Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Saving Graces of Community Centers

I am not a fan of blatant sentimentality, a saccharine nostalgia that paints a pastel-shaded Technicolor picture of a glorious world impervious to danger and distress. We all know it isn’t so. Behind glossiest scenes, troublesome things happen sooner or later, in keeping with imperfect human living.

But be that as it may, to this day I enjoy warm and cheery memories of my hometown’s community center. And I generally believe they are warranted. I enjoyed top-notch youthful experiences within the red brick walls of Midland Community Center.

I began thinking of this after this place came up as a topic on a Facebook page to which I belong. There one can share pictures, information and minor social connection for Midland, Michigan’s  current and former residents. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to engage in sharing thoughts there, as I have not been there for anything other than my parents’ funerals in 17 years. Before that, a scant few times most years, then none at all for decades. This was due to circumstance as well as by design. I was not loath to leave mid-Michigan and that small city. My life needed landscapes beyond the flat, open vista, one contoured for months by about 6 months of intense winters; a more diverse population; and different opportunities. Still, I enjoy the tidbits both historical and social that I read from my home in Oregon. One of the most interesting has been the ongoing exchange of warm memories like mine of the city’s community center–by perhaps thousands of people.

A little history first: the first community center set up there was started in 1919, Wikipedia states, “in conjunction with the very first bowling alley in Midland.” Soon other sporting activities were added as more people came. In 1955–I was 5 and had lived in Midland 3 years–Dow Chemical Company covered the $1.5 million cost of a new and modernized center and site. That makes sense as the multinational Dow Chemical and Dow Corning were and remain headquartered in the city. The center has grown, having been enlarged several times. “In 2005, MCC recorded 900,000 member visits….equivalent to 2,465 persons participating every day or the year.” (In 1960 when I was 10, Midland’s population was about 27,000; in 2017, it was 41,000.)

I am not surprised; I popped in often during the ’50s and 60s. I can’t recall what it cost to use the facilities but it was minimal, affordable for most folks. Yearly memberships were available and likely my family had one, as all five of us kids loved to be active. It yet provides activities every season, nearly every day you might want to drop in or regularly participate in a series of classes or a special event. That has been important in a place where freezing temperatures can last for months. Parents, children and single adults have all enjoyed the options, and what was once a good sized two-story building on a large corner lot now takes up a 12-acre site. I can barely imagine such changes.

So what did I most appreciate about it? Having so many choices was one. There was a huge swimming pool with even a high dive board which I thrilled to climb up, then plunge from; swimming was one of my all-time beloved pastime for years, indoors or outdoors. There were also basketball, volleyball, badminton, the last two being favorite games for me. There was a billiards room (I worked on that with my brother) and one with ping-pong (table tennis) tables ( which I loved) and a fitness room. I took a preschool rhythmics class where I wore soft suede slipper-like shoes that felt wonderful and danced all about (I still do recall it) and then beginning ballet classes, plus a few art classes. There was also gymnastics, martial arts, fencing, yoga. I read there are music lessons offered but if they were offered back then, I studied music elsewhere. Along with the rest of several teen casts I rehearsed musical theater shows there for summertime productions.

As I recall, there were also workshops for health, product presentations, lectures, small music group rehearsals, art shows, holiday bazaars, community group and church gatherings. Rooms were likely rented cheaply, if they cost anything.

Grade school kids attended outdoor summer day camps sponsored by the MCC and greater city parks and recreation department. Rainy days we would do fun activities in the center, as well. I spent a few early years in Barstow Woods with other campers and our counselors, soaking up nature’s wondrous ways, playing games, singing songs, and in Central Park right by the center) I learned to swim better in the outdoor pool. These summer camps served a couple of my children, too, when they visited my parents

And there were the Saturday afternoon dances in the gym starting when I was 13. What had reeked of sweat during regular hours was transformed into a low-lit, music-filled space. I spruced myself up a tad, met up with friends. We chattered among ourselves tried to look cool,  in sync with the scene yet disinterested. In awhile we gravitated to the dance floor with each other, did the Twist, the Monkey and all the other crazy dances we knew. The music was emboldening as we responded to blaring rock ‘n roll records. In time, some of the guys would move closer to the clusters of girls and, at some point, one then another and another would ask someone to dance a slow dance or another fast and furious one. Reputations could be cemented there or dismantled so we had to watch ourselves. But it was a pleasure to move to the beats and practice wooing a boy from the protection of our groups that made the afternoon an adventure. It was an introduction to the new world of early teen-hood.

