In That Country with Children

The barn at the country house
The barn at the country house

As I read about the Arctic weather that is descending upon the eastern portion of our country again, the images that slid into mind’s eye were of the ten months spent in the country outside of Clare, MI. It was 1981, a winter of moderate blizzards in Michigan. And we lived in the middle of it.

Snowdrifts and banks were often so high they dwarfed my five children, all aged seven and a half and under (as well as myself) as they trudged to the school bus stop a quarter-mile away. This was dependent upon whether the snowplows–either county road service or those attached to personal trucks– got out and cleared the way in time. Their youngest sister, one and a half years old, was swaddled in pink snowsuit puffiness. As she called out her voice was the barest tinkle swallowed up by the razor wind. She could barely move her little legs to keep up with me. I lifted her and held tight as we joined the others. I wanted to make sure they weren’t sideswiped by a zealous snowplow wielder or even lost in another battering round of snow-armed gusts.

It was not so far to go, but it was a walk through a whiteness that fairly sparked, a landscape of hillocks of voluminous snow. Trees and structures were refashioned into abstract sculptures. Sunlight bounced off curves and hollows, rendering us half snow blind. Traffic was scarce but we were lucky if the school bus made it on time on those treacherous side roads.

At the end of school days five sleds came out from the garage and snowball fights commenced from behind the protection of snow-block forts. Snow angels covered the pristine surface. They would take refuge in the towering, spacious barn, a favorite place. Once they tumbled into our house, snow pants and jackets peeled off, ruddy cheeks kissed and snotty noses wiped, there would be hot cocoa or tea and snacks. A fire to thaw fingers and toes.

The Clare house was one that accommodated us easily. We had moved from a small college town and an aging two-story house that was just big enough. But the idea of a larger contemporary house smack in the middle of flat farmlands appealed to us. The owners were off trying out a business on the other side of the country for a year. It seemed a good adventure for us; it wasn’t that far from Marc’s job. So we signed on the line and moved in. It was the first country habitat shared since our two families had been blended, though Marc and I had each separately lived in the country. We were not that naive about life without easy city convenience. He now commuted a leisurely 25 minutes to and from work but it felt farther in winter. Then it was a journey marred by life-threatening moments on icy county roads. Skidding into the ditch was to be expected sooner or later, and often more than once a season. Carrying sand and shovels, blankets, coffee, flashlight and some food was recommended. There were no cell phones then; you relied on passersby, if any came.

We found the new house and fields vast, refreshing. It was not altogether comfortable at first to me, there was so much to it. I had to keep track of all those children. We had lived in a neighborhood where the kids could come and go a bit as long as they were together, and they’d met friends at the corner. Bicycling all over and playing hopscotch on sidewalks–no more. We had no sidewalks and the roads were so long and bumpy–deserted. Here we had plenty of elbow room to spare, huge windows that allowed us to see far across the acreage, a wood stove in the living room that cast radiant heat even up and downstairs as long as fragrant wood kept burning. We even had an extra room for the television and record player, with wall shelves for a library. But the children could no longer dash to their buddies’ places. They couldn’t while away the time on a cozy porch, watch cars and walkers pass by, strike up random conversations. They were stuck with each other. And I was more often alone for long hours without Marc as his career took off–my good friends were elsewhere. Still, I had faith that this would be a good year. We would make it so.

For one thing, there were whitetail deer about. They most often came out toward dusk and twilight to feed, as well as early in morning. There were dense woods near the back of the our borrowed land; they would make their way into open spaces, stealthy, sniffing the breezes, grazing and taking tuns keeping watch. Their sleek brown bodies gliding across bright white land enchanted us. Deep snow hindered at times; we’d see only tracks here and there, if at all, near us. Marc hunted a few times, but came back empty handed, except for a bone or two that roving dog packs had left behind.

In fall, spring and summer they came closer to the house, roamed wider, sprinting about. Fawns with spotted fur made us catch our breath. But the proliferation of deer meant that driving could be hazardous to both them and us, and many a deep had its life ended early from crossing a dark road and making contact with a vehicle. We hit a deer that year, and it limped deeper into the forest, leaving our front fender dented. Once you hit a deer that heavy thud is not forgotten; you become vigilant, watch either side of the road for a flash of tail or eyes in headlights.

