A Song of Home for a Heart that’s Breaking

What I’ve written below may look like a list of plants.

In my taxonomy work, I have been for several months in conversation with one such list. It has been a many-layered joy: because I enjoy the puzzle of taxonomy, because I know many of the plants, and because I rejoice generally in the kingdom Plantae. The names of plants are dying in our language. I like to speak and write them as a counterspell.

My list is derived from many sources, but its best inclusions come from the catalog of a particular Oakland nursery, East Bay Wilds. I’ve never set foot there, but I love them. Their species list contains the raw ingredients of a powerful incantation.

Last afternoon, my cat companion died. She was old, and it had been expected. Still, it was a shock to see her husk: her eyes sunk in and fur in ragged clumps, the muscles gone slack that had held each piece minutely, the pattern that had made her starting to unravel. For a dozen years, she was my friend, my little owl, my Gwenhwyfar. I will never speak with her again.

Our present times are overfull with heartbreak. It helps me to work, and I’m lucky to do that with good folks, who know when to speak their sympathy and when to ask distracting questions about attributes and values. It also helps to reach out to my community, gathered all about, as ordinary and miraculous as a bowl of stars. I did both those things today, and both have held me up.

I had marked out for my work today this list of plants to finish wrestling with. Grief – not just for Gwenners – has loosened my self-consciousness of late. So I didn’t stop when I realized I was speaking aloud the genus and species and cultivar names that pleased me. They felt cool and soothing, the way it feels to gain admittance to an ancient grove. Merely listing them was not what I heard myself doing; I was punctuating. So I wrote them down, and I stopped and paused and drew out these names the way they shaped themselves to rhythm, and what I have on paper is…a prayer? A poem, a paean, a mourning song. Beautiful words from the woods and hills of my first beloved home, chanted or whispered or sung to meet the hurt in my heart, to lift the memory of my loved, my lost small friend.

You may share them, if you like. I do not think their magic is particular to me, or to my loss, or to loss at all. Speak them, if you have a quiet place. I hope that they might bless you, too.

***

Lace-lip fern & leafy reedgrass, lily-of-the-valley.

Leather root, lotus, living stone.

Oceanspray & olive; owl’s claws.

Pacific Mist manzanita. Pearly everlasting.

 

Pink-flowered buckeye, Point Reyes bearberry, prickly pear & purple moor grass

     — Quail bush. Radiant kinnickkinnick!

 

Rushrose & Sandhill sage, sapphire ceanothus.

Sea buckthorn & serpentine sedge, sequoia.

Sorrel, snowdrop, slender-footed sedge.

     — Shatterberry manzanita.

 

Spearmint, spicebush, southern silktassle. St. Catherine’s lace buckwheat.

Staghorn, stonecrop, strawberry tree;

Sweet pea & sycamore, tarragon & teak.

 

Thyme & tickseed & tiger lily. Torrent sedge & toyon.

Twinberry honeysuckle, water lettuce;

     Wax myrtle, & weeping fig.

 

Wild ginger, wishbone bush, windflower, wisteria…

Witchhazel, woodfern:

     Wright’s buckwheat bastardsage!

 

Yarrow.

Yerba Santa.

Yew.

***

 

 

 

Ghosts of Summertime

Half an hour ago it was too hot to be outside. The edge has curled up off the day now, just about 8pm, and a soft freshness pushed up from underneath. I can smell it, unfurling like a frond of fern.

I have not been content today, nor free of heavy cares for some months. So much is not right – with the weather, with my home, my life, my country – and my ability to affect change is so limited as to feel non-existent. But the towhees buzz as the breeze comes up before nightfall. It does help.

Summer in the Willamette Valley is the beloved season. We wait for it, discuss its late starts and occasional rains with an affronted air that recalls nothing so much as sun-spoiled Southern Californians. Which is what an increasing number of us used to be.

I carry a preference for mists and overcast, morning chill and fresh cool air at midday. I like to be outside and alone, but all my neighbors are up and out in this season, keeping me company from dawn until well past dusk. There’s a reason I’m no longer in Southern California myself.

Even my sleep is more populous in summer. Vague dreams keep me hovering near the surface, aware of my cool cotton sheets. A few nights back, I was dipping in and out of some large unsettling mystery, in no hurry, for once, to find how it all fits. Dreams are unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped our species from confident interpretations. I decided mine was my subconscious speaking to my daytime unsettlement: slow down, this is all you have.

In which case, what to do with the dream that followed, featuring an invisible force I was either playing or contesting with, while half my family looked on? I banished it aloud at the end, with a sense more of theater than conclusion. It’s normal to wake from dreams of the supernatural with a pounding heart in the darkness. This time I felt only a vexed wish for unvisited sleep.

The lack of actual darkness surely plays into this. I live in a semi-urban downtown, where night is just a dimmer switch. From my darkening porch, I wish to find the night, to move through its other-textured streams. Evening is a great consolation near midsummer, and I long toward its liminal softness. Here, where street lights are loud and too-revealing, neighbors chatter freely at daytime volume, and music of the canned variety ruptures the boundaries of car and home, I lose heart for evening walks. I also find some of what I seek, when the night is cool: the wind coming up as the sky fades, as though it disperses the light. The flittering of tiny bats, the white roses’ last late glowing.

Mornings are the quiet hour: five or six, before the sun clears the foothills. When the sky is a blank blue page, a bit darker each week. When the city and the hills disappear, enshawled in a drift of sunrise cloud. On the bay, the mallard kids are nearly grown. The men paddle about in lonely eclipse while the women give every appearance not to need them. It’s a brief reprieve: the fancy suits and the strutting and the casual violence of the mallard love scene will return.

