Tides

blue-boats

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I feel brittle. My face is set, full of worry and the obligations of life. There is an edge I can not name that builds, and shows itself to me in a glance, or an unexpected reflection in a passing window.

My husband and I have lives that are too busy. We behave like separate ships on the sea, sending signals and flashes of light while moving in turbulent waters, our attention fully given to navigation.

But once in awhile all that turbulence stops. The sea calms and we drift slowly into shore, rediscovering each other like long lost friends, wondering how we ever drifted so far apart. Those times are precious to me, the coming back times. The sharp edges of our lives melt against candle light. Our faces soften. Our bodies reach toward the warmth of one another, and suddenly I no longer feel old, rigid or brittle.

We lived in this soft place when we met. We could not pull ourselves from it, but now it takes a snow storm or an act of love to remember the truth of who we are together.

The scent of ginkgo and vanilla blend in fragrant oils and infuse the space. A musical tapestry woven with harp and voice washes away the outside world. The phone is unplugged. I study the way my hair falls against my face in the shadows on the wall, as I tenderly stroke the white of his beard, and trace the lines of his lips with my finger. Our bodies find each other in celebration.

When did the mundane gain so much attention and power? When did the entrance to this soft place become veiled and difficult to find?

We have been in retreat, but I can feel the tide approaching. The sea is calling and we will soon slip back into the way it was. There will be day after day of appointments, business meetings and obligations. In the evening we will embrace, have dinner and fall dead tired into our beds, or stay up half the night to meet excessive demands.

During those times, I will remember and long for this retreat. I will imagine our shadows and tenderness played out against the bedroom wall and wish for it. I will notice, and wonder how we can slow down enough to find the veiled entrance into this softer, gentler place.

Short but powerful

motor-dogThere is sun coming through my window. Amazing! Real honest-to-goodness sunlight is spilling all over the living room in eye-squinting excess. Oregonians don’t know what to make of sunlight. We are stunned into silent disbelief, while our brain cells race around trying to remember if we stored our sunglasses near the fleece blankets or under wool socks.

This is February’s gift, that little tough orphaned month that reminds us that winter really will end. It stimulates memories of open windows, screen doors that bang closed, bright colored cottons, and skin that gets darker than a bed sheet.

What is not to like about February? 

It doesn’t have Novembers tryptophan-induced naps near the Thanksgiving table.

It doesn’t require pine bough sacrifice, or homage laid at its feet in lights, ribbons and bows like December.

It doesn’t freeze you to the bone, and require the fault-finding resolutions of January.

No, February is short but powerful. If it were a punctuation mark, it would be a dash, separating the worst of winter from the promise of spring. It steps on the world stage saying, I won’t stay long. I don’t take up as much room as the others. I’m just here to give you a glimpse of hope when you least expect it, and to make sure that January and March don’t slam up against each other, causing grief for professional astrologers. The only thing I’ll ask of you, is to think about who you love, and how you want to let them know.

Jesus Saves

stained-glassThe first thing I ever stole was from the Baptist church. It was Christmas. We were given sugar cookies shaped like stars, steaming hot chocolate and bible lessons. Brightly colored packages circled the tree in the entryway, one stacked on the next. Those were not for us.

After the final prayer the other kids exploded with freedom, pushing against tall wooden doors that opened into snow and afternoon light. But I stalled in the lobby, mesmerized by the tree. Surely, one of those presents was meant for me. I was drawn back to them full of longing and larceny. The lobby was still and quiet. Perhaps, I thought, I could take a tiny one, one that would not be missed. I bent down and helped myself to a small rectangular box. It was wrapped in green paper covered with snowmen wearing black top hats, buttons of coal, carrot noses and big smiles. Yes, I decided. This was the one. I buried it in the well of my pocket, deep beneath my mittens. Then I sprang from the door like Satan himself was chasing me. I ran through snowdrifts up to my knees, went bounding up the stairs of my home, down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I was breathing heavy, afraid the God police had been alerted. I listened for footsteps but no one followed. The house was empty, so I tore open my surprise and……. my heart sank. Inside was a tie clasp that said, JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters. A tie clasp – for a man! I couldn’t take it back. What on earth could I do with it? In a moment of generosity, I rewrapped it.

My dad was tending bar in the restaurant below when I climbed on a bar stool and told him to close his eyes. I have a gift for you, I said.

Where did you get it?

From the Baptist Church. They were giving out presents for dads.

I placed the torn green snowmen in his hands.

Looks like you opened it.

I wanted to make sure it was right.

He lifted the tie clasp with JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters out of the box and bellowed, Jesus Christ! What the hell am I supposed to do with this? For crying out loud, Karen. JESUS SAVES? What were you thinking?

