Monday’s Meander: Pumpkin Farm Visit on Sauvie Island

What a glorious afternoon last Saturday on Sauvie Island, one of the largest river islands in the country and an fecund agricultural gem. Sitting at the confluence of the Willamette River and the Columbia River, there are 24,000 acres to ogle and appreciate. Many enjoy the sweeping landscape of prosperous farms, several beaches, abundant fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking. You can find many u-pick farms, gathering or purchasing delicious berries, apples, and the freshest vegetables.

Today’s post highlights our stop at Topaz Farm to see how the pumpkin crop was coming along. Afterward, we circled around the island as usual, stopping at Wapato Greenway for a hike in early fall’s sparkling sunshine.

Enjoy the photo tour with a first photo as we exit from the bridge, with a few of a large community of houseboats that dot the channel.

Though the farm wasn’t packed with people yet, those who came were enjoying themselves.

Why are pumpkins so pleasing to look over and touch? The shapes, colors, textures, likely–they are rotund and fill the hands and promise of good things to come.

On to the few fall flowers, which were U-Cut to take home. As much as I love flowers–marigolds grew so tall!–we were about to go on a long hike so I passed.

This interesting twig and branch structure captured my attention.

So happy the good earth shared her bounties despite the drought….

There will be many more chances to visit apples and pumpkin farms in October, perhaps even next week-end in the Columbia Gorge. So we headed to a state park on Sauvie Island, taking the circuitous way to see more lush agricultural country.

Thanks for reading today. Hope you can stop by next week when I take you on what ended up being about a 3.5 mile hike at Wapato Access of Willamette Greenway. It’s a good jaunt within the 170-acre Oregon state park at the western side of the island. We were surprised after rounding Virginia Lake (now a rather dry wetlands area until seasonal rains fill it) that we came to a spot along serenely resplendent Multnomah Channel.

A preview of Wapato via a wildlife viewing blind, below.

Monday’s Meander: An Often Happy Small Mountain Life

The symbol for Mountain Park trails and a “No Smoking” warning.

Living on a forested (modest) mountaintop outside of Portland, OR. is in some ways a perfect fit for me–it is billed as “nature’s neighborhood”, and I greatly appreciate trees and other nature offerings. We left a densely populated if charming neighborhood in NE Portland two and a half years ago for what seems nearly like country in comparison. I am grateful we moved, now–the last few years have been trying, often sad. But here we daily can find increased health and serenity in the natural world.

Mountain Park offers 8 miles of well maintained trails throughout 200 acres of wooded, hilly landscape. I now and then have shared the trails in different seasons and weather. Today I set out to snap photos of greenery aglow with sunshine that will diminish as months of rain return, the daylight dimmed by repetitious cloud cover. Of course, the terrain remains greener than most places all year long… (We had the first true rainfall over the week-end after months of drought–a joy to hear, feel and smell early autumn rain.)

My hour walk today began at our higher elevation by entering a tunnel. It took me down steeper paved trails, though there are some dirt pathways. The neighborhood was designed in 1968 as a planned community amid woods, and there are typically modern NW-style houses that I like–sharp, clean angles of natural materials with large windows/skylights– ranging from good-sized but simpler homes to impressive ones, all blending in with muted woods and stone. They are half-hidden among foliage, often sequestered behind fences.

One of many tunnels in the neighborhood to avoid street crossings.

The paths are often steep and windy–great “interval training” for the body.

The footbridge is a favorite spot to pause–but the creek still has little water.

There are brighter areas along the way with open spaces to relax, where residents’ dogs can play.

The house hidden here is interesting in that it was built so close to two adjoining paths, its swimming pool and perhaps a gardening utility shed barely disguised by latticework and vines. I once saw a man reading poolside on a chaise lounge, but have never seen or heard anyone swimming. At night there are fairy lights aglow.

A favorite tree, below, lovely as it spreads its great limbs up and out. There are lots of mighty Douglas firs and other conifers, but also wonderful big leaf maples and madrone trees, among others.

In the midst of shadows are occasional play areas–and seven small parks. Often they’ve been empty since the pandemic has taken hold. I have brought my twin grandchildren to play a few times–outdoor play and fresh air are required for kids!

If you look closely you will glimpse foothills of Tualatin Mountains, part of the Coast Range.

Please click on the slideshow to view the end of today’s enjoyable meander. There are many more miles of trails to explore in beautiful Mountain Park; all I have to do is turn in another direction outside my front door and go forth. I am guaranteed great exercise and a peaceful spirit as I roam.

