprove of.

That Fritz goes in next Tuesday for the biopsy, the Grandmothers cluck, can have no connection a-tall a-tall with the tumors that riddle Fritz's father's body, nor the ghastliness of that first week of radiation. "Why, it'll be an opportunity to have lunch together afterward. And won't that be NICE?"

But if you pray, please do pray for my beloved.

(Also accepting loving thoughts and warm hopes and all forms of positive energy.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting to Know . . . (and I hope, daughters dear, you are satisfied?)

1. What time did you get up this morning? 5:16. Since neighbor and I have decided to drag our tired, middle-aged bones (with accompanying tendons, muscles and sweet et cetera) out to walk the hills for half an hour every morning before six. As in: it is still dark and it would be a lot more encouraging if we were heading into summer and not increasingly darker and colder winter mornings.

2. How do you like your steak? Do I have a steak? Is this an invitation? Would “with mushrooms and plenty of pepper” be an option?

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? Ooo . . . the cinema . . . I don’t remember. (But I do think it’s about time for a sudden abundance of luscious, weepy, stand - up - and - cheer, throw - your - arms - around - your - companion flicks to hit the silver screen.)

4. What is your favorite TV show? I used to be very fond of Mad about You, but haven’t seen much since.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? Here, but with states mysteriously rearranged so that all my dear ones are about a half hour away. Well, maybe an hour for some of you ;0> (No, I’m kidding.)  (About the hour part!)

6. What did you have for breakfast? Half a dainty and drippingly sweet cantaloupe from the farm share and a big drainy-bowl of perfectly ripe and in-season grapes that I shared with YoungSon. (Whew, I’m glad I answered this today and not yesterday when I would have had to say nutella on graham crackers and bittersweet chocolate chips.)

7. What is your favorite cuisine? “Thai currently.” Oh yes, I’d have to agree with my sister. Otherwise I’d say whatever’s fresh and reasonably local. With plenty greens. Or popsicles - mango, tamarind, coconut and the kind with real chunks of strawberries.

8. What foods do you dislike? Big hunks of dry meat. Canned cream of mushroom soup. Live grubs.

9. Favorite Place to Eat? At the table . . . no, that’s not true. My favorite place to eat is outside beside the campfire after a day hiking to the lakes. . . . .though those little sidewalk café tables outside Jake’s Famous Crawfish aren’t bad. . . . nor the ones on the dock by Mark’s on the Channel after a day biking . . . and I’ve heard Andina and Toro Bravo are places to try, just in case anyone were wondering . . .

10. Favorite dressing? Up. I really like my new drab olive with polka dots, 1930s collar, swishy skirt.

11. What kind of vehicle do you drive? The one that is available. Though whenever other contraints allow, bicycle.

12. What are your favorite clothes? Clean and already folded. . . . Ironed and put in their proper places would be so shockingly wonderful I’d probably have to sit down for a minute or two.

13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? I’m going along with my sister: “Where wouldn’t I visit if I had the chance!” Honestly, I saw the words “wanderlust” this past week and my feet started itching, my invisible wings started twitching. This past summer I’ve planned out detailed itineraries for
1) a biking adventure along the Acadian coast of New Brunswick, bookended by long weekends walking around Montreal and biking on Prince Edward Island.
2) a historical/ genealogical drive from Maine to Connecticut, with stop-over in Boston and a side-trip to the Susquehannah River Valley with a possible . . .
3) biking week in and around Washington, D.C.
4) a bike through the Cotswolds to Stratford-upon-Avon, followed by . . .
5) a walking tour on the ancient Ridgeway between the White Horse of Uffington and the standing stones at Avebury with trains to Salisbury, Oxford and London.
6) a train and bike trip from Vienna to Salzburg . . . including a roller coaster down the Alps and a tour of the world's oldest (?) salt mine.
14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full? I don’t really think it’s appropriate to discuss my underclothing in such a public forum.

15. Where would you want to retire? I like my other sister’s answer: “my own bed.” Though even better would be that bed in the Green Cat B&B on Bainbridge Island – was it really that unbelievably and perfectly comfortable? or was it the miles I’d biked that day? or the cot and stinky teepee we’d stayed the night before?