One evening in the deep of winter I rested in shadows by the dim light of the wood stove when something skulked about, one corner to another. I looked around and thought at first it could be shifting light from the stove slipping over the room. I grew drowsier. The children were sleeping, Marc was due back from a trip in a couple of days, and I felt grateful for shelter from the snow and a deep, soothing quietness. I had my notebook in hand after a coveted hour of writing. Yet I felt something else alive was there so stood and searched with chest tightening. Nothing but the stillness of night. I checked the children’s rooms and found them snoozing. I settled down again, eyes half-closed. But a sudden scurrying sound across the kitchen floor told me these were not children’s feet approaching and receding.

Mice had finally found their way in.

I wish I could say the problem was easily solved. There were countless traps set over the next weeks. We stalked them ruthlessly. But no, they eluded us most of the time. They heard us coming. They had their hideaways and they were not budging until snow melt. I worried about every stray crumb. We put all grains in tightly sealed glass or plastic containers, put fruit away. The garbage was removed daily though once I had the impulse to make a trail with scraps from kitchen to the back door, readying myself with a broom in one hand and sledge hammer in the other. I didn’t carry that plan out, but I thought it may have worked for at least a night. We were forever cleaning and disinfecting, opening traps with small, mangled bodies in them sometimes (I can’t say I was aggrieved but neither did it bring glee), but more often empty. Cheese gone, of course. They were busy all night even getting fat then resting or undertaking sneaky reconnaissance during day. I knew they were there always, and resigned myself as best I could. I gave names to ones I kept seeing, though common sense said they were likely not the same, and told them things that were not close to kind. Though, of course, it was we who resided in their territory.

The children got so used to them that they’d not even look up, just call out, “There’s another one, it skidded under the big pillow,” or “I heard one in my room but it didn’t get on the bed.” We were not allowed to have an indoors cat. The major problem was that the mice were gnawing away at things in walls. Like insulation, surely electrical wires. So we called the owners who were not at all pleased. (Did they never have mice running havoc, or did the critters just like our hospitality? It was the country!) Then pest control in utter defeat. They took care of the infestation, in time.

The winter proceeded in a plodding fashion. Its grayness imbued the rooms and outdoors alike. We played board games and card games. We hauled out art supplies and made things of paper and cardboard, paint and glitter and macaroni and string and more. The walls filled up with marvelous and crazy creations. We baked cookies and cupcakes. Cleaned the house for fun. All five children danced and sang to the music cranked up on boombox or stereo; practiced acrobatics in the lower level of the house; played in the snow but less often. They growled and argued and luckily the house was big enough that they could get away from each other. We were being taken over by cabin fever and resources were strained. But, too, five (not entirely related) children were learning how to live together without anyone forfeiting their place in our arms, without anyone needing stitching up, without Marc or me staving off regrets. It was all hanging together, imperfectly, but it was working pretty darned well.

When the older ones were in school, my toddler daughter and I took walks, read stories, played with blocks and tinker toys, found notes on the toy piano, sang favorite songs as her language skills grew. I played my cello for her as she lay at my feet, twisting her curls, humming along. She loved being in the kitchen as I made meals and when I wrote, took crayon to paper.

And that was the year when she underwent some of the first medical testing to determine why she was growing so very slowly. I remember the day when I got the news that she did not have an assortment of dread diseases or disorders. So far. I pressed telephone to ear, sliding to the kitchen floor, weeping and thanking God even while knowing the tests weren’t close to being finished, that there was much more to come. I just didn’t know what next or when or how. But that snowbound, splendid winter it was enough to know she was not actually ill, that we would investigate and find–yes, find–different answers. A child was given me who was filled with a joy that bubbled over, who was doted upon (mostly) by her siblings–and still oblivious that she was perfect, but tiny. She had a knack for discovery of surprising experiences and brought the wonder to us; we surrounded her with our hearts’ protection.

I told myself: Snow will soon leave us. Our lives are good here. These children, this living is so beautiful I could die today and say it was all much more than enough. I was full to the brim. It felt as if such love would never tire, would just keep growing and holding us up no matter what. Even if I had fear or worry, even if there was pain or sorrow. We had made it that far, mice and medical tests, cabin fever and certain lonely nights.

