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.

Feb 2014_1 (4) (1)

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.