Saturday, November 17, 2012

Past Lives, Or Are They?

I remember feeling resentful and disoriented when I took a class in U.S. History that taught the events of my childhood and adulthood out of a textbook.   It is strange to read a history book about events that I remember clearly.  Although I've been too busy working and raising children to pay attention to every little world event -- when, in 2002, my history teacher at Portland Community College introduced a discussion about the ending of the Cold War, I said, startled, "The Cold War's OVER?"

Now I'm re-reading "The Year Everything Changed," the brilliant history of the women's movement by Gail Collins.  Again, it feels strange to read about my life's events as "history."    Because the women's movement doesn't feel like history.  It's pretty recent.  My grandmother was 19 years old when women finally got the right to vote, and had to have written permission from her husband to teach school in the 1930s and '40s.  My mother was one of the first women in Portland to go "back to school" for a degree, while her own children were still in junior high.  That was a pretty radical thing to do in 1970.

And I seem to have missed the recent swing to the right among young women who feel that the women's movement was something disreputable and tiresome.  Many young women, it seems, are so far removed from what it was like before the women's movement that they can afford to dismiss it.

When someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton can go from being the wronged First Lady who has to make cookies and get the right haircut to be accepted as a worthy First Wife, even though she's uncomfortably smart and capable, to becoming a celebrated member of the U.S. Senate, to candidate for President once (and maybe twice!) and then Secretary of State, you know we've come a long way, baby. 

How far have we come, how fast?  Here are just a few examples of common occurrences among girls and women in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, drawn from my personal experience.  These were so commonplace that they weren't worth talking about at the time.   As a matter of fact, you would be thought to be unreasonable, or whiny, or irrational, or a bad sport for bringing them up, at the very least.  Or you could lose your job or your boyfriend or husband for bringing them up.  If you're under 30, you might think I'm making this stuff up.  I'm not.  Ask anybody over 50.

In 1968, my 8th grade science teacher told me that girls couldn't do well in science and math.  They didn't have the brains for it.  (My grade in science promptly fell from an A to a C, and I gave up on my dream of being a neurosurgeon.)

Also in 1968, I was sent home from a school dance because I was wearing a pantsuit with a tunic.  I could stay if I took the pants off and just wore the thigh-high tunic.  No thanks.  (I should have known better.  If a girl wore pants to school, she could get sent to the vice-principal's office to be paddled.  Bend over!)

During high school, it was understood that the girls who got leads in the school musicals got them because they spent long periods of time with the drama teacher in his windowless office.  I didn't.  I was never cast in anything but the chorus.  (I did get to stand in for the lead one year when she suddenly lost her voice halfway through the first scene of "My Fair Lady," but just for opening night.)

In 1975, my college advisor told me that "they" discouraged women from getting a secondary certificate in music (choral directing, that is) -- because "we don't believe women can handle the large classes." 

As a secretary at a major real estate management firm in 1980, I saved all my copying chores to do once a day, because going down the hall to the copy machine meant running the gauntlet of men standing in the narrow hallway who would grope me as I shouldered past them.

As a secretary in the placement office for the largest employer in Oregon, my manager patted me on the fanny, as he did every woman in his office.  I wheeled around, pointed my finger at him and said, "Never do that again."  When I asked later that year about opportunities to move up, I was told, "You'll never get out of the secretarial pool."  I noticed that two women in the office who didn't object to the fanny-patting had been promoted to interviewer.  My father was the head of Human Resources at the time, and my manager knew that.  I didn't tell my father about the incident.  The Common Wisdom was that it wouldn't do any good to complain, anyway.  This was in 1981.

In 1985, I divorced a man who was an alcoholic and wife abuser.  I was supporting a small child as a researcher in a small private college.  Because my ex-husband wouldn't leave our house and wouldn't pay the mortgage, I had to make the payments by myself, without being able to live there, essentially becoming  homeless (or at least dependent upon the kindness of family until I could sell the house).  My credit union responded by requesting the return of my credit card and immediate payment of the balance, because I was no longer a married woman.

(That was the same year that I was asked to leave the chamber choir in my church, because I was single now and that made the wives of the men in the choir uncomfortable.)

In 1988, as the development officer of a nationally renowned private school, I raised more than one million dollars in one year -- a record.  On the way to a City Club speech by the president of NOW, my boss, the headmaster, announced that he was going to fire me after the fall fundraising campaign because "a man could be more successful because the school's culture was patriarchal."  I asked for a  copy of my latest (glowing) performance review so that I could use it in my job hunt and he refused, because it proved that I had done a good job and shouldn't have been fired and he was concerned about liability issues.

Now I hear that there are worries about the imbalance in the numbers of men going to college.  The majority of people on college campuses, in law programs, medical programs, divinity schools, are women.   This is a grave concern.

Really?  A gender imbalance surely wasn't a concern when most of the people in professional college programs were men.

We have just endured an election season where the right to contraception -- not abortion, contraception -- was back on the table, where the Republican candidate for President seemed to believe that professional women couldn't work the hours necessary to be successful in a cabinet post because they needed to get home to cook dinner for their family -- I'm not even going to comment on the "binders full of women" statement -- and where a U.S. Senator was quoted as saying that pregnancy as a result of a rape was God's Will. 

And last week, a news item popped up on a local TV station.  Seems that a treatment clinic for sex offenders has been operating in an unmarked building five blocks from my house, for the past year.  This came out because of "incidents" involving men from the clinic and women and children in the neighborhood.  I was advised not to walk alone after dark  -- this would mean anytime after 5:00 p.m., in November in my city -- because, being a woman, I wouldn't be safe.

It's 2012.  I'm fifty-six -- fifty-six years old -- and I'm tired of this nonsense now.  I'm tired of it, but I still don't understand it.  Why this unremitting hostility against 51% of the population? 

I'm still taking my walks.  I'm a trained opera singer with an excellent pair of lungs, and besides, I've got my umbrella and I'm not afraid to use it.

