Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Thoughts on My Hometown During Historic Flooding

Flooded Farmer’s Market, downtown Midland, as taken by a DRONE; photographer unknown.

Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.

It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.

I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)

It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )

It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.

When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.

But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.

I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.

I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.

Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.

Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.

That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.

But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.

We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.

It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.

Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.

And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.

As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.

No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.

I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.

I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.

Dear hometown,

From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.

Love, Cynthia.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: This, and What Lies Ahead

Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 042
Green lake, MI. Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

This sweet tang of Indian summer,
how it turns me over with its
strewn luxury, all that brass
and fire, coral and sapphire.
The air is laden with promise;
sun hitches a ride on my back
as if tagging along for the thrill.

And then a small vortex of wind
calls out, careens, an edge of ice
secreted in its wild timbre.
A taint of sootiness threads
this sheerness, such rose of sunsets.
Clouds gather in fists, then dance.
I know well what lies ahead,
heavy velvet days that merge
with chilled silence of night.

All will be safeguarded,
blankets flung about and the
wood stove will be radiant with heat.
This heady flare will dim, one verve
becoming another as great trees
surrender their raiment and rest.
How far am I now from beds of snow
for angels, peals of laughter to scoop
and fill up hollows with winter?

So far that, when I step off the plane,
the Oregon rain with its fineness
and ferocity, even somber romance,
cannot rival the dangerous splendor
of ice strung from northern eaves,
mystic swords winking, startled by light.

Calling Forth the Woods’ Wisdom

Tryon 1st hike 074

I woke up last Sunday morning and felt the woods shining deep inside me. Nature is not somewhere only outside for me; it lives within, for we are a part of it and it, us. We are called to one another, creation to creation. So I knew I had to go to the place of the trillium, a favorite wildflower. I was alone and intended to find a few spots where no one else would intrude. To smell, hear, taste, touch, see, and sense mysteries, trod upon earthen trails. It had been a winter of pummeling rain, now sunshine had arrived. I could take myself right into the thick of forests again and feel once more at home.

I am not a city person out of a deep love for its cacophony of hustle and bustle. Yes, I enjoy the myriad arts events, festivals, architecture, markets and stores, the varieties of people. The ever-present source of stories found by just watching out a window or from a balcony. I was raised in a very small city but it was similar if on a quite limited scale. Yet both here and in my old hometown, I have had escapes. A saving grace in a life I didn’t and often do not well understand or even wholly appreciate as I’d prefer.

As a youngster there were times (often in warmer weather) when even the best things–the beauty of music; aromas of roast beef, potatoes and carrots or cinnamon rolls or Dutch apple pie; allure of a new novel beneath a pile of schoolwork; anticipation of dance class the next morning; a long phone conversation with my best friend, twirling the stretchy cord around my bare feet as I lay on the carpet–were not what I wanted and needed. I’d fight with school assignments, drag my mind back to its required goal. I’d race through cello and vocal compositions. If I had a chore, it’d be a slapdash job.

Those times I felt that yearning for peace and quietude inching its way into my consciousness at a velocity not to be ignored. Soon its urgency was greater than all else. I’d leave the busy common rooms of the house, go sit on my bed, close my eyes, summon the focus of my desire.

The hush of my water-blue bedroom enveloped me. Crows cawed back and forth, robins trilled monotonous calls. A rotary lawn mower whirled around a yard. Across the hallway, my mother’s sewing machine whirred and paused and whirred. My imagination’s magnetic pull took me out of my room, down winding stairs, out the front door, down Ashman Street, two blocks north, one block west and then the birches came into view, and poised maples and oaks and sketchy elms, stalwart evergreens. The poplars’ silvery leaves were tiny cymbals creating a bright, dry song in breezes. A rush of delight, a calm swept over me. Swift gusts rustled my hair, redolent of musky earth, freshest greenery. Everything in me wanted woods close about me, filling me with enchantments.

It was those decades when a youth could mostly still go alone into the world or natural places. (I’d known danger as a child abuse victim; it was within the familiar but failed security of a house and car belonging to a known person. I was not overall afraid of people or venturing out, or if I was, I ventured nonetheless.) Perhaps a somewhat wilder landscape offered a reprieve from moments of boredom or frustration but such a place had long been identified as a pocket of comfort. Happiness. I’d abandon house, work or play and head for the woods.