There was a moment of tense silence before he clipped it against his shirt and tie.  What the hell,  he said and went back to mixing drinks.

Tides

blue-boats

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I feel brittle. My face is set, full of worry and the obligations of life. There is an edge I can not name that builds, and shows itself to me in a glance, or an unexpected reflection in a passing window.

My husband and I have lives that are too busy. We behave like separate ships on the sea, sending signals and flashes of light while moving in turbulent waters, our attention fully given to navigation.

But once in awhile all that turbulence stops. The sea calms and we drift slowly into shore, rediscovering each other like long lost friends, wondering how we ever drifted so far apart. Those times are precious to me, the coming back times. The sharp edges of our lives melt against candle light. Our faces soften. Our bodies reach toward the warmth of one another, and suddenly I no longer feel old, rigid or brittle.

We lived in this soft place when we met. We could not pull ourselves from it, but now it takes a snow storm or an act of love to remember the truth of who we are together.

The scent of ginkgo and vanilla blend in fragrant oils and infuse the space. A musical tapestry woven with harp and voice washes away the outside world. The phone is unplugged. I study the way my hair falls against my face in the shadows on the wall, as I tenderly stroke the white of his beard, and trace the lines of his lips with my finger. Our bodies find each other in celebration.

When did the mundane gain so much attention and power? When did the entrance to this soft place become veiled and difficult to find?

We have been in retreat, but I can feel the tide approaching. The sea is calling and we will soon slip back into the way it was. There will be day after day of appointments, business meetings and obligations. In the evening we will embrace, have dinner and fall dead tired into our beds, or stay up half the night to meet excessive demands.

During those times, I will remember and long for this retreat. I will imagine our shadows and tenderness played out against the bedroom wall and wish for it. I will notice, and wonder how we can slow down enough to find the veiled entrance into this softer, gentler place.

An Introvert’s Christmas

 

Snow is falling quietly and softly outside my window. It is light and undecided, on the border between snow and rain. My husband rose early, eager to make the long drive to his daughter’s house, where his children and their children will gather to celebrate. The house will be full of loud people with big voices, competing with an immense television blaring football and commercials. Children will scream for attention, squeal with delight, and play with noise-driven toys.

I have baked sugar cookies, cardamon-orange sweet rolls, and sent raspberry jam from last summer’s crop. I placed a hat on my husband’s head, stuffed gloves in his pocket, and watched him pull from the driveway, his tires chained and crunching ice.

Now it is my time. I go immediately to the stereo and put on Louie Armstrong. His voice fills the space, like a kiss from the past:

I see trees of green,

 red roses too.

 I see them bloom, for me and you,

and I think to myself,

what a wonderful world .

I see skies of blue,

And clouds of white,

 the bright blessed day,

 dark sacred night,

and I think to myself,

 what a wonderful world.

 As I listen, I sponge the coffee table clean, open windows for a blast of fresh air, clang a Tibetan bell to clear the space, and place a match against the wick of a candle, watching its light move into a tall steady flame. Finally, I fold a warm brown shawl across my shoulders, sit on the couch and silence the stereo. I breathe in the quiet, wrapping it around me like a welcome friend. I am old enough now not to feel guilty about who I am and what I need, or to put myself in situations that feel wrong or abrasive.

It is a great pressure being different in a society that has traditions and rules about what holidays mean, and how they are to be celebrated. Thanksgiving makes sense to me, because it’s a time to be thankful. But Christmas follows too close on its heels, and escalates into a kind of material carnage and shopping frenzy full of pressure and disappointments. It seems a day set aside to magnify family issues, and the difference between how our lives are, and the ideals we hold. Add to that my sincere dislike for material accumulation and the incompatibility grows.

I did have a moment yesterday, when I slipped into parental guilt, knowing how much my daughter, Kristen, has always loved holidays.

I’m sorry I live so far in the country, I told her. I should have a big house in town, where we can more easily gather as a family, and do a traditional Christmas.

Her answer was kind and real. Mom, don’t do that to yourself. That is not who you are, or what you really need or want. Just be you on Christmas day and enjoy it.

Kristen is busy cooking for the nearly one hundred residents who live at the ashram, fulfilling her dream of living with a large spiritual family.

And so, I sit in this peace-filled room, alone, watching snow and birds, and allowing my writing to surface with abundant time and space.

I’m sure many would judge my holiday sad and deprived of humanity, but I have a deep calm and a welcome communion with myself in not wishing to be any where else, or doing any thing else. Perhaps next year, I will be surrounded by quiet loving friends, but this year I am content, and delighted beyond measure to find that I can allow the richness of what I need, without pretending to be other than I am.