The community center made a significant difference in other ways. I could get away from my house and the life lived there. Away from constant classical music, which I adored but my mind and heart were sometimes over-full. Away from the bungalow were stuffed with not only my siblings, parents and our friends, but students of my musician/ teacher father’s. And sometimes customers who came for my mother’s part-time seamstress and milliner creations (who also taught elementary school). The doorbell and phone were always ringing. Even though I knew nothing different and could concentrate well amid the controlled if cacophonous chaos, I yearned for private space and coveted quietness. Too, I just liked other sounds, scenes and kids who played games or learned new things with me. It was about a 4 block walk from our house to MCC and since the streets were safe, overall, I was free to ride my bike or walk alone there and back by the time I was 9 or 10. It was a good bet, however, that my friends might be going there, as well so we could meet up and head out.

I didn’t just learn to play indoor sports better, swim or dance better. Education for the young occurs in subtler forms socially. All socioeconomic and cultural groups were represented. I might not be good friends with Wally or Leslie at school but there we’d swim with each other, share a good game of volleyball or table tennis. It was far more egalitarian than most places. And I could better blend in with a number of groups and even just goof around. Not be My Father’s Daughter (a public man in several capacities) with high expectations to meet. I could also compete and work hard to win without hard feelings if my opponent or I lost–and the rules of fair gamesmanship counted. It all held more friendly neutrality than if we played in a school setting. And if there was ever a rousing argument, it was settled soon by the staff; fights were extremely rare in the MCC and those too boisterous were ushered out with warnings. Those who came wanted this to be a respite, a fun time, a place of peaceful and congenial interactions. I think not even swearing was tolerated. Clear respect for one another was, and likely remains, key.

I remember window seats. I don’t think there were cushions on them by the big wide windows but they were brick seats, nonetheless, where many could rest or wait for rides home, perhaps. There was an area beyond the front desk, a large rectangular room used for family get-togethers, meetings, catered dinners and other events. But often it was empty and still. I would take my notebook, sit with legs pulled up and write in my notebook on top of my knees, staring out the huge window now and then as I cogitated, dreamed, observed, recorded. I liked watching the weather change beyond fingertips pressed on glass: dramatic thunderstorms, blurring mini-blizzards, autumnal palettes, spring’s delights. I liked to see the people coming and going, teens walking arm in arm or parents with fussy children or an adult rushing in for a relaxing break before heading home again.

The community center was a central meeting ground of my town with its mix-and match events and numbers and kinds of people and multiple experiences on any given day or night.

An environment that is safe is important for any child or youth. It was crucial for me because I did not always feel safe, spending a fair amount of time trying to avoid, and too often failing, a (non-blood) pedophile during some earlier years. At MCC there were responsible, trustworthy adults with name tags and there were enough that every area was nicely covered. If someone got hurt, there were people to help. And the other youths were mostly those I genuinely enjoyed seeing, yet could easily avoid if I chose–the place was big and choices many. I could breathe easy, never felt lost or bored. Surely this is true of the other children that attended on a week-end afternoon or for after-school hours of fun. It was a haven for any and all as well as recreational center.

I never worked there but at least one sister and brother did. By the time I was of age to do so, other things were starting to hold my attention and I spent less time at MCC. But it helped inform who I was becoming, provided healthy pleasures, a sense of security and  instruction across a few disciplines.

I have been to a community center here and there since then. Some have been good, some are not very welcoming or useful. But all are working to bring together a variety of people–for improvement of health and welfare, to strengthen communal spirit and encourage personal growth. People coming together: so needed more and more. And saving graces, all, amid the often empty hustle-bustle, the multiple hazards of the world. For my old hometown of Midland, Michigan’s enriching community center I remain grateful, hold close rewarding hours of those times. I was fortunate to engage in opportunities for play and learning all at once.

Now I need to more often avail myself of similar community offerings in my current city–and I encourage others to do the same. Check it out. I wish you a happy volleyball or basket ball game, or swan dive off that goose bump-inspiring high board–make a big splash!

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.

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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.)

Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

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At last. I have arrived at one of our neighborhood parks, a favorite. And I am filled with sweet relief. I’m released of artificial enclosures, set free in a world of green abundance and those critters who always occupy it. The park is its own entity, a series of paved and hard-packed dirt pathways, many varieties of towering trees clustered together or spread about the rise and fall of 25 acres.  Their quietly powerful forms arch overhead, massive and lithe branches rustling in the breezes. I want to greet them: “Great-grandmother, Great-grandfather, hello.” (I have recently read of research verifying that trees do communicate and live interdependently in a number of ways, as many have suspected. Or perhaps as we all knew once upon a time when the workings of nature included us more intimately and routinely.) Perhaps they know me and perhaps not, but they seem to welcome me.