Rising from shady forest, I emerged into brilliant sunshine, breezy air warmed–not quite abandoning tail end of summer weather. But very soon. Chilly rains won’t stop me. There are always more trails to appreciate in the great outdoors, even in the city.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Check One- Spiritual? Religious?

The question for me is: can we not choose both? I can and do, but often in our roiling, defensive, divisive social milieu, it can seem wiser to keep it all to myself.

Not only these days but, honestly, as long as I have been here we’ve been offered a plethora of options for personal belief, endless pegs on which to hang our hats at doorways into various faith systems. “Step right this way!” It can be brain-stunning, considering the bombardment of ads, social media platforms and random videos. Some revolve around specific diets; some require certain forms and lengths of meditation or prayer; some involve lifestyle changes, such as leaving modern technology and possessions behind; still others insist on engagement just within that proscribed community; and often the center of it all is an allegiance to a religious–or spiritual- leader. They may ask of practitioners certain ritualistic behaviors that may be forbidden to “outside” persons.

Though there are often several cross-over elements to faiths and practices–an aspiration to enlightenment, whatever that is for the group; a belief in the wisdom of the earth; a commitment to times of ascetic, solitary devotion to core beliefs–there are also clear divides. I bump into some of these out in the world: a unique dress code followed; jewelry worn to identify a wearer as a follower of that faith; tomes read that are reflective of one’s serious study of that belief and none other; café discussions that devolve before long into arguments. And the various posters hawking this natural lifestyle or that set of soul-and-body-purifying methods, or meetings to instruct one of an avenue less travelled. They all state they lead to “a well being of wholeness.” And maybe we are a bit more fragmented in 2021…so some might be tantalizing, while others seem absurd. A few beliefs are popular in our culture; some are decidedly not. And how far can a philosophy venture before it is considered a “fringe” movement? There is room for everything out there.

Or is there? It likely depends on where you live and who you are. I can’t say being Christian is easy on the Northwest. Then again, I had not thought of it much one way or another–then it turns out not everyone tolerates other peoples’ faith affiliations… Who knew the liberal West could be that judgmental? I am a left of center sort of person but, then, there are just lots of rumors out there about what my faith means and what it does not. No one asks for my ideas or experience. I want to be nonjudgmental of the naysayers. But hope for more respectful and open discussion. As recall it really was more likely decades ago.

The one thing many people contend is that religious principles and beliefs are in opposition to spiritual ones. Distant from one another, not at all the same. Choose one or the other–but the two do not mix. Or so we are encouraged to think. Here are the first three definitions from Merriman-Webster says:

Definition of spiritual, adjective:

1: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spiritINCORPOREAL spiritual needs

2a: of or relating to sacred matters spiritual songs

b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal

spiritual authority, lords spiritual

3: concerned with religious values

Yet they remain separate to lots of people despite there being an overlap that is significant. Religion generally gets a side or back seat, if any seat, at a proverbial round table talk. Additionally, we learn early the two topics that are most incendiary are politics and religion. Humans wage wars over both–at great length and to great losses. Maybe that is why some are loathe to address actual religion. We too often tiptoe about it–that is, unless we are moved to speak up loudly/protest/rally in the name of whatever we hold dear. I grew up in the 60s so know about protesting. But when it comes to my faith, I do not unleash a humungous voice, usually. In fact I am very often quiet in most arenas. And I don’t like the sense that there is less and less choice for being able to share, to talk, to discuss openly– without penalty.

When did t his shift happen…? Over a lifetime I have sat around many tables, energetically engaged in debate that have led to insights with deeper understanding. A welcoming energy has been noticeable as ideas were bandied about. Bridges were constructed. Even with topics religious and political. Yes, there can be conflict and words one wanted to retrieve at the end of it all. But it wasn’t an exercise in disrespect or worse, cruelty.

More recently I have become more habituated to being quiet about things of the spirit unless I think present company will tolerate, perhaps enjoy, such conversation. Sometimes it is hard. My life is imbued with what matters most to me. As it is for most people–even if we are not conscious of it. We grow into such things and they accompany us on life journeys, shaped and reshaped, changed or replaced as we go. And one’s philosophy or faith is the same.

If I was still a serious seeker, perhaps looking for a religion, I would likely be overwhelmed. I tend to delve in, immerse myself in ideas–the nitty gritty. Because of that characteristic, I looked into various religions as youth and young adult–as young people are apt to do. Besides, I had had multiple experiences that didn’t necessarily cohere with what I had learned of the Protestant traditional ways of faith. Long before adolescence, I had a sense of deeply holy presence in my life, and divinity alive in complex realms of nature as well as human beings. I had difficulty finding words for this as a child and teenager but it seemed endemic to all natural-made life, and it reached far greater than the world beyond mine. And before I even knew what well-honed intuition and “extra sensory perception” meant, I was familiar with it within me. It never seemed unusual or extra anything. For one thing, my mother had it and used it without explanation or fanfare. In fact, it seemed almost a family thing. So–traditional church, spirituality, sacredness, intuition, everyday applications of belief and faith…it was all wrapped up together.

