Out of the Fog

Goal achieved: Under five minutes!

The “fog that comes on little cat feet” can also be dispelled by the same. On Sunday I sat down to puzzle my way through the morning. Yes, Wordle, now dordle and quordle too, but undoubtedly the grandfather: the Daily Jumble.

The Jumble, a feature of the Oregonian forever, was delivered to our front door daily. While my mom worked her crossword in pen, my dad stuck to the quicker relative—the Jumble.

I am the middle child of six, sandwiched between an older brother and sister and a set of twins and a younger brother—truly a “middle.” I’ve read quite a bit about us sandwich-filling kids and I can say that I became one of the driven ones. When my older brother and my younger sister, one of the twins, began their fierce daily wrangling with the Jumble, the attention of my father as the true prize, I bowed out. I did not want to compete when I knew I couldn’t win.

But I’m not 13 anymore, and the Jumble summons my father in a companionable, not competitive, way. Online it can be even easier than with pencil and paper. As a player today I can type one of the scrambled letters, and if it’s the wrong choice, red flares. So to complicate things, and in homage to my past, I solve on paper.

And the new habit brings me joy, not frustration. I can celebrate victory, and an occasional defeat, quietly, privately, imagining my father’s face and gentle hand on my shoulder.

On Sunday the Jumble is more challenging, six-letter words rather than five and six words rather than four. Two days ago, I set the timer by activating the first letter, picked up my pencil, and began puzzling. My goal is always to solve under five minutes. As I toyed with the letters, the timer tick, tick, ticked. I was stuck, stuck, stuck.

My cat Cowboy, off exploring, had returned to our desk and sauntered from food dish to his lap—mine—and as he made his descent, it struck me—the remaining unsolved scramble:

So…that fog that settles can as easily lift as little cat feet find their safe harbor. Thanks, Cowboy!

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.

Waves

“I watched as my grandmother let down her pinned-up hair to brush it out… I brushed my grandmother’s hair, which extended long past her waist.”

It comes on the invitation of this image Joy Harjo drops into her recent work, Poet Warrior, one among the many that drift in mind as I pick up these pages bound together by living again and again.

It is the summer that we cannot spend as always we have done, leaving the city behind, at our family home on the Oregon Coast. An earthquake in Alaska has unleashed waves far away, rattling the land where our house sits on a cliff overlooking Miss Pacific. It is 1964; I am 13.

When all settles, there is a crack in the foundation of the “new addition,” and this extension to the original house has fallen away. It will take most of the summer to reunite the pieces of our home. So my mother packs four of the six of us that still spend summers in blissful idleness without summer jobs into the station wagon and takes us inland to join our cousins.

This is new for us, family together in summer. My grandmother has her own cabin, and if I’m honest, I don’t know her nearly as well as my cousins do. This is their yearly retreat together; they head to the mountains and the Metolius River away from the coast. My aunt and uncle rent one cabin, my grandmother another. Their days smell of pine and pitch and a raft floating on the calm surface of a dammed creek.

I love this heat, this opportunity to ride horses and swim, my cousins at the ready for whatever adventure, everyone coming together for dinner at the lodge. After one dinner when my grandmother has begged off, my mom asks me to go check on her, take her some food perhaps, even though each cabin has a small kitchen.

Her cabin is tucked away beneath the shade of towering pines. Juniper surrounds the back and fills the air as the day’s warmth departs. I do not want to disturb her—our relationship is a tentative one—and what if she is resting?

I gently push the door open, the room shadowed except, as I lift my eyes to the one pool of light, I see her, seated before a dressing table, her back to me. While she might be aware of me, I am held captive by her hair, a wavy silver cascade down her back, thinner near the end where strands meet her waist. I have never seen her like this, undone.

My grandmother is a formal person, a woman mysterious to me when fully clothed and readied for the day. She carries the time before my time with reserve, with dignity. But in the moment she catches my eye in the mirror, she says, “Come here, Patricia. Would you help me brush my hair?”

I tiptoe across the wood floor, reaching for the brush she hands me, the plate abandoned on a side table. And I begin. I have never seen her this way. We have never shared any moment like this. I am careful—this ritual bears no resemblance to my mother wrangling with my tangles to tame them into a braid.

My memory stops there, the strokes, the dim room, the softly closed eyes of my grandmother, her neck tipped back to me, as I guide the brush through all that silver.

(Thanks to Poet Laureate Joy Harjo for sharing ways of being in this world.)

