“Tell me,/which stars were my ancestors looking at?/…Am I navigating correctly?” from “Identity Politics” by Taya Tibble

On an Oregon trail… (photo by Eric Levine)

Upon reading these words in this morning’s Knopf poetry email, I flash to that moment hiking in the woods yesterday when I wondered how I could possibly find my way using the way moss grows on trees for my compass. I recall that I’ve read this is many books—north faces invite moss, but here moss blankets tree trunks entirely. Because, on this gold and green afternoon in the woods, trees towering overhead allowing only peeks of sky, I am thinking of survival.

Early this morning my book club members and I met on a patio facing the Pacific to discuss Bonnie Henderson’s The Next Tsunami Living on a Restless Coast. Among the selections we chose for this year, I knew that this one would be difficult, as the fact that I delayed picking it up until a week before our scheduled meeting attests.

I recall reading Kathryn Schultz’s devastating article in the New Yorker, “The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when,” during a trip to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2015. While it didn’t keep me from moving here after I retired as I’d dreamed, it did haunt my dreams after I’d read it.

Yet we were here, discussing the reality, our tenuous one, on the Oregon Coast, the Pacific watching us implacably, sparkling and secretive. The woman who had proposed this book is a scientist, a geologist, engaged and riveting as she gives us her take. Her stance provides distance and invites awe at all that we don’t yet know about our oceans. “We know more about outer space,” she marvels, “but it’s all so exciting, what’s being done—and ignored, if I’m honest—being learned.”

After we disperse, heading back to our lives enriched by food for thought, I lag behind to chat with a friend from my childhood. She, too, is a scientist at heart, enthralled by the stories our Pacific Northwest holds, but works as an artist. Right now she walks widely, collecting natural pigments to create paints, making her mark with the tools time has deposited, what ancestors have left behind.

It is she who has led me to this trail, I who wanted to know what she would do, where she would go in the wake of the “Big One.” Both of us solemnly concede our unlikely survival. I would head inland to Corvallis where my son and his wife live. This trail would be a start, but it stops, leads to dense forest. Then what?

I will buy good boots, have water purification straws and tablets, packable food, layers for the weather, but… I return to the moss, and the uncertainty of it all: life.

For the Love of Pets

When the phone rings—“rings” hardly describes what phones do now—I see who it is and answer,”Hi Jim, Joann, whichever one of you, so glad you called.”

“It’s Joann.” These neighbors of ours for decades, whether I was living in the family beach house or not, have become near and dear since we relocated to the West Coast. She’s calling with a request.

These are friends who count, a couple in our close-knit group of six. We share meals and patio events, drinks and philosophies, neighborhood green space, and love, for each other and for our pets.

We have been through a lot, and that continues. Now we are all aging together. We have all lost pets, had to say goodbye ready-or-not. And this call asks me to show up tomorrow morning, that’s today, to stay with Jesse, their ailing senior rescue beagle. J & J are well-aware of the nature of their attachment to Jesse, acknowledging that he is their baby, and unapologetic.

They lost their lab several years ago, the chocolate member of this mutt-and-Jeff duo that frolicked and lazed in the easement between our two houses: Sprig and Jesse. Our dog and sundry friends’ canines joined them in a happy tumble of paws and chewed tennis balls.

Jesse remains, bi-weekly chemo treatments for cancer notwithstanding. And here we are together on this glorious Tuesday, his sonorous breathing background music to my drafting.

He has finally settled because—his beloved are not here. When they left for a doctor’s appointment that will take hours, he seemed sanguine, unfazed. Then he realized they were actually…gone, as in, not anywhere in this house.

Then he followed me around as I narrated and reassured, “I’m making another cup of coffee; I’m getting ice water. It’ll be okay, Jesse. They’ll be back soon. Get comfortable, little guy.“ Disbelieving, he perched at the top of the stairs pointing balefully with his gray muzzle.

Trips outside to scout, woebegone, accusatory looks when the effort to find his “peeps” failed, and finally sleep, because what else is left?

What I know for sure is that he is not alone in feeling that a part of him is missing. His parents are surely experiencing the same absence. Soon, though, the family will be together again.

Then I will walk my own dog on the beach, thankful to be welcomed home.

Where are they?
Escape to Dreamland

Serendipity, Again

Nuance is everything!

