Monday, October 23, 2017

The Trees and I, A Kind of Heartbreak

Part two

In the physical world, many of us look to nature for peace. Ocean waves’ predictable ebb and flow, eagle cries calling us to look up, deer prints in the mud. For me, even hearing the black bears’ ponderous shuffling through the brush helps me know that all is right in my corner of the world. Better there than on my porch.

We are fortunate to live on acreage that backs up to forest land. Trees surround me, as they have most of my life. I feel safe in them, and in awe. They inspire stories and possibilities. From my kitchen window, a glance up at the woods instantly summons bits of stories: Native American spirits, distressed damsels in filmy white, Sasquatch, a Nancy Drew mystery. I move from scrubbing dirty pots to story weaving seamlessly, as if lifting my eyes slips me into an alternate reality. Slosh, blink, bask in the story. That’s what trees do for me.

The way our land is situated, our back property line lies only a hundred and fifty feet past my windows. That may seem like a lot, and I always thought it was. But here’s the thing: that forest land behind us is owned by someone else. While some of the trees that inspire me daily are mine, the dense forest of hemlock, maple, and cedar that lie beyond belong to someone else. And right this moment as I type, that someone else is legally and rightfully logging off every tree on his property. One hundred and fifteen acres, harvested.

Bad things happen in the world. Accidents, tragedies, natural disasters, and just plain meanness. Nothing about a property owner clearing his land for profit fits in the category of bad things. I know that. And still, this change is causing me such anxiety.

I wake up in the early morning hours hearing buzz saws and massive truck engines. Headlights shine in our bedroom windows from where vehicles could have never ventured before. More than one morning I’ve woken up thinking I’m in the Lord of the Rings movie where Saruman is having the orcs kill and burn the Ents (living tree folk), digging a massive pit in the ground where they somehow form an extra hateful new race of orcs. Just when I forget for a moment that the trucks are out there destroying my forest (not my forest), I hear the machinery again and adrenalin shoots through me. I remind myself that cutting trees on forestland is inevitable, and that people are happy to have the work these jobs provide.

While the noise frazzled my nerves yesterday morning, an idea hit me. Why should I be the only one feeling discombobulated? Without complaining, I wondered if there was a way to let these loggers know how I felt.

No, that’s not honest. What I really wondered was if there might be a legal, not-too-cruel way to get even with them. I know it’s not very nice, so please stop looking at me that way. You try living with this bone-crunching noise and destruction for weeks on end.

If you check the date of this post, you’ll see we’re on the homestretch for Halloween. That means costumes, candy, and decorations. Scarecrows top the list of my favorite fall decorations, and that gave me an idea. I moseyed on over to the Wal-Mart yesterday, and picked up a child-sized scarecrow for $6.88. While all the scarecrows smiled, I chose one with just dots for eyes. I didn’t want one with cheery, friendly eyes. No, that wouldn’t do. Just a blank-eyed look over a simple smile. Then, last night, after the loggers were finished for the day, I crept out through the woods. It took awhile, because while I whine about losing trees (that aren’t mine), we still have trees back there.

Anyway, I crept into the woods, just in case some of the workers remained on site. Then I posted my little scarecrow in the bushes a few feet back from our property line. It’s close enough, the workers should still see it. I hope it freaks them out.

Then, as they clear eastward along the rest of our property line, guess what? I’m going to move the scarecrow, so they see it again. And then, again. I’ll keep doing it, then on maybe the third or fourth move, I’ll prop up one of the straw arms so it looks like it’s pointing at them. That was my son’s idea, and I think it’s genius. I might even go get another scarecrow (heck, $6.88 is a steal considering the emotional release this is giving me) and put it where they’ll pass when they’re driving away with their loads of trees. Make them think there are more scarecrows, and yes, that the scarecrows are watching. Heeheehee.

When my sister reads this, she’ll grunt and say something about my passive aggressive tendencies. She’ll be right, but I don’t care. It’s not like I can chain myself to all the trees in the destruction zone.