Raised in the First United Methodist Church by parents who left their childhood Southern Baptist and Church of Christ affiliations, respectively, when they moved north from Missouri, I was more or less at ease. (I later realized how radical a thing they did according to their Southern/Midwest culture.) I was shown that Christianity’s hallmark beliefs are based on Jesus Christ’s teachings: of love of God, others and one’s self; mercy; forgiveness; a deep commitment to supporting human progress–for the betterment of one and all; and personal accountability and authenticity. It made basic sense to me in my childish understanding and later, as I transitioned into adulthood. I learned more as I went, but these stuck with me even when it didn’t always add up to the reality of my life.

It was a moderate sized church community in a smaller city, housed in a building that Alden B. Dow had designed; it was lovely moving through it, gazing out beautiful windows. And what I heard was what I experienced. People were congenial but much more–considerate, quick to help others in need (not just at church), generous-minded, gentle mannered but strong in the face of tragedy. I went to Sunday school each Sunday morning, then joined the family in the sanctuary. I attended church camp many summers–fun with others and nature; participated in events at Christmas and Easter; and was confirmed in the faith at 12. My father oversaw the music; my family sang or contributed instrumentally–a favorite part of services was robustly singing hymns from pews or in the choir loft.

As I moved into teen-dom I was, for a time, in a Methodist Youth Fellowship; we were active in the community helping others. But I began to diverge from known entities and ways as I grappled with trauma, increasing drug use over the next several years as I tried to cope. Yet I was not one to ignore the implacable sense of God here, there, everywhere. I wrestled with often obscure but profound meanings of existence, the greater purpose of living. I drew closer to nature’s mysteries and lessons and sought out ancient Celtic ways (some of which still resonate with me). I read books on philosophy and world religions. I sought out magazine articles of other cultures’ spiritual practices. I became interested in shamanism and poured over Kierkegaard and CS Lewis and marveled at their different views. Then Joseph Campbell’s writings on classical mythology, Native American beliefs, Christian saints and arcane writings, Buddhism and meditation, white witchcraft and paganism, Subud, Bahai, parapsychology, the uses of graphology and astrology–well, the list went on for years…Some of this seeped into me as surely as Christianity. I sorted and tossed as I began to embrace enlarged viewpoints.

Did all this worry my parents? There weren’t arguments, but there was voiced concern. They felt I was far too serious, even somber for a teen-ager; so did many of my classmates. In time, I found more friends–those in the arts, those who loved to exchange ideas. Many of us became hippies, playing folk music, aligning ourselves with natural ways and means of living. But with the advent of the anti-establishment movement we became more politically engaged. That opened up a whole other vista. Religion could pose as nearly anything, it seemed; doctrine could have many facets and faces. But not all were Christian, of course. We were busy trying to be “free spirits.”

Heady times, dangerous times, passionate days and nights and beliefs to explore and dreams and justice to fight for. I became involved with Students for a Democratic Society for three years. By then, my parents were very concerned; no doubt their prayers were more fervent for my well being; we became estranged at times. I had begun to forge my own path out of childhood and their home. By 16 I had essentially left; by 18 I had literally moved on. Many ups and downs taught me to fight my own battles, alone or with other young adults.

Except that I still believed in God. Nothing was capable of shaking that up much or for long. I might have felt alone, been literally abandoned. But I knew I wasn’t, truly. And through it all, I felt and remained Christian.

Looking back, I have no complaint about being raised in that Methodist church. I left it awhile and returned to it, have off and on attended other Methodist churches wherever I have lived as well as others. For some time it all seemed bland, too moderate for me, but that also spoke to my tumult and hunger for different experiences. I was looking for greater passion to put to use in life, more effective activism in society– and a truer response to God’s ubiquitous presence.

By my early twenties it hit me that my faith could be as strong or weak as I intended it to be. That it changed as I grew up, went on. And that it didn’t require me to attend a church, though that was good, too, if it benefitted me and, later, my family. But the priority was that I live it, daily walk it– not just talk it. I intended to try always to adhere to the chosen tenets to the best of my capability, not get messy and slack off because it was challenging at times to believe, even harder to act on them. And it mattered that I continue making my sacred relationship with God my first priority. And take to heart Jesus’ teachings which were rooted in love’s wisdom and shaped by extraordinary courage in his own vexing, turbulent times–and yet serve scores in an often tragic, angry world.

