Tuesday, March 11, 2014
When the time changed last Sunday, I was in California. It happened to be my birthday, so I not only lost an hour of sleep but added a year to my age. Now I'm a nice even number.
When you’re my age, birthdays aren’t what they used to be. My mother, who used to make sure birthdays were special, has been gone for almost 12 years, and my husband, who did his fumbling best, has also passed away. My dog doesn’t do birthdays. In recent years, I have had some great celebrations with my friends and some quiet ones with myself. Many years I have bought myself a tiny cake and eaten it alone, but don’t cry for me, Argentina. I enjoyed every bite.
This year, I found myself in California with the family. I had heard about a poetry workshop that sounded wonderful, realized I could arrange the time off from work to do it, and could combine it with a visit with Dad, whom I last saw at the hospital after his heart surgery in December. The fact that my birthday fell on the day after the workshop was a coincidence.
Dad is doing great, by the way. The sparkle is back in his blue eyes, and he mowed the lawns while I was at my workshop. The fact that he feels well enough to do yard work again is a darned good birthday present. Anyway, it was Sunday. We got up early and went to church at St. Martin’s. Then we took our usual trip to the cemetery to visit Mom and the rest of the gang.
By then, my brother and his wife were on their way. After they arrived and I opened my gift of scarves and fuzzy socks, we sat around and talked a bit, debated a while over where to have lunch, and ended up at Red Lobster. It’s a lot more expensive than the commercials imply, but the food was fabulous. After gorging on shrimp and lobster linguini, I was encouraged to order dessert. My red velvet cake in a jar—seriously cute—arrived with a single lighted candle on top, and the servers sang “Happy birthday.” I heard my sister-in-law, brother and father singing along, a first. Unlike me, they don’t sing. So nice.
Back home, I talked to my lifelong friend Sherri on the phone. She moved to Texas three years ago. She’s about six weeks older than I am, and we always call each other on our birthdays. We had a great talk, although she had sad news. Her old dog Gus died. She has a new pooch named Pepsi. Much worse, her older brother is dying of cancer. Nuts. Getting old is tough. I was sitting in the patio looking out at the lawn and reminded her of those summer evenings when we used to play badminton out there until it got so dark we couldn’t see the birdie. I can still feel the grass on my bare feet and the moths rising up around us. Those were the days, we agreed. No troubles, at least none that mattered. Thank God we’re still friends.
My sweetest birthday gift was the one I gave myself, that poetry workshop led by Ellen Bass and Roger Housden. If you’re into poetry, check them out. Great people, great poems, great workshops. Of course Dad’s response was “Poetry???? What do you get out of that?” Never mind. The workshop took place at Dominican University in San Rafael, which happens to be where I attended one of my first writing conferences in the 1970s and won first prize in the poetry contest. So, I had good memories. Of course, nothing looks the same and the drive through Bay Area traffic added a few gray hairs, but Dominican is still a quiet world of trees and squirrels and stately old buildings.
For seven hours, we poets talked, wrote and shared what we wrote. We could write anywhere we wanted, so people spread out on the lawn, the stairs, and the benches scattered around. Most of us were boomers, nearly all women about my age who knew the value of a day with nothing pulling at us. We had time to think, time to write, and time to make new friends. Two of us were celebrating birthdays on Saturday, and mine was Sunday. Lots of Pisces are poets. For me, that day was the perfect gift.
So, I have survived another birthday in good health. And the Facebook good wishes are still pouring in. Thank you to everyone. I am blessed.
Monday, March 3, 2014
My life is like a kaleidoscope, full of different images that come out different every time I look. What I need is a telescope that focuses on just one thing.
You see, I have this problem. I keep signing up for stuff and starting new projects, then find myself so overwhelmed by all that I have to do that I can’t do anything but play Spider Solitaire or read posts about the latest episode of "The Bachelor." Or, I spend all my time getting organized and don’t have time left to do anything. But look at all these nifty folders with their neat little labels.
This morning I’m longing for one great thing to focus on, and I don’t know what that is. Part of this is post-novel depression. My new novel is finished as far as I can go for the moment. Now I'm in the marketing phase, which consists of a lot of sending things out and waiting for responses.