Although I could chain scarecrows to some. That would be fun. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Ode to kind, funny, and gentle heroes

For some reason, my 19-year-old was watching Thomas the Tank Engine this morning. I didn’t ask why. She’s home on a break from college; she needs a little R and R. There are worse things, right? I did get caught up watching it over her shoulder, though.

In the story line, a young train engine named Edward wanted to be a hero. He understood that to be a hero, you must be strong, fast, and stern. When he set out in search of heroic deeds, however, he met with situations where he helped people by being kind, funny, and gentle. He thought he was a failure, because he hadn’t learned to be a hero. But when he returned to his station, news of his helpfulness had arrived before him. Everyone cheered that he was a hero, not by being strong, fast, and stern, but by being his kind, funny, gentle self.

I love feel-good stories.

On that note, I was walking down the middle of Front Street a few months ago with some other parents. It was a parade, and many of the people who lined up along the road cheered and waved at us.

“Go, parents!” they called. “Great job, parents!”

A friend walking next to me said, “You know, I think this is the first time I’ve been applauded publicly for being a parent. It feels pretty good.”

Two days later, I walked with the same group of parents in a parade in Victoria, B.C. There we had an equally warm reception. In fact, some who watched us from their folding chairs had made signs just for us.

Go parents! You’re awesome, thanks for coming!

Talk about validation.

I decided a long time ago that I was going to love parenting. I babysat a lot as a teenager, so I wasn’t na├»ve about the reality. Kids threw up on me, I changed blow-out diapers, and I dealt with numerous children who wouldn’t go to bed at night. Once I even ended up having to take a tiny boy with asthma to the ER. I knew that parenting could be exhausting, discouraging, and sometimes scary.

And, I knew I wanted to be a mom more than anything else in the world. In school when teachers asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was, “A mom.”

“Okay,” I was told, “but what else? You have to pick something else.”

After hearing that enough times, I revised my answer to, “Also, a writer.” That didn’t get any better response than mom.

I guess that’s why when I watched this morning’s hero story on Thomas the Tank Engine, I immediately thought about what it meant to be a parent. Society (sorry, I can’t think of a better term than that) tells us that being a parent is important, but what really gets us accolades are the outside jobs we do. Even accounting jobs are sexier than parenting. We get paid and recognized for those jobs. Promotions, raises, people saying thank you, and letters of recommendation when we move on to something new. And while those paying jobs make a difference—both to our bank accounts and because someone needs to do them—sometimes it’s nice to be recognized just for being a good parent. For being kind, funny, and gentle, or any of the many qualities required from parenting-moment to parenting-moment.

If you’re a mom or dad, I wish you’d walked with us in those parades. I wish you’d been recognized too, just for being a parent. Not that parade days are easy. We spent hours waiting in the sun, making sure our kids—who marched in front of us in the band—stayed hydrated. Everyone’s feet hurt, one mom had some worrisome hip problems, and I realized halfway down Front Street while waving at the crowd that my bra hooks had come undone. Like most things in parenting, it wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.

Thanks for being awesome, fellow parents! Thanks for showing up, and doing the hard stuff. You’re making a difference.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Egg and I

I wrote this column for the paper a few months back about one of my favorite authors, Betty MacDonald.

Have you ever read The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald? If you haven’t, please do.

The Egg and I is the hilarious memoir of a young bride living in Chimacum (yes, that Chimacum, just across the Hood Canal Bridge) in the late 1920s. Betty was a Seattle girl transplanted to an isolated farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Her closest neighbors were the original Ma and Pa Kettle, and I don’t mean that in comparison. Their names (in the book, anyway) were actually Ma and Pa Kettle. In the 1947 movie The Egg and I starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, the Kettles were such a big hit that the characters were launched into eight sequel films starring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. I highly recommend watching at least one—big fun for the whole family.

The fact that The Egg and I was made into a movie should give you a hint at its popularity. The book was so successful (as Wikipedia assures me) that in the two years following its 1945 publication, it was reprinted on nearly a monthly basis. I believe it; my 1947 copy is from the twenty-third printing. So cool.