Have I been able to follow through? I have made errors in my life, some grave and damaging ones. I have failed my own expectations, yet I keep on with it. Nothing destroys my belief in the revolutionary compassion shared and taught by Jesus, his radical acts of love flowing from the eternal, powerful knowledge and grace of the ever creative, universal God. And every day I am brought closer to the certainty that nature compels us because it reflects God’s intricate and astounding work in this world and those beyond–and that it is a gift to us, to learn and cherish.

Can I even talk about this in public? I just did.

Do I have to check one box or the other? Already have checked both.

Can I try to understand other faiths, respect other kinds of believers? I can. Somehow I also believe we are all entwined in the ultimate sense.

Is it likely we become more committed to beliefs by being taught from the beginning their value? But then by way or trial and error, recurrent discouragement and hope, human fear and spiritual-religious transformation, the resilience of our souls?

Yes, and more than that, God never moves apart from us. What our earthly eyes see is only part of this story. We need to better see with our spirits. May I live and move within God’s welcoming presence and vast designs of life, now and always.

Blessings to all who seek God, and may the seeking bring more unity and charity.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Writing as a Way of Being

Photo by Sam Lion on Pexels.com

Marc said, “Writing is your therapy, I guess.”

I thought about that a moment. It rang predominantly false.

“No, that’s a whole other thing. Of course I journaled for decades, starting with little, gilt-edged diaries as a child that I could lock with my own tiny key… I doubt it was helpful in a significant way; I was noting very little, the day was three sentences. By adolescence, maybe all the scribbling out feelings and events was semi-therapeutic. I had a private place to share the reality of my life. But was it writing? No. Not to me even as a teen. It was dumping emotional excess at its best and obnoxious perseveration at worst. True therapy exists in another realm.” I thought a bit more. “Maybe there is some crossover. But I think I write best when there is much less emotional excoriation…and more inquiry and imagination.”

Marc nodded. He knows better than to expect an abbreviated answer when he brings up writing. And I do like to talk, if not as much as I do writing.

We agreed that all sorts of creative action can be therapeutic. It certainly is a lifeline in troubled times, as well. And I have always liked to make paintings, collages and drawings to clear and liberate my mind. For decades I made music via guitar and cello, and wrote songs in small part because it was an emotional outlet…and dancing, acting and so on, to a degree. Because creative activities do help people expand intellectually; move past emotional blockages; explore more modes of experience; interpret worlds around and within; recover from woundedness; clarify needs/wants; gain self esteem; develop a deeper sense of soul. It figures prominently in wellness regimens the world over.

But a strong creative urge is primary in and of itself, and can be far removed from therapeutic intent or result. It is an energy, a movement that comes from a deep wellspring, from passion for what is undertaken. It is the moment-by-moment action that draws me, not the finale. It includes the design process, but it is the act of writing and seeing where it goes that is most powerful viscerally, intellectually, spiritually.

Writing, then? This is just what I do. It has come first as long as I can remember, back to early childhood. Music was the most important creative mode in my family but for me, despite my adoration of music, writing won out. It was such a strong urge that it started my day and ended it before I entered. I wrote little plays for the neighborhood gang and poems for fun. I wrote on scraps of paper, in cheap spiral-bound notebooks and on clean white paper on the ancient Remington manual typewriter. In school, my writing was often pointed out; a poem I wrote in third grade was published and presented at a state conference on children and creativity. I found it funny my teacher would do that. It had nothing to do with my desire to keep writing.

I had no clear sense of whether it was “good” or not, and even now don’t think it is worth the effort to try to rate it. I write and rewrite and write some more, then see how it stands up to my own interest during more reads and rewrites. It is necessary to improve but not for someone else–for myself, for the work I labor over. Being self-critical is necessary as I delve into exposition of a piece. It spurs me to design sentences that better deliver ideas and experiences. I can do this for long hours and do it alone. Marc’s voice is unheard or jarring when he speaks to me as I work. My dinner goes cold; other pressing duties fade. Time disappears; the written words engulf me.

I do, however, miss face-to-face interaction with other writers–conferences, workshops, writing sessions/sharing with one other writer, talking with editors at presentations, participating in public readings. These educational and fun events help me grow as a writer and as a human being. Both roles benefit from redefinition, willingness to learn. And I am not reluctant to get down to business.