I’ve got a million other things to do. Okay, not a million, but I’ll bet I could come up with a hundred. The list of writing projects is endless, I’m teaching at the CatholicWriters Conference and the Northwest Poets' Concord in the near future, I have countless songs I want to learn or get better at, I’ve got work to do for my music minister job, I have friends and relatives I should call, yoga I should do, more books than I could read if I live to 150, errands I should run, and the house needs lots of TLC. Now I’m the new acting president of Writers on the Edge, which is looking very much like another job. It’s wonderful. I’m happy about it, but it’s time-consuming. Plus Annie always wants to snuggle, eat, or go for a walk.Generally I finish everything that needs doing, but the non-essentials get put on indefinite hold. For example, I haven't washed last night's dishes yet. I was busy watching the Academy Awards and folding laundry. And responding to emails during the commercials.
Anyway, my most recent agreement was signing up for the A to Z blog challenge. Oh yes, I did. It happens in April. (Isn’t that the month I’m doing the Poem a Day challenge?) The bloggers who sign up agree to publish a post inspired by a letter of the alphabet every day except Sunday. We will also visit each other’s blogs, comment, share, and add them to our blogrolls.
Okay. I have four blogs of my own: this one, Childless by Marriage, Writer Aid, and Sue Lick’s Newsletter. I could just share among myself.
I know, I know. I already see a therapist. Besides, I know I'm not the only one addicted to staying busy. Do you say yes too much for your own good? Please share in the comments and make me feel better.
I thought I’d warm up for the A-to-Z challenge by starting with numbers. Today’s number is one. One task down, 99 to go.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Been watching the Olympics? Me too, but in between, I’ve been competing in my own Oregon Coast Olympic events. Not sanctioned by the IOC, of course, but just as challenging. Let me describe a few of these events for you.
Miralax Run: In preparation for my every-five-years colonoscopy, in which doctors send a tiny bobsled with a camera up my colon, I began with five days of a restricted diet and one day of nothing but liquid before the big event, which consisted of four laxative pills and 16 glasses of lemon Crystal Light laced with laxative powder, to be drunk between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m. before reporting to the hospital at 6:45 a.m. I spent the next nine hours on a drink-and-run marathon, reaching the bottom of the pitcher just in time. Lost a few style points along the way, but I made it to the finish line.
Dogsled Downhill: Ten days ago, the coast was covered in snow and ice, but Annie still needed her walks. So I pulled on my flowered plastic boots and hit the slopes of 98th Street. My pooch pulled me up hill and down through patches of snow, ice, and slush while I screamed, “Don’t pull!” “Slow down!” and “Aaaaaah!” We finished in 497th place.
Slush Slalom: As the snow melted, the dog and I slid through the slush. Annie darted back and forth across the road, sniffing every weed, Starbuck’s cup, and pile of poo while I shushed along behind her, trying to stay up on my ski boots. Our form was less than perfect and we failed to earn a medal.
Pellet Stove Pentathlon: You drive to the lumber yard, load up the car with 40-pound bags of pellets, slide home through the snow, unload the bags in the garage, carry the bags one at a time into the house, load them into the hopper, adjust the thermostat, and watch the clock as the stove hums and twiddles its sooty thumbs. First competitor to see sparks wins. If the stove sighs and goes silent, push the reset button and start again. No medals here either.
Hot Tub Hustle: There’s nothing like soaking in 100-degree water under the stars, but one 30-degree night when the snow was all gone, I stuck my foot in and jumped into the air, did a triple flip and landed back on the deck. The hot tub was cold. Fast forward to standing with a service guy in pounding rain as he tested the electrical circuits and declared the heating element dead. While he ordered a new one, I moved on to the next event, draining the tub with a pump and garden hose while hail bounced off my head, the deck and the surface of the water and the dog hid inside because she’s no fool. Results pending return of service guy.
Flying Tree Fling: The snow and ice melted, and we were glad, but then the rain and wind came. As lawns turned to marshes and water rose in the ditches to the level of the road, 75-mile-an-hour gusts sent trees, signs, and yard art flying. The table on my deck moved three feet east. Bits of trees fell everywhere, and the giant tent just put up for next weekend’s Newport Seafood and Wine Festival collapsed into a pile of metal rods and torn canvas. I think I saw Dorothy's house flying toward Oz. My house is still here. I win.
We have another week before the Sochi Olympics closing ceremony. Locally, the rest of the schedule remains unknown. But at least we have avoided Bob Costas’ pink eye plague.
