Real Estate

On a September day when my sister Mary’s home smelled of lavender and the almost-autumn light poured in through the front door, she and I talked about heaven—that mysterious place where both of us plan to land.

I thought about how much I love books, like Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest that I was reading. I leaned forward in the rocker. “Heaven better have a library.”

Mary smiled and her blue eyes twinkled. “I want an audiobook section so that I can listen to stories and do my crafts.”

How many books has she listened to over the years? Too many to count, but I can imagine her listening and at work with velvet and cotton, yarn and buttons, as her magical finger puppets and dolls, quilts and book covers, crocheted doilies and critters take shape—like this six-inch rabbit which happens to be one of my favorites:

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Later that day, riding home on MAX, I listened to the clack and rattle of metal and steel and thought how images of heaven come and go. As a child I was fascinated by sliced thunder eggs, with their rough exterior and splendid patterns and rainbow colors inside. I also knew that the Book of Revelation fit right in with stones and agates: jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carnelian adorned heaven. Once through the pearly gates, I would have jeweled surfaces upon which to skip rope and never miss a beat.

As an adult, I began to turn to nature, listening to and praying Psalm 23 and Isaiah. If I lived a good life a river would run through my home and a Tree of Life would bear luscious fruit. What was waiting for me was a landscape of verdant meadows—green bells and cockleshells everywhere.

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Right now I’m a fan of a heavenly real estate mentioned in the Gospel of John, 14: 2. Jesus tells his apostles that he is going to prepare a dwelling place for them and that this place has many rooms. Some translations use the word “mansions” for what God’s House encompasses. I’m afraid that tapestry and parlors and winding staircases do not excite me, but a library of wood and leather is a huge draw.

What estate, castle, or mansion does not have one? And libraries are so diverse, whether heavy with medieval tomes or shiny with Baroque bindings. Contemporary architecture presents another vision, like the Tianjin Library in China which catapults my imagination skyward.

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One look at China’s other-worldly building and a paraphrased quotation from scripture flares in my mind: “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, what is waiting for us.” I ask myself, since humans can construct such a haven for book lovers, what will the heavenly library look like?

My sister Mary and I agree that each person just might experience a completely different Great Beyond, one in keeping with desires of the heart: maybe jasper enduring clear as crystal, or meadows eternally ablaze with butterflies, or never-ending reading/listening shelves set above craft tables. Given our well-used gifts of voice and eye, Mary and I will both receive our reward: audiobooks and hard copies.

Dylan Thomas, without knowing it, described the everlasting celestial season when he wrote in “Notes on the Art of Poetry”:

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Snap Shot

In Witch of Kodakery, author Carole Glauber presents the amazing life and photography of Oregonian Myra Albert Wiggins. The word “Witch” was part of Kodak ads, alluding to photography’s magic and charm, and certainly Wiggins beguiled her national audience. Her contribution spiraled beyond the camera, to that of artist, writer, and poet. She was a fearless, ambitious pioneer who believed that photography seeks “. . . to reveal to others . . . glimpses of this world with ‘God’s great pictures hung’” (53). What a lovely image: framing nature’s light and shadow so that people pause to look.

Some days I take a walk solely to snap photos of the spaces between branches, colors that zing, and odd-angles shapes. What I also bring with me is a mind humming with snatches of songs and lines of poetry that flow out as soon as I claim a subject for my iPhone.

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Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire
Ring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

— William Blake

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The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . .

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

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How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

— Trumbull Stickney

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Light takes the Tree, but who can tell us how?

— Theodore Roethke

perfect rose

Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet—
One perfect rose.

— Dorothy Parker

My walks in the neighborhood (iPhone in hand) are not the adventures of an indomitable Myra Albert Wiggins, but more my curiosity with a final product. As I continue to read Witch of Kodakery, I see another dimension, very different from my need for closure. A photo, in the hands of the artist, possesses resilience. In the Foreword to Witch, Terry Toedtemeier writes that “. . . the plasticity of camera representation has been put to the fascinating task of recording, on the one hand, what the eye sees, and on the other, simulating what the mind envisions” (IX).

These words encourage me to seek out light and shadow, to focus, and to let verses spill out. What a discovery to realize that the technical image declares what I see and the poetic symbols invite me beyond.

Amen. Click.