Seeing and Believing

Songs in the Key of Life (thanks, Stevie Wonder)

A writing assignment I love, and reprise in various iterations every chance I get to work with fellow writers, is a variation of an idea from the amazing Jim Burke and his brilliant The English Teacher’s Companion. My copy is the early edition and in it, scattered among the gems, is a way of generating a personal essay from an adjective. The example I use most successfully when I write with my people is: “I am lucky.”

My first anecdotal support is always, “I am lucky in love,” and I begin telling the story of meeting, then re-meeting, my husband. I married him after spending maybe 14 days together, hours of expensive phone calls notwithstanding (remember those days when phone time had a real cost attached?). The day I called my parents to tell them we were heading out to a notary public’s office to make it official, I prefaced the announcement by asking my mom, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

I could almost hear her worry in that, “Oh, Patricia,” but I hurriedly reassured her and off we went. After the brief ceremony, we headed out for a long weekend on Captiva Island, but beforehand we stopped to stock up on some snacks. I was reaching for the passenger side door handle, my new husband almost to the driver’s side when the reality of what we’d done struck. I froze, our eyes met, and he saw that …what? panic, perhaps?

We were 33, two never-been-marrieds, failed-at-relationships, maybe-it’s not-in-the-cards-for-me-and-I’m-okay-with-that types, yet here we were on this boldly bright Miami street—married.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, puzzled, worried, uncertain.

“It’s forever, for the rest of our lives. It’s …”

“But,”and he paused, then spoke, “It happens one day at a time. We can do this.”

And despite the number of times we have had to reassure ourselves, to remind ourselves of the gift of another day and our ability to handle what life brings, we have done this.

Happy Anniversary, Eric, 37 years so far, with a song for every moment. I remain lucky.

San José del Cabo, January 2022

Invaluable “Distance Learning”

San Jose del Cabo Jesuit Mission (rebuilt!)

Passion and knowledge, a dash of humor and charm, make the perfect tour guide. That’s what Vicent brought to us last night when we walked downtown SanJosé del Cabo on the Historical Tour offered by Cabo City Tours.

I was sold when I read the brochure that claimed that money from tours helps sponsor the education of school groups about the proud history of this area at the tip of California Baja del Sur. As a part of my education,Vincent explained that too many of the children who live here know very little about this area’s history, and he is one of the most ardent working to change that. They are part of the 75% who are from the mainland of Mexico. Even the natives, not to be confused with the Pericues who did not survive the Spanish arrival and conquest, lack a comprehensive understanding of Los Cabos’ story.

Vincent shared this story with all the details that capture one’s attention and enthusiasm. I learned that this part of Mexico once included California, that the name California came from Cortez and his appraisal of its “naked–except for the pearls they wore”–beautiful women, and the story of Queen Califia.

I learned about the Jesuits and the Pericues, their complicated relationship. And that when the Jesuits left, they unlike the wealthy Spaniards in other areas, gifted the land to the poor Andalusian workers who had helped them conquer the land and the people. From this gift arose the generosity of spirit and equality paramount to the forefathers of this place.

Thanks to Vincent, I will be following the progress he and his fellow council members make in deterring Canadian mining interests from doing their damage to the precious water resources upon which Los Cabos, and the future, depends. Viva la lucha!

I walked away from our small, engaged group—and Vincent—reluctantly, now tied to a place that, as a tourist, seldom happens. I owe this bond and appreciation to Vincent.

Muchas gracias y buena suerte en el futuro.

Traveling Music

As we head to the airport in the dark of a daylight-savings-time morning, my husband says, ”Choose some music, anything you want. Pick something with a green arrow. That means I’ve downloaded it from Spotify.”

I really don’t like this job, the designated music (wo)man, the pressure. My husband is the musician, and he has an unbelievable assortment of options, running the genre gamut. But I’m the navigator, so I scroll, scroll, scroll and stop. “This Is Dire Straits.” If you use Spotify, then you know that the site features an extensive “This Is…” for almost every musician, a collection of music spanning their careers.And it’s a winner, this collection. We haven’t heard it in so long.

I have always loved Mark Knopfler and his band, Dire Straits. Right away, I am transported back to a summer evening three decades ago in August, the moon full, the sky velvety, the air kind. My husband and I are standing outside the car on Route 37 getting gas. New Jersey, like Oregon, is not a pump-your-own state, so why we are standing on either side of our Celica, beats me.