Last night the time that no clock can name came rushing in. Earlier in the day I had committed to giving a presentation at my professional organization’s upcoming conference next October. After two years online, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) goes live and in-person. As the Fall Conference Co-Chair, I felt an obligation.

Earlier in the week, I had been sharing my concern with the OCTE President—proposals had stopped trickling in. We’d already had to extend the deadline. Then I read a quote in the latest Rethinking Schools from the editorial, “No More Normal.” “When one of our colleagues, a stellar teacher, was asked to lead an in-service workshop she said, ‘You couldn’t pay me enough to add something else to my to-do list…'” There it was—indisputable.

But by yesterday, the deadline, we had the 12 necessary to forge ahead, or we would as soon as I tendered mine. Reviewing the topics and grade levels represented, I decided on POETRY! Even online my students and I had been at our best when we used poetry to communicate, and we used it often, (a win-win in wacky world). So much of what we’d done before, in the face-to-face world, the writing, the reading, was poetry; poetry transcends boundaries.

I have taught for most of my life, and when I wasn’t teaching, I was learning about teaching. Playing school was my favorite rainy-day activity, and it rains a lot in Portland, much to my playmates’ dismay. But presenting to my colleagues is daunting. I try to do too much; I want to share it all.

At this point, I have taught so many lessons, read so many professional texts, and attended so many professional development events that I’m not sure anymore what ideas, what practices, are mine: I am a creation (perhaps Frankenstein-ish) of my passion, my curiosity, my endless quest to grow. Thinking about how to narrow my focus, I carom from one possibility to another. So —up in the muddy middle of night.

My proposal title, a neon sign, announces “Transformation: The Power of Poetry,” and the description,”Poetry encourages student voice, their personal expression, in a way no other genre can. In this session, we will explore specific scaffolds for poetry—particularly using personification and metaphor. A variety of mentor texts will invite and support students’ own creativity.”

I believe in the transformative experience of poetry play, of pushing figurative language into the spotlight. We’ve been so successful together, my students and I, taking this approach. When I wake up, so I must’ve fallen asleep at some point, I remember who led me in this direction—or at least one name: Sara Holbrook.

I search her. Scholastic pops up. This :

Good Morning!

Scholastic is promoting their book, not High Definition, the one that started me on my figurative language campaign, but a new(er) one: From Striving to Thriving Writers. Along with it, materials to support me, my security blanket, my scaffold.

And I buy their book because—there are always new things to learn. But I have my focus. I am back at the beginning of my breadcrumb trail, and I can breathe. Fingers-crossed, I’ll also be able to sleep.

Too Many Choices

“I need to take more photos,” I think, as I procrastinate writing his very blog post by searching through Google’s photo storage to find the perfect replacement header image. It is a mixed blessing to live with an amazing photographer who has chronicled the big moments in our life through images captured, and rendered the small ones significant—because he sees.

My parents weren’t photo-takers, and granted, the times were very different. The only experience around photography I recall is the Christmas that my dad bought a Polaroid camera, the eponymous Polaroid Land camera, and snapped away, eventually relinquishing it to my older siblings, and then to some closet shelf. Dad was a gadget guy, but his interest in photography, existed in the ideal rather than the real. I am a lot like my father.

When I married an avid photographer, I struggled a bit. My siblings balked at his persistence, his arranging tableaus to freeze our infrequent get-togethers. Then, when they’d see the results, they’d ooh and ahh. I, too, was churlish at first, but inevitably the joy of reflecting on moments that otherwise might have vanished, places we’d been, people we’d seen, eventually won me over. All those stories.

However, there is a downside to having endless options. We have a “gallery” wall in our living room that we purposefully had my brother design. It’s a space for display with lights that shine upon…nothing…yet.

That’s not totally true. We did make an array of wedding photos and mounted them a year after the wedding. That decision was tough enough. But now, moving forward, the selection of which photos to blow up—not inexpensive—and feature is daunting. Were it up to me, I’d pick any of them (all amazing in my view), but my husband is an artist, and he is the arbiter of excellence, his own worst critic.

So for now, we wait. I read an interesting article: a person dealing with our dilemma suggested that we select photos that we like, blow them up to 8 x 10’s, tape them to the wall, and leave them there. He wisely opined that the ones we didn’t get sick of after six months or so, were the ones to choose.

I can tell you that we made a great choice with the wedding array. Even though when my son saw it, he reacted with this: “It looks a bit shrine-y” and grinned. Still, each one of those pictures brings me great joy.

I’m willing to wait.