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As I power-walk the steeper incline, the fist-sized heart muscle squeezes and releases fast and strong, glad of partnership with lungs, aiding my reaching legs and arms. All mental fog clears as oxygen is given rapid delivery to cells. It then commences to empty and refill with simpler and finer stuff. Eyes note rocks, twirling airborne leaves, patches of cobalt sky and chameleon clouds, birds a flutter of feathers and plaintive or cheery melodies. My senses are governing me, guiding me through each moment; they do what they do very well indeed. Without this daily walk I would be a lesser human being and far less fit. Without this rolling park and more in my city, I would feel bereft–yes, it’s true– of much my mind, body and soul crave.

I am near the top of the hill when I halt progress. There is something going on with the crows as they surround nearby area, a zigzag of cried orders or observations that change to scolding or an alarm signifying worse. I gaze upward into thickets of leaves and crisscrossing branches, searching for what it is they are fussing over. There, is that the issue? A barred owl perching in what appears to be one of the park’s pretty magnolia trees. That explains it: owls and crows seem born enemies. This owl must have been found out and disturbed. It’s nervous and perhaps annoyed, repeatedly turning its head ’round and about. I pull out my camera, capture its wild beauty. It darts its black eyes at me, looks away, back again. I more often site various owls in denser forested acreage, rarely in broad daylight–they are sleep of course and blend in perfectly. But this one has been spotted by more than just me.

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The mob mentality of crows takes over. They are diving about the tree, making a louder racket, harassing the singular creature. An ominous sense of anxiety creeps up as I watch; it is rarely a welcome party by the ever-governing crows. It will roust the barred owl if at all possible, peck it, swoop down upon it, perhaps even prey upon it. I stand and wait several minutes but the crows seem unable to reach the bird. Or that is not yet their intent. I am surprised by a slow anger toward the fifteen or more crows. They are such aggressive birds, dominating all they can. On the other hand, I suspect owls can make a meal of a crow or two when at their prime advantage. I have read that Great Horned owls are masters at it.

In a flash, the owl flees the magnolia for another tree and its wings are wonderful to see, its small soft-feathered body so strong. I can somewhat see the division of crows race after it. The owl appears to find refuge among branches again. I do not have a good enough view to note what is next. The bombastic calls of the relentless crows go on.

I feel for the moment that the barred owl has the upper hand and so press on, contemplating the natural order of things. The curious incidents experienced here and during other park walks. The hierarchies in place and dramas played out, the battles fought, lost and won. It seems no creature can be entirely free of it.

But there is usually better news at the park. I find it immediately.

There are grassy off-leash, dog friendly areas and they take right to it. I walk by and enjoy the fun vicariously, being without a dog these days. Large and small, energetic and more retiring, they’re game and take full advantage of freedom, as any reasonably healthy dog will. They leap for Frisbees, fetch balls flung far and wide, sniff and greet, race each other madly back and forth. And the subtle posturing of various canine messaging goes beyond my ken. But the not so subtle occurs, too, as one gets too friendly or another finds the personality, breed or rank of another unappealing or even threatening. The owners compare notes and chat like great friends, too, including their pets in sometimes baby talk, sometimes adult conversations. I am always interested in whom goes with which dog; it isn’t always so easy to guess correctly.

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I am particularly interested in the man who does squats while his dog politely waits for him to finish. It appears the man is talking to the dog, perhaps explaining his routine, or counting aloud or asking his pet to be patient– his time will come. I also wonder if the man is more motivated to exercise when out with his dog. Pets can do that for us–start us up, keep us going in one way or another. The park has plenty of older citizens walking with their faithful friends. I feel gratified to see it and like to greet them both.

There are friends in deep conversation, with linked arms or companionable silence everywhere. I was recently asked who I walk with daily and it gave me pause. Not that many, I admit. Some friends are still working or live a bit far away. A couple have hip or knee problems. My spouse is not so much a moving-right-along walker as one who likes to pause and look at every small thing that catches his eye along the paths, in a bush, peeking up from dirt, moss and grass. He is quite engaged in collecting rocks and sticks. I enjoy looking up and around as I speed by, catching bits of talk, noting the way the light falls through the leaves and the shadows dance. I do stop long enough to take photographs. My older sister says it exhausts her to see me go; she likes to mosey, sit on a bench and chat–which I do like doing with her. In truth, not too many keep up with my pace. It’s not even intentional; I have always been fast on my feet. Most of my five adult kids likely can outpace me; they tend to be quite active and fit. I look forward to taking off with them; it pushes me. I treasure such times with them, the brisk pace, the bright air, the sounds of nature mingling with human. Their nearness. But most of them live in other states, so it is getting more rare these days to share these times outdoors. (If I’m lucky, I can hang out some with grandchildren. My fourteen year old granddaughter told me today that she is NOT too old to go to the pumpkin patch and when can we go? I about leapt for joy but composed myself and texted back.)