I was having that earlier conversation about writing because I have been thinking about writing an ever greater amount of time. And this blog. I’ve noticed recently that though I have over 15,000 followers–a deceptive number, who knows what that quite means?–I have very few views, overall, in comparison to other weeks, months, years. There are also much fewer “likes”. Especially in the last weeks. This has not been the case, generally. I have had high numbers and moderate numbers and low ones, all. But 6? And practically no one comments–and is likely telling…of something. What is the data worth to me? Not that much, in the end. It doesn’t stop me from posting thus far. But I am curious, since I have had better statistics much of the past eleven years.

Yes, that’s a crazy long time to have a blog. Do I write here because it is not truly as rigorous as writing for other venues and platforms? If I even ask that, it must have bearing. Yet, I clearly am hooked; I enjoy myself.

But back to readership: the lag of viewers may mean people don’t relate to topics I am writing about lately. Or, as one reader says, many pieces are longer than most blog posts–I guess that can turn people off. It might mean followers just got tired of my blog–there are countless fascinating blogs to check out. Or it could even be the quality of my offerings has been in decline and I’ve failed to see it. I naturally consider that. Whatever the reasons, it gives me something to mull over.

Ultimately, it is about keeping on writing. I think it, dream it, wake up in the middle of the night and do it, phrases and characters run about my brain in the shower or store, while driving or walking, listening to people talk or seeing them play or work, when hearing music or sitting outside watching leaves shimmy, reading something else–any time at all. I take small breaks when feeling emptied out of good words or distracted by events in my life. There are times I feel like what I write is lacking oomph and just needs to be dumped. But there is always another concentrated attempt, and a fine word comes to me on the next wave of language rising, unfurling on a page. I can’t not write for long, even if it is a quick phrase on an envelope or receipt.

I have notebooks of listed ideas, many starts and stops. And mounds of sticky notes plastered on my desk with notes on reference material, titles that come without anything attached to them, quotes from other writers, literary mags to check out. And print outs of articles that demonstrate fine wordsmithing. I can’t keep up with it all but it isn’t daunting, it’s invigorating. It inspires me. And I am not a writer who stares at the screen or page a long time. I like prompts to get started for fun, but don’t need them. For some weird reason, I can sit and begin immediately; I write fast for a first draft. The deeper, better writing comes with revision. That takes much more time, is harder. A great deal harder. Even for this blog, I am often writing at midnight–and still miss necessary editing.

So it is not that I want to stop writing–I cannot imagine it–or even take a break. (I had some of those with the death of our granddaughter…and car accidents, illness, vacations, etc.) It’s about what I want to do with it next. I believe I must make changes. I don’t spend enough time revising my posts, and my proofreading needs attention. I easily spend 4-6+ hours working on them but I should clean up more. Including any photographs demands more time and labor. The truth is, I might make many improvements, even the design of my site; maybe readers would appreciate that, come back more. Or maybe not.

I also think it would be fun to start a new blog under a pseudonym. What, exactly, I’m not yet sure, but it would be entirely different than this one…Maybe satire. Maybe vignettes of real people whose names are changed, or stories of the most harrowing or spiritually intense moments in my life.

But beyond writing for the blog three times a week, several hours a day, what else might I want to do?

~I love to write poetry. For decades that was my genre, my preferred way of being and doing creatively with words. I write free verse but have written other kinds of poems. I can spend months on a poem that pulls me in and shine it up. I have published more poetry than anything (and under various names due to marriages). I quite like its economy–perhaps surprising for me, who tends to verbosity–and potency. Its elegance and truthfulness.

~I love fiction writing. I fell for fiction as a kid but felt intimidated by writing it until I kept working at it, reading and learning more, trying things out. In time I came to understand it better. It still is a form that seems complex and demanding, yet I love stories so much that I pursue them to the page, anyway. It is more like a story arrives, grabs and takes me to the page. I enjoy all the walking about in unknown places with strangers who become friends or curious bystanders or witnesses via the written word. It fulfills me immensely to complete a decent story. Or a series of short stories; I’ve written one grouping that takes place in a small northern lake town with many recurring characters. It is a collection I love to work on.

But then arrives the question: which genre would I like to explore next besides dabbling in mainstream, literary or women’s fiction? Psychological suspense? Fantasy? Old fashioned mystery? And flash fiction intrigues me, too. The only one I can’t get excited about is popular romance. Maybe a different angle on romance would be interesting.

