Birthday Present

Class offered by Portland Literary Arts

I decide I’ll take it, “Stamp Collecting: Another Approach to Memoir Writing,” a gift to myself on my 71st birthday. Not because I am writing a memoir with aspiration to publish, but because this is how I’ve come to build writing with my students—or did before I retired. I have always told them that we can start small, write pieces, and create longer work by finding what fits together, shaping the material we’ve got. I want to be a student again.

The class met last Saturday, and it flew by. Natalie is an inviting teacher, generous in her approach with us. We read a series of examples—”mentor texts”in the jargon I use with my young creators—then discuss them: what do you notice? what is the writer doing? what particularly stays with you when you look away? She guides us the way a writing teacher should, at least in the way the National Writing Project first taught me, and I smile as I hear invitations I’ve offered to my students tendered to me.

Of course she has laid groundwork, too, clarifying why she’s chosen the word “stamps,” talking about its meanings, the size of postage stamps, that we get passport stamps, and connects the precision and impact, even some stamps’ controversial histories. “The stamps that we are reading changed the writer; they helped to define identity; they have white space in the same way poems do, trusting the reader to find connective tissue.”

She gives us a prompt to explore during a 20-minute break in our last hour together: “Write a list of five fears you have had that came true. Choose the most interesting. Ask five questions about it. Then write 7-10 sentences about that fear.” It’s an assignment structure any writing teacher might use—the list, the selection, the inquiry, the short exploration.

When we return to the group, she asks how it worked—and two of us are frank: it wasn’t the prompt for me. To which she calmly says, “I never know how any suggestion is going to land. I’m sorry if it caused you anxiety.”

This is the real lesson, isn’t it? There have to be lots of ways in to writing, to expression of any kind. We just have to keep extending invitations.

Seeing Clearly

Tidal Slough

“When the tide came in, the table was set.” These words describe early life for the Yaquo’n tribe once located in the native coastal forest edging Yaquina Bay, now the site of the Yakona Nature Preserve.

JoAnn and Bill Barton are Newport residents who, upon learning about the history of the Yaquina Bay, committed to “…the child [this land]we never had together. We’ve nurtured and tended a small remnant of the vast fog belt forests that once blanketed the Pacific Northwest coastline.” They know they cannot undo the devastation of the past, the egregious short-sightedness and inhumanity of European interlopers, but they are doing their best to ensure a respectful future.

On a glorious Friday morning, my sister and I hike in on an old logging road, sheltered and dappled by sunlight through tall trees. Unobtrusive signs alert disc golfers to the network of holes all but hidden in the woods, 18 of them. This is our first time here, and a volunteer we have met at the gate tells us that we’ll wend our way through the wooded road about a mile before actually arriving at Yakona.

“Do you want a ride in?” she offers.”Once you’re inside the preserve, you can wander the trails for hours.” We are grateful but decline. On foot the journey is slower but what we’re there for, to discover and spend time together. We are not disappointed—trees and native foliage, sloughs reflecting the tides, blue sky, and cotton-ball clouds, and the ease to enjoy them.

The Bartons’ “dream child” began with awareness of history, delving into this area’s past, and leading to their initial purchase of 77 acres in 2013 with the express intent,”…to allow Nature to reclaim much of the 400-acre peninsula that is home to the Preserve. As we prepare to pass along the care of this land to future generations we’ll never know…” Their child has grown to 340 preserved acres.

Since returning here, I’ve thought a lot about all that I didn’t know about my home as I was growing up. Our family had its routines, favorites; like people living anywhere, life was daily and quotidian. It is only now that I realize all I missed. And of course there was no sense of missing anything then. I had it all; I led a privileged existence.

I do recall learning about the “Flathead Indians” at some point in grade school, a European description given to the very natives that actually lived long, long before I did in the place I now call home but truly was theirs.

I am grateful for the chance to see this world with opened eyes and hopeful that future short-sightedness can be partially corrected. Perhaps it starts with walking in the woods.

Beyond Sadness

Your prompt for this week:

“In ‘The Critic as Artist,’ Oscar Wilde writes, ‘After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.’

Think of a sad song you love—one you go to wallow in, one that brings tears to your eyes. Listen to it, then write about whatever comes up. ” (from The Isolation Journals published by Suleika Jaouad. Thanks to her guest Carmen Radley.)

Found on Spotify

Confession: I am writing this on Sunday, not Tuesday. And I’m glad because this prompt, like so many from the weekly Isolation Journal’s gifts to desperate writers, triggers a powerful flood. And I’m ready to write when I read it—magic when that happens.

My song has to be “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical Hamilton. From the opening piano notes, staccato and singular, soon joined by the chords followed by a subdued yet clarion female voice, the chills rise and the tears prickle—even now, years after I first heard this song.

It is this phrase that unleashes any reserve, “They are trying to do the unimaginable.” And that “unimaginable”is the death of Alexander and Eliza’s eldest son Phillip in a duel. A duel Phillip undertakes for his honor, the honor of the family.

Have you read Dalton Trumble’s scathing indictment of war, Johnny Got His Gun? “…did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god i’m glad i’m dead because death is always better than dishonor?” Not to minimize or misrepresent Trumbo, but this sentence captures one dimension of my visceral reaction to “It’s Quiet Uptown.”

I can only listen through a parent’s ear, a mother’s heart—and it leaves me weak. Once I decided to have a baby, I enrolled in a lifelong club of captive caring. When I listen to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s plaintive melody and lyrics, I find my bona fides exposed to the world. Hubris and hope mix in parenthood, but hope triumphs and a child emerges. “It’s Quiet Uptown” articulates my greatest fear, my personal echo, my very own unimaginable.

When I am encouraged to write “…whatever comes up,” this arises, haunts, and thankfully when the song ends, moves to my mind’s recesses eclipsed by the immediate real joy I find in motherhood.


Frivolous? Perhaps…but I love my stability ball. Has it emerged in prior blog posts yet, my obsession with fitness? I have carried its weight for so long that I’m sure I must have. Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Commitment to exercise has been my “basic material” for longer than that.

Last week, once again, a confluence of factors—age and enthusiasm (and magical thinking that I’m still 25)—hobbled me. Post-pickle ball adventure, I tossed throughout the night with a persistent pain, lower back, left quadrant…blah, blah, blah.

My parents, forever role-models, never complained about their ailments, eschewed pills, were made of sturdy stock, stoics til the end. I aspire to that. Not for me the litany of injury, pain, and ailments when I gather with my peers. I work to remain sympathetic but silent. My husband bears my woes, however, and I his. (I’m hoping my parents also shared this private support.)

When he injured himself a year ago, neither waiting nor rest failed to remedy, so he went to the chiropractor. In rolled our newest family member, the healer, that purple globe tucked in the corner of our living room that receives highest praise: the stability ball.

Not for the first time it was to this loyal fixture that I turned, sat, and rolled when my injury screamed and patience waned. In two days, after gentle arching, stretching, and popping, I had my active self back. I could write an ode!

I will return to teaching day after tomorrow, my first subbing gig, and while I’m excited, I know the havoc it wreaks on my exercise routine. The students head to swim team practice just when I’m free to swim. They don’t finish until almost 6 pm, and by then, I’ve lost momentum.

I’ve thought about using the rowing machine at the rec center, traveling there without going home first, and that is an option. But today I researched the exercises available for my stability ball and found, “1o of the Best Stability Ball Exercises,” boasting “…Want to know the secret for strengthening your core, protecting your joints, and getting more muscle-building benefits out of every workout? It’s stability. Or, a stability ball, to be exact.”

The plan. I’m going to add this to my rotation—and try not to hurt myself!