I once read that Women's Liberation was defined as the radical notion that "women are people, too."  Yes.  We are. 

And maybe this is an artifact of my age, and maybe not, but there is part of me that is uncomfortable with posting this essay, because I am afraid of provoking comments that I'm whining or being unreasonable.  Don't be a bad sport.  Get over it.

I'm posting it.  There.  Get over it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Seismic Shifts

When my youngest graduated from high school and left two days later for a three-month job out of state, several of my friends felt that it would comfort me if they repeated variations of the common wisdom, “He’ll come back.  They all come back.”

Maybe yours does.  Mine didn’t.  Oh, somebody who resembles Robin came back after three months of 14-16 hour days on an island with no ferry service, no electricity, hot water, wi-fi, and only intermittent cell service (and that in one spot in the middle of the woods).   I'm not saying this was a bad experience.  It wasn't, although I could tell it was hard from the few texts he sent periodically.  But it's obvious that the summer, plus the steady girlfriend, has changed him.  He makes his own plans.  He doesn’t always tell me where he is or what he’s doing.   I was sitting in the living room when he and his girlfriend were making plans to set up a joint checking account to satisfy one of the requirements for family student housing when they go to college together next year.  This is all good and right, and we knock ourselves out to raise functional, happy adults.  But succeeding in this lifelong goal has been rocking my reality, more than I ever expected.

Perhaps most pivotally, I’m no longer the most important woman in his life.   Kaylee comes first, as she should.

Then my daughter announced three weeks ago that she and her boyfriend are engaged – this was on the heels of her realizing that she’s coming up on 30 years old and that physiologically, her child-bearing years are limited. Wonderful, we like her fiancé very much and while the concept of being a “grandparent” might take some getting used to, having grandchildren is just going to be really, really fun.

Still, here’s the thing I keep stubbing my mental toe against.  My children don’t need me to feel loved or to learn how to get along in the world.

I’m not the central person in either of my children’s lives anymore.

Well-meaning friends and family members have objected to Robin and Kaylee’s plans by saying, “They’re so young.  You have to know who you are before you can have a good relationship with somebody else.”  (I get the impression that if they were just being flaky on-again-off-again teenagers, nobody would be worried about them.)  The thing is, I wonder just WHEN is that magic moment when you know who you are?  I know plenty of confused 50-year-olds.  Some of them even make bad decisions about relationships, based on no information or wrong or misinterpreted information, or delusions, wishes, fantasies or dreams. 

Or, like me, they make a decision that turns out well just because of dumb luck.

Ed and I didn’t have a textbook courtship where people could comfortably say, “That’ll work.  That’s a good gamble.”  I was 34 when I called Ed as part of a series of phone calls to recruit volunteers for his alma mater.  That’s right, we met because I was a telephone solicitor.  Really.  That’s how we met.  One of those little voices on the other end of the phone that most people hang up on. 

He was in a rocky relationship at the time, had just moved back to Portland after ten years on the East Coast and was trying to figure out if he really could make a living as a musical instrument maker.  I was in a rocky relationship, raising a toddler pretty much by myself and on medication for chronic depression, the biggest pessimist you ever saw, ricocheting from one disaster to another.  None of my friends today would have recognized me then, a really overweight business-like woman in a dark blue suit.  When Ed learned that I was the fundraiser from his high school, he said rudely, “How did you get this number?”  I had just spent a week making cold calls on people who didn’t want to talk to me.  I laughed.  It was the only response I could make short of starting to cry and quitting my job.  Then he laughed.  Then I said I liked his laugh and he said he liked my laugh and we talked for two hours on company time.  Then he became my star volunteer and we became friends and over the next two years, we both got out of those rocky relationships.  Then he looked at my fat depressed self and saw something that he could be in love with and I looked at his sincere sweet face and fell in love with him and we got married.  Next month, it’ll be 21 years.

I didn’t know who I was then and I’m not sure he knew himself well either.  We changed each other and helped and healed each other.  Neither of us would be who we are today without these two decades of being together.

And now our relationship is on the brink of “coming of age,” ha!  Actually it’s true.  Our children are grown.  We both get the senior discount at Fred Meyer.  We’ve figured out how to do weekends and vacations together, finally (since we’re both introverts, time off involves a lot of alone time, but it took a couple of decades to really figure that out. I mean, alone alone, not alone together alone).  We now know that we don’t have to be interested in the same things.  He doesn’t have to love travel and opera and I don’t have to love optics, kayaks, melodeons, inkle looms, smocking or whatever craft he’s focused on this year. 

We're lucky, we've always had a solid foundation to our marriage.  We love each other and our children; we love sharing a home and a basic philosophy toward life; and most of all, the primary concern for each of us is that we make the other happy.  And I suppose it's telling that I can't imagine life without Ed, and he can't imagine life without me.

It also helps that I think he’s just about the cutest man who ever trod shoe leather, and he still seems to think I’m pretty cute, too.

But it feels a little funny to feel more independent within a marriage.  We were joined at the hip for so long, and now we finally feel confident enough in ourselves that we feel we can afford to let each other out of our sight from time to time. 

Then there’s the ‘rents.  We are lucky, we still have them.  But like everybody else, our parents can push our buttons.  To quote Martin Seligman, the behavioral psychologist who wrote “Flourish,” and “Learned Optimism,” our parents can push our buttons efficiently because they’re the ones who installed them.  Well, that’s old news.  For years, we spent a lot of energy trying to feel like the adults we really were, trying not to care about their opinions of us, working to create our own family traditions.  But now we don’t need to, because to quote another hero of mine, George Harrison, I’m "gettin’ old as my mother.”  When did we get older than our parents?  And when did our parents start to be, not older, but old?