Discards

Candles in my home, which are often lit for celebrations and intentions, center me. But not if the flames are out of control, like fires raging here in the west. Smoky air has turned the morning sun red-hued—a stark reminder to me of those who live too close to forests ablaze. I thought of that age-old dilemma: if your house was on fire, what would you take with you?

Then, that worn gold shoe appeared on the sidewalk. Why was a single slipper left behind? Would the owner be relieved or disappointed with one less item to carry? I couldn’t help but think of Grimm’s fairy tale of Cinderella and her gold (not glass) slipper. With discards, flight, and fire on my mind, I started to write about what we take and what we leave behind.

In case of emergency what would I grab? On impulse, I pulled my bed-quilt free and threw in my treasures: the photo of my siblings and my drawing of an Indian woman, my father’s elephant bell, my Franciscan Praise, and dulcimer. And, of course, room for Angel. I imagined the bundle like a hobo sack thrown across my shoulders.

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Strange the catalog of what I left behind: tunics and sweaters, jackets and shoes, books and letters, identification documents and journals, energy bars and bottled water, matches and aspirin, dog kibble and flashlight. No thought whatsoever of packing computer or iPad, phone or flash drives.

In an emergency, my decisions would have made no sense. Prepare, we are told, as though you were going on a camping trip. Looking at my selection, I realized the impracticality regarding what I left behind—maybe like the person who surrendered only one gold slipper.

Years ago, before clear cuts and diminishing salmon, when the air was clearer and the threat of flame minimal, Robert Frost wrote “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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Frost’s philosophical, cynical version of destruction links fire with desire and ice with hate. In the past I favored the blazing choice, but now fire terrifies me. I would run west—toward water—with my quilt of belongings. Before I ever reached the cooling ocean, my framed photos and dulcimer would be too heavy, and the bell and prayer book would drop along the way. Perhaps in the future someone would come along, follow the trail of items, take photographs, and write a book, (with a nod to Tim O’Brien) The Things They Couldn’t Carry.

Angel, precious belonging, would remain with me, bouncing safe against my heart, until I set her down to run free along that coastline—both of us cool, but stripped clean. And I would, once again, count her the most essential, and, like Grimm’s description of Cinderella’s slipper, worth her eight-and-a-half pound weight in pure gold.

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Purification

Catharsis finds its best depiction in Greek myth and Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is never far from my experience. My eyes fill and my chest tightens each time Les Miserables’ Fantine sings, “Cosette, it’s turned so cold. Cosette, it’s past your bedtime.” And romantic that I am, catharsis can occur as I read books not quite equal to Greek tragedy, like Moyes’ Me Before You. And knowing the sad ending, I still chose to rent the movie. Catharsis—so good for my mind and heart.

Nature offers me moments of catharsis, a purification every bit as powerful as those times inside a book or theater. I have to “pull a geographical,” though, and move away from my own noise and my preoccupation with screens, big and little. What awaits me is the crunch of leaf beneath my feet, the flit of butterfly near my cheek, the feel of water cupped in my hand.

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Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

William Butler Yeats

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Two weeks ago, I traveled from Hillsboro to central Oregon and the Metolius River. The cabin that two of us shared was a small space (we washed dishes in the bathroom sink), but the setting was exactly what the sign above the door promised: serenity. No Wi-Fi and no phone service meant that the main sound came from the river, no more than thirty feet from our cabin’s picture window. How many hours did I spend mesmerized by water, marveling at its ever-changing light and shadow, listening to a lullaby, both wild and soothing, that it sang through the night?

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For three nights and four days river purified me, released me from needless anxiety and silly fretting. Not quite the catharsis of an Oedipus, Othello, or Fantine, but I had the chance to sink briefly into a nature throbbing with life; into the rush of waters, into rebirth. Next year I will return to the woods, find a cabin called “Serenity,” and let the Metolius cool the inevitable fires raging inside my head.

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Attention

Remember Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fable of guileless children and preoccupied, inattentive adults? Remember what the narrator (so consumed with matters of consequence) learns from the tiny prince (so consumed about tending his rose)? And it is a single rose that lives on his planet, a rose who “chose her colors with the greatest care” and who did not “wish to go out in the world all rumpled, like the field poppies.” Certainly the fable is one of friendship, love, and loss of the unique, but what makes me smile is the depiction of the rose. How vain the flower is, how she expects to be protected, and how true to life Saint-Exupéry describes the tending of a rose.