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Yes, I sometimes wish I walked with others more. But not often; I well appreciate being one among others, amidst nature within the city. I feel safe; I pay attention. The park is full of all ages with their own life stories.

I’m a happy gal to be able to keep my heart strong, to commune with the natural designs about us. To observe the human theater, photograph the scenes. Everything fascinates me in one way or another: the butterfly’s wings against a bloom, the reflection in an inch of water, the sounds of a pack of teens running in concert, the sun beaming on a turtle, the child reaching for a duckling.  The breaths I still can take– in, out; life given, life shared. So I go to the park to ease aches physically and emotionally, to even connect more readily with God as I meditate on such small beauty, each curious anomaly. These moments given like many gifts unexpected.

I also walk to jar free some ideas for writing. A first sentence, an image, a character or two–these will come forward as I move across a landscape. It’s as if they are waiting for me to clear more space for internal movement, to allow creative energy to take rein. I find a good walking pace generates more useful moments, rather than depleting me. I return home or go on to the next task feeling renewed.

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In this city-block-sized park (actually two, also with a children’s playground, basketball and tennis courts) there are runners, power walkers, strollers, sitters, Tai Chi and yoga practitioners, cyclists and roller skaters and more. I frequently see people practicing acrobatics. Tumbling pairs of adults. Those balancing/walking atop what appears to be a cord strung tautly between two trees will stop me cold a few moments. Jugglers practice their art and draw onlookers, too.

There are sometimes groups of young moms exercising, babies in strollers beside them. Many park-goers spread feasts on picnic tables, feeding a slew of family and friends. Some read in the shady quiet spots while others doze and sunbathe, even in October before winter rains take hold. And musicians like to bring their instruments; I have enjoyed a tuba player (very good), saxophonist (also good), a flutist (fair but chipper), a violinist (beginning stages), many guitarists and singers of various levels of talent and piano players (there is an upright kept in a maintenance building, brought out now and again). I keep waiting for someone to bring a drum kit and wonder how folks would enjoy that. I’d listen.

Sadly, Portland has thousands of homeless persons. The parks are often temporary camp-out areas. I don’t know all public park laws or how stringently they are enforced. But it’s not unusual to come upon several empty or occupied sleeping bags, a tent or two, shopping carts piled high with belongings, circles of folks who must know each other on the streets and meet up at the park, too. They are living their lives. Occasionally someone is talking to himself or seems upset about something. They are mostly quietly talking, smoking, listening to a radio. Sometimes we exchange a greeting, other times barely nod. But I do not find them invisible. Something we clearly have in common is an appreciation for the park’s offerings: old sturdy trees with their shade, open expanses for roaming and areas for solitude. Its easy atmosphere. Its richness.

There is a good-sized pond inhabited by common water fowl. I watch the squabbling, floating, friendly ducks.  I admire an occasional elegant blue heron from a distance as it perches and stands tireless, still, and sometimes it swoops down from a treetop. There are turtles aplenty basking in sunshine on logs in the pond, and a garter snake here and gone in the grass. Everywhere are benches about the pond where people sit and commune or snooze or chat with friends or lovers. Many take pictures there, greenery casting glowing reflections upon its calm surface.

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Almost no one makes a fuss. Sometimes there seem to be tears shed. I, too, have taken refuge to settle a clattering mind, let sorrow wend its way from my heart. It’s as if we all agree to democratically share these common spaces in order to rest, rejuvenate, play, meditate. To acknowledge each other and share a smile, a few words, or to pass by without even a glance, safe in silence. How much life the park has witnessed, how many secrets it keeps from over more than a century of use. Its presence is rounded out by us, its visitors and keepers. (Many volunteers augment the park staff; I saw them raking today.)

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Portland is growing very quickly after a bit of a lull of a couple of decades. The natural  beauty of the Northwest is a magnet. It seems everyone from everywhere else wants to take part in our economy known for entrepreneurial ventures and the small businesses’ success stories. It is a city that draws people with creative energy and vibrant city center. Each day there are more attractive old buildings and houses torn down, replaced by plain, tall apartment buildings, often multi-use –and they cost a lot to live in. The lifestyle may be easy going here but the cost of living isn’t, not anymore. As we become more crowded, more will be seeking places to spread out, to breathe deeper, to find a spot to sit and gaze outward and inward. We have treasures nearby us–the Columbia River and Gorge, our mountain ranges, wild and gentle rivers, the vast Pacific Ocean and its beaches, valleys and vineyards, the arid lands in eastern Oregon. There is always somewhere to explore, to learn about and appreciate.

