Wednesday’s Words: Wildfire Nightmare

This is an old picture taken near city center; what I see out my own window is far, far worse.

The sky beyond our conifers and deciduous trees turns pastel orange before 4:00 pm, and the jittery air beyond is clogging up with smoke. Since last evening we have been under a Level 1 warning for wildfires, which means our bags are packed, our documents are gathered and we are alert to changes in conditions. Our particular Oregon county–Clackamas Co.– is already partly engulfed by fires; a third to one half on the fire map is noted in a critical state, a deep red color. Though these are not yet too close to our home, they have already destroyed so many properties. We don’t know how many acres are charred, or what the loss of life and property is yet. But we have packed our bags and are alert to the ongoing reports and notices. Where will we go, with COVID-19 still circulating? An emergency shelter site? We’re thinking on a workable plan.

It is very difficult for firefighters and other agencies’ aid to keep on top of multitudinous firestorm areas, as we have been experiencing higher gusts of wind a couple of days; foliage and trees are so dry that ravenous fires spread rapidly. And we cherish our a multitude of trees, including this spot where we are. It is a fraction of the greater state of Oregon. There are 35 devastating wildfires burning now. And worse in California. There are some burning in the State of Washington, our neighbor across the Columbia River and Portland metro.

We have a yearly fire season; the Columbia Gorge in 2017 was a bad season. This time they are occurring in areas not often impacted, not ever as huge or close to suburban spots and many small towns. Thousands have been evacuated from the area, but south/southeast of us. Our governor has declared a State of Emergency, as there are these various and broad areas of raging fires. In fact, it has been called “unprecedented fire behavior.”

Unfortunately, sliding glass doors were left open a short while as potted balcony plants were watered early morning. Even before I came downstairs, I could smell it–that dry, noxious permeation of unmistakable if faint smoke. The doors were closed tightly again; we taped every window shut. We do not have an air purifier or even air conditioner. The good portable purifier broke a couple months ago. I didn’t think to replace it yet since my allergies don’t kick up until the leaves start to fall. So we’re sealed inside our townhouse. We’ve not needed the air conditioner as it remains evenly cool, even when temperatures reach mid-nineties. Why? Because we live among an abundance of trees…and face the west side, looking toward the Coast Mountain Range… where now the sky is not ordinary sky but a blanket of tangerine smoke that camouflages foothills and peaks.

It is ominous, strange. I feel secure here in the valley between mountain ranges. But now both an external and internal energy is powerfully unnerving, as if a suddenly unearthed demon spewed its breath across our astonishing and gorgeous topography. It feels irrelevant to calmly type as the smoke layers and bunches. The updates on fires are a constant background track to our days and nights. Just now another evacuation notice was posted, and people will flee with little in hand and hearts in their throats, pets under their arms and families rushing beside them. All the while knowing their homes will likely be gone, just like that. I cannot imagine such reverberating loss, not having endured it before.

This has been a blessing, to live within hills by rivers and forests, mountain ranges on both sides, beauty that is awe-inspiring. It has been both solace and joy to walk circuitous, challenging trails, visit rejuvenating waters that abound nearby. Now all we can do is wait out the horror of September 2020 wildfires and hope that the area is spared. Such a small word, hope, but essential.

Yet my words feel off-kilter as I try to think carefully–it feels uncomfortable or even wrong, for our state’s neighbors are not safe as they evacuate or wait to hear if they must go. None of us could imagine this, not here, not away from forested mountains. None of us are safe, nowhere near it yet. Not until towering fires are contained as dominating winds settle down–until our usual pure “green” air is near-breathable once more. It is enough to humble this woman, to threaten tears–but I remain vigilant, organized and prepared to leave all that fills this home if need be.

Think of us kindly, and countless numbers more. Discover and hold close all the gratitude for your lives. One never knows what is ahead–not in these peculiar and often dangerous times. I plan on writing another poem to share with you this Friday. Such is the nature of my own stubborn hope.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: When the Creative Well Seems Dry

Just when I was feeling pleased that I am never at a loss for inspiration or words that tell of it, I found myself being just that. I’m not over it yet, despite writing this post. My brain’s language function is operant but it feels as if there is little worth saying to myself, much less others. I was about to seek out writing prompts–not a bad idea–but I resist it. It somehow feels like cheating though I know it isn’t. We can get creative juices flowing in many ways. My favorite is letting notions and their language unveil themselves; it happens this way for me. I am grateful. Until it doesn’t.

A writer doesn’t look kindly on a very long pause. I know it’s the same for a composer, longing for a few measures of decent notes. Or an artist with the blank paper or canvas or metal sit there, accusingly blank, so that she also blanks out, at a loss. It might be hours or days; perhaps weeks. Longer. Anyone who loves to create–it may be a basket, a piece of jewelry or woodworking project, a new flower garden or a dance–knows what I mean. We are wellsprings of energy and ideas, then suddenly, we are not.

These days we might suggest it is the pandemic that has bled us dry of great possibilities. That seems reasonable to blame dry spells on, but I am loathe to agree. Lots of people are being productive–perhaps even more so now that millions are forced to be at home. At least I keep hearing of individuals starting afresh, setting themselves to all manner of marvelous endeavors: writing books, starting nonprofits, becoming supercharged political activists, redesigning their homes, discovering new talents. But for me life has bumped along in basic and familiar ways. I have managed to avoid the virus’ infection thus far. And I quit working in my chosen field a few years ago so open ended days and nights are not novel. (It is my spouse who now struggles with the impact of sudden downsizing.)

So what is my problem? How come I’m not getting more done, why do I feel it is not as comfortable to write? Maybe I am all written out. Tired of keeping fingers on the keyboard week after week. Weary of the life I do live, and of writing about it as if it is interesting.

It might start with basic ennui…lack of motivation related to feeling below optimum level of well being–the common malaise…that happened to me this week, as I battle with chronic health issues best as I can. Or, say, a friend or family incident might require that my energy move into a different direction, to another need. This happens, but less than when I saw family and friends routinely. Sure, I text, I call, we Zoom–we all know it isn’t the same.

However, this morning a daughter let me know that she had gotten “jalapeno hands”–look it up, it is real—last night after cutting up the peppers; her hands were extremely painful for hours, burning. And this morning their cat attacked her viciously enough that he might need to be sent elsewhere…for good. So I have had her on my mind, and wish I could run over to wrap my mother hug about her.

