Making a List and Keeping it Right

Pittock Mansion Christmas2011 007

I start to feel almost domestic around the holidays. This is no small thing, as my talents and interests do not include a burning desire to cook or decorate, sew or craft. But I experience a longing to do so at this time, and I find simple ways to compensate. This year, since I am not currently working, I got into the holiday mood before we even consumed platters of turkey, mounds of vegetables, and four delicious pies. It wasn’t about the preparation and sharing of great food; Marc, my spouse, does the bulk of that. I happily weigh in while he plans: perhaps yams instead of sweet potatoes without gooey marshmallows, stuffing without chestnuts this year, and every pie possible–that sort of thing. My usual contributions are getting the drinks and slicing the sausages and cheeses, getting them all nicely arranged with water and wheat and rice crackers on my special glass platter, the one with the graceful swans gliding on water. I also look forward to setting out the blue, rose, and clear glass candy dishes, the best ones my mother gave me. Mixed nuts, chocolates and peppermints fill them and I think of her, and how her table looked: elegant and welcoming.

I start envisioning how my table will be when everything is arranged on holiday tablecloths–usually a yellow for Thanksgiving and a red for Christmas. I look for the best deal on brilliant fall bouquets and spend a long while arranging the flowers and green sprigs in tall vases. I buy softly scented pine or cinnamon-spice candles for odd spots in the apartment, and plain tapers for the dining room table. Generally a fragrant green something adorns the front door. People shall feel cheerful entering this domain.

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After Thanksgiving the adult children choose names for gift-giving. That rings the start bell for me. I begin to scan the online shopping sites or the neighborhood stores and wait for whatever calls to me. I ask for their short lists even now, in the hope of finding something they really would enjoy or need. But the truth is, I always think of many things I want to give them. They have varied interests: skateboarding and snowboarding, art and music, fashion, food, reading everything from anthropology to religion to the natural world, all genres of fiction, poetry, and so on and on. I am cautioned by my husband to not get too enthralled, but it is hard to resist the tantalizing call of all the wonderful things–not generally expensive–I want to share with them. They are my children, after all. Then there are my grandchildren, who need surprises. Marc reminds me we have twelve to buy for at the least, often more. And I am not working this year. I get that. But I have ways to manage on any budget.

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Next I study the events that are happening about Portland. There is the ScanFair which we enjoy despite not being Scandinavian and the Grotto’s glorious Festival of Lights which is a tradition for the whole family even in the rain (an alomost sure thing). The Pittock Mansion displays all her grande dame finery. The Zoo Lights are an awesome experience for children of all ages and Peacock Lane is a whole brightly lit block of fun for the younger ones.

And the music that surrounds the holidays! We will start with a Trinity Christmas Concert, Bach for the Holidays. Follow it up with the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols later in the month. There is The Nutcracker which we have seen a few times; I remain enchanted. There is a Singing Christmas Tree which has not yet been experienced. The symphony always has a rousing program or two. This list will grow, as music is an embodiment of what I most appreciate about this time of year.

Pittock Mansion Christmas2011 022(Pittock Mansion)

I am making my list as I write, but wondering how we will find the time to enjoy it all,  how we will get together all the kids and their kids, too. The unadorned truth is, we won’t. Three children live near us, and two do not. Four grandchildren live here, but one does not.

Between the cost of travel and the time their work duties require, the two daughters far away will not be here this year. One is a chaplain needed by many; her son is in college and working. Another is a college professor and an artist whose art works require a lot of money and time to create and exhibit. Our youngest daughter is in graduate school in a city two hours away but will be here a few days, then return home again for more work and study. How fortunate that our only son will be here as well as a fourth daughter, both with their families.

But, oh, how I long to have all my children gathered together at one time in this home, the dozen white candles I set around the living and dining rooms pulsing with light inside the soft shadows, the tree gleaming in all its decorative beauty. I want them here talking, dozing, singing, eating, being quiet as they look around them. I want them to stop and really see one another fully as I do: deeply. See their kind eyes so reflective of souls lit from secret places. To hear what I hear: a symphony of laughter and smart ideas delivered readily. To know what I know: their great, good courage, for they each have undergone painful trials and twists of fate. Their talents of imagination,  empathy,  adventure and insight. And their unique imperfections, for who can say what they–we–would be without the rough edges of personality, those cantankerous thorny parts that make us think twice and then reconfigure things? Deficits teach us compassion; may they never forget.