But in the city we need our public parks, places to go to at a moment’s notice, to access most hours of day and evening. Not all have to be impressive in size or history. We have about 180 parks in Portland, including the Guinness Book of World Records’ smallest city park in the United States. But we also enjoy over 5,000 acres of Forest Park within city limits, a mere ten minute drive for me. Around 11% of our city land is devoted to parks–a reason I love being here.

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I thought quite awhile today about what sort of post I wanted to write. To be truthful, I wanted to write about my youngest daughter’s wedding two years ago this date. Her wedding reception was at a venue right across from the park I visited. The couple lives in California for now. I would be glad to s hare much more but she prefers her private life to not be so public as she gains momentum in a fascinating career. Still, while I was musing about the parks’ importance, I also recalled her wedding day in a beautiful meadow, deep in a woodland park in our city. The pictures, I have to admit, are fairly breathtaking. I am showing just a glimpse of the forest dream of a wedding day: her hands and mine; hers with her husband’s, her crazy-fab shoes, of course…She and my son-in-law wanted it to be smack in the middle of nature’s wilds with  trees, plants and all creeping, crawling, flying creatures–along with people–as witnesses. I understood that desire, and we made it happen.

My spouse and I were hiking over there recently. We mentioned again how fortunate we are to have this verdant rain forest landscape to play in. No wonder she wanted that forest wedding; she is her tree-seeking mother’s daughter–and her rock-hunting father’s. Happy Anniversary, my beloved youngest and that good husband–the Northwest misses you both just as you miss it. We will share a happy park walking date again.

Now that my motherly moment is done, back to one of Portland’s loveliest parks. Please enjoy more pictures below. Celebrate public parks; they celebrate community and that includes you!

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July 4th–and An Isle of Biodiversity’s Pleasures

Beautiful farms upon entering the island
Farmland upon entering Sauvie Island

It was a good day, one made of cooling clouds that accompanied my morning walk. Voluminous fluff of grey and white soon parted to make way for sunshine, light turning all amber and toasty. Now it is a fading back light to the end of day. ‘Tis the 4th of July in the U.S.A. It has been a day of lazing about, grilling and enjoying tasty turkey burgers, my dill potato salad and corn, keeping company with some of our family. I can hear bombastic fireworks and can envision the brilliant displays. We’ve attended countless displays over time so opted out since most grandchildren were elsewhere this year.

Tangential thoughts linger, though. Independence Day: what that heralded and how it happened, what it still means. It’s complicated to consider and a demanding a topic for a short post. I think of the real implications in juxtaposition to Native Americans as my mind tosses about divergent responses. There is much to ponder just as there is much to study and question regarding the history of the world, how land and culture is altered repeatedly so that entire peoples have been impacted on every continent. Became changed and also became change makers. Americans were once–and still often are–immigrants, by and large, a topic rife with conflict these days so many places.

I also think of the motley crew, that bunch of aristocrats, scholars of various means, visionary ragamuffins and assorted trail blazers who fought for and won self-rule. And managed to create a document called the Declaration of Independence that made it all official in 1776. England watched and must have wondered what on earth next. Turns out, plenty during 240 years. American born (a happy mix of German, Irish, English, Scotch predominantly), do remain and shall be. I love this place and the diversity of peoples. I dearly hope for the better parts to gain firmer ground and more troublesome ones to improve.

That said, I find myself coming back to what I love here and now. All I really want to do is share pictures of a place husband Marc and I visited over the week-end: Sauvie Island, about ten miles northwest of our city.

It is one of the biggest river islands in North America, and the largest freshwater isle in our country. It is a rich agricultural area that supplies a large population with wonderful fruits  and vegetables, and flowers (U-pick, too). We saw many gathering armfuls of lavender, buckets of raspberries and blueberries. We find the best pumpkins there for Halloween and have had a blast picking strawberries and apples.

The island has a large wildlife preserve and a few sandy beaches along the Columbia River side (one clothing-optional–a surprise the first time we stumbled on it) and even a lake. Sauvie Island is situated within the Columbia and Willamette rivers, as well as the Multnomah Channel, where houseboats line up at water’s edge. On a clear day, you can see neighboring mountain peaks in Washington and Oregon, including Mount St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood.

This time we took a two mile loop within Wapato Greenway State Park, part of a 12,000 acre Sauvie Island IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, having met an internationally agreed upon set of criteria). It lies within a one hundred year floodplain of the Willamette River. The landscape types include: open water, oak savanna, hardwood forest, upland prairie, riparian woodland, wetlands and grassy meadows. Each displays unique, attractive characteristics.

