Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Found Tent

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of  hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.

“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”

Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.

“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”

I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.

I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during  my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.

My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.

My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)

Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.

The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t  have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.

My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.

If only I could  tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.

Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between  the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was).  I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk.  Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead?  And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.

But even the dogs were sleeping.

Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.

It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off  tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.

“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.

He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”

I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.

Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.

Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.

Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain.  A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.

We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.

 

I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.

Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.

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

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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.

 

 

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/)

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Connecting the Dots

Morning glory, famrrmers mkt, downtown, city, cj oink 095
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Dot-to-dot magazines: I was crazy about the cheap newsprint drugstore ones on the children’s rack that cost under a dollar, and successfully lobbied my mother to allow one as a treat. I kept them close at hand longer than one might expect a child-soon to become-a-youth to enjoy them. Whether each page held a fine design of flora and fauna or simple geometric patterns, of easy-to-harder labyrinths or children and grown-ups doing ordinary things–I wanted to have at them.

Pencil sharpened, poised above the page, I studied the few or numerous numbered dots, I predicted the pictorial outcome. Yet felt a thrill, anyway, when bringing it to fruition whether right or wrong. It was like watching a Polaroid snapshot gradually come to life, or colored inkblots on a folded paper develop into  a surprising picture as the paper is opened. All I had to do was follow the numbers, dot-to-dot-to-dot– and lo! a small puzzle solved, a rendering awakened. It was simple, relaxing entertainment. I felt far more stimulated and accomplished when doing “word search” features(often included in the magazines), but that was not the goal. The point was to engage in a task (of questionable long-term value) that gave me happy respite.  Besides, I was a visual child and creating any sort of graphic design, even dot-to-dot ones, was blissful.

I miss those but I know they can be bought at a news stand. One can even purchase nice books filled with such games. I recently looked them up online. To my surprise, there appeared a large variety of intricately created dot-to-dot designs. They seem like works of art when completed–you can color them, too, and proclaim the picture your own. And those adult coloring books are impressive, as well. There is a profitable market out there in response to demand.

How nostalgic, even enchanting, these pastimes. And how bittersweet that we so crave simpler things, sweeter times, our days or nights softened by the soothing neutrality of such engagements. It is easy escape. Some comfort that costs little but gives generously for a half hour, an hour, as long as we desire. We seek it out as we need it, just as we did as children or youths, then extend our search as adults. It is certainly not always found on the internet or other electronic entertainment sources people flock to with a thirst for something more, bigger, better.

Sometimes it all requires pausing to simplify. Or we are perhaps forced to reassess our options. If we pay attention to our life needs, we will reach out to see what is there, who is there. And we may be surprised by the results.

The past several months– defined by family illnesses, life challenges and ultimately, two family deaths– I have been more persistently musing over connection. To human beings. To our places in the world and universe, to the natural world and to one’s creative muse. To divinity. These are what matter to me. And what I have felt more deeply than ever. Yet my thoughts and experiences have been fractured unexpectedly; my quiet, pedestrian life has been interrupted, shaken up, re-ordered. It has been a period spent swaying between deepened solitude, a slide into a well of quietness, and the more active desire for the company of others. Ordinarily, I would write more hours (perhaps even journal), resurrect meditative and freeing  art activities, seek out more music (or create with singing or other instruments, find a computer program for composition), get much more physically active. I have read a lot. These are some of my coping skills, life’s joys. But the changes experienced have required travels and looking outward as much as inward. Being with people, and often witnessing exhaustion etched on faces, eyes revealing shards of anger and waves of anguish. And yet, there have been laughter and tenderness enough to cover us with a softening kindness. Perhaps common human sorrows underlie part of that alchemy.

If you have read my summer posts, you know my older brother died rather suddenly. Then I flew with my spouse, Marc, to North Carolina, traveled through several states to Michigan for an in-law’s memorial and back to N.C., then finally to Oregon again. I flew to Colorado for a week to visit a daughter and her partner, got altitude sickness near the end of all the fun. Then to the Oregon coast for a beach “time out” with and for Marc. The day we got home from that heaven, we attended another memorial at a crowded pub for my jazz musician brother.

Everywhere there have been family members to console and be consoled by, to join hands in what seems an ever-shrinking circle. I have thought of blood ties and of family married into and how they both help hold up the world for me, with me. How they fill my life with colorful moments and surprising reveals. How their lives are so needed in the full constellation of my life, in the balance of what matters most. When one leaves the earth, their unique space is created, not to be filled again. Their lack of physical presence is as a shadow that passes through a doorway from here to there and further than I can quite see, most of the time.

How to maintain the old stable connectivity when people I have known and loved? My parents are gone; one sister; one brother, a sister-in-law. Another sister has mild dementia and sitting across from her recently, she faded before me a moment and I was frightened. Who else? When? How does one prepare one’s self? Of course, we cannot. We only can live daily and when things change, when we lose another someone, we accept that reality slowly, heartbeat by heartbeat.