16. Favorite time of day? Why? If I tell you, you’ll think of something you need me to do right in the middle of it, won’t you?

17. Where were you born? I don't think I like the tone you're asking that with. (But since you did ask - same hospital where my mother was. Born, that is. Because obviously I was born in the same hospital my mother was in - like when she gave birth to me. But I was born in the same hospital my mother was born in and so was my oldest child. But not all at the same time. Obviously.)

18. What is your favorite sport to watch? . . . . uh, you wanted an answer to that?. . . Truly, I like to watch all kinds of sports – played outside – in the early evening – by children – who haven’t been paid – and don’t have coaches.

19. Who do you think will not tag you back? I think all of you have already tagged me. Oh, except for Fritz who believes he caught me some time ago.

20. Person you expect to tag you back first? Are you not paying any attention at all to what I'm telling you?

22. Bird watcher? Sure, why not. But what I’d really like would to be able to identify birds by their calls. What do you call that? Bird hearer? Bird speaker? Bird recognizer?

23. Are you a morning person or a night person? There are some days that in the morning I start out as night person, only to switch to a morning person by nightfall.

24. Do you have any pets? Cats, only one of whom has a pleasant disposition, and a current campaign for a puppy.

26. What did you want to be when you were little? Bigger. Now, it’s the other way around.

27. What is your best childhood memory? Most certainly it was that day I was with YOU – remember, when you said that one thing while we were – and then I - yeah, THAT time!

28. Are you a cat or a dog person? I am more, I believe, a honeybee person.

29. Are you married? Oh, the bliss!

30. Always wear your seat belt? Okay.

31. Been in a car accident? But I was more injured when I fell off my bike in gravel going down my own hill and broke my foot.

32. Any pet peeves? I am never irritated. In fact, it is highly likely that it is thus I who peeve any number of others.

33. Favorite pizza topping? spicy tomato sauce, green peppers and onions, lotsa mozza, pepperoni and olives. My own mother never had pizza until she went away to college and now we assume everyone has?

34. Favorite Flower? The ones that smell pretty and the ones that shine when the light gets behind them: iris, lilac, Japanese anenome, tobacco flower, honeysuckle, pasque flowers, poet’s narcissus . . .

35. Favorite ice cream? Okay, we made ice cream up at my house two nights ago. Three teenage girls and the other youth leader and I. Do you realize how easy it is? Cream, sugar, salt, vanilla bean – that’s it. Too creamy – yes. I think I should have used lighter cream, or even half-and-half. I couldn’t believe how creamy it was. I want to find a hand-crank ice cream maker like the one we borrowed from our neighbors with a half-gallon metal tubbie and wooden slatted sides.

36. Favorite fast food restaurant? Burgerville, for when I’m in the healthy Northwest. White Castle, for when I’m not.

37. How many times did you fail your driver's test? The written test part - Never. The driving part – Well. The real question is, Was it me or was it the Butterscotch Mammoth Mobile? I only passed parallel parking when my best friend kidnapped me from school one lunchtime, in the snow, right before Christmas break and I took the test in her mini-compact.

38. From whom did you get your last email? Boy, you are kind of nosey, aren’t you?

39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card? Do people choose to max out their cards? I feel like I’m playing the slot machine whenever I run it through at the grocery store – first fatal step on the slippery slope to addiction and financial counselling. I would prefer to spend cash – euros, pounds, loonies, cowrie shells . . .

40. Do anything spontaneous lately? I walked under a waterfall. It was wet. Somewhat exhilirating. But my ongoing chatter at my doing it proved to me just how un-spontaneous I am. (Do you think I should arrange to do things like this more often?)

41. Like your job? Actually, I think I’m in the middle of a career change. I’ll keep you posted . . .

42. Broccoli? . . . What? I know that in French to call someone a little cauliflower is an endearment, but I’m not sure how I’m meant to respond here.

43. What was your favorite vacation? Bruges in Belgium where we rented bikes and the village of La Cornette in Wallonia. Biking through Seattle to Port Townshend and the Kitsap Peninsula.