Soon I saw the grey and white birches thronged like valiant sentries. Sinuous pathways greeted my careful feet. Shadowy designs were thrown over skin like a delicate wrap. Above, the crowns of trees conversed with sky, while below the variety of trees were familiar friends, hearty bodies of pungent wood, bark, leaves. I could examine everything along the way without needing to master it. The multi-faceted insects, each plant unfurling itself was scrutinized. Small mammals scurried, reptiles slithered or they watched, accepting of my presence if not indifferent. I melded with gradations of light and dark, with green and brown and yellow. Stealth directed my movements; I felt compelled to slip between trees and plants, to not disturb. I felt given permission due to my deep admiration. Everything breathed with me and I, it.

Tryon 1st hike 053

The woods were barely swaying, certainly humming. Birds were aloft with chatter and song. I whispered thanks, felt joy rise up from my center then spread, a wash of warmth. There were high-spanning, glimmering bridges of webs. Nurse logs harbored colonies of bugs, were laboratories for mosses, lichen, fungi. There were sudden flower beings peeking from undergrowth. The serpentine creek with its tinkling, gurgling dance pulled me to it. I followed along, around and through the canopy of trees. Sat at its banks, the dampness of the ground seeping into my pants. I closed my eyes to better know just where I was. I was exactly…there. And happy to be one more creature amid the others.

My love of nature may have begun with early lessons from a mother who adored geography, geology and etymology, and a father whose passions included science and mathematics as well as music and education. Family trips were as much running commentary on land formations, vegetation and creatures as anything else. My parents taught me about weather patterns, rock and soil types, the habits of bugs in different places, the important diversity of plants and how all worked together for the good of all. My father pointed out constellations from our back yard or elsewhere; I was mesmerized  by God’s heavens. But no one had to persuade me to love the natural world or embrace its wisdom. I’d early experienced those in Barstow Woods as noted above and the plant and tree nursery thriving behind our house (which had a lovely, tree-lined back yard). The many Michigan forests, lakes and rivers afforded me good amounts of time and activity each summer.

From a young age, I enjoyed a somewhat unusual experience. I attended summer sessions at various music camps, one being the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwest lower Michigan. Founded in 1928  and situated on 1,200 acres, it was named simply National Music Camp for decades, a place where capable student musicians gathered to study and perform. It quickly gained a fine reputation and before long all performing and fine arts were studied by students arriving from around the world. It has grown immensely since then. It offers, among other programs, a premiere private high school arts education. But back in the fifties and sixties my father taught strings and orchestra during summer camps, and my siblings and I were music and other arts students.

I have not had a repeat of such extraordinary experiences, where creative expression and the natural world fit together into one perfect design. We lived in cabins with other like-minded youth in the woods, eating at a mess hall, studying in tandem. We attended music or other classes daily, rehearsed and performed on covered outdoor stages, other sunny, wind-swept spaces, and under star-pearled skies. The dance building was set on a lake shore, and as I danced and rested I could smell fragrant water and earth, see the undulating expanse of green-blue with white sailed boats bobbing or flying along. The campus buildings were mostly stone and wood structures, lodge-like, cozy even when large. Recreation included table tennis, sailing and swimming, volleyball and more. Tiny practice rooms were also of field stone and timber with small rectangular windows. Once one was opened, I practiced my cello or vocal pieces, with warm air wafting in and it carried a delicious fragrance of dried or greener pine needles. Everywhere could be heard musicians, other students laboring over the thing they loved doing, honing whatever talent had brought them. The natural symphonies and unfolding stories of earth’s bounties accompanied my thoughts and endeavors.

All my life the wedding of creative energy with the natural realm has seemed a most sacred thing. A vibrant chorus of voices or resonance of a string quartet, rich notes of a French horn or the mellow beauty of an English oboe–these experienced within the lustrous beauty of a summered landscape are potent magic. Making visual art, dancing, writing, acting–all this replete with the constant inspiration of rhythms and cycles of natural events is an unparalleled way to explore and live. Nature’s formations and complications, the vagaries and wholeness so well shake loose ideas and influence impulses. There were mystery and sweat, dreaming and victories and failures–a mammoth arc of learning as I opened to more teaching. The context of such activity can give rise to a lot of human industriousness. Tranquility.