Snowbound

swing-in-winterWind howled through the breezeway last night, pelting cedar boughs against the windows of the house, waking me from a sound sleep. The snow started the night before, a few flakes at first in a dull afternoon sky, and then wind-driven eddies around the edges of the house. I watched sharp gusts of snow billow, then swirl and drift to the ground. The naked branches of the trees turned white. The forest beyond, covered with soft white caps as it quietly fell into a darkened night.

Portland does not get many snowstorms, but when she does, they are forecast with a sense of awe and drama one would reserve for the second coming of Christ, or the end of the world. The forecasters call them, ‘storm events,’ as if weather needed to be labeled and made bigger than itself. Our east coast and Canadian friends would laugh at this storm in its meager accumulation, but the ice that melts and freezes underneath makes it dangerous and noteworthy.

On a personal level, it marks days of retreat, since our driveway is steep, long and formidable. We read, work on the computer, and gaze from the window. A large island of ice has formed on the pond below. Ducks swim to the ice, stop abruptly, and change direction, seemingly confused by their new confinement. They test the boundary one at a time, and in groups. A few push on top of the ice, stand on one leg and preen, while the geese stay on the bank, search a wind-exposed patch of grass and watch the ducks from a distance. They waddle, honk and survey, as the ducks lift off in unison darkening the sky in great noisy bursts of life.

I mother my husband, Gib, in winter, because he has no understanding of weather. While I was making ice sculptures in Vermont, skiing on Burke Mountain, and thawing the pump to bring water to horses in upstate, New York, he was playing baseball and driving sports cars in Southern California, his wardrobe nothing but sandals, bermuda shorts and tee-shirts. His childhood was spent in sun, so weather is a delight for him, the more severe the better.

The first time we drove to the mountains I put ski pants, flannels, gloves and boots near his suitcase. When we arrived, he had none of them. Where are your winter clothes? I asked in disbelief. He stood before me in a spring jacket, loafers and blue jeans. Oh, those things? I didn’t think I’d need them.  The man will go out in a blizzard with no thought to hat or gloves. The cashmere scarf I bought last year gathers dust in his closet. Last winter he had frostbite and pneumonia, but makes no connection between under-dressing and illness. I have become a militant wife in self-defense, because I’d rather be that, than nurse his enduring respiratory aliments. No matter, Gib loves weather, while I sit with a cup of steaming tea, having fantasies of swimsuits and warm exotic places. I get emails from friends who winter in Hawaii and the Caribbean, and try not to hate them when they send images of suntanned faces holding fruity cocktails near the sea.

The sun is fading now. Another short December day. The radio says a new storm should arrive by Thursday. Gib will be delighted as he bursts through the door with his Rudolph nose and ears to match, his hair swept straight up by savage wind. I’ll put hot soup on the stove and a crisp in the oven, then put a movie in the player like a needle in my arm, in the hope of numbing myself until the welcome herald of spring.

Christmas Present

 

bead1It was going to be a meager Christmas. My son was five years old and my daughter, seven. I spent money on fabric, trims, buttons and dowels to make them each a tapestry for their room. I worked at night after they went to bed, clipping along measured lines to fashion a golden ballerina for Kristen and a Star Wars character for Clay.

Every year I imagined the next Christmas would be better. I promised myself that I’d have more money, more stability, and resources. Every year as I fashioned another homemade gift, I wondered what it would be like to go into stores and buy whatever I pleased. I wondered what it would be like to stop being a student, an artist and single mom. I was determined to change my essential nature, so I could fit into society’s shoe. I believed I could have a better life, if I only tried harder, worked longer or pushed in another new direction.

One holiday, I gave them mugs with hot air balloons painted on them, to tide them over until I could supply the real thing. I told them stories about the adventures we would have, someday, when things got better.

When things got really hard, I stole left-over pizza from a near-by restaurant to feed them. I’d have a small salad, then wait for the fleeting opportunity between customers getting up to leave and the waitress clearing the table. I needed to move quickly and unseen, storing food in the container inside my pocket. I taught myself to do without, to fast, so my own hunger could have purpose and form; so I could make peace with working so many hours and still having so little to live on.

It was in this vein that I decided a Christmas tree was an indulgence, yet in my heart I wanted one. I remember driving home and saying out loud, Damn it! I do want a Christmas tree. I want a big one that fills the whole house, not some wimpy thing that suits my purse.

