"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Lessons from the Home Stay

March was like waiting for a birth. The quarantine was inevitable but the exact date remained a surprise. And who would it resemble? 

When it arrived on March 13, claustrophobia bit us big-time. That first day we took off for the back woods to trace a route through a maze of logging roads where we didn’t see a single vehicle in hours. Packed a cooler with crusty buns, cheese and salami, mustard and horseradish, a couple of beers and a chocolate bar. 

The next day we noticed the birds. With the absence of trucks on the Interstate, whining pickups on the county road or chainsaws from our neighbors’ woods, the chirping of birds seemed exponentially robust. Coyotes howled earlier in the evening, apparently confused by the silence. Long walks with our Labs revealed only tree squirrels, strutting turkeys and early spring wildflowers.

Day and night, every window had a TV screen reflecting off the shades. Norah O’Donnell seemed moved to tears by what she was reporting. Media playbooks rewritten, broadcasters' backdrops moved from studio to kitchen to artfully arranged background walls. A feeling of watching the world as a work-in-progress. Thanks to Youtube, I attended Mass in cathedrals around the world. 

As time went on we dined like the upstairs folks on Downton Abbey, savoring each forkful without conversation. We planned our meals with such enthusiasm. Two weeks in, I made my first visit to the grocery when my milk and eggs ran out. We used up our flour on potato bread and homemade pizza. Afterwards, Kate Hepburn’s flourless brownies, and peanut butter cookies that called for simply a cup of sugar, a cup of peanut butter and an egg. Our freezer held grass-fed beef that my son had raised, the remains of two venison hunts, and a half-pig cut into chops, sausage and bacon. Self-sufficiency turned us into 21st-Century cavemen, surviving on barbecue meat and wine.

My husband joined me for meaningful conversations on the porch swing after we spent days setting fenceposts and stringing pigwire on the west property line. We cut up downed trees and hauled firewood. Framed a woodshed. Later we finished a massive spring weed-eating and pruning project while a friend's cattle grazed out the pastures.

So it’s mid June. We're out and about to some degree, but I already miss the silence. Closets are neat. Books revisited. The family saga that needed writing is finished, a bucket list project checked off. In June I planted a garden in raised beds we built together out of scrap redwood boards, complete with a drip system. Cherries ripen on our two trees, enough to give to elderly neighbors. Neighbor children build a tree house in the sturdy pine that straddles our property line. Time passes in a sweet continuum of working together, sharing thoughts, phone calls and videos with children, self-reflection. 

What I loved about the quarantine was shedding the layer of stress I didn’t know I was carrying—gone the day the shutdown was announced. I lost weight. Trimmed my mental load and my bucket list. Best, I met my mortality. We became friends. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Lessons from the Fall

My three sisters and I used to joke that we were the embodiment of Little Women, with our gentle Marmy, our shared faith, sewing projects, late-night cooking fests and the farm. Childhood was a simple time of laughter and chores. But, alas, life is difficult without a script. I left for college before my youngest sister started kindergarten. Mom passed in late 2017 at the glorious age of 92. By then we had scattered to the wind, each of us residing in a different state. For some, our shared Catholic faith fractured under the weight of divorce and disappointment. Time and distance created breaks in our relationships.

On Good Friday, my sisters and I began a nine-day novena asking mercy for those who cannot ask it for themselves. Each afternoon at 3:00 we pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy on our rosary beads, on a conference call. It hasn't been perfect. Our pace and pauses are as free-wheeling as we are. Cell phones promote voice lag that makes it seem like one or the other of us is deliberately lagging. But shared spiritual purpose is a balm to the soul. When the last prayer ends, we chat.

The first two days involved cautious circling and respectful pauses as we struggled to avoid old triggers and forge new ways of being sisters. Easier in one-on-one conversation, not so easy in a conference call where miscues overpower and silence speaks.

