Climbers

This magnificent tree towered above me, and I could not figure out how to capture its power. I slipped close to the trunk and looked up. Seeing those branches made me smile. This must have been the beanstalk view for Jack. Then, out of nowhere came another thought. What if Jacob’s “ladder” was really a tree? It is fun to think of the two story characters—one originating in 18thcentury England and the other having roots in Genesis. The two are heroes in their stories—flawed, ingenious, and strangely similar.

Jack and Jacob are much alike. Both possess a hovering mother and questionable deal-making. Jack hands over a cow for beans, Jacob trades his identity for a blessing. Jack needs to escape his ne’er-do-well status. Jacob, having betrayed both his brother and his father, needs to get away from home. To watch them at work is to watch the trickster and con-artist.

Both enter upon a quest that takes them up toward the sky. Jack’s beans sprout into a pathway climb toward a castle. Jacob’s dream is a stairway leading him high to a temple. Jack’s quest involves a giant, a harp, and the undying gratitude of a golden-egg-laying hen. Jacob’s journey will bring him land, descendants, and a contract with a faithful, powerful God.

I look again at the photos from Los Gatos–one a fruit tree and the other an evergreen. Where has my own climbing taken me in this drama called life? Certainly I have played both heroine and adventurer, but I also have portrayed thief and manipulator. There remain trees and stairways to climb and the question: What will I find at that point where branches intersect the clouds and an apricot tree meets the light shaft?

A Toast

Father’s Day is like Christmas–a celebration that is often far sweeter in anticipation than it can ever be in reality. Once in a while we need festivals free of our preoccupation with the imperfect or with what might have been. Certainly we need a time not to say, “He did the best he could, given what he knew.”

What would my life have been like with a different father? Less melancholic, less chaotic, but think of all I would have missed. I lift my coffee mug—caffeine, chocolate, hot milk foam—in a toast to my father. Because of him I know for certain that:

  • Tennyson, Shakespeare, and Longfellow wrote words worth memorizing.
  • Even when snow covers the ground, you can still go out and play nine holes–just as long as you use red golf balls.
  • The best friend you’ll ever have is a dog–preferably a spaniel.
  • No one sings “Ol’ Man River” like Paul Robson.
  • Anyone can be a magnanimous winner. It takes maturity to be a gracious loser.
  • Measuring IQ is like measuring beauty with a yardstick.
  • A joke exists for every occasion, like the epitaph that read “I expected this, but not so soon.”
  • In death, say the honest thing: “I’ve suffered enough. I’m getting out of here.”

Happy Father’s Day, Charles Kennedy. See you, “by Jove,” before you know it.

img047 (2)

 

Exploring

I loved taking a photo of the Irish child as she stepped through the entrance to Bunratty Castle outside Limerick. For me, she was Alice through the Looking Glass and Lucy entering Narnia. I often wished I had that sense of adventure, especially in my choice of books.

Although I still prefer historical fiction, I have had to change. Writing query letters about my memoir to agents required me to broaden my reading choices. What agents want is talent, a platform, dedication, and a knowledge of authors they represent. What has that meant for me? Stepping over the stone entrance into the diverse territory of memoir.

Know the agents. Know their authors. Know the books. That is how I met Paul Rosolie’s Mother of God, a story of one man’s passion not only for the Amazon, but for our natural world. That is why I read the fun, wild, sometimes raunchy, How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea and why I am halfway through the food-and-family Licking the Spoon by Candace Walsh. On my shelf waits Between Them: Remembering My Parents, by Richard Ford. Tomorrow I head to the library to pick up Him’s When Broken Glass Floats, Hickam’s Rocket Boys, and Burrough’s Running with Scissors.

Good thing I’m retired.

Maybe the only way my memoir will get published is DIY, but I value what has come from the agent search. I pick up a book, settle myself in my reading chair, and I’m that little Irish explorer dressed in yellow, ready to step through the gate into some place new.

Blind Spots

I loved Quebec, but wanted to cut loose the harness and blinders on this beautiful horse. But then what? Would he rear at the car to the left, go wild at the laughing kids to his right? Refuse to follow the lead of the reins? Blinders, they say, keep situations free of upheaval. The horse remains calm, focused, and loyal to the driver. 

Loyalty. That’s what connects my Quebec horse to David Copperfield, a novel I read fifty plus years ago (though I may have cheated then by reading the Classics Illustrated Comics version). Months ago, my friend and author Shirley Abbott loaned me the volumes, part of her entire set of Dickens. What a treasure: the 1911 Anniversary Edition with red hardback and embossed gold lettering and flowers on the spine. I could hardly wait to re-read David, image of the loyal friend, the “hero of his own life.”

