December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas! Prickly Pear & Fruit!

"We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
We with you a Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year!"

Christmas Day swiftly approaches but, because I was in Arizona for six weeks this fall, I did not make a Christmas card--and so extend instead to everyone on my list this snapshot of my five little elves and me, taken last Friday at my daughter's house. Merry Christmas!

The bad-so-sad news of 2009 was that my much loved Jeep died en route to Phoenix last October. I buried her under a rainbow in San Jose, CA, at a car cemetery called Pick and Pull. What a ignoble death to something so loyal and brave as was my jeep, 220,000 miles old. With the grand total of $241, which the junkyard, I mean cemetery! gave me, I rented another car and limped into Phoenix, distressed over not just the loss of my wonderful car but the financial difficulty this had put me in, now eighteen months unemployed. Blake, my youngest son, had this to say over the phone however: "Mum, you enjoyed sixteen years of a long and loving, monogamous relationship with that car. You loved that car. You will never love another car quite like that one. But, Mum, it's time now for you to start sleeping around." Perspective restored, two friends from high school helped me go car shopping. I now own a 2005 Toyota Scion which, after a few hurdles, runs like a charm.

The good news of 2009 is that my son and daughter-in-law have received word that we now have a Chinese baby to add to my grandchildren list. "Alice" was abandoned January 2 a year ago. The only information we have on her is from last August, and is cause for concern. She's already suffered two broken thighs and is suspected to have brittle bone disease. In my expression of worry over what this will cost emotionally as well as financially, my son said, "We could not hear of her and not go get her." My other son said, "Think of what her life would be like if left in China."

I did think. A few years ago Blake was in China teaching. He knows what her life would be like. I do too because Blake flew me over for ten days. I saw the plethora of beggars in the streets, suffering all manner of deformities and disease. Blake never passed a single one without dropping to his knee and rolling wadded-up yen into the beggars' cups. He touched them, spoke with them, let them know he saw them, that he cared. Would Alice, without Phil and Katie in her life, grow up with nothing to look forward to but broken bones and perhaps the streets?

And so Phil and Katie are waiting to go get her, and I suspect that our little Alice will bring the same wonder and joy to my family as did my little sister fifty years ago, born with a severe heart defect. For you cannot live with an ill child without seeing a bit of God. I once heard a minister say God does not intervene in the affairs of the world. I agree that at times he seems to utterly vacate, to leave us entirely to ourselves (which isn't necessarily a bad thing!) But my sister, born to die, undeniably brought the divine into our home. Sometimes life is not so much how much we can get out of it but how much we can put into it.

The highlight of my year was the momentous--but wonderful--journey to Arizona this fall, forty years after first moving there as a seventeen-year-old kid. I drove down through California and stopped both coming and going to see friends at the ranch where I lived as a ten-year-old and in San Jose where I lived as a young mother. These are friends who are the same wonderful people they were "way back when" and it did me good to bask in their love and our memories of each other. In Phoenix itself I was surrounded by numerous friends--from the church I once attended, from high school, from college, from when I worked at First National Bank of Arizona. How is it, I kept wondering, that friendship can survive long years apart? I don't know. But I am grateful.

I sign off with a picture or two taken of my Thanksgiving morning. My friend Wayne (BFF from high school) planned it all. His sister Carol and I arrived at his house at the same time, breathless and happy, nine o'clock sharp. I'm gluten intolerant and all fall Wayne had been introducing me to various grains indigenous to the Southwest Natives that are gluten free; he surprised me Thanksgiving morning by preparing breakfast appetizers of tepary beans and two new grains. Carol and I lapped them up and I thought, isn't it wonderful to have such two fine friends?

Anyway, we headed out for our hike up South Mountain to see more petroglyphs (I have fallen in love with the ancient symbols) and to eat a breakfast of prickly pear cactus fruit. I've never enjoyed a better Thanksgiving. Do you see Wayne teaching us how to get past the prickles to the fruit? Now isn't that a metaphor for life?

It's good to have Thanksgiving right before Christmas, instilling a sense of gratitude for family and friends. There is no better gift, I think, under any tree. In that spirit, then, I wish all my family and friends everywhere a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

December 15, 2009

Christmas Carol--a la Jim Carrey

If anyone is debating whether or not to go see the Jim Carrey version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, go. Or at the very least read my son's review of the film posted on his blog.

I think I actually felt snow falling on my face in the theatre, the 3-D was that good. The film itself, though, is one I'd use in my English classes, getting the kids to write compare and contrast essays between two presentations of story. This is a must-see, must-have movie that no one can tire of. b--

Copy and paste the link below to get to Blake's blog:

November 16, 2009

Post Traumatic Stress, A Curious Animal and Petroglyphs

Post-traumatic stress is a curious animal, like a bobcat lurking in the shadows, snarling, pawing the air. It circles, keeping you in its sights. Sometimes you can stick your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la-la-la and it goes away, but eventually the yellow eyes of the past don’t slink into the shadows anymore. The pointed tips of the ears instead lay straight back, and the beast crouches and crawls across the stones of time toward you. You hyperventilate on the fear but you know if you run, it’ll leap out of the past and take you down.

Last spring and finding myself mired in a dark place of emotional and creative paralysis, I remarked to my youngest son, “I wonder if I have some kind of PTSD.”

Blake is twenty-nine. He has blue eyes. When he is happy, they lighten to a bright, translucent color that reminds me of an Arizona swimming pool. When thoughtful, they turn a deep navy, and you can almost see his prodigious mind pulling data from every nook and cranny as he thinks and the color deepens. The day I blurted out my rather off-the-wall and oh-so-casual comment—oh, BTW, maybe I have post-traumatic stress—he slid his eyes toward me. They were a deep navy blue. “Perhaps in more ways than one,” he said. Ah…a circle of bobcats. And so I came to the Arizona desert to see what they would do.

They actually ganged up on me.

So much so that a few days ago I checked out two books on post-traumatic stress disorder from the Glendale public library.

Have you ever been in a natural catastrophe? the authors ask.


Were you ever sexually assaulted?

Check, check, and check.

As a child, were you physically maltreated with excessive beatings or spankings?


As a child, did you ever witness beatings?


Have you ever been kidnapped, abducted, raped, burglarized, robbed, or mugged?

Check to all of the above—if we can count my ten-year marriage and the seventeen years of single parenting that followed.

Were you ever injured in an accident?


Have you ever been involved in a situation in which you felt that you would be harmed or killed?

Do I have to answer this?

A single “yes” is enough to tuck me snugly into the DSM-IV’s category of PTSD. No wonder I’m overwhelmed. There are other questions, of course, and my continued “yeses” should perhaps alarm me, but for the first time in my life I am actually beginning to feel quite normal—normal, that is, for someone suffering several layers of post-traumatic stress. The circling chaos, closing in on me in this desert where so much pain lives, actually holds a pattern, so say the books. A kind of dot-to-dot, if you will, a carbon footprint of the traumatized that I, and anyone else traumatized, can find comfort in for all its tragic commonality. The books go on to say that by learning to recognize these patterns I, and everyone else, can gain mastery. A bit like learning how to parse a night sky, I think, into Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper… the North Star, that glimmering beacon of hope that’s always led the oppressed out of slavery to the past into a future unfettered.

My first observation upon recognizing that I actually do suffer multiple traumas is that not all my trauma carries the same import. For instance, my crippling anxiety over tornadoes is only triggered by certain weather conditions. Most of the time, I don’t even think about tornados. I only fall into hapless panic when the barometric pressure plummets a certain way and the smell of ozone stings my nose and constricts my throat. This simple discovery that I can sort and prioritize is a good thing. Because here in the desert it’s blatantly obvious that my sexual molestation of forty years ago, inflicted at the hands of my Christian doctor—feels like the lead bobcat of my original metaphor. Gain mastery of this crouching beast and I might find a way to contain them all.