But with each attempt we come closer to finding our rhythm. We offer mea culpas for the ways we injured each other in the past. We take belly breaths and our blood pressures ease. Our voices sound younger and less constrained. Laughter emerges from the cautious consensus-building that consumed our first conversations.

There is something poignant about the nature of limits. Our memories recall what it meant to be “The Thompson Girls” in days past. We don’t speak of husbands or careers—who needs that? Sisters are the ultimate bullshit meter. There’s no wiggle room. They were there! And trust me, silence can speak volumes. Our honesty takes us back to a time before regret robbed us of our courage.

Sharing gives us something to contemplate while we wait out another day of confinement. With the end looming, we’ve decided to continue our conference calls once a month. We can no longer imagine our lives without the four of us together in one place.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Take a Moment to Breathe

A moment of Grace. That’s how I’m framing this time as I shelter in place, hoping to delay my exposure to Covid-19 until my doctor and hospital have time to restock.

We’re blessed. We have a few acres of grass and woods that always need attention. My husband and I spent the first days of our sheltering experience replacing a fence along the western property. The process of pulling out choked cucumber vines, dead incense cedar and blackberry vines occupied our time. Physical work is a fine way to blunt fears of mortality as I tripped over roots and tree stumps hiding in the brambles. Now the fence is taking shape. I can look at our progress and see something positive from the past week.

We spent Day Two on a Jeep trip into the backwoods, armed with a topo map and a roll of pink ribbon, our intention to find a trail into an abandoned gold mine that we’ve long intended to explore. We followed a maze of gravel roads to a locked gate where we can walk to the mine. But that will wait for another day.

In the country, sheltering in place has a bit of wiggle room. We take our dogs down to the river to swim. We take long walks, considering our past and our future. We discuss friends we’ve known along the way, many of whom have left us for better pastures. It’s a sweet-sad time that seems more like Fall than the dawn of Spring. It occurs to me that I may miss Easter with my children and grandchildren, the youngest grandchild’s birthday.

With the fence complete, we’re working on a woodshed. We cemented the posts and have the braces ready to go up. It will feel great having the open shed finished. With no distractions, the job is progressing nicely. We will spend today outdoors, with woodpeckers tapping on a nearby oak and a gentle hue of trillium wildflowers blooming in the woods. The creek is still running, sluggish but determined. The overhead clouds that define Oregon are a constant delight, filtering bright sunlight one moment, harbingers of gentle rain the next.

We’ve watched a few U-Tube episodes of Shaun James in his outdoor cabin in British Columbia. I followed his lead yesterday with a pizza cobbled together from veggies and salami, and baked in a cast iron skillet. The crust was crisp and the cheese bubbling when I served it. Later, I watched Husband chop wood with his axe. It made “sheltering in place” feel so very earthy. I plan to make apple tarts with my last two green apples--a little comfort food for a man who loves his pie. I notice we are on our best behaviors, each of us a bit more cheerful, patient and clever—as we contemplate another few weeks of solitude.

I pulled down my leather bound set of classic novels I purchased in the 1970s, intending to read them in order, until work, motherhood and and crazy interrupted my good intentions. I managed to read the volume of short stories by de Maupassant and a bit of Poe. But I’m determined to read all seven volumes, start to finish while we shelter. A promise after all these years.

On our last trip to town, we stopped at Panda Express and got take-out. Drove to a park and had a tailgate picnic. Husband opened his fortune cookie and read something about his future looking bright and unstoppable. I opened mine. With his silent expectation mounting, I pretended to be shocked. “It says ‘Ha Ha. I sick!’” It took him a few seconds before he started laughing. We both laughed for another five. Call it funny, morbid or release, the laughter was pure and real and healing.

So stay safe, laugh and try to make this time count. It really is a special Grace.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Gifting "Rule of Four"

Strange the gifts that slumber in our memories. The recollection of opening a box to find something inside that hints of how we are regarded. A gift reflecting the depth of friendship, the wisdom of parenthood.