Then there are novels. I have written two but only one may still have a drop of lifeblood. But I would rather begin a new one than return to those that I have worked half to death. I have ideas that come and go. If there is a really good idea it sticks– so far nothing has stuck well again. But this doesn’t mean I won’t begin another novel. Maybe not just today. I am stimulated by the work on very long projects. They require discipline, stamina, optimism, ruthless editing, and deep faith in the story–as with everything else, I suppose, but for much longer periods of my life.

~ Nonfiction, including memoir, is newest to me. I began working on it more seriously as I wrote for this blog. Then I published a couple pieces in collections so was encouraged. It was a challenge I enjoyed tackling. I appreciate its brevity requirement–though I have much to learn about that! I like to ask questions, search for answers whether a factoid or greater history or a recollection in family history. It moves quickly– or should. Succinctness is something I crave to master…and keep working on in nonfiction especially. I also love that it offers truth in a very direct way. The more stripped down the better; it generates more power.

~This is an addition since I initially published this post: I also have written (and published two pieces) young adult and children’s short fiction. It was also a pleasure taking months of classes on writing for children and applying more skills; I had the bonus of a children’s author providing great critiques. This genre remains of interest to me.

I have so many choices, that’s the issue. I have profound attachment to the written word, and respect for the value of language well crafted. But there is not enough time to do all I want to do, even in retirement. I need to heed these questions about what I will write further. There may not be another ten years left for me–or perhaps there will be, but time is not endless on earth. Some days I have a stronger tug to submit my work again for possible publication. Other times I want to dive right into that story collection, revise and polish until it is finished–then perhaps submit it. Or get back to more serious poetry writing, just because it is a beautiful form and it speaks to me with such grace and comfort. And it is good to know life most vividly, tp draw closer to God and maximize my compassion for the earth, the world–poetry is a good way to do all that.

The last question I ask myself tonight: do I keep on with this blog? Have I said all I have to say here? Does it matter if anyone reads my posts or not–or is it primarily an exercise in creativity, as so much of what is meaningful is to me? I do care about writing for others though I have written in solitude all my life, for the sake of the writing–that is what most writers do–and for myself, also. I need to write. I am entirely in love with the process, even during uncertain and self-doubting times or days of stalemate, or when I am fed up with the grinding work of eliciting the best words so they will cohere and open new doors… that I can walk through and so, too, the reader, into the next ones.

But it matters to me that I can send out my voice, and the voices of characters, and believe they may be heard. To be a small conduit of creative energy, of discovery. That I can offer up my vulnerability and then readers may open and connect more fully to themselves and others. That what I offer in words has meaning, even though fleeting. And that human language once more gives the gift of expression, that tool of powerful searching and finding, giving and taking, hoping and healing. Because language speaks the story of humankind. That is what matters to me, for this is what we all offer: astonishing stories of magnitude. So whether I write here or elsewhere, the stories will guide me faithfully. For this, I am grateful.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: An Unexpected Summer Crush

I fell in love today with a stranger. I don’t have a clue where this one came from or the life history. I’m not sure why I looked over my balcony railing and there appeared a gorgeous vision that captivated me at once. But sometimes these things happen even to me, an older woman well over the rocky pinnacles and swampy lows of random, entrancing romance quite some time ago. I don’t go looking about. But this experience occurred, anyway. That is, the creature looked up when I let a sigh escape. The noble head raised and ice-water blue eyes flicked to mine–then resumed studying the treed, ivy-strewn slope, engaged by more interesting happenings than a human gazing downward. I was more than happily surprised by my new neighbor, a Siberian husky. My favorite dog in the world, more or less.

There is at least one human who moved in with the dog. In fact, she strode out once to check on him/her and then disappeared. And when I got my camera out–I had to shoot a quick one for my kids, who understand these things about their mother. But I forgot that it was still on the timer mode, so it beeped and beeped then took multiple pictures, beep beep beep beep click click click click. ( I must turn off that shutter noise, too!) Of course, the dog finally looked up again and I heard the woman come out. A bit panicked, I stepped back from my balcony’s edge. I didn’t know if I should give a shout out or not… This will likely not endear me to the new woman–somebody taking furtive pictures of her canine companion.

I wasn’t even wondering about a new resident this morning. I was reading, then looking about the trees, sitting at the table. Then got up, stood at the balcony railing and had a casual glance downward.

Now I really only think of her dog. It was taken inside or it was hungry or bored. When will it be let out again?