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***

Supposedly summer is waning by September. Everyone’s keen to stuff in two more backyard parties, one more camping trip in the mountains. These last few years, though, August and September have brutalized the Northwest. Glance at a map showing wildfires, and it’s lit up like a city skyline. Rain might have never existed. In our supposedly temperate valley, the air doesn’t cool below 70 degrees for days at a time. Drop that number to 60, and you can extend the time to weeks. Meteorologists call this “poor nighttime recovery.” When 70 is the low, the mercury is climbing to the 80s by mid-morning, peaking near 100 in the breathless five o’clock hour.

I have to walk very early to get outside in this season. And I see things I would otherwise have missed. In the second week now of September, I’m out the door in darkness at 5:30. By seven the sun has vaulted the horizon. By 8 or so it’s struggled up, stained in blood, through the haze of smoke that walls the valley in. You can feel the air catch in the instant the sun breaks free.

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Last week, the smoke-flat sky was dim at twenty after six, the sun still crouched and readying to spring. The glorytrees in bloom smelled like someone’s vision of heaven: rich and sweet and heavy like a cross between perfume and preserves. Bruise a leaf and the scent of peanuts rises into the sweet. I’d been listening for some minutes to a ruckus of crows, moving westward roughly parallel to my route. Turning the corner at the scent of peanut butter and jelly, I was hearing something else as well, a screechy-brakes squealing, overwhelmed by indignant caws. Suddenly a large, distinctly flat-faced owl shot of the dougs on one side of Berwick Road, taking immediate cover in a tangle on the other. Its wings caught the light off the glorytree’s creamy blossoms. Barn owls are common, but I’d never managed to see one wild. I followed this one’s escape through the neighborhood, invisible but for the crowd of shouting corvids. Exit, pursued by crows.

In the remnant oak woodlands on bluffs above the river, dawn means I’m the first to greet the spiders. Webs crackle as they break across my nose, drape limply on the brim of my hat. There’s Oregon white oak up there, a rarity, and some much scrubbier variety, and rocky, seeping meadows drying out in the long rainless months. I’d never been up there before. I know the plants but they arrange themselves differently, and they make space for the sky. I played a game where I named every plant I passed – snowberry, toxicodendren, big-leaf maple, sword fern, thimbleberry, Indian plum – until I met one I couldn’t and I had to stop for one full minute and listen, utterly still. One time, the birds went silent too. I stood tall and tried to look either intimidating or invisible. I didn’t break my silence. In retrospect, an odd sort of game.

Tryon Creek breathes tangibly in this blanketing heat. Standing 20 feet from the trailhead at Andrews Road this morning, I felt it as an invisible rising river. Beneath the heavy summer maples, the green-boned alders reaching, wrensong watered the understory. The creek itself is small, of course, but running fast and clear, busy with water striders treading against the flow. Two ravens skimmed the treetops, a rare presence in this city-shouldered wood. It didn’t feel urban, though, today. At the wood’s heart, at dawn, as ravens quorked above, it was wild.

Even my little urban bay seems wilder just before daybreak. Endless tiny fish backflip out of the shallows. Airborne insects caper, and the last bats snap them out. Yesterday I sidled up to three Canada geese on silent patrol, and in so doing startled the shy green heron I have seen here only twice. A great blue glided low above my head, startling me in turn with his single, growling kraaaaaaak. I followed them both around to the marina, empty of boats this early. The green flew from my presence but the blue ignored it, stalking along the docks under sunrise clouds. A  blue heron’s eye is huge and fluorescently yellow. I imagined myself the object of its hunting gaze.

 

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***

Returned from my sunrise ramblings, I seal up the house, with myself inside. As a child I read about house arrest and thought it a very light penalty. Septembers in Portland have caused me to reconsider. Evenings on the patio are scarce, and the noontime sky some days smells like a campfire and sags down heavy as lead, leaking sulfurous light. It looks like a storm about to boil, but there’s no rain coming to save us.

I woke last night to the scent of falling water. No breeze, so the rain dropped in silence, misting onto the maple and dripping from its fingers once when enough had gathered. Coolness rose and padded in the window like a cat.

I woke again and reached, and my fingernails clicked on glass. Rising, I slid the window back and thought I smelled the rain. The moon, my companion on these long hot nights when the smoke recedes, had dropped behind the trees. Instead, the neighbors’ porch lights tangled in the maple trunks with the orange shine of over-lit streets.

In the morning I got up again with the first faint seafoam glow in the eastern sky. Only some spent brown seeds dripped from the maple. Beneath the hydrangeas, mulch and soil were dry. The rain, if it had been here, had found the veil too thick to cross last night. I walked into the fitful semi-darkness, my heart a small, confused, insistent hammer.

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Coronado in Winter

So many shorebirds! After half a week on this temperate coast in the waning days of winter, I can still only wonder at such finely-grained diversities of wing. They seem vast and billowing, clouds upon the sand.

Their numbers are small, perhaps, compared to the massive muster of only decades past. My shifted baseline lets me see the flocks as great, and I walk among them amazed. This may be an individual blessing as much as it is a general curse.

Sometimes they’re throwing multi-family feasts, all you can catch. Sometimes they keep themselves to themselves. I quite understand the desire for both at once. If I don’t yet comprehend the fine distinctions between a whimbrel and a dowitcher and a godwit, fellow-feeling is a simpler step.

