The Turn of the Season

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Yesterday afternoon, as I was weeding the strawberries, I got a call from my only remaining mother. Her name is Toni, one of the very few women in the universe with my name. I got it from her. She had thought it would be a faint thumbprint on my forehead, to inevitably be washed away by the flood of love from new parents when they adopted me. It stuck, maybe from a sense of gratitude, maybe compassion, maybe unknowing, but my new mother recognized it as my name.

It was right about this time thirty years ago that I met her.  My birth father had made the voyage out from upstate New York to Vancouver, Washington, a few weeks before. He had wanted to give her some time to absorb the impact through him. He had wrapped us in his large warmth and generosity, sealing the bonds all around, and had gone back to move forward with a life that included five children now instead of four and four grandchildren instead of two and to weave us into his life with Toni, his wife.

The anticipation of her arrival was immense.  When I was a child, I had looked at my mother knowing that, unlike other children, I had not come from inside her body. A sense of vertigo would overwhelm me, like Alice falling down the yawning hole. I had sung to this first mother, connecting to her love though the sound of my voice, wandering out in search of her.

Preparing now for her coming, the house was as immaculate as I could make it. There was a basket of primroses on the table. In addition to being a history professor, I knew she was a master gardener, so the garden was weeded. I had gotten a haircut for the event and the kids were all bathed and brushed.  We went to the airport early, I with my new camera in hand.  As we waited, I sat with my eighteen-month-old son on my lap in one of those molded plastic airport chairs of indeterminate brown, watching the sky and the clouds drifting by over the waiting airplanes.  I stood up, thinking I saw her plane taxiing into the gate.

As I turned back to gather my coat, I watched in a frozen moment as my son held my camera over the stairwell behind his seat and let go of it. An infinite moment later–the slight crunch. There are no family photos of my first mother’s arrival, of her first hugs, of the grace of her movement and the laughter, of standing next to each other to compare our heights, of looking for the similarities of eye color, chin, hair—of sweeping up her things and swirling to the car in a kind of awkward dance in which feet seemed to have difficulty making contact with floor and sidewalk. 

The next scene is at the house where I sat across from her at the wooden kitchen table with a glass of white wine. As we talked in rushes, full of questions, we looked at other furtively yet greedily, periodically lowering our eyes as if to shield from too much sun. Her speech was so familiar, yet new, like some perfected, more patrician version of my own.

As I watched her talk, I felt an uncanny sensation of familiarity that one sometimes has when seeing the face of your child or your spouse after a time of separation, and then the dizzying sensation of looking into a glass. As if watching myself in a shop window, seeing only some of the image but catching the reflected movement, I saw she moved her hands when she talked just as I did, with the same expansive gesture and the same gaze. Later, as we sat in the living room, I watched her sitting close to my son and daughter, with her arm draped over the back of the sofa.  In the way that arm found its comfort was the incontrovertible evidence of the ineffably subtle information passed on in the DNA. Her turn of phrase, her love of language, the music of her movement all emerged from the same place deep within those twists of adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. Somehow those things had persisted even through the immense force of the ocean of experiences that had shaped us.

As we stood in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, kids underfoot, she said,

This sounds really odd, but do you mind if I smell the top of your head? When each child was born, I smelled their heads and each time the fragrance was so deeply familiar, so sweet. It was such a treasure.  My grandchildren had the same smell. I would recognize it anywhere. Let me see if you still have that fragrance, even faintly.”

As I bent down to let her take in the smell, something passed between us.  She said,

Ah yes! That’s it.”

And then,

Do you know, ever since you were born I’ve felt something connected us like an umbilical cord of energy that extends from somewhere around my solar plexus to that same point in you.  I remember being struck that Jane Eyre spoke of the same kind of channel. She described it as a cord of connection that began from somewhere under her left rib and tied to a place in Rochester.”

We stood for a moment, feeling the warmth in that place where the ribs come together, over the heart.

Yes. I know it,” I said.

I have never dared to speak of the next part of this passage in which she expresses the fear of the bleeding within that would happen if he were to leave her. And then the terrible abandonment of his eventual forgetting. It was not just I who was abandoned.

It had become a forbidden love for her, I thought.

Now, after we have churned through all the years of initial joys and family complications and my birth father has died, we speak as friends who are still somehow a bit shy of the deep connection, who know where the hurts lie. We skirt around them, delicately, sharing our passions for politics (just to the edge of divergence), gardens, and most important, family, still connected by a vibrating cord of energy, fueled perhaps by those nucleotides of DNA and the empathy they have lent to all the movements of life that have worked to pull us apart.

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A Trip to Indiana (Part 2)

Returning from the voyage to my son who will turn thirty in a week, I watch the images of our last hours together drift across the sky outside the window.  After having coffee that morning, he drove me to a spot in the outskirts of Bloomington where suburban houses gave way between to woods. I’m no longer used to deciduous forests.  The twisting black forms of the oaks contrasting with the lighter ash and the understory trees, clinging to their brown and whitening leaves is extraordinary to me now.

My son was driving and we were bathing in the kind of comfortable companionship we haven’t been able to experience together for many years. We had spent hours together relaxing in his rented house with his girlfriend and without her. Unwinding the time, there were the right moments to ask questions, the right moments to say things long unsaid, the right moments to dive in to answers long unarticulated, to cry some, to laugh some. We talked about the way we experience things. We even meditated together. There was enough time for it all.

It was my last morning with him. After we went for coffee and pastry at his favorite coffee shop, I suggest there’s time for a walk before he drops me off at the bus to the airport. He thinks a bit and says he knows a place he’d like to show me, a place nearby he hasn’t been to yet. That was why we were driving now through these forests of twisting dark winter bark.

He thinks we are close. We see a wooden sign with colorful letters saying “Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.” He explains he had heard about this place from a friend, with its peaceful walks on the grounds. Some sense like the quickening of pregnancy touches me–that this man, my son, the economist, the rationalist, would chose this place to come with me. A curious tickling thing awakening somewhere inside the vastness of my mind.

