Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Stuck in a Blue Room (with Escapes)

Photo by Naomi Falk, Sunset Rain Sky, 2013,

I awakened a recent morning and stretched well, squinted at the window to ascertain what the sky was up to, then lay still again, as has been usual. Just coming back into this world. Through half slits of myopic eyes I scanned the soft blur of an inviting, comfortably large space around me. A thick warm dullness weighted me inside and out, and words arrived: stuck in a blue room.

I closed my eyes, drifted, wished for gold, wished for amethyst or vermillion or sage or flamingo pink.

The walls of my bedroom are painted a tender sky-in-lake blue. The quilt is Wedgwood blue. The bedroom light appears a sheer silvered blue early mornings, a soft navy at night. My mind, too, generally seems blue as I lay in bed. This usually reflects a peaceful ease, but it can also emphasize variable sadness or restless worry. Also, this blueness is a celestial dreaming that carries me, or a threshold to cross that reveals a poem or story that arrive unbidden. Then I must write and the blueness morphs into a span of colors–I use the word loosely here, color can be more than actual color– that rise and fade under my pencil.

Stuck in a blue room…

Blue is the way I live when at repose–not engaged in living with greater amounts of physical energy and movement. Those activities are differently colored. Though it may seem odd to others, this is what it is for me. Color means life. There is no such thing as colorlessness to me. White, after all, is all colors that show themselves on earth. Each reflects more, is a vibration of energy, physics made mystical. They can telegraph to me an active emotion, a deeper expectation or a simple state of mind. I accept these with delight –until it bears down, makes me think hard. Color, then, signals clues to life as I know it.

So that morning it meant something other and more. If blueness is a state of being I walk into each time I open the bedroom door, it is familiar and I accept it’s character. It is the color always chosen for my bedrooms. But there are times it can feel oppressive, to close around the edges. It might feel like a density of blue, creating a wide boundary beyond which I feel less able to experience the fullness of life. If I was a long, languid sleeper, this would seem reasonable and I’d gladly succumb, but I am not,  by nature. I am used to jumping up and getting going. I prefer to not waste too much time in that state. But lately I more often find myself captive in this blueness, and the room, for more than a little extra time.

I want out of there, faster, more easily. I tell myself this as I lie there, let my eyes drink of this rich tone of palette and see early autumn’s chill light chime its way in.I am not restive, but becalmed.

I remind myself: it is grief, nothing more or less. I have been here before. My days and nights have not shown up the same since my brother got so ill and died late spring after a conversation with him not long before, his gentle kiss on my cheek. Then a sister-in-law. Actually, it has been since four family members total passed in the just three years. As if the world is shrinking. Rooms are emptied even as I can sense presences…just there…then not.

Not that it should be the same. We lose parts of ourselves a little each time someone we love dies. They are not here for us to rebound off, to connect with, to herald similarities. Laugh with and be frustrated by. Those certain familiar meals/conversations stop. That part of my identity–of being a sister and sister-in-law—only as I could be with each of them–has dissipated.

I get it. I don’t generally like it. Nor the tears that rise and spill as I smell a familiar fragrance, hear a piece of loved music. Or see a child reach for an extended hand. Or hear of more sudden deaths in the greater world. The rareness and fragility of life stun me anew; I want to turn away even as I want to wrap my arms about it, hold all close. It is a magnetic thing, human life, but it also can repel us when we have had enough for a bit. When we need a rest from all the goings on.

I thought today, as I power walked and admired green if drier rustling leaves, that if I still drank, if I still harbored that desire, I might be a little drunk by evening. Instead, I drink teas, a bit of coffee with my breakfast and an iced tea or coffee later. But there was a time when I would dose my cup with a dab or two of whiskey. It made the hard, the tedious or even loathsome qualities of living less damaging, I felt. Way back then I couldn’t find the right effective remedy for that stuck state of mind–or perhaps I was too worn out to keep trying. But alcohol was a generous visitor, and soothed my fighting ego/wounded soul/aggravated heart/sleep-hungry body. My housewife boredom, overwhelmed motherhood. Displaced dreams, old wounds. Well, just tamp it down and carry on.

It was the sweet escape discovered later than many (age 27) and when I did it was: Amazing, it’s not illegal, expensive or lethal and also is socially acceptable. Not many years after, I gained the greater, more vicious experience for this drinker. But, meantime, it was quite handy, it worked pretty well on the inner and outer creaks and kinks, scars and blockages I’d wrestled with for so long. Or, rather, the illusion was convincing. One little sip was good, three big drinks or wine glasses were better or finally why not the entire blasted half pint of liquor…and more, who’s even counting. Somehow I carried on with life for a long time, so thought I was fooling everyone. That thinking led me down an escape route from which it took long to safely emerge, blinking like a long-captive creature in the brittle sunlight. Alive by the skin of my teeth.