Ed’s parents moved into a lovely retirement facility last year.  We all thought it was too soon, but really, Bill is 80, when is it too soon?  They’re comfortable and busy and none of us middle-aged “children” need to worry about their safety and how they are dealing with the medical issues associated with aging.  My parents have just spent a week touring retirement communities and are planning on moving this year.  Well, they’re kids of 78 and 82, so this also isn’t too soon, and we’ll be happy when they, too are comfortable and busy in a place where we don’t have to worry about their safety and how they're dealing with medical issues…

We’re all on that Small World After All conveyor belt, and some of us are closer to the end of the ride than the others.  Maybe it’s the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, sudden drops and splashes and cannon fire, and the sound track does change as you go along, but there is definitely an embarkation and a disembarkation point at either end of the adventure, and I’m noticing just where I am on the ride.  And I’m farther along than I thought I was.

I’m not a-weepin’ and a-wailin’.  I’ve written plenty in this space about enjoying the back half of the game (my father once referred to the “seats on the fifty-yard line”) and boy am I aware of how lucky I am.  Just a generation or two ago, being 56 put you on the brink of retirement and old age.  I still feel like I’m just getting started and I do have at least one full adulthood ahead of me, there’s no reason for me not to be vigorous and capable for another 40 years.  Yes, I need three pairs of glasses to deal with eyes that don’t readily change focal lengths on their own, and Ed can’t hear without hearing aids, and I need to write everything down, and my feet don’t always work as well as I’d like.   I’m not new in box.  Got a few miles on me.  But I’m like a late ‘90s Honda – I’ve probably got another 150,000, 200,000 miles still.

Meanwhile, I hear rumbles.  The solid earth isn’t so solid anymore, and I wonder why it’s a little hard to keep my balance.

I’m thinking about learning how to dance.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Preparing For the Afterlife

I held onto my heavy, round, taut stomach as the car swooped around a bend on Barnes Road.  I could just make out the shapes of trees in the dim light of the August dawn, their silhouettes leaning out over the narrow road that led to the hospital.  Ed and I had left our daughter at my parents' house and were now on our way to catch another baby.  I was nauseous and intent.  I had expected to have labor pains every few minutes.  I had not expected to have one continuous contraction that didn't let up.

We burst out of the Sullivan Gulch tunnel into the hills above Northwest Portland and slid down Lovejoy, where Ed pulled into the drive-around at the hospital entrance.  I got out of the car.  Something about my gait must have tipped off the staff in the lobby, because they met me at the door with a wheelchair.  Somehow we were in a delivery room and I found myself in bed in a blue cotton gown.  "Would you like a shower?" asked Henry, the young but balding delivery nurse.

"Unnnh!" I answered.

"I don't think we have time for that," Ed said.  "I think it's going pretty fast.

Henry gave me a quick exam and picked up the phone.  "Tell Dr. Ono to come briskly."  He looked at Ed and said with a cheerful smile, "She's at six centimeters already."  Ed, holding my hand, leaned over to give me a kiss.  I patted his cheek, and then as the pain intensified, my hand closed on his beard and I started to pull.  Something about the alarm in his eyes brought me back to reality enough to  let go, and he straightened up.  Dr. Ono came into the room, smiled at us and walked over to the sink to wash his hands.

I had known Al Ono for years.  He came to my voice recitals.  He was the only doctor I ever knew who would sit and chat with his patients for half an hour.  He looked like he was from Tokyo but really he was from Minnesota.  "Dr. Ono?" I managed to say.  "Can I get something for the pain?" I was proud that I had given birth to my daughter, ten years before, without so much as an aspirin.  This time, I was sure I would need a little help.

"Sorry, Brenda, it's too late.  You're going to be having this baby any minute now."  He looked at Ed.  "It's what we call precipitate labor.  Well, we thought this kid would come fast!"  He took one final look and told me to push.

I am a trained opera singer.  I have excellent lung capacity.  When I scream, it's loud.  Dr. Ono is a music lover.  "Brenda honey, be careful of your vocal cords.  If you can't keep from screaming, at least keep the pitch low."  I modulated the scream to a low growl.  "That's better.  Here he comes!"

Ed, looking down between my legs, suddenly looked surprised.  He told me later that a perfectly formed little head had appeared, the eyes had opened, and the baby took a breath.  Although I couldn't see it, we all heard what happened next.  Astonishingly, the baby sang, a seven-note pattern alternating down and up a minor third.  "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!"  Then the rest of him slithered out into Dr. Ono's hands and the baby landed on my stomach.  A perfect little boy, blinking in the light.

"Baby, baby!" I tried to gather him up in my arms to a chorus of "No, no!  He's still attached!"  I waited impatiently as the cord was cut and Robin, for that is what we had agreed to call him, was wrapped up and handed to me.

He lay calmly in my arms.  I could tell that under the overlay of baby-blue, his eyes were going to be hazel, or maybe gold.  Oblivious to the after-birth medical activity in the room, I fell into Robin's intent gaze and felt my insides contract with love.

The nurse took him from my protesting arms.  Time for his first bath.  I steeled myself for him to cry, but when they slid him into the warm bath, his arms and legs relaxed and he floated on the water, still cooing, eyes closed blissfully.

I was just two months past my 37th birthday.  Robin was a loved and waited-for baby, but still...I wasn't entirely sure how this middle-aged mothering thing was going to work out.  I had already been a mom for ten years.  My daughter and I were well past the diapers and sleep deprivation stage.  I was overweight, out of shape, and wasn't sure how I was going to keep up with a little kid.

And before the pregnancy started, Dr. Ono had more to say about this whole idea.  Did I realize that the pregnancy-related health risks go up considerably after the mid-thirties?  Did I really want to be raising an adolescent while going through menopause?

But Ed really, really wanted another child.  So heigh-ho!  I didn't have much of an idea of what else I wanted to do with the rest of my life anyway.  I'll be 56 when he graduates from high school.  Clearly we'll be talking end-of-life issues.  Poor kid, with this old slow mom.  Once he grows up, he'll leave home and then I'll just sit around and wait for death.

Well, in the first place, I didn't know anything about what my forties were going to be like.  It's ironic that during the No Life Of My Own phase, I earned a Master's degree, lost 60 pounds, wrote two books and went back to performing.   I didn't plan on having a life exploding with friends and fun and possibilities so that I screeched into my mid-fifties feeling like I was just graduating from a high-end college and I'm a first-draft pick.