We drive in slowly past a shrine in the trees and prayer flags draped through the woods.  As we park in front of a brick building decorated with dark red, green and yellow paint and with golden figures perched on the roof, we look at each other briefly, seeing reflected a bit of surprise and wonder. Getting out of the car and walking towards the entrance, we take in the surrounding grounds, with stupa, grass and walkways.  In a state of unknowing, we wander in through the entrance. As we look at the displays in the hallway, a young monk, dressed in maroon robes, passes by into the gift shop. We follow, nodding hello.

My son is captivated by the sacred paintings and artifacts in the shop. As I look around, I find he has lingered over a wall of prayer beads.  He says “I want to buy something. I feel like contributing to this place.”  He lifts a set of black beads off the wall and asks what I think.  Somehow, clearly, he has made an important choice. Something had drawn him to these. My son has recognized something. The connection is evident as he holds them in his hand. He pays the young monk who makes the transaction quietly.

We leave the building and to take our walk around the rest of the center. We examine the prayer wheel and spin it together, walk around the Stupa, feel the calm. At the far end of the stretch of grass is the temple, topped by golden figures. We take off our shoes in the entry hall and walk into a room of splendor, walls painted orange and covered with Tibetan sacred paintings, topped by intricate green and maroon designs. A golden Buddha presides over a large alter with paintings, flowers, a photo of the Dalai Lama. Icons of other religions are placed around the hall. Abundance. A spontaneous mood of generosity, of bounty.  We leave donations in the envelopes, wherever they go. Again in calm, we retrieve our shoes in the entrance hall and walk out together, connected by fronds of silence.

We take photos of each other against the background of the bare forest and the prayer flags, forgetting the rest of the walk we came for.

Now I am at the airport again, watching the sky through the large windows, feeling the presence of my son who hugged me, got back into his car there in front of this airport and returned to his home and his computer, and later to make dinner with his girlfriend, following out the threads of a life hidden to me, like the lands beneath the clouds.

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A Trip to Indiana (Part 1)

I had decided to go see my son in Bloomington, Indiana just before his thirtieth birthday. There I was, waiting for two hours at the airport for the flight to Chicago. In the large airport hall in Seattle people were seated in almost every seat, waiting for flights all over the country.

As I settled in to a seat comfortably spaced between groups of travelers, I began to notice a loud, sharp barking sound from the corner of the huge space. A small dog, I thought, caged and panicked. “How could someone inflict that on a dog?” I thought, and buried, in that place where self is stored, “Why would they inflict that on a crowd of people?”

It repeated, over and over, becoming an annoying random break in consciousness.  The most remarkable thing was that no one else in the large space appeared to notice. No heads turned, no one turned towards a companion to remark. Perhaps there were one or two furtive glances in the direction of the sound that were quickly modified, as if they had really intended to look at the planes taking off or at the reservation desk.

As it continued and no one else seemed bothered, I began to question my interpretation. Under cover of walking to the restroom, I turned to look in the direction of the sound. In the corner where the sound seemed to originate I could see nothing but a woman and maybe a child or two. No sign of a cage or a dog on someone’s lap.

The barking continued intermittently when I’d returned to my seat to continue my wait. As I sat, looking out at the sky through the endless windows, it began to dawn on me that it must be a person making these sounds. As my interpretation shifted, the sounds seemed more and more like human utterances, though wildly sharp and piercing.  A child with a severe case of Tourette’s? A person with autism?  The lack of response from the waiting crowd was now a gesture of compassion, of empathy or perhaps of embarrassment mixed with a desire to avoid the shame of being the first to acknowledge. Maybe the cries are becoming fraught with the anxiety of being in this strange, stressful place. Perhaps it’s an expression of what we all feel. Perhaps as this person settles into some acceptance of the difficulty, as we all have had to do, the yelping will begin to subside.  One of the cries takes on more shape. “Aiy! Aiy! Fuck you! Fuck you!”  No one turns towards the sound.  I look at the weather in Bloomington on my Smart Phone and think “Who is this human? What is the story?” not asking, not acknowledging, experiencing the collective mind of all those gathered in this waiting space.

Later, as we fly, the clouds below are a continuous floor of cotton, like the rolls that come in a box.  An occasional rent in the fabric reveals, almost equally white, mountains and then squares of fields. These places are receiving the sun. The unseen are not.

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Memory

 

Struggling up from muffled night

was hard enough.

What would it be to rummage in the dark

for sweaters, pants, socks

tie shoes

And walk out into the darkness of

Buffeting rain and hidden, blurry moon.

 

Only the knowledge that

halfway up the hill

Ego would awake,

Pushing back layers of

gauzy film

Taking over the steering

and lighting  mitochondria with

the sound of a pilot light

clicking on.

 

Only then

do the particles align

with the known world

after flying around forever

over plains of waving grass.

 

Eagle screeches penetrate

Through long tunnels

to the electric networks of neural tendrils.

Dire thoughts ooze from

houses where glowing early lights

transmit poisons soaked up by days of boredom

and dreams of endless black freight trains

then blow off

in rushing

gusts.

The Burn Pile

Last night the wind was still and the weather mild so we lit our burn pile and pulled up a couple of chairs to tend it and sit together to watch the life in the fire.  This time we were burning some of the last of the combustible pieces of the eleven years of accumulation here on the farm.

In the October soon after we’d moved here, we sat together around a similar bonfire and listened to a pair of Great Horned Owls sing their love duet from the tall cottonwoods on the east side of the garden. That was a moment of magic and optimism. We dreamed aloud to each other about our future here, the farm stand we would have, the vegetables we would grow.  We named the farm that night. It was an inside joke. Now, we are burning the hand painted white, red, green and blue signs we made to direct passers by to the farm. We saved just one. We’ll leave it in the back of one of the stalls in the barn for the new owners to come upon when they’re exploring their new territory. F.A. Farm, they might wonder. What was that?

Now we are wrapping up our lives here, divesting of almost everything. We’re down to a pile of boxes in a stall in the barn, some essential garden tools, our two old bikes and the furniture we need to live until we leave the house and lock the door.  Orion has danced over the barn as the fire has burned lower and the coyotes are yipping off in the near distance, a pack of them after some mice or a stoat they’ve flushed. No owls tonight.