The plovers, at least, are an easy ID. Tiny grey and white puffs with black eyestripes and cartoonishly quick legs, they’re perpetually in motion, striking the wet sand with their small neat beaks like black lightning. Very soon now they’ll start to nest, choosing a shallow scrape in the sand by rules only they know. Their internal guidance routinely ignores human habits. Their perfect scrape might be a day-old footprint on a heavily trafficked beach.

Plover nesting grounds are protected here on the base at Naval Air Station North Island. A section of beach is roped off and signed: no dogs or humans allowed. It’s immediately next to another don’t-tread-on-me zone — this one warns of live rounds firing.

Burrowing owls have claimed much deeper scrapes in the sandy tangle of low-slung weeds across the access road. They’re protected too, by the dubious virtue of living on a radar range. Humans are advised not to wander here either, so I’ve stood my hopeful watch upon the tarmac, pacing for awhile and then sitting a spell, and finally giving up to try later. The owls are meant to be diurnal, and the few left to San Diego County stay year-round.

There are none in sound or sight this morning. I walked out to the waves instead, through zipping plovers and the 8am-daily strains of the Star Spangled Banner. This is a complicated feeling. We think we own all this. We rank our right to own and use above all else, and still expect the land and sea and humanity at large to treat whatever bargains we’ve imposed as fair, to abide by our supremacy. Meanwhile, my heart swells at the rockets’ red glare.

The damp sand near the breakers lies strewn with gifts. Thumbnail-sized shells in ice-cream-cone swirls, jet-black scalloped ones, whole sand dollars furred with recent life. I made my beach offering thinking of nothing but this, as is proper. Walking away down the shore, my thoughts slide back to injustice and impermanence. Even this beauty – especially beauty – lives in many layers.

I have been walking barefoot for days – a thing I mostly cannot do and deeply miss. Sand is so forgiving. I’ve let my long hair down to sway in the slight salt breeze. The feeling altogether is near to mythological. I am kin to ancient beings of salt and seaweed, or ripple-haired heroines of song and story. Or possibly just myself at an age when such comparisons felt natural.

All of these — I imagine when I am back indoors with a comb — also hated picking out the tangles, and thought of cutting their storied locks right off. Instead I lie on the bed with the breeze stirring the wooden blinds, and float on the sounds of surf and shorebirds and the buoy in the harbor mouth. And it feels like home.

***

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To Furnish With, or Enable to Develop, Roots

Root (transitive verb)
a: to furnish with or enable to develop roots
b: to fix or implant by or as if by roots
Source: Merriam-Webster

creek fog at sunrise april

This is my home.

I live at river mile 21, a slight dell where the creek comes in from what used to be called Sucker Lake. It travels down a ravine I only call the Canyon, with its blocky ruins of not-so-long-ago, its hidden architectural grace of a bridge. The creek probably has a name, but that may be another recent ruin. It tunnels out beneath the lake-edge dam, slides down fifty feet of wild rock, and matures within a quarter mile into a placid slice of pond. And there it offers itself to fill a small emptiness the Willamette River didn’t know it had.

It’s easiest to see my home when you rise out of it, quickly. Traveling east on State Street, suddenly you’re even with the branches of the douglas firs, and not their straight-hipped boles. The rest of my town, and the next one over, sits on a bluff, where the highway reveals the green sinuosity of the water’s course. From my home shore, you come upon the river like you would a sleeping snake. I do sometimes feel the urge to back away slowly. It’s big and breathing and it’s right there at my feet.

I locate my home as a dip in the lay of the land, a place lush and water-shaped – as William Stafford put it, “insanely green.” My house in this is a townhome. It’s just off a busy road, and I can see a dozen neighbors’ windows from my own. I cannot see any water, but give me five minutes – half of that’s just waiting for the light to turn – and I can touch the river. My house and its two hundred closest companions crush, penguin-like, into the very slightly higher ground between a slim arm and a shallow bay of the same lake, and that silver-green traveler, the Willamette.

I find myself in land. I’ve grown roots half a dozen times; I can’t help it. It’s understood that many generations of modern Americans are a rootless sort, and certainly I grew up moving from region to region, posting to posting, and school to school. I’m not “from” anywhere. It never made sense to imagine I could stay attached, but that didn’t stop me from growing down into a place. I’m a dandelion: just give it time, the wind will blow me away. Folks forget, and I do too: dandelions have tenacious roots.

This time I’ve stayed, five winters and counting, at one crossroads of water, beneath eight gracefully middle-aged doug firs and a single sheltering maple. This time I made my own choice, and this rooting has been gradual but it is deep.

River fog at sunrise april

And I am moving. This is also my choice. Every time I search uneasily for a private place to sit beneath the yawning windows, I know it’s right. And every time I cross State Street to the river, I can’t stand the thought of leaving.

If you’re tallying by place – a distinct land- and culture-scape – I’m on my sixth. If you’re counting buildings of residence, I’ve lost track. It’s possible to understand a life as a history of leave-taking.

It’s always hard; what I face now is not new. But the stakes are different. I notice I am stronger as I age – stronger of conviction, of intellect, of skill. My roots grow with concurrent intensity. They changed the rules of this game before I noticed. Digging them up for transplant becomes less a process of a gardener’s tender care and more a battle of wills.