And I will note, as well, that Marc has applied for 100 positions since April and nothing has worked out–that gives me plenty to tune into other than what I want to write. I have studied how to manage things on a seriously restricted budget–like many others have done. I’ve even had a dream about adding up figures, trying to work it out. These are topics readers can relate to, so I could write of them more, I suppose. Note my lagging interest. Even though I do write memoir, I can’t so often write precisely what I live. It gets dull for me. And perhaps can be too tender a telling to share.

However, there are other times I feel my friendly Muse has lost interest and taken a leave of absence. I understand, if so. It can get redundant and claustrophobic in this head, the same themes rising to the top, like those songs on replay as I go about my business–and driving me nutty. Sometimes one has to stop all input, clear things out, take a break to rejuvenate.

I might also I struggle with a project a long while. Months or years. So many rewrites, countless excisions of bad adjectives, whole paragraphs, wimpy characters–until it can seem piecemeal, not a whole creation–and thus, becomes ruined. I feel used up then, and think the original idea was worthless. And sometimes it is. The manuscript goes into the documents files, taking up much space, and is ignored. I might get back to some of these–and maybe not. They may have served their purpose, been a housecleaning mentally, got me going in other directions. And I have only so much time. I am not 30, 40, 50…well, the years are not getting longer.

The truth is I can get story-shy for awhile, averse to writing. I despise those times and though few, they leave me sad and longing to write again. Even a title, a sentence, a phrase–so that is what I do. Write these on grocery list pads of paper or my “resource notebooks” stacked in a basket by my computer. Or junk mail envelopes, scraps of napkin, sticky notes left on my desk to gather dust, a book mark I pull out of a bedside novel middle of the night. And, too, I leave voice memos on my phone and check those now and then if I run too dry.

One way to guarantee a loss of writing impetus, and loss of confidence, is to think hard on something I learned a few years ago: a writer is not an author until his or her book is published. That means no matter how much work appears in anthologies or articles are printed in a newspaper or pieces are included in literary journals, the writer is still not, apparently, an Author. One can even be nominated for a prestigious literary prize (it happened) and still, “author” is not attached to one’s name or work. Being a blog writer also does not “count”, no matter how many people read the blog. Those who are authors state this in no uncertain terms.

Why bother writing? People who don’t write ask me this often. I have published this and that since I was a youth and yet, no book. I’ve not been bitten with a lust to publish a book, not yet. I think the “what if” came and went at least 15 years ago. It seemed like so much work for so little gain. I know how it is to send out a manuscript and have it returned, again and again and again–I mailed them for decades, that’s how long I’ve been writing–and also have done the online submissions route. I try not to think about how tremendous a number of writers are doing the same. Sometimes it has worked out alright, and that’s good. But no book. Not enough in print.

Without earthly gains, it is clear the reason I write is simple. And a cliche: I love it. I write because it is endemic to who I am so this act of creativity will not cease until finally I have no more wherewithal: no lucidity or strength to put a single sentence down and set it free, right along with my own self.

So I continue, yet can question if my writer’s warrior will has gone missing. Or the stories have gone hiding, lying in wait for another receiver, another scribe. And, for sure, I might have gotten emptied for a bit. It is a parched state of being. I realize intervention requires more of that clear, cool water of psyche and soul. It has to bubble up from subterranean places where words are offered life– so they percolate and permutate, slowly rise to the opening mind, and come to glorious (or acceptable; one cannot always expect marvelous results) fruition.

I feel sure my brain’s language function knows I am a receptacle for story, no matter how small and no matter if unread. The left hemisphere and right hemisphere are in cahoots with each other and thus, me. Never have I believed stories and poems (or anything artistic) were mine alone, if mine at all. I cannot gather and develop them without the mysterious sources of inspiration that reveal, clarify, transform and liberate them. Maybe only to a deep silence or beyond the ether–but that is not such a disappointing bit of alchemy. Go with the flow, it all works out.

Maybe the writing magic is akin to what happens in a farmer’s field. The farmer plants and tends, brings forth from the soil a cornucopia of necessary, beautiful, delicious vegetables and other wonders. But there are also fallow times for a field, when it is left idle to recover nutrients. And its fertility returns in greater force. Every creature, every part of nature requires time out, whether for night’s sleep or period of hibernation. Work still is being done–in an episode of restful repair, a quiet regeneration of life-giving substances and forces. The result is more visible productivity when it comes time to take more action. To once more plant the seeds, to tend, to nourish–until the wholeness of growth is ripe and ready for further use.

To let rest: this isn’t rocket science, as the saying goes, but it can prove an elusive concept to me regardless. I have to stop and remember important things, how forces and ideas work at deeper levels, how many have examined and embraced different ways of being, growing, creating. This has gone on for centuries; what my predecessors have found useful wisdom can well supplement my own. And alter it in significant ways. So I do use fallow times to read others’ work more, to contemplate spiritual matters, to be among the trees. To remain open. The simplest things can mean the most and replenish me more thoroughly. And when something new or just fun is experienced, that wellspring can erupt once more.

I know I will write more prolifically again. Perhaps better, perhaps not, though I am always reaching for a finer moment of creation, make progress as I continue. I can discover possibilities every hour if I am patient and attentive to life, let my heart, soul, mind and senses take it all in. The words will come and even if they resist my need of them, the stories are right here, at my nose and fingertips, waiting. The well will not, in fact, run entirely dry. It is only an illusion that my ego notes and fears.

Above my desk is a photo of a woman, eyes closed and leaning at her open window; her elbows rest on the sill, chin in one hand. She smiles as early sunlight gilds her skin. Below the picture is a quote from poet Mary Oliver’s work, “Where Does the Temple End, Where Does it Begin?”. I look at it daily, savor those words– how much more there is to hold close, I think, and am humbled and glad. The poet says:

“I look; morning to night I am never done looking. Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.”

Such sage words. And I wonder what else that woman hears and smells and loves and knows. See, this unknown woman is one of the necessary and golden stories, gifts I am fortunate to find.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Simple, Safe Dwelling in the World

Shelter: home. It informs my dreams, attracts my eye everywhere I roam, and pulls me to books, websites and magazines that focus on architecture and design. Then add surprises of outdoor spaces, no matter how humble. Between my interest in public green space and city buildings, tall or small apartment complexes or different types of houses–I am frequently awash in dreamy, impassioned (if casual) learning. It’s all about various living spaces for humans (and their critters). Habitats matter to everyone, and for different reasons, the first of which is basic shelter.