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The Reunion (Part 2)

The voice of my father. This is the voice of my father.

There is no distance in space now between us despite the weight of the receiver in my hand, the recognition of three thousand miles. His voice is sitting right inside me, the intensity wiping away everything else. There is no wall of separation. The wind of this energy is passing through us both.

“Yes, you’re my daughter!  It’s you! We’ve been waiting, hoping for this call for years. But we didn’t really dare think you would want to contact us; would find us. It was too much to ask.”

“Tell me about yourself? Where do you live?” he asks.

“I live in Vancouver, Washington…”

Before I can go on he says,

“Oh, yes! That’s marvelous. Washington State! Marvelous! Are you alright?”

“But of course you are! I can tell. Wait, let me tell you about you!”

“You’re tall. You’re blond with brown eyes. You’re beautiful and intelligent.”

Relishing this paternal embrace in a way I had never anticipated, I hear myself saying, “Yes! Yes, that’s right”, inwardly blushing at the “beautiful,” almost wanting to stop him.

“You were born at Lenox Hill Hospital. Your mother—her name is Toni—just like you — I can’t believe it — held you for three days. This didn’t usually happen if the baby was being given up, but the nursery was being painted. She was heartbroken to give you up.”

“How did your parents keep that name? How did they know? How did they have the generosity?” are his next questions.

“I don’t know. My mother said that it was just something she just knew, something she knew was essential to keep. She insisted, even though my father thought she was crazy to keep it. He bowed to her.”

“What an incredible act of intuition, of pure resonance! Your mother, Toni, gave you the name as a tiny thumbprint of her love for you.  She never expected your adoptive parents would keep it. Never. That was unthinkable.”

My God, I think, they’re married. They’re still together. These are my parents, together.

“And you have four siblings, three brothers and a sister. They all know you exist and they’ve been worried about you ever since they found out you existed. Your mother told them on your eighteenth birthday since we knew you were old enough to have access to records and could try to contact us. We talk about you. They’ve worried that you were out there and we didn’t know if you were alright.”

A molten volcano has been smoldering in my chest. Now I feel it begin to reach my throat, my eyes, the top of my head. I had never dared to imagine brothers, sisters, some kind of genetic compatriots.

“Let me tell a little more about who you are.”

He is rushing ahead, as if he, too, has thought out all he would tell me if he had the chance, as if the connection to my mother and history must be established immediately. We’re both a bit giddy with the silliness of this rampant story.

“Your mother’s family is pure WASP. She’s a Robinson. They go back to the Mayflower, for God’s sake.  Your direct ancestor was Cotton Mather, which may or may not be a good thing!”

Here began the surreal.  I already had had connection to a grandmother who was Polish, warm and fat and smelling of coal and butter from the kitchen–a peasant, whose lap I could sit on in a rocking chair. This new family seemed more foreign to my experience than if I were told they were Sami with a herd of reindeer still grazing back in the old country.

“And then there were the Knoxes of Knox Hats. You go back to Charles Knox who came over from Ireland in the early 1800s and started his own hat factory. They started with beaver hats and then came up with the stove pipe hats that became all the rage in the nineteenth century. They made a fortune. Abraham Lincoln wore Knox hats!  Their daughter married Hannibal Robinson who went off to the wilderness selling hats. And then somewhere along the way around Civil War times there was American Flag Knox.  You’re just swimming in WASP-y history. You could even become a member of the DAR! My God! I hope you don’t mind!”

Somewhere along the way I had begun to laugh. Now we both were laughing. The absurdity of it all. His voice, deep and rich with a foundation of unwavering confidence, left no room for disbelief, just overwhelming joy at having found this man of such fluent intelligence, such wit, such generosity of spirit–qualities not unlike those of the father who’d raised me. It was a moment splitting with things to come, like a ripe seed pod with seeds ready to fly. But at that moment, the laughter gave me more of a sense of freedom, the headiness of delight. My senses were alive.

“And then there was my family,” he is continuing.

“Somehow, none of the kids look anything like them, thank God! You probably don’t either. They were Eastern European Jews who immigrated to this country in the early 20th century. They lived in New York and my father managed to buy a small grocery store he ran till his death.  My aunt (your great aunt) immigrated to Israel at the end of the war.  She ended up starting the first Kibbutz there — Kibbutz Don. She was quite a powerful character, with a face like a catcher’s mitt. The kids have all been to Israel at different times.”

Here was the upside down history. My adoptive mother’s lineage—Eastern European Jews coming to Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century—setting up small businesses, getting through the Great Depression—this was also in my paternal genes, somehow hidden. What a funny man this was, de-ordering all I knew.

There was a pause just long enough for me to think of what else needed to be said. “You have two grandchildren.” I say.

“Oh, God! Really?  Tell me about them!”

“There’s a girl aged four and a boy a year old.”

“You’re kidding! We have two granddaughters about the same ages!  Your brother Evan’s girls. The youngest brother. He dotes on them. What about yours? Are they healthy? I would imagine you’re a wonderful parent.”

I told him a bit about each – my daughter’s pre-school, my son’s yellow curling hair. He asked about a marriage and I told him, yes. We talked a bit about my husband.

He proceeded to tell me a little about each of my siblings, three brothers and the youngest, a sister. Brothers. A little sister.

“They’ll all want to meet you as soon as possible. You will love them all. They are all unique, sharply smart and sensitive in their own ways. I’m sure you’ll find you have things in common. ”

It begins to dawn on me that I am actually being invited to become part of this family. Ah!

I ask, only partially in jest, “Will it bother David as the eldest that he suddenly has an older sibling?”

“God no! He’ll be so relieved to give up the position. It’s not an easy one! He can tell you.”

“It’s been a difficult stretch for your mother. This will cheer her no end. You don’t know what a wonderful thing you’ve done by calling.” Again, I blush and stammer something about how it was a force rather than a matter of choice.

He continues, more soberly. “You don’t know how long I’ve been trying to make up for your loss to your mother. All this time. So many ways.” There is a short pause on the line. A breath.