I want them to have one another not just this season but every season of life to come.

Christmas Eve and Day 2011 009

These grown up children: three were birthed by me; two were shared with me to raise. Each one has been a surprise in my life, a flurry of energy and needs, hands wide open, hands circling the breadth and depth of life. They have been bright lamps upon my winding path, made my wild heart tamer and stronger. When I make lists for the holidays, prepare for feasting and music and light shows, I am mindful of these things. How can I give enough to those whose lives have given me far more? Who I am is this aging mother-vessel filled with complicated human love. I have been mended, redefined, transformed by this life, both with and without them. Without a lot of hope of having the necessary skills to mother back in the beginning, I have learned by doing, have been taught by the giving and receiving that has happened.

In the end, what we do this season and the ones to come reflect who and what we most value in our lives. And there is another who is always welcome in my home. Long ago, two parents had a child in Bethlehem under a holy star. Jesus was embraced by them with such joy. He grew up to be a rule-breaking, radically minded revolutionary, all for the sake of perfect Love. He offered and still offers us healing, grace, mercy. May I keep my door open. Let the light shine on me, on you, the family of humankind.

Christmas Day 2011 024

Thoughts from a Jobless Worker Bee

This is my first full day post-job. I awakened at 6:40 as usual. I showered and ate breakfast (raisin cinnamon oatmeal). I didn’t hurry up and get dressed in nice slacks, sweater and shoes because I never do that on Fridays; it is my usual day off. But I made a cup of coffee, and that was a bit alarming, as I drink chamomile vanilla tea on the mornings I don’t work. Coffee (one cup) is for working paid ten hour days; they made it pungently strong there and it got my blood flowing at top speed. I even add one-third of a mug hot water so I can get it down. Or, rather, added and could, as that occurred in the past. That was before the tough choices were made.

What somewhat older woman in her right mind would leave a job she loves in this economy? Right before Christmas? Is it arrogant stupidity to  just walk away from work that can afford extras like trips, arts events, a little help for our children and grandchildren, unecessary shoes and dinners out? My spouse has a decent job that he also likes  great deal. So I got up the courage to ask him what he thought. His reply: “Do it.”

I lingered over my newest copy of Architectural Digest and sipped my coffee. As usual, the houses I studied in the glossy pages were coolly elegant or startlingly imaginative or deeply, expensively comforting. But my vision blurred and I was right back at the meeting I had had the day before at HR. The exit meeting I had requested with the HR Director.

I had fretted about it for a week. I had written and edited what I was going to say, consulted with a few people who have been directors and managers, and determined the priorities with bold bullet points in my memory. In the end, I sat down and said,

“I am resigning after eight and a half years here, but I feel it is under duress. I love my work and have for over twenty-five years at many places, serving a variety of populations. So, I need to tell you why I am choosing to leave.”

The woman before me was calm, relaxed and chatty. She talked about my work at the agency, some of the events and changes that marked the years. She spoke with me as  though we were chatting and I knew she was talented, with a good eye for what my face was saying, a good mind for discerning the larger truth between my words. (She was another sort of counselor, and she laughed when I noted that.) And because I respected her manner and methods, appreciated her gentle composure, I forgot what I had written. I just talked.

Still, how does one talk about things that make no good sense or are painful, experiences that are baffling and finally dismaying? How does a counselor talk about a business that is supposed to be helmed and served by dedicated individuals providing compassionate and ethically excellent services–but has failed in some crucial ways? If I was writing fiction I could tell the tale in all its surprising details; the anxiety would bleed out of it, and the anger would be easily dispensed and dispelled. But simply summarizing the facts?

But M. listened well. She asked the right questions. She responded with empathy, dismay, insight, support. She, in fact, understood so well and knew so much more than I expected that it suddenly felt as though she was on my team. She, too, clearly advocated for others, clients and staff. And even though I was blowing a whistle, she took my words and gave them more stoutness, and put them in a neat row to further examine. And said: “I am so sorry.”