It was a very hot afternoon; I wore my wide brimmed hat this time and we took plenty of water and a snack. There were some dive bombing mosquitoes–not that common in much of Oregon and controlled in this area–but not enough to be bothersome if we kept moving along. (I used bug spray before entering, just in case; Marc seems oddly immune.) Bees were industrious and plentiful.We walked in search of even a few of one hundred species of birds that thrive there. Their wide ranging songs were startling and so melodic. We always carry binoculars but could identify very few as they flitted and hid, true to bird nature. There was a great blue heron. There were several kestrel nest boxes noted but no kestrels seen. We did see a lot of evidence of black tail deer. Coyotes apparently roam; I kept my eye peeled to no avail though they tend to nose about everywhere.

Here are a few photographs taken as we explored via winding, at times nearly overgrown trails for over two hours. We often return to this island as there are such wonders to explore. If there was more time I’d add more– but this time I hope enjoy a taste of Sauvie Island’s voluminous delights!

A sinuous insect-buzzing trail
A sinuous sunshine-and-shadow, insect-buzzing trail.
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We trekked along a channel of the Willamette River for awhile.
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The boating life– I am an aficionado, myself!
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A very old, huge white oak on oak Savannah acreage.
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There are numerous areas of marshland.
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Grassland meadows studded with flowers and bees.
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Marc: Isn’t that a warbler?
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Peace: a moment of partial shady repose as temps hit 85 degrees F.
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Mt. Hood–we call it simply The Mountain
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An osprey nest, one of many. Oregon has lots of ospreys, a delight to watch fly, to hear the whistling calls.
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Mount St. Helens is in WA. state but close to us–a volcano which famously blew in 1980, and has been agitated since. We have, I believe, 5 active volcanoes in our NW area. And one extinct right in our city that is now a beautiful park.
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Multnomah Channel, past of the Willamette River. The Columbia and Willamette converge but the Columbia flows to the Pacific Ocean perhaps 90 minutes from Portland.
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An idle day’s end fantasy: to live in a houseboat! I took far too many pictures of them with their tidy boats…

Cigarettes, Alcohol: Such Ordinary Thieves

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

As she slid into the chair next to mine, a redolent if acrid scent of smoke merged with the air we shared. The impulse to hold my breath came and went. As my respiration slowed I became somewhat inured to the burnt, stale smell. But I lost the words a person was speaking from the periphery of our circle. I closed my eyes, then opened them as I tried to stay attuned as the recovery meeting progressed.

Later, memories flooded me of cigarettes lit and inhaled rapidly before entering a “no smoke zone.” Especially at places such as where we gathered for meetings. I was angry when most churches and hospitals–common spaces used for various groups– banned smoking. How to keep the nicotine level up in the blood stream when it took an hour and a half for such gatherings? If there was a smoke break halfway through, I’d be fine. If not, well, there was at least coffee, better than nothing but really.

It was 15 years this February since a cigarette has come near my lips. They are well pleased with that and so is the rest of me, not the least of which are my brain and spirit.

There was a time I sought help for substance issues and fellow smokers would welcome me with open arms. I’d walk in and a fog of smoke greeted me first. It was like coming home. Voices rang out amid the blur, many laughing, engaging in debate, sharing personal stories that could make me sweat with sympathetic pain. Close at hand was my attractive flip-top box of cigarettes. The very act of lighting up was enough to bestir feelings of calm and pleasure. Any misgivings, restlessness, sadness, anger or general vulnerability could be momentarily vanquished by a luxuriant draw of smoke-thickened air. I’d close my eyes and let it all go a brief moment.

I recall when we smoker-recovery folks joked with one another that at least we had our cigarettes, that was not going to go–not illegal, not exorbitant, not going to land us in detox. We had given up so much already–our companions of alcohol or pot or narcotics or stimulants or whatever combination transported and eventually wrecked us. Nicotine didn’t do much harm in comparison–if we coughed too much, well, we still could walk and even hike, couldn’t we? So, one thing at a time.

The non-smokers rarely came outdoors during a break or held themselves apart. We headed out in rain, sleet, snow and wind as well as sunny weather, cigarettes between lips, lighter flaring as soon as the door closed behind us. That first drag–a relief, a friendly button pushed with familiar rewards. We were pals, hard-core smokers who’d managed to survive ravages of alcoholism or other addictions. We hunched together in a tight group, our talk intermittent and somehow exclusive. Smoke circled about our heads and we were oblivious of our slavery to one more drug–or we just didn’t care. We weren’t breaking any laws.