We began to discuss how we would be able to meet. He quickly insisted he would be the one to fly out to see me first, as the forerunner, as soon as he could arrange it.

“It will give your mother time to absorb things. I’ll be able to tell her what I experience and she will be able to absorb it first through me. Seeing you will have such an enormous impact for her.”

“Likewise,” I say.

This was the man I had sung to as a child, whose image I had created out of bits of story and intuition–whose love I had conjured up for myself.  It seemed in some way he was this man and not this man. There certainly was the experience of a powerful love, the importance of family.

I recognized, as my mind began traveling back from this intensity of moment to the practicalities of life, of children to be fed and retrieved, I had always shied from imagining my mother as deeply.  Now I had a mother in whom I might see something of myself. What was that?

As we gathered ourselves, made a plan for Toni to contact me later that day and, as my son began to cry in his bed where he was waking, I breathed in the impact, gathering my sense of self into my body, settling my mind, getting ready to move through the rest of the day. Something of great moment had happened. Something that was not only a shift in my own life, but a bigger shift.  We said goodbye, he adding,

“You don’t know how good it is to hear your voice. This changes everything.”

I wondered and then I thought, “It may. Yes, it may.”

The Swans are Gone

February 10th

The Trumpeter Swans are gone from the fields. In the sunset sky, the sky is empty of the flashes of light they make as they fly across the greying clouds towards their nighttime roost at the lake. They must be on their way back to Alaska, earlier this year than we’ve ever seen.

In response, there is a sense of absence, of loss in the atmosphere.  Now we’ll have to wait for the return of the song birds to hear such penetrating song, and for the blooming of the daffodils to replace the flashes of light.

The variety of songs in the March air diminishes each year. The daffodils bloom earlier, even in the dark, rainy days of a spring that never really seems to come until we recognize the season has turned to summer and the days are hot and the sun rises at 4:30 am. But there is a young Red-tailed Hawk and a pair of Peregrines who now have claimed the territory around the farm.  Working in the garden, the idiosyncrasies of their acrobatic flight will become intimately familiar, transmitting some sense of the joy of riding the movements of the air.

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Anniversary of a Reunion

I heard the voice of my biological father for the first time exactly thirty years ago. For months–years really– I had been preparing myself for the moment I would pick up the phone and call.  My mind had travelled to these moments of contact since I’d been in grade school, and after I’d turned eighteen, I began weaving plans and moral arguments pro and con.

The path was relatively easy. That wasn’t the trouble. His name had somehow mistakenly appeared on the court records my adoptive parents kept for me. Although she’d probably gotten it second or third hand, the social worker at the adoption agency in New York had told my adoptive parents the story of my biological mother and father and the reason they had given me up for adoption.  The clues were all in plain sight. It was even a good story.

As it went, my father was finishing his medical residency in New York at the time of my birth. He and my mother were not yet married. They had met the year before and fallen in love, but their romance was star-crossed since his parents were orthodox Jews, hers, goyim. Not only was she a shiksa, but an actor to boot, an abomination in their eyes. So my parents had chosen to give me up, the story continued, in hopes my grandparents would accept her as an “unencumbered” love match and my parents would be able to marry with their eventual blessing.

My adoptive parents were also a “mixed” marriage, but in the opposite pattern. My mother was the one from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and my father from a Polish Catholic family in the down and dirty coal-mining region of Pennsylvania.  Both sets were well-educated, middle class, and intellectual, with ties to Eastern Europe.  Bingo! Match. The adoption agency in New York was inexplicably Methodist. Several months later, when I became “available” they returned to have a look, be interviewed some more for their qualifications to parent and eventually take me home on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when nothing was open in Brooklyn.

My parents, educated middle-class people that they were, followed modern psychological advances and made my adoption part of the whole narrative of growing up. They even had a two-volume boxed set, one book for them and one for me, about coming into an adoptive family.  The children’s bedtime story book version was that I was a special child, particularly blessed since I had been specifically chosen by my parents—picked from a line-up, so to speak. I was the one with the great smile, the twinkling eyes– alert, blond, a pretty baby. I wasn’t like kids in other families who were stuck with the one that came out of the mom’s womb.  So as time progressed and I was able to grasp the concept, I knew I hadn’t come out of the mother whose hand I held, who took me to nursery school at Columbia University on the subway, who made me oatmeal every morning, sat with me in the kitchen and nagged me about hats and sweaters. These things are a delicate matter with one’s parents. It’s all an above-board secret.  As a kid, you’re aware something’s askew—unique–about your position in a family, a story you could exploit with other kids in fifth grade who were envious since they knew they couldn’t possibly be the child of the parents they got stuck with and probably had some wonderful people out there with greater understanding and wealth who would someday come to claim them. I had that story clinched. But the down side was the chemistry was just wrong.  The problem was my wiring just didn’t make sense, especially to my mother. Their love was huge and for the most part without limits, but they were bamboozled about who the heck I was. This state of affairs was probably not unlike most parents, but for me it seemed to have a twist—Alice in wonderland, perhaps, dropped down the rabbit hole into a world where the characters did things that defied logic.

For years, I had thought there was no need to make actual with the parents whose DNA I carried–too important to define myself on my own without leaning on the knowledge of my mere physical matter.  I wanted to make sure I was complete enough in myself that I needed nothing from them. I wouldn’t come as a supplicant but as someone who could give to them. I’d sung to them as a child, yearning, but now I was an adult.

I had a short conversation in my young adulthood with a man who has been one of the dearest friends of my life. He was then eighty-two. We were travelling in a van-load of people outside of Toronto and the van had broken down. Sitting and waiting on that summer day, the doors of the van open as cars went by on a quiet road, and conversation strayed to the topic of families, I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to look for my biological parents. His answer was considered.

“It’s very important to see and embrace the people who gave us birth. They’re our connection to the earth, the very matter we’re made of.  The connection can be very painful or very joyous, or both at the same time, but it’s there and has to be honored.  Find them if you can. It will ground you. That’s my advice.”

I told him I was worried that my birth might have been a secret that could hurt them and their families. He said,

“Be respectful, but they’re adults. They made choices. Let them handle that.”