So I came up with a plan to tackle at least this one cat. On the 40th anniversary of my initial sexual assault, November 11, I’d make a list of everything Dr. Mattson ever did to me, burn it, then get my high school BFF to take me up South Mountain, sacred to the Indians, where I could leave the ashes of my past in symbolic gesture and sit alone—and just “let” all those panic-instilling memories “intrude.” Sit and wait and just see what happens. Just see if the bobcat, ears back and crawling across the stones of time, pounces and takes me down.

I did need my BFF, though, to execute. In the old days Wayne had been the one to take me to the doctor. I’d get through by disappearing into my head, knowing that he’d eventually, if I could just hang on, get me away from it all. The idea of sitting alone in the desert with all those memories was so scary I couldn’t imagine doing it without him. What if I started to keen? To howl? What if I couldn’t find my way back? What if all those memories took up residence and never left, leaving me forever crazy? Yes, I needed Wayne.

He agreed.

This was the plan.

This is what happened.

On the morning of the 11th I was crying before I ever got to his house thirty minutes away.

“How are you this day?” he asked when I pulled up. He was standing in the driveway.

“I’m okay. Except do you have any cream? My eyes hurt.”

He studied my face. “Do you need eye drops? Or skin stuff?”

I pointed to my sore skin under my eyes. I knew I looked about ten years old than I did the day before. He disappeared, came back, handed me a bottle. “This is supposed to be good. Do you need to pee?” he added.

It was as though he had to do all my thinking for me, which was okay. I was so strung out with past and present running side by side in my head—like the old-fashioned hot wheels tracks, double lanes, Yesterday and Today—that I was feeling a bit schizophrenic and definitely unfocused. Willingly I threw organization of my bodily functions into his good care. “Yes,” I said. He pointed to the bathroom.

When I emerged—more grounded for having weighed myself and certainly annoyed, where had those two pounds come from?—he said, “Ready?”

I nodded. We climbed into his car, a Saturn I don’t mind telling you I’ve fallen in love with. Part of my trauma down here in the desert is the on-going saga of my car troubles and I have, from time to time, had to borrow Wayne’s. Climbing into his bells-and-whistles vehicle was like climbing into the lap of a familiar and over-indulgent lover. “We’re going to make a stop first,” he said, “a surprise.” I buckled in. A surprise?

While we wandered through the lovely streets of Ahwahtukee in South Phoenix, he gave me a history of South Mountain rising up beside us and the Indians who go back as far as the Hohokam, an ancient civilization that built multi-story apartments and ran miles of irrigation ditches that far surpassed anything Europe was doing at the time and which the city of Phoenix, to some extent, has appropriated. By the time we reached a small parking lot of the world’s largest park, and were ascending by foot a short trail his friend had put in, Wayne was talking of Marcos de Niza and look, here’s his name etched on the stone, with the date of 1539. I was amazed. Wayne’s summation of the various interpretations of history, the various debates regarding the name’s authenticity, where he himself weighed in on the argument, fueled my delight. “There’s more,” he said, and I trotted excitedly along after him down and around the trail to a rock face that took my breath. Petroglyphs of unknown antiquity.

“There is no Rosetta Stone for this,” he said. “We have no idea what the symbols mean.”

Squared-off spirals, “lizard” men, boxes in boxes, concentric circles, squiggles, all scraped into the desert “varnish” of the stone. What did they mean, these symbols? Perhaps they were simply names; perhaps warnings; maybe marks of possession. Or maybe they told a story. A sad story? I wondered. I didn’t want a sad story. Yet if sadness stood here, wasn’t the narrative testament to survival? Or perhaps these markings were here to celebrate a victory, some kind of triumph, to document achievement. Gradually I became aware of Wayne telling me about the descendents of these now silent authors, people who live on the Gila River Reserve and who still make forages into the many hidden parts of South Mountain where white men can’t go. They go, Wayne said, to practice their ancient rites, to seek the ancient gods. They take their own relics, and leave them. I thought of Chief Seattle’s grave in the Pacific Northwest and the many relics found there on any given day. “Just like you’re doing today,” Wayne told me. “Come on. Now that you’ve seen this and I’ve finished my lecture, we can go find a place for your ashes.”

We went to two more spots before he was happy. It was Veterans’ Day; the trails were busy. I needed privacy. We ended up where it was easy to duck off the main trail and scrabble up into the crevices of South Mountain just as the Hohokam must have done thousands of years ago. I had no idea where we were on the map, but kept after Wayne as he climbed up higher into a hot seam that, when I turned around, opened onto the desert and Phoenix sprawl. Forty years ago it had been nothing but cotton fields, farms. “Is this good?” he asked, tottering atop a boulder. He pointed out numerous small caves and tiny hollows in the rubble of stone where I might leave my relic.

“It’s good,” I said, my palm sweaty from the plastic bag I carried.

He disappeared, I was on my own. I found a hollow, hardly reachable, and I scraped my skin leaning over to dump the ash from my bag into the basin of this small enclave. Not much substance, I thought, considering the ash…and the damage it represented. For some reason, I suddenly felt protective, confusing the ash with the girl who’d been so wronged, the girl who’d been me. I understood my momentary confusion; violation of any kind is so easily internalized. But the ash was not me; the ash was Dr. Mattson—and his dark deeds. I leaned over and blew. The ash swirled deeper into the stone. I blew again, driving it up against the pocket wall. Let the Hohokam spirits take it, let God have this. Leave it in this sacred place that reaches back in time and still survives.

I clambered away, up the seam to a new place, and sat down into a place of three stones, a chair of sorts, the heat of the earth a cushion beneath me.

Can I name my thoughts? Describe my feelings?

Wayne came to check on me. Quietly he went away again.

My tears, for the first time, were not anything I fought to keep at bay. Let the bobcat take me down. But sitting in the desert, alone, staring down the beast that circled, yellow eyes on me, I kept thinking of the petroglyphs. Here was something seductively new, and my curiosity called me away from Dr. Mattson. Perhaps, I thought to myself, these ancient symbols were a mixed bag: good and bad, triumph and defeat, momentous and mundane, and why not? Is this not life? And were they any different, I wondered, than what had been scraped into the patina of my own psyche? And how, I wondered with a terrific jolt, could one excise the tragic without marring the rest?

I stood up in agitation. I started to climb over the stones. Had I really been hoping to cut from my mind this piece of my past? Cut it out as a surgeon cuts cancer, throwing out body parts and leaving behind devastating mutilation? How could I expect to do this without destroying everything attached to it? For despite all its hellish aspects, my first year in Arizona was the best of my life. A Charles Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” sort of thing. Did I really want to rid myself of it all? In almost a state of panic I started back down the seam, but where was Wayne? I couldn’t find him. My heart started to pound. Where was he?

I descended farther, out to the open. Where is he?

He was sitting atop a high stone, hat on, about fifty yards off, guarding the entrance to my place. Down below bikers were wheeling along the trail. I began picking my way over. He spotted me and started toward me, directed me this way, that, until only a sheet of stone stood between us. “Are you all right?” he asked when I stepped over.

I was not. Trembling, I took hold of his shirt and pulled myself into his arms, nose in his chest. “No,” I whispered, so agitated I couldn’t think.

He tucked me in. “But was it worth it?” he asked.

I think it took all of twenty seconds to figure it out. The bobcat had not pounced.