44. Last person you went out to dinner with? My lovely sister and her lovely family . . . Cajun . . . frog legs, alligator tail . . . you may have heard about it already.

45. What are you listening to right now? The door closing. An airplane crossing over. YoungSon biking around the house on the gravel drive.

46. What is your favorite color? No, I insist, what is your favorite color?

47. How many tattoos do you have? Let’s see . . . we’ve got Popeye, we’ve got Bugs Bunny, we’ve got – What?  sorry, thought you said cartoons . . .

49. What time did you finish this quiz? I believe in eternal revision.

50. Coffee Drinker? Like the other women in my family, I too am a coffee-sniffer. I love the way coffee smells, but I wouldn’t nosh pot-pourri, either.

O sweet spontaneous . . . and soggy

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

25, mostly at random

  1. I would feel more comfortable listing 25 questions (intriguing and/or naggingly recurrent) than providing 25 answers/factoids/snapshot views of the inner me.

  2. I like punctuation – for example dashes/slashes (also parentheses).

  3. (During the note-writing days of junior high long ago, my boyfriend at the time pointed out that I speak also in parentheses – like cupped hands around a whisper and many dangling and interdependent clauses branching out from a single slender trunk) – does that count as a 3rd fact or is that just a continuation of #2? This could perhaps stand as a characteristic example. Or a habit.

  4. I’m doing this list to please my daughter. Who is far more charming and droll than I. She likes sunflowers and spicy food – Mexican, Indian, Thai. So do I (except for the sunflowers.)

  5. I think sunflowers are very obvious. And cheery. But I like iris better and lilacs, because if I were someday to go blind I could still enjoy them – they smell ravishingly sweet and have delicious textures against your face when you smell them. Sunflowers are sticky and have prickles. And they smell like weeds. (Not that I’m against weeds necessarily. Or sunflowers for that matter.)

  6. I don’t like drawing lines that shut things out. Because you never know. Maybe I will come to love sunflowers. They may remind me of my daughter when she has flown. When I was a very little girl, my school-teacher grandpa taught me a poem (many poems, some rather more poetic than this verse) that still runs through my head: “He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic! Rebel! A foe to flout! But Love and I had the wit to win. We made a circle that drew him in.” I’m not convinced that this is not One of the Secrets of Life.

  7. I quote poetry/verse more often than is socially acceptable.

  8. My daughter suggests I ask myself if red really is my favorite color and why. Would that be interesting to ask? or to know? Do other people notice red as strongly – color of blood and mouths and ripe fruit? – and do they not choose it for their favorite because they don’t like to be compelled to notice so strongly?

  9. I also like blue – from boiling poison pool and Utah sky to Easter morning and robin’s egg and celadon. I adore the celadon of very old Chinese ceramics. And I like it when the glaze crackles.

  10. I don’t have a reason for liking the colors I like. Except they make my eyes tingle. And something inside me start to dance. When I am old I hope my children will bring me new colors every day like the old lady in Beloved. The brighter the better. Or good textures if I happen to be blind then.

  11. I’ve always assumed I would one day lose my sight (because my eyes are not so great) – I’m in a habit now of looking intensely and carefully at things while I can. So I will remember.

  12. I used to try to teach myself to read Braille but now I’ve decided I would rather listen to books on tape. The best are those read by a single reader, one who does all the voices, preferrably with an English accent. I stock up on audiobooks from the library whenever I have to drive long distances.

  13. I used to dance when I was alone. Every day. To all kinds of different music. Lots of whirling and leaping and graceful (?) arm wavings. I once asked myself, stopping to pant and catch my breath, “Will I ever not want to dance like this?” I thought that would be impossible. Now I don’t dance. I have tried sometimes. But I don’t want to anymore. (You are probably relieved to hear this.) (Or regretting you didn’t get to see the sight? charge admission? take blackmail pictures?)

  14. Before I die I want to wander through the carved stone churches of Armenia, bicycle from town to town in France, spend a summer in Denmark, learn the vocabulary of Balinese and Indian dance, sail through the Greek islands, explore temple ruins at Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, ruins and garden at Sigiriya (Sri Lanka), underground garden near Fresno, California, and see whales with their calves down along the coast of South America.