Oh, but the woods I have known and loved as a child, a youth, an adult. If I am patient and willing to search, I may more fully discover an immutable sense of the organic, microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. The great synergistic cohesion works. It teaches me there is a purpose to each small piece, part of a span of connections started eons ago and still operating miraculously well if we respect it. I am shown frailty and obdurate strength. Order and ultimate symmetry. Upheaval and rejuvenation. Transformative powers reveal that saving changes do exist. It boosts my most human hope. For we are part of this process, the mighty cause and effect. If I recognize the common thread in the schemata, I will be at peace, at one with it.

Not so many years ago I squatted in the middle of a stream in another forested place and looked about me and listened. The birds and water sang. Rocks glistened. Plant life rippled and rested. The sky was blue as sapphire and trees were arced above me, leaning toward the rippling stream. Golden afternoon shafts of light struck lively water and it sparked with brilliant energy. It came to me in a sweep of awe, the clarity of the primordial and the divine so strong amid wounded fragmentations of our world. Overwhelmed by an ecstasy and bone-aching grief all at once, tears flowed. I looked up and trees were weeping, too, and the sky was all radiance from which love flowed everywhere. And I held my self open to that eternal Presence of God.

It was not the first time, nor the last. But in nature this power is very accessible, it seems to me. So, the woods do call me but I, too, call the woods. Solace, balance and wisdom I often need and find, and such refilling of the well of my soul I always am given. Step gently but boldly into the beauty. Let your soul call and be called, too.


A Child’s Winter Haven/A Woman’s Home

Michigan Winter
My Michigan Winter

It may not have been the most superior year for snow. That would be when the door had to be shoved open, an impressive snow drift refusing to budge until you put your weight into it. But any winter was a different world from what I have now. Foremost in this land is rain: chilled, heavy or sparse, freezing or just slanting and bitter wind-blown, intermittent or all day and night. Inevitable. Not that I don’t like rain. The Pacific Northwest depends on lots of it, while I count on the lush green landscape to remain enchanting. And from May until late October it is mostly clear, sunny and festooned with flowers.

But I still have moments of snow yearning.

A recent long walk triggered memories of my mid-Michigan childhood. My hair, despite a cap anchoring it, was tangled by wind. My cheeks were getting chafed, felt perhaps twenty minutes from being immovable. I jammed gloved hands into my jacket pockets and sped up my pace. But the scent on gusting drafts held familiar sharpness: it teased me with a remote chance of snow. I kept a faster pace to keep blood well pumped through all systems; I am no longer acclimated to very cold temperatures (below 50…). Still, ridiculous to entertain the idea of snow arriving. There was snow being dumped in the Cascades, accumulating on volcanic Mt. Hood, our highest peak. Snow in the valley–unlikely. If it happened, a light layer would tantalize, cause school closures and then vanish in more usual temperateness.

But as I walked scenes of lustrous white flashed in my memory. They arose from flat, spare lands of the Midwest of my childhood–oh the swirling, drifting, diving snowflakes that fell upon my world were like magic. A dependable, ever powerful magic. I would awaken to a silence so deep it swaddled the mind. I’d peer out my upstairs bedroom window at the driveway to find cars blanketed, bushes shaped into capricious forms, trees wearing their dresses of fluffy whiteness. The cloudy sky was densely stuffed with more impatient snowflakes. If only school wasn’t required. I’d have to wait for play until after the afternoon trudge home in boots and scarf, mittens and snowsuit. Then I had only a short time until dinner, then homework and practicing cello. Schools and businesses were rarely closed due to snow; we still had plenty to do.

But if it was Saturday (not Sunday, that meant church until noon), a good portion of the day was mine. (And the night. I loved the evening hours even then, and the snowy landscape took on a unique beauty.) After accoutrements of said snow lover were accounted for–long pants, undershirt and shirt with sweater and long johns and thick socks in addition to outerwear–I readied myself for the first breath. It hurt. It stung like it was supposed to, a sudden swoosh of cold that could freeze the hairy lining of your nose, poorly protected flesh. I’d experienced hands so over-cold that when indoors by the heat register they would burn terribly. If, though, the  wintered air could seem mean-spirited and brittle, it was in fact welcome, a lively impetus to move the limbs, embrace the weather. I would lift each heavy-booted foot and plow through the back yard. First off, the obligatory snow angel: lie down, spread legs and arms to make windmill motions and an angel appeared at once. Because I loved angelic beings, because it was the tiniest artistic moment, this proved quite satisfying.