It’s been a couple of days since tethering that bobcat to the sacred seam of rock in Phoenix, Arizona’s, South Mountain; a few days to get my eyes off the yellow eyes of the past and to see instead a wall of symbols that are scraped into the patina of my psyche. Unlike Wayne’s petroglyphs, I do, though, know what they mean. For here is the harsh and disfiguring damage from Dr. Mattson, a cruel and deeply offensive marking that can, I think, make even rock weep. It claims its space, alongside other trauma I’ve endured and have yet to sort through. But there are other symbols as well, etched with love not only by Wayne whose wisdom and kindness is a kind of North Star in my life but Gwen, too, and Jeff, Rita, Tom, Jonathon, Rachel, Rod, Uncle Bob and Donna, Rachel, Jody, Nancy, Carol, Linda, Cherry, Marie, Jamie, Peter, Dr. Ney, the little church we all attended, McClintock High where I graduated, Legend City, Big Surf, Jonathon’s white ’59 Chevy pick up truck, drive-in movies, scorpion hunting…

Sandblast Dr. Mattson out of my life? No wonder I was agitated. To do so would forever damage the surrounding etchings that better define me.

I followed my high school BFF down to the trail, leaving behind at least one bobcat tethered to ash and hidden in a place where God dwells. There were others, I knew, but I’d find a way to drive a stake and tether them too.

“What?” said Wayne.

I’d stopped. The desert was sooo beautiful.

November 09, 2009

Oases in the Desert

My desert sojourn is proving not to be the one of arid stones and poisonous cacti that I’d envisioned and remembered but has instead come to revolve around the unexpected and very vibrant plant life that defines Arizona—life that for whatever reason I’d not appreciated when I lived here lo these forty years ago. A lesson that is taking too long to learn.

First there is the oasis of Glendale’s Public Library just 1.5 miles from the house I am renting. Botanical gardens, sculpture, peacocks, chickens, cooing doves—these greet me each day, the highlight of my hours. My soul often feeds in silence, and so I drive solo into the parking lot two minutes from my house and find myself a shady place beneath a giant date palm and wander all by myself through the slightly pink and wandering flagstone walkways that mosey people into the library. I pause to teach myself another form of cactus, Golden Barrel for instance, or to memorize the name of a tree so different from the Pacific Northwest. I stoop to smell a new flower, and pass chickens busy in the Lantana, a low green shrubbery that explodes yellow or orange flowers. Sometimes a rooster struts along beside me. Sometimes a trio of peacocks might lift their heads from the grassy lawn, or a male might lift and fan his tail, and preen in the sunlight. Sometimes, when inside and busy checking my e-mail or doing my job searches or looking for yet another Steinbeck book to reinforce the writing I am ostensibly here to do, I can hear them, the peacocks and the roosters. I bow my head over whatever it is I am doing and just “am.” A moment. A sound. A place. A peace that travels inward, burrows in, and seems to restore what I lost here when I was just seventeen—and could not find again in the misery that my life became because of it.

But I don’t have to be alone to gain the tranquility. My friend Wayne last week took me out to the botanical gardens in Scottsdale where I kept him busy identifying everything. A veteran mountain climber, desert hiker, with a lifetime of knowledge stored in his head like the gallons of water store inside Arizona’s giant saguaro, he is my walking encyclopedia. Plants, stones, birds. He knows everything. “What’s this?” I ask. “What’s that? So how does the Senora Desert differ from the Great Basin? Hey, what’s this little guy?” I’ve spotted a plain little brown bird hopping about on the ground, camouflaged by the dappled shade of a Giraffe Tree. “We call them LBBs,” he says and laughs when I look up puzzled. “Little brown birds,” he explains, smiling. “LBBs are any bird we can’t identify,” he tells me. Now I laugh. We, too, have LBBs in the Northwest.

It’s November 2, this day we are at the botanical gardens, and a sign tells me it’s a Mexican/Catholic holiday when the dead come back—Día de los Muertos.

“Did I tell you the story of my father and the Rufus Hummingbird?” I ask Wayne. He nods. “Let’s look for hummingbirds,” I either think to myself or actually say. “Perhaps my father will come back to me again and say hi.”

We find them in the butterfly and hummingbird garden—and though the hummingbirds are not like the ones back home, they are beautiful and busy. Lime green, wings a blur, bright color that flits with sudden energy and a buzz from one bush to the next while butterflies seem to bounce in the air around them. Wayne and I find some shade and sit. He is two seats away from me and one more time I find myself falling into a space of calm. A moment. A sound. A place. A peace that travels inward, burrows in, and seems to restore what the events of this desert stole. I watch the hummingbird; it is not my father’s messenger today. It is a bird of exquisite beauty finding nourishment in this oasis. I hear Wayne speak. “Do you feel the tranquility?” he asks in the delicious quiet.

I look at him, surprised at myself. I do.

His sister, three years younger than us, two days go took me out to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum an hour’s drive south of Phoenix. I immediately fell in love with the majestic, mysterious place, a patch of desert forest and flower in the shade of Magma Ridge, a craggy rock face that climbs straight up out of the desert, a timeless guardian to a dry creek bed that cuts through the rock at its toes. For me, though, the magic was in the eucalyptus—native to Australia but transplanted in other hot regions of the world.

Carol, knowing my affinity for these stately, white-trunked trees, simply took me into the gardens, past the water fountain, through the turnstile, beyond the gift shop, and into an oasis the Olympic gods could not have imagined. As we came onto a diverging trail, she turned me and simply said, “Look.” I was facing a forest of eucalyptus. “Oh, Carol,” I breathed in wonder. For here is another world. One step and anything can happen.

“Let’s save this to the last,” I tell her, so we take the main path then, up and around a man-made lake, a stony path that continues on up and around, passing under the Picket Post House that Boyce Thompson, one of the richest men in America by the time World War I broke out, built into the stony outcroppings; and then down, down, down, along a cliff overhang to the dry creek bed below. Wayne’s many LBBs skitter and hop, and fly into trees, the names of which leave my head faster than I can collect them from the signposts, and then, suddenly, a rock house.

We approach from one end and peer through two widows, two rooms, both opening into a third. We skirt and approach from the other side—and I find this stone house of more than a hundred years still sitting in the shade of trees, the names of which my mind has so quickly lost. Eternal against momentary, endurance against fleeting.

Once upon a time, the sign tells me, a family of five lived here in these tiny rooms. I can’t imagine. Cut off from the world, squatted along the creek now dry as bone. They’d made their living as truck farmers, watering their lettuce and kale no doubt from the creek. A place where strangers enter now, a place where the state of Arizona now grows herbs using sprinklers.

Carol and I left the little house and garden with reluctance. We came back up to the main gardens and exited through the eucalyptus forest; these trees cleaner and whiter than those I remember from California where, for eight troubled months in 1962, I’d lived as a nine- and ten-year-old. My sisters and I used to play under the taller, scragglier eucalyptus, and we'd walked beneath their high shading limbs with blind Uncle Earl, singing,

“Kuckabaro sits in the old gum tree,
counting all the gum drops he can see,
Stop, Kuckabaro, stop!
Leave one there for me!”
I wander now through similar gum trees, and I find that Kuckabaro still sings and still counts. I start to sing and Carol laughs. Names have been posted on each of the many varieties in this forest of eucalyptus gum. Red Gum. River Red Gum. Dark Gum. I pick up the fallen leaves and breathe in the stinging sweet smell, a smell I can, I think, get drunk on. A sting, yes, but intoxicatingly sweet. What would it be like, I wonder, to make love in such a grove? Engulfed by contradiction, yet entirely satisfied?

Let me take you back to Wayne and the botanical gardens and November 2. He and I, friends of yore, had only gone in a short ways when I bent over and felt the smooth leather of an agave cactus…then gingerly the tip of a single sharp quill that framed each frond. I pressed my finger into the stabbing pain, hissed, and yanked my hand back. I looked up at Wayne. Why is the desert so hostile?