As spring arrived in increments, one snow bank melted after another to reveal brown, muddy grass and it was a miracle. Rivulets of water filled the ruts of roads and pathways. We flung open the sliding glass doors of the dining room and kitchen. The land gave up its wild perfumes, the coldness relented in soft gusts of sun-burnished air. The children ran and leapt like mad things across the soggy earth and their hands came back filled with rocks, tiny blossoms and frogs. Insects and broken birds’ eggs and twigs with tight buds.

The barn was the best place when not roaming under the sun. They climbed into the haylofts, screeched over its scratchiness and odd smells and made special rooms in the corners. They put on plays w with remnants of this and that. They got out tools and fixed things or made things with Marc’s help. We walked down the road and waved to farmers as they planted fields. The bikes came out and in time I trusted they would come home to us. The deer roamed closer. The birdsong was so startling in the dawn I would lie there mesmerized. Eventually, snow was replaced with rainstorms. We could trace their path, see them coming miles off, black clouds running and lightning with its thunderous postscript dazzling the scene, rain swooping across treetops, dashing the hungry land with curtains of water. After it stopped, Marc and I might sit on the wide deck, breathe deeply, watch the children play in the puddles and the trees grow greener. We’d say nothing at all. Contentment found us that easily. It felt like there was nothing not to trust or hold with care.

Our year there came to a close as the school year ended. The owners had had enough of their experiment in the new city and state they’d tried. They wanted us out, pronto. And so we packed up everything again. It wasn’t easy to leave the large, light-filled Clare house with its myriad gifts. and lessons. But it was alright to go forward. The next house was in a good neighborhood with scads of kids, in a city known for education and the arts and best of all, near loving grandparents. I might say that year was the one when I knew for certain that I had dug in, managed well enough and was looking forward to the long haul–more challenges of motherhood, a second marriage and my own life, a crazy dragon I had always wrangled with and defended, sword in one hand, olive branch in the other, a life loved, anyway.

(An afterthought: The owners of the Clare house had moved to Portland, OR., which is where Marc and I have lived for over two decades, as well as some of our family.)

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

The Solace of Laundry

 

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I pass by a warmly lit coffee house and there they are: patrons hunched over mugs and paper cups, small circles developing as more seek company and relief. They’re at outdoor tables, staying acceptably dry under the building’s awnings. People stand, as well, chatting and sipping. They’re wearing light jackets or sweaters, even shirts. It’s Oregon, after all. It’s a heartening tableau, but I am not so much a coffee drinker these days, and headed home for tea.

The brisk rain descends, visibly angled lines of water crashing onto cars and sidewalks and against my windows. It gathers in rivulets and mini-ponds. The light is bleak, limpid, a waning grey beneath a sky overcome by dense clouds. It’s winter, at last, and though some of the country this far north experience the dangers and wonders of snow, Oregon is made of near-ceaseless rain. Woe to the visitor who comes in the flowering of roses and dry summered days and breeze-sweetened nights, who fell in love with verdant hills and mountains, rivers gleaming. It seems a ruse enticed them. But it is the rain that makes our landscape bountiful, even enchanted. And rain that drives folks to cafes, restaurants and bars more than usual.

I appreciate a homey scenario, especially when it involves good music broadcast and a book. Or a friend with whom to while away an hour. But come winter you’ll find me home more often after errands and a decent daily walk. The cold corners me even in this temperate place. I sometimes harbor wistful yearnings of the five or six months of dry hiking trails–most notably when I am on a treadmill in the cheerless recesses of my local gym. I plan more outings to museums, galleries, libraries; attend more concerts; seek more coffee and tea times with friends; watch more movies and so on.

Yet home calls me more than anything as myriad rains envelop city and countryside. I notice with surprise what needs to be fixed, organized, cleaned. It is the ordinariness that interests me, the repetitive nature of such everyday tasks that promise both industry and repose. Since the arts dominate my internal and external experience, I am either working on something or musing about it. There needs to be a pause, a break from demanding imagination. Since I prefer being physically active while seeking meditation, you might wonder how that can be accomplished.

Laundry.