Then he went back to being grumpy about his insistence that one of his choices to stay longer and thank someone at our last stop had caused us to have this breakdown.  Bad mood.

So, after I’d had thought about this conversation for another set of years and had my second child, it suddenly came to me one winter day, with my baby at home and my daughter in nursery school, that it was time to just call.  Knowing it was coming, I had even written a script like a flow chart—he says this then I’ll say that. If not that, then I’ll say this.  I’d tracked him down through the Medical Registry to a solo practice in a small town in upstate New York.  I didn’t know who he was married to, or whether he was married—just that he had a practice.

With my baby napping, I picked up the phone and called the number, like a plunge from a rock into a cold, running stream.

The one thing I hadn’t banked on was an aggressively protective nurse receptionist.  When I asked to talk to him, she said,

“Are you a patient of his?”

When I told her no, she replied sternly, backed by the growl of her Brooklyn accent.

“Well, he doesn’t talk to people who aren’t his patients. What’s the purpose of your call?”

My throat closing rapidly, I managed to say my parents were old friends of the family and I wanted to get in touch.  She said,

“Well! I’ll give him your name but I doubt he’ll have time to call today. He has a full schedule.”

I left my name and number.

I put down the receiver, tears squeezing out of my eyes. I took a deep breath, thinking,

“It’s done. It’s in his court.”

As I went to make some tea, berating myself up for not taking a more indirect route, the phone rang. It hadn’t been five minutes.

“Hello. Is this Toni?”

It was a rich, vibrant, low voice, with, to me, the music of Manhattan.  It was the voice that anyone would want to hear at their bedside, waking from a fever dream.  Able to barely get out the beginning of my prepared speech, “Yes. I was born in 195__ in New York City…”,  when he said,

“I know what this is.  We’ve been waiting so long for this call!”

Before these words had completely formed, a channel of pure energy had opened through those phone lines across the continent.  The force that surged through it nearly knocked me down.

 

 

(to be continued)

A Dream and a Walk

After the holidays this year I was sick for several weeks with some sort of respiratory gunk. Since I rarely get sick (or maybe in spite of that), I felt useless. My ability to sustain a thought was so dull that I found it almost impossible to write or to connect emotion to cognition. Somewhere deep there was an inchoate grief lurking.

One morning I dreamt I was an amateur clown with an act at some sort of summer fair. It was the first time I had performed an entire solo routine.  I was excited and nervous. Dressed in a sketchy mime-like outfit, I sang a song without sound, did a dance to the wind and tried to communicate all this to the small, scattered audience. They went along with me and were vaguely amused, but it was only a beginning. Encouraged that I’d at least been able to organize the effort and put myself forward, I was packing up the site when a man who was evidently a professional clown walked up.  He said he was next on the billing and began to set up with the help of an assistant. The beginning of grey around his temples marked him as a man at least beginning middle age, but there was the energy and look of vigorous youth about him. I liked him immediately, but was somehow wary. He was foreign with slightly olive skin and dark hair, perhaps from Montenegro, dapper and polished. As I continued to pack, he asked

“Are you from some kind of religious group?”

“No” I replied.

“Just an aspiring learner then?”

“Yes” was my response.

Finishing my packing in his presence, my self-consciousness began to return.The gap between what he knew and my own experience was so wide.  How could I even hope to achieve the artistry he possessed, especially so late in my life. He was a “mountebank” I knew, but I still might learn something interesting by staying to watch. I woke up as a decision was still settling in my mind. Continue down this path, or choose another? Does it matter which, as long as you are willing to risk everything?

With the dream still clear in my mind, I got out of bed and found that space was finally beginning to clear inside my mind. Still swimming, as some large fish navigating through murky waters with occasional brilliant flashes of sun, I struggled through the day until I felt an overwhelming need to move, to see something new but familiar.  A walk somewhere near and untraveled would help. There’s a trail nearby that leads to a small beach on the Georgia Strait—a place to listen to the woods and the ocean and see what they have to say about the whole matter.

At this edge of the continent, the water was a blue that was colder than the warm turquoise of the Mediterranean, but so wide and deep that it encompassed everything. The ducks floated here and there, one suddenly disappearing, another suddenly appearing on the surface. Each disappearance was a revelation of the world under the water, waving ell grass and weaving herring—a world extending infinitely downward and outward, joining the sky that extended infinitely upward and out and out. Each duck had its own idiosyncratic way of digging in under the surface. One had a little jump upward and then head a bit flat to the water as it dove. Another a graceful turn down of its bill and a gentle glide down, propelled imperceptibly by an underwater stroke of its wings.  Their combined movements, patterns ever-changing, were a counter rhythm to the music of the ocean. I breathed in the light and the heat of the sun through my nostrils and into the center of my chest where it radiated outward into the ocean and sky. Then I imagined breathing in and out through my ears, drawing in the sound of the moving water, the small waves and the larger crests, breathing out the quiet sound of the water sucking the round rocks. The imagining became actual, my breath making channels through the stuffiness in my head, clearing space.

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I stayed, rapt, for much longer than I had anticipated, remembering from time to time that there was nothing more pressing to be done. I stayed until the sun sank almost to the horizon, watching the light change the water to shades of indigo and purple and the wave-tossed logs on the beach a deep golden. On my way back to the trail, I passed a grandmother, her daughter and her grand-baby enjoying the dying light, taking photos of each other against the sinking sun, the baby’s face pale and perfectly open in the aura of his warm bear suit, eyes open wide to everything existing within their scope.

 

 

Road Trip

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It’s December first. We’re travelling.  While we wait for the opportunity to move to France , we’re traveling to places around the Northwest that have called to us. There is nothing now that holds us back. No demanding job. No crops to prepare or harvest.

We both love road trips, most often on our own. Road trips together are a bit fraught but compromise comes more easily after years of intimacy, years of meditation and years of practice in tolerating the urge to be right. I am trying to actually do what I know, minute by minute, thought by thought. If your truest friend says that he or she is peeved by your behavior, your best response is “My mistake! How unthinking!” not, “I meant to do…” “I really was but you didn’t see” “You’re not being fair!” Convincing the ego is a full time job.