The small apartment below us has been empty a couple of weeks. I have heard the trucks and the hammering and whirring, sometimes smelled their supplies’ signature odors (one of which about knocked us over as they repainted a tub just below our first floor bathroom). The workers have about renovated the entire thing but I half-expected it to go on, like blurred background noise on the radio or television of an old neighbor to the north of us. I didn’t give one thought to a new neighbor. The last tenant lived there a couple of years, recently moved to Arizona, per another neighbor. She was very young and usually gone; I waved if we crossed paths. (As it is with most people here: we’re at work indoors or went back to the office or are again avoiding contact due to the pandemic’s unpredictable, unsafe trajectory.) I live in my own world, I suppose, too–frequent family engagements, I write or read a great deal, take daily hikes or walks, make a bit of art and do lots of photography, listen to music, do random things like a crossword puzzle or writing real letters. And always the usual tedious household business. Oh, I have a husband. So I am fairly busy.

Others appear to be, as well. But I do see them get out with their dogs, some urging them to finish their business, some leisurely walking and enjoying their company. Oregon is a big dog place and Portland may have more dogs than people, a joke but perhaps not really. To know your neighbors is to know their dogs–sometimes the latter first and better. One of the few people I know by name (besides one across the front entryway who sneaks in and out with few words; another who never acknowledges people and walks his dog like they’re both training for a marathon) is quite a bit older and very interesting. She has given me glimpses of her smart, energetic personality topped by a good if subdued sense of humor, talk laced with a slightly cynical view. She has had several different professional lives that intrigue, moved from California (as many do). She has marvelous skin and gleaming white hair. That’s it-what I know now. She’s not very open so we briefly catch up–though I shared that our granddaughter passed away as she happened to catch me in shock and tearful; a few weeks later she told me she was looking forward to sharing old photos with her own granddaughter when she visited and that was okay– when she walks her Pomeranian, Cocoa. Cocoa likes me fine and vice versa. The way they are together, I suspect they will be warmly connected until the end.

Anyway, here we are generally congenial, sociable strangers. A wave and a smile, an inquiry occasionally. So–another person gone, another moving in, that’s all. It’s not cheap to live here and people leave in summer; some of us stay a long while. And some have dogs that I hear and pleasantly note as I live my life amid mountains, hills, trees and water; stories; Stravinsky with dashes of Marian McPartland and her jazz piano. FedEx deliveries too often for my own good. Just lessen that hammering and shut off the leaf blowers, it’s summer! Then the movers come and it’s a new person with another dog below. Will it bark or be cool and calm as when it glanced up at me, unperturbed by a lowly human being?

I just got up to look over the balcony edge once more. The gorgeous animal is still not laying there. Maybe tonight we’ll both be listening to crickets in twilight. Will he/she know I am up here? Will I peek down to seek at its furry outline? Will it be agitated if I make noise? I often sit outside at night, listening, watching, smelling the night air. Marc is to bed early as a working man still, so it is moon and stars and me and any “singers” beyond.

It might help to explain my fascination with dogs if I tell you I didn’t grow up around them or other animals. Well, the cats. My older sister had a penchant for cats, had a small number. I was under age ten and had only the right to watch her play with them and occasionally pet them. I was surprised we had any. My mother didn’t like animals in the house–she grew up on a farm so four legged and other nonhuman creatures belonged outdoors, perfectly fine in the wilds of nature–otherwise, they had to work for their food. (She was interested in insects and birds, however– outside.)

Cats lived outside and were great mousers, was what she said. Thus, when the first ones arrived I knew my sister Allanya was the favored one, as she got what was forbidden.–I mainly recall her cats died a lot–we lived on a busy street–but she’d get another one until it was hit on the road, too.. Her abundantly loud weeping got me; I couldn’t comfort her adequately. I liked her cats but they were hers so did not cry much. When she left for Michigan State University, no more cats. But I must have pleaded for my turn as I got two goldfish; they swam happily but too briefly in a bowl with a floor of colored stones, a perfect tiny castle and a couple of seashells. I loved decorating but overfed them. I got two blue bright parakeets who likely didn’t like being in a cage–they died in a couple months. I didn’t appreciate cleaning the cage so was not that dismayed. After that, I was done. I left the care of animals to others.

But what of dogs? It wasn’t even a topic that came up. No one secretly professed a desire for a dog. My father certainly never had interest in pets, and no time. He was home an hour or two, then gone most days of his long and productive career. Mom simply created time for things other than daily work, in or out of the house. But she decreed there would be no more pets, not even one camping in the back yard (a turtle, it died, too). As she noted, we had a yard full of nature’s critters. I loved the ants that had little sandy hill homes; they scurried back and forth along our walkway out back. I studied their industrious goings-on for long periods. The slinky worms that magically rose from the ground when it rained hard. Graceful butterflies and chorusing, chattering birds that alighted all around. But as for pets–I had access to various sorts at friends’ houses, and was fascinated by the dogs and cats, hamsters, a horse, a couple of canaries, a snake, an iguana and salamander and so on. Those dogs would often be in the middle of the fray, racing, leaping, romping along with us, and also interfering.