So I don’t drink–not for decades now. I have far better coping skills, seek spiritual help, pay attention to what feels (as in instinct) best and then actually works. But at times I long for escape just the same. Not with an avarice for oblivion. Just a kindly breather, another trail to traverse, a better vision to replace mine, my daily story redesigned so that I fit it better–or it, me. I want to be happier again, and I want to be more useful to others as well. To feel more worthy of each day’s arrival. To slip these bonds of grief. Mine the rich vein, single out the spark in daily discoveries once more.

Is it so much to hope for? Maybe I was born rather too lucky…I have always felt able to find replenish-able joy despite the gradually heaped miseries that rimmed my life so soon. When tough times hang about I am still shocked like some foolish innocent who finally sees the world as it is. As if I have forgotten that this is part of it, we cannot be safe from it and no one gets off easy even when it appears that way. Every time I ponder how it can get so sorry on earth. And in my own life, which I used to feel was fabulous (not me, simply being alive) despite growing evidence otherwise. I know that heartaches reach as they teach us, and so deepen us at the seams, make us stronger, more aware as we hold on. I long ago created a life motto as Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination (“CSTD”)–I was 12 and knew it had to be that or sink. But before each challenge ended I’d experience resistance to being courageous, would rather claim my basic life joy in all its permutations. I suppose it is human nature to shrink from or fight off trials even as we rise to meet the demands.

So I have to root about for it, dig deep and seek far until I can locate it– shining, emanating more possibilities–then bring it close and spread it about to take a look. I have to get out of the bed of waiting/dreaming/perseverating, out of that eternal blueness, the room inside my mind and home which offers a small protection. But not enough of what I realistically need otherwise. And now.

Writing does this for me, as might be obvious. Who–if he or she is a writer or reader– can resist the cure of language that carries one inside other characters’ lives and their landscapes, creates a whole new time and eventful territory? The horizon shimmers, tantalizes– such a force, all those explorer words. Writing for me is a proverbial silver cord that attaches me to God and the great Beyond and to earth all at once.

Any creative pursuit can provide remedial action. I am taking a world music choral workshop once a week for two months. I’ve learned a Zulu song (I haven’t mastered words yet) and a Native American-derived song. I like the people, how easily they sing out and share talk afterwards, though I sing with self-conscious reluctance (I am yet rather too blue) and it will take time to feel more chatty. I intend on taking a drawing or painting class this winter. When the hand moves the mind quiets, focuses, awakens to visualization of ideas that are freeing. I need to dance beyond my living room but also need to choose wisely how to expend such energy. One woman I met at choir noted she’d belly danced for 18 years. I try to imagine it… but am likely to do interpretive dance or Latin styles or perhaps Zumba again. To each our own.

I walk. Every day whether tired out or in poor weather. For my heart to stay better and become  stronger. To get out of the blue rooms of mind. To reconnect with nature’s potency. I hike whenever I can in forests and mountains, with or without my husband. Every walk cures something, a surly mood or a medium headache; it realigns my soul. Last Sunday Marc and I spent a couple of hours in Portland’s fine Japanese garden, sauntering, enchanted at every step.

Reading is a favorite way to get me out of a confining head space, such an easy escape. I read several articles and pages of books every day. Recently my landlord had to check a window in my bedroom and I was a bit embarrassed by the two walls covered in full to overflowing bookshelves as well as neat stacks of books near bedside. Also, my dining room table tends to look as if designated for massive paper and print, but it feels like home to see it. I flip a page, am entertained but also instructed, moved, irritated, thrilled, shocked, healed. Given sustenance.

Movies and television serve a prime purpose of escape–last night it was the last of an Agatha Christie mini-series and a baking show. Tonight it may be a house renovation show or a wildlife documentary. Even a reality show, lowest of the low culturally, yet it can grab my attention a bit. I recently attended the fine film “The Wife” with one of my best friends, after which we went out for a great Italian meal. She prefers to escape into movies. I am happy to go along with her. Inhabiting another story, marveling at the artistry of film–a pleasure that broadens horizons.

This week-end we are attending the concert of glorious classical songstress Renee Fleming. Next week-end I am attending a musical based on Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” with another dear gal friend. Escape with intention of gaining intellectual nourishment.