This time we are travelling through the Blue Mountains of Eastern Washington and the Wallawas of North East Oregon. Walter has wanted to explore them more extensively ever since he worked as a fruit tramp in the ‘70s.  We’re following urges.  Since we typically have had to travel in the winter in order to accommodate the farm seasons, we’ve developed a taste for travel in the cold when most attractions are closed and mostly locals are around.

Today, the snow dusts the mountains. We follow Google Maps navigation rather than relying on our treasured paper maps. I miss Walter’s easy expertise with direction, but this same GPS got us through the villages of Ariege in France this summer, through tiny back alleys and narrow streets with round-abouts. We arrive in Joseph, Oregon, our goal, in the evening, at the time of the year when the sun seems to begin its setting at three pm and it is definitely dark by four-thirty. We pull into Indian Lodge motel at six, with snow on the ground in complete darkness. No moon. Debby at reception is covering for the owners who are out of town for a few days. With an easy familiarity, she apologizes for needing to leave after she shows us the room. We spend a cozy evening drinking beer, trying to find something decent on TV, finally watching our old standby “Law and Order” until we fell asleep. We sleep pretty soundly until 6:45 am when the neighbor at the motel, an electrical contractor with a local job, starts up his diesel truck, insisting  it had to idle for a half an hour so as not to “be hard on the engine.” Baloney! His father, having grown up in the ’50s, must have drilled this into his head.  Even so, he drives off after about fifteen minutes and we go back to sleep.

The morning of our first day we try to hike up Hurricane Creek to see the splendid mountain views and get some brisk exercise. The car won’t make it up the snowy road to the trailhead though, so Walter maneuvers it back down the road a way and gets it out of the six inches of snow where it was determined to get stuck. Clearly, this car had not been with me in my back-to-the-land days in Vermont. We walk up the road for a couple of miles, enjoying the tracks in the snow, the white cascades flying down from the tree branches and the views of the white craggy mountain tops against luminous fog and clouds.  We drive back down to Joseph, go take a long look at Lake Wallow with its drifting clouds and patches of blue sky reflected in the cold water and then drive south towards Hell’s Canyon. We can’t make it far in that direction because of the ice and snow on the roads so we head down toward the isolated town of Imnaha, through beautiful dry gentle washboard hills, brown, buff and green blending with the red and rust of the mostly bare willows and native dogwood, with a wide stream meandering slowly at their foot.  Here it’s much warmer than higher up at Joseph.

We stop off for lunch and a beer in the late afternoon at the tavern and store at Imnaha. It’s been there for over a hundred years. Now there are twenty-two people living in the town but folks are scattered around the valley and down the main road. The bartender is a trim woman with short blondish hair and a weathered face that she keeps pretty straight until she smiles at something a regular tells her. She’s relaxed and warmly friendly, moving constantly around the bar and into the back.  Ken, her dad, comes in soon after we sat down at the bar where the collection of signs has been occupying my attention.  I imagine that Ken is pretty prosperous, if not from farming of some kind then some kind of clever pandering. He’s open, wears an obvious charm with ease and is probably pretty smart.

I ask him whether he’s lived there forever.

“Forever is a long time, but I guess I have.”

Accommodatingly, I rephrase my question. “Were you born here?”

“Yes”, he replies. He was born in Joseph down the road but moved down the valley long ago.

“Forever is a lot of years for me. I’m older than I look. You can tell my age when I take my hat off,” an act he obligingly performs, smiling, to reveal his bald scalp with tufts of white hair like tumbleweed on the hillside.

I tell him that we all have our own forever, and mine seems to go back a ways now too.  He talks with his daughter a bit about the project with a motor he’s done today with apologies for failing to stop by earlier when he’d said he would.  A buddy walks in and they chat about the hunters at the motel who had pulled in four elk today.

I ask the bartender whether there’s a motel in Imnahof and she replies,

“Yes, the Motel 3.”

“Half a Motel 6?” I ask.

“Well, yeah, three rooms with bare light bulbs you better not leave on all day!”

Walter turns his stool towards mine to reminisce about Laramie for a moment. Its actually on the TV that hangs at the back of the store.

“The thing about those ‘50s shows was everyone was so clean!” he says.

I have to agree.

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As the conversation shifts at the bar, Walter silently points to folded money seemingly pinned all over the ceiling. I nod in recognition, assuming he knows all about this phenomenon and will fill me in later.  Maybe it’s a feat of shooting prowess. Walter surely has encountered this before somewhere in his travels in the west.  Soon an older couple walks in and sits at one of the wooden booths in the middle of the room. She opens the ad section from the paper and says,

“Boy! If you buy 8 bags of chips you can get a pound of sugar free. Hadn’t seen that before.”

The wood in the metal barrel heaters in the back crackles a bit.  It’s toasty warm in here.  The bartender comments to her dad that the hunters should be showing up any minute.

“Yeah. Coverered in blood” remarks the man at the table.

“Naw, some people shower.Even hunters” she replies.

As another friend, Fred, walks in, the woman at the table says,

“Sockeye salmon is 5.99 a pound.” My ears prick up at this.

“Where?” I ask.

“Oh, down at the Safeway.”

“It’s a damn good price” I reply.

“Yup.”

I encourage Fred to sit on the stool open next to me at the bar where he can talk to his friends at the table and Ken and the bartender at the same time. He consents and picks up his beer, his grey hair poking out the bottom of his old red ball cap. Ken is talking about the weather and tells me that it’s usually 10 degrees warmer in this valley than up in Joseph, 1000 feet higher up.

“Do you guys find lots of evidence of ancient encampments all around here?” I ask, always the anthropologist.

“Yup, tons.”

“Yeah, thought they would spend the winter here where it’s warmer and there’s lots of game.”

“Yeah. That’s sure true.”

Fred’s turned toward me to join in the conversation and I ask him if he were born in Imnaha.

“No. In Portland.”

“When did you move here?”

“A week later”.