HPIM0284Six years ago, I had my own rose bush, just outside the door. I cared for it: watched the leaves burn red and green, delighted in the new buds, breathed in the fragrance of the bush, clipped the flower just about the five leaf, pruned it knee-high in November, clipped it low, shaped like a basin, in February, and waited for the apricot surprise waiting every summer.

HPIM0283Years have passed and I have not cared for a single rose. Even though I live in an apartment complex, I was sure that management would give me permission to plant one outside my patio. The answer was “No.” I do understand. Like the flower of the little prince, roses demand attention. Then, in May, a young friend who was moving offered me a plant. “It will get better care with you,” she said. And she handed me a rose twig perfectly suited to the pot and the sunlight on my patio.

Over the months I have faithfully tended this tiny plant. And little by little she has flourished. Not yet ready to bloom, but so close, so close.

You’d think I would be content. Instead, I have walked the neighborhood noting rose bushes, the healthy ones peering from inside fences, the bedraggled ones hanging limp outside the yards.

IMG_1005A neighbor lady and I met one morning, a sad rose bush between us. As she watered her potted geraniums and golden zinnias, we talked about warm weather and our dogs and summer plants.

“What about this rose bush?” I asked.

“Not mine. It’s in the neighborhood’s common space.”

“I need a rose to tend.”

“You go for it.” she answered.

I clipped old blooms just above the five-leaf marker. New leaves burned a familiar green and red. Not having been tended for a while, the leaves had suffered insect nibbling and the bush was a bit on the shabby side. Gradually, though, the buds are coming, not in apricot tones, but in lipstick red.

IMG_1043I will fuss over my tiny roses and the larger cluster just two blocks away. There is a difference, however, between me and Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. My patio rose and I may watch sunset traces and falling stars, but I cannot drag a lawn chair down the street. My neighbor, initially gracious and generous, would probably open her curtains, observe the scene outside her window, and judge me a bit obsessed, sitting in the dark, paying too close attention to a singular rose bush.

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Miss Manners

Not so long ago, individuals were expected to follow rules of etiquette. The courteous were welcomed in society because they displayed gracious manners, educated opinions, and the ability to listen to those with differing views. Crass or cruelbehavior had no place in polite society.

And in the canine upper-class world, Angel was expected to excel in social graces. After all, she possessed papers verifying her noble Shih Tzu bloodlines. But because she is only human—whoops, canine—she had to learn the hard way how to navigate in the big, bad world.

Rule # 1: With a patient strategy, the domineering can be redeemed.

In the beginning, Darla, a huge lab, considered Angel and her leash as dog toys. One tug and Angel turned biblical: “Wherever you go, I will go, too.” Darla, though, was just a gentle giant. If Angel didn’t resist, Darla lost interest. The gist of this story (the little and big of it), is that the two became good friends.

Rule # 2: In matters of war and peace, the former gets you riled and the latter helps you sleep.

Somewhere around eight months, Angel decided to assert herself—a behavior she carries to this day. No one would treat her like a stuffed toy. She scampered around so fast that humans thought petting her was akin to chasing a squirrel. Playing hard and wild taught Angel an additional truth: too much exertion ends in collapse. Out of self-preservation she settled for a more non-confrontational posture.

Rule # 3: Sharing is essential to the common good.

Oh, but generosity has never come easily to this eight-and-a-half-pound pup. She prefers her own toys and her own company. How simple that would have been if she were the only dog, but for ten years she has lived in a household of visiting dogs and adoptive siblings, so she has no choice but to share. And the meeting place is the living room dog bed. 

Rule # 4: Sometimes the one so different from us becomes the greatest treasure.

Of all the dogs in Angel’s life, her best buddy was a big, gangly, scruffy mutt named Josie. By appearances, they would have seemed a strange pair, but what a bond. No matter that one was a breeder’s darling and the other a cast-off, or that Angel’s hair was silky beige and white and Josie’s was wiry black and gray. So different, so linked, such faithful friends, content to share time and cushion. When, after twelve years of life, Josie began to fail, Angel refused to leave her side.

The other day I sang along with Anne Murray’s “Sure Could Use a Little Good News Today.” So often, the world’s anger knocks the wind out of me, and then I look at Angel’s funny face and I laugh. Miss Manners? Maybe not all the time, but just enough. If creatures, through instinct, can curl up with those four rules, if animals can give and take and make friends with those different from them, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

Feet First

 

The publication of my book was only the beginning. The hard part for me is the trek into marketing. When Seuss promised, Oh, the Places You’ll Go, he described my experience from first to last.