The towering pine trees that rimmed our back yard stood like empresses with ermine capes, already present for the party. My favorite climbing tree, a graceful big maple, was naked and ghostly still. Bushes responded to passing legs and a few swats with sprays of snow that covered my glasses. I’d have to take off mittens to wipe away wetness so I could see where the next step would lead. They all led, back there, to Stark’s Nursery, the land of –at least to me, a city child–the wild and free. I decided to get my Radio Flyer sled, in case there was anything interesting to drag home. In case I wanted to sit down and warm up my snow-crusted mitten-bound hands by slapping them hard against each other. Once out on the rolling land of the nursery, I saw other kids searching for good spots to begin the snowball fights. From behind walls made of hand-built rectangles of snow, a fort of sorts, they would ready, aim, fire off a guarded supply of hard packed balls. Woe to anyone not paying attention. I had a decent throwing arm but snowball contact could be disastrous when meeting flesh. Like exposed faces. Since I wore glasses until a teen, I tended to avoid the heaviest skirmishes; I wanted to be able to see it all.

I might scope out a place for an igloo. A snowdrift half as big as myself helped me get started. I would begin to carve out a good hollow, then pack snow for base and sides, adding a little here and there as I built upward to the roof area, shape bigger blocks as needed to frame things out nicely. Soon other kids might join in to make the interior broader and deeper. If the snow was the sort for exceptional packing, we might add a small wing, carving out a connecting tunnel. And that made for a cozy snow abode. I recall sitting inside and thinking that nowhere else, no matter how fancy, compared to such a spot. I was surrounded by glistening whiteness. By then I was warm, even sweaty, and frigid air was welcomed anew. Shimmering sunlight bounced off the nursery’s open range: snow blindness might ensue so I’d close eyes, rest, rudimentary thick, curved walls keeping all of us that fit both snug and safe.

Pulling an empty sled through ankle-to-knee-high snow attracted freeloaders whose weight slowed or stopped my progress. We took turns hauling each other a bit. But a sled was good for piling on broken branches the snow’s weighty load had snapped off, then taking them to the igloo to decorate. Or use as brushes on smooth snowfall. Better yet, pile a couple fallen heavy icicles and give one to a friend for a rousing sword fight. But what I now recall about sled pulling was how it made two deep tracks in a perfect, scintillating expanse. I found it lovely, a design of curving, shadowy swipes upon a canvas of snow. I don’t know why this captivated me, but there it is: voluptuous snow; fresh ruts; light moving across the yard; festooned trees leaning about.

At night it was the best time, that entrancing time between twilight and darkness now informed by a gently undulating carpet of whiteness. It was the side yard that drew me first. To the left hibernated a huge garden plot kept by our crotchety bent-over neighbor. To the right was our two-story cheery yellow and turquoise house, its many windows glowing, parents and older siblings ensconced and busy with work. I could slink around, watch and listen undetected, seek shelter within snow-swathed bushes with their poisonous but pretty red berries. I would act out stories of grand heroics wherein I was rescuer or explorer or brave lost orphan. No one could hear or see me, so I had full creative license.

By night, traffic had slowed to a trickle on our often busy street. The corner streetlight beyond our front yard would swing in winds from an Arctic front, casting shape-shifter shadows over and around all. Our front porch was made of brick and cement. I could sit on one of four corner built-in seats. The air seemed imbued with blue and amber as lack of light and swaths of artificial light intermingled, then separated. Cold and quietness spoke to this enthralled child, reflected peace woven with mystery. Things present and things to come. Of a world that was made of fabulous parts, an earth created by a omnipresent God. If it was a full moon night then it was even more shivery good, the dark blueness and whiteness limned with silver.