I feature them in my fiction writing; a character’s surroundings can be powerful at most, or help provide story impetus. The lifestyles often reflected by his or her dwelling and territory, their choice to be inside or out, to be in one room or another or to leave familiar spaces altogether–all this helps move the story, flesh it out.

It is likely I was born into this area of interest, as I grew up in a small city where architecture was important. Midland, Michigan gave us several illustrious citizens, not the least of which was Alden B. Dow, a well-known architect. The son of Herbert H. Dow, founder of Dow Chemical Company based in that city, became an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed 600 projects of many types throughout the US. and 130 were built in Midland. His ideas were considered progressive, even daring–the buildings were glass, stone and wood-informed in newer ways at the time, to fine effect. He sometimes brought nature indoors with water features and trees. There was a strong respect for surrounding land, how the whole integrated when this was not commonplace. His philosophy was “A Way of Life CYcle” and based on his belief that every individual is creative, and that making a structure that is harmonious within and without it is paramount.

I had ample opportunities to enjoy these buildings–civic centers, libraries, business offices, churches and temples and schools, as well as houses–each day. Some of my friends lived in them; I attended events in others. They drew me in. They were beautiful in their organic simplicity, their integration into nature and simple functionality. Alden B. Dow’s own home and surrounding gardens and other acreage is idyllic (which may be accessed on line–check out https://dowgardens.org/). I often visited; you will see why if you choose. So, perhaps the seed was sown for an abiding curiosity about architectural/landscape design as a youngster–my eye observed deeply, my heart and mind followed.

This morning I perused photos of a lake house with flat rooftops on which grow wildflowers and grasses, and felt happy to study them. I sent the images with my daughter, Naomi, who has a great eye. The contemporary one-story has an interior filled with natural textures and there is so much glass a nearness of trees and water is seen at every turn. My sort of house–well, one type, since I have several favorites. Clean lines, brightened by sunlight and muted by shade; nature in evidence; environmentally sound. The patio seemed higher, and the stone of floor and fire pit was substantial. I can imagine meals there, wind ruffling my hair. What a handsome design it is.

As I was looking it over I told Naomi, an artist, that she’d make a very good architect, and she went along with that. She’s a working sculptor, and utilizes many modalities. (She’s also an art professor working hard to figure out best ways to teach 3D art online at a university now.). Like her father, also a sculptor, and her brother, a “maker of things”–even both sets of grandparents, in a few ways–she possesses that innate grasp of visual art. And has an extra sense regarding a material’s potential. Naomi possesses a scientific mind and a highly developed aesthetic view, in my (motherly) opinion. Add a wide ranging curiosity and persistence that seems crucial to being an artist. Passionate about layers of meanings, yet dispassionate in execution of ideas–I get that, too, as a writer.

So, then…I can see her building houses and other structures–the scale would suit her well. But she is doing what she does. For example, she has been making fascinating cyanotypes (a photographic printing process); she also has been working with with indigo dye on various fabrics. Additionally, she and her brother also grew up learning some construction trades, as their father had his own business. (To get an idea of her work, check out Naomi J Falk@invisible sculpture)

It excites me to see what my children are creating-they become the teachers, I am the learner. Josh recently mined fire opals with his wife in Southern Oregon; they make jewelry. He never is idle, always making new things. And I, too, want to create more, while being a wordsmith remains my primary method of giving substance to ideas. I sometimes wish it was more, or different.

People like Naomi or Josh possess some of the wherewithal to cast a net further for more building/designing possibilities. Of course, to become a working architect usually requires a degree. (Myself—not so much. Though I have the love of visual arts and architecture, but not training–does studying painting 3 years in university count?) Yet I wonder if we might come up with a plan that’d translate into a reality.

Josh and I talk of it as well as Naomi. He lives in a pleasant house with a big yard that has a crazy mix of a trampoline, small pool, huge vegetable garden, projects of all sorts (new skate ramp being built of cement and wood, furniture refinishing, cutting/smoothing rocks/crystals, starting seedlings, painting/drawing, designing skateboards, making small Buddhas out of plastic or wax, plus he often is fixing something broken–I can’t keep track of the heaps or ideas.) But he wants to buy land in the country, build his own house, then one for Marc and me. We’ve discussed tiny houses, dome houses, yurts–more manageable. I once showed him a sketch of rambling, connected pods that made a sort of “compound.’ It seems practical.

We appreciate a variety of spaces; the many we’ve experienced help inform a future plan. We may well never live together as some cultures do encourage. It is all shared with love. My family knows I miss living in a house, at least some days, though the townhouse apartment is lovely, in the woods as I long desired.

Habitats…one’s personal domain in an often too-cramped world. We all want one. Need something no matter how humble. And in these times, that often a dire need carries more weigh emotionally. I consider where I live…and where others live right now. And the fact that scores have lost or are about to lose housing due to COVID-19 and the financial cataclysm it has caused. Oregon has put a moratorium on evictions for another several months. But eventually they will have to pay back rent. Or may lose houses for good due to to missed mortgage payments.

I was headed to another part of our metropolitan area when I came upon block after block lined with makeshift dwellings. Temporary–i.e., easily movable–dwellings made of cardboard, tarps, plastic bags cut apart and taped together, odd bricks or wood scraps crisscrossed by fabric or towels. There were not that many there just three months ago. The conditions appear miserable, barely tolerable. Those who seek help have increased. As I waited at a light, I saw a man in the middle of a four lane road with his dog on a tight leash; he was feeding his pet companion bits of croissants–sharing his scarce food. His cardboard sign pleaded for money. How much can I give? I look, nod, smile, give what I have on me, later to another charitable organization. But it’s never enough. I can’t give a safe home, or meal after meal. Every person should have a spot to claim as one’s own, and not along noisy, often dangerous, fume-filled streets.