I again think of those dot-to-dot books. How one stroke could take me to another dot and then a another and another. How I have the choice to lift my pencil and be done right then or to keep that line going to complete the picture–before turning the page. How like living a life…

Though everything, I have been in touch with friends or they have called me, sent me notes, shared a meal with me. I don’t now have but a few, decades-long close friends, but they have been here for me as I am, for them. But one friend is also ill and every passing year is a gift. The others may or may not stay in Portland as not so far ahead, retirement may dictate designing another life in another place altogether. Anything could change. And does. And there can be loneliness in any circumstance.

Portland is becoming massively populated. Expensive. I had to go downtown on an errand and was on a busy thoroughfare I don’t often traverse. I looked up and around at every stoplight. The stores and houses that had been demolished, the cavernous, even monstrous new buildings being erected…it stunned me. After living here since 1992, I have watched small waves of new residents arrive.  The last 2-3 years people have rushed to the city and looked for housing where all the action is, “close-in”, as we call it. Some suburbs are also expanding and real estate is hot. But Portland has firm boundaries and the only place one can go is up, so the high rises continue to rise at a rate that keeps many of us breathless. It’s only a matter of time–I keep waiting to hear of it–that my small five-plex will also be sold for a gazillion and as many or more fancy, shiny new condos will inhabit this space. We must migrate to a more affordable elsewhere.

Progress. You have to house the people as they keep coming. I was initially housed in one of my family’s rental homes–fortunate even then. And I hang on to our current comfortable spot a little longer. But how to stay connected when landmarks are altered or removed, when neighborhoods take on a whole new flavor, when your neighbors are often nameless when you barely even blink?

The keys to continuity in a fast paced life have to be resilience and adaptability. Going where the new dots go to see where it all ends up. Or creating one’s own new page. It takes curiosity as well as stamina, tolerance as well as brainstorming.

My husband longs to retire in Michigan, preferably in northern MI. on one of the countless alluring lakes, or even one of the Great Lakes (which are nearly like the ocean but, of course, are not). I understand the pull to that enveloping country, a place that lives vividly inside my mind and heart. But I don’t get why some actually return to their old hometowns. I suspect we cannot reasonably return to the past to embrace it as our present–but people do it, and apparently it works out. It has to be the desire for familiarity as our world becomes more unfamiliar in vital  ways. And that hope of connectivity. I  may have to move. I research various cities that might suit us as we age, in case we are priced out completely in Portland in a few short years. I’ve moved many, many times since I was 18. And there has always been several somethings or someones that made each move enriching. But I had to keep my ears and eyes open. Make the effort required. I was seldom alone and not for long–I raised five children. But there were always their own needs and wants. Now they’re adults and the architects of their own dreams, searching for the next ones. Though I am happy when they (and their fast-growing kids) include me/us, they owe us nothing.

So I have started to take stock once more, since these continued losses and attendant changes. What is truly left me now? And how can I keep myself in better touch with people? With meaningful activities? This life in all its generous experiences… I have had plenty of the bad and I don’t ever want to miss out on the good stuff. I have a strong desire to share it with others, though I have a penchant for significant solitariness so suitable to writing/creative work. I need to keep looking for options, despite my many forays and sometimes ending up faltering. I worked for a very long, time as a counselor. But I also have participated in numerous writing and a few vocal groups; tried Meet Up groups; engaged with various churches (will get more involved in the current one); taken dance and Tai Chi classes plus joined gyms; taken college classes; been active for decades in recovery groups; done some volunteer work; attended many writing workshops and conferences…well, there is more but that covers the main actions taken so far.

But there is much more I can do. Discovery happens if I just take action– new or old talents and interests to expose and encourage, knowledge to glean, service work to do, friendships to root out and nurture, places to explore in this and other cities and towns, within bountiful nature here or elsewhere. That is how I will stay connected in a way that continues to fill me and then overflow, hopefully, to others.

Because I was taught well long ago to take what life brings you and make something decent of it. To see possibilities and do something useful with them. Make a slim, winkled dot-to-dot magazine fun, give it some oomph. Plunk a melody on the piano, see what develops. Out of the mess, assemble order. Out of the ruins, create anew.

High aspirations, perhaps. But sensible, as well, to me.

As a child, when my family took trips across country in our crowded car (seven of us in that family, too), my mother would point to the landscapes and towns, observe the streets, shops and people and say, “Look out your windows! What do you see? Isn’t that interesting!” And my father would slow down, park and we’d pile out, run to the historical site, or a riverside park for a picnic or walk about a town green and gawk at stately statues, or even visit a strange church if it was a Sunday and sing old hymns with the rest and later have a chat. Just passing through, have a good afternoon. And then we’d tumble back in the car, play word games or sing our harmonized songs the next hundred miles, or tell stories, or be roustabouts, but finally we’d fall sleep that night in some cheap motel, side by side. Full up. Content enough with that day’s adventure and ready–come what may–for the next.

All people, I discovered, are complex human beings in need of home, hearth, good work and a modicum of happiness to share. May I never forget that most primary connection.

View a few pictures of downtown neighborhoods of wacky, wonderful Portland as it tears down and rebuilds:

Irv., misc., downtown at night 019Farmer's Market, Tryon hike, neighborhood flowers! 055Saturday Downtown+Tryon Josh & kids 010