Yes, the drudgery for us all, the task we deem necessary if dull, perhaps even onerous to some. I gather up piles based on color and fabric needs, make small mounds on the floor and pour liquid detergent into the rumbling tub of the washer. As it fills, I play music as always. Today it has been Yo Yo Ma, the renowned cellist playing Ennio Morricone’s great film compositions–a classical and popular mixture, just right. I drink vanilla chamomile tea as I prepare. The heat is up; my fleece vest is donned. The rain has ceased for a short period and I wonder if I should walk. But the laundry will be done, piece by piece, around and between other tasks.

What is it about washing clothing that pleases me? We have too many; it takes more time than reasonable. I place items into the frothy water that have been carried by us through days and nights, protecting and adorning and now soiled, rumpled and unappealing. I close the lid and the familiar swishswish becomes part of the accompaniment of my morning. I read articles on a writer and a human rights activist, then start kitchen clean up. The washer’s steady laboring underscores the lush strings of Morricone as I move about.

I find myself thinking of this post. How winter activities used to be dictated by snow and all that brings: ice skating at the neighborhood park, crazy fun tobogganing at City Forest, icicles like crystal daggers embellishing windows, cozy igloos carved from snowbanks created by snowplows. It was wonderful to be young in mid-Michigan. But now it is better to be here, molded and informed by December rains.

The laundry requires drying but not outside on clothes lines, flapping in damp wind. I must load it into the dryer and get it spinning. I cast about for another chore, dusting surfaces so they shine as the music swells. Time passes as I busy myself, let my mind wander. And then it  begins to still as the dryer’s thump and tumble pull from me random or nagging thoughts. This emptying leaves me quiet inside, at ease, softened by presence of rain and dryer. The cello now like a dream in the background. As I remove dry clothes and begin to fold a peace in the living room that began as superficial has now seeped into my being and deepened. It is meditation in its most ordinary form, attending to this moment, this work.

I note small blessings from my place on the sofa: the rain coming and going, its rhythm a score for winter season; the baseboard heaters crackling, rendering chill air warm; my hands doing work without thinking, every joint pliable; the clothing my husband and I use and enjoy now freshened. The laundry’s heat seeps into my lap and fingers. I hold a sage green towel close a moment so warmth transfers to face and arms and chest, then put it around my shoulders. Close my eyes. I am content. The neat, clean stacks are carried to their respective storage places.

Doing laundry can make my day better. This is not easy to admit, coming from a woman whose natural response to most domestic duties tends to be reluctance–if not downright irritation. But it is work that is regular, concrete, a project that yields tangible, timely results. It depends on me to get it properly accomplished; no one else has authority. It is a service to my spouse as well as myself, providing revived attire for the coming days. Sometimes it feels like an act of love when he has an emergency need, say, business travel within six hours. Its methodical nature is soothing.

And perhaps there is something else, a memory surfacing now.

My mother is calling me to slide dirty clothing down the laundry shoot and meet her in the basement. Her hands swiftly sort and toss into the machine as I watch, then follow suit. Her softly inflected voice inquires about my day, offers her thoughts on everything from the dinner plan to a friend she met at the store to my poems or a concert coming up that several of us kids will play in. She examines a loose hemline. She rubs a stain with a bar of Fels Naptha until it fades. When the clothes are washed and dried, I put them in a wicker basket and lug it upstairs. I can hear mom at the sewing machine repairing the hem. Outside the snow momentarily blinds me; sunlight reflects off its glittery blanket of white. The house is still, warm, filled with books, music, leftover smells of breakfast as wind shakes the treetops. The bundle of my laundry I have completed is soft and warm against my thinness as I carry it upstairs to my shared bedroom. On the way, I pass mom and she smiles at me.

Sometime this winter when the day is bone-rattling cold or you feel dim as the greyness that greets you at your door, consider the worth of  laundry. Get a load ready and toss it on the machine, make a cup of coffee or tea to accompany the solitude and your work. Have a house full of family? Seek their assistance. Talk over your plans, your lives. Consider what you have to be grateful about: enough clothing, shelter and heat. The health and independence to do your own laundry and perhaps others’. Perhaps a chance to listen to music or healing quiet as the dryer turns and delivers renewed goods, that nubby, favorite sweater, those new navy slacks, that sock that is delivered to you an orphan. With all the terrors of the world and the frailties of our own humanness to ponder and worry over, clean laundry is a boon, a tiny pleasure. A reminder of possible order and shared commonness. An offering of solace when other parts of living may seem bereft of much good sense.