  15. I will feel I have succeeded in life if I can ever successfully grow a vegetable garden and a small orchard and collect eggs from my own chickens. (Well, I’ll feel I’ve succeeded for a minute or two anyway.)

  16. I have always wanted to keep bees, but have been discouraged from it by all the die-offs and diseases.

  17. The happiest I’ve been in a long time was working/ volunteering at the Sauvie Island organic farm. I miss it and all the earnest and idealistic young people who worked and lived there. But it felt time to move on. But to what?

  18. I love mud. I miss teaching. I'm afraid I have become lazy.

  19. I like walking better than any other exercise. Walking in the morning, or even better, walking in the dark or in the rain. Which doesn't mean I don't also love cycling - it just seems more like transportation than exercise. Cycling is my favorite form of transportation.

  20. I love real conversations – wide-ranging, from-the-heart, ideas rather than personalities. I’m tired of talking about how much I’m going to miss my daughters. I need new topics!

  21. I love the smells of things (well, most things . . . or many . . .)

  22. I like sweeping the floor when the sun first rises. And folding clothes right out of the dryer. But my house is rarely as clean as it should be.

  23. Once I have cooked something exactly right, I have no more desire to cook it ever again. My family hate this and have taken to trying to convince me that while this or that dish is close, it’s just not quite . . . maybe you should try it with a little more . . .

  24. I like to sing. In the minor key, especially when the lyrics are clever or neatly intertwined with rhyme and meaning. But I am not a performance singer.

  25. Fakitude and smarminess about things that really matter make me squirm. Which makes it hard for me to talk about God, for example. So though my feelings may be deep, my tongue is often holden.

a place in the aspens

There is no picture to begin this post because . . .

. . . there is no picture of the aspen place true enough.

But this is one of my sacred spaces. A grove of aspen up on West Mountain above the town my parents live now, where my grandparents used to live, where someday I likely will live when it's our turn to be the grandparents and keep the Old Place. Now I just return summer by summer as I did last week again - just Middlest and I to spend quiet time (as opposed to jolly, house-stuffed-to-the-gills-with-family time) with her grandparents.

On the last day of our visit we roared our way up the mountain on ATVs - nodding and waving to familiar townspeople on their way back down. Here, it is the last day before school starts. And the beginning of the bow hunt. ATVs are loud and smelly and require pretty constant attention to the road - and my Dad loves them.

And I love my Dad and like to be with him.

So - where we used to slide between the aspens, sitting back in the bed of Grandpa's pale blue pickup, looking up through the shivering leaves - now we enter in a rumbling train, one after the other.

It is still a sacred space.

After the lost backyard garden of my earliest memories - my tiny white sandals swinging up to touch the golden fruit on the apricot tree, thrilling tendrils of the pea plants, their miraculous pods of matching peas, the fast-falling creek just over the juniper hedge and those little prickly ice-blue berries - this place in the aspens is the place I love next best. These aspen and the rosy-red Narrows along Clear Creek the next canyon over - two sides of the same holy mountain.

Maybe next year I will hike up here on my own, early in the morning and try to get pictures to do it justice. Mornings, I've noticed, the slant of light sometimes sets free a little of the spirit of these places that mean so much to me . . .

. . . foxtails gathering sunlight along the old canal . . .

. . . intimacy of milkweed buds against the fence . . .

. . . rosy rust-red spires of the amaranth . . .

Though I have my doubts that pictures of my aspen place are really possible.

Believe me, I have filled rolls of film taking pictures of white trunks. And that's what I get - white trunks. Round silvery leaves against an achey-blue sky. Very pretty.

Not at all what this place is.

Maybe the point is that this is a place you have to enter. Not a place to see in photographs. You have to come in under its living canopy. Your own skin has to be bathed in the quality of light reflecting over and over from pale trunks. And your own face dappled with sunlight shivering down through the shimmering, ever-moving leaves. You have to enter the sound of its leaves and be embraced, encompassed and wholly contained, bathed and baptized.

Whatever it is, I must tell you that as we turned around, passing once more through the aspen place, and coming back down the mountain I realized with a start of joy that I was suddenly happy again. The happy switch has come back on, I saw the words unscrolling in my mind against the blue sky, as I joggled back down the rocky road with the heavy weight of the helmet on my head.