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Congratulations!
Today is your day.

The journey began with a celebration at my cousin’s home in the Oakland Hills of California. I had memorized my thirty-minute presentation and outfitted myself in black-and-white with super-cool sandals. Surely I fit the description:

Your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet

My audience, in turn, was a group Seuss would recognize in a minute as both brainy and footsy. The Q & A brought forth stories and questions of spiritual journeys and nun memories, of the 1960’s power and disillusionment, of promises made and kept and broken, and of the desire for something greater than ourselves.

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At Ashland’s Bloomsbury Books and All Saint’s Church Hall in Portland, I felt like the high fliers Seuss describes. Whispering Winds and Forest Grove’s 55+ communities welcomed me. The audience at Cortland Village Apartments preferred discussion to snacks. What a surprise to reconnect with high school classmates, former students, Franciscan friends, and my family, both immediate and extended. But the seduction of success tricked me into claiming Seuss’ tongue-in-cheek lines:

You’ll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

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Except when they don’t.
because, sometimes, they won’t.

Ah, well to remember Seuss’ advice and make my way through the rubble. Among the bricks and mortar, though, I end up having to wait. Maybe, just maybe, book sales will rise; book reviewers will call; Amazon, Goodreads, and The Oregonian will praise my memoir. And those contests I entered? First place is too much to expect, but wouldn’t it be nice to be among the chosen ten?

In the meantime I need a head full of brains and shoes full of feet. One last admonition (a variation on the good Doctor’s words) as I practice my talks, don my paisley, and pull on my leather boots:

Be careful, nimble, and cleverly deft
so you’ll never mix up right foot from left.

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Oh, the Places I’ll Go:

  • July 9: Laurel Parc at Bethany
  • July 18: Mary’s Woods, Marylhurst
  • August 17: Art Accelerated Gallery, Tillamook
  • September 9: Beaverton Lodge Retirement Community
  • September 12, Book Group, Portland
  • September 22: Hillsboro Library Book Fair
  • October: St. Mary’s Academy Creative Writing Classes

Falling

IMG_0762-1Over the past two weeks, with suicides front-page news, I have thought of that woman waiting for the MAX train and the question she asked. “Is sadness a sin?” Long ago, I was taught that sadness robs us of gratitude. I was taught that sadness could lead to despair, and despair robs us of hope. To give up on God’s Providence was the one unforgivable sin. Now that teaching seems to me not only harsh but unforgiving. I believe that for every fall into depression or melancholy, there is a foothold leading upwards. Each of us climbs toward relief in ways that can be confounding, individual, and sometimes incredibly sad.

yin-yangSadness—no matter what form it takes—is never a sin and remains inescapable. There is sorrow linking me to another’s pain; melancholy coming from a world where cruelty and greed seem pervasive. Sadness slips in, reminding me that I am limited, and that I am mortal. Sadness is also the flip side of joy, the quality Carl Jung describes: “The word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Weariness of soul has the power to throw us off-kilter, yet Jung talks about the balance of happiness and sadness, like walking a tightrope with these two aspects offering equilibrium.

As a child I devoured books like Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew Mysteries. I loved Polyanna, that bright creature sure of a rainbow in the downpour. Noble, confident characters were the people with whom I wanted to play and happy endings were where I wanted to be. Scurry away from sadness and skip into the meadow.

IMG_0844 (1)I still prefer to breathe in Pollyanna’s world of flowers and color. I’m that character Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote about in the song, “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Even if it means a ruptured relationship, tell me goodbye (“no long faces, no long looks”) in a place of trees, a loving spot for chimpanzees, or a ride on a flying trapeze.

Yet there are six other days besides Sunday, and so I return to the fact that sadness is an integral part of the work-week, and part of being human. My task is to recognize gloom, and then find ways to release its grip.

Recently I attended Broadway Books’ party for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s new Poet Laureate. Wise and funny, he is a man in love both with words and his audience. What I left with, though, was Stafford’s invitation to bring light wherever there is darkness.