But when I prepared to go ice skating, time seemed suspended. Even as I changed from boots to figure skates, my heart pounded, muscles tensed, ready to spring my body forward. I could not get out to the ice fast enough. I took a lungful of crisp air, pushed off with a thrust of sharp blades: it was all motion inside speed, taking risks, threading my way around the busy outdoor rink. The thrill of it, hard, slick ice beneath my feet; rushing, cold breeze over my skin; hands aiding balance now often bare, my limbs reaching as I urged my body forward–then rose from the surface. Gravity defied for a few instants as I leapt and spun and jumped. The unrestrained happiness of it, radiant winter sky above, legs strong and feet sure. There were very few things I felt passion for as I did for figure skating, even the study and daily practice. Even the falls and the rising up again. I felt both moved beyond and fully occupied by sinew and blood, nerve and bone. My breath rasped in, out and energy coursed through my innermost center. Ice skating was heavenly, that was all. (I still dream of it and occasionally put on my skates for a lovely spin.)

There was also sledding, inarguably excellent fun even if my town held only a trifling of hills. But more so: tobogganing. We had two great toboggan runs deep in City Forest a few miles out from town. To be a successful tobogganer requires fearlessness, decent muscle strength, a spirit of adventure, and willingness to take any blows and bruises. A shiver of recklessness is what I felt. The framework that created the elevation and length of those iced runs were made of wood. Standing in line as we climbed up steps to the top was part of the experience, a sense of danger, as the high tower helped support two of four elevated toboggan runs. They were wooden, had been around awhile. In any case, toboggans in tow, up we went, no turning back. The runs were five hundred feet long, thickly iced and snow lined as well. We squeezed up to four on a toboggan and held on to each other from behind. The ride down was bumpy, fast, long enough and breathtaking, every one screaming in enthusiastic compliance with such an event. Occasionally someone would fall off or get a hand caught between the side and the toboggan (we were strongly cautioned by adults), but overall it only felt like a crazy ride. In short: a winter thrill.

There are miscellaneous winter bits, like the few happy times I skied on quite giant bumps of earth further up north, only giving it up due to the large expense. There was ice fishing, much further down on the happiness meter unless I could be indoors by the fire, watching for a red flag signaling fish nabbed beneath the hole. There was deer season, the one time I did not want to be in Michigan woods at all. And winters on the Great Lakes, when you were blessed beyond measure just to stand and freeze as you took in the panorama of beauty.

The snowbound months comprised one season among four others, and surely snowflakes gathering all about meant home. But now I have lived over twenty years in Oregon and it is a different tale.

So there I was, walking after a cold brief rain, thinking I smelled the electric, bright scent of snow on the horizon– indulging myself. Kidding myself. For if it does snow in the Willamette Valley this winter, it will be pretty and pleasing–but it will not be too exciting. Flat-out marvelous. Not to me, as I’ve already had some of the best snowy moments that can be had. Being a child helped immensely; that is, the gifts coming to an outdoors sort of kid in the northern Midwest seem some of the very best. Nostalgia notwithstanding, it had its pros and cones, I suppose. The perils of icy roads and raging snowstorms were real, too. Shoveling heavy snow was not a blast. All that clothing was not easy to maneuver within.

But I will take these rainy days and nights, too. Gladly. At best, I now find in it the rhapsodic aspect of winter, even though these clouds can seem leaden and dampness does not abate for any length of time. It is still a deep affection I feel, even when our famous roses go on hiatus. The falling waters are signs of a time to turn more inward–though I still walk with raincoat and scarf, gloves and a moth-attacked blue cashmere hat. I take to the streets and find good surprises while woods and wetlands eventually dry out some. While mud is not snow and raindrops not snowflakes, the varieties of rain comprise musical programming that keeps me soothed. Water is critical to life and any precipitation keeps it flowing. At its worst, the rainy season keeps me rooted to chair more often. Sends me scurrying toward others so as to share cups of steaming tea or coffee. I engage in indoor experiences less urgent when sun blares for six months. But this emerald acreage, the density of wilderness is all about me. The rainfall nourishes, transforms and prepares the earth for more adventures to come. I am ready and willing to partake of it all.

It seems one’s sense of home is a combination of elements, tangible and intangible. I have learned to carry home within me and in that regard I count myself fortunate. So now that December is here: welcome, rain. Or let it snow a tad. I will find a spot in winter’s design and then just ease on in.