Turns out that his grandfather had a ranch up at Imnaha. Hard to tell whether his parents already lived there with them back in the late ’30s and went to Portland just to make sure he was born safely or whether Portland was where his parents met, conceived him and birthed him. At any rate, as soon as mom was able they took a car, a truck, a wagon, a sled and another truck ride, the get to the ranch at Imnaha. He’s been there ever since, although at some point he traveled as far north as Bellingham, Washington, close to where we live. It was some long while back however.

Ken meanwhile is talking to his daughter about recipes for sugar cookies. Looking at a recipe file he’s pulled from somewhere in the back of the store he says,

“Fifty-three cups of flour, 43 cups of sugar and 42 eggs. Does that sound right?”

“Woah! You feeding the whole valley?” I ask.

“Well,” he smiles, “I come from a family of twelve kids. This is my mom’s recipe.”

His daughter says that he’d better multiply the recipe by eight and starts the calculations. When I ask, she mentions that she starts making the cookies about now and keeps her three ovens going at the store to get enough ready for Christmas.

“I can’t start them when people are in the bar ‘cause then they smell ‘em and they go real quick.”

“Do you ever burn any when you get busy?” I ask.

“Aw, yeah. A tray or so a year. I serve them at the bar. They go well with beer.”

I’ve been noticing a couple of signs, among the many, like “My husband is taking iron pills. When he’s ready, I’m rusty.” “Even a toilet can only serve one asshole at a time.” “It’s hard to kiss the lips of someone who’s chewed my ass all day.” “Buy me another beer. You’re still ugly.”

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It’s another that really gets my attention. It’s a picture of a wolf with a line across his face and the statement “No to Canadian Wolves” and another that said, “Canadian Wolf meat. $30/lb.”

Looking away, I asked, “What kind of wildlife do you have around here? We saw a flock of wild turkeys on the road. I’ve never seen that anywhere else.”

“We have a lot of bear, elk, deer, coyotes…”

“How about grizzlies?” I ask.

“Nope. Lots of black bear.” she says but someone else says,

“Yeah. Occasionally. Used to have more.”

“Foxes?” I ask.

“Naw. Wolves, coyotes. Foxes over in the valley one south.”I don’t ask about the Canadian wolves. She’d scowled when she’d mentioned wolves.

We talk more about the holidays coming up and Fred mentions the eleven people that had been shot by three people in body armor in San Bernardino earlier that day. We think together, trying to remember how many mass shootings we have had in the US in the last few weeks. Neither could recall exactly. Horrifying.

Fred says, “I thought of not coming down here this afternoon since it’s the place with the most people together all around here.”

I joke that in a town of twenty-tw0 that couldn’t be that much of a target.He replies,

“You wouldn’t believe how packed this place gets most nights. It’s completely full up. People like it better here than the places in Enterprise even. They come here from there and Joseph. Packed.”

We take our leave warmly, forgetting to ask about the bills on the ceiling. We may have to go back.

 

It’s Thursday morning. There was a big hole in my night that threatened to be consumed by fears. Burning trails of thought that blaze through the night like slow shooting stars: “I have to have some way to bring in money.”  “It’s not right for me not to work. I’m still young and full of energy.” “You’re full of it”, I told myself. “All this will have faded like the stars by daylight.” There’s some comfort in these admonitions.  I brought my mind to the vast, silent inner space, the universe. It stayed there, interrupted by thoughts of an itching here, a crick there until I somehow drifted back into the realm of dreams. I was awakened abruptly by a noise outside. It’s already 8am. I sleep so much later now.

It’s our last day in the Wallawas. This morning I learned how to pronounce Imnaha with an emphasis on the second syllable. The waitress at the Cheyenne Café gracefully corrected me as I was helping Walter finish the huge mound of pre-cut hash browns on his plate. We walked down the street towards our motel and stopped in at a tourist store with a winter sale. Turned out to have beautiful Native American jewelry. Walter spontaneously bought me a silver bracelet with a turquoise butterfly. What beauty in such a gesture.

Later in the afternoon we take a walk up a road called Rail Canyon. At its foot there’s a place with a wrapped yurt, a fine looking shop building and a small wind turbine and solar panels. We examine the energy production set up and walk up the slushie hill, finding places with snow or dirt to keep our footing and curious about the foot prints of deer, elk and squirrels in various patterns on the way up.

Up the hill, we find a new large home with wind and solar power, much grander than the one at the bottom, obviously affluent. Sauna building with adjoining hot tub.

When we come to the end of our walk at the bottom of the hill again, we find the owner of the yurt receiving an Amazon package from a guy in a jeep. The man with the yurt has long greyish hair and, as he accepts the package, is occupied with this vision of two older folks walking down his hill. Turning to the delivery man he says,

“I’m seeing people who may have a vehicle problem up the hill. They might need some help.”

We say hello and reassure him that we’re just out for a walk and have the car parked on the main road at the bottom. We strike up a chat. He says yes the yurt is his and it’s his bedroom. The shop is the rest of his home while he builds a house on the land up the creek a bit.  He’s amiable, with sharp eyes.  He tells us that he is able to get enough power from his wind and solar to give him electricity over-night most nights but the wind power is inconsistent since he’s not in the current of air coming through the valley. His protected site has its advantages but wind power isn’t one.

“If I’d realized how inconsistent the wind is, I wouldn’t have invested in the turbine. The solar panels work well enough most of the time, but in the cold dark times I’ve had to use the generator once or twice for twenty minutes or so to get things primed so we don’t freeze. I have to rely on alternative energy since we’re two miles from the grid”.

I comment that he still is able to get Amazon delivery.

“Yup. It’s the only way I can get most of my equipment. Much cheaper anyway.”

We tell him it’s pretty much the same for us. Turns out he lived in Olympia for thirty years. As we walk to the car, we wonder if he were a lawyer or a government cog.  Interesting.

We decide to drive back up to Imnaha for a beer and a bite at the Tavern and Store, mostly so we can find out how those dollar bills get up on the ceiling.  Also because we liked the place and want an excuse to go back and have a beer.  It’s more interesting than anything in Joseph at the moment.