It’s true my old connections never quite leave me to heal in peace. I’m always finding burrs in my socks, or translucent flowers pressed between the pages. It’s like an aspen grove in here: separate lives on the surface; beneath, a single entity, old and strong. If I have six homes and god knows how many houses, they have only one. They go wherever I do.

So I’m storing up the things that I’ll take with me, from this place. The way, for example, my part of the river gives back the first light of day: incompletely, changed, like it’s swallowed some of the sunrise. Where does the dawn resurface?

***

Nothing but time could teach me that home means many things, some of them contradictory.

I try to go home for Christmas every year. This home lies in the southern half of California, bounded by dry, folded mountains like a dropped cloth of velvet, and set back a few blue miles from the unpacific depths of the Santa Barbara Channel. It’s Christmas-home because my parents live there, in the gray house on its wide culdesac that they bought when I was fourteen. The olive tree that I recall is gone, and the court’s least favorite neighbor, the mockingbird who perched there to compose his half-thieved tunes in the smallest morning hours. The fan palm, dryly rustling, and the queen palm, glinting at sunset – these endure.

I get lonely for these things. And for the morning light first brushing the eastern hills; for the arched porch at close of day, a glass of wine, and my mother’s conversation. My life is long gone from here, but these winter glimpses remain a gift of grace.

When my plane lands in Portland, the cooling, diffuse light soothes and welcomes. Meanwhile my freezing toes recall the kiss of deeply shaded grass, shelter asked and given from which to thank that bright, demanding southern sky. In the midst of home, we are in every other home.

When I lived in that quiet house, my mother and I decorated the Christmas tree together. It has an order and a rhythm, this decorating, and we are the only two people in the world who know it. Undecorating has the same order, in reverse, and a very different rhythm. My parents have collected more ornaments – souvenirs of their travels, the many friends and family they have loved, and their own several homes – than we can use at once. Some ornaments take turns. Particular pieces go up every year, and one of these is Reed Duck. Reed Duck, who’s about my age, is just what he sounds like: a small waterfowl made of bundled brown reeds, hung with scarlet ribbon. He’s been lost for years, MIA, a casualty of some glitch in the undecorating ritual.

Mom was sorting through old clothes today, and there he was. He’d only fallen out of a box, and taken a long nap on the ground beside the box of stuffed animals I put away for my children when I left home, and the bag of beautiful small dresses labeled “for Tara’s daughter.” Mom cried when she rediscovered them, and I cried when she told me. The recovery of Reed Duck had been a gift – and in the next moment a cruel consolation for the lack of child and grandchild.

What do we do with those clothes now, those stuffed companions? The pink-striped dress I had my first portrait in, aged 5 – it’s still gorgeous. What good can it take into a new generation? My threadbare Ducky Daddles, whose squeaker stopped working before my memory starts, whose snuggly portability accompanied me across the country more than once – who will cherish him today?

I loved my animals fiercely, and I love their memory. My dresses were a joy, and I smile to remember them rustling and new. But the things themselves persist, inconveniently. They’re useless now to anyone except a person who will never exist. They’re valuable only to people who cannot use them.

Of course we can give them away. But what difference will they make: more unwanted things, stripped of the history and the love that made them special? The world already suffocates beneath a rising tide of material possessions. Mine aren’t needed – not even by a stranger. One stuffed animal is as good as another, unless it’s yours.

It’s my practice as an adult to avoid accumulating non-consumable goods. I keep the handmade scrapbooks that recall our travels, a not-insignificant number of books (many with history of their own), my journals since the age of eight. The loss of these would be great. But certain material things tangle themselves in so much weight of emotion. Of these, I keep scarcely any. It turns out this is because my parents keep them for me. The daily sufferings of parenthood never entirely cease.

I remember the afternoon the plump beige and sable cat I named Siam sat waiting for me on the front seat of our ancient Chevy. In the picture that survives from that day, I have rips in the knees of my jeans and my barretted hair is coming loose in white-gold wings around my face. I am grinning a partially-toothed beam of uncomplicated pleasure. Today, my only real choices are to throw Siam away, or give her away to a faceless organization. But I recall her as a friend, and you don’t throw friends on the trash heap. I can’t think of casting her to the wind without betraying everything bound up in her: a deeply happy childhood, my parents’ youth and hopes, my own regret that I’ll never have a daughter.

What do you do with those things, if they cannot be transplanted? They can’t leave home without dissolving into anonymity. And home cannot keep them, either.

***

Microscopic geography has never been my strength. I loved atlases as a child – big maps of foreign mountains with unfamiliar names. I loved my homes, but I did not know them in the way of the committed resident. I walked them in road miles, I drove them in townships and counties. I took what they gave, but I attended mostly to their grandeurs.

Here, I walk more than once a day, sometimes the same route. It’s often of moderate length: to the grocery store and back, to the river, around the bay, to the library. For a long time I sought novel routes by habit. When I began to have favorites, I was surprised to find them the ways I most often travelled.

There may be a word for this, in a language I don’t know. To me, this is the process of becoming local.

River ruins

As I have located, I have tended not to localize, but here it is, surprise! I roam as much as ever, just nearby, without a car to find my starting point, without a guidebook to help me find a new trail. I’ve seen this as a domestication, an unwilding of the girl who met the wind-borne Gorge rains with gladness on the steepest slopes each week. It could be that: age and the knowledge of mortality allowing the wilderness-fear the upper hand. It might be just the commitments we make with our time: in my 30s, I have chosen more paths and thus closed off twice as many, something my 20s self did not see coming.

If it’s both things, at least there’s a consolation prize. Certainly river mile 21 is my consolation.