Oregon, Early Winter
Oregon, Early Winter

My (Ever-Green) Oregon Life

Mt. Hood, between the rains
Mt. Hood, between the rains

A Mad Charade


The rotund cigar was positioned between index and middle finger of my right hand, while the left was positioned on my blue-jeaned hip. My friend, Bev, was standing nearby, waiting for her turn. The cigar had been filched from her father’s stash, which was the first thing that had made me nervous. But, hey, I was far from home, hanging out in Pontiac, Michigan, a city north of Detroit that felt as foreign to me as Detroit, itself. Gritty streets were jammed with honking, revved up vehicles, smog laced the air, and people yelled from their porches at the traffic jams and passersby. Even the extrenally more pleasant neighborhoods gave off a disgruntled air, as if the houses themselves would just as soon be elsewhere, and the stores would rather close up shop and migrate to the tranquil northern forests, even for a brief respite.

This was Bev’s town. I lived in a much smaller city in mid Michigan replete with lush lawns, a plethora of well designed parks, a major architect, Alden B. Dow, whose influence was seen everywhere. There were more churches per capita than almost anywhere. Situated there, commanding the services of everyone from renowned scientists to line workers, was the world headquarters for a major chemical company that Jane Fonda, in person, protested. The arts and sciences created their own complex and impressive culture. Beauty reigned, as well as excellent education. But clearly there was a significant lack of population diversity. All I had to say was “I’m from Midland” and Michiganders understood–or so they thought–what that meant. To me it was home for eighteen years, sometimes inhospitable and other times a seeming paradise.

It was true that in Pontiac I was out of my element, but this is one reason I liked to visit Bev. I had done some travelling but at fourteen I hadn’t yet experienced a wide variety of environments. My family travelled by car on vacation each summer. I had been to various summer arts camps and met people from all over the world, yes; at one I’d become friends with Bev, a talented pianist who wanted to be a composer. For world experiences I couldn’t quite count a week-end summer shopping trip to Chicago or Detroit when my parents and I would also attend a symphony concert and visit art museums. Pontiac gave off a slightly dangerous, exciting vibe. I thought this could be where authentic people lived, not just those who presented as perfectly well-groomed and mannered and appranetly free of the growing angst I felt. It was nineteen sixty-four, and the world sure was changing, per Bob Dylan and so many others. I was restless.

Since I was caught in the maelstrom of adolescence I had begun to try on different styles of fashion and types of behavior. Different personas, to see what might fit better. If I was out-of-town, that is, where it was safer to do so. And Bev seemed of my ilk, ready to push limits just enough, interested in deeper meanings and unusual possibilities, at least philosophically. We both had read Hermann Hesse and Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus and Kierkegaard and Jung. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy St. Marie and Joan Baez were guides as well as Bach, Stravinsky and Handel. Ensnared by “teendom” and also the impulse toward adulthood, we explored life with a boldness shaped and at times undercut by an intrinsic sense of responsibility and well ingrained conscience.

So we did a few things that we told no one.

Earlier in the day we had wandered stores as we did on occasion, speaking in extravagant accents that undoubtedly fooled no one while garnering a little attention. I had a  habit of trying to speak in another language even though I had barely begun the challenging task of learning French. Bev spoke what sounded like passable Spanish but I had no idea what she was saying to me. So I invented my own languages, utterances rolling off my tongue without self consciousness. I also wanted to indulge myself in even a barest imitation of how I imagined Anouk Aimee, Catherine Deneuve or Jane Birkin might be in their own cities, laughing and sharing secrets, gesturing eloquently and swooping about the aisles with eccentric, self-possessed grandness. I wanted to have that sort of magnetism, to be as confident as they were. And I wanted to play.

I might wear a floppy hat or bright head scarf with bell-laden, dangling Indian earrings my mother would have forbidden. I preferred black boots with bell bottom jeans borrowed from Bev or long gauzy skirts if we could find one at a second-hand store. It was costume time, an activity I missed from childhood. (At home I still wore slacks, matching skirts and sweaters with Capezio flats; my own trendy jeans, loose chambray shirts and love beads came a couple of years later. But never in school.) We bought a token something now and then–matching enamel butterfly pins for our jackets, a fancy pair of “natural tan” pantyhose, a bright bangle–to lend our forays more shopping authenticity and as momentos. I doubt that sales associates or shoppers fell for any of our raucous, amateurish attempts to appear like exotic European visitors. They likely were laughing behind our backs as we made our way from department to department or cafe to shop.

