"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.