Not that I've been drippingly miserable these past two/three months. I've carried on well enough. But as a particularly perceptive friend responded when I assured her I was, Oh, fine. Just fine - she nodded, "I don't believe you."

Whether this new fountaining up of peace and "rightness" is because my vitamin D levels are approaching normal, or the natural result of a week at my mother's side (like doe and fawn), or because I'm finally coming home after a summer travelling (and as much as I've loved visiting my parents and my sister and all, I am glad at last to come back to my own home and my own work). Or whether the flipping of the switch is just the blessing of this place in the aspens - I don't know.

I only know the light is on again . . .

. . . and I Thank You.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Looking Pretty in Pictures

"I think my computer has a crush on me," I tell my youngest sister.


"Yeah," I drawl, "every time I change my blog picture, my computer's all -- " I make bedroom eyes, drop my voice an octave, "Fetching profile photo . . . '"

My sister wrinkles her brow.  Then bursts out laughing.

I smirk, "All I can say is, Why, thank you."

Now she's offended, "My computer only says 'UPLOADING PHOTOS' . . .  Who wants to have a picture that has to be uploaded?"

Well, neither of us -- that's certain.

Is it like this in other families? Summer, for us, is the season of photography. And as essential to our reunitings as laughter and watermelon. We don't feel we entirely exist, nor that we've been where we've been, unless we have pictures to prove it. And managing to look good in those pictures, well, it feels like an obligation we owe -- like we're failing to live up to the Family Tradition when we don't.

It doesn't help that we come from a line of highly photographable women. Like our mother --

Her father -- our grandfather -- was an avid photographer. And as a scabby-kneed, straggly-haired four-eyes I loved to pore over the album full of pictures of his sisters, his daughters, his wife, all these beautiful women who lived where it was always summer.  

Someday even I . . .

Mom always insisted comfortingly that she too went through an awkward stage -- here it is in case you don't recognize it:

Right. An awkwardness that so obviously has more to do with funky eyewear than the girl herself. Too obvious that this is just the dramatic setup right before she's about to toss her glasses and run her fingers through her hair -- and voilá! 

Which is precisely the way it played out --

And there they are -- our grandmother, our mother -- so photographable. And it's summertime. And that funny little kid with no hair, no teeth, laughable nose, and eyes set too close together?

That's me.

Oh, the burden of having to see oneself. Surely, we were never meant to be so aware of what we look like.

Our children are right to resent it.

Angelic, you say?  Let me interpret -- this is: "You better be telling the truth," in response to "Come on, just one more picture. Then you can go. Come on, put your heads together so we have a nice picture."

Poor YoungSon and his cousin who thought they were just having some fun when they ran towards the waiting wagon in old Nauvoo and clambered up onto its wooden seat. They missed the signs screaming Photo Op!

They should have known.

What did ensue:

"Here, give us a big smile."

"Now, look at me."

"Okay, over here, just one more."

"Come on, we want to have a nice picture of you being here with your cousin."

Is it any wonder they begin to grimace . . .

(do you have to be told that it's his mother behind this camera?)

. . . and mug?

(and her mother behind the other?)

They are turning their faces already into masks.

Not like my baby niece, who squints, not out of wariness, not worrying how she's smiling, but because the sun is shining in her eyes.

Whose eyes light up purely - not so she'll take a good picture - but because she sees someone she knows.

And is curious.

I've been doing what I can in favor of the unrevised, unrehearsed image . . .

. . . namely, avoiding being on the trouble-side of a camera. I bring my own camera, I stay in the background, I'm the one who stalks everyone else. "I hate having my picture taken," I whimper when cornered. "Maybe after I lose this weight then . . . "

But this last visit, my sister told me, soberly and sweetly persuasive, something her friend read to her from a camera manual, something to the tune of:
You may encounter subjects unwilling to be photographed. You might remind them -- they're looking better now than they will in ten years. Might as well smile!
Though she's one to talk, my sister. If I were to post, say, this picture

she would find something bad to say about it. Usually she complains that she looks like she has gas when she smiles in photographs. If that's what it is, I say, bring on the raffinose.