IMG_0690 (2)I cannot go back to that MAX experience and replay what I could have said to the woman who asked, “Is sadness a sin?” But I have a partial answer, one I found in Stafford’s elegant little book, Take What You Need. So many of his poems issue the challenge to bring a small flashlight on the journey. Stafford’s words in the poem “Dear America,” can keep me company on any bus or train platform:

If you were a river, I would be a raindrop
sipped into your sweep . . .
If you were a sorrow, I would be a glimmer.

Undercover

After reading Cullen Murphy’s delicious Cartoon CountryMy Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe, I was once again in the good company of “Prince Valiant” and “Calvin and Hobbes.” One cartoon I do not want to forget is that of Calvin trying to convince a skeptical Hobbes that his flimsy report will be a winner. Calvin’s secret weapon is what no teacher can resist: a clear plastic binder cover.

Oh, how I would have longed for such a simple solution to my cover dilemma for Far from Home. Sure that I had a designer eye, I notified my awesome FUZE editor Molly Best Tinsley that I would be sending sample covers. I looked at photos of roads leading away into the distance, of a cross far away in a meadow. I experimented with symbols for God, for flight, for adventure, and for redemption. What resulted was a product which I was sure, like Calvin and his plastic cover, no one browsing Powell’s or Barnes & Noble, could resist.

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I sent it first to a writer friend, sure of her accolades. She was quick to respond. “Toni, this cover has every possible cliche: bird, spire, sun. I would immediately summarize the plot: ‘Errant Woman Returns to the Faith.’ I would never buy this book.”

I read her email and laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I still chuckle each time I think of that response. My friend possesses the gifts an aspiring writer needs: humor, honesty, and wisdom—a Hobbes to my Calvin. Crossing that cover off my list, I looked critically at my other etchings and admitted I was out of my depth.

Enter Ray Rhamey from “Flogging the Quill.” He works with FUZE authors and is a designer, teacher, and author. With utmost patience, he sent me numerous designs of woodland paths, an open window, a door and garden gate ajar. None of these seemed to fit the memoir.

When he asked, “What do you envision as the central theme of the book?” I thought immediately of my childhood and of the Lindberg’s Heilege Schutzengel painting that had hung above my bed.

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Ray liked the theme of youthful adventurers but thought the image too childlike. What he did send were five more designs of “on the move,” but it was the woman stepping across river stones that caught my attention. Ray, creative man, shaped the title to mirror the reflection, and he extended the rocks into a wrap-around affect from front to back.

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Calvin wanted his teachers to say “Wow!” That is the factor which generous, noted authors Shirley Abbott and Kim Stafford lent. Their words of praise not only complete the cover story, but begin the tale contained inside.

The book jacket is more than Calvin’s plastic cover. What I am hoping for is not to fool a reader, but to offer an invitation. Pick up the book, hold it in your hand. Like Abbott and Stafford, move beyond the jacket’s limited tale and travel undercover into where a new story, mysterious and slippery as river stones, awaits.

Loops

Two weeks ago, I had a reading in Bend to promote my book, Far from Home. One of the side excursions was a trip to the Old Mill District, located along the Deschutes River. Two hundred plus acres that were once occupied by lumber mills are now a beautifully landscaped mixed-use area of historic buildings, new galleries, shops, and restaurants. This Old Mill District sculpture in the perfect visual definition of loop: a structure or process where the end is connected to the beginning.

That has been my experience, not only of writing my memoir, but also sharing my personal journey with audiences in Oakland, Ashland, Portland, and Bend. It is the experience of retracing steps from here to there and back again, seeking what T.S. Eliot promised in “Little Gidding,” that we will journey and “arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.” For me it has been an exploration of my novitiate years, touching old photographs and old letters to come in contact with who I was, what forces shaped me, and how I remain the same.

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Toni cheerleading 3 (4)What these photos and documents remind me is that there is nothing quite like the idealism of the young who cheer life with colored pompoms; that memories let us walk in a childhood landscape that Rebecca Mead speaks of in My Life in Middlemarch. She writes that this enthusiasm is not a desire to return to an earlier time or wish life had been different, but to appreciate the waters from which we came and along which we travel.

I needed that trip to Bend, to walk along the Deschutes and look at nature’s loops. So, I am grateful for a trek around the river, wildflower and pine cone designs, and that lucky connection I wrote about on Facebook—a woman who remembered the joy of cheerleading over a half-century ago. My circular path resembles that of T.S. Eliot, once again:

Pinecone BendThrough the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

—Little Gidding