Heart-Rest

Five years ago my niece Andrea Bigcraft transformed my apartment terrace in downtown Portland into a magnificent garden. Besides creating beauty in every corner, she made possible the arrival of hummingbirds. 

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One at a time they came with iridescent wings, designing, as the poet Mary Oliver writes, “a perfect wheel.” How that wheel turns—eighty times per minute—is an eighth wonder of the world. The visiting birds hummed and sipped and my frenetic core stopped to watch.

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After one little fellow settled in, life was not so sweet. He refused to welcome the hummingbirds who swooped in for a visit. That metallic four-inch bully became plump and sedentary all the way through winter. My opinion of the hummingbird changed. Not so calming after all. Music on the wing this tiny guy was not.

Hummingbirds offer a reality check for me. Every day holds a combination of harmony and dissonance. Maybe that’s one reason why Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a favorite of mine. Years ago, I sat with a friend in a convent music room and listened to the opera. The English-Italian script in front of me, I listened as Maria Callas sang her way into my heart. “Un bel di” rang of the anxious hope that one fine day, all will be well. “Humming Chorus,” though, had a different effect on me—a final respite before the sorrow. Puccini must have known that the audience needed this—not comic relief, but heart-rest.

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“Humming Chorus” is, like my terrace scene, a lull before death and regret. At times, my terrace creature was a miniature spokesperson for the world’s mercy, peace, and life. At other times, the bird was a rascal and a herald of rancor in the realm. Both dimensions are part of my human condition. That is why the space in-between, the lull, is essential.

One morning, after listening once again to the song, I saw Angel, eyes wide open, paws up, woof silenced, breathing into calm. I chuckled. She looks so peaceful, the little turkey. Maybe this is one way to inhabit the world’s garden terrace: alert, welcome mat out, weapons down, and heart-at-rest.

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Color Me

Green is my favorite color, so why are my only green possessions a tote bag, earrings, and a striped hoodie? Years ago, I got my “colors done.” After draping me in scarves and fabrics, the lady said, “You are definitely a summer.” My closet then is a combination of soft, cool shades of pink, blue, and purple. The color to avoid? Most shades of green.

I still love green best. This past week, another color test appeared. What color is my unconscious self? Good, I thought, now is my chance to prove I am a person of serenity, intelligence, and independence. The results? I am Gold. I should have been tickled that my psyche is gold–magnetic and charismatic. In fact, I am a Lioness. Purrrr. But Gold. Gold? I want to be Green.

hailstones-and-halibut-bonesBesides memories, a book encouraged my affinity with the color green. While teaching primary school in the 1960’s I first read Mary O’Neill’s delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones. Of all the book’s color poems, I liked green best: green is lettuce and shade, moss and grasshopper, peppermint and jade, and the “fuzz that covers up where winter was.”

So, I cannot be green either in my wardrobe or my unconscious, but I can write about green treasures. Here is my take on the color, with a grateful nod to Mary O’Neill.

 

CliffsGreen is March, April, and May,
And earrings I wear on St. Patrick’s Day.
Green is Moher and moss-fringed cliffs,
View of the Blaskets from our tourist skiff.

Green is spinach, cilantro, and thyme,
Peppers and scallions, water with lime.
Green is Christmas, velvet, candy cane,
Rain running down my window pane.

Green 1Green is the park where I go for a walk:
Grasses and yarrow, and no human talk.
Green is the hum of a tranquil path
Bending around where birch leaves laugh.

Green are my pencils, shades light to deep
I use to color on nights I can’t sleep.
Green is the color of dresses not bought.
Green is my passion for what I am not.

Surprise

When three-year-old Ava came to visit, her eye lighted immediately on the Russian nesting doll sitting happily on the bookshelf. Together we twisted the top of the doll, and then the next and the next. How I wish I had filmed Ava. Puzzlement at first, then surprise, and that glorious child-like determination to twist again. From then on, she filled my living room with delight as wooden doll after wooden doll appeared, each tinier than the last. And then the wonder of going in reverse, until the many objects became one smiling babushka.

e8e6ac9815cbc069c5a5a53357183ff0Ava, beautiful child, reminded me of the fascination I have for objects within objects within objects. Droste art has the same effect on me—the loop of smaller and smaller versions appearing as long as the resolution allows. Mirror images in tinier replications seem magical to me, their revelations renewing themselves endlessly.

I need these memories to live well in this present time. Delight, laughter, and surprise—that “Aha” moment—are not newspaper or internet headlines. Instead, suspicion, expletives, and fury take my attention. The placard reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Ava was paying attention: engrossed, happy, and full of wonder. What if I added a political button that read, “If I’m not surprised, I’m not paying attention.” Surprise means I am caught off guard, the way a joke’s punch line unexpectedly tickles my funny bone. Surprise (it lasts as long as a blown bubble) refuses to rage against another.

Little wonder that the scripture story tells of Jesus welcoming children. I imagine he found it more fun to be with creatures of wonder than jaded intellectuals or clueless disciples. How do I become a child again? I will never erase my angry self, yet I want a reprieve. In my best moments I would like to bring a different kind of alertness to the world: that of the child—face alight with surprise—who holds a doll who holds a doll who holds a doll, every face of flesh and wood fully alive.