And so I got my wish.  It was midnight. I had just finished performing in a downtown Portland theater. The streets were stark, the glow of lights against soft rain the only reflection. I remember thinking how odd it was that there was no traffic on such a normally busy street. No one at all. I was getting ready to turn into my neighborhood when I saw something in the lane in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, swerving just in time, and there it was –  the biggest most perfect Christmas tree I had ever seen, right in the middle of the road, like it had dropped from the sky. I pulled the car over and waited for someone to come back for it, but no one did, so I pulled, shoved and muscled it into the back of my old SAAB, then drove happily home, excited to show the kids in the morning.

That was a long time ago now, but last year my son’s wife sent me an email: Do you remember the tapestry you made him when he was a little boy? Is there any chance you know where it is, or could make him another? He still talks about how much he loved that.   I guess hot air balloon rides and store bought gifts aren’t everything.

Another Time

school-deskIt was cold in the winters where I grew up, in upstate New York. Cold and snowy. There was a one room schoolhouse on the corner near my Uncle Glenn’s farm. That’s where my older sister and brother walked to school. I came later. I had an expanded two room school house. When I went to school, you knew what grade you were in by what row you sat in. There were three rows in the ‘little’ room, housing grades 1, 2 and 3. There were three more rows in the ‘big’ room; 4, 5, and 6. After you made it past the 6th row, you were shipped by bus to the village, which was not something to look forward to, because your dog could no longer go to school with you.

Every Friday the Bible lady came and told stories on a felt board. On Wednesdays we sat on top of our desks, rocked them back and forth like wooden horses, and sang songs. The rest of the time was reading, writing and arithmetic.

I was hopeless with numbers, so I’d line my body up perfectly behind Johnny Horton, hoping to become invisible. Other times, I’d stare out the long length of windows that covered the east wall looking at broad leafed maples, studying the heavy length of chains that held our wooden swings, and waiting for recess. It was difficult to sit in school with a vision of my aunt pulling a fresh lemon cake from the oven, and cats pawing warm milk into their mouths at milking time. There were trees to climb, tractors to steer, ponds to skate and horses to ride. What the heck did I want to be in school for?

My Uncle Glenn and my father, Doug, started the Elmira airport. Glenn managed it, while my dad offered bi-plane instruction. They began with a  quonset hut, an open field and a pioneers love of flying. My dad dressed in leathers, loved dipping down into tree tops and doing daredevil rolls in the sky. Glenn did the business part. He wore tweed suits, fine leather shoes and a broad brimmed hat. I can still smell the oils he used on his shoes and see them lined up in his closet like beautiful little soldiers waiting their turn. Cherry-bowled pipe smoke lingered in the air when he passed.model-t

I’d wait by an old apple tree near the school house for Glenn to come home. I wanted to ride the last mile on his car. As he turned the corner, I’d make a run for it, leaping and landing on the running board. He’d slow enough to reach out and grab me. We’d ride home that way, smiling, laughing and visiting through the window. Me, with rolled up jeans, bare feet and dirty face in the summer: fur lined boots, winter coat and same dirty face in the winter. Blonde braids trailing the wind.

Trust

red-leafAs the last leaves fall, I find myself empty, as empty as a barren tree at twilight. Change is in the air. I’ve been taken down to lath and bone. No layering on top of what was. This is a removal, a time of letting go, a stripping away to allow the new. There is little fear, just an observant eye noticing the process. I see one hand wanting to hold the past because some part of me believes that’s all there is. But another, wiser part, stands back to attend. You’re being stripped bare, she tells me. You’ll move forward in a different form after hibernation and adjustment. It’s just another cycle of life being life, so open your hands, Let it fall and wait. You will receive. This is just life being life.

Rain

water-door1

The rains are back. The mornings are dark and gray. I can allow the rain in November. It’s a compliment to cozy fires, good books, hot tea and conversation with friends. The sound of it hitting the roof and spilling against the windows sends me to the kitchen with a taste for soup, homemade bread and apple crisp.

But not everyone can do an Oregon winter, as evidenced by our neighbors to the south. When we’ve made it to the end of May and it’s still raining, flood waters overfilling the streets, the people from California who bought homes with bulging pocketbooks go screaming into real estate offices begging to be released. Sell, sell, sell, they shriek, I don’t care what it takes, I don’t care how much money I lose, just get me out of here. Others jump off bridges, take up drinking, sign themselves into mental hospitals or come to see me.

If you travel you can make it through. If you’re buried in work you can make it through. If you’re young and go skiing every week-end you can make it through, or if you have the capacity to take those few unexpected sun-filled days that surprise us in February and March and put them into your bones and memory, you can make it through. But if you have festering doubts, become unemployed, or have unresolved emotions – look out. Add a week or two of winter virus and the sugar diet of holidays and you could crack like an egg.