Sometimes the memory of a poor gift remains with us as well. This is why “regifting” can be shallow and thoughtless.

A gift is a contract between giver and receiver. I learned this when I gave a blue ladies razor to my sister the year she entered 8th grade. That I saw her as a woman meant everything. We became lifetime soul mates and confidants. And it was such a small gift.

Every year my kids would drive me crazy with their Christmas lists.

To keep Christ in Christmas, and to keep my kids from getting Santa Crazy, I always used the Rule of Four. They didn’t catch on until they were parents and now they use the same rules for theirs!   

The Christmas Rule of Four

  Something you Want
   Something you Need.
Something to Wear
Something to Read

The Want Gift—
This was on the kid. “Give me a list of five things you really want” shifted the onus. No whining afterward. No returning it to the store. The Want Gift determined what was left in the budget to spend on the other three—necessary back when we raised an entire family without a credit card. Sometimes The Want Gift was a wearable item, like a hoodie with a Pro-team logo. Cha ching!

The Need Gift—
Chef’s choice—anything from a Gillette razor for budding peach fuzz to new underwear. Never glamorous, but always appreciated. The gift you usually slipped under the sofa pillows so no one could see. But proof that Mama was paying attention.   

The Wear Gift—
The proverbial pajama was always a crowd pleaser, back in the day when houses were drafty and a kid owned a single pair of flannel PJ’s. Ditto slippers. Who didn’t love a soft new pair? And once in a blue moon—a new bathrobe!

In my teen years, that flat, rectangular box with the rustle of tissue paper was the gift that set my heart racing. Once, my mother bought me a red polyester suit. Man I loved that thing. I didn’t know at the time that I was a red girl, but I opened the box and was in love. One of my favorite all-time gifts. Sweaters, not so much. Not after the hardscrabble year we moved to the farm and the only money that could be spared went for a $2.99 Penney’s white bulky knit sweater. Hated that sweater. Hated the one that replaced it the following year. But hard years gave me something to look forward to. Some years my mother used the Rule of One. But better years arrived.

The Read Gift—
Sometimes a subscription to a magazine. Sometimes a classic, hardcover book that still graces the bookshelf a lifetime later. Sometimes a 69-cent copy of Black Beauty from the five-and-dime. One year a Bible with a shiny red cover. A reminder of our family values.

I often made one of the gifts. Doll clothes for the new baby doll, whatever. Maybe I just remember that I did. Or wished I had. But whatever, I tried.

So that was Christmas. No shuffling through the wrapping paper in a disappointed search to see if a kid missed something. Count them—one, two, three, four—down and out. Time to put the gifts away and get ready for Mass, the Reason for the Season.  

Sunday, August 25, 2019

What I Know About Being 70

I used to think age came in only two flavors—young or old. I preferred young. I dreaded being—old. But the years between 65 and 80 are starting to look pretty interesting. I haven’t experienced as much growth and change since I was a teenager.

I’ve discovered something. The decisions I made in my 40s are beginning to have consequences. When I was 40, I worried about the things I could control: Divorce or stay together. Lose weight or not. Send the kids to college or don’t. Take a vacation to Hawaii or stay home.

We made some good decisions back then that are paying off. The kindness I showed my husband, the interest we took in each other’s lives created friendship between us. We talk, we laugh. We share 50 + years of memories. The savings we tucked away as a nest egg is our play money today. The physical labor I did when I was younger makes my body strong and resilient

The 60s came in like a lamb and went out like the March lion. During our 60s, my husband and I were those happy people in cruise line commercials—smiling at the camera with our own teeth and hair, wearing stylish shoes and real make-up. We thought nothing of driving into Ashland to take in a show. Midnight and wine were still our friends. So was my chin. In good lighting I could pass for 58.  

By 68, I began to see life as an assembly line where some of our family and friends started dropping off. People we knew rode the conveyer belt on the last loop and weren’t there anymore. I wondered if I would be next. I thought it was my imagination, or my unlucky choice of friends, but my doctor told me that if I live to be 70, I’ll probably make it to 90. Wow. That’s good information.