I am fortunate to have these options, I know. It is a good thing I have them. I drank before, yes, and at a younger age also seriously abused drugs. But I have never escaped into gambling and my shopping is not much or pricey. I am far past the sexual hunt mode. No food addictions beyond intense desire for chocolate that visits me suddenly (I will pay well for superior quality). I am not a “techie” who buys lots of gadgets or even a fancy computer. Collecting items other than books or maybe t-shirts (so comfy) is not on my agenda. My love of music is upheld by fairly cheap transmitters such as radio and CD player plus a few concerts each year. Well, I do have a Sirius XM subscription for my car.

I could become a board game addict–a real draw for years, and I still love a competitive Scrabble game. I am as already noted quite enamored of frequent physical movement–hikes and walks, dance, exercise with out without weights, just wiggling about. I could see that taking up ore time. Exciting, aye? My escapes are manageable these days, and that works for me.

Travel has become more attractive though I tend to be reluctant initially. Last night Marc said he is longing for travel soon. Which is interesting as he travels too much for work. But now it needs to be for fun once more. So it seems we are escaping somewhere for a week or so. There is my being lately stuck and so slow to want to leave. Yet as he noted, travel can re-set or refresh the self, the body. It might be a way in which we both benefit after the year’s memorials, tears–and a fresh batch of questions about our family’s future. (We have several children and grandchildren and extended family; we all know there is always another concern now or ahead, no matter how big the family.)

All escapes noted are fleeting, of course. They are still effective coping mechanisms. Far better than nothing. And without a doubt more effective than the drink (or other distraction that is problematic) that leads to greater losses. Healthier entertainment escape routes bring forward the relief desired. Or they are the beginning of small movements inside us, leading to inspiration, a glimpse of new viewpoints, an expansive moment shared.

Other people can steer me away from myself. That is good, mostly. I appreciate being a part of others’ ideas and experiences. People are a wealth of wonders more often than not. And if I can be of assistance, so much the better if I have the energy–and sometimes even when not.

When there are significant concerns about people it can get sticky. That’s a reason for tossing about in bed at night, counting the long list of reasons why life needs to be kinder, and naming names of those whom God must watch over even more, as if God needs my advice. And in the morning I may awaken with residual memory of adrenaline spikes or tears, images of loss wallpapering my mind. Words of discouragement can erupt and tackle me like an adversary; I need them to stand down if I am to have a decent chance at making it a good day. I try to open to clues, to wisdom that floats from Divine Spirit to me. To us all. Because I know we are not left alone, even in blinding darkness of most echoing valleys.

So I get up at last, absorb the blissful blue of the walls, then watch how daylight shifts and illumines books and quilt and drifts over my bare legs, hear birds trill in an old tree and balcony chimes sway and speak into breezes. My heart ratchets up a few beats per minute as I exit through the first door into the new day, released from my haven, that small box of day and night, homey bluest of rooms. As my mind sharpens there are prayers for well-being and guidance, and the power to inhabit life as well as can be done this coming 24 hours –mine and others’. I set out to discover what is good and true, whether in sadness or joy. It’s required, isn’t it, to go on, to hope in the morning. To be readied for what comes this way.

 

Friday’s Thoughts: Earth’s Nature, Worst and Best

Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 162

You will please bear with me for not being whimsical or profound or very creative today. I have two daughters in the path of Hurricane Florence. (My husband, on an extended business trip in N. Carolina, took heed and flew out in time.) Cait feels she is now a bit safer than thought in Williamsburg, Virginia as she continues her work as a chaplain though she is not far from the Atlantic. Naomi evacuated to the northwestern corner of S. Carolina, leaving her work as art professor and her home in Columbia. It is the relentless rain that is now ruining and will damage or destroy so much, endanger untold numbers and vast amounts of property as this system, now a tropical storm, very slowly rotates across the Southeastern states and then northward (we think). Rainfall is catastrophic in many areas already; storm surges are major issues along with wind gusts still up to 70- 90 mph in places and tornadoes are developing, as well. Over 900,000 people are without power at this moment, and four have died. And the last I heard, over 1.9 million had been evacuated  but there were countless others who stayed behind. I certainly worry about my children but I am very concerned for all the others, their safety and loss of their homes and businesses. The first deaths have brought me tears, an ache of sadness. These next weeks at very least will be unbelievably challenging.

We know about long, hard rains in the Pacific Northwest, how they easily flood our many rivers and create sudden mudslides, erode coastal lands as well as other acreage, take down aged, mighty trees and invade homes. But I have never been in a hurricane or tropical storm. And it is daunting and disheartening  to think of, yet it weighs on my mind all day, each day.