The maple’s leaves have just unfurled since Easter. The sun travels warm and the soft breeze cool through her thousand brick-tinted palms. I’ve seen four hummingbirds today, investigating. What interests them? They’re thought to find the shades of red attractive, but there’s no nectar for them here. Towhees throw their trilling rattle across the patio. Yesterday the rain beaded up on plum-ripe tulips made me want to take a bite of them. Today the sun drops blessings on the last of the tiny wood violets, fading among the moss on my small bank of earth. My camellias – one pink like the palest morning cloud, one pink like a 5-year-old’s tutu – are making confetti on the porch.

I will go from here. And perhaps I will come back – not to this patch of soil, but one close by. I will adapt; I always do. I think I can stand to move a river mile or two.

Please, though – and this is a prayer – not more.

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Songs Without Words

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I always look out the window before I close the blinds to go to sleep. By now I’ve been indoors a couple of hours, more in winter. Pleased with my warm friend-sewn blanket and wool slippers, some essential element is missing. I cannot put a day to bed without first greeting the night.

Mostly I see a mess of orange clouds – the underbelly of daytime grey turned into Vegas by night. Or Sauron’s eye, when my mood is bleak, of late. Tonight it’s stars. My upstairs window is none too clean, and I have to double-check it’s not a reflection. But there’s Orion practically shouting at me, and I race downstairs into the frozen night.

It’s not frozen, actually, for all it’s January in Oregon. I’m standing out here in jeans and a medium-warm plaid shirt, next to a street still busy at this hour, and if this deep-blue night isn’t velvet, but more like clammy silk, well, it’s wrapping me up all the same. And it is deep blue – small miracles – like the sea where the continental shelf drops all the way off, and you know it’s an unconscionable distance down to solid earth.

And maybe it’s singing Orion’s up to, not shouting. He and the other constellations my father taught me are sparkling, popped against the night like pewter buttons, newly shined. They move around a little bit, like the giant person who sewed them on is up there breathing, admiring her beautiful glinting fasteners.

There’s more to the constellations, I know: I’ve seen their pointillist density, their curious feathered shadows. But there’s too much light in metro Portland to see all the millions of milky stars the sky washes up. Orion here is an outline of himself, his one red shoulder like the coldest ruby – frozen fire, fresh-wrested from the earth. A few stark strokes paint him in all his essentials.

No wind tonight. Wishing the road away, I can almost feel the quiet rippling into the void. Our great douglas fir muscles up next to the hunter, ocean green on darkest blue, the rich and pleasing colors of the unclouded globe from space. There is something to be said, after all, for artificial light.

***

I have this perfect place that I go in moments like this. It’s my front porch: wide and deep, with beautiful Craftsman detail in the raised molding that marches around the whole structure with a pleasing mathematical authority. There’s an Adirondack chair pulled up right next to the railing on the lefthand side, where I can wrap myself in wool plaid, and indulge both my day’s-end weariness and my desperate desire to drink the stars.

This is a perfect place because it is a made-up place. I see this porch in my mind’s eye every day, but that doesn’t make it any more attached to my house. I see it clear as the stars tonight, when I’m ready for sleep, but unwilling to surrender this utter sublimity to the frankly boring pleasure of a warm, soft bed.

I’d watch birds from this porch, in daylight: beeping nuthatches and five-alarm woodpeckers; bushtits by the bushel, and chattering masses of chickadees. Birds by day and stars by night: how comforting. I’d come out for sunrise from this porch, or sunset, sing to the wind rippling on river or lake or sea.

I’d be perfectly happy, too, if I had this porch. I actually think this, fairly often. That it is false does not quench the small hopeful ember cupped in my jealous little heart. I want privacy, and birds, and quiet, and stars, more than I want a higher income, more time to read, or the honey-gold hair I wore loose in my youth. I rushed out with pure joy to see the stars tonight, but here I am coveting another life instead. I can still feel the joy but now the restlessness is stirring up behind it.

I’ve acquired several diversions for this frustrating visitor, who is always right but never very wise. I can offer them a walk, which they tend to decline (and either wander away or lie in wait for my return.) I can open certain books, dropping in wherever they’ll have me. Jane Austen is about the best for this purpose, with her deceptive mannerly dialogue, and observations like knives sharpened in secret behind expensively upholstered chairs.

Or I can run a bath. How has it never occurred to me to do this at midnight? Scented with rose soap, the water’s delicious at first. I’ve been reading about sea swimming. Slipping in, I can’t imagine wanting that goose-pimpling embrace, that shocking strength unallied to my body.

I’ve lit candles, to preserve the dark and still read about the sea swimming. Amy Liptrot in her memoir The Outrun describes crisply the fear and trembling, the painful clarity, the vague familiar freedom of floating on the living deep. The tame water around me lacks personality. It doesn’t speak, as water should, much less toss stones between wave crests or surprise me with soul-eyed seals. It’s hotspring-warm, but without the secretive small currents and whiffs of infernal mud. In its bleak bathtub sojourn, this water has forgotten that it’s coming from or going to anywhere.

Within ten minutes I’m contemplating a trip across the street to the river. I don’t get past the imagining stage, though. I’m so far from compassing anything more extreme than going back out to sip the stars. I used to run in rainstorms for fun, didn’t I? I used to swim at night in my home river, an inward-curving teenager desperate for communion, terrified that someone would find out. No one did, until now, and that’s for the best. There weren’t words, then; there was only river.