Bone-Talk

Children, you are very little
And your bones are very brittle
If you would grow great and stately
You must try to walk sedately.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

Even though I received, in 2012, a diagnosis of dangerous osteoporosis of the spine, I was skeptical. What’s a little wing-bone pain anyway? Once home, I stripped to the waist, picked up my hand mirror, and took a critical look at my spine. I saw a hump—a hump, for God’s sake—where my right wing bone should have been. Clothed once more, I saw how my purple T-shirt folded between my clavicle and right shoulder. And to think I’d blamed poor factory seamstresses for how my clothes hung. The mirror did not lie. Neither did the test.

My internet use quadrupled as I squinted over photos of crooked spines, dowager’s humps, Fosamax studies, and bones porous as Swiss cheese. Click, click. Osteoporosis causes over a million fractures every year. Click. Nearly half of women over 50 will have a fracture due to osteoporosis. Click. Fosamax, the most common osteoporosis drug has side effects. My fear turned to anger. All those jogging and walking miles I’ve put in, all those calcium and vitamin D pills? My spine could snap like the Thanksgiving wishbone we fought over as children.

While the diagnosis, at first, had caused me little concern, deformity terrified me. What if I turned out like that lady, the one with the huge hump on her right side, the one who shuffles along with her grubby Shih-Tzu? One morning I stopped to watch her. Does she see that driver turning? How does she wash her dog or sleep at night? Osteoporosis was at work in both of us, snapping bones, curling them, slyly healing them in place.

yoga-for-osteoporosisI turned to Yoga for Osteoporosis by Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall. Under the authors’ specific directions, (always use the support of a wall or chair) I began an hour-long daily regimen of isometric lifts, turns, and stretches meant to strengthen muscle, bone, and balance. Days have blend into months and months into five years. The hump is gone. I have regained the inch and a half of height loss. My blouses no longer bunch near my clavicle. At times the accomplishment makes me proud, even smug, but other times I wonder why I fear my body’s inevitable decay.

I don’t plan to schedule another bone density test. At seventy-four years of age, cracking up isn’t worth the worry. Each day I lift and stretch, push and pull my old bones. True, my spine could curl me in half.  My thin shell could crack wide open. Who knows, though, maybe a soft, winged creature will emerge.

Fur Tales

The first day of July mourning doves lamented and a slight breeze made the trees glimmer with shadow and light. A perfect time to sit with a cup of foamed coffee and Moriarity’s Big Little Lies. Instead, I stood in a small windowless room of the vet clinic, stroking the black fur of a small Shih-Tzu, and crying over his unexpected death. I fostered him briefly until a family took him home and loved him for six of his twelve years. In that enclosed room, I found no comfort in envisioning him on the “Rainbow Bridge.” Mortality–that lurking, inevitable reality—was my meditation.

Why is it that so many dog books end in death? The blubs may preach companionship, but sooner or later the dog dies. Where the Red Fern Grows, Rawls 1961 classic, tells us in the first pages that this story is one of “wonderful love, unselfish devotion and death in its saddest form.” I relished every splendid chapter of Rick Bass’ Coulter: The Best Dog I Ever Had, a paean to his German short-hair pointer, but one of his last sentences pains me: “We tend—despite our best protestations—not to want a happy ending.”  C’mon, I want to plead, let the dog live. I still read these books. I hooked a wondrous, heart-breaking ride on Gizelle’s Bucket List with Lauren Fern Watt and her brindled mastiff. Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain kept my reading light on past midnight and Kleenex in my lap, so in love was I with the old soul Enzo.

That recent July day, though, one more beloved dead dog lay wrapped in a blanket, large eyes fixed and sleepy. The technician entered, gently inquired if the family or I needed more time. We shook our heads.  She picked up the small body and carried it out.

Once home, I thought about all the dogs who have entered and exited my community: Hershey, Buck, Gabriel, Josie, Cappy, and Jacques. I know too well the smells of veterinary offices and the click of a door opening, the almost imperceptible whoosh of the syringe and the soft escape of air, that last heartbeat, and the words, “I’m so sorry. Take all the time you need.” Yes, the familiar memory is not always the welcome one.

I thought, too, about authors who let the dog live. I smiled to think of Gordon Korman’s No More Dead Dogs. Oh, how I love Wallace Wallace, tired of books where the dog dies, who refuses to write a class essay on (get ready) Old Shep, My Pal. Two other gems perch on my bookshelf—Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. On a July day of grief I needed to imagine magnificent Buck running with his wolf brother, side by side and to delight in that fine old French gentleman, Charles le Chien, Poodle extraordinaire. Let’s hear it for dogs who have not been shot or cancer-ridden or too hobbled to last through the final pages.

On a day weary with sadness, I did not sit on the patio with foamed coffee, but I did turn to books. Hail to the truth-tellers about mortality, but blessed are those books when, by the end, good dogs don’t die. And what do you know? Safe in their living room bed, Angel and Sugar, the remaining two of my eight-dog pack, watch me. My inimitable owners and guardians were there, fully alive. For now.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. . .