A note here: I am hardly the silent one in a roomfull; I have a habit of nearly always speaking my mind, for good or ill. If difficult things still get swept under the rug, I lift it up and pull it back out more often than not. I abhor unethical behavior, actions (or inaction) that deliberately harm others, ignoring the truth even though it is messy, choosing to deceive which is the coward’s way out. I want us all to be accountable, myself first of all, and even after a lifetime of knowing that isn’t always going to happen, I am willing to take a risk and say either “I am at fault” or “you may well be.” There is nothing safe about this. I am not an adrenalin junkie; I don’t crave drama. I just want things to work out well,  if at all possible– for my clients, and for those I work with. And myself. And if things are not set completely right, then made better. Much better.

I was clear of purpose when I decided to leave my position for reasons of safety, both emotional and environmental. But when I told my clients, it became stickier. The working environment is one thing. But my clients are another. They have fewer choices that I have. They have very big problems: addiction and mental health, housing and economics, domestic violence, health and legal issues. Can I say this? I have loved them, each and every one, in some way. I made a decision when I was twenty, sitting in a place that fully resembled hell, to be of merciful, steadfast service, an advocate for others if I made it out alive. I promised God, to be truthful. And I made it out. Fifteen years later I walked out into the world with my paltry work history (but a mother of five) and nagging sense of failure and I was given the gift of a little job that was the start of making good on that promise. I was ecstatic to be able to watch over wounded, ill and otherwise challenged adults in an adult day care for minimum wage. From that start I began a career.

I haven’t looked back, though the work has morphed in many ways. Each day has brought me the chance to be of some use, and to hold their lives up to them in the light of hope, tell them they can recover and heal. Create solutions, inaugurate change. Grow stronger, be even braver. And they have and they do. I listen with great appreciation of their efforts, as they are more often than not heroic beyond imagining.

So saying good-bye to them was tough. Hearing their responses to the news took me to the brink of tears a few times, although I reassured them other counselors who would be just as helpful. I am clear that I am not the only one who cares–human service workers are innumerable, working in many difficult, even dangerous conditions. I know this because I have worked alongside of them.

So why did I leave? Sometimes you just know when it is best to exit. Sometimes you need to take a break, even though it seems an extravagant and risky thing to do. For me, it came down to the fact that needed changes could have happened, and yet did not; issues that sent an alarm within me after all these years were ignored by people who might have addressed them. And maybe I need to do other work, even work that has no monetary reward. Or just rest.

But back to M. and me.  She was attentive and heard me and was distressed, too. I am amazed. She took many pages of notes. She assured me that something would be done to address the concerns. And she suggested that if I still wanted to work there, I might reconsider. I should stay in touch with her. But it is not the right time to rescind the resignation. My voice had been raised for months and it had seemed to come to nothing until this hour. I was fortunate to have a chance to share it with someone who had power and I trusted her. We shook hands. I left with her good words in my ear. As I walked away, I waved to three other employees with whom I had worked over the years. I wanted to stop and say,”Hey, you have been great to work with–but I’m outta here.” But I smiled and went on my way.

Later, I listened to Yo-Yo Ma play his vibrant, expressive cello and I cried.  For myself, for things that have no clear lexicon. But I can tell you this: validation is a vindication as sweet as it gets, especially when you least expect it. And yet it is humbling, too.

Now it is the end of the day. I did all the things on my list. I don’t have one for tomorrow. I look out over a momentarily work-free (for pay, that is) horizon and I know something will happen that is interesting. That piques my curiosity. It always does. And I will be writing about it and wondering over it.