I offer you, however, a few photos of the astonishing loveliness of nature this time of year in many locales. I cling to the mysteries and attractions. As we try to cope with significant climate changes that engender big events all over the world, we need to never lose sight of how nourishing, exquisite and complex a living entity this planet earth is, despite the destructive impact of other powerful actions/reactions.

And we love her so, cannot help it despite the growing perils; this is our human abode. Do we truly know what we have here? We must learn all we can, hold on to what we have and to hope, respectfully avail ourselves of bounties and wonders, and work to help in even small ways to abate ongoing threats to such abundance.

Thank you for prayers offered all those endangered–not only in the U.S but everywhere that undergoes such catastrophic shifts and losses. We cannot  abandon our spiritual strength, no matter our belief,  in times such as these. Together we must keep on.Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 279

Farmer's marlet, Irvington 088

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WA trip 142

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Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Recipe Boxes

I searched like mad in my two ancient recipe file boxes for a hot German potato salad recipe that I believed my mother had long ago bequeathed to me. It was for our annual Labor Day family BBQ that also celebrated youngest daughter Alexandra’s 38th birthday. It gave me pause, those files. Those years of our family dinners in our homes as we moved about, my parents’ sunny dining room and in various in-laws’ were unveiled in mind’s eye.

On my own turf, I was once a decently functioning if reluctant cook. That is, I managed to cook entire meals (usually) three times a day for 7-12 people (finally 5 kids, often their friends plus 2 parents), and not repeat menus so often they were entirely predictable; they might even fool you as aromas drifted from the kitchen. This went on for decades. But it isn’t meant to insinuate I was the cook everyone longed to become or so adaptable I could pull off a fancy dinner in an hour’s notice. No, I knew my stuff but only as far as my knowledge spanned. Thus, a proficient cook–I had honed fair skills by my mid-to late twenties, being a late starter. I made sure everyone got their fill at the long oak table. And if that table overflowed with extra diners our kids dragged in from the area, they just had to share: cut meatloaf slices in half, break corn cobs into two so all stretched for all.

This was before cell phones so people actually ate their meals, not photographed them. We talked a lot between mouthfuls or even while chewing despite manners prompts. It was a theater for big personalities, each competing against the others in a seemingly random manner. Plus we all had ideas and loved to explain them or toss about smart retorts. One child was very quiet by nature. I swear she rolled her eyes at the rest, and know she raised her hand to speak if needed. But such diverse energy cannot be denied; our table was never boring. My family was less aware of the goodness of the food than bellies being again full enough to move on to a more arresting event. But I felt satisfaction as morsels disappeared–another meal pulled off and done. But I also got frowns, teasing words despite my best attempts. My extended family thought I was not likely to amount to a cook at all so I cooked less and less for them.

I was content to often eat what was left over. I got too busy getting more milk or juice, forgotten salt and pepper or more napkins, that jar of dill pickles someone had to have and so on. My husband shouted over a murmuring din, “Cynthia, sit down and eat!” but as soon as I did, the phone begged to be answered (and it hung on the wall) or there came the dog to be subdued or a window had to be shut as rain slashed through a screen. I was a lot thinner then, but nourished enough by what had been left as we cleaned up. There were more serious leftovers if it wasn’t so great. It wasn’t often that people begged more. However, I got good at baking, so desserts were the treat they anticipated as they shoveled in pallid green beans with tuna curry and rice; beef (extended with soy protein) stroganoff and a fat green salad; burgers with fries plus coconut-lime Jell-O topped with mini marshmallows. I counted on chili as a favorite as well as beef stew. Soups. Anytime I could toss 6 ingredients into a pot and forget about it for 2 or 3 hours I was relieved. Otherwise I had to plan. And not having a grocery list with all things checked off could throw me into a moderate anxiety attack (which I felt only an annoyance of being a bonafide housewife).

Since the thought of being original and proficient and on time might fill me with a subdued fear some days, I’d cut out recipes to save in the junk drawer. Stick on the frig or a bulletin board. I studied reliable ole Betty Crocker plus Better Homes and Gardens’ cookbooks and then The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, the one that ruled with every single help for a problem or desire– far more than mattered to me. And I collected recipes from resources such as friends, neighbors, mere acquaintances, church suppers. Naturally our extended families.