Never mind. We were having too much fun. Bev and I saw ourselves as romantic idealists. We vowed to live industrious, imaginative lives and thirsted for adventures that tested our intelligence, conferred high value on fledgling talents. We were powered by the zest and foolishness of youth, moved by a desire to make the world better but also more vivid and dynamic, as if we were worried it might not hold enough of either without our help.

Secretly, I wanted to be a stage actress and playwright–secretly because that sort of vocation would not do in my family. The best I could hope for was to perform in a few school musicals and plays, so I did. But I read all novels or memoirs (including Moss Hart’s remarkable offering Act One: an Autobiography) about acting I could, behind my closed bedroom door or in the big maple’s treetop branches. I was not a huge movie goer–it was not encouraged, as I had academics, church, cello lessons, dance, singing and figure skating to devote myself to first and last. But I might still see them on a group date or when visiting Bev or another friend out-of-town. Every now and then I was allowed to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee for a quarter at the Circle Theater.

But how unbelievably powerful to write a play (I’d tried a childish few), then direct it with characters placed about a bare stage, turning it into a pulsing, riveting piece of life lived before one’s eyes. How much better to be the actress who is given choice words to enliven a moment or an hour, to move an audience with a shrug of a shoulder or a lowering of eyelids, a small space of silence or a bellow of grief or joy. And, oh, to be someone else, anyone else but myself for just a little while…the freeing beauty of that!

So, you can see I was already at risk that spring day for something unexpected and untoward. I was perhaps overzealous in my passion for the arts, in my longing for exotic experiences, and molded by a certain naiveté that one develops living in a small near-cloistered Midwestern city. If Bev showed some restraint as we lolled about a street far enough from her house to both feel like visitors, I did not.

I smelled, then I lit the cigar. And inhaled. The fragrance and taste of the hot smoke hit me. I consoled myself with the thought that this was different and different must mean better. And then I choked, blew out a rapid stream of smoke. I felt light-headed, pleasantly so. Disoriented, perhaps, but not enough to raise alarm. I handed the cigar to Bev and she puffed away. I suspected she had done this before, had a small stash in her room along with marijuana and found this possibility awesome. I noticed a few people staring at us as they walked by, a couple of guys poked their heads out their car window and whistled. I reached for the cigar again and inhaled more deeply and slowly, tossing my hair back and adjusting my sunglasses. Exhaled more slowly. And began to feel as if I was on a merry-go-round and as if I was floating away, then turning upside down. I wondered if it might be laced with something bad. I wasn’t ignorant of some illicit substances but neither was I any expert. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling; I had thought it would be a little like cigarettes which I had tried once. A green wooden bench was to my left. I sat down and leaned back, inhaling a last time.

That was a mistake. I felt immediately nauseous and leaned over in time to vomit. Only I didn’t. I hadn’t eaten in a few hours and the dizziness seemed to stay and swirl inside my head, not quite upending my stomach. My heart raced and I began to perspire. Bev came over and spoke to me but I put up my hand.

“Okay, Cyn, what’s going on?”

“I think I’m going to die,” I whispered.

“Not possible. It’s only a cigar.”

“I am definitely going to die. Call 911.”

“Well, I don’t see a phone booth anywhere so just relax. Breathe.”

She sat down and rubbed my back and I jerked away.

“Don’t touch me, I’m going to be terribly ill.”

It was like being in some sort of tobacco hell, so nauseous and whirly-headed I couldn’t see straight, yet I was unable to divest myself of the sickness that consumed me.

“You inhaled, didn’t you! Why did you do that?”‘

I turned my head enough to see her accusatory look, her irritation.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to inhale?”

“I figured you would know that much.”

“I’m going to pass out. I have to get help.” I eyed a police station across the street and felt much sicker. No, not there.

Bev looked around. A couple of passersby slowed to gawk. I put my head between my knees when I heard a woman offer to assist us. Bev was talking to her and then her arm went across my back and her hand under my armpit with presure enough to lift me.