By the end of the classic, I did not like the character Copperfield all that much. In fact, I found myself thoroughly irritated with his loyalty. Not the fealty he owed to his cowed mother, nor to the inestimable Betsy Trotwood and Mr. Dick, nor even the child-like Dora and angelic Agnes. Where David lost me was in his awestruck loyalty to the manipulative, pampered James Steerforth. Poor David, plowing along Dickens’ streets, loyal, blinders on, oblivious to the destructive fellow holding the reins. How could Copperfield shun the despicable Uriah Heep, whom he hated and refuse to challenge the shallow Steerforth, whom he loved? Through nearly 600 pages I groused, is speaking the truth only for the enemy?

Novels, for the sake of conflict, often let loyalty and honesty clop along on separate rutted roads. But in real life? My better self wants to sever the harness and remove the blinders. What is the harm of a little upheaval among friends?

Before

Genealogy gives us a way to celebrate “Before They Were Mothers” Day. My sister Mary Boucher’s delightful and precise genealogical history brings a young Marjorie Warnick into focus.

mother young adult1

During her high school years in La Grande, Oregon, she was a marvel: Secretary-Treasurer of Associated Girls Students, President of the Spanish Club, and editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

After graduating in 1926, she followed what she loved best-art. She studied at Portland Art Museum’s School of Art and with Sydney Bell, the English portrait painter. These early experiences had to give her a greater thrill than setting up booths for St. Mary’s church bazaars.

fashion brochure2

Marjorie Warnick worked for the interior decorating firm of House of Franks-Child Inc. and then became the fashion artist for Olds, Wortman & Kings. No wonder that later she collected Vogue patterns and House Beautiful magazines. No wonder she had an affinity for dotted Swiss and silk fabric. One of my favorite photos is a Christmas card sent out by Olds & King with Marjorie among her colleagues. Just looking at her makes me smile. Oh, how my imagination soars: my mother, at the easel, my mother, Portland’s Coco Chanel.

img036 (2)

As much as I treasure my mother as nurturer and caregiver, I love the adventure, mystery and youth that slips through our family history. I want to claim her, not only as mother, but as the young girl in the pink hair bow and the swim-suited woman at the Neskowin coast. To Marjorie Warnick Kennedy and to those who have tended to us, and who remain with us whether in body or in spirit, Happy “Before You Were a Mother” Day.

Mind Games

When media words—fake or otherwise—blare from angry people, I find myself reciting poetry. Four years ago, long before the swampy political landscape, I decided to fill my mind with loveliness. Even my carved cat looks like a poetry lover, mulling over my collection. My initial motive for memorizing poems was not all that pristine. I had a vision of myself in a few years, dressed in housecoat and pink slippers, wandering hallways, yelling at aides, spewing vitriol. Maybe, while my mind is still clear, I could memorize a few poems.

Where to start? The answer for me was not a favorite title, but speaking the words, hearing the cadence, rhythm, and at times, that old-fashioned technique called rhyme. I read aloud poem after poem. The first one in my book is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” where she tells of her need of music, a song to soothe her anger,

A song to fall like water on my head. . .

Now my notebook contains 30 poems I know by heart. Each allows a scene to rise from the page and fill my mind’s space with beauty. And oh, those words. So, hopefully when I’m trundling along in my pink slippers and housecoat, I’ll have something nice to say.

Next on my list?

Natasha Tretheway’s “Rotation” and that luminous first line:

Like the moon that night, my father. . .

Must Love Dogs

Mississippi’s heat, bugs, and Humane Society gave me an unforgettable 2005 Hurricane Katrina adventure.

The adventure looks far on a map, but nowhere near as far as the actual 2700 mile drive from Portland, OR to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In the barn, I was part of a team responsible for 50-60 dogs. The Humane Society got help from FEMA, the Park Service, Firefighters, volunteer veterinarians, and the rest of us dog-walkers and cage cleaners.

With humidity off the charts and the temperature at 95 degrees, both dogs and humans needed a daily splash.

The Sheltie was such a sweet dog, but mats big as baseballs meant he needed to be shaved.

There’s nothing like manual labor to scrub the spirit clean.