They were handwritten so legibly on index cards often decorated with fancy stoves or shiny food or floral motifs. Works of kitchen art, advice to the food-bemused. My mother dashed them off on to lined index cards. Every woman had these at home; they were even given to the bride-to-be as wedding shower gifts. I found that strange but filed them in the new boxes that had dividers naming food groups or meal courses. In case I really cooked a full meal by myself; I was still an innocent then and married to an artist so didn’t yet worry. You could not underestimate the power of a trusty recipe from someone who cared, these ladies said. Though I barely knew the difference between an egg yolk and egg white at the advent of my first marriage at almost 21. Luckily, my husband’s mother knew fully how to cook and offered tips as deemed crucial–she commandeered a successful catering business, after all, so I took notice, committed info to memory. (Even his sisters had the gift of cooking and other such arts. But this was a clue to my future; it did not bode well in domestic departments. I was a poet, had other things to do, just like Ned, my husband.)

Yes, I learned to be prepared for requisite meals; if not, I retrieved what was needed in time even if knocking on neighbor’s doors for forgotten basil–what was that exactly?– or one tablespoon of sour cream. Every day, before I knew it, my life was built around other people’s schedules. Proscribed mealtime preparations were critical to running a harmonious household. Then, after I had learned a little and gotten wiser, my second husband–with whom arrived more kids–began to travel for his work. I panicked alone some meals–was the oven working quite right when the temp seemed a bit iffy? Were the peaches spoiled or fruit flies just in love with their deliciousness? Was it terrible for children to eat graham crackers soaked in bowls of milk instead of a whole meal when I had a raging headache?

They grew. We got by even when there wasn’t much money in early years. There was no help but my hands and those of my children if I could round up a couple, perhaps threaten no more outdoor time that day (or TV, their rare treat) unless they assisted. Luckily, they liked to cook a bit so I started them on it then, unlike my mother. They all assisted off and on when they had time…even my son, who did great eggs on Saturday mornings when he hadn’t sneaked off on bike or skateboard. They could scrape plates clean and wash and dry dishes (by hand, usually; we did not often have fancy or large kitchens) at ages 6 or 7. They could make simple salads by then and cook up a few things by 9 or 10. But mostly they liked to be called into the house, sit with everything laid out nicely and fill up. Of course. They didn’t work for me but vice versa.

I dreamed of fine tablecloths like my mother used, matching and even crystal water glasses and bright bouquets at center that would stay in place rather than fall as a few hands aimed badly for a bowl of mashed potatoes. I intoned again: “Pass the dishes clockwise or pass yours to me to be served. Napkins on laps. Elbows off table. Okay, wait a minute,hold hands and say our prayer. Okay, now you can eat and don;t forget to say please and thank yous.” These provided me with a sense of civilized order despite stray peas squashed underfoot, the dog being fed unwanted Brussels sprouts under the table. Despite my sense of loneliness when things didn’t work out well–or did.

And when I didn’t want to even look at or smell food–not a rare thing as I had colitis plus various food intolerances that visited me with significant pain and distress–I thought how strong, how capable our children, in truth, were. How they thrived, overall, and needed steady support in the natural progression to adulthood. Even my attempts at being a mother-type chef could help. Cooking might not have felt like true love to me much–come on, it was sweaty work, a necessary sacrifice of time and energy–but it was service to my family I cared to provide, needed to provide. Only when I baked–cakes and muffins, cookies and pies, rolls and breads–came the happiness, my love in action. I believe they knew it. But major food groups well represented, nicely arranged on their stoneware plates? Just part of the job. The flowers in the vase made it better, as did pretty napkins–presentation and decor did matter, as my mother taught me.

Why did I feel that way, and struggle? I had little to no talent for cooking, that’s all. I liked to do things I did well, not stumble through with heart in throat as the timer ticked away and the throngs were getting restless–especially if husband or perhaps mother (or mother-in-law!) waited hungrily in the dining room. Or hovered over me–unbearable. I knew I would get a “C+” on average, a “B” if I sweated harder and then got lucky–and there were times my effort didn’t make any grade at all. But I worked at it, I made progress. Each meal was taking care of my family. In that process I even had a good time here and there, slicing up juicy nectarine and pineapple and slippery avocados, browning onions and pork chops, folding fluffy eggs into an aromatic omelet, by gosh.

All of this came back to me as I sorted through decades-old, stained and disorderly file boxes, looking for that German potato salad recipe. I never found one so resorted to Betty Crocker’s advice. But I found recipes from my first mother-in-law, Blanche, the caterer, who instructed me regarding a happy marriage: 1 cup of good thoughts and good deeds each; 2 cups of sacrifices; 3 cups of forgiveness and much more. And her Amazing Coconut Pie and Original Brickle Crunch Cookies, among others (her famed honey-lemon diamond cookie recipe was not given to me but my daughter, her granddaughter got it). From her son, then-husband Ned, were hand printed recipes for Sour Cream Chocolate Cake and Salzburger Knockle. I even found one from Marc’s (second and current husband) ex-wife–one of my college friends long before marriages and divorces–for her good Soft Molasses Cookies.