Homeless needs have been a concern in our city for decades. My mental health and addiction-impacted clients were frequently living on the streets, so I came to understand hardships faced–and the hearty resilience it takes to survive extraordinary stresses daily. Navigating the social services system was often fraught with frustration that could plunge them into despair–or a return to cynical resignation. Now how many unsuspecting folks are forced to evacuate homes and take up a tent or sleep on an abandoned couch at roadside, or find an empty business doorway? Underneath highway overpasses becomes a place to live, or an empty parking lot as more businesses are closed. A vacant lot, under a bridge, along side highways. And we have forests surrounding our city, within which people do manage to live awhile.

It is a huge crisis, though Oregon has done a lot to help, building pockets of very affordable micro housing units and tiny houses, more subsidized apartment buildings. But the people they house often have mental health problems. There are also many women fleeing domestic violence, often with children–this violence is on the rise since the virus showed up. Much of this I can empathize with, having had brushes with similar issues once upon a time. More than you might believe, there isn’t such a great distance separating one from security and safety, ending up poor, homeless.

And this has remained a fear of mine, I admit, even at age 70. I do not know–nor does anyone–what the future may hold. I live my life smack in the middle of the present but am not foolish enough to ignore any possibility since Marc was one who became unemployed due to his company downsizing due to lost business resultant of the roaring virus. This, despite a great career, despite planning on retirement in a few years. As has happened all over the country, the world.

One of the reasons (though not the primary one) I consider the beauty and function of a good house is other than just a fascination with design of structures, uses of land space and a sensitivity to environment. I have moved more times than I care to count; I recall telling someone 18 times, but that was decades ago. Between raising a large family–first I had two, then three children, then welcomed two non-biological additions–and costs for various basics as well as unexpected medical needs–and more job transfers for Marc and my lack of a completed college education (when it still meant something), financial downturns in the US economy with attendant losses…well, not easy to afford a house, then. We put it on the back burner. Time flew by. My life–my life, perhaps–could be encapsulated via its history of houses/ other dwellings. I left my parents’ stable two-story home at 18, the age many do.

I do not expect to buy a house now. I still considered the idea but with all that is happening in my country, no. Not everyone in the USA can manage to buy a house much less continue to buy others. In fact, millions do not.

I have to backtrack to say we did purchase an attractive, big-family-sized, A-frame house (with a few leaky windows) on an acre in in Tennessee when I was in my early thirties. It was not our plan, as Marc worked at that plant for about two years. But we got it for a good price in a seller’s market, then sold it later in a buyer’s market–so about broke even. I loved that house, was loathe to leave it. We discovered that a decent family home in our new area of transfer was not affordable. “Riskier than usual” is not a way to live when you have a family of seven. Years passed; we found houses that worked well enough, if not for keeping.

Years later when they kids were grown I received an inheritance. I determined to buy another house. However, I had also just had a heart attack and was not working, though Marc was. The real estate people told me that since my health was not good at such a young age, I might never be able to work again. Read: perhaps I should seriously reconsider. I was flabbergasted by this. I had not thought of myself as being unable to to add to our joint income again. Everyone around me seemed to agree with this weird idea of “wait and see.” And since the first houses considered were not to my liking, anyway, I became discouraged. No one supported me with a “go for it” cheering on– I confess it was needed right then. I felt very low about my goal not being met. Still weakened and in cardiac rehab, I simply gave up, one of the few times I’ve caved spectacularly. That money went to more places than I expected over the next few years. And it did take me nearly three years to work full time again, though health never stopped me again. I simply retired after many more years.

I never imagined this dream would utterly fail. Do I regret it? Yes, I do. I think how much my mother would have loved me to purchase a place–with her generosity. Then, too, there was that niggling subterranean humiliation–how could I not own property when my siblings all had for eons? Didn’t everyone else I knew, also? I mostly ignored the sting of it, while admitting another spacious yard and house to bring over family and friends would be my big wish come true.

But I also know how to make a home out of any place: by being welcoming and positive, upping the cozy factor with love not necessarily things (or not expensive items). So if it has four walls, I can manage fine–and also count myself fortunate. If I’ve not owned great properties, I’ve had ways to make many work for us well. And I feel less attached to all material goods. You may have security one day but not the next. And if you don’t own something beloved and fantastic, the impending loss is much less vexing.

My sister, Allanya has bought and sold a dozen or more places and rehabbed as many (often for investment, including two century old homes to turn into commercial buildings). She now lives in a well appointed and staffed retirement community with her partner. It was a wrenching decision to give up their house on a corner lot overlooking Portland. It was peaceful, gazing towards distant mountains, all the lights twinkling below in city center. We had many family get-togethers with lots of food passed around in the colorfully-decorated rooms, or on the deck enveloped by tall trees. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t like her new digs much, though she’s adapting more or less. Nor the idea that since she has dementia and her partner has increased health problems, an assisted living unit decision is likely to occur soon.

I know her dearly and well–she’s always been spirited and adventurous, a woman living in the center of her power, a woman of faith and strength made for expansive living. Ultimately, she will be alright in a smaller apartment with more care. But I see how it hurts her, and I am sad for her.

So I don’t like to jog her memory about where we live, nor do I bring up the past houses, the fun she had renovating. I don’t want to unearth sorrow when she still laughs easily, and there is life to be lived as kindly as possible. But I hope to bring her to visit once more when our world is safer from this disease. How pleasurable to serve her iced mint tea from the blue butterfly-decorated, Swedish pitcher (that I bought for our mother decades ago, used daily), a plate of fresh maple pecan scones and a dark chocolate for each–favorite treats she now rarely gets. We’d pass the day on my balcony overlooking firs and maples, surrounded with plants and flowers. She once was a camper, told a tale about meeting a bear…But we’d speak of much and little, making snarky comments as we debated politics, sighing or laughing over nothing important.

That is my idea of a home–rather ordinary, really, similar to an experience shared by people everywhere. Marc and I share our current habitation with much appreciation. Even in rough times–or especially.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter, Alex, is saving for her family’s first home…and we keep swapping ideas and pictures. A house for toddler twins and their parents–exciting prospect to look forward to again!

The (even modest or old) habitats I pour over–they will call to me always. Craftsman, ranches, bungalows, log cabins, saltbox, Federal, Georgian, Cape Cod colonial, Victorian, adobe, Mediterranean, contemporary and industrial–the list goes on. I like features of them all. When I read and observe them, I become transfixed, enlivened, investigative about the how/what/ where and, of course, try to imagine the “who” that dwells therein. I sink into those worlds, fill up with expansive inspiration, then tuck it all into my brain. For the joy of it.