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As we drive up the road, passing again the undulating hills in a new, greyer light, we share an unspoken awareness that nothing good is ever as good the second time around. We say nothing, curious at any rate to see what experience turns up this time.

When we arrive at the store after driving around several large rocks in the road, there’s more of a crowd.  It’s a bit later in the day, there’s no room at the bar and a young woman is taking orders.  A couple of the men recognize us immediately from yesterday’s visit and say,

“Well you couldn’t stay away, heh?”

We sit at a booth in the middle.

“Naw. You’re right,” we answer. “Had to come back to find out how those bills get up on the ceiling.”

Ah! We’ve asked the right question. Everyone is happy to tell us, but the guy who turns out to be the owner starts us off.

“It’s to help fund a party we have every year. You wrap a bill in a quarter with a tack through it and lambast it up to the ceiling.  If it sticks, you’re entered in a prize drawing.”

The woman at the bar shows Walter how to make the missile, with the help of a couple of onlookers.  There’s a brief dispute about whether it’s one quarter or two, but it’s resolved when two won’t fit in the package.

Walter takes the finished product and throws it hard underhand at the ceiling. It bounces off.

“You’ve’ really got to whack it up there hard as hard!” someone shouts.

He tries again and it bounces. He hands it to me to take a try — me who had remedial throwing at summer camp when I was eleven.  I throw it at an angle and miss the ceiling entirely. He gives it another good whack and there, it sticks!! We’ve passed.

We get our beers and order the least greasy, awful thing on the menu of fried chicken hearts, fried gizzards, special hamburger, fried hot dog and French fries.  It’s the fries.  We’re hungry.

Ken walks in with his wife and immediately says “Hi” to me and then recognizes Walter. He introduces his wife, Pat, and we invite them to sit with us in the booth.  Pat lets Walter help her off with her fur coat and sits next to me and takes off her hat, smoothing her dyed blond waves, cut close around her head.

She turns to me and we begin the normal preliminary chatter. It soon becomes clear that she is in some early-ish stage of dementia, turning to Ken from time to time to fill in gaps of memory about the day or the names of family members.  She is also charming, and clearly annoying to her husband.

We gradually find out more about their history. He is of German stock, she English.  He was raised in Joseph with eight siblings, she in Imnaha with one sister. She tells me she has been to see her sister in a “home” yesterday and they had a good chat. She was tickled that her sister reminded her she had been “orn’ry” as a kid and had given her older sister a hard time. Her face brightens.

“We used to ride our horses over here, tie ‘em up and come in and watch the men play checkers and talk around the fire.”

We tell them about our walk up Rail Canyon Road and ask whether they know the fellow with the yurt at the bottom.

“Oh yeah,” says Ken.  I know him pretty well. He’s a real nice guy. Owes me some for a couple of rides I’ve given him down to Enterprise in the winter to get stuff.Yeah, interesting guy.”

He’s leaving something out.

We ask what the guy did before he came here, curious if we could validate our hypotheses. Ken shrugs and turns his head as if interested in something at the bar. Doesn’t want to tell us.

The thought of Rail Road spurs Pat to question where it is. She confuses it with a road where they got stuck one year, taking her nephew to cut a Christmas tree.  She starts and stops the story several times. Ken is clearly exasperated by her attempts and doesn’t want to be reminded of the embarrassment, but we prompt her and she finishes. Ken ads some details about how he managed to get out of the mud.

We talk more about ancestry and then baking, since we know Ken will be making cookies. Pat evidently doesn’t help much with this. We’ve been at the store awhile and begin wrapping things up.

Ken, who’s gotten up to talk to a friend suddenly comes up next to me, puts his arm close around the back of the booth next to my shoulder, puts his head down next to mine with his other arm on the table, enclosing me.  I’m a bit alarmed but let him stage whisper a recipe for twice baked potatoes, while he clearly enjoys the dominance he’s asserting.

He pulls himself up when he’s recited the whole and I’ve said “Gee I’ll have to try that!”

Walter and I and Pat all get up. Walter reaches over to help Pat with her coat.  While she is thanking him, I mention that “Yes, Walter is a real gentleman”

“My husband’s got nice manners in a lot of ways but he’s not a gentleman like that!” she twinkles.

On the way out, I stop to say goodbye to the man Ken pointed out as the owner. I tell him I’ve heard that he gets quite a crowd up here from Enterprise and Joseph and beyond.

He says “Yes, they do sometimes, but business is slower. I’ve owned the place for thirty-five years and now I’m looking to sell.”

He tells the story of how he had come up to see the area and hunt and saw the tavern that used to be next door for sale.  He was interested, but left without asking the price.  He called a few days later, since he couldn’t get his mind off the idea of starting a business up here. That place was too expensive for him, but it turned out this store was also for sale at a price he could afford. He snapped it up. He married his wife soon after and they’ve made a real go of the place for years.

“Every summer, we’ve had a rattlesnake and bear feed. People come from all around just for this darn event.  One woman from Norway happened to be around here for vacation years ago and someone told her to come. She was crazy about it. She came back every year for seventeen years. Flew people in with her from Norway to the little airport in Joseph. She hasn’t been back for a couple of years. Don’t know what’s happened to her.”

“Rattlesnake and bear meat?” I say.  “You must need a whole heck of a lot! Where do you get it all?”

“People bring in their snakes when they catch ‘em and donate bear meat when they have more than they can handle. They’ll donate their extra tags and friends will go out and hunt ‘em. We keep it in the freezer.  I only take it fresh though. Some of those hunters have to put the bear on the car and go show it off in town. By the time they’d get it to me, not so good anymore. I won’t take those. We get plenty, but it’s gotten smaller in the last few years. Guess not as many people can afford to make the trip.”

We say our goodbyes all around, urged by all to come back again in the summer. As we drive away in the dark late afternoon, dark hills and mountains surrounding us, Walter asks if he should have intervened with Ken.

I say “Naw. If I’d felt threatened, I would have done something about it myself. Just an old guy enjoying himself.”

“Dominance behavior, pure and simple” says Walter.

I have to agree.

The disappointment of a second visit, but still damn good stories.