When the last dog was placed in the truck heading north, I had a chance to drive down to New Orleans to see for myself the devastation of Katrina. Hit with too much sadness, I passed up The Big Easy. Instead my trip took me west to Natchez and north to Vicksburg. No more Humane Society campgrounds or walking frightened pit bulls. No more love-bugs mating in mid-air. Still, the Mississippi ran red at sundown and the Deep South remained inescapable: plantations, tree branches from which hung memories of a thousand sorrows, a museum that held its own version of the Civil War, confederate flags flying, and monuments all intact. 2005: twelve years and a lifetime ago.

Vantage Points

Tale #1: I’m a teenager in Pendleton, Oregon, land of wheat–as far away from coal country as you can get. I turn on the 45 RPM and sing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford:

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

I snapped my fingers and sang the words, but so blissful in my ignorance.

Tale #2: Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, taught me literature in 1965 and introduced me to Emile Zola’s Germinal. I lived inside that book with Etienne and Catherine, immersed in the brutal injustices, unbearable poverty, and vivid passions, but most of all, the black, suffocating life underground.

Tale #3: Forty years later, a miner guided us through the Cape Breton Museum, into the cage, and down into the mine. He spoke of his years underground. He showed us a tiny greenhouse measuring three feet by three feet where the men had installed a light and enclosed a flowering plant. “We wanted a reminder of something living, growing green in all this black dust.”

Tale #4: In Sault Ste-Marie we knocked at the door of a bed-and-breakfast and the man who answered the door stood no taller than 4 feet ten–the tiniest man I had ever seen. Over tea he spoke of years spent in Britain’s coal mines and of the inexplicable poverty that kept him small. “I never tasted milk until the age of twelve.”

Tale # 5: The pit ponies, beloved animals of the miners, hauled heavy carts of coal eight hours a day. Born and bred in the shaft mines, stabled underground, the ponies came to the surface only during the colliery’s annual holiday. I wondered, How would you ever get them back underground after they breathed in clean air and felt grass under their feet?

Tale #6: I keep alive the vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Contentment

The contemplative creature peeking out from the leaves is not the twelve-week-old puppy I brought home nine years ago. My first month with Angel—all twelve weeks old—meant taking her out at 2:00 a.m.and then hearing her little yap two hours later, eager to leave her crate and play. Weary, I decided to set my CD alarm a few minutes before 4:30, hoping that maybe Angel would link Mozart for Meditation with wake-up time. Over a period of two months, her rising time stretched from five, to ten, and then to fifteen minute intervals. On a winter morning, just after 7:00 a.m., I opened an eye to check on her. Chrysanthemum face uplifted, inky eyes wide open, Angel sat silently. I smiled to myself. Oh, my goodness, she’s waiting for“Flute Concerto.”

Classical music became part of her waking, sleeping, and time-alone. By six months, Massenet, Elgar, and Brahms had serenaded her. Schubert and Mendelssohn sang her to sleep. Mozart and Chopin awakened her. I learned soon enough that not all classical music soothed her. If violins rose in frenzy, if trumpets blasted in triumph, she dragged her orange orangutan into another room.

She still prefers the mellow adagio and lullaby.

Tonight, with her black snub nose and alert, furry face, Angel watches me strum my dulcimer. Sometime during the Welsh classic “All through the Night,” she turns onto her back, relaxed and trusting. Contented. Sleep my child and peace attend thee, all though the night. Guardian Angels God will send thee, all through the night. After her walk, kibble-meal, and play-time with her stuffed owl, she’s ready to nestle among those jasmine leaves or curl up on her pillow, sure that Mozart’s flute and oboe will arrive any moment now to sing her to sleep.

Cityscapes

The tales of Portland can be told in strokes of pink and orange, but that is only part of the story. The homeless couple sleep in Keller Park and wash themselves in the fountain. Young men in scuffed shoes haul bags full of cans and bottles. Down the block from the KOIN, Bridgetown bakers prepare my favorite pumpkin muffins and at PSU Mark readies his cart to sell smoothies. Dogs rise with their owners for the morning walk and both Yorkie and Great Dane mark trees outside City Hall.

 I had planned to re-read Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield this year. Instead, I find myself in a classroom, teaching A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens makes sure that 18th century Paris and London have their own stories—tiny ones of self-important lawyers and frightened seamstresses, tales of protectors like Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry, and heroes like Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton.

 What remains a constant with Dickens and me is the city. For this one term at St. Mary’s Academy, I rise with the dawn, walk Angel, relish my muffin and coffee, and watch light spread. Then it’s time to go to work. No more gazing from eight stories up. My walk is not only through literature, but on asphalt, part of the bustle and grime, the excitement and sadness that exists side-by side in the heart of any city in any century.