May you rack up maximum points in every event you compete in this week.
Monday, February 10, 2014
And then it snowed. At 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the sky was still clear, and the grass was still green. When I got up at 7, my world had turned completely black and white. We had two inches of snow on the ground, and it was snowing hard. The light coming through my skylights and windows was so bright, and the untracked snow outside so beautiful, I took pictures and sent them out on Facebook.
My phone rang. Weather alert from Chemeketa Community College in the valley. All classes and campus activities cancelled. It rang again. The guy scheduled to fix my hot tub. "I'll bet you're cancelling," I said. "Yes ma'am," he replied.We rescheduled for Tuesday. Maybe.
Once again I was snowed in, just as I was in Corvallis in early December. The snow quickly turned to ice. It was worse inland. Deeper snow, colder temperatures. News reports showed a 20-car pileup on I-5 north of Albany. By the end of the weekend, there would be more than 600 crashes, mostly minor, in Western Oregon. But even here on the coast, schools, government offices, and even the outlet mall were closed. Organizers canceled concerts, fundraisers and parties. On Friday, transit buses stopped. The garbage did not come. On Saturday, our mail got stuck in Portland.
Meanwhile, I emptied my last bag of pellets into the stove on Friday and ate a fried tomato sandwich for lunch. Things were getting a little desperate. I was never so glad to hear the patter of rain on the skylights and see drops of water streaking down my windows. Saturday, I was able to drive through the slushy snow-melt to mail my packages, buy pellets and groceries and treat myself to a meat loaf sandwich at the Chalet. Annie and I took a long walk. She barked at the melting snowman family on our neighbors' lawn and sniffed at a dead robin beside the road.
On Sunday, it warmed up into the 40s. The snow had disappeared, and we were back to rain and wind here on the coast. Hallelujah.
In Portland and most of the Willamette Valley, it's still frozen. A friend posted a Facebook picture showing the snow in his yard was 15 inches deep. Radio announcers are still talking about closed schools, icy roads, and freezing rain. The only difference between today and December is that I'm on the defrosted side of the mountain.
Other parts of the country have been dealing with snow and ice for months. In the East, it's an annual occurrence, but they have snow plows, and folks know how to drive in it. Here, everything stops until the ice melts. If you're not ready, too bad. The next time I say, oh, I'll go get pellets or food tomorrow, I hope I remember last week and say, no, I'll go now. Just in case.
Monday, February 3, 2014
Although I've worn out several pairs of shoes on this road, I'm still not tired of it. There's always something new to see. Last week it was a new layer of rocks that bruised my feet right through my sturdy shoes. I also saw fresh deer tracks in the mud. The Scotch broom is tall and green now. It will soon sprout flowers so yellow they light up the sky. Wildflowers will follow and then wild blackberries which Annie and I will eat off the vines.
Paths lead off into the trees and shrubs. The ones we took with Sadie are overgrown, and some are blocked with concrete barricades, but a new path carved out by road workers a few years ago parallels the backs of the homes on Cedar Street, turning back around to Cedar at a wide viewpoint overlooking a ravine and the airport beyond. The path is isolated. I study the paw and hoofprints on the ground, seeing many dog prints and tennis shoes but also signs of deer, coyote, and bears. Annie and I both keep our senses alert here, ready to react if another creature appears.
Man leaves his mark, too. Unlike the street, where I can always find hamburger wrappers, empty cigarette packs, and Starbuck's cups, the paths are usually clear of litter. But I see big yellow Caterpillar tractors parked along the road and muddy scars where they have carved out openings in the trees and brush. When we first moved here, we were told that the property owner--and yes, someone does own this wilderness--had plans to build a housing development and golf course resort. It hasn't happened. We have also heard that the airport might build a new entrance off 98th Street, which would add a great deal more traffic, but that hasn't happened either. The tree line has moved farther east, trees ripped off their stumps and carted away for lumber. But new growth sprouted up in their places.
If there is any sun, it shines on this path. Sometimes in late afternoon, we see the moon above the trees. We rarely see any other people or animals, but when we do, I wave and they wave back. The seasons of nature and of our lives change, but we continue to walk this road, rain or shine, and we always notice something new.