When spring comes most Oregonians are privately unsettled, not quite sure how to relate. We wait for its appearance like a Messiah, we think about it like an unfinished love affair, but when the sun actually appears, there are moments of confusion. What exactly does a person do in good weather? Where exactly do they go? Memory returns and we burst from our homes like prisoners, eager to dig in the dirt, raft the rivers and store warmth in winter bones. A person has to live up to sunny days. There are expectations to be out and about. There is much less guilt about watching a film or taking a nap when winter rains pound the door.

Saving Daylight

folded-umbrellaThrough the window I see nothing, darkness, black. It’s six in the evening and the day’s as gloomy as midnight sky.  Daylight savings time. What’s the point? The days get shorter, the hours of light rationed. Sweaters, long underwear and fleece migrate to the center of the closet, while summer disappears into memory.

I do not like this time of year. The months between December and May could be permanently erased from my seasonal calendar without a moment of regret. What freedom there would be in ridding myself of holidays, winter viruses and persisting rain. Winter months sit on my head like a fat woman in black pants. My spirit longs to be elsewhere but emotional roots, habit, endurance and inertia keep me here. Not a list I am proud of. 

Maybe tomorrow  I will wake with a new resolve, a resolve that allows change. Maybe I’ll become a person who likes airplane travel and has an overflowing bank account. Perhaps a villa in a foreign country and oh dear, dare I dream? Sunshine to warm my bones, azure waters and a big open bed. Or maybe not.

The Handyman

I hired a handyman to cut my wood. Put up a poster at Big Bear Market and got a call the next day.  I stared at that wood pile for an entire afternoon before admitting defeat. The idea of hiring someone was foreign, but I lacked the strength to drive the ax through the wood and feared losing a limb when I veered off target. 

Chopping wood used to be my husband’s job, but we divorced after seven hard years. He stacked wood in the basement near the washer and dryer, but I didn’t want it near clean clothes, and resented making frequent trips up and down basement stairs, arms piled high, scratched and heavy. He was a doctor who worked all the time, coming home to discuss blood, tumors and medicines. That didn’t work well for a girl with a sensitive side. I talked to him about the wood. Could we please put the logs on the front porch this year? That’s only a few yards from the stove and would be so much easier. He was locked in his position.

 When the man came from the market to cut wood, I felt so guilty I baked a pie to go with his wages. I was unsure about hiring a stranger. Could I just pay for a man?  Have someone help without feeding him and doing his laundry? It appeared that I could. When the handyman finished he stepped inside. Where would you like your wood stacked?

My stomach tightened and I looked away. This was the argument part, that part where I say what I want and he over-rides it with a dominating male voice, explaining the virtues of basement stacked wood. I gathered my courage, planted my hands deep inside apron pockets and said, I want it on the front porch. Right next to the door. And you know what he said? Can you believe it? He smiled and said, How high?  That was it. No argument just, how high shall I stack it? I spent the rest of the day grinning from ear to ear, thinking that I could definitely get used to this handyman thing!

A complement I’d like to give myself

I love your strength, your no non-sense shit-kicking side.

I love your gentle core of light and the way they sit next to each other on the bench.

 Your spirit is free; a tether broken

Go ahead and find adventure.

Don’t limit yourself.

Break wide open and embrace it all.

Why Not?

 I appreciate your truth-telling honesty and your ability to see into this world and the next.

It’s okay to own those shiny slippers.

You don’t need to hide them under the bed.

Put them on, walk around and well…why not?..dance a little.

 written on valentines day, 2008

Hot Chocolate

 

I grew up near 7 acres of ice.

In the evenings the rural community came together outside, lit a large fire and sat on handmade benches lacing rows of ice skates in unison. Mine were baby blue with fur skirting the top. Very fashionable.

Each person grabbed a snow shovel and pushed on to the ice, clearing a path shoulder to shoulder with neighbors. We rarely cleared all 7 acres but always cleaned enough to skate with ease.

Snow shovels made trails and roads under moonlit nights and a few generator-fed spot lights. There were no closing or opening hours that I remember, just a kind of consensual, instinctive, community knowing that said it was time to clear the dinner dishes, pick up your ice skates, and head to 7 acres.

To warm ourselves we made hot chocolate, steaming cups of sweet brown liquid topped with little square marshmallows. That was my childhood delight.

Hot chocolate today leaves indigestion and an Oh, what did I do that for conversation. But not then, not in the time and place of my childhood. At that time, the warm comfort moving through my chest and into my belly was associated with exercise, laughter, rosy cheeks, races and not wanting to surrender my outside pleasures for a too warm house and bed.

written 2-27-08