***

Candlemas morning: the world tipping over into light. I’m not brave enough to swim, but I’ll dip my fingers in the frigid Willamette, trace my personal signs on my forehead and cheeks. Our mountain, the moon, my river. It’s like saying my name to myself – my wordless name, so much bigger than just me.

I do this reflexively – catching sight of alpenglow, or opening my eyes to the moon in my window. Rushing out to greet the glorious gift of stars.

I also do it intentionally, in the nearest body of water, marking every seasonal shift by the ancient calendar of solstice, equinox, and cross-quarter. The turning year speaks to me, more than any particular season or sight. It slows me down to wonder and give thanks. My pagan little naming ritual helps me hold onto that. It also reminds me of my baptism. Sometimes I cross myself with water, too. We need all the belonging we can get: fingers dug into the sand, eyes fixed on the heavens.

Last night, in the hours between enchantment and awakening, restless wind erased the stars. Pendant branches on a line of empty birch trees slant like rain, thin and black against a greying sky. Crows and cormorants greet each other in the name of the crisp cold wind. Bald eagles are circling low to the river, loosing the curious fluting squeaks I hear only in winter. How I’ve taken these past few days of calm and stars for granted. This morning everything is on alert: another storm is coming.

It rises from the north and west, and it has not yet reached to reel in the dawn. Reflected in the riverpath out of the east, the sun is rising: delicately, radiantly, defiantly striped in the rainbow colors of an abalone’s secret shell.

Aftermath

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I haven’t been through my canyon since the last big storm. Some things have changed.

The route, for one, and I’m wearing the wrong pants for the detour. A douglas fir – average size – has snapped off near its base and splintered along the path. Chickadees are chasing each other through the rubble, a knee-high wash of wet black branches, violently interlaced. It’s not a long way around but it’s not a clean one either, wobbling over great geometric boulders, testing each step for soggy ground beneath. This is what happens when I think I’ll just have a quick walk, no need to change out of my best black trousers.

It hasn’t been a quiet weekend. On Friday: the inauguration of our country’s new president. On Saturday, the largest mass demonstration in history. Also on Saturday, the opening salvos of fascism from our new leader’s press secretary – ludicrously angry with media for accurate reporting of historically low inauguration attendance – and from one of his counselors, excusing the secretary’s subsequent bald-faced lies as “alternative facts.” I wish I was making this up.

So I’m out here to get away. I always flee outdoors when my heart and mind are too heavy with human concerns. But it’s not as if Out Here is free from human influence. I place my feet on this path maintained by the city, drive on interstate highways to a wilderness designated by the federal government. We can’t escape ourselves.

“The canyon” – which probably has an official name – is the secret side of a well-loved city park. Everyone walks the paved path from the parking lot by the river; a few of us turn right instead and travel up the creek toward Oswego Lake. I like to approach from the other direction, down a neighborhood culdesac. I prefer loop trips as a rule, but sometimes my courage fails me at the pavement, and I end up walking back through the canyon. The main park isn’t what most folks would called overcrowded. My nearly antisocial need for space can still sneak up on me.

I love the massive arched bridge, like an ancient ruin – although it’s very much in use, high above, by the street I live on. It lurks improbably in the trees, its scope unrealized until you turn a corner and feel its challenge right in your face. Its lower reaches host a rotating installation of inexpert graffiti. Right now it’s mostly scrawled words in black paint, everything from “poop!” to “friendship is magic.” Which I guess about sums it up.

A kingfisher splatters its song along the turbulent river, always heard before seen. There he is: just a streak, grey-white-black. They’re always so much bigger and more solid than I recall. This one’s flight dips and weaves, excited: much to tell this afternoon. I’m weary of news.

Leaf corpses everywhere underfoot, mostly maples, mostly rotted into mud. I walked here at October’s end, when each still had its shape, but you could see it starting to melt around the edges. I thought of salmon, then, seen and smelled on the Malahat in autumn. They were dead and dying and strewn about the forest, no longer powerful predators, but silver pools of pure nutrient value.

The mallards are whistling this Sunday afternoon, something I’ve never heard them do. Single, short, high bursts, like a child with a plastic toy. The crowd of piping drakes is escorting a single hen. I’m always tempted to give her a mental high-five – and then I catch the action. I watch mallards often; you’d think I’d have some comfortable conclusions by now. But I struggle with what appears to be assault, every time.

Today it’s a little too on the nose. My country has just elected a president who was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. We expect, in such an instance, apology, and insistence from the offender that he’s seen the error of his ways, that he’s reformed. Instead, our soon-to-be President dismissed his crass and minimizing remarks as “just locker room talk.” As if how our leaders talk about things – gender, foreign policy, facts – doesn’t shape how we perceive them.

For exactly this reason, I marched in the rain yesterday with tens of thousands of other Portlanders. Water pooled on my wool hat and dripped off its brim, soaking the backs of my knees. I stood in a crowd larger than Waterfront Park has ever seen, sharing solidarity with men and women and children of so many ages and colors. On the face of it, we didn’t do much: we cheered, we chatted, we said “excuse me” every ten seconds. We held up signs demanding equality, advocating love.

I hate crowds. I’ve never been a joiner. This gathering felt too important to shy away from. A sign spotted at another city’s march told my story, too: “So bad, even introverts are here.”

And in the moment, in the rain, that massive group of citizens held this introvert up. It gathered frustration and anger and fear and it poured out determination and love. In a crowd, I always plead for deliverance. In this one, I received it.