Or she'll point out her uneven teeth. "The flaw that perfects," I tell her. "I love your teeth. They give you a slightly elfish air."

"When I bite into cheese," she harumphs, "I always leave this distinctive crooked bite-mark. It's very obvious."

And I guess she has a point there - it could put a real cramp on grocery trips if every time you took a gnaw out of a block of cheese the store detective was able to trace the marks immediately back to you.

"At least you don't show your gums like they're badly fit dentures," I comfort her . . .

". . . At least your teeth aren't wearing down crookedly where you grind them in your sleep."

She rolls her eyes. As she does when I moan over the morose and doomsaying nose I inherited from our grandfather - it's a nose that despite all my efforts at happy thoughts, keeps saying "Things aren't as bad as they could be - just wait."

"And my eyes look maniacal," I say.

"Whatever," she says.

We both know this is a kind of vanity, to invest this much uncomfortable thought into what we look like in pictures. I wish she would see the delicacy of brow and chin, the lovely arching eyebrows that I see - the dearness of a face I love - rather than, "Look how crooked my part is."

Though it is certain I have more to get over than she does.

"People are going to think I'm your mother, you realize," I say as we get ready in the same mirror, heading out for the day together.

"No, they won't," my sister says. "Not even."

"Watch." And of course I'm right. The first woman nods at me, while my sister plays toss with her daughter and my son, while I rock the stroller and babble at my new niece. The woman leans over, coos conspiratorially, "Isn't it wonderful to be with your little grandbaby?"

I could just smile and nod. But I say, "Niece." Which embarrasses the pleasant lady, who hums and haws and hurries away.

The next woman asks YoungSon if he's the baby's older brother, or - er? - her uncle?

Honestly. Do I look that old?

I do. The lank and graying hair, the tired eyes, the extra flesh -- I'm letting down the Women of the Family -- I'll never look like my grandpa's sisters

who looked like this even when I knew them, fine-featured slender women who knew how to dress so that the camera loved them.

Though I'm not sure I'm not doing as well as could be expected with the material I was given. I did indeed start out slender, but the fashion sense . . .

. . . never great,  has developed in only the most rudimentary sense. And the nose -- well, I've wondered sometimes if the doctor didn't grab me by the nose when I was being born -- pulling my eyes too close together and my upper lip too short.

And though I wish (vainly and without any real hope) I could be as good as my other grandma -- as quick to laugh and to love and to put her arms around the lonely and the lost -- do I want to be as camera shy? This grandma from the other side was always running away from cameras, hiding behind other people. I hardly have any pictures of her now.

So maybe instead of (okay, at least after) saying, "Ack, that pessimistic nose! The rolls of flesh! That thinning hair!"  I could begin to read these photos as:

"Look, we were here. Together."

"And weren't we happy!"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Seattle to . . .

STP 2009

WHAT? Well, I would have said it's that ride Dad's done the past 11 years . . . a whole slew of biking maniacs streaming through town over a weekend in July . . . but this year we were two of the crazies!

WHERE? Seattle, Washington, to Portland, Oregon - 202.2 miles. That was the goal anyway.

WHY? Dad's always wanted us to. And for ten years we've been saying, "Someday . . . " Besides, you guys wouldn't let us get texting until Dad worked out a deal that we do STP with him this year.

WHEN? All in one day - for us, but most people (or lots of them) break it in half and finish on Sunday.

So WHY NOT? Well, when Daddy first biked it he had to get back to give a talk on Sunday - and if you've done it in one day once - (shrug)? Besides who really wants to get back on their bikeseat for another hundred miles if you've already hammered out a hundred miles the day before?

HOW? Well, one of us trained through the winter in the garage with our bike up on the trainer. It's like riding up hill for half an hour straight. And not very interesting scenery. Then the Astoria ride and shorter rides. Running with track. And Dad made us go on several hill rides in Utah. But we didn't do enough . . .