I started making a Bucket List. I self-published a collection of short stories. Made a submission plan for the novel manuscripts. Added intentions to walk part of the Pacific Coast Trail. Learn to fish. Play guitar again. 

He bought the car he always wanted because it may be his last. And because the safety features will help him drive safely for another few years. Arranged to go elk hunting. Took his BMW on a few overnighter roadtrips. Got another dog.

I started giving things away—advice, clothes, a little cash to my children. This year we rented a vacation house in West Yellowstone and the kids and their families came from three states for a week of eating, cooking and sightseeing. We rode horses, fished, toured Yellowstone, picnicked, grilled and listened together. It was the best money I ever spent.

But everything isn’t fun and games. I started reading about senior abuse. I filled out an End of Life Directory, —just in case. I notice the clothes and shoes I’m drawn to in stores aren’t really that comfortable. I traded Not Your Daughter’s Jeans for a pair of stretch slacks with an elastic waistband. Hello Mom!  

So what else do I know about being 70?

I stopped watching TV because I don’t need 90% of the stuff they sell in ads.
The most important phone calls start with, “Hello . . .Mom?" or even better, "Hello, Grandma?”           
Listening to people complain about their ailments gives me a headache.
I share meals at restaurants and order water to drink. I think a 12 % tip is reasonable.
I post photos of my grandkids on the refrigerator and spend occasional long weekends at their soccer games and gymnastic try-outs. But I don’t even try to sit in one of those low beach chairs anymore.
I play with the grandkids because their parents are too busy working—and too serious about life. We eat ice cream sundaes. 
I am connected to God in a deeply spiritual way and relish the time I spend in prayer.
I keep a thought for people who crossed my path during their lifetime.
I make plans for the next ten years but live every day in the moment.

So that’s it. That’s what I know.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

All the Pretty Horses

Boots on the ground aren’t the same as boots in the stirrup. I was reminded of this on a recent trail ride in Montana where a part-time rodeo clown/dude ranch hostler led us off into the trees with a warning about the full-grown bear that had scattered trail horses and clawed a tent the day before. “What happens if we see one,” I asked. Clown Dude shrugged and grinned. “Then it’s every man for himself.”

So it’s been awhile since I sat a saddle and I don’t remember it being so hard—a bit like balancing a kayak in a moving stream. The trail wound around trees and recrossed a stream while my horse tried to nip the horse in front. “Keep away or you’ll have a fight on your hands,” Clown Dude warned after the first clash. “But stay bunched up.”

The two-hour ride seemed quite zen-like as I contemplated the possibility of bear at any turn. In retrospect, the ride turned out to be exhilarating, but I seriously don’t think Clown Dude cared one way or another. Another bear story would go down like aged whiskey on Saturday night for his rodeo pals. What made the day special was having my skills called to high alert. The trail through the trees was similar to ones I’ve ridden on a trail bike, but factoring in some horse attitude, an extra four feet of height and a novice perch made everything a rush.

Challenge is the stuff of life. The pioneers knew it. The astronauts knew it. Maybe Clown Dude, Monty, knew it too, and let me cinch my own saddle, so to speak.

Another great moment happened on the vacation. My daughters and their families were with us at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming. We wandered down to the kiosk with the Western Writers ofAmerica display. My granddaughter keyed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name in the search bar. I followed with Willa Cather. Someone searched for Craig Johnson. We were crowded around the interactive display when I entered my own name and watched my photo and bio pop up.

You know the saying, There was a moment? My family stood there contemplating what they were seeing. “That’s so cool,” I heard a son-in-law mutter. My daughter snapped a photo of me next to my display. I swear to God, I can die now. My life is complete.

Almost as good, Boy in theDarkness, my historical western novella set in the Wyoming plains released as #1 on Amazon new releases for Children’s Historical Western. Too cool—even though it’s not a children’s book at all. My family joined me in the happy dance. 