Not the end product. There is no such thing. Justice achieved will wash away unless we work to shore it up. But I felt the buoyant promise that I am not alone in my astonished grief at the sharp turn my country has taken toward fascism and fear. I will not carry the burden of resistance by myself. If this is a bubble, it’s a big one. 

The United States likes to preach about democracy. We’ve been setting ourselves up as a city on a hill since long before George Washington led an army of British rebels to independence. Yesterday, millions of Americans – and our sisters and brothers around the globe, even to Antarctica – literally stood up to assert how much we care about preserving that democracy. It isn’t perfect. It’s stood in need of some serious work for awhile now, and it’s our shame we didn’t do enough until extremism forced our hands. But our moral arc does bend toward justice – because we take it in our hands and we push.

Beneath a boulder, brown against the litter of mud-colored leaves and leaf-colored mud, a fierce and tiny bird. I’m lucky to see him. Blurs of earth-brown energy and feathers, winter wrens are difficult to spot. It’s their voices we can’t escape: dripping and spiraling through the stripped-down woods of winter. Songs go on for seconds that feel like minutes, burbling and rising, impossibly loud and rich for one so small.

This one looks right at me, black liquid fire in his eye. And then he starts to sing.

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Go Ahead and Hate Your Neighbor

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In the wake of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, I have so much to feel I don’t know where to start. It hits as one emotion, a swirling mess of grief and battle rage. But it doesn’t strike once and get it all out there and let me settle. Every time I take a deep breath, there it is again, swinging.

There is also so much to do. We are seeing hate crimes in the streets, angry racists assaulting their fellow citizens in the name of our new President-Elect. We are watching our soon-to-be-leader appoint a cabinet that lacks both experience and common sense, while his reluctant conservative collaborators dodge questions about such “nitty gritty” considerations as whether women’s access to hormonal birth control will be restricted in the regime they envision. How to act in the face of all of this is complicated, too, but I have a glimmer of a foundation here: begin with empathy.

It’s anger and fear and very real pain that fueled the election of a man with no experience, no moral compass, no consistency, and no shame to the highest office in America. His election has already caused even more pain to many: people of color, Muslims, and immigrants face threats and assault, and this man, Donald Trump, half-heartedly tells his more extreme supporters to “stop it, if that will help”  — only after days of furious, heartbroken, pleading demands from private citizens, the press, and a few brave public servants. Those who threaten and attack know what they do, and they do evil. Yet they did not make this choice for America alone. We all did it. Some more than others, I’ll grant you, but we all participated in sowing the seeds.

The majority of those who raised this man to power are ordinary, decent people. We don’t like to listen to what we think of as their backwards institutional racism, but they have a lot in common with us. The ranks of the oppressed and the disappointed and the lied-to in our country are swollen with black, latino, native, and white, with working class and wealthy and utterly poor, with women and men and people whose gender identity goes unrecognized or mocked on a daily basis. Their anger is deeply valid. Their pain should sound to all of us like a cry for understanding and for aid.

I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, of course, and my heart has never bled as it does in these dark days. I hope this is the worst of it. My hope is thin as the snow crusting on the street this dark December evening. It’s sticking, though.

I have more hope for the long run, and I place it in our ability to rise up with justice as our compass, ask hard questions with understanding as our goal, and listen when the other person answers. Whatever else I think about letting a book of scriptures run your country, I find enormous wisdom in the injunction to love thy neighbor. This is what love looks like to me.

The catch is that we have to do it individually, and we have to do it daily, and we have to do it forever. Our anger won’t stop swinging. We have to catch its fists and hold them gently, like the hands of children, and we have to do that every damn day. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Particularly because I’m crap at it myself. The fact is, I hate my neighbor.

Like all stories, it’s more complicated than that. But it boils down to bare facts easily enough. I don’t do well with extraneous sound; her house is a New Year’s noisemaker in training, and she doesn’t care who hears it. We’ve lived in adjoining homes for 3 years now, and I listen to her family’s heavy shoes on the stairs and screaming fights and uncontrolled dogs almost daily. I’ve lived in conjoined housing my whole adult life, and never known an inescapable proximity so ugly and sour. Hatred is not a seed that germinates easily in my heart. This is some fertile soil we’ve been tilling.

It’s been snowing hard since 2pm – not a regular event in Portland, so the traffic’s getting uglier every hour. I dig out my snow pants – last seen climbing Mt. Hood in my mid-twenties – and take to the slippery streets. Anything is better than waiting for the house to shudder beneath their repeated door slams. My home is my refuge, except when it’s not.

Off the main road, quiet rises from the muffled streets. More footprints than tire tracks mark the way to the river. All are filling in fast. It’s well below freezing, but a deep breath out here doesn’t strangle. I stick my inadequately gloved hands in my pockets and pretend I’m entirely warm.

Removed from the situation, I can mull it without boiling my blood. Keeping calm sucks all my bandwidth while my house lies open to an invasion I am powerless to stop.

Three years of constant low-level conflict, punctuated by regular stilted knocks at the door, asking them to stop kicking the soccer ball in-house, have taken their toll on all parties. My neighbor and I live on either side of a wall, encountering each other only by accident and with barely contained civility. The irony of that divider does not at all escape me.

I’ve made what I consider a serious effort to see eye to eye. Her refusal to meet halfway is enough to send me seething from the house, or sometimes pounding furiously on walls, confiding to my living room in an angry whisper that my neighbor is a heinous bitch. That this isn’t kind and also doesn’t help me cope is something I’ve known from the first utterance, but I convinced myself for a couple of years that I was just letting off steam. Sometimes instead of wall-pounding, I’d sing the first few lines of One Tin Soldier while gleefully flipping off her side of the building.