I didn’t know Wayne when first stung by this desert, and he faded from my life as my unhappiness deepened. But when his grown up self squatted down beside me to point out the budding of a fragile blossom of the prickly pear cactus, the contradiction of hostility and beauty was hard to miss—in much the same way as the contradiction is hard to ignore in the eucalyptus’s stinging sweetness. When he stood, I wanted to take his hand, to acknowledge in some way the stirring metamorphous that was taking place. For this desert to which I’ve returned not only greets me with all its hostility but surprises me, too, with all the beauty I’d forgotten lived here. I find that I need not "forget" the brutality, but that I can integrate my history of both pain and pleasure in the same way the eucalyptus fills a breeze with stinging sweetness and the cacti can endure, content with blossom and thorn.

Even more encouraging is this: that with my friends and family who still live here and who still love me I have stumbled upon the shell of a stone house that once was me. I am at long last remembering who I was and can still be.

PS. Two books on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I checked out of the library after posting this blog tell me that "lessons taking too long to learn" is not an accurate assessment; that the traumetized mind can only "learn" when ready, when the enviornment is supportive. These books also tell me that people sexually assaulted often view their lives as altered, and go through life as two people--the one before, a personality that fades from memory, and the one that is now and not a real, authentic self. This is perhaps what the stone house symbolizes for me. Clearly it was a return to pre-Dr. Mattson, pre-marriage.

October 28, 2009

Water Under The Bridge

October 26, 2009
Forty years ago today I arrived in the Phoenix desert, a physically fragile seventeen-year-old, to live with family friends. I’d just survived a near-death experience; and a second hospitalization that followed on its heels suggested there was little the Midwest medical community could do for me, a severe asthmatic. Our only real option remaining was to check me into Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to see if the best minds in America couldn’t find a way to keep me alive. But then family friends unexpectedly stopped by for a visit, enroute to Phoenix for a new job at Arizona State, and invited me to come live with them. The desert was supposed to be good for people like me, and thus I arrived. Forty years ago today—October 26, 1969.

For me, there is much water under the bridge in this Arizona desert. To say that my year in Tempe, Arizona, was the best of my life is an understatement. Seventeen and finding myself suddenly healthy, away from home for the first time, and going to a high school that required nothing more of me than literature, sculpture, and music? Surrounded by new friends and, in today’s vernacular, stumbling onto a BFF? I wonder, do we ever recapture the intensity of being a teenager? A time of life when everything touches the soul so deeply? Is of such import? Perhaps this is why my concurring sexual molestation at the hands of the Christian doctor into whose care I’d been entrusted was so damaging, sliding my happy life sideways and then right off the road—though it was a long time before I ever came out of what feels to have been an emotional coma to the rubble I was in. Aware enough, though, that when I left the state five or six years later, I never spoke of Arizona again. Until my divorce at the age of twenty-nine. So much water under the bridge.

Two and a half years ago, though, nearly four decades of disassociation ended. How to describe this? Once, when cleaning out a closet, a dirty cast fell on my head. Whose broke arm had this been for? I’d wondered, thinking of my children. Blake’s? Phil’s? Heather had broken her leg; it wasn’t hers. Like the cast, my molestation fell out of a closet and hit me on the head. Not that I’d ever forgotten, far from it, but what was it doing back in my life? How did it get here after all this time? And why fall on my head now?

So after thirty-eight years of repressing Arizona I returned to the desert to reconnect with friends “who knew me then” and to face for the first time the trauma that subconsciously defined my life, now floundering on a bedrock of Self that had been smote and cracked, necessitating I live two lives of “then” and “now” with no real way forward. My BFF’s sister, the minister’s wife of the little church we all attended, and one of my youth group leaders took me over to the doctor’s office, now a parking lot for Scottsdale Hospital. Quite the crying jag. I’d never wept over this, but thirty-eight years of pain and confusion broke through some kind of emotional dam. My friends sat quietly with me, but in the murkiness of that gutting pain that caught me off guard and took my breath I sensed their love. How is it that in thirty-eight years of silence such love survives? I was amazed, and fortified, but still I felt I might drown and sink into some kind of emotional abyss, never to return. I could not stop crying, they could not help me—and then I remembered my BFF.

Wayne had been the one who’d begun taking me to the doctor all those years ago—never knowing, of course, what was really going on. I got through it all by picturing him in the waiting room, patiently waiting for me. I can see him still, sitting in a corner, opposite the receptionist’s window. I can see the pictures on the wall over his head, I can see the little table beside him full of magazines. He picks one up, takes a look, throws it back. He jiggles his knee. I only had to survive and he’d take me away. Is there a way to explain this man whose very presence evoked calm, whose smile and humor healed my soul? We certainly were not lovers, nor had we ever admitted any level of love for each other, yet it was evident enough to everyone around us that love was a living thing in our lives. And in all the years ever since? I’ve never heard or seen anyone with such an attachment. But it was by remembering this that I pulled myself together outside Scottsdale Hospital’s parking lot two years ago—remembering my old BFF who never failed to take me away from it all.

Back at home and all cried out, I was happy to have it out of my system at last and ready to begin the task of integrating my lost self with my real self, knitting together “then” and “now” into a cohesive trail forward into time. Not. Dr. Mattson continued to haunt me, as did my life after him—so full of anguish. For I’d I married badly in the Arizona desert, and immediately found myself trapped in a loveless and demeaning marriage. “Your body is not your own,” I was told, the Bible shoved under my nose to prove it. And indeed it was not. Nor was mind, my heart, or my soul. I only existed to be a Christian man’s domestic and sexual slave. Years later, still married, Oregon passed a law against marital rape. My husband was righteously indignant. I yearned to move to Oregon. Yes, a lot of water under the bridge in this Arizona desert.

So this September I found myself again planning a return to what had been the happiest time of my life and concurrently the most unhappy. Consciously it was to escape the rut I was in, an attempt to try and write, check out the job market, play with old friends—to put distance between my stagnant life where I could not find a job, could not focus long enough to write any one of a gazillion book ideas I had in my head…could not forget the desert of my life.

When Judith Couchman heard of my plans she wrote to remind me of the many Biblical stories involving deserts and exile…and forty days and forty nights and sometimes forty years. All were odysseys, she pointed out, taken by individuals, whole cities, entire nations. Always their journeys brought about transformation ( I quickly added up the six weeks I planned to be gone. Forty-two days. Close enough. I added up the years. Forty. Right on the nose. Suddenly, my conscious decision to face the desert took on new meaning. This was a spiritual odyssey. Somehow, I think, I’d known it all along: I was desperately seeking transformation.

No one knows what Jesus suffered in his wilderness, or Moses on Mt. Sinai. Or Elijah in the cave at Mount Horeb. Joseph Campbell in his many books on mythology, religion, and psychology, writes that such wilderness journeys are life-threateningly tough. We can feel devoured, overcome, hopelessly lost. Such journeys require tasks to be completed, demons to be confronted, hurdles to be crossed. They’re journeys that require letting go of everything old to embrace everything new and unknown, and which exact self-examination that can border obsession. But not to worry, he writes, we’re all given “magical” help whenever we need it. Jesus received wisdom in the desert, Moses the Ten Commandments on Sinai, Elijah food at Mount Horeb. We too receive. The darkest hour is where we find the divine. All our stories, Campbell points out, tell us it is in the wilderness where we find new health and healing and hope.

Three days into my own journey and not yet at the desert, my faithful jeep of 220,000 miles died—leaving me stranded in San Jose, California, at the home of former friends. Do I go home? It was a viable question to ask. Retreat to safety and stagnation?