Monday, January 20, 2014
Yes, blue skies in January on the Oregon Coast. Right now as I write this, I look out my office window and see gold-tipped pine trees stretching into a powder blue sky unmarked by clouds. The alders are still winter-bare, but daffodil bulbs poked their heads above the soil this week, even though the storm season is far from over. From somewhere beyond the yard, I hear doves. Like the rest of the west, we’ve had far less rain than usual this winter, but unlike California and other western states, we have enough water, so that drought is not a problem.
It’s warmer back in California. I see weather reports predicting blue skies and temperatures in the 70s, and I miss those days when I could walk unfettered by heavy coats. But oh it feels good to lie beneath my electric blanket on a cold morning, and I finally have a use for all those sweaters my mother and I knitted over the years. And it feels great to sit in the sun under the Sitka spruce with Annie leaning against me, just enjoying being alive.
Yesterday I was up at 6 a.m. to lead the choirs through two Masses at Sacred Heart Church. It was dark as I showered and dressed and ate a slice of pumpkin bread for my hasty breakfast. But as I drove north on Highway 101, scanning the road for black ice, the sky lit up with pink clouds that turned bright red, a Hallelujah Chorus of a sunrise that made me glad to be here. The red reflected on the ice blue water of the bay and the ocean beyond where crabbers were pulling in their morning catch. After 17 1/2 years, the beauty of this place still amazes me.
More storms will come, weeks of gray skies, gray ocean, gray everything, of winds that tear at the windows and walls and sideways rain that stings like needles, but this is the tradeoff for those red sunrises and rainbow sherbet sunsets, for easy drives on roads without traffic at any time of day.
And for music and poetry. I don’t know whether it’s the ocean setting, the reasonable proximity to universities, or simply the lower cost of living, but this is a world of writers, artists, musicians and dreamers, and that’s a big part of why Fred and I chose to live here when we left San Jose. On any weekend, you can enjoy plays, concerts, art exhibits, readings, or dance performances. You can learn to blow glass floats, make beaded jewelry, or paint with watercolors. The Performing Arts Center and Visual Arts Center in Newport are busy year-round, and other venues to the north and south offer more arts activities.
It’s a place where one can get involved in a big way. A friend and I co-founded the coast branch of Willamette Writers a few years ago. Now I’m on the board of the Northwest Poets’ Concord, which hosts an annual poetry conference in May, and Writers on the Edge, which hosts the monthly Nye Beach Writers Series. I have a critique group which meets on Tuesdays. I have taken workshops, taught workshops, met famous or soon-to-be famous writers, and shared my work at readings, talks and open mics.
This last Saturday, we met for the Nye Beach Writers Series at the Newport Visual Arts Center. Covering the paint-stained tables of the art classroom with red silk tablecloths and battery-powered candles, we welcomed our guest author of the month, R. Gregory Nokes, for a talk about his new book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory. I ran the book table. After intermission, I ran the open mic. I read several of my poems, people loved them, and I felt fabulous.
During the day, I had time to sit out in the sun with Annie, to take a nice long walk, to catch up on email, clean my kitchen, play a little piano, and watch a movie on TV.
Getting up Sunday morning was hard, but then I got to play the piano at church, sing with two wonderful groups of friends, and chat over tea and donuts in-between. Afterward, a quick trip to the store, where I ran into several friends, as usual, a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch, more piano, and more time in the sun before heading south to Yachats for the open mic.
Music, poetry and friends came together at the Green Salmon coffee shop, which is not open at night but allows us to use the space. Christmas lights still hung along the ocean-facing windows as we perched in our high wooden chairs. We laughed, we sang along, and we applauded performers taking the stage for the first time and veterans who came to try out new songs or just keep in practice. It was a safe place where people could screw up and nobody minded. “Do-over!” people would shout, and the performer would find the missing words or chords and finish in triumph.
Then it was time to make the long dark drive home, passing only a few cars on the way, keeping a lookout for deer or raccoons crossing the road. Time to light up the pellet stove, snuggle with the dog and fall asleep to dreams of music, blue skies, and words for a new poem.
I awakened to sunshine, blueberry muffins and another day of words, music, dogs and the most beautiful place on earth.
This is why we moved here. Sometimes I get lonely. I miss Fred like crazy, but this is why I stay.