I have a very western idea of personal space, which seems only to have emerged into the light when I bought – for reasons equally of love and economy – a slim townhome in the downtown portion of a very small city. It extends not only to aural insulation, but also visual space and personal privacy – I’m less than tolerant of folks who walk across my back porch to get to their own. But there’s no riding off into the sunset until I can recoup my investment and figure out where to go from here. I’m fixed in place, trying to create mental and emotional space to love the most unlovable of neighbors. Also to breathe.

The river remembers this. It exhales and inhales with the tide, and I imagine it tilting its ruffled face gratefully, when soft summer breezes and thrilling winter winds rake the surface.

She isn’t, of course. Unlovable. Everyone deserves love; it’s me who can’t seem to give it.

One time her teenagers were bolting up and down the stairs, slamming doors and yelling at each other. Hands fisted in my hair, I quiet-shouted “Shut up and die, would you!” They couldn’t notice, but I froze. I was twelve again, the words unretractable and shouted straight in my mother’s face: fuck off!

To wish another’s distance or death is a curse, in the original sense, and I am conscious of a fundamental wrong. It’s not that I believe my ill-wish has an influence over my neighbor’s health (or my mother’s decisions.) But it holds a massive influence over my own mind, and from there, it infiltrates my speech and behavior. That stuff leaks.

I see that out here. It’s maybe more accurate to say that I can hear it, a soft counterpoint to the dry pop of snow underboot, the tick of flakes falling all about. A cormorant’s silent sweep upriver ends ungracefully in a raucous, waterpark landing. I crack the quiet myself, laughing for joy.

Right around the accidental death-wish, I’d started doing a lot of reading on compassion. Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religion whose work fascinates and often surprises me, had launched the Charter for Compassion – a worldwide, multi-faith movement to promote peace and understanding – and it inspired me. I listened to her book twice. I practiced, over and over, the hardest thing: imagining my neighbor standing in front of me, and extending pure, unjudging love straight at her. I practice this today with people who frighten and enrage me, people like Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn, and it’s not so hard. With her, I failed. Every time.

I gave up the daily visualization after a solid month of effort. I’ve never been good at meditation anyway. Instead, I changed the way I spoke, started refusing to call her names, even with only the cats to hear. It’s not been a miracle cure.

You read about hatred. I’ve never understood it. I’ve had rivalries and betrayals and the occasional frenemy; I never hated any of those folks. I feel helpless, choking anger when I hear of Muslim women assaulted in our streets, head coverings ripped off and hateful words splashed in their unprotected faces. I feel both disgust and compassion for the perpetrators, and a burning need to call out what they have done and make sure it’s understood as the crime it is – but I don’t hate them. That takes something closer to home, I guess. Something infinitely less horrible, in my case: just some ultimately harmless people living their lives in a way that intrudes daily on my own.

I haven’t said it out loud. I’ve written it here – I hate my neighbor – to see if it’s really true. It isn’t. But I don’t get to congratulate myself. Compared to what so many go through, it didn’t take much to bring the word surging toward my lips, over and over. The river in spate.

Last month, I was wrestling with these thoughts when I heard a yelp from the walkway below. The voices of my neighbor’s children, nearly grown now, rose on a panicked edge. It was only afterward that I thought how I might as easily have stayed inside, pretending not to hear. Her injuries were minor, but she was in pain, and still shocked by a hard fall on harder cement. Her daughter had the situation in hand, but both kids’ eyes were huge, their voices shaken. I had no role, except to make sure they had my number and assure them I’d be by the phone. I didn’t do anything. Except put that hate behind me.

Not a miracle, either; maybe not even a watershed. You can attribute it to adrenaline, and the basic decency calmly and relentlessly demonstrated by the family that raised me. Some habits I’m glad I can’t shake.

The next time I saw my neighbor, we were both marching in our town’s impromptu Love Walk, a celebration of love and diversity organized by the school district both her kids attend. We met by accident, and she smiled at me through her black eye, and I smiled back, unthinking, and asked her how she was. I looked for symptoms of false solicitude, but we were just two women taking the time to talk. Each of us thought the others’ life important enough to ask, and to listen.

Weeks later, they’re shouting through the walls again and I’m checking my anger just enough to send a politely worded text, instead of putting my boots on and stomping up and down the stairs. Progress isn’t linear.

It moves, though. The ironic detachment I affected long ago thaws with every year, retreating to its proper places, which are few. As this year closes, I can almost touch a new freedom: my heart determined to fight hate with empathy, or at least with a civil word.

There’s a lot out there that seems like it might be worth hating. That jerk who killed a dozen innocent people in Berlin. That boy who brought a gun into a church in Charleston and murdered nine. What happens if I hate those people? I don’t know, because I can’t. I suspect it might harden my heart, and make it that much easier to go ahead and hate my neighbor.

I’ve been missing the point of that song, quite on purpose. It’s a protest song, its theme unmissably expounded. Hearing such a message is the easy part. We usually translate the next step as “understanding,” but that’s too mental for the point it’s trying to make. I don’t understand anything until I get out of my head and do it. And then do it again, whatever the status of my last effort. Most of mine just barely pass muster. Is that success? There’s no laurel-resting with the practice of compassion. No prizes, either.

Might be a better world in it somewhere. No telling, unless we try.