But mostly I didn't know anything about who  Robin was.  I just had this idea of "having a baby."  Just some random baby sent from the other side.

But it turned out to be Robin.

I've called him my "sound track boy," and that's true.  He's the show-biz kid.  He's been singing since that first breath.  For his first grade show, he sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" in front of 700 people, so professionally that the adults didn't know how to talk to him after the show.  It's all about the make-up and costumes for him.  When he was four, he wanted a beard so Ed put little pieces of masking tape all over his chin.  Oh, did that make him a happy boy!  He started channeling Harpo Marx in middle school and then went on to Monty Python in high school.  He wanted to wear a top hat to the first day of high school (I talked him out of it) and tried to pass himself off as a British exchange student his sophomore year (he would have gotten away with it, too, if everyone hadn't known him by then).  He asked for, and got, a tuxedo for his fifteenth birthday.  He sings like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.  He's in a close harmony men's group, and has sung with professional choirs with Pink Martini and the Portland and Seattle Symphonies.  Once, when he got home from a sixteen-hour day of rehearsing and performing, he said, "I'm tired of music, Mom."  Then he picked up his guitar and sang old folksongs for two hours.

Then there's his big heart.  He is capable of tremendous empathy, generosity, and courage.  If he's eating something, he'll give you half of it.  If you feel sad, he will drop whatever is going on for him to listen and say something thoughtful and encouraging and give you a hug.  He once kayaked into a strong current in the Puget Sound to save two kids who, having fallen out of their own boat  into icy water, were being pulled relentlessly away from shore.

It's true he was something of a fixer-upper.  He has had three heart procedures, major orthodonture, and a foot that was two sizes smaller than the other foot.  Until he was 16 and had surgery, he had no sense of hearing in one ear and no sense of smell.  We were very thankful for health insurance.  And yes, there were times when he just wouldn't do his homework and I thought my head would explode.  I didn't like that he left milk glasses on his floor until the ants found them.  I will not miss the old sock smell drifting out his door into the living room.  And yes, I have spent the last year driving him all over town for this rehearsal and to that friend's house, and putting in dozens of hours a week volunteering for his choral program until I'm going nuts because I can't get my own work done.

But during the past year, he's learned to manage a complicated performance schedule, taught himself to play the guitar, learned to drive, and built a happy relationship with a lovely girl.  He auditioned for college music programs and was accepted into his two favorite schools.  I would say that he's at the top of his game, except that I think he's just getting ready to launch.  We ain't seen nuthin' yet.

This spring, Robin got a three-month job for this summer, working as a cook at a camp in the San Juans.  So during this past spring, I've been thinking and thinking about how quiet the summer will be.  I'll get up the morning after he leaves and what'll I do?  Then I realized it's not just the summer.  Once he comes back from camp,  he'll be home for just three weeks before we pack him up and drive him to college.  My throat keeps closing up.  My friends say cynically, "Oh, don't feel too bad, he'll come back.  They all come back."

I actually find that kind of insulting.  They DON'T all come back.  Robin wants to be out on his own so badly.  He has job skills that will allow him to make a living right away.  And besides, there's no denying that this part of our relationship will be different.  After almost thirty years, the job of mothering won't be my daily life.  Suddenly I'm being propelled into an After Life.

I always say that I'm not worried about dying.  I wasn't aware of myself before I was born and probably I won't be aware after I die.  If I'd never had children, I wouldn't feel like my heart is being pulled out of  my chest.

But I do.

Last week, Ed and I drove Robin to the ferry in Anacortes, Washington, so he could travel the last leg of his ten-hour trip to Johns Island.  He had chosen this camp because he had attended as a camper for eight years, half of his life.  Two weeks of training and setting up the camp awaited him, then cooking from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. for three months.  From Portland to Anacortes is a five hour drive.  Robin slept most of the way, because he'd been up since 4:30 a.m. -- he'd had one last performance with his close harmony group, singing at the Rose  Festival ceremony -- what a wow finish to the year!  When he woke up, he looked a little lost.  It had been hard for him to walk out of his room that morning.

But as we entered Anacortes, we rounded a corner and suddenly, there was the Puget Sound and the wooded, rounded islands peering through the mist.  Robin smiled dreamily, tears in his eyes.  "This is home," he said.

"Welcome back," I said to him.  This is his dream job.  He loves the San Juans, he loves this camp, he loves the outdoors, and he loves to cook.  He'll be working with people he has liked and admired for years.

We pulled into the parking lot at the ferry terminal.  We got out of the car and made our way to a picnic table and sat down with our lunches.

"I see camp girls," Robin said through a mouthful of peanut butter sandwich.  I hadn't thought that, of course, half the camp staff would be catching this ferry.  "I better go get my stuff."  We went back to the car and unloaded Robin's trunk, backpack and guitar case.  He shouldered his backpack, picked up his guitar and one end of his trunk, loaded down but moving fast.  Ed ran around him to get a picture, and I have it with me now...Robin heading for his friends with a big grin on his face.

(Cue the music...)

Then we saw the ferry come around the headland.  Slowly it pulled into the dock.  Robin came trotting back to us.  Cars and bicyclists and walkers streamed past us, and then it was Robin's turn to board.  He turned, tears in his eyes, and all three of us hugged, hard.  Then we stood to the side while he pulled his luggage aboard.  He disappeared into the maw of the ferry.  We saw him again on the deck above us, standing in a group of friends.  He'd gotten out his guitar and they were already singing camp songs.  The ferry started to pull away, and he freed an arm to wave at us.

Arms around each other, Ed and I watched Robin float away across the water.  He was singing blissfully, eyes wide open.

(Music fades out...)

I'd like to say that's how it happened, but it isn't.  What happened is, I got out the sunscreen and handed it to him.  He put two streaks of sunscreen on his already red arms.  I said, "Here, let me get the back of your neck."