In the beginning for me it was nothing to worry about, except that smoking was against my parents’ decorous, church-adhering ways (and mine, at least partly). Though I’d tried a couple of stray cigarette butts found outdoors, I had a closer look at smoking in a psychiatric ward in a medical center at fifteen. My neighbor T. across the corridor, four years older and from the streets of Detroit, had boxes of Kools stashed. We’d detach ourselves from the group when outdoors for recreation of sorts and he’d show me how it was done. I shared a few puffs, the act feeling like an intimate one. Ah, that menthol blast, followed by heat of smoke quaking the lungs. It was a charge.

T. had hooded, fathomless eyes. A way of walking that said, “Come along, but stay back a foot.” We were both in treatment for drug use and other rebellious behaviors but he declined to say just what he had done. He said he was in a street gang, said it as if it was a badge of victory as well as a way of being. This was during a decade when the only gangs I knew about were in books and movies (James Dean came to mind), not in my manicured lawn town. T. scared me but under bravado lay the barest hint of a romantic, hopefully someone more like me. He taught me how to smoke, to jut out my chin, use a narrowed, penetrating gaze to scatter unwanted others. To walk with heels hard on the floor and ground. But the a long lasting change taken home was that newly discovered habit: smoking. On my last day he gave me a whole carton of Kools. He was being transferred to a long incarceration. I wanted to attend an arts boarding school in the same city but my parents refused–their trust was shaken. T. and I said good-bye with a secret look, though by then I knew we had little in common but anger, addiction and quick drags on a cigarette passed back and forth in a hurry.

I’d show my parents and keep smoking. It wasn’t so easy to accomplish as I didn’t want them to know about this new thing I had gotten into. When they were gone (my older siblings were already in college) I threw open my bedroom windows and blew streams of smoke out the screen with forceful exhalations. I worried constantly they would know I smoked and I’d be grounded or worse so took to gum chewing, mouth wash and clinging perfumes. I felt vaguely criminal, now an underage smoker on top of the other offenses.

As it became more urgent a need I smoked in a couple restaurant corners, a haughty don’t bother to ask my age, buddy look on my face, or on walks with a close friend who shared my interests. M. had eyes that were cousins to Sophia Loren’s and cheekbones I’d never personally know. She was, perhaps, a watered down female version of T. but smarter and more trustworthy. We smoked and talked for hours, we plotted to get out of our hometown, we came to each other’s rescue, such as it was–often wrong-headed but well-intentioned.

I never considered stopping smoking. But it was curtailed somewhat since I was a developing vocalist and wanted my voice to have optimum opportunity to improve. My voice teacher was demanding and I did not want to lose any purity of tone I still had. Singing felt like life itself back then, and smoking could ruin things for me along with other substances that remained hard to refuse. But if classical singers did not smoke, folk singers and rockers often did, I realized, so I kept puffing now and then outside my parents’ house. They finally knew; they scolded and worried.

Smoking accompanied me into college and ramped up, then followed me into marriage. Nothing like getting together with our friends, loudly debating politics and art and life with shared smoke making us raspy and heady. Cigarette ads flashed on television and took up a whole page in magazines. It was cool, sassy or urbane, depending on what crowd you ran with. Certainly all my friends and Ned, my husband the artist, smoked–as he worked on “chopping” his Harley Davidson, during classes and projects in sculpture, before even breakfast and a last one before bedtime. I smoked as I wrote, painted undulating forms of jeweled colors on big canvasses, met with feminist friends. It accompanied me into motherhood, lessening as I nursed my children. It is notable that four decades ago health information was scarce and few public campaigns discouraged smoking. But I still feel some guilt about it.

I was no longer singing so often. My vocal chords were changing and seemed on the way to becoming an alto after being a clear, natural soprano. A result, I suspected, of smoking for too many years already. But I had other things to worry about and accomplish. So I puffed away. I still managed an insouciance that kept me ignorant. I was young, after all.

I had found recovery from non-alcoholic drugs by my early twenties. Still, several years later I found myself with a glass of grocery store wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other, gazing out a window overlooking twilit fields and a deep, black-green forest. I spotted mysterious deer, sipped and mused, located the Little and Big Dipper above. A coughing spell and then a gulp. I was having a hard time shaking bronchitis that winter.

How innocuous alcohol seemed, how affordable that sweet, humble wine–and legal. I was twenty-seven years old and had not drunk more than a cocktail or two. Total. I suspect it seemed rather banal as a youth when all those other chemicals were sparking up the sixties generation.