Dire Straits is playing, melody drifting through the open windows, when one of my favorite songs of all time begins. Familiar notes and then the lyrics: “A love-struck Romeo sings a sweet song serenade…” It’s from Making Movies, ”Romeo and Juliet.” This is the perfect moment for that song, this beautiful night. We are pregnant at long last, and the sweetness of this moment brings me to tears.

I turn away from the moon, spin to face my husband across the top of our car. As our eyes connect, he croons, ”Hey la, my boyfriend’s back, ” and smiles, the perfect accompaniment to my joy.

We will arrive safely in Portland and listen to Dire Straits the entire journey, transported.

Something to Chew On

Licorice Gum—Yum

How do you feel about chewing gum? My parents eschewed it and removed it from our childhood landscape—at home. The primary reason, I think, was how bad it was for our teeth. They completely supported my third grade teacher’s practice. When she caught a student chewing gum in school, she’d have them stand in front of the class with the offensive blob, place it on their nose and recite:

“The gum chewing (boy/girl) and the cud-chewing cow, are a lot alike, but different somehow. Ah yes, I see it all now. The intelligent look on the face of the cow.” Her approach pretty much quelled any gum-chewing desire.

It always seemed odd to me that so many of my friends chewed gum with enthusiasm, and their parents said nothing. Then sixth grade arrived, and I tried my first stick of Juicy Fruit, followed swiftly by Beemans and Blackjack, my all-time favorite. (I do love licorice!)

My elementary school, a K-8 building, sat in a neighborhood edged by small businesses, corner grocery stores and cafes. The access to candy counters escaped me until I realized that, before I walked home, I could travel a mere three blocks and be where the wild things are—whole packages of gum, that forbidden fruit! Even better…I discovered penny pieces of bubble gum. These bright red sirens, two-inch cylinders rounded on each end, called to me like no other. And I passed my passion on.

I would purchase a handful, bring them home, and wait for bedtime when my younger sister and I would begin our bubble-blowing contest in the dark. Lying in twin beds, side-by-side, we’d aim to be the first one to make, and loudly-but-not-too-loudly pop, 20 bubbles. Giggles to riotous laughter ensued and our mom’s calls drifted from downstairs. “Girls, quiet down. Go to sleep,” inviting even more laughter. We were such rebels!

I outlived my love of gum, and blowing bubbles, a brief romance that dwindled as I discovered that I truly liked only the initial sweetness, and the secret. The chewing bored me. I loved to talk, and gum-chewing got in the way. I have noticed that my son is not a gum-chewer, and while I never took my parents’ stance, sugarless options were everywhere for him, he never took to the habit either. Of course, he never had a brother or sister to have bubble-blowing contests with either. That might’ve changed things.

Finding Her Seat

Ocala, Fl, January 2022

My niece Delaney Rose’s first horse was not a wooden one, nor one made of yarn and broomstick—and it wasn’t one; it was a barnful. She was literally raised in a barn. Her mom, a horsewoman, rider, trainer, teacher to aspiring equestrians, took Del to the barn with her before the child could walk.

The first time I visited the barn during one of my Oregon summer trips, Delaney was maybe four, a tousled towhead toddling unconcerned among majestic beasts weighing 1,000 pounds, more or less, but she was little. She thought nothing of it, plopped in the dust and hummed unconcerned as the hubbub of barn life surged around her. When her mom swung her up onto the back of a roan, Delly beamed. These guys were her playmates!

Fast forward 19 years to an August afternoon in the summer of 2018: I had not seen Delaney ride until her quest for ranking brought her to an accredited event at a farm near enough for us to attend. Many such events demanded extensive travel, but we were lucky, as was she. This one was only an hour away from us, double that and then some for her. Neither she nor her family are wealthy, so these competitions are working ones for her. And they are WORK.

Delaney “gets” to ride the horses she takes care of and trains with for their wealthy owners. She manages the packing up, the driving, the equipment, the animals. She navigates the horse world judiciously, knowing that her love of riding and the ability to do so at this level requires a commitment as well as finesse. Horse owners can be temperamental, but Delaney has always been driven to ride, and the jockeying is worth it!

After her remarkable showing in the steeplechase, “a distance horse race in which competitors are required to jump diverse fence and ditch obstacles,”we meet Delaney at one of the barns in a row of similar structures. She is with her mount (not hers) now shed of saddle and tack, and she smiles wide, his velvet muzzled head at her shoulder. As we talk, he nudges her playfully and she chuckles. “He’s so much like a dog, isn’t he?” turning to stroke him. “And jealous, just like one, too.” Love language.