He looked at me, put up a hand and said, "Mom, I'm ready to say goodbye now.  I'll catch the ferry when it gets here."  He gave me a quick hug, hugged his dad, took the handle of his trunk and started rolling it down to the ferry dock where his friends were waiting.  Ed and I walked back to the parking lot and got in the car.

We drove back to Seattle.  As we were poking through the Pike's Street Market, we got a text from Robin.



The ride was a lot shorter than I thought it would be.  Thank you, Robin.  It was glorious.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Guns Don't Kill People. But They Help.

A young friend texted my son yesterday, requesting that he read the Metro section. Section B, page two, above the fold. We don't usually read the paper, so it wasn't until this morning that I fished yesterday's Oregonian out of the pile at Starbucks and turned to page two.

Our friend's father is the choir director at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church here in Portland, Oregon. His assistant conductor, Brian Tierney, was shot last Wednesday night while driving home from choir practice. Brian is 29 years old and the father of a two-year-old. He was found in his car on the side of the highway, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds. He is not dead. He is in critical condition, his kidney shattered, the extent of his internal injuries unknown, but he did not sustain brain damage and he may recover. He is a musician, so his wife and child will have to do without his income, and the medical expenses will be staggering.

The police have no clues as to who shot him, other than it was somebody with a gun.

The church and choral leadership are organizing meals and help with the garden and a fund to help financially. Other than that, what can we do?

This on the heels of the more global grief I've been feeling about the death of Trayvon Martin. I didn't know Trayvon. But I have a teen-age son myself, and I can't imagine what Tray's parents are going through. What happened in Florida is inexplicable. A self-appointed "neighborhood watch volunteer" can shoot an unarmed teenager to death and not even be arrested? The most dangerous thing this child did was to be black, wear a hoodie and carry a bag of Skittles and walk through a gated community? Death penalty for being a young black male and wearing a hoodie? If there were such a thing as a law that said it is illegal to be a black teenager, wear a hoodie and carry Skittles, and a judge can sentence you to death if you break that law, there would still be due process before an execution was carried out. This was murder, carried out because someone with an opinion had a gun.

Oh my God.

So stepping from the particular to the national to the big picture:

The U.S. Department of Justice has recorded an average of 29,500 gunfire deaths every year nationally for the last 30 years. Compare that to the 6,000 military personnel lost in all foreign wars during the same period of time. From 1976 to 2006, over 100,000 children have been shot to death. The National Center for Health Statistics Mortality Report reports similar statistics for 2009.

According to the Eighth United Nations Survey on crime trends (2002), Albania had 135 firearm murders in one year. Albania, now there's a safe haven. Zimbabwe, 598.

I don't know about you, but I've had it with the NRA's take on how guns make our lives safer. I don't buy it. I've managed to ignore this issue for awhile, mostly by avoiding reading the papers, but Brian and Tray got my attention.

As gun apologists like to say, guns don't kill people, people kill people. But as my favorite commentator Eddie Izzard once said, the gun helps.

A fund has been established to help Brian Tierney's family pay his medical expenses. If you want to help, you can write a check payable to "SMAA" with the notation "Brian Tierney Fund" and mail it to St. Michael & All Angels Church, 1704 NE 43rd Ave, Portland, OR 97213.

If you would like to sign a petition to the Florida 4th District State's Attorney asking for the arrest of the man who murdered Trayvon Martin, go to

I'm not much of a praying person, but I'm going to start praying for the soul of this country that I love. During this week when so many of us celebrate the living message of a man that many of us call a prophet or the Son of God, the message that we should take care of each other and love each other, even those who harm us, I will pray that our hearts and minds be open to the idea that the fountain of firearms available to us doesn't make us safer.

You can join me if you like.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Walking Toward Understanding

Dear friends,

I have been posting essays here for two years. They're not standard blog posts, I understand that. They're too long. They are essays. Walter Mitty, in James Thurber's hilarious short story, wanted to be a hero. I just want to be a great essayist, like E.B. White or Jan Morris or Barbara Kingsolver.

Quel hubris!

(Three of the best things that have happened in the last year are: 1) Ed finished building a writing studio for me; I've started writing every day, this is a direct result of talking to myself in this blog; and I've joined a writing group. So I'm getting somewhere with this writing thing...)

And in the meantime, I have written one book (you can see The Real Skinny: A Practical Guide to Fat Loss and Health Gain and even buy it on my website,, and I'm working on a second book, Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking.

And I have just finished, really finished, the first chapter, and I am going to post it here. It's 4,400 words long, a real chapter. You are my loyal fans, so you get to see it first.

I look forward to reading your comments.

Here it is.

Chapter One: Introspection
Walking Toward Healing

I sat, curled around my heart like a question mark, at a table in The Principal’s office. The west-facing windows were open, letting in the August sun and cooling the room not at all. Labor Day was just three weeks away. All the other teachers in my school had received their teaching assignments in May, although most of them would be in the same classroom they’d had for ten years. Because I had entered the teaching profession in an era of drastic cuts to the public schools, I had spent the same ten years being bumped from school to school, two temporary jobs, then a series of substitute assignments, then a half-time job. I had finally succeeded in staying in the same school, Karen’s school, for two years in a row. I had been waiting for three months to learn what my life would be like this year.

I was the ultimate utility player, certified to teach all academic subjects in kindergarten through eighth grade, plus music. But for the past two years, I had been a “music and movement” teacher. I taught yoga, ballet, square dancing, sight-reading, music history and appreciation, and choral singing. The centerpiece of the program consisted of five- and six-year-old students writing, producing and starring in their own operas. I had created this program out of nothing, painting and laminating posters, buying books and music out of my own checking account, writing grants for yoga mats, building relationships with parents who could sew costumes and build props and sets. Although there was no music room in our school, the teachers were good about pushing desks out of the way for my little musicians and dancers, and I had a corner in a hall closet to store a cart of teaching supplies. My principal always brought prospective parents in to observe the yoga classes – they seemed to be a big draw for our kindergarten.