BEST PART? Starting out in the morning - 5 a.m. - all 10,000 of us -

SIZE OF A SMALL TOWN? Yeah. It was great. We're all in a group together and in the crowd I got separated from Eldest and when the sun was coming up over Lake Washington I was wishing I could share it with her but then this lady behind me went - "Wow! Will you look at that sun! It's a DAZZLER!"

BEST PART? All the people there starting out - everyone talking about bikes, gears clicking, bikes jingling. I felt part of something.

FUNNY PARTS? MEMORABLE? I don't know . . . not really funny but it made me laugh during the ride to see this one group of guys that were all dressed in green - green flip-flops, green shorts, green shirts, green helmets - and they were riding these green bikes - the old doggy-paddle upright type? with fat tires? - No gears and flip-flops - on the STP! And all in green!

* And there was this one guy who turned really quick and started to fall but caught himself - after that he'd pass me, I'd pass him and then he rode right behind me for like 13 miles and never said anything at all the whole time. Funny- awkward, you know?

* At 87 miles, I passed my record of the most miles I'd ever done in a day - there was a whole group of guys in Army tees. I was pretty exhausted. Each one passing me would say, "Good job!" or "You can do it!" That really helped.

* When Dad said to go ahead without him and Mid, it was really hard to bike by myself. Hard to keep up the pace. I had to find people that were going the speed I wanted - 17 mph. Then I'd pretend like they were my uncles because then I wouldn't feel so weird following them so close. Usually I wouldn't have left Dad. But it was okay - there were so many people and everyone so concentrated on the biking.

There was a scary part - after 25 miles Mid was right behind me on this rough road. You know when there are two layers of pavement? and the top layer has worn through? so there are these long ruts worn through and if you got caught in one you just had to ride in it until you could ease yourself out? . . . Well, at that point I was really confident: "I'm a good rider. And all around me are all these good riders." Then a couple of guys ahead of me got his tire caught in the rut and his bike flipped over. And the guy in front of me had to slam his breaks and swerve out around. And I had to swing out to miss him and Mid had to swerve around me and almost hit me. After that I wasn't so confident. So easy for anyone to fall - really badly.

* And there was that place on the trail where the photographers were. And right in front of the photographers this one guy's bike suddenly went up in the air. Well, not that his bike actually just levitated, but suddenly all I saw was his tires - which you don't usually see just hanging in the air.

ANYTHING ELSE? Bit by a porta-potty. . . . but I don't want to talk about it.

I have something I want to say about the STP -
OKAY? The motel was pretty fun even if there wasn't a swimming pool and driving along seeing the bikers - that was fun. And waiting in the parks.

So, DID IT HELP TO HAVE US WAITING AT THE STOPS? Yeah, because I knew if I absolutely needed to, I could quit.
But it was also kind of long. Like boring.

It was nice to see familiar faces. And since I got there before Mid and Dad I wouldn't have known where to go or what to do until they came.

HOW WAS THE FOOD? Great! I love Cliff bars. And they had Odwalla juice and fruit - that was good.

Good. The chocolate milk they passed out at the 100-mile mark in Chehalis was fantastic!

I thought it was stinky that they made us pay for the food if we weren't riders.

But the chocolate milk was good and they gave me some even though. But didn't we used to go to Ivar's the night before and have salmon? Why don't we do that any more?

WORST PART? Deciding to go on at the 100 mile mark. I was so tired but I knew I could go at least a little further - 129.3 miles got me to Vader. That was all I could do.

WORST PART? At the 50 mile mark - I was following a group and we were going 20 mph but then they picked up the pace to 22 mph. It was just too fast for me and I fell behind and I was so SO tired.

HOW ABLE TO KEEP GOING? I was already over that big hill when Dad caught up and said Mid had dropped out. So I just kept going until I was exhausted -

and then I kept going - had to at least get to Oregon. 157 miles, just over the bridge from Kelso, Washington, outside of Rainier, Oregon.

So I guess I did the SToRB - Seattle to over-the-Rainier-Bridge.

And I did the STV - Seattle to Vader.
WHAT DO DIFFERENTLY? Train more. Drink more water. Do more hill rides. Eat better - I didn't finish brekkers because the yogurt was warm.

I'd start earlier, too - get out there at 4:30 when the ride first opens.

NEXT YEAR? Yeah, probably. Gotta beat it.