An international sensation, Betty’s books for some reason proved especially popular in Germany. I like to picture them—German-speaking, sausage-eating, Lederhosen-wearing, post–World War II men and women—enjoying funny stories from a young farm wife in Chimacum. I suppose they admired someone who had experienced tough times, but retold them with optimism and humor.

I’ve read The Egg and I more times than I can remember, and except for that first magical read, my favorite was one winter’s day a few years ago when I shared the book with my whole family. We had spent a couple of days with grandparents, and as the ferry is too expensive to ride westbound home when you’re paying for a car and driver and six passengers, we chose to drive the two and one-quarter hours around by way of Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Which is a story for another day.

Anyway, with all five kids and my husband captive in the van, I pulled out The Egg and I and nonchalantly said something like, “This is an interesting book. There’s one part I like that’s pretty good, if I can find it.” And I started reading, at page one.

Two and one-quarter hours later, my voice was gone, and everyone was laughing and wanting more. I had six Betty MacDonald converts on my hands.

Betty was the queen of finding humor in the everyday, and hitting the right subtle notes to turn a potentially funny story into something side-splitting. When she describes her ornery cook stove as being against her, you get it. We all have appliances (or computers, or cars) that seem out to get us.
Because you’ve been nice and read to the end, here’s a treat from The Egg and I:

“By one o’clock on winter Sundays the house was shining clean, my hair was washed, Bob had on clean clothes and dinner was ready. Usually, just as we sat down to the table, as if by prearranged signal, the sun came out. True it shone with about as much warmth and lust as a Victorian spinster and kept darting behind clouds as if it were looking for its knitting and sticking its head out again with an apologetic smile, but it was sun and not rain. The mountains, either in recognition of the sun or Sunday, would have their great white busts exposed and I expected momentarily to have them clear their throats and start singing Rock of Ages in throaty contraltos.”

Check out The Egg and I and Betty’s other wonderful books—including the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children—at your local library. If they don’t have these titles, request them!  

Monday, August 29, 2016

I Am From

Last May, a pair of dark-eyed juncos set up house in the hanging basket outside our kitchen window. We watched them gather materials to make the nest, including hairs from our white dog, Ez. We watched them commence incubation, and at one point I snuck a photo of four small eggs.

The day finally arrived when Mama and Papa Bird darted to and from the basket, bringing food to their tiny babies. Even in the shallow nest, we could barely see the tufts of their heads.

Every day they grew. By day six they were standing up to be fed, their necks stretched long to reach the food, their beaks open so wide you could see down their throats.

Then, on day nine, they just flew away. One dropped to the ground before hopping off to try its wings. The others flew short distances until they were safely in the bushes. I wondered if they’d all meet up somewhere under the blackberry bushes and cuddle up when night fell. None of them have returned to the nest.

So, our Libby graduated from high school in June. She’s our third, so we’ve done this before. But it wasn’t until this time around that I realized I don’t love when my kids graduate from high school.  In fact, it occurs to me that I’ve been tricked.

Libby has received graduation cards. “Congratulations, graduate!” “You made it!” “Best wishes as you follow your own path.” Yes, she’s earned it.

But then people cheerfully say to us, “How does it feel to have another high school graduate? Only two kids to go … You’ll be done before you know it!”

All these kind words are offered as if we want our chicks to leave the nest. Why do we want them to leave? We like them. Just when we’ve trained them to clean up after themselves, have interesting conversations, and be awesome, we’re supposed to rejoice that they’re leaving?

You don’t have to remind me that it’s good for them. I know they need to have their own experiences, start their own lives, conquer their own little part of the world. If they chose to just stay home forever, we’d have to kick them out for their own good—that’s the final goal.