Rain Talk

My favorite beach spot in Oregon is Yachats, but Oceanside, on the northern coast, nestles nicely into its own hillside and bluff. Whether it is crouched in deep fog or illuminated by a dozen gradations of light, it asserts a homey beauty. As you round the last bend that descends to the ocean, it reels you in, saying: come. So we have, for twenty-five years and counting, walking the lazy length of beach, exploring the nooks and crannies between rocky protuberances. Out to sea a bit rise the Three Arch Rocks, housing for bird colonies. Our lengthy treasure hunts net milky-white, yellow and amber agates that are pleasing to eye and palm. Sometimes we sit on the driftwood and admire surfers as they patiently wait for a good wave. Climbing the huge rocks are a standard bit of exericse. There is a tunnel that cuts through the headland that we like to follow to another side of the beach. This visit, I carefully navigated water-covered rocks in the near-darkness until I reached the end. I watched from the opening as the tide surged forward and the sky brightened, the rain eased.  It was as if a small doorway opened to yet another heavenly place.

We have stayed at both condos and a place that perches high atop the headland. This time we decided to finally try small motel that sits closer to the sea, right in the village. It offered an efficiency apartment-style room, which meant we could dine in, as we prefer. We made reservations in late August for mid-October, knowing the weather could turn from carefree to dour and chilly, plain ole wet. That is just one more mood of the coast that we love.

And it did just that: rained and rained. From misty breezes to downpours that drummed against the roof and swept across the balcony of the room, the rain dominated day and night. Marc traversed the beach alone the first morning as I slept luxuriously late. He returned thoroughly saturated from sea and rain. “Just a little damp,” he smiled, although pants and jacket were draped, dripping, in front of an electric wall heater. He showed me a handful of rocks he rescued from the beach. After a late brunch, we ventured out on a short shopping jaunt, admiring the slick red- and yellow-leafed trees among the conifers, the cows, horses and deer unperturbed by the weather.  We returned to our spot in the afternoon, glad to be back.

We refilled our coffee mugs and settled down on the couch with sandwiches. For a time neither of us spoke much. The water drilled the roof and battered the windows; the wind swept across the sea. The tide rolled in, then gradually retreated.  We watched from the warm quietude. Shadows were nearly indiscernable; the last fingers of light pulled back quickly.

The soothing rainy rhythms crowded out stray thoughts, our feet touching, our heads bent over reading materials. Marc worked on Sudoku puzzles, then read a history of the Cascades, a book he always seemed to take on trips. I poured over the latest Smithsonian magazine, although four other books lay nearby. It’s our belief that one can never pack too many reading materials.

As we read on, we sporadically shared what we found amusing or intriguing, tidbits of fact and myth, a small feasting on ideas. We discussed beauty in a variety of forms and functions, from mathematics to NASA’s Hi-C telescopic images of the Sun’s corona and the curious study of pulchronomics, or the connection between beauty and economics. We laughed over “pulchritudinous”, as it seems such an unpleasant word to refer to beauty. Brain function was brought up as I read to Marc about neuroscience chiming in on how the brain processes art. A poem was offered.

Time vanished as the light diminished. The worries of work and home faded. We were afloat in a world of thought, the pleasures of easy discourse, with the music of rainfall imbuing the night with all that was good.

We turned the lamps on and travelled to the African Republic forest to learn about western lowland gorillas. He shared with me about the Cascade Mountains insects and plants, trees and explorers. That led to random sharing on nature, hiking, health, our gratitude. I arrived at the topic of books and book reviews, a couple of which I read aloud, then wondered over.

“This book talks about the electricity it requires to flex a muscle or smell a flower. It’s all about charged particles moving across cell membranes. I bet we glow a lot more than we realize. Probably send off charges as we breathe, even. And this one is about dance in the ordinary, daily world, a photography book of dancers doing fabulous things. Moving for the joy of it…Well, none of this planet and the life on it is very ordinary, is it? Can I come up with a new way to write about this?”

Marc said, “Why don’t we do this more often at home? Just sit for hours and read and talk?”

We determined to be more attentive to one another and to what matters most, then circled back to silence. One short afternoon and early evening had allowed us the chance to do nothing but think, imagine, share ideas and wonder. We smiled at each other from our respective ends of the couch, toe-to-toe, stilled by abiding affection and contentment.

Cool rain swayed and fell outside our window; the ocean drew back and gathered her powers and again flushed the sands. The wind came up and fell like a swirling veil upon rooftops. Gulls lined up on the balcony railing as an autumn horizon melded with white-crested waves. The gentle drumming of October rain spoke in secret ways– words can sometimes only say so much.