But my favorites were at Julie’s house: huskies.

Julie was one of my best friends and lived on my street several blocks down; she went to Eastlawn Elementary as did I. I believe she also went to the Methodist Chinch and it would be natural we’d become friendly there, too. We didn’t share studying classical music but she liked to read as much as I did. We didn’t have in common a passion for ice skating, swimming or foot races; she had polio as a baby so walked rather slowly with crutches that clamped around her forearms. I found it curious, perhaps sad but irrelevant to our easy play and good talks. No doubt we enjoyed playing with dolls, made up scenarios for them, and played board games and hung out on the front and back porches. She was a smart one, warm hearted, readily amused. I can still see her standing in her yard, crutches just an extension of her arms and legs in a way, very useful–short strawberry blond hair tossed back as she laughed at something silly.

But perhaps another reason we got on was that her parents had huskies. And I came to adore them. I believe they bred, trained and sold them; there were always a couple around and new puppies from time to time. The house was big but every room seemed defined by the presence of a big dog, its fur and toys.

They were playful, yes, but seriously trained in obedient behaviors. If one jumped up on me–and I felt it like a wooly body slam with often muddy paws–there was a strict command and correction issued by Julie or her parents. But I was not fearful of them, and they were not suspicious of me. Their dogs sat with big feet planted and head at ease as I petted and hugged them a bit, and got a drippy lick on the chin in response, those blue eyes bright and perceptive. Their size and the dense coats and captivating eyes and intelligence–everything about them grabbed my attention. I had never been around dogs so big, fast and agile, smart and good natured–yet also capable of peacefulness. I knew they got out of hand, at times and witnessed antics wherein objects, especially shoes and purses, were but sad, chewed remains. And I heard they loved to chase down cats…not good.

It was efficacious that Julie’s house was large, the yards larger and fenced. And that they were gentle with her, as she moved with an awkward gait, clutching her crutches, from space to space. A few times I watched a husky pull Julie in a wagon or on a sled in winter–they were sure footed, enthusiastic, strong.

When they moved to another city, huskies and all, I felt the losses keenly. Whenever I thought of Julie, I thought of her warmth, good cheer, our easy friendship. And those luxurious Siberian huskies that could knock me over–did a few times–but always welcomed me. I wondered if they had been meant to protect her, too. Because they did, being always at her side or nearby, ready to come to her.

It occurs for the first time as I write that this may be when I fell in love with huskies. As a kid on Ashman Street, playing at Julie’s house. How could I not have seen it?

I always stop when I see one, openly stare. Pat and talk to one if allowed. Their power and grace in motion, peaceful alertness at rest: these are premium four-legged creatures. Proud, dignified and very playful. They work hard, especially in North country in winter as they pull their massive sleds with cargo and driver across frozen land for many miles. Heroic, that’s how they seem to me. Maybe, too, because they likely did look after Julie and she did, them, in all the ways she could.

Since I do admire dogs, in general, I think of getting one, but there are reasons why I have not for many years invited any to stay forever. It has to do with loss, in part, and also with practical circumstances. I feel dogs are healthier and happier in roomy houses and outdoors, in yards, like children–and I don’t know that I’ll ever have a house again. But maybe that is not altogether true; perhaps they can be happy in smaller spaces and on leashed walks, after all. Still, I worry that as I get older my health matters may someday interfere with caring well for a beloved dog. I read about the different breeds. recall ones met and liked out there. I enjoy them from afar–and can play with a friend’s dog when I see them.

In the meantime, there is the new four-legged neighbor. I wonder if it is a male of female, what the name is, how it behaves, who takes care of its needs and wants. I will have to content myself with a small yearning to know this new creature from my balcony. It will be hard to not give it a shout out and a big wave, or to go knock on the new person’s door so I can get a closer look.

“Welcome to our lovely neighborhood–and, oh my, you have a husky!”

She might hopefully offer a smile–but then step back and say,”Hey, wait–were you taking pictures of my dog when I moved in?”

“Ah…guilty, so sorry…You see, I had a special friend as a kid and she had beautiful huskies…”

I need to be patient, time things right so she knows I am friendly toward dogs and also decidedly not a dog nabber. A distant adoration of her Siberian husky will just have to do for now. Then I might suggest she walk the area’s miles of trails with me sometimes–with her dog, of course. My secret doggy crush will come to light soon.