On the way home we stopped for breakfast at a little cafĂ© with a lot of cars parked outside. Took a seat near two tables waiting for their food while the harried waitress tried to keep up. The cook was putting out a plate every ten minutes. I had time to chat with locals and to photograph the cowboy hats hanging in a row around the room to honor deceased local ranchers. Five tables and an hour later the waitress brought our oversized plate of thick sourdough toast. I started around the room, offering cowboy toast to everyone still waiting. The waitress flashed me a surprised look, but I didn’t much care. The tension in the room melted as people spread jelly on their toast.

When we finished eating, the waitress passed us our bill with a note that the tab had been taken care of. If you’re ever in Lander, Wyoming, stop in at the Maverick. Great hat collection and a decent omelette if you’re not in a hurry. And take your kids on a tour of the West. It’s their heritage. Maybe encourage them to read a western historical  

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Farewell to You, My Trusted Friend

I’m waiting for a letter.

My friend, collaborator and former publisher wrote deathbed letters to his best friends, telling them what they’d meant in his life. He left them with his lady friend to be mailed after his death. I hope I get one.

He was one of a handful of friends who make up the short list of people I turn to for advice or to share the best and worst that life brings. The ones who will be with me until the end.

Our friendship was a touchstone of growth and insight. He was a brilliant man, stoically determined to remain an agnostic while countering my Christian beliefs with well-taken points that gradually changed me from being a card-carrying Catholic to a spiritual thinker increasingly uncomfortable with blind acceptance to a religion and pat beliefs about homosexuality and tolerance. He sent me an unexpected birthday gift once, a crucifix made of inlaid tiles, one of six he'd purchased from a down-and-out artist friend for $100 each. And he kept a Catholic crucifix on his office wall, covered by a hat. Hedging his bets, I told him. We both grew, but neither of us managed to change the other person’s core. Just as it should be, I suspect. 

I met him at a writing event. When he later asked me to edit an anthology he planned to publish, we embarked on a collaborative journey that spanned twenty years, my move to Oregon with my husband of forty-five years—and his to Canada, and after his divorce, to Santa Fe to become a screenwriter. Our first ventures included publishing my two memoirs with old-fashioned off-set printing. When the Fed Ex truck delivered three pallets of the first title, I was stunned at how much space 4,500 books took up in his garage. When he retired from publishing, I bought up the remainders for pennies on the dollar. I was expected to sell them, so I did. Over the years the pallets dwindled. Nineteen years later, I’m down to a single case of one title, a dozen cases of the other. I didn’t want to disappoint him so I became a speaker, a marketer, a writer.

He was fond of quoting obscure philosophers. I have a stack of Post-It notes with his pithy little sayings stuck in a box somewhere. I used to keep them on my wall, but now I find my own. As with, “A friend is someone who brings out the best in you and accepts the worst in you.” We’re lucky when we find such a friend.

His passing wasn’t a shock. He’d passed off his symptoms for a year before he finally went to the ER. By then the cancer had spread to his colon, liver and lymph glands. He endured the gamut of surgeries, chemo and their side effects with cheer and stoic resolve, determined to accept the consequences for his negligence. Or maybe he merely mustered his best self for our phone calls in the last months and weeks of his life.

My last package to him included soft, fluffy pajamas and a photo of our new church, built while he was undergoing his chemo. Armed with a black felt tip pen, I had climbed onto the unfinished altar and wrote his name on the center 2x6 steel girder, in bold block letters, so that every Sunday he’d be there under a layer of sheetrock and paint, in the space between the crucifix and the tabernacle. I touched up the photo with his name where it will remain for the next hundred years or so, and mailed it to him. He was moved to tears—by that and the candle I lit for his vigil, the week he passed. Not much else I could do from 1,500 miles away.

So I guess this is it. He wouldn’t want sorrow. But he promised me a letter. I hope it arrives.