It’s love you see, too, in the photo above; Delaney has found her dream job, despite her parents’ gently grounding her, making sure she understood her slim chance at finding her seat at the table with the upper-tier equestrian community. But she has—luck, talent, and hard work have landed her here. She is, as her dad, my doting brother, describes, “Riding the best of big-ass horses over mind-blowing obstacles,” pride oozing from every pore.

Not that many of us realize our dream; Delaney has.

Wise Woman

Wedding Day October 20, 2020

I hit a wall—hard—in March last year, and my daughter-in-law was there to support me. It wasn’t as if she had nothing else to do. She had just moved to Oregon to take a job in a nearby city—for the city— that she secured via a series of Zoom interviews conducted while she was still living in New Orleans. And she was staying with us, her new in-laws as of October, commuting an hour each morning without her husband, our son. He had remained behind to finish selling the house and to pack up their former lives.

At the start of the school year, September 2020, I had taken a job with my former employer in New Jersey as the middle school Language Arts teacher in its “virtual academy,” the alternative for students who were unwilling or unable to attend the in-person classroom. We all remember that fall, its fits and starts, its Covid outbreaks. My cohort of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students dwindled as the year progressed and each new marking period saw students returning to their in-person lives. But my teaching schedule persisted.

When Alex, my daughter-in-law arrived in mid-February, I was wakening at 3:30 a.m. to begin my teaching day at 5 Pacific time/ 8 Eastern. I had been doing this since September, and that was only part of my exhaustion. As much as we did that was good, as we explored different strategies to create meaningful relationships as a learning team, I felt defeated and disconnected as well. This was not the world I had retired from in 2017.

And Alex, her own plate full, listened as I dumped my frustration on her while she prepared for her commute—at 5 a.m., no less. What is worse, she returned to the same litany at the end of a L-O-N-G day at a new job, in a new state, surrounded by loving— but let’s be honest, pretty much strangers—in-laws!

One weekend in late March, she suggested that perhaps I write my principal in New Jersey and explain myself, my feelings, and let her know that I would be more than willing to surrender my role should she wish to put my diminishing number of students into hybrid Language Arts classes, as that had become part of the school’s operation. Alex reasoned that maybe my principal was looking for a way to reintegrate the kids to a more “normal” experience with their peers, and I would be giving her my go-ahead. “At least she’ll know what you’re thinking.”

So I did. I worried and wrote, worried and re-wrote, worried. Finally after three weeks and multiple drafts, unable to sleep, I sent the email. I told Alex that it went out at 3 a.m., and she asked me, “Do you feel better?” And miraculously, I did. I no longer even cared whether I had to actually finish the teaching year (and I did, by the way). It was the act of speaking my piece that freed me, that let me move on, just as Alex in her 29-year-old wisdom knew it would.

Today my wonderful, one-of-a-kind daughter-in-law has an interview for a new job in city government—one that comes with significant additional responsibilities and commitment, one that, as she described, “You don’t apply for a job like this, and then leave after a year.” She wants the position but is philosophical about her chances—yes, no; either way, she moves forward with a smile and calm, balanced.

Good luck, Alex. They are the lucky ones. So am I.

Choosing Wallpaper

Rehearsal dinner, Sebastopol, California, October 19, 2020….photo by Eric Levine (father of the groom)

Whatever I do, and despite the proliferation of folders that threaten to eclipse the very reason for my choice until Saturday when I file those screen shots away, setting the desktop photo is all important to the way I start each day. How about you?

Currently this is my wallpaper—and why not? It takes me back to the night before my son and daughter-in-law were married. That night, though not the main event, joined a flood of memories that will forever remain unforgettable.

This photo, though, speaks volumes. Just this morning after the kids left for work, I went into their bedroom to check on the dog and cat, to find Alex’s cowboy boots lying side-by-side on the rug. How do some people effortlessly combine styles? When she emerged from the car, boots-on-the-ground first, followed by a silky dress and fluffy sweater, I was smitten—much like my son, I know! And here she is.

That smitten emotion? Look at her nephew, one of the twins, the one that can’t take his eyes off his “meemaw.” While his brother capers for my husband, the photographer, his eyes are 100% focused on his aunt. Eye-play doesn’t stop there. The youngest member of the crew, three-year-old “G,” sends her gaze toward her brothers, always. On their farm in Sebastopol the three embody the musketeers,”All for one and one for all,” especially since the pandemic has kept everyone home.

Love and life, captured in a moment: this is wallpaper I approve wholeheartedly.