It was a bitter winter of howling winds and days alone–occasional nights as well–with two small children. Ned sometimes took remodeling jobs far away so we could pay rent and buy food. The wood stove heated our pleasant house as long as there was wood enough so I split and cut it into lengths to feed the steady fire. I made bread and the rooms filled with a cheerful aroma. My intense, boisterous son and intense, quiet daughter learned, played and fought together. We took meandering walks in snow along a sluggish or frozen river. The nights felt sharp-edged when alone. I sat at my desk when the children were asleep and typed on my old Remington countless poems, sometimes stories, yet another beginning to a novel. The ache of cold crept up my ankles and clutched all the muscle and bone. Loneliness found the cracks within me. I poured more wine. When he came home, we were not as aligned. The frictions seemed like cataclysmic signals and the endless silences felt like drowning. I poured more wine but put it in a goblet because it looked innocent, even beautiful by the light of candles but it always tasted and felt like a deliverance.

And that’s how it went. Drinking cheap wine and smoking, then better wine and more smoking and finally in a year or two, drinking Seven and Sevens or rum and Cokes with unfiltered Camels or, if trying to slow down on the heavy nicotine, just Newports. I coughed too much, caught respiratory bugs often. Yet alcohol and cigarettes seemed a perfect juxtaposition: a depressant and a stimulant. It was off and on like that during a decade’s worth of mini and major disasters. The damning sustenance I had now fashioned was made of nicotine and alcohol. Food was optional some days; my stomach recoiled. I was loath to see the damage done in photographs, for I was rail thin, a ghost of myself by my mid-thirties. It would take another five years for me to wake up.

This may seem a history of my addiction but that is far denser and more inscrutable. More private. Every history is different but the theme remains the same: an adverse and ultimately life-threatening reaction to what many can many others can enjoy without such effects. No, rather, this is a small warning. To myself after a good meeting with other recovering alcoholics. It triggered memories of smoking cigarettes and sloshing alcohol. And perhaps it also can be a communication with others who pick up a substance that may do them in. It hurts, the ravaging by drugs of any sort.

We in recovery are not entirely immune to random impulses or nostalgia over simpler times. As time passes, the bad times may recede until there is a reminder of the truth. For those who are still out there, the need to believe all is well enough is paramount–that one’s clever ways and means have managed to outwit dire consequences of choices made long ago. But cigarettes and daily drinks can become insidious enemies, may alter one’s life without reasonable notice.

This year I am sober for twenty-five years and abstinent from nicotine for fifteen. As with alcohol, there can a time when I had to quit smoking; my heart became so impacted that as I inhaled, my heart rate would rise immediately to around one hundred twenty beats per minute. Tachycardia with various other palpitations. Arteries had become so inflamed and blocked that even after quitting, a heart attack hunted me down while hiking in a splendid forest. At just fifty-one, nothing was further from my mind. I didn’t even consider the extreme and painful breathlessness that took me to my knees was caused by a sick heart. I thought it might be my lungs and didn’t go to emergency. It took a night and a morning before I sought help. And within a week I had the first of two stents implanted to open up an artery that was over 90% blocked.

That meeting today brought an evocative smell of smoke and the bravery and hopes of those who came for clarity and fellowship. It was a reminder of life lived in peace with lasting joys after living reckless years. Being under the rule of the totalitarianism of addiction. These were simple actions and wants, then a strong desire for substances enlivening or soothing. And then a critical need. But they stole from me on a grand scale, little by little. Parts of who I was were changed, rendered weaker yet also tougher. I was much less than who I’d expected to become. It may have taken me only fifteen years to find a way out as opposed to whole lifetimes for others, but what was lost was lost and cannot be regained. We can only move forward from where we land–thank goodness there is that.

I think a whole multitude of beguilements in this life are not worthy of such devotion. We have our own magic-making bodies with all those hormones and synapses and nerves. Our own intellects sparked by curiosity and given to free will. Our spirits, that gift from God that whispers, sings and shouts to us if only we will accept that as our guides. We are not meant to ruin ourselves but to take care. Some days we all get lost and could use a much better route to wholeness.

So I take my stand one more time. I am responsible. Cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs are ordinary poisons disguised by pretty packages. They do me no good. This peculiar and mystifying life will keep nourishing me and I, it. My gratitude for helping hands along the way is immeasurable.

 

(Note: I posted a series of essays about my own heart disease and that ongoing recovery. If you share this diagnosis, you might consider reading one or two. We can benefit from supporting each other.  Women are more often killed by this disease than men. The Heart Chronicles was begun in 2011. Heart disease is the number one killer globally. Learn more from any reputable resource and potentially save your own life. You can find my essays starting here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/taking-my-heart-for-a-walk/)