Bound to Snow, Amelia

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No one else was out. It was his lucky break. All week he’d had something he’d tried to avoid. He’d felt a rumbling of imbalance before it grabbed him by the neck. He never got sick, mentally or  physically. Even if he had days, okay occasional weeks, of feeling stunned by the varieties of life’s misery, he called it a “rough patch.” Not “the blues” or “bad karma” or “the end of all good things” like his work buddy explained his depression. There was no end of things, period, or life, until it was over. And Billy was patient; if he kept enough around, almost anything got better. Or changed.

It had lasted four days, aches that made him wince and wicked tiredness that kept him home from work. Then he came back with a mind like a clear blue sky and strength returned full force. He saw on the television it had been snowing. The street view from his window confirmed it. He wasn’t surprised. The thick quietness of snow brought a smile to his pockmarked, angular face. It wasn’t blizzardy, but everyone kept to themselves when steps and car roofs were covered. Except for Billy. He’d grown up in snowdrifts and it was second nature to be right out in it. What was the town going to do, hibernate until a spring thaw?

He’d gotten dressed for a walk despite his wife, languishing in the chair as always, objecting.

“What’re you doing? You were sick yesterday and now I’m feeling it. I can’t have you relapsing and laid up again. Heavy snow.”

He’d glanced her way as he yanked on motorcycle boots. She was wrapped in the blanket he had just left, her slippered feet on the coffee table now that his empty mug and soup bowl were gone. Her hair wound down her shoulders, unkempt.  It had been unattended too long because he had been too ill to help her. Whereas she was always sick, with multiple sclerosis. Some days she could barely lift her arms, and brushing all that hair felt like trying to climb Mt. Hood, she admitted. Why not cut it?, he’d asked more than once, but she ignored him.

“I’m off to get some fresh air. I feel fine now. Anything you want?”

She’d shrugged. “More tea?”

He’d moved to the door, then paused.

“Chicken soup and tuna fish.” She sighed as though reciting the list was a chore.

He waited.

“Macaroni and cheese. Butter. More bread.”

Billy pulled his wool cap on when nothing else was noted and left.

That first step out was a swift slap in the face and he whooped loudly. The sweetness of the air was greater due to the cold. It’s whiteness illuminated the street. He felt everything got shined up when it snowed. He expected to feel even stronger after he walked the two blocks to the convenience store and back. Healing, the winter. Spring was a riot of newness that made him dizzy. Summer was too hot on his skin, but autumn was like a ride into paradise with a promise of the best to come. Winter.

Billy expected to see someone out with a dog, but the squeak of snow beneath his feet was unaccompanied. There were two snow people across the street, half-dressed, which he found funny. On the top of the hill was a snow fort about two feet tall. Abandoned snowballs. Kids were probably called in for dinner. He picked one up and threw it hard across the street. It hit a brick building, a soft thwap in the stillness. He scooped up more– it was good packing snow–and made a little ball, then tucked it in his pocket.

by Julius

The tree branches moaned and creaked. They were dressed up in white like ermine, as if to shield their bark from cutting wind. The twilit sky was hosting more galaxies. His breath singed his lungs on its way back in. Billy was glad he’d let his bread grow back, even if his wife didn’t love it. Where he came from, a man without a beard was not quite a man. He knew better but winter and beards were made for each other.

Icicles sprang out in a streetlamp’s glow like fine sharp teeth of the abominable snowman. He stood beneath a row that hung off a windowsill and had the impulse to break one off, brandish it like a sword. He reached up and couldn’t quite grab it, so jumped a couple times,  grazing the sharp tips. An old woman appeared from behind a curtain and shook her finger at him. Billy made like surrendering, hands raised palms up. She grinned at him, all six teeth showing. He slid across the street, boots slicker now. What he wouldn’t give for a sled. His beat-up old toboggan that was sold for ten bucks when his family sold the cabin twenty years ago. Or the cross country skis for distant mountain trails that he put away when his wife got sicker.

By the time he reached the second corner, Billy felt better, just as he expected. The Curb ‘n Corner was all lit up. He pushed open the door and heard the chime go off. He could see the back of the owner as she restocked down the first aisle. He found a basket and filled it with the things he needed. At the back of the store, he deliberated on root beer or ginger ale and took two bottles of the second. His wife might need these if she got sick. Before the refrigerator door slammed shut he got a root beer for himself.