Or do I go on? Into the unknown?

Marilyn, upon whose doorstep I’d landed, said, “You need to go on. You can’t go back.” It was a little hard for both of us to miss the Biblical mandate or for me to miss Campbell’s “Call to Adventure.”

And thus I landed back in the Arizona desert just days before the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival, no longer seventeen but fifty-seven—without a car and the house I’d rented dirty, no hot water, the toilets backing up. As my mother would say, a real fine how-do-you-do. Thank you very much God, thank you very much Joseph Campbell.

As with Marilyn in San Jose, I was at the mercy of former family and friends; as with Marilyn they rushed to help. The house I am renting is actually right next door to my former mother-in-law. In fact, it was Nelda who’d made all the arrangements. It was she who immediately lent me cleaning supplies, a radio, coffee maker, who brought over a Merry Maids mug ironically labeled “Savor your clean house,” and who just now brought over a microwave rice dinner she’d picked up for me at Costco. My old BFF Wayne jumped right in and lent me his car and agreed to help me find a new one. His little sister Carol had me over for supper and sent me on my way with more cleaning supplies and kitchen equipments: dishes, pots and pans, measuring cups, utensils. She came over the next day with a table and chairs and spent several hours cleaning windows and helping me settle in. Ten days into my wilderness venture I was unable to shake the loss of my jeep and the financial drain it was creating…but I was surrounded by love that overlooked decades of silence; in Nelda’s case, deep hurt. I, after all, had divorced her son.

When Elijah headed into the wilderness to seek the brook Cherith, God sent ravens to bring him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening. It wasn’t exactly a balanced meal but it’s a story that tells us there is provision in our desert experiences.

Yet on the thirteenth day of my exile I hit melt down, the many ironies and conflicts—and sheer weariness—catching up with me. My former mother-in-law and I went to church and afterward lunch (“You’re going to Baptist church?” my youngest son had asked the night before on the phone. “You’re going to a Southern Baptist church?), only to find Wayne on my doorstep when we got back. He’d left his cell phone in his car—which I of course had. He wanted the phone back. At the sight of him, hands in his pockets and patiently waiting, a stance I’d seen a hundred times when we were kids, tears stung.

“What’s wrong?” he wanted to know, his grown-up self greeting me at my door.

“Oh, Wayne, I’m having such a bad day.”

He sprawled onto one my couches, but not without laughing at the blankets I’d placed over them both. I amuse him with my leeriness of the dirt around here. His laughter made me laugh. “So what’s going on?” he asked, his summer-sky eyes seeking my face, the color and gaze a part of my past.

The car of course. That I was borrowing his, that I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm to find a new one, my awareness of taking so much of his time in looking. “I just want to buy a jar of peanut butter,” I said. “But there’s a whole row of peanut butter! So many different brands, different sizes, different ingredients. All I want is just a jar of peanut butter!”

But mostly, I told him, the whole molestation thing was hitting me hard. I didn’t tell him it had occupied my attention all morning while a Southern Baptist minister at times made my skin crawl with self-deprecating arrogance. I’d forgotten how some preachers can be this way, how some congregations can laugh, enjoy the comfort of their own superiority over the misguided and unenlightened world. I said instead, “Tomorrow will be the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival here. Forty years. October 26.”

He expressed no surprise that I could be so anal about this. In reality I have both a calendar—which I remember keeping, and a journal—which I have no memory whatsoever of writing.

"And on November 11…” I had to look away. “I don’t know if I can talk about this,” I said.

“It’s up to you. I don’t know what you need. I don’t understand how this happens in the first place. I can’t tell you how to fix this.”

I slid my eyes sideways. He was watching me.

“November 11th,” I repeated, heart catching, fluttering like a butterfly in my throat, “will mark forty years to the day of his first assault.” I started to cry a little, and had to look away again. “It would have been better if he’d raped me,” I finally said. “I could have at least told someone about that. But…”

Everyone I know and everything I’ve ever read tells me the only way out of this kind of thing is to tell someone. Get the words out, put them somewhere else. Yet how, if I literally cannot talk about it? And truly, if it were that simple, I would have done it a long time ago. Joseph Campbell, I realized, was absolutely right when he said it could feel life threatening. “I can’t—literally I can’t—talk about this,” I explained to my old BFF, obviously with an emphasis now on the second F. “I try, but the words stick in my throat. So, on November 11th…”

“November 11th,” he said, thinking this all through. “That’s Veterans’ Day. There’s no trading. I don’t have to work.”

"This is what I’m thinking,” I told him, buoyed by his willing support with whatever and wherever I was going with this, and shared the plan I’d more or less come up with while sitting in Nelda’s church, the old Baptist hymns holding better memories than the preacher. How had I gotten through before? I’d asked myself. The answer was glaringly obvious. I’d gotten through because Wayne had been there. Waiting for me. Behind the closed door all I had to do was go away in my head and then come back when it was over, and he’d take me away, make me laugh again, plant me back in a world where life was good and wonderful and safe. I said, “I’m going to try and write this down, Really try. But then I think I’ll burn it all and make ashes, and put the ashes in a baggie. I don’t want anyone else burdened; it’s too terrible. But if I brought the ashes to your house? Will you take me up South Mountain? It’s pretty there. I like that part of the desert. I would feel good to just leave it all there. I can find a place to either bury it all or just let it all blow away in the wind.”

“I can do that.”

“But you can’t be there when I do it. I’ll cry. I don’t want you see me. But I need you close by so that if I start howling you’ll know to come get me. I need you to come get me. I’m scared of falling into an abyss and never finding my way out again.” With sudden clarity I knew this was my terrble fear. What if I reentered that place, one last time, disappearing deep into my mind in order to survive, what if this time I couldn’t find my way back out? For surely the River Styx runs through my psyche as dangerously and treacherously as it does in myth.

"I’ll come get you,” he promised.

Amazing how a plan can make all the difference! More amazing is how I can reach back in time and find my friend just as I remember him.

I actually slept well and in the morning, this morning, the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival in the desert, I hurried over to Wayne’s house, driving freeways that never existed in our former life, actually looking forward to test-driving one of the cars we’d found the day before my melt down. He was waiting outside. “How are you today?” he asked when I jumped out of his Saturn, stretched, and all but jumped into his arms.

“I’m good!”

He laughed.

To the casual observer and perhaps even to Wayne the day was mundane enough. Test-driving one of two cars he thought reliable, taking it over to his mechanic, meeting Carol to celebrate and sign on the dotted line that made me the new owner of a 2005 Toyota Scion. But momentous, too, for all day long with Wayne—taking care of the car stuff, running errands, having lunch and laughing over the differences in our memories, making a date for him to come see me in the Pacific Northwest next year when the movie Eat, Pray, Love comes out—I couldn’t help but compare our “then” to “now” and think of all the water under the bridge. When all is said and done, it is my desert that forges our friendship. That's a good thing.

At one point in our running around and driving past something that astonished me, I asked, "What’s this called?”

He filled me in, then pointed out, “See the orange flowers, reaching up from the mounded foliage over there?”


"That’s Birds of Paradise.”

So that was Birds of Paradise. I fell in love.

He pointed out the sycamore trees.

They were like the eucalyptus.

"Do they smell?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

For forty years Arizona has been in my mind a barren landscape of sand and city concrete, blinding sunlight and unbearable heat, painted grass, plastic geraniums planted in artificial rows. Now? Today, I found myself suddenly planting a garden in my mind. I’d have Birds of Paradise alongside a lavender-like plant that I have growing in my own garden back home, but which also grows here. I’d put in some of that magenta bougainvillea—the torch kind, the kind Wayne really likes and which Sue Grafton writes about in her mstery series. The orange, the lavender with its silver foliage, the magenta…all back-dropped by an apricot adobe wall? How pretty is that? Add some prickly pear cactus off to the side, some saguaro strategically placed to add height.