I came across a recipe that my youngest daughter created as a four year old: Flamingo Dance Salad. She made it when we lived in Tennessee, her tiny self atop a kitchen stool, leaning plump arms across the counter, her hands shredding things into a bowl as I wrote it down for her. I hear the echo of her squealing laughter as she announced the name of her offering. (And gave it as a fun gift for her birthday this year.)

There were plenty in my not-quite-refined, embellished penmanship on those cards, ideas for when I’d run out of steam, favorites to be revisited, finer ones ones for guests. I made our yogurt back then; fresh picked fruits were turned into jams; tomatoes from our own garden yield transformed into freezer pasta sauce; brownies made with bitter carob and sweet honey; and my golden poppy seed bread was given away at Christmas.

And  I thought I hadn’t liked cooking, at all.

I guess I stopped as it became less pressing to do. I got a career going, had less time and other interests each year as kids grew up, left. My husband has cooked the past years; we can afford to eat out a lot more. When he travels I somehow make do, more or less, but still cook very little. Okay, essentially none. Why bother? Salads are fast, yummy and handy. Take out is quite good around here. I will still make stew and chili and a few other things if asked by someone who cares…

But I stared at the cards, absorbed by the treasures, looked closely at my mother’s elegant teacher’s handwriting told of lots of vegetable, fruit and Jell-O mould salads, her famous apple strudel passed down from my grandmother and ten different bar cookies and several cakes and pies; hearty meat dishes and soups; holiday punches and eggnog and cocoa mixes…and much more. Perhaps she wanted to make up with all those recipe cards for not insisting I learn to cook. She’d wanted me to keep studying, to write, to practice voice and cello, play sports. She was an excellent Southern cook, the grits, hominy, fried chicken and far more that I liked better. I would watch her work, at ease and dancerly, buzzing along in one of her many elements as we swapped news of the day, long winded stories we delighted in telling each other. Maybe, I thought later, she knew I had no gift with food but had other talents and that was that.

I chose a few recipes I might want to try out again–me, this rather grey haired woman I am becoming, who retired from cooking a long time ago. Cooking was never that much fun–time consuming, unpredictable. I also had a habit of reading to pass the minutes and forgot to check the roast or batch of cookies. The smoke alarm was busy. I then started again, biting back curses. Had to get this or that on the table in time for everyone to eat, maybe chat, go forth into the world. Me, too.

So I smoothed a mere half dozen of many creased, faded, stained cards on my table, lined them up in rows and I saw there those grand times and mundane moments; mind numbing sorrows and cheery celebrations. Life markers and yes the mighty love that abided. It was all there. And this year’s BBQ gathering overflowed with the last. I have to say the hot German potato salad was even quite tasty.

 

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: The Falls that Felled Me

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The Columbia River Gorge (All photos, Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2018)

Every year I revisit Bridal Veil Falls where, in 2001 while hiking, I experienced the heart event that garnered me a diagnosis of aggressive coronary artery disease. I was literally brought to my knees by the proverbial “elephant on the chest” that gorgeous early September afternoon. I was 51; my doctors were not optimistic about the future. After stent implants I entered a difficult period in body and soul, but labored long and hard to regain health. It’s possible to take this disease in hand, and for the heart to become even stronger.

It’s been a thrill to once more vigorously hike the trails in Columbia River Gorge as I please. As I trek to the Bridal Veil Falls especially, it is easy to count abundant gifts of life with deep gratitude. The pictures posted are of that waterfall. At the top of the steps to a viewing platform, I collapsed. For a couple of years following my fateful hike this trail frightened me and I could not face it down. Soon I had had enough of intimidation and began to seek it out in August or September to celebrate staying alive. I am about set to head out this year once more.

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 114
Last visit in 2017, so glad to be there again

I love it there: the heady scents of damp earth and dense forest, the rush of water and wind-singing leaves, the birds chorusing and my heart and feet and legs carrying me up and down the rocky paths. I love that the place remains in its wild variations, its cyclical nature and its impartial acceptance of my visitations. I am filled with more joy each year I set out on the trail to Bridal Veil Falls.

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(If you are interested in learning more about heart disease, as well as recovery and health maintenance please search for my series entitled “Heart Chronicles” on this blog.)