“Well, well,” she said as he stood before her.

She was tall and thin like a strong reed, he thought, in that grass- green uniform. It made her eyes almost turquoise. She leaned forward, palms pressed on the beige, ink-marred surface. “Where you been lately, good-lookin’?”

He took out the groceries and passed them to her hands.

“In bed a few days. All better now.”

“I see that. You snugged up to trudge out in this? Like a polar bear, Billy. For soda and tuna? Just makes me long for a piece of that perfect Hawaiian sunshine. But I knew it would come to this mess.”

Billy chuckled. “I know, you’re too soft for it but you gotta look for the best, Amelia.”

“Your fault. You ordered it. You told me it was comin’ but I held onto hope.”

After she finished ringing him up she put hands on hips and flashed him that mile-wide smile. It had the effect of turning the grimy, dull surroundings into a place worth inhabiting. She counted his change slowly then put bills and coins into his hand with a slap.

He said nothing as he set down the money but then grabbed her fingers, pulled the snowball from his pocket and lay it in her hand. A foolish, freezing gift.

She looked aghast and then laughed, tossing it back at him, a little melting clod of white.

“You sneaky devil! I told everybody–that Billy Cook, he said last week, ‘Bound to snow, Amelia, bound to snow good‘ and they said ‘Billy Cook’s a wild man escaped from his true element and he sure knows signs of weather. Like you’re an expert.”

He made a horrified face. “They didn’t say I was a wild man, did they?”

She threw her head back and laughed, chest bouncing, florescent light bathing her face and neck as though it was tropical sun shining down on her alone.

“Yes, but Billy, they also said you was a good man, crazy good. Now get on out of here before your head swells and so I can work.”

He stood still and the words he never said wanted to come out, but he snatched a peppermint from glass ashtray and grabbed his bag.

“Say hey to Erin. And stay healthy.”

He left, chime going off, the light dimming. When he crossed to the corner and turned back she was still looking at him. He waved at her but she just stared out until he thought she couldn’t possibly see him in the thickening dark. But he felt her thoughts and his brush like wings in the night, then fly off.

The walk home was shorter, his strides longer. He didn’t have time to play. Tea had to be made. Then he’d wash Erin’s hair if she was up to it. Tomorrow, work, but he smelled new snow on the way.
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Power of Place

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When I leave behind the congestion of the city and move into country stillness fills me inch by inch. There is an alertness coupled with serenity that blooms in my core. As Portland subsides with its array of tantalizing offerings and entertaining moments, it is like a long-held breath released, mind emptied of scattered thoughts, lists, a vagary of wants and needs. I begin to be at ease within the world again, and feel gentler towards self and others. Countryside affects me profoundly.

This is common for me and likely many people, though I have met those who prefer city’s jangle and jumble, its towering paeans to human progress and folly. They rarely leave it. I can’t imagine such reluctance. If I can’t find my way to less populated land regularly I feel less than content, full of longing. I am lonely for nature’s balm and beauties.

Place holds strong energy for me, be it human or not, constructed or deconstructed. I believe they are infused with remnants of past or present inhabitants’ and events. Buildings, houses, neighborhoods, parcels of land, anywhere there is or was life feels benignly neutral, compelling or repellant, with shades in between. I have felt this way all my life, impacted enough by it that my daily decisions are informed by it. I find it as natural a way of perceiving as with physical senses.

People are influenced, even if unconsciously, by intuitive responses. Think of real estate shows and how often folks reject or appreciate a house based on how it “feels.” It is a conscious experience for a great many people. Throughout our years of moving, I have chosen housing based on my internal perception of it far more than outward appearances. I intensely feel aftereffects of violence that has occurred, when great sorrow lingers, or if those who have inhabited it harbored various destructive behaviors. At times it seems like people have inserted their personalities and are still there. There have been many occasions I have driven up to a place and immediately left. Or knew instantly this was the place that would be home. I do not second-guess; I’ve learned it’s not worth it.