During my second year, our elementary school had been combined with the nearby middle school, half a mile away, to save on administrative costs. Now I taught kindergarten through middle school music, on two campuses a half mile apart. I saw the kindergarten and first grade students in the morning, four times a week. Then I hurried to the other school building to teach the older students. I was allowed to use the choir room some of the time. For the rest of the day, I taught in the gritty-floored cafeteria, echoing with kids coming and going from recess. Every 28 minutes precisely, I would meet a group of students at the door of their classroom, line them up, and lead them to class, carrying a backpack full of rhythm instruments and CDs and pushing a cart loaded with a boombox, a white board, an electronic keyboard, and Kleenex. I’d get them settled, teach fifteen minutes, line them up again and deliver them back to their classroom.

My students included a few emotionally disabled children who were being “mainstreamed” into traditional classrooms, some of whom expressed their profound discomfort with music by screaming, breaking instruments and barreling into people. There was no money for seventh or eighth grade music, so I was encouraged to teach after-school classes in the library, using my own materials and electric piano, earning ten dollars an hour in the after-school program.

It was brilliant. With just the expenditure of my half-time salary, our two-campus school of over 400 students was able to report that we had both a PE and an Arts program and that teachers were provided with professional development and meeting time. And I only had to work 50 hours a week to do it.

I had gotten used to the screws tightening each year. A new school, a different curriculum or grade level, no prep time, no time to eat lunch or get to a bathroom, less money, more students, higher-maintenance kids. Each year, I had dealt with increasingly troubling stress-related ailments. My blood pressure kept going up. I was experiencing arrhythmic tachycardia, an irregular heartbeat. At my last check-up, my doctor had said that my job was endangering my long-term health and suggested that I find another line of work. Now, as I waited to learn what the next year would bring, I expected to hear another not-so-subtle hint about more choral performances for the older students. A decade before, our school had had an award-winning music program and my principal clearly had hopes that I could return the school to those glory days.

But perhaps this would be the year that things would turn around. Maybe I would get a room of my own in the middle school, or get paid to teach the middle school choir, or get my lunch break back. Maybe I would only have to teach one Lifeskills class, no mainstreaming. Karen looked cheerful as she walked in the door, as if she were about to give me good news. She sat down opposite me, smiling in my general direction.

“Well, Brenda, basically, we need someone to walk on water.”

“We need you to teach remedial reading in the Early Ed building, and keep the library open a few hours a day. We need you to do lunch duty for the middle school three days a week. And if you have some spare time, it would be nice if you could keep the music program going. And we’re going to have to cut your hours to 40 percent.”

My mind went blank. Then I could feel my face getting hot. Please, please don’t let it show in my face. My usual outward sign of inward fury is bright red blotchy cheeks. You need somebody to walk on water? So you naturally thought of me? “No benefits this year?”


“Karen,” I said, determined to salvage something from this mess, “What if I took a leave of absence? Pushed the re-set button? Maybe the budget will be better next year and I can get back into full-time classroom teaching.”

Now Karen looked directly at me for the first time. “Brenda, I’m sorry. That’s never going to happen. You’ve been temporary and part-time for too long. Your lack of seniority means that you won’t be able to get a full-time job in this economy. Be grateful that you have a teaching job at all.”

What? After ten years of teaching, developing curriculum so I could bring students from second-grade math to middle-school algebra in four months in a crowded classroom, breaking up sixty-kid food fights and fist fights between boys larger than me, buying dozens of literature book sets out of my grocery money? I have transmitted the love of music through the sound of mentally disturbed kids screaming, my back is sore from getting knocked down and carrying twenty pounds of teaching materials all over the school, I work two or three hours for every hour of pay, the teachers here don’t even know my name, you’re cutting my salary, denying me health benefits, increasing my hours, asking me to retrain completely in the last three weeks of my “summer vacation,” somehow it’s my fault that you can’t hire me full-time, and I’m supposed to be grateful?

“Karen, I’m sorry,” I choked, truly astonished at my own willingness to blow the scraps of my career sky-high, “I won’t do that job.”

This was completely unexpected. Into the sudden stillness, I added, “I will not be available to work here next year.”

I stood up. I did not offer Karen my hand. She didn’t try to convince me to stay. I walked out of there and sat in my hot car, searing my forehead on the steering wheel for fifteen minutes before I could trust myself to drive home.

I spent the last three weeks of the summer sitting on the front porch, reading books and filling out the forms that officially separated me from the public teaching labor force for a year. I didn’t have anything else to do. Most teachers spend the last few weeks of their summer vacation getting ready for the school year, if they aren’t finishing up a summer job. We were lucky, my husband had just been hired at a corporation after years of trying to make a small business pay. We still had a paycheck. Labor Day weekend came, and I hadn’t even signed up for the substitute teacher pool, not that any self-respecting teacher would miss the first week of school anyway.

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, I sat in my flannel pajamas, mourning, trying to eat scrambled eggs. For ten years, I had awakened on The First Day with butterflies in my stomach, then put on my sensible teaching outfit, gulped coffee, and carried one last heavy box to the car, my lunch box and purse balanced awkwardly on top. On this First Day, as I sat at my breakfast table, teachers all over town were walking through their classrooms, meeting their new students, thinking of five or six things at once. Not me. It was 8:00 in the morning. They’re all in school. And I’m not.

Who am I? What can I do? I’m not a teacher any more. I don’t feel like myself. I don’t feel like a person.

Come on. I’m tough. I’ve weathered worse than this. I don’t have to let this get to me. I tried to write in my journal. For me, there’s not much that can’t be fixed by writing with a fountain pen. I like to say that I don’t know what I’m thinking until words flow out of my fingers onto a page. But on this morning, the magic didn’t work. My fingers didn’t care about holding the pen. My throat was so tight I couldn’t swallow.

The heck with this. I’m getting out of here.

I put on jeans, a sweatshirt and walking shoes, filled a water bottle, and fitted my journal and wallet into a backpack. I walked out onto the porch and stood there for a moment. Then I slammed the door and ran down the steps.