"What are you doing?” he asked. “You thinking of taking some of that home with you?”


"Birds of Paradise.”

"No! I’m planting a garden here!” and I laughed, surprised at myself.
It’s evening now. I look around this house I’ve rented. Everywhere I look, I see Carol and Nelda my mother-in-law (we agreed to drop the “former as too precise and probably not all that accurate)—the coffee maker, the table, the dishes, the mugs on the kitchen windowsill.

If I get up and go look in the garage, I’ll find my new car. It’s metallic gray, same color as the pots and pans Carol has lent me, a car picked out by Wayne. Even though he doesn't like boxy cars.

Yes, a momentous day.

I can think of another very similar day.

Not long after my divorce, maybe twenty-five years ago, I was having lunch at Seattle’s Shilshoe Bay with my friend and editor Jerry Jones and some our friends in the publishing business. It was one of those perfect summer afternoons, sun glinting off the water, boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing on the bay, good food, happy company. Afterward everyone dispersed, leaving just Jerry and me—and the swooping, soaring gulls that populate the waterfront. I was suddenly quite overcome with happiness to be divorced, to having endured the pain, to now have these friends, to be amongst people who admired me, who valued me. I threw up my arms and spun around.

"Oh Jerry,” I told him, “I’m so happy to be alive!” and I hurtled into his arms, surprising him and beside myself with gratitude and love.

His snort is actually a delightful sound, one only he can make, a sound I still hear it in my mind whenever I think to listen. That day he snorted loud and laughed hard, and let me wallow in my happiness.

Today is kin. I’m not on the waterfront, no seagulls caw in my ears. I am in the desert. Where much water lies under the bridge.

But water, I'm finding, that can nonetheless nourish my soul.

October 24, 2009

When The Net Appears

“Just go!’ my youngest son said, silencing my many fears and worries over my odyssey to the Arizona desert where I was going ostensibly to write and get way from fifteen months of unemployment. In reality I was headed for more of a spiritual odyssey than anything else. You see, I think I’m actually in full-blown post-traumatic stress—paralyzed by forty years of accumulated anxiety. Time to go back to the desert where life first slid sideways. Time to try and let go of old trauma so I can find a new beginning.

“But what if my Jeep dies?” I asked Blake. Too Cool is the coolest car I ever had. After eleven years of junkers that only a single mother of three can afford, in 1993 I bought myself a brand spanking new Jeep Cherokee Sport. Together and over the last sixteen years we’ve put on 220,000 miles. Every winter for sixteen years she’s taken me skiing, never a moment of fear, not even when we once slid into a ditch. Out she chugged, kids squealing in the back seat. We’ve been to Banff in the Canadian Rockies too many times to count, roamed the prairies, just the two of us, driving Big Bear’s trail, connecting the dots on my great-grandfather’s whereabouts as a Mountie during Sitting Bull, poking our noses into gullies and following old rivers and finding all kinds of surprises.

"Just go, already!” said Blake.

So I packed up Too Cool and headed south, to the desert, to sunnier skies and family and friends who, despite the forty years, still love and care for me. And where I hoped to undergo some sort of esoteric experience of “letting go.”

She started to overheat while driving into San Jose, California, where I’d once lived and where I’d scheduled a stop to visit my old Bible study teacher, a woman who’d tempered the wind for me in dark years of fundamentalist Christianity and other troubles. Controlling the hot engine by turning the heater on full blast, I limped into Marilyn’s place, one sweaty gal and a wee bit worried. Was it safe to drive on to Phoenix where the temperatures would be even hotter? Even if I could, could I cope with the heater going full blast, the temperature outside 100 degrees?

Weekend coming up, Marilyn’s husband Fred advised me to get the car into a mechanic. They called their son-in-law, a former mechanic, to recommend someone else to take a look at my hot Jeep—how ironic her name is Too Cool. Four and half hours later and Friday at five Michael and Company had no idea what was going on. I’d have to bring her back Monday morning for more poking around.

So instead of one night with Marilyn and Fred, I spent several, stranded and at the mercy of these long-ago friends to house, feed, and help me cope with mounting angst. Their love, rooted decades ago, blossomed—their graciousness a fragrance I find hard to describe. I began to hope that Too Cool might be all right after all, for how could bad things happen when I had such good friends? But Monday morning the nice man behind the counter said his only option was to pull the engine, another six hours of diagnostics—and that would only buy me a diagnosis. From there the cost would continue to go up; he was thinking cracked gasket and other mean-sounding things. I was sick to my stomach.

Someone once told me you can’t love things, only people. But I love eucalyptus trees, I love the falling snow, and the first robin in spring. And I love that Jeep. Just three months ago I’d refused to pay $200 to replace a broken seat belt buckle. Too Cool blue-booked out at 300 bucks, and it was hardly worth it, but I found myself okaying the additional $600 diagnostics and called Marilyn to come pick me up.

When she arrived, we sat in her car while I fought tears. She quietly suggested I change my mind and junk the car. It was a punch in the gut to an already sick stomach. “At least take some time to think about it,” she said. So I went in, got my keys, and followed my friend back to her house in tears, only to find that Fred agreed. Junk the car. I called my children.

“Look, she’s served you well,” the youngest said, the same young man who told me, Just go! “We knew she had to die sometime.”

“Yeah but you told me not to worry!”

“Right, don’t worry.”

My middle son said, “Mum, this really should come as no big surprise. You need to cut your losses. Everything will be okay. It’s all just logistics.”

My daughter simply said, “Oh, no! I’m so sorry!” I like her response the best.

I called my best friend from my high school, senior year, seventeen in Arizona, hoping Wayne's humor and smart mind might save me, save my car. “I’m the only dissenting voice,” I told him.

“And why are you dissenting?” he asked when I gave him the particulars. “It’s sixteen years old. It’s a Jeep. (Like Jeeps totally suck.) It has 220,000 miles. You’re lucky you’ve gotten this far.”

“But what if I try to drive it to Arizona at night?” I wasn’t going to give up. “When the temperature is cool?”

He didn’t even hesitate. “Absolutely not. That’s not going to happen.”

How do you even junk a car?

Fred and Marilyn found some phone numbers, a task I seemed incapable of doing. We finally settled on Pick and Pull, an offensive name as far I was concerned; but they offered to pay me $241. Not quite Blue Book, but enough to let me rent a car for the rest of the journey—or get myself home. Marilyn pressed. Forward, not backward. This is a spiritual odyssey. It’s about letting go, new horizons. It’s about trust. True… And I really did expect to let go of things along the way—things like ideas, not my car! I see now it was a rather transcendental view, sounding good on paper and even in my head, but when the rubber, so to speak, really met the road? My car? I had to let go of my car?

When Too Cool was still brand new I’d bought her a fancy ski and car rack. The ski rack had been taken off sometime last summer to load lumber and was still at home in the garage. The car rack, years ago, had gone to my son-in-law—though I maintained dibs whenever I needed it. He’d dutifully removed it from his car back to mine less than a week ago. How was I to get this back to him?

Fred made a cardboard box out of recycle in his garage and we all went down to FedEx and I shipped off all that would remain of Too Cool. It was like removing a wedding band and sending it off to the next of kin. We then stripped Too Cool down to her skivvies and headed for Pick and Pull, gray clouds gathering and clumping like knots in the sky, rain trying to spit against the cracks lacing my windshield.

I parked on the street. Fred and I went in. A rather efficient, cold-hearted operation. I handed over my car title, the man no older than twelve tapped on his keyboard awhile, printed out a check for $241, thirty pieces of silver, and passed it to me over an industrial desk. He and Fred went to “check her in” and I sat numb in my metal chair.