But it still feels like a mean trick. When Daughter #2—Cassidy—graduated, two hours after the ceremony we drove her to start summer term at her out-of-state college.  That was four years ago, and she has only been home for visits since.  We celebrate that she’s independent and thriving, but we miss her, too. That day-to-day closeness we had stopped abruptly, and it all started with high school graduation.

Libby wrote this poem a while back. Every time I come across it, I end up reading it twice.

I Am From 
by Libby

I am from rainy days cuddled on the couch reading

I am from listening to my mum’s stories and cracking up

I am from wearing out the VHS tape of Beauty and the Beast

I am from crouching in the corner motionless and soundless just so I could watch my sisters play

I am from saying bless you whenever someone sneezes

I am from moving wood assembly-line style during the summer

I am from unsuccessful vegetable gardens

I am from jobs on Saturdays and church on Sundays

I am from reading the book before watching the movie

I am from everyone singing different songs while playing Mexican Train

I am from a calendar filled with times carefully planned out but being late anyway

I am from library trips being frequent but never boring

I am from ABBA, the Go-Go’s, and Queen

I am from loudly calling into the woods for our bearlike dogs

I am from “What did you learn today?” at the dinner table

We are where our kids are from, and I’m as curious as anybody to see where they’re going. Mama and Papa Bird only got nine days. I’m thankful we have them for eighteen years.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Living the dream, in my van, in the rain

Another favorite column, published in the paper a couple of years ago.

I’m sitting in my minivan with a Diet Coke, a book (never leave home without a book), my laptop, and just enough dark chocolate to keep me happy but not feeling too guilty.  Maybe a little guilty. 

It’s Saturday.  My kids are attending a church youth activity, so I’m just waiting in the parking lot.  I already ventured off to do my Costco shopping, but I still have almost an hour to wait. It’s pouring buckets outside.   A sudden creek running down the pavement between the cars changed my initial thought of, “Maybe I’ll go inside and see if I can help.”  No.

When I was a teenager, I never would have guessed I would enjoy writing on a computer.  I made it through college with my trusty electric typewriter. I loved the challenge of writing a paper, beginning to end, one time through.  The sentences and paragraphs have to be well-planned when you know you can’t go back and make changes.  One idea in the wrong place, and Bam!  Start over on another sheet of paper.  Talk about a rush!  Do nerds have extreme sports?  Yes we do.

When I started dating a boy my senior year who owned a computer (the only one in his apartment complex), for months I refused his offers to let me use it for writing essays.  Computers, I reasoned, fell in the same category as day planners.  The truly creative needed neither.

I finally gave it a try, and never went back.  Goodbye White-Out, hello cut and paste!  Also, I married the boy.  The computer was not a drawback.

When I was a teenager, I never – ever – would have pictured myself with a personal computer on my lap, in my car.  This is not how I envisioned my grownup self.  I pictured me…with ten children, all out exploring the woods near my house, some with books in their hands, while my lumberjack husband tended trees in the forest.  (I liked the idea of a lumberjack, but never the associated destruction.  Maybe a forest ranger?)  Meanwhile, my housekeeper, Alice, would do the laundry and tend dinner.  And me?  I’d be by an open window, dressed in something soft and flowing, my electric typewriter clicking out my latest romance novel.  Diet Coke and chocolate nearby.

I got halfway there.  Still working on that novel. I had five kids, I’m at this moment wearing soft, loose sweatpants, and while I don’t have a housekeeper, there’s a job chart for the kids posted in the kitchen.  That’s something.  Also…my computer geek sweetheart both plants trees and cuts firewood.  I’m a lucky, lucky woman.

I read one of those Facebook memes recently:  “Don’t give up your day dream.”  Get it?  Like don’t give up your day job.  I like it.  Sitting with my laptop in my van, the back productively full of groceries, my usefulness as a mother secured as I sit and wait to complete chauffeur duties, I feel pretty successful.  I think the teen me would be okay with it.  My daydreams are still intact. 

When I’m done writing here, I’ll switch to the other document I have open: a romantic story I’m working on that whisks me far from parking lots and errands and whatever.  Modern mom, dreamy girl.  That feels right.  Thank heaven for minivans and laptops, and daydreams.