I was crying so hard I couldn’t see the sidewalk. Tears and mucous ran down my face. I stumbled along, scenes between my ears of kids singing arias about flying books and LifeSkills students screaming uncontrollably. “Oh GOD!” I yelled at the street hoarsely, my voice cracking. “Oh GOD!” People looked at me worriedly. I have to calm down. I could go crazy out here and somebody would call the police. Or worse, nobody would care. Why should anybody care about one more teacher whining about the education system? “Oh, GOD!”

I tripped over a curb and almost fell. I walked into a bus stop pole, hitting my head. After awhile I realized that I probably needed to talk to somebody, and that somebody had to be my husband Ed. I didn’t want to alarm him. I tried to slow down my sobbing breaths so I would sound more or less normal when he answered the phone. I pulled out my cell phone and poked at my husband’s phone number with shaky fingers.


“Hi. How are you doing?”

Long pause.

“I’m walking.”

“Okay honey, that’s probably good. Where are you walking?”

“I don’t know. Maybe downtown.”

Silence. We live four miles from downtown. I had never walked further than to the store, a quarter mile away.

If I said any more, he would be able to hear the crying in my voice. Time to go. “I’ll call you later.”

“OK. I love you.” Of course he does. One thing I’ve always been sure of is that Ed loves me dearly.

If I can’t talk, I can text. If I can’t work, I can plan things. I pounded text after text to Ed into my phone’s keyboard between steps. I hate texting. I don’t like to do it and I don’t like to pay for it. I have a pay-as-you-go-ten-cents-per-text plan. Ed replied to each text with a long caring response, which meant I had to keep writing him back. We wrote and wrote and wrote, back and forth, long complicated texts about dinner plans and bills and our high-school son’s schedule. This damn walk is probably costing me five bucks. I turned the cell phone off and jammed it into my pocket. I found that I was standing just in front of “The Daily Café,” a coffee shop three miles from my house. Jeez. How’d I get here? I walked into the high-ceilinged, half-empty room with a wooden bar running down its length. Behind it, an enormous chalkboard listed sandwiches, soups, coffee drinks and tea. I was starving. I ordered a big bowl of vegetable soup, a hunk of bread and an oversized white mug of coffee and sat down on a tippy chair at an old oak table. I found myself gazing down a wide hallway lined with mantelpieces, not attached to fireplaces. And stained glass windows. And an old phone booth. Apparently I had happened upon a restaurant that was a cross between a café and an antique store.

Then I saw the sinks.

I love old sinks. Old sinks are healing. They satisfy something deep within me. I don’t mean a sink that’s installed in someone’s bathroom. I mean used sinks, laid out in a line on a floor or asphalt, discarded from construction sites. Oval pastel sinks. White angular sinks, like my grandma had, with airplane propeller taps. Big concrete sinks for washing the dog. I visit the dump in Nehalem, Oregon just because they have a resale section of bathroom fixtures. I can stand in the rain on a forty-five-degree Saturday for twenty minutes just breathing deeply and communing with sinks. And here I was, soul-sick, with a big mug of hot coffee and a long row of sinks to look at! I sat and ate my soup. The presence of the sinks penetrated my soul. I got out my journal and started to write.

I wrote about every single thing I had ever taught in my life, voice lessons, how to cook, driving skills, To Kill a Mockingbird, how to subtract and how to hold a calligraphy pen and how to write a tragedy based on a food chain. I listed the names of students. The words on the page smoothed the cracks in my spirit, like spreading Nivea on dry skin.

The last inch of coffee was cold in the bottom of my cup when I clicked the cap onto my pen and closed the book. I put my dishes into the bussing pan and shouldered the door open, slinging my pack over my right shoulder. I was tired. I could catch the bus home from here. Nobody needs me today. I could take a nap. But I could see the ramp to the Hawthorne Bridge just three blocks down Grand Avenue. Well, all right then. As long as I’m here, I will walk over the bridge! This decision made me feel a little like Wonder Woman. When you stand at the waterfront nearest my house and look downriver, Portland looks like a toy city. By walking for an hour, I had made the city life-size.

The Hawthorne Bridge spans the Willamette River, tying the west and east halves of Portland together. The walkway and the car lanes are made of open steel grating with glimpses of the water far below. I stopped mid-span to look downstream at the Morrison, Burnside, and Broadway bridges stretching across the water, pleasure boats cruising under them, runners and bikers moving slowly along the waterfront trail, cargo ships docked at the Port of Portland. I looked past the city and saw the clock tower of the train station, framed by the green of the West Hills. I knew that those wooded hills held the Wildwood Trail, the jewel of Portland’s city park system. That trail was miles away. I decided to walk there.

I had never noticed how the sidewalk was engineered to let walkers step off the bridge safely. Suddenly I was swinging down through the city. The sounds of sea gulls, the hum of car tires over the grating and the hooting of water buoys were replaced by voices, street musicians, the jingle of bike bells and idling car engines. My walking pace became sporadic. I had to stop for people. I got into a conversation with a homeless man camped on the sidewalk. He had once been an amateur astronomer. A family of Italian tourists was clustered around a map, trying to find the big Powell’s bookstore. I knew enough Italian that I could direct them toward shopping and a restaurant. It was a relief to know that I was visible to other human beings, to feel that I could be of use, but I wanted to get back to a steady pace. I went into overdrive, gauging the speed of other walkers, concentrating on fleeting spaces opening up between clumps of tourists and office workers and shoppers. I was a woman on a mission. On to the hills!

I walked up Everett Street into Northwest Portland. I was breathing deeply now and that made me think of meditating. I had read about walking meditations. Maybe that’s what I’m doing. I will count my breaths to ten over and over.

I got lost at “one.” Tried to get to “two.” Somewhere between two and three, the overture to The Magic Flute started up in my head. I gave up on the meditation idea and tried to concentrate on remembering the route through town to the park.