I did not expect to see Too Cool again. But there she was, right there at the foot of the stairway when I went out, right in my face, red ink scrawled all over her windows, a humiliating end for such a faithful car. I looked away, blinking hard, almost ashamed that I could do such a thing, and I walked a little faster, a growing sense of betrayal somehow lodging so firmly inside my chest that my heart actually hurt. By the time we reached the street, tears stung. Fred--an arm around my shoulder and quick hug--said, “Look.” Spilling out of the steely gray swarm of clouds hung the two ends of a brilliant rainbow that arched the expanse of heaven. “Does that say anything to you?” he asked.
Did I say this was a spiritual odyssey? Even a hardcore atheist has to be hard pressed not to see a sign of hope in such a universal symbol.

It’s been four days now. I write from the desert, where I did arrive safely; and I find myself once again trusting long ago friends to take care of me. The house I rented is dirty, there’s no hot water, the toilets back up. And I have no car of. But Like Marilyn and Fred, my former mother-in-law and my friends from high school have pitched in with grace and goodwill. Cleaning supplies, kitchen equipment, Wayne's snazzy wheels on loan. Old habits die hard, though, and I fret over my finances and what kind of car I can buy on an unemployment check. I wake up nights in a cold sweat, dreaming I’m back to the old clunkers I used to drive.

“I just can’t go back there,” I tell Wayne. “I just can’t.” I don’t tell him I’m in the throes of flashback time, so many flashbacks to car failure and danger it’s like watching my grandpa’s old movies. Jerky. Moving too fast. But instead of images of my dad as a boy, it’s all my old cars falling apart. I see myself pumping gas by Seattle’s Kingdome and watching it pour right out the bottom of my camper van. I’m climbing a summit in the Santa Cruz Mountains and losing my clutch, rolling backward, nearly off a cliff. I have to get a kid to the doctor and the car won’t start, again! I shut my eyes to block the jerking kaleidoscope of memories.

“I can’t, I just can’t go back to all that, Wayne.” He tells me not to worry, he won’t let me buy a car that isn’t reliable, and while he doesn’t think it can be done on my budget he’ll find a way, he’ll make this work.

This much I know. Wayne will never lie to me. In the old days he never knew the dark trauma of my early days in the desert forty years ago (something I will probably never share with the world) but he was nonetheless aware of how troubled I was at times. He not only made my life work, but he gave me the best year of my life. So this much I know. Wayne will never lie to me. Never. I suddenly discover that I have at least this much trust.

In San Jose I’d asked my son Phil, “Do you have any last words before I take Too Cool to the junkyard?”

“I don’t know… It’s been a good ride?”

Yes, it’s been a good ride. And though it stings like hell to say goodbye, it is goodbye. Time to let go. Time to trust friends, and to thank God for letting my faithful car die under a rainbow.

Rest in peace, Too Cool.

Family and friends are the sunrise on a new horizon.

P.S. After writing this I found myself in tears again. The son who insisted, "Just go" told me on the phone last night, "Look at this way, Mum. You enjoyed a long and monogamous relationship with that Jeep. You loved her. You'll never love another car like her again. But now I think it's time to start sleeping around. You got to start looking for one that will at least do."

I laughed.

October 05, 2009

It's All in the Feet. Oh, yeah, don't forget the tongue...

Introducing Nathan, my second grandson, seven years old, and hooked on Wii. What was I doing when I was seven? Mmmmm.... Grade 2 and board games. Actually, Nathan and his little brother Jamie are only allowed to play once a week; it's a big deal. The tiny voice you hear in the background? Evelyn Rose, three years old.

October 04, 2009

Leap and the Net Will Appear: On Aging and Going Places

I used to wonder why old people talked incessantly about the past and their health. Now I know. That's all there is.

Their present is awash in physical diminishment. Their future is all about down-sizing and giving up and letting go. No scenic tours anymore; it's a one-way street on a dead end. My old Uncle Tim, who lived to be 104, used to say that if you could eat, sleep, and poop you had nothing to complain about. I don't know. I think old sucks...To stay sane, old people have to focus on the past! They have to talk about their health; together they solve issues their doctors can't or won't.

The whole thing depresses me. I'm not ready to sink into the past, to down-size, give up, let go--be content with eating, sleeping and pooping. I still want to "seize the day," do something wild, exciting, make plans like I was twenty, go places, "live it up." I am not this person in the mirror! I am not this person who keeps talking about gluten intolerance, or who gets excited over Dr. Oz and discussions about blood pressure.

Did I say the whole thing depresses me? I think if I have to live another year like the one before, stuck in my tiny house, the skies endlessly gray wherever I look, my only company being the aging woman in the mirror and my only diversion the relentless task of searching for jobs that don't exist, I will go stark raving mad. Truly. Really, how pointless is it to be fifty-seven years old in a state where "young" is cutting edge, there are only 14,000 jobs, and 360,000 unemployed? The definition of crazy, I've heard said, is doing the same old thing over and over and expecting different results. Can I really expect to continue what I'm doing and not go crazy?

So I've been toying with the idea of going to Arizona for awhile. Why? I don't really know. I just feel compelled. It's like I have to do something. Anything. Yet it's irrational because I have little money and no place to live down there--and figuring it all out boggles my mind! But can I really afford to stay put, fretting over my falling face, talking about my health, and looking into extended care insurance? This is a shrinking world with nothing more to look forward to but Medicare.

I have to ask--Instead of down-sizing, giving up, and letting go, why can't I be like my niece Jamie, who just took off across Canada, BC to Newfoundland, with just her thumb and a couple of friends? Why the bloody heck not?

The answer of course is that I have the weight of age in my soul, Jamie does not. She has a whole future ahead of her. She doesn't need to carry the worry over money like me. She's got her eye on Newfoundland, not Medicare. So this lack of money at my age is a big deal. Being unemployed for 15 months is an even bigger deal. It means that my savings has been leaking like a helium balloon and, last time I checked, I did not have a fairy godmother with a lovely magic wand and handy helium tank.

There are of course a host of other problems that weigh me down. Like an old Jeep with 220,000 miles on it--and no air conditioning. In Arizona! And what about my medications? How will I get the hormones refilled? The thyroid? See? Old people talk about their health all the time. And now that we're back to that, I might as well confess that my aging brain slows down on the necessary logistics that have to be worked through, spinning around and around like the "wheel of death" on my Macintosh computer. Like I said, mind boggled. With no way to reboot.

Yet I used to do this kind of stuff all the time. Never thought twice. Just packed up and took off, went wherever my little heart fancied. And in cars a whole lot less reliable than my sixteen-year-old Jeep. A whole lot less. People used to think I was nuts. Hey, give me this kind of crazy any day. Simply never occurred to me back then to distrust myself, or my ability to conquer whatever problem I might encounter. But now that I'm aging? This unrecognizable, slow-chugging brain of mine finds it almost impossible (certainly difficult) to keep new fears at bay, the logistics sorted, everything logically pursued to resolution. Really, what the heck am I doing? This more or less sticking out my thumb and heading for Newfoundland?

Ah, but into all this mental chaos and soul-searching doubt and high anxiety and suffocating fear that doesn't become me arrives my youngest son, temporarily camped at my doorstep because he has a squatter who's taken up residence in his condo. "Just go," he tells me. "Just do it!"