Mmm . . . I'm thinking about it.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Says Eldest, "Don't you think it's time you write one about what your children are doing?"

"What are my children doing?" says I.
"Well," she gestures toward her sister, "Mid's decided to make a dress and she's figured out how to sew it herself. . . . And Young is finally reading Harry Potter and he's on the 4th book already. . . . "

Which is a wonder, indeed.

We glance over towards the big brown chair in the other room where all we can see of YoungSon is two bare knees, the tousled top of his head, tips of his ears and the cover of The Goblet of Fire.  Eldest and I have tried to get him to read these books for over a year. But YoungSon always listens most to his nearest sibling. Which is Middlest. Who read one Harry Potter and found him not to her liking.  And says as much.  Mildly usually, vehemently occasionally, but obviously always with sufficient persuasive power..

I even tried reading the first few Harry Potter chapters out loud to YoungSon, just to get him going . . . nyah . . . That is, until his dad said, "What? You haven't tried these books yet? "

Probably you need to know that Fritz reads textbooks for fun. And technical documentation the rest of the time. I can name every fiction book he's read since I've known him (except for a few picture books which he read patiently and repeatedly in the early years).

Fritz' fiction list as an adult reader:
1. Ivan Doig's The Sea Runners (which I gave him and made him read - "You'll like it. It's about Alaska. And kayaking.  And it's true, really.")
2 through 8. The Harry Potter opus (which Eldest sat him down and made him read)

9. Surviving the Applewhites by Susan Tolan (which Middlest rechecked from the library especially for him and sat him down and made him read)

(and I suppose . . .
10. The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger  (if you're willing to stretch the definition of fiction to mean merely light reading)
11.  Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond (if you're also willing to stretch the definition of light reading)

Not a fiction reader, Fritz.

But Fritz LOVed the Harry Potter series. When he gathered YoungSon on his knee with, "Oh, you've got to read these books. Here, bring the first one to me. I'll start you out . . . ," we had a feeling YoungSon's reluctance to dive into such big books - and so many - had met its match.

"Should we stop?" Fritz would ask at a critical juncture, every two pages into the story. By that time we had all gathered round to listen to him reading out loud - Fritz just has the Voice, no one can resist - even Middlest was drawn in.

"No, you can read some more," says YoungSon. "If you like."

It was like my own home version of The Princess Bride right there in the kitchen.

" . . . or you could write about the test scores I got on the ACT," finishes Eldest, bringing us back on topic.

"But wouldn't that be . . . like . . . bragging?" I ask.

"Well, if I said it, it would be," she admits. "But people expect parents to be that way."

"I see. What else?" I ask her.

"Well, we did go pick cherries for you."

"Yes, you did. And I'm grateful to you for it. Haven't I said so?  I think repeatedly?"

"You have and you're welcome.  But you could write about that."
"Or I could write about you throwing your jeans at me - how they landed on my head and flapped me right in the face."

"I didn't," she splutters, "At least . . . I was mad, but I thought it would land . . . away . . . And besides, Mom, I don't think that would be very interesting anyway."

"Well, I didn't think you'd actually aimed for me.  Because I haven't forgotten you're related to me, you know.  The whole hand-eye coordination thing."

"But like I said. Not so interesting, Mom."

"Hmm, maybe not."

"You could write how I'm learning how to drive stick-shift."

"I could."

"Or how Mid and I are training for the STP with Dad in the next little while - " the STP being the 200 miles in one day on bike from Seattle to Portland and this the girls' first attempt to keep pace with that old veteran of the bike lanes, their dad.

"Have you seen my definition?" she shows me her leg, "Look at that."

I admire her calf-definition, which is impressive, and poke her thigh-muscle, which is indeed firm.

"You could write about the new song Mid is learning to play on the piano. It's really pretty."

"It is. Very pretty. And she's doing a really fine job learning it, isn't she?" Middlest glances up from the serious business of threading the sewing machine for the briefest glimmer of a grin.

"But," I say, "I don't really write about things like that. I mean, they're all nice but . . . I don't know . . . maybe a little too nice?"

"Well, maybe you should," says Eldest.

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