I haven’t posted here lately. I’m working on compiling the previous five years of posts into a "Best of Unleashed" book, which will eventually be available as an e-book. But I will still chime in here, too, because I can’t help myself. If you enjoy reading my blog, please recommend it to your friends. Thanks for coming. Have a beautiful day wherever you are.
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
I knelt by the pellet stove shaking a colander over a pot, trying to separate the pellets from the sawdust. The pot was nearly full, and I could still see sawdust, so I used a slotted spoon to shake out a few pellets at time and toss them into the hopper. Every time I tossed a few more pellets in, I got more sawdust on the floor, on me, and on the dog, who huddled close for warmth.
Sometimes I missed the hopper, and pellets scattered in all directions. I cursed and rushed to pick them up before the dog ate them. She did eat a few. Tough poops tomorrow. Over and over, I swore to get rid of this stupid pellet stove that took so much work and only went on when it felt like it. I considered selling the house just to move someplace that had a normal heating system.
For those who have always lived in homes with gas or electric heating systems that go on and off automatically, keeping the house at a comfortable 68 or 70 degrees, the idea of a house without heat is unimaginable, but for a lot of people living in rural areas, it’s a reality. Around here, wood stoves are the norm, just like in the olden days.
Usually the pellets don’t come cushioned in sawdust. I had clearly gotten a few bad bags. When I finally gave up after three bags and took the others back, the guy at the lumber yard admitted he’d given me bags from the wrong pile, ones that were supposed to be thrown away. He replaced them, with two more for my troubles. By then, I had taken pictures and prepared to argue for a refund, thinking they wouldn’t believe me. But the guy was waiting for me. He was already aware of his mistake and knew I’d be back. I just wish I’d come back three bags sooner.
Three vacuumings of the pellet stove later, it seems to be working, but there are no guarantees. I’ll do anything to avoid another visit from the serviceman who charges hundreds of dollars to spend hours in my living room, stove parts everywhere, lecturing me on how I need to clean the stove with little brushes every five minute and sift every bag of pellets for sawdust.
This winter has been unusually cold, and I’m going through more than one 40-pound bag of pellets a day. When I was in California for a week last month, Oregon had record-setting low temperatures, down to 14 a couple nights in South Beach. It snowed, and the snow froze into a solid sheet of ice that closed down everything. It was cold. Damned cold. So cold the strings on my bandurria came unstrung. So cold a ceramic bird house outside cracked into little pieces. So cold pipes were freezing all over western Oregon.
God bless my dog sitter, who came from the Midwest and was not afraid to drive in the snow. I asked her to let the dog sleep in the house. The crate in the laundry room was too cold. She wanted to know how to turn on the heat. I explained the pellet stove. She had never seen one before, and it took a while for her to get the hang of it and to understand that when the pellets run out, there is no heat.
When it’s working, I spend half my life warming my buns by the pellet stove. I read, write, make phone calls, and ponder the world within two feet of that warm orange heat. I have the burn marks on the back of my bathrobe to prove it. My dog lies at my feet, soaking up the heat. Visitors remark on how warm and cozy it is.
Yeah, I think, when it works, when it doesn’t start to light, then fizzle out with a sigh as if it just can’t find the energy to make fire. It’s old. It’s worn out. It’s persnickety. And every time I turn around, it’s empty. I think I lose a quarter inch in height every time I carry one of those heavy bags from the garage to the house. This winter, if you put them all together, I must have lifted a couple tons of wood.
Oh, and if the power goes out, which is not uncommon around here in the coastal forest, the pellet stove doesn’t work. The fan runs on electricity. Then I have to light the wood stove in the den, which is a whole other story.
Last night I researched the cost to convert my pellet stove to gas. Apparently you can go the other way—gas to pellets--pretty easily, but pellets to gas is prohibitively expensive. Not only would I have to buy a new “insert” for about $3,000, but I’d have to install a propane tank outside and pipe the gas into the house. Not happening on my budget.
Instead, I’m taking my Christmas money to Home Depot and buying the biggest, most powerful plug-in electric heater I can find, so when it gets cold and Mr. Pellet Stove isn’t in the mood, I can turn it on and be warm. Meanwhile you’ll find me and Annie next to the pellet stove.
Dear friends, if you have a real heater in your house, give it some love. You are blessed to have it.
And if you have suggestions for how to use two bucketsof fine sawdust, let me know.