And, too, revisit in slumberland as I wander strange hallways and floors, seeking a route to somewhere I am always looking for and perhaps oddly expect to find: an even better, more tantalizing place amid landscapes in this world. And beyond. Doorways to foreign and exquisite vistas; a sturdy stoop or grassy hilltop to sit upon, to think and dream, to gather wisdom and love. To offer a true welcome. And a window sash to lower when a storm stirs up, then to open when the wind sweetens and is tender again.

Though I did not become the architect I, in youthful exuberance, dreamed of being…I am not unhappy. Find me grateful once more.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Am I My Mother’s Daughter, and How Much Does It Finally Matter?

I think of all we are experiencing now, then of my parents. Specifically, I have thought more of my mother. The charming Edna Kelly (later marrying Lawrence Guenther), likely 19 or so, is on the left. I am on the right. Do we even look related? I once more wondered about her life after my niece, Lila, posted her photo on social media. I thought of my own. I am now at the age she was when I was just 30. She was born in 1909 in Blackwater, Missouri, and died in Michigan, 2001–where I was raised. (Her heart and the rest gave out; a few months later I had a heart attack while hiking.)

At times when studying my mother’s more youthful photos, I often wished I looked like my oldest sister, as she looked much like our mother. I felt I had come into our family not quite akin to Mom, nor quite Dad. It may have been untrue, but it felt like that a long while. I don’t often look at old photos, though they are gone; the family is fixed vividly in my memory. Lila, the family historian since my mother and aforementioned sister passed, also has features more reflective of theirs.

The other day I once more considered how much of who we become is inherited–or not. And how much we can understand of our relatives and heritage, beyond bare facts.

Perhaps this is especially of interest since my daughter had twins last year. My mother had twin baby sisters who died in the flu pandemic; she would have been so pleased to welcome twins again into our family. They are not identical. One seems to take after her father; the other, her mother. And their personalities are already coming to the fore with strong intimations of their future selves. We will see who they become, week by month by year. It is exciting to be a part of it as their grandmother.

It’s a big question, of course, that folks have well debated: nature v. nurture, genetics v. external experience. I gather social scientists and other experts agree it is both. Each of us enters the world with complex brain chemistry and other physiological mapping regarding health tendencies, personality markers and potential, strengths and deficits, talents or lack thereof. And this reaches back into genetic banks of ancestry–most of whom we never knew or heard of. Yet they remain present within us in many subtle or exaggerated manifestations. A mind expanding thought–with so much conjecture.

There are definitely physical traits that came through my mother, though I more resemble my father’s side with large blue eyes (her’s: smaller, grey -toned– and often mischievous), a much less “patrician” nose and fuller lips. My mother, of hearty farm stock, had a perfect straight and near-pointy nose, thin (often smiling) lips and ivory skin. She was of Irish/English/Scottish decent. Thus, so am I. And German, via both of my father’s parents.

I inherited my mother’s shape of hands, even her fingers; her hair, as mine until a few years ago, was a plentiful auburn brown and it’s become more more wavy; and perhaps–if I might say this– her nice figure, though I am slimmer (like Dad) than she was most of her life (I like food less than she did). I think we share eyebrows and for certain our foot shape and size–she lent me beautiful high heels for years when I dressed up. That made those shoes doubly worth the money she spent, she once said. She enjoyed fine clothes (those she didn’t make herself, excellent creations) and good accessories for bargain prices– but wasn’t shy about paying whatever was necessary, if it came to that, either.

Edna Kelly was athletic, playing basketball in school and roaming the country roads, working on her parents’ farm. (She was kicked by a horse and ever after had chronic lower back pain–she saw no doctor back then.) Appreciative of the great world of nature (loved botany, geology, ornithology and etymology–and studied these some in college) she shared her knowledge, went camping many times with Dad and me. I also love sporty activities and have enjoyed figure skating, hiking, any water sports, volleyball and other ball games (baseball with our 5 kids- basketball, too). Just running about or bicycling kept me going for hours. Nowadays, give me a gym for pleasure and exercise, sure (I was a body builder for a couple years), but the outdoors calls to me far more. Mom used to say she was a bit of a “tomboy” and I loved that–she had excellent physical endurance and stamina, was known for her reservoirs of energy almost until the end.

I found her naturally beautiful–she rarely wore more than a dash of pale coral lipstick and only when going out. I was born (last of 5) when she was 40, so only had pictures of her younger self. No matter: with shorter graying hair and glasses she still radiated loveliness, a sparkling essence. And when she dressed in jewel-toned, long gowns for concerts my father conducted or played in (or other events), she seemed breathtakingly so, that wavy white hair a-shimmer as she aged. Her skin? Smooth and unblemished. Dad often hugged her, saying “she was quite the catch”– even though he was, as well.

Add to these external traits the fact that she was talented domestically and turned out handmade creations (with the discerning eye of an artist). And was also a fine elementary teacher. Little of which I can claim, though I adore art, have painted and sketched off and on. (And I suppose I did provide education when counselling my mental health/addiction treatment groups.) She had it all, I thought. And felt the lack.

In certain ways we are clearly mother and daughter, though our faces appear less alike. In others, our shared genes may appear unlikely. What of our personality traits and greater interests? Were those characteristics passed down or learned?

I felt from early on that my mother was near the pinnacle of success as a person and woman, and by the time I was 12 years old I saw I would never reach standards set by either parent. Yet I had their examples to aspire to, and I tried hard off and on all my life– until I hit my early forties. I knew who I was very well and that was that, with much room for improvements–and at heart I was not so different than I was at 12, I thought. Just older and surely some harder; hopefully kind, perhaps more insightful…

So if I had little skill regarding domestic chores, also far less interest than many. Food’s primary purpose, for me, was to provide fuel so never understood why it elicited such labor and excitement. Housekeeping was a simple necessity so dust didn’t fur surfaces of furniture and rooms with their various possessions were orderly enough, in a pleasing way. But it took too much time some days. (We had 7 people in the house, at least as many musical instruments, frequent visitors for everyone.) I didn’t sew well or happily, nor create my own dress patterns although there was much instruction from Mom as she stood at my shoulder. Still, despite my humiliation, I don’t think she worried about it much. Our parents insisted we all secure a fine education, go into the world armed with degrees, honed talents– plus kind hearts. No difference if male or female: achieve, that was the byword. She would shoo me from the kitchen with a command to study or practice my cello or sing or write (or maybe anything to get me out of her way). But I still felt the sting of having nothing decent to show for my (minimal) efforts, otherwise. I wanted to garner her approval in all things, have every good life skill. At least I managed to help entertain their guests–greeting and chatting with people, carrying out food, cleaning up at the end and chatting with Mom. I liked people, talking, listening–and gathering more info for writing.