But the train station sits between downtown and Forest Park. It drew me toward it. Sometimes, when life is too much with me, I entertain escape fantasies. I dream about pointing my car south, driving down I-5 until I bump into a new life, like the heroines in Anne Tyler’s books. And I’ve always loved Union Station, with its landmark clock and brick turrets, trains departing each day for San Francisco and Chicago and New York. I felt that I just had to go and talk to an agent about how to catch a train and go far, far away. I walked past the cars unloading passengers and luggage and pushed open the heavy swinging door into the station. Suddenly I could hear my shoes squeaking as I walked under the high ceiling, past the wooden pews, toward the ticket counter to speak to the man behind a wrought-iron grille.

I learned that there was a daily train to Chicago and that I could take a train to Klamath Falls if I didn’t mind taking the Starlight Express, which was usually late because it was traveling the length of the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada, to Los Angeles, California. The deep voice of the intercom intoned, “The Empire Builder will depart from platform B in five minutes. All ABOARD!”

I fled through the swinging doors. I will only go as far as I can on foot. Further than that, and Ed would miss me. I walked rapidly up the street toward the entrance to Forest Park. The blocks seemed shorter now with no lights to stop for. Tall oak trees shaded streets lined with brownstone apartment buildings and hundred-year-old homes draped in ivy and wisteria.

Look at the gargoyle on the corner of that building.

This part of town is smaller than I thought.

Look, you can buy cooking supplies there.

The individual moments became distinct. Step up onto the curb. A pile of gravel there. What does that sign say? Someone is standing in the door. Each scene stood alone. I wanted to hold on to them but moment by moment, bit by bit, the neighborhood moved by. I passed the sign “Wildwood Trail” and suddenly I was pulling cool air into my ribcage, gray concrete transmuted into brown and green forest lit by glinting creek water. Every footfall was now. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now.

I saw a stylized stone walkway under my feet and realized that I had come to the foot of the hill below the Japanese Gardens. I climbed the hill and passed through the entrance. My knees were shaky as I walked down toward the waterfall, so I sat on a flat rock under one end of an arching wooden bridge. I opened up my journal, scrabbled around in my pack for my pen and wrote a paragraph describing pink-orange carp just under flowing green water. I wrote sentences, one under another down the length of the page.

I persuaded the county to build a sidewalk between a middle school and a store so kids could walk safely.

Because of me, several people know how to carry a tune.

I taught my children how to scramble eggs and make chocolate pudding.

Ed loves me.

Once again, I clicked my pen shut and closed my book. I got up and wandered along branching paths, over gravel and soft moss. I heard water trickling. Then I saw a little house made of bamboo, open on two sides, with a round window looking out on willow trees that created dappled shade over a pebbled creek. The house was empty, and I tip-toed in and sat on the bench in the corner. The leaves, seen through the window from the dimness of the house, looked like nature idealized in thought. I had no desire to move forward, no memory of the past. I did not count the time.

I took the socks off my hot feet, turned them inside out, and put them back on. I drank water. I arranged the things in my backpack so I could settle it comfortably on my shoulders. I walked past the rhododendrons guarding the entrance to the park, down the winding path through the woods, back to the street that led into the city. My hips ached. The tiredness of my feet felt normal and eternal. Downtown flowed by quickly, the Hawthorne Bridge was behind me somehow, and I realized that I was just four miles from home.

That seemed like nothing. I had been walking all day. In an hour, I’ll be climbing my front steps again. It was then that I became aware of the pain in my feet. I sat down on a bench overlooking the river and pulled off my shoes and socks. Huh. These are really impressive blisters. I am walking on a bike path. There are no bus lines within a mile of here.

I will run. Then it will be over faster.

The pounding numbed my feet and carried me along to the cut-off into Oaks Bottom, a leafy trail that led toward Sellwood and home. I started quoting Tolkien to myself. “Wingfoot I name you! Hardy is the race of Elendil!” I looked up. The Portland Memorial Funeral Home, cut into the side of a steep bluff, loomed above me. There is a three-story-high mural of a blue heron on the side of the building facing the wetlands next to the river. I knew that, although I was three miles from home by the trail, my house was only three-quarters of a mile away as the crow flies, just the other side of that bluff. And I saw a steep set of railroad-tie steps cut into the hill next to the building.

Like Frodo and Sam struggling up the Winding Stair, I started to climb.

About a third of the way up the bluff, the stairs ended. Well, my son took rock climbing. I know about keeping three points of contact. It’s not that steep. The summer had been dry, and the earth was crumbly, but there always seemed to be a tree root to grab or a little place to put my foot.

Three or four yards from the top, the bluff became nearly perpendicular and I ran out of tree roots. I stopped. For the first time, I looked back and down.

Oh shit.

A year before, I had fallen, breaking my ankle and tearing a ligament in an accident that had confined me to a wheelchair for a couple of months. I really did not want to fall. I looked back up. It’s not that far, I told myself. It is less dangerous to just keep going.

I didn’t look down again. I grabbed chunks of dirt and desperately pulled myself up. My toes and kneecaps beat and slid against the cliff, I felt the earth push away beneath me and scrambled harder, my chest hurting, sweat burning in my eyes and blurring my sight of the dirt inches from my nose. I slammed my forearms up onto flat ground at the top of the bluff, shoved, and rolled. Covered in dust, my shirt soaked through, heart pounding, I lay on cool grass at the top of the bluff, panting. I hadn’t fallen. No one was going to have to go through my wallet and call my husband to report my broken body at the foot of the Sellwood bluff. I lay there long enough to catch my breath. Then I pulled myself to a standing position and began to limp the last fifteen blocks home.

Now, now, now. Each step felt like a punctuation mark. Satisfied, I felt the pain in my feet, the weariness in my legs. I felt that I had put in a good day’s work. I may not be teaching today, but I am still myself. I am a thinker. I am a writer. I am a walker.

I am a survivor.

I will walk some more tomorrow.

It was four o’clock. All day, while I had been walking, children had been in school. All day, I had felt their quiet presence in my heart. Now they put on their backpacks and went home.

And so did I.