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Where There’s Smoke, There’s More

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 128

I grow more uneasy, not less, as we drive towards Cannon Beach for a spontaneous Sunday on the northern coast. The weather report has noted a cooler temperature as it always is–blessedly in summer–at the Pacific Ocean. It has not noted anything unusual out there and the sun is high and blasting as we vacate city limits. My hair flaps in the breeze. Bare feet are pulled onto the seat as I lean back, watch landscape change from suburban to fields, forested to mountainous. But it looks hazy out there; an opacity develops mile by mile.

Now, smoke alternately obscures and suffuses more of the woodlands, hovers over hills and creeps into mountainous acreage. We roll up our windows as we drive farther, turn on the air conditioner. We still are philosophical as we travel on; it is the time of forest fires, the annual fire season. Surely as we arrive at the beach the ocean’s wind currents will have cleared it away. We will breathe fresh salty air and romp about all day.

Little to no rain has fallen for weeks and weeks, though this is not unusual during Oregon summers–we get at least four months of golden sunshine before the rains descend. Still, searing temperatures (90 degrees F or above) have turned fields and forests into combustible land in most western states. California has been subject to terrifying infernos in countless spots; Colorado has had a large number of fires. Parts of Oregon and Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and more have burned–the list has seemed longer this summer than last, when our beloved Columbia River Gorge succumbed in large part.

When I see the Fire Danger sign at “High” and smoke thickens in the distance, I roll down my window a few moments to peer into the trees. It is cooler at a higher elevation but not the unmistakable smoky scents assail nose and eyes. The air is denser with shadow about us, that yellowish-gray tint within mountain peaks and foliage. I check my phone for fire updates, certain we it is nearby and find none in the area. Still, we travel on to the beach if also with less confidence.

My consciousness is set on instinct, awake to possible danger and any lick of flame that might emerge around the next bend or rise. It is possible high on the mountain pass, tangled forest lining the road, miles and miles to go. All it takes is a cigarette butt not entirely safely extinguished, a campfire that was thought to be out but smolders after the tent has been packed and campers done–or lightning strikes from a storm that renders pitiful little moisture but triggers electric zigzags and bombastic thunder. I don’t have a clue what we would do if we were caught in a fire but Marc states clearly that roads would be closed off if there was any real danger lurking nearby. It is about then that I see a detour sign; Timber Road is closed (though I don’t know why). But traffic is heading to and returning from Cannon Beach. We still have hope this persistent smear of smoke will fall away and all will be well.

But it is not. The smoke not only lingers but appears more voluminous. Where, we wonder, can all this be coming from? We note a long back up of traffic on an exit we often take but that also can lead away from the beach, so take another one. Do they know some news we do not? We are still going to Cannon Beach. The feeling we have is that we may as well move forward as moving backward will yield us nothing but the same. We suspect, at least. We want to see and do what we can after an hour and a half on the road. At least give it a good try the pretty coastal town.

The place is packed as it always is in summer, despite a pale haze. I roll down a window and there is that unmistakable potent smell. I am waffling as we park. I know that smoke inhaled for long, even lighter smoke with its particulate matter, is not healthy especially for those with respiratory issues or heart problems. I have the latter. Still, we get out and stretch then decide to check it all out. We  do not want to give up the idea of a relaxing day on the beach.

The main street is streaming with vacationers but it is as if they are moving in slower motion. It seems grittier, has a blurry pallor rather than cheerful palette as is usual. But folks cluster at charming shops, huddle about tables at outdoor cafes despite temperate weather. They look a little bored, impatient. Some appear more stoic, amenable and carry on exploration and conversation with drinks in hand. I imagine how disappointing it could be to have booked a room a few days and wake up to smoke obscuring the views, no glittering sunlight on cresting waves or salt tang on lips. A few people have on respiratory masks which I’ve not seen here before.

As we approach steps that lead to the boisterous sea, a long line of people look over a railing to study sandy and watery expanses, cameras dangling against their chests. It is not a pretty sight, either the lackluster line or the scene. Not the usual jewel blue sky even when a bit of wispy fog or clouds scud about. Not the beckoning, gleaming ocean defining sandy reaches. The smoke has descended upon all like mild melancholia. As it softens all edges it also adds an unevenly textured cloak of grays and yellows: a smudge upon pristine waters and lofty horizon. In fact, I cannot see the horizon at all. It is not like fog, uniform, light-infused and airy. It seems heavy on the skin, sight line and mood. I feel privy to a strangely reduced environment, almost a quasi-apocalyptic feel but maybe that is because I know there are ravenous fires destroying acreage and homes, even killing people not that far away. It sobers me as I walk and gawk. Just three weeks ago we were on a four day vacation along the southern Oregon coast, and it was splendid there.