In time, there were serious ways I would let my mother down. If I did have abilities that brought happy successes, there were also matters that took me farther from acceptance. I grew into a rebel without truly intending to be one. I had big ideas of my own; I also had a lot pain; and dreams that began to diverge from a family legacy of either useful teaching or work in mighty realms of music. (Though why I left music is a much harder story.)

In time, things came apart bit by bit. I maintained high grades and performed on stages and showed a face that was for awhile better than I felt: I stayed out too late; used illicit substances; wrote death-defying poetry of longing as I contemplated the specter of suicide; wrote folk songs that were often more bitter than hopeful; dated boys that lived on the thin edge while pining for the one I could likely not win because, as Mom told me: “You must be more the girl he wants.” Implying I needed to be…better. Different. Not like me. It cut deep. I was who I was but desired to be more– yet, not an idealized, proper, rule-abiding- at-all-costs girl. (Though, I have to say, that boy did not truly want that and we were in love–but his parents did. In the end, he went to a faraway college as I fell further from grace.)

Maybe that is the kind of thing what she believed when she and my father were growing up together, then attending college, then finally marrying. That is: be who a man needs you to be. Still, I find it hard to accept. My mother was deeply engaged with life, independent-minded and opinionated, given to bossiness, multi-talented and smart (I often felt she was under-utilizing her intelligence) as all get out. But for me, what she suggested wasn’t even possible. I was afire with passions of many sorts–not just sensual but creative, spiritual, intellectual. I was hungry for more, more. As a teen I was reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (lofty but a Catholic!–we were Methodists) Herman Hesse and Anais Nin (scandalous), Kahlil Gibran, poets Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, e.e. cummings. I was listening to cool jazz, folk music and swing on the sly (we almost always heard only classical in our house). I longed to be a modern dancer despite sweating out ballet exercises in my room, and a jazz singer despite my proscribed art songs polished. My cello? Could I play it electrified? But I did not dare do that.

It was the 1960s, as well. The lure of loosening middle class mores shaped by heavy constrictions; protesting of social injustices and archaic ideas regarding women versus men–it was powerful stuff to this 15-19 year old, dreamy-eyed, wounded by years of non-familial, silenced child abuse. I wanted so much to rise right up even as I was falling down. Feminism was a bright flag waving high above a movement made of empowering women as never before. I thought: we can be real potent trail blazers. I, too, can make myself heard and make a good difference.

So it was: student-empowered politics mixed with substance abuse–and rebellions fomented by hope for a more inclusive, improved society. An odd combination at first glance but there it was. My deeper desire was to do more, become more, contribute in a creative and compassionate way. And that took action, not just talk. The fact was, I reminded my parents, I was raised to be a critical thinker–despite a sanctioned conformity that ultimately ruled at dinner tables, schools, churches. My voice had gone weary of being quieter, so civilized–which seemed then like being made blind, deaf and mute.

They did not accept my arguments. They had lived through wars and pandemics (flu, polio and more) and the Depression. Why couldn’t I– along with my friends–be satisfied with what was so much better than what had come before us? I needed to settle down, stop agitating or challenging life. Act more civilized

But I grew up faster than planned. In short order, survived more severe trials than I had expected. Finally had children, dropped out of college many times to raise them and so my spouse could get his Masters degree, then we later divorced, and, ultimately, I married three times–unheard of for a long while.

Was this any of what my mother hoped for? Did it reflect her sorts of choices? Did it reflect on my heritage? No, no, and often likely not. Except I was a creative person, had a capacity to care deeply and an abiding faith in God. These saved me from utter failure, and I believe kept her hope burning for me.

Still, I got stronger, learned to live better. I could look her in the eye more often. I built from nearly scratch a career in human services–it was God who guided me there, at start–and spent the rest of my life counseling folks who lived fast and hard and paid for it and needed a renovation; or wandered precariously near the edge of the world and needed acceptance and hope. They gained new coping skills as had I. And I cared deeply for every person who walked through my office doors. I had learned to do what mattered most, felt glad to join the ranks of countless others who do this work every day in the wide world: serve others.

What, if any of this, is like my mother’s life, her beliefs and actions? What did she teach me about being a person, a woman? She offered a lot, and I have, finally, carried a good portion of it with me.

Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman with backbone, one who did not give up when she believed in something or someone. She made her opinions known, at times in ways that seemed minor but were major with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a gasp or quick laugh, a gentle touch on one’s arm, a forefinger tapping her lips. She was expressive with hands and voice, was a natural storyteller. She could share anything that happened in an ordinary day, elevating the moments in the very emotive telling. Entertainment was living life, sharing it a part of that. She appreciated all kinds of people even if she didn’t always understand or even approve; she found people enriching and puzzling and generally good. She had, as they say, heart.

In her mind, there was no problem that didn’t have a solution; it was often the simplest. There was no such thing as boredom, only a lack of intention and action. If you witnessed a dispute, don’t let anyone damage another–yet don’t keep anger too quiet if it needs to be the alarm. And one should mend what was broken, even if it hurts some in the process. Forgiveness, then, is paramount: compassion is the thread, the glue that binds together the pieces.

My mother wanted to be a writer, she said once, looking out the kitchen window with dish towel in her hands. She kept journals of her travels to foreign countries and whenever crisscrossing our country; she was a frequent letter writer. She watched me type away on the old Remington for years, knew I wrote by longhand deep into the night. She read what was offered to her; she approved, cared to note glitches, upheld my burning passion that still courses through my blood and fills my soul. And after she died and I despaired and longed to have her close, her spirit came to me with this: You must write. And my whole self trembled, then was profoundly calm.