"Just do it!"
 My friend Heidi has a magnet on her frig. Leap and the net will appear. This is, of course, a divine principle better known as "faith
and trust" in the language of Christianity. For some reason, though, right now it's easier for me to believe a magnet. So Heidi--who's always leaped and always landed on her feet--and with a whole shiny life to show for it--lent me her magnet. So between reading it a dozen times a day on my own frig and my son's "Just go, do something different, hit the road, take off..." I have been doggedly plotting my course for Arizona. Reserving, of course, the right to escape at any time back into my dull routine of getting old and endlessly applying for jobs that don't exist while staring at the gray skies of our Pacific Northwest and watching the new Dr. Oz show. "You don't really have to go, you know," I tell myself. "You can stay put and avoid all this headache and irresponsibility." But Blake counters, "Yes, you do!"

So I've been wading into the tangled mess of logistics, this nest of impossibilities compounded by scams on Craigslist, moving forward one step at a time (still reserving the right to retreat!) until, wow, last night, things actually started to look up. As of last night I have someone to stay in my house; as of last night I have a place to stay in Arizona. In fact, a whole house to myself--always a plus. In fact, right next door to my former mother-in-law! It's magic. A whole huge tangle of logistics nicely unraveling and magically knitting themselves into place. Dare I say net?

Leap and the net will appear. Yesterday afternoon I leaped. By nightfall I had
a net. Here's how I made the plunge.

It was a glorious fall day. Blake, still temporarily camped out on my doorstep and both of us suffering agitation over the latest shenanigans of his squat
ter, went out to burn off excess energy and begin the odd jobs that have to be done to get the house ready for fall--and my Jeep for the trip I still wasn't sure I was going to take. While Blake straightened up the garage, mowed the lawn, and painted the house trim (winter's howling wind and driving rain having peeled the paint to bare wood), I scrubbed and cleaned the inside of Too Cool (the ancient Jeep) and began loading her up. Bedding, groceries, camping chairs... Maybe it was the chairs. One is for me, the other for Carol. Carol is Wayne's sister. Wayne is my high school buddy of forty years ago and way back in the day, forty years ago, we now and then let her tag along. Now she and I are hoping to go camping. Maybe it was the chairs, maybe the sunny, blue-sky day, maybe the company and support of my son, at any rate I was suddenly visualizing future instead of past. I was going to go to Arizona come hell or high water. True, no one to stay in my house yet. And true, no place to live in Arizona. Yet. Oh well. I made a U-turn and got off the one-way dead end. Sticking with the bigger metaphor--I jumped.

"What should we do now?" I asked Blake, tasks done and feeling good for having made up my mind at last.

"You need to go for a motorcycle ride."

"Are you crazy! I can't drive that thing!" Thing being the huge black motorbike in my driveway.

"I'll drive you. I'll take you for a spin through the neighborhood."

"I'm too scared."

He gave me that look that said "you're always scared."

I got the point. "Okay," I said slowly, trying out the idea in my head. I skipped a little, my body catching up to the notion. "Okay!"

"Okay then! Go get a sweater!"

He helped me into his leather coat, zipped me up, then jammed his helmet down around my head. My ears folded over down around my chin somewhere. "Hey! What do I do about my ears?"

"Wiggle the helmet, work them back into place!"

I did...and why can't a face lift be so easy?

I held my chin up to get the buckle snapped into place. I heard a click. Blake gave the strap a tug. I was in. He rotated the visor down over my eyes.

Wow. It was like being inside a fish aquarium. No bubbles, though. No hiss of a pump. Just an odd silence. He swung onto his bike. Patted the seat behind him. I swung on, not as gracefully but I did swing, and grabbed him around the middle.

"Scoot back a little!" he hollered off his shoulder.

I scooted.

He scooted back into me, tucking right into my arms so I could feel his whole body connect with mine. Twenty-nine years ago we'd held this position for nine months. How had this wonderful grown son of mine once been an embryo of life inside me? Not even a heart beat and now making my own heart thud in steady excitement? Vroooom! Off we went, rumbling out of the driveway, this thing called time a very funny thing indeed.

"Slow down!" I screamed.

I raised him well. He slowed down and only once "gunned" it, me screaming my head off the whole time. Felt like I was a hornet headed anywhere.

"Take my picture," I ordered when we got back, adrenalin still going, my body feeling the thrill of being alive, awake to the possibilities of life and energized by the release of fear and worry and my "old peoples" shrinking world of aches and pains and nursing homes lurking on the horizon.

He took my picture. I don't know what's up with the hair--or the Karl Malden nose, but know that I'm grinning ear to ear. See me?

The picture means something to me. Something about riding a motorcycle with my son suggests I've got a long way to go before getting old. It hints of adventure every woman should heed before eating, sleeping, and pooping becomes enough.

Leap and the net will appear.

July 04, 2009

Broken Legs and Watermelon

On July 2 my only granddaughter broke her leg. When her father called that night and told me, the news made me sick to my stomach. No one had been around to see it happen, but Phil, fiddling with the water sprinklers on the other side of the house, heard her crying. He found her on her hands and knees under the jungle gym.

She's a tough cookie, though. Knows no fear. After being cheered up and set on her feet and then treated to corn dogs and ketchup for supper, all seemed to be well. Except that afterward she refused to get off the bench. Seeing that this normally tough child refused to put weight on her leg, Phil and Katie decided to take her to the doctor. How does a two-and-a-half-year-old break a leg?

She will be casted on Monday, after the swelling goes down. For now she's wearing a splint. When she arrived at my house yesterday, the 3rd, her father's 31st birthday, asleep in her car seat and curls spilling down over her face, I nearly cried. Life is so fragile and we break so easily.

When it was decided we'd all go down to the C Shop for Phil's free jelly beans (the shop gives out free beans in the amount of your years), Evelyn, now awake, said, "Granny Bee, will you carry me to the buggy?"

The candy shop was crowded, the day warm, the holiday weekend already begun. We left Evelyn Rose outside with her mum, and I bought her a Daisy Mint. She was pleased.

They're gone now, off to celebrate the weekend with other family. And I'm left alone thinking about my only granddaughter's broken bone. And how she's such a trooper. I wonder how much pain she, like the rest of us, will suffer in the school of hard knocks. Will she be able to land on her feet and sally forth every time? I suspect so; I'd like to be a little more like her.

She loves watermelon. In this picture, captured by her mother, she is sighing over just how much she loves it. In this way, we are like each other. Yeah.

June 26, 2009

Guideposts Daily Devotional--June 26, 2009

You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.
—Ephesians 2:19–20 (RSV)

Bankhead is a ghost town north of Banff, Alberta—once a thriving coal-mining town housing immigrants from all over Europe. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway at the turn of the last century, it was Canada’s first planned community, with running water and electricity, sports arenas and schools, and Holy Trinity Church. Built atop a knoll between Upper Bankhead (where the miners and their families lived) and Lower Bankhead (where the mining operations were located), the church was visible from home or work, the center of the religious and social life of this peaceful Rocky Mountain town.

Though it was Catholic, the church allowed Protestants worship time whenever they could find a minister. On Saturday nights the various nationalities took turns sponsoring ethnic dances in its basement. Funerals for the miners killed below were held here; weddings too. What’s left for us is its foundation, and each time I wend my way to this place I have to search harder to find it, for the forest has slowly crept up the knoll, hiding it from view.

But here it is, its massive foundation rising out of the ground, framing the basement and topping out some ten feet high. Here the wide cement stairs climb to long-ago doors that once opened beneath a simple steeple and summoning bell. No walls now, no ceiling, no steeple or bell; just the foundation and stairs that meet the sky and heaven beyond.

Last summer I climbed the stairs, and sat, feet dangling into the basement. Slowly I began to sing a hymn: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. . . .” Just me and the trees, the chipmunks, the grazing elk, the breeze, and the presence of God Who lingers here still.

Dear Lord, You are my one foundation, yesterday, today and forever.