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.

Toni-collage2

 

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

Contradictions

Oak dresser drawer cracked openOn an Ash Wednesday—long before we knew sugar could hijack our bodies—I kneel with my classmates at the marble altar railing, feel the priest’s thumb mark the sooty cross on my forehead, and hear him murmur in Latin, “Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” For six weeks I sacrifice what is dearest—Heath bars, Hershey bars, Milk Duds, and Black Crows. Candy. For forty days we four Kennedy kids do not eat it, but we do stash it. In the hallway, in the scarred top drawer, we line up our candy. Abstemious child that I am, daily I sacrifice, and daily I count my treasures.

cup of coffeeToday’s theology says that sacrificing sweets may not be the best preparation for death and resurrection, but I hold to old ways. Candy, for the most part, holds little appeal, but doing without peppermint chocolate in my coffee? Now, that is denial of the highest form. Once more, for six weeks, I drink my coffee straight, counting the days when I can scoop a rounded teaspoon of Stephen’s Candycane Cocoa into my caffeine.

purple clothLent’s color is purple, the hue of triumph and defeat, death and resurrection. Six weeks set aside annually to let bruise and dignity, darkness and elegance share a common table. In the delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones, Mary O’Neill writes of purple’s conundrums: jam and a pout, air without light and violets in spring.

Years ago, my wise mentor, Sister Theona, read aloud T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: The desert in the garden the garden in the desert.  She would look up, as if to say. “Do you hear this delicious wisdom?” Wanting to please, I nodded, the rhythmic words resonating, the meaning far beyond me—except for the poet’s repeated prayer, like a cup brimming with contradiction:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

For the next forty days or so, I will hang out with Old Testament passages, aware of my purple shirts and the purple crocuses, hoping to face the truth of my falsehoods, trying not to care too much, even about the foaming chocolate coffee to come someday soon.

Regions

1nature photosT. S. Eliot tells us in “The Wasteland” that April is the cruelest month, but for many in the Pacific Northwest the cruelest are the bleak days of January and February when rain has rusted the fence, when clouds hang too low, and when time seems to pass in slow motion. What has fascinated me this winter season is how nature’s spaces—large and small—open best in hibernation. I have looked at the world from the vantage point of a withered twig and the ground, the tree pocket and evergreen beyond it, geometric shapes that form when stalks are stripped bare.  John Keats’ words of stars “cold about the sky” may not relate to my clouded Oregon universe, but he describes what we can see when foliage does not obstruct the view.

2berryThe other morning I tried to capture a bit of nature’s empty rooms. The hued space between the leaves and berries caught my eye. What rooms arise in the places between red orbs and angled twigs? I cannot explain that mystery, but I did see the air blush and (maybe) shame the nearby brick.

3tree with skyAnd, oh, so much sky to see through bare branches. If the ground were not a soggy mess, I would lie on my back and contemplate nature’s etchings. Maybe not “bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air,” but at the top of the photo a woman’s profile, complete with pointed nose, double chin, and hair in a bun. Just to the left of center, the bird would be safely hidden, but his black head and beak give him away, and that figure in the lower right-hand-corner? The man in flowing cape and gaucho hat could be Zorro without his mask.

Winter is not a time to mourn, but a time to rest and dream, to let sleep come early and stay late, to discover the soul’s inner regions that let me play “Where’s Waldo” with bare branches. If I choose, I have dormant days of imagination swinging me past rusted diamond enclosures, and up, up, through those burdened clouds—all the way to the wide open sky.

Starting from Anywhere

“Starting from anywhere” is one of those lines from T.S. Eliot that makes me feel wise and wonderful, although Eliot’s poetry often is beyond my comprehension. What hooks me every time is the word cadence.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season.
It would always be the same; you would have to put off
Sense and notion.

Journey is an old theme that contains infinite interpretations. I began to write my memoir, If You Came This Way, the story of my family, the convent, and my decisions to remain too long in a place where I did not fit. Now the memoir is complete, but a question remains. What exactly is at the heart of any journey?

The Dear Lucky Agent Contest (http://tinyurl.com/j4d3kqz) encouraged me to attempt a new understanding of my writing odyssey. One contest requirement is to submit the first 150-300 words. Ah, if that doesn’t demand a clear-eyed knowledge of a starting point. Next, I had to map my memoir’s route in one sentence. I fussed for a while. Impossible to put my unique story in such a confined space. Yet, I did. After I met the challenge of both word count and succinct sentence came an experience akin to hanging out with Eliot, a belief that I’m little wiser and a little more wonderful.