The rain is holding steady, and the wind is picking up. Still a long wait for the kids.  I don’t mind it.  I’m a princess perched in her tower, an authoress weaving stories from inside a deceptively common minivan.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Teaching Sandwich Education

I guess I’ve been a mom for awhile now, because one of my kids is getting married. While Cassidy’s wedding plans have kept us busy all winter, I think I’m still in denial. Where did my little girl go? I could swear it was just yesterday she went everywhere in her pink dance leotard with a feather boa around her neck, dragging her favorite doll by one arm. Now I have pictures on my phone of her trying on her wedding dress.

Looking through some of my columns from oh so many years ago, I found this one, and thought I’d share.

“Do you have a sandwich?”

My sister, Cindy, was standing in her kitchen talking on the phone (to me), when her 4-year-old, Josh, wandered in. She said he looked around the kitchen, frowned, and asked, “Do you have a sandwich?”

Not, Will you make me a sandwich? but Do you have one? As though she would say, “Why, yes!” and pull one out of her pocket.

We had a good laugh, and wondered whether we’d be successful in teaching our kids about where sandwiches come from; about the value of work, and self-sufficiency.

Cindy wondered, “Does Josh know that I make sandwiches, or does he think I’m just someone in possession of sandwiches?”

There are so many things kids need to learn from their parents. What if we forget to teach them something important? What if little Josh never learns where sandwiches come from? What if he never realizes his mother puts work into making his sandwiches, and she makes them because she loves him?

If he doesn’t learn this at home, he’ll pick up a few ideas at school about sandwiches, probably not the ones his mom would want him to learn. The day may come when he arrives home from school with a dab of jam on his shirt, and his mother says, “I sent you ham and cheese today. Where did the jam come from?” And her son, smiling at the memory, will say, “I traded with Sarah. She had peanut butter and jelly.”

Life may start to look like one big sandwich bar to him, all his for the asking.

That’s when it’s time for The Talk.

“See, honey,” you’ll say, “sandwiches are made in the kitchen. They start with bread.” Maybe get his father involved; it wouldn’t hurt him to remember all that goes into sandwich making.

Then Josh will know, and he will learn the value of a sandwich.

But I digress.

The sheer number of things we need to teach our children is overwhelming. Often I worry that I remembered to teach my first two kids a certain principle, but forgot all about it by the time my other three came along. The older girls know not to run with scissors, but did I remember to tell Megan? Do they all know not to stick their tongues to a frozen flag pole? By the time they leave home will I have managed to teach them how to mop a floor, how credit cards work, and how to say, “I’m not interested” to a telemarketer? Will they all receive adequate reminders to have good posture?

Recently I’ve been quizzing our younger kids on our phone number and address. I always get a little thrill when they get it right. In fact, this morning when Cassidy, 13, wrote our address on a form and I caught a glance at it, I felt myself exhale just a bit that she didn’t make a mistake.

Some things that we want our kids to know are life skills, some are for safety, some are just so they’re not dippy. I went to college with a few people who thought New Mexico was south of the border, and that all sinks have garbage disposals, some just without a switch.

There should really be a checklist, like a chart of recommended vaccinations, or qualifications your child should have before starting kindergarten. A “How To” for preparing smart and responsible citizens, placed in your hand before you convey your newborn home from the hospital. It could be called, “What Your Child Should Know before Being Released from Home,” and be broken down into years.

By their seventh birthdays, for instance, they should know not to light a match when there is flour floating in the air, not to run with lollipops in their mouths, and never to drink bathwater. Also, they should know the three best ways to stop hiccups, legitimate reasons for staying home sick, and why you should not attempt to bathe with your cat.

The list has never been made because it’s endless. There’s just no way we can cover it all. From teaching them what to do when the house fills with smoke to how to play nicely, I just have to hope my kids know enough to take them successfully to adulthood.

And, by all means, I must make sure they learn where sandwiches come from.