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I also am attuned when hiking, detouring when I feel unusually close to wild and possibly threatening creatures. There was the time in the Columbia Gorge that I knew bears were very near and I lagged behind my spouse. A few moments later I heard soft huffing sounds of cubs. Of course their mother kept an eye on things close by; they exchanged communications. I told my husband it was time to leave. And once hiking in a city forest something had created a wide swath of flattened grass and weeds where I was walking. My feet suddenly would not budge another step. I wasn’t certain yet what was near, only that it was wild, large and perhaps guarding or enjoying a meal. Despite my spouse’s stating it might be something but likely nothing, I turned and walked away, quietly calling him. At the nature center we were informed of a cougar’s recent sighting. Would we have been harmed either time? My instinct said “beware” and I don’t regret it.

We all have such guidance if we pay attention. It could be an angel or God or our own animal nature or all. We cross a street or become more guarded when we feel ill intention attached to a passerby. We have strong first impressions before we even know someone well; later we recall that first response. It isn’t the physical world we respond to but the inner one, the soul’s intention radiating outward. It is the measurable, palpable life energy of who we truly are. We can be as enchanted by one another or by a place as we are not. If warnings are given us, so are calls to come much closer.

We know people can inspire and draw us. So, too, places can move, heal, awaken and strengthen us. Think of a time you needed respite and found a spot where you felt deeply relieved, energized or calmed. Or when you needed hope and an experience of place gave you opportunities to release pain and embrace joy anew. Some people claim a spot and return to it always. Others search and discover them worldwide, like my family who regularly follow the call of unknown roads and the wilds.

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Just last Sunday some of us headed out to a Christmas tree farm. We had chosen a place new to us. As soon as we left the tangle of cars and houses and entered a misty, hilly terrain we knew we were onto something especially good. Foggy patches opened and closed about us, yet afternoon’s golden light brightened everything as though from inside out. The acreage stretched far and wide; the sky opened. We inhaled deeply the redolent, chilled air: damp earth and evergreen scents permeated all. The lots were overseen by a tall, burly man who was laughed readily, was helpful and liked to chat amiably. He seemed the quintessential lumberjack but he has a day job behind a desk. He loves this work on the side.

It took less than ten minutes to find what we wanted: a rotund, sturdy Douglas fir, straight of trunk. Nearby were equally lovely Nobles and Grand Firs. Every tree looked healthy and strong, showing off their needles of rich emerald or bluish-green. They cost a fraction of what we usually paid, as well. Our son cut it down quickly and his Noble, as well.

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We walked up the muddy road to the house and pole barn where attractive, fresh wreaths and coffee awaited. On the way we met sheep who mildly gazed back at us. Their thick wool, random voicings and gentle faces cheered us further. I gazed at the tree line against an alabaster and robin’s egg blue sky, heard brisk birdsong and wings caressing air, sheep baaaing and my family softly talking and laughing. A thick mist began to spread around trees and fields. We had stepped away from all the world and its worrisome matters, through a portal to a place where work built muscle and was valued; kindness thrived; peace prevailed. Though the cold increased I felt steady warmth gather within and around me.

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We met the owners, Tom and Harriet. They chatted easily with us. They had bought the land and house over twenty years prior; it called them. The older gentleman worked in the forestry service and worked the tree farm on his “off” hours. Impressive in their knowledge and congeniality, they are people one would like to have as neighbor, break bread with on a cold winter’s eve. We praised his trees and shared our city-folk love of their land.

“Every time I leave the city and country rolls around me, I feel all is aligned in the universe, and I’m happy,” I told Tom.

He smiled warmly. “Yes, that’s it.”

I was reluctant to leave. We all were. This was more than an exceptional business, it was a place of power, a spot of land where people, creatures and earth conspired to support and tend life together. Its magnificence was there long before it was settled but it had been respected and loved. It is still appreciated for the blessing it is. And it was shared with us, a gift we thankfully took home.

On the way back I saw the nearly full moon through a vaporous veil of fog and thought of Bethlehem. I wondered over the manger where animals surrounded an infant Jesus and his parents. The Wise Men and shepherds had travelled far from home to be part of a place and event of sacred power. What did they feel as they witnessed all? What was it like to stand beneath that star’s radiance as it fell upon them, obliterated darkness for a short while?

I hope for each of you that you claim your special place and moments of power are found this Christmas. Then share them with others. Count yourself fortunate to be able to be still and present, to acknowledge the perfect glory of God, the gifts of life now and through eternity.

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(All photographs taken by the author; please ask before using. Thanks!)