She read a third draft of a long-developed novel a couple of years before she died. It doesn’t anymore matter that it has been pushed aside. It matters that she said it was “a page turner, I loved it.” So if I am like my mother in any way–and most of all this way, always telling stories–I am humbled, honored. But what I think is that I simply became somehow more the person, the woman, she knew I was so long working to reclaim and set free. Not that similar to her, perhaps. Nor quite like my sisters, beloved aunts, grandmothers. But we have shared a spark, a link, a look that says we live from the center of things, from the reaches of our souls, messy or not.

And we are one for the other, and all of one, in the end. And my toddler girls, the twin grandchildren, will carry on a legacy of vibrancy, inventiveness and perseverance underscored with hope if they can. And, too, our imperfections, our quirkiness, our weak points–and add to their repertoire their own uniqueness.

The biggest question for me remains: who actually was the person of Edna as a youngster, a college student, then wife with babies, a woman with a career, then a woman growing older? Who else might she have been, what more could she have explored? Was she as happy, ultimately, as she seemed, even amid weepiness that came and went with remnants of losses creeping in…? Her breath catching in her throat as she spoke of tender or difficult things? I saw and understood. As she gave of herself here and there all along the way, I watched and learned. But– I knew her so little.

After leaving home we were close only when we talked on the phone or wrote, or enjoyed quick visits at different meeting points in the country. Only a small part of what we shared was fully presented and treasured more than any gold; the rest was a delicate, tentative search for more. We know our mothers too little, even if we think we know more. We may be unwilling to blur boundaries in fear of…what? What shall be lost in knowing more fully the one who gave us birth? Can we not suspect it is less than enough that we share before the chances are over?

I wager Mom was feisty, diplomatic, dramatic, or deeply intuitive long before any of us took hold of her. There was more, I could feel it when we talked or didn’t talk, when she shared her vivid dream-infused nightly adventures and then listened to my own; showed me how to make good poached eggs and Waldorf salad; stood watching out the kitchen window as I ascended to the top of the maple tree to sing, to write, to cry, to plan. There was a pressure of diverse energy in her, even at rest; there was much left unsaid as she spoke voluminously. So most of her story remains a mystery.

As for me, I may once have thought I risked more, dared more, took my knocks and got back up but, honestly, I knew her life was harder than what she told. It was in the depths of her gaze, in the response to others: she knew about great love, about piercing sorrows; she knew about pain and healing and faith. About just going on. I suspect she even knew I would manage alright, too.

Her own complicated tales were carried home with her when passing into what and where she believed was a more liberating, illuminating experience than all she’d experienced on earth. And that is another thing we had in common. But when I consider all the aspects of our lives, I do realize that we each were on our own life journeys. I still am making my particular way through this grand and strange experience.

Mom and me after she was given my novel draft a couple of years before she died.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Find the Welcome, Wherever You Are

I am back to travelling mostly by magazine and video, and it isn’t too bad. I have often been tantalized by pictures of foreign places, of turquoise waters slapping glistening beaches; jagged mountains contrasting with plunging canyons; grass-dancing plains with endless sky; apparently jewel-encrusted snow and hulking icebergs; boggy moors and emerald, undulating hills. Book my trip! And, too, there are such possibilities within fascinating sprawl of cities and cozy, tidy villages. What lives must be led there, what treats await, doors opening into another way of living.

I know people who have enjoyed vast far-flung travels. I would go here and there if I could, but content myself with passing visuals that enable my imagination’s many returns. Luckily, I can mentally insert myself into what I see–likely most do the same. Thus, I can “arrive” so many places, and have a partial experience of what is out there. During childhood I read magazines like National Geographic, Life or Look (awhile ago…) and developed a more voracious appetite for learning. I found this akin to getting on a train and reaching out to the greater world. It was a way to transport my “imaging mind”.

By comparison, my quotidian home views are perhaps modest. From the windows of our home on the west side are towering sitka spruce trees and big leaf maples, so thick sunlight barely sneaks onto the balcony with several yearning-for-more potted flowers. The trees provide a fine cooling effect as temperatures rise to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We are built into a steep incline; being high up, this view offers a sneak peek at townhouses below and vivid patches of sky. In the distance are mountains, less visible until winter.

A partial balcony view
Another nearby view

On the east side of our place is a narrow winding drive, but there are more spruce trees lining the way and mostly hidden residences. Generally, we are in extensive woodlands. It is Oregon; we are located within a metro area embraced by trees, rimmed by mountains. Unlike one of my beloved sisters who cut down several pines about her mountainside house, oddly complaining she could see little else and it was too shady, I never tire of any sort of trees.

My realization is that although I can’t travel far these days, I’m not so discontent–in truth, never bored with the Pacific Northwest, as I often unabashedly state in my posts.

Since we left the city and moved here, I was surprised, though, to see only a handful of folks walking regularly. More go out a short time with their dogs. Now, by cars noted, I surmise many work at home–or not working at all. I wonder what they do–we live in a privacy-prized place. People are less easily connected with now. Children’s happy shouts may shake the silence–or stillness is punctured by wails if rarely. Some nights adult voices dial up. Yet I hear an owl or two as I fall asleep. Quietness can feel palpable the long days and nights, a genial companion. When cars pass down the hill, it is a fleeting rumble. This area can give off a dreamy quality. I am acutely aware we are set apart since our last neighborhood, fascinating and lovely, was part of a buzzing, traffic-jammed, densely-packed Portland.

It is more than a pretty place. It is a world within many, and an abundance of natural designs rippled outward. The extinct volcano upon which we live is bounded only by inattention or attention, what we do with what is experienced. Nature provides inestimable opportunities to consider more than meets the eye. (I confess I also love the clean lines of typical older Northwest architectural styles; even grander houses blend into landscape, semi-secret sanctuaries.)

Marc looks for oak galls that are discarded, which he collects. Wasps lay parasitic larvae on a part of the tree and then inject a hormone into tissue that creates a round, hard protective growth. Oddly, one can make ink from these, and Marc is into making natural inks. (Then making pens to use the ink.) He also is on the lookout for good rocks anywhere we trod. His collection is gathering… he knows a few things by now. (And shares finds with my son, an true wilderness rock hunter.)