“Get up. We’re taking you across the street.”

“The police? No!” I wanted to stop talking and thinking, go to sleep, just wake up tomorrow.

“Yes, police department,” the woman said as she took the other side of my body and we crossed the street.

“No! I’ll get in trouble…”

“Already are,” the stranger said, cackling.

I loathed her help more than being ill.

The policeman who came out to meet us in the hallway took one look. “Drugs? What kind did you take?”

“None! I smoked a cigar. I’m so sick.”


He turned to Bev as the helper slinked out.

“She’s right, we shared a cigar. I don’t inhale but she did.”

“You do look pretty green, no kidding,” the policeman said. “You’ll survive. Lie down, I’ll get some water. You kids!”

He seemed tickled by my foolishness, though, and laughed so hard he clutched his stomach, another police officer coming out to see what was up. The longer this went on, the more I wanted to throw up. I gingerly lay back on a bench in the hallway and closed my eyes. I wanted to caution Bev to not give him our names or addresses, but figured she knew better. Everything was muffled as my head reeled and pounded, my stomach endured its stormy unsettling. I heard the man offer a paer cup but shooed him away. Breathe in, breathe out, think good thoughts, I told myself.

In a few minutes the spinning slowed some. I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel Bev’s warm thighs under my outstretched calves and ankles. She kept drumming her fingers on my boot. I suspected she was practicing some piano piece she had to memorize, or she might be dreaming up something new. It irked me, then was calming. I fell into a light, woozy sleep, and dreamed of the open air stage of the music camp where Bev and I had met. It held rows of neatly seated cigar smokers.

In real time, a man and a woman came in arguing, followed by a teen-aged boy cursing at them both. My eyes flew open.

“Any better yet?” she asked.

I sat upright bit by bit. The spinning had stopped.”What time is it?”

“We’ve been here twenty minutes, maybe longer. You dozed some. I’m hungry.”

“You always are…maybe I could manage a pop.”

“Well, I guess you aren’t a born smoker.” She grinned, then hung her tongue out at me and widened her smallish hazel eyes.

“Stop. Not cigars, for sure…”

The others took the next bench, still going on about rent overdue and a car that had to be towed “or else” and tickets the boy had. I glanced into the office where police officers were milling about. They were paying no attention to me. I marvelled that I hadn’t been arrested for underage smoking or sent off to emergency for nicotine overdose. I wondered why they were so blase about a young girl nearly passing out on their turf. But I suspected this was the least of their worries, so stood up and tested my first steps. Success.

“Thanks,” I shouted into a hole in a thick glass window.

A guy who was studying paperwork looked up, gave a lazy salute.

We bought two soda pops in a machine down the hall, exited the building and waited for the city bus back to her folks’. I took off my hat and wiped off pale lipstick. It had been a heck of a day, and a painful mixture of relief and disappointment welled up. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders. She elbowed me as we started to giggle. We both knew the next time I was in Pontiac there would be another caper.

I caught a Greyhound to Midland the next day. No one heard my tale at home. It was back to the routine, learning how to be a musician, reading and researching for school, hours on the ice rink and stolen moments with notebooks where I recorded the ins and outs of growing up. And my stories of brave girls and seriously beautiful romances, poetry of despair and passionate longing for more of life. I heard from my hometown friends that I was too earnest and sensitive, but I couldn’t seem to be otherwise.

The last I heard Bev ended up in L.A. and made a good living as a pianist and songwriter. That gave me happiness. We were true friends for a couple of years when we needed some zaniness as well as loyalty and respect. I found ways to grow into myself; it took time, endurance and better creative thinking. There were false starts and odd scenarios, a few leaps of faith. I had to admit that becoming whole and authentic was far harder than playing elaborate games of pretend, and the lessons of those times helped point me the direction I needed to go.

But lest you think that day was just a lark and had no real impact: I still cannot abide the barest whiff of cigar smoke fifty years later. Later, surprisingly, I did take up cigarettes for thirty years, and I regret every one smoked. But I was appreciative of a wise policeman who gave me a safe place to recover, put things into a right perspective with his good humor, then looked the other way. And lastly, you never know when what you’re looking for will turn into something else entirely.