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 072

There are people making do with this holiday time (though there is a couple in a car from Minnesota who get out and get right back in and leave). Families, couples and lone walkers set out with cavorting dogs, seeking sights they can barely make out. It’s as if all are intent on fun despite this prohibition against ebullience and pleasure. I get it. We descend the steps, determined to feel waves grab at our toes, seek agates, observe stalwart gulls.

But as we saunter , we also marvel over how weird it is to see smoke blanketing the famous beach, half-hiding an oft-photographed Haystack Rock and beyond. Groups of people are drawn to it despite the conditions. I photograph here and there, taking things in with bewildered interest. Children and youths are the most unaffected by the smoggy air, racing about, splashing in the surf, shrieking at one another, urging their parents on. They cheer me even as I study the tree line and feel sadness edge into my general well being. The ocean is almost warmish, a rare thing, inviting as we slosh through rolling waves of a low tide, pick our way through seaweed and hollow crab shells and gelatinous blobs.

And all the time I am thinking: how much hotter this earth has become, how many more monster fires now ravage it: how this changes everything and we are not prepared for it. The beasts in air and sea and on ground are not, either, how can they be? How much life has perished in multitudinous wildfires? Once extensive, poorly contained fires seemed a more rare event. A tremor of fear ripples through me.

Growing up in Michigan, a state dominated by forested land, vast lakes and rivers, I seldom considered fire except to be respectful of it. To appreciate its beauty and usefulness for a summer or fall campfire or glowing fireplace or wood stove or, more seldom, a pig roast and party. Since making my home the Pacific Northwest I have developed a greater perspective and even some anxiety about it. The media carries coverage of alarming wildfires routinely much of the year. A ruinous dominance of fire is what I’ve learned here, not its utility or magnetism. How it can turn life into ashen debris.

So we stand still to observe. Walk as long as we can. Sniff the rancid edge of air but also that whiff of sea breeze sailing in from far away–the sweetness and pungency of it. Only at the beach do I have no significant allergies. Only at the beach do we both feel cleansed in the certain ways that waves/beach/wind/rocks can offer. I love our rain forests but the sea mystifies me in ways both foreign and familiar. It always demands attention, shows off its powers, shares wild beauty and reminds me how small I am in my humanness.

I try to be grateful and positive we are at the Pacific Ocean again but the smoke is becoming too much, clinging as if dropped from a huge dusty bag to lurk and float about. My eyes sting; I cough a little. I want out from under it, want it off my skin and out of my chest–and we have been in it only a couple of hours. We find Fultano’s, a pizza joint, and enjoy a tasty meal with icy drinks, then browse at Cannon Beach Bookstore. Someone explains the smoke is arriving from the north, blowing down from Washington and British Columbia wildfires, not California and southern Oregon as we thought. Not it sits here a few days. I am surprised it’s come from as far as Canada. I wonder how the smoke as it travels will impact weather patterns, where it will blow to descend next.

As we drive through and leave Coastal Mountains I follow ominous smoke, watch as it alters colors and shapes of surrounding land, as it so darkens late afternoon. As the elevation lessens again, it may be slowly fading; it might be gone soon. But, not: when we come closer to home we can see it has visited Portland. The waterfront of city center doesn’t sparkle as usual when summer light dresses it up in finery; it lies  sullen under heavy, smutty air as the start of sunset signals end of day. Proud Mt. Hood, a beacon as we enter the city, is hidden behind it. nightfall when I peek out, the half-moon glows red through a darkness made murky by the haze.

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 133

As I write this it’s been over four days of smoke dominating our activities in Portland and I know that this isn’t at all long compared to countless people seriously impacted. I’ve taken a couple brief walks in evening or early morning when it is perhaps less oppressive but I still feel the sting of the smoke–I can’t risk breathing too much  of it with heart disease. The neighborhood seems emptier with fewer runners, cyclists and scampering dogs with cheerful, chatty owners. Many of us are or feel captive indoors. My restless body and spirit long to play and work outside, just as in any season. The windows stay closed, the air conditioners on full blast to cool and filter our air. I run the purifier all day long. I can still smell it as it seeps into my home. Fires are engulfing much of northern California. They flare and spread in Western states as well as Canada’s besieged provinces. It is taking a heavy toll. We hope for the salvation of a number of serious drenchers to fall upon the flaming diverse and magnificent lands. It may be a long tough wait. It may bring too many more tears before it cools and starts to settle once more.

(To read a post on Oregon’s 2017 wildfires click here: https://talesforlife.blog/2017/09/06/beauty-and-this-beast-wildfire/)