We both admire all the varieties of birds, mostly small and always industrious, unique in plumage and behaviors. Cooper’s hawks call fairly often in one spot and we spotted two last week. When attempting to photograph them, they were just too camouflaged high on branches. They watched me as I watched them, attractive and stealthy, strong hunters. Their high pitched calls sail, silvery and piercing at once. There are also downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, juncos and spotted owls as well and some visit our feeder and nest close by. (Sad to say baby juncos drowned in their nest, made within a hanging confetti plant after a deluge early summer). Hummingbirds are a favorite, and love my fuchsias. I have much to learn and but it is treat to watch the birds anywhere.

During a pandemic, such low-risk activities are good entertainment. I am fortunate to live here and take advantage of its wonders. I’ve shared many day trip outings, too, in WordPress posts. We don’t remain inside long– even books and computers are taken outdoors in good weather. If we are stuck here for a lot longer, we will be quite alright. Or find other solutions.

The truth is, I’ll always be alright in my core–unless totally unable due to circumstances beyond total control. For one thing, it is not a foreign experience to endure difficult places and circumstances: in very inhospitable hospitals; in rundown abodes (a tiny chicken coop converted to a dwelling before tiny houses were on trend); in miles of neighbor-less countryside; in places where my life was in jeopardy; in a neighborhood where gunshots and gang action were common–we got good at hitting the floor; without little food and/or no heat in winter; and homeless for weeks or months.

One quite unusual situation was living in a state park, first in a park lodge, then in two millipede- and other insect-infested, rustic cabins for two and a half months with five kids. No reasonable houses were available in a rural Tennessee area after a job transfer. But it worked out okay. Any shelter with water…well, anyone can manage with basics.

I have gotten intimate with a life lacking pride and artifice. Every place I landed presented an opportunity for self-knowledge and greater gains.

Sure, I’ve lived in more gracious situations in these 70 years, a few that remain happy to recall. They are also good to write about. But since I don’t know what next year will bring–Marc being one more person to lose his job due to COVID-19 downsizing–it is better to recall how one adapts further. We may retire to a tiny cottage somewhere far from here, who knows? It may be harder than that.

Clearly, people possess a mammoth urge to survive; we overcome what appears daunting, even disabling circumstances. We make things do, make even better out of very little. We can manage to find our way during shut down resultant of a virulent contagion. In fact, we are fortunate if we have a place that is safe.

I find–no matter where I am–there are a few things to consider:

  1. There are goodhearted and fascinating people to connect with in some manner, even if only to observe and wonder over. Hopefully to swap stories with and appreciate. And flora and fauna to learn about if you tend that way.
  2. There are ever changing sights to seek beyond your nose, just look out a window. (If only the sky. Clouds are marvelous with changing hues and shapes, gradations of dark and light–and indicate weather, too.) Magical things are await to be explored, no matter how weird or inconsequential it may seem to another. There is never a dearth of ways to contemplate how and why we connect to the greater universe each day. The infinitesimal miracles of creation, as our senses and busy brains are springboards to greater knowledge. Practice quietness, and listen.
  3. Indoor spaces are what you make of them. Let in more light. If small, use your ways and means to enlarge upon it. Get organized and pare down. If your place feels a bit shabby, make a picture, place colorful pictures from magazines on walls, add nature’s decor. If big and empty, turn it into a place of refuge by honoring chosen areas with what you value, even candles, sweet grass, incense, a humble bouquet, a chime for the wind outside. Open your arms, dance, make music so that your body finds its better balance and joy. Let creatures be happily around/with you. Breathe in that space. And fill time with ideas, even dreams for a hopeful future. And here, too, gentle stillness will keep you well. Finally, read to escape or enliven, make for something for fun not perfection, try new hobbies, meditate and pray, offer up songs–and include others. Thank them for being there… you are less alone than many. Make a phone call–the human voice is a pleasure to hear, a lifesaver sometimes.
  4. You in entirety make a physical space what it is: your attitude and personal vision will alter it. If you’re sullen and bleak, so will be your home. If you find relief even in smallest happiness, it will grow. If you have gratitude, you cannot forget what matters most. If you offer hope to others it will color your world, too, with expectancy of healing and wholeness. You will expand beyond circumstance. Reach out.
  5. I am never entirely alone. Nature is attendant, for certain. But for me the omnipresent, numinous power of Divine Love, of God is here, is there. I can’t persuade anyone to believe in this; we each find our own way. It shapes my living and creating, seeking and growing. It enables trust in living hour to hour, if needed. I acknowledge the world and its terrors. But this does not discount my faith in both humanity and God’s wisdom and the universal pulses that connect all. I admit I feel as if visiting here, at times; likely it is so for everyone. Wayfarers, we are. In the meantime, we can be authentically ourselves and aspire to more. We can be present for one another–is this not doing good? It is a reflection of God-ness: to not be stingy with kindness, forgiveness.
  6. The world isn’t a static place and human beings are in a state of flux internally, externally. Life is a mighty change agent as we participate in the process of building, dissembling, recreating, pursuing worthy solutions. Either we utilize forces of mind and soul, or we do not. We gather resources and share them, or do not. We brainstorm, push on. Prepare while waiting until we can do so once more.
  7. Patience is required of us in tough circumstances of any sort, as well as insight and a modicum of courage. And if generosity of heart can tip a balance, we are better off to trust one another–more so now, in a time when greater energy and flexibility are needed to keep on.
  8. All of this is not too much to ask of myself. Ourselves. I have survived other trials, as have you. We awaken, if all goes well enough, to a new day. The world’s history attests to human resilience and perseverance, even amid pestilence and war and natural destruction.

So, back to unknown vista where I shall not go: I don’t travel far these days. But neither do I feel imprisoned in a time or place. I don’t have to go far to find inspiration and peace. There remains energetic human imagination. Impulses of spirit to seek more beyond the moment. Powers of body to adapt, keep on, recover, be strengthened even when damage may be wrought. Some may not, this is also true. It is grievous–we play out our mythic cycle of being born, living and dying. To be human is to know the wrenching away from it all, too.

We have the capacity to become more than survivors of the times. We can become forces for regeneration, rebuilding, greater equity of human lives. It takes persistence and faith to believe in change, even enough for this day.

I muse often in this time of crisis as I walk the woodlands: how to find the grace in every circumstance, and make the weaving of my life denser and varied. How to share compassion–the deeper, richer hope of it. The whole of things as opposed to simply small pieces I can see. Each morning I return to waking sunlight and leave it with heart and soul intact, not just this reaching, plodding body. My truest self is, then, my permanent residence. And the welcome mat is out.