Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Virtues of Silence

            Among spiritual practitioners silence is often considered a virtue. When I was a hippy, I occasionally took a vow of silence for a day, just to see how it would affect me. When I was in Atlanta recently for my sister's memorial service, it was not spiritual motivation but laryngitis that enforced silence on me, and not for a day but for most of the week.
            On the flight to Atlanta, I caught a cold that settled into laryngitis. I thought at first I could whisper my eulogy into the microphone at the service, but by that time, I could barely croak even a whisper. My brother read my piece for me. He read beautifully, and, listening, I let the tears flow down my face as I wouldn't have done if I had read the piece myself.
            Afterwards, at the reception, I whispered hoarsely how glad I was to see so and so until I met a speech therapist, a friend of my sister, who told me that the cure for laryngitis was not to speak at all, not even in whispers. I realized that that was true, since by now my whispers, too, were vanishing. After that I smiled and hugged people and touched my lips and shook my head in explanation, but I didn't attempt to say another word for four days.
            For the rest of the week I was but a silent participant at family gatherings. But how much does one participate when one can't talk? I had previously sometimes thought I contributed little to conversation when I was with my siblings, but now it was remarkable how frequently I wanted to interject an opinion or a thought. Sometimes I tried writing down a thought, but by the time I finished expressing it on paper, the conversation had moved on without me.
            Maybe what I had to say wasn't that important, after all.
            A few years from now, when my siblings discuss the family gatherings during that week, they'll say to each other, "Wasn't Diana there? I thought she was, but I don't remember her." I moved among them like a silent ghost.
            After four days of complete silence, I started using my voice, but as little as possible. When I had to say something, I would explain in a whisper that I had laryngitis and then whisper my request: "Decaf latte, please." "What size?" the barista would whisper back. Once when I tried writing down my question, the person to whom it was addressed took the pen in hand to write an answer back.
            Isn't this curious behavior? Do we limp when we see someone on crutches? Do we close our eyes when we're around the blind? Why is laryngitis different?
            Maybe because silence is a virtue. Maybe, when we automatically lower our voices around someone with laryngitis, we're taking advantage of an opportunity to learn the benefits of quiet. Maybe we discover how unnecessary so much of our talk is, after all. "There are many fine things," Thoreau tells us, "which we cannot say if we have to shout."

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Taking Care of the Spiritual Self

            I've been having kind of a rough time lately – dealing with my sister's death, then immediately afterwards completely blowing my chances to get a job I wanted by doing badly at the interview, then spinning into despondency for having done that. On top of that, it's fall term, and I'm not teaching.
            Last weekend I hiked into the Red Buttes Wilderness Area on the Frog Pond-Cameron Meadows loop trail partly to see if I could still do a difficult hike after a summer of inactivity (knee injury, excessive heat, wildfire smoke) and partly, of course, to see what the trail would offer.
            Had I forgotten that every hike offers wonders? Had I forgotten that the mountains are a sure antidote for what ails me?
            After the first steep mile, my hiking partner and I entered an enchanted forest, where a thin white line of snow turned everything it touched into lace –­ every needle of every pine tree, every stone, root, or limb, every branch of every bush, every scabrous edge of bark. 
Gradually the snow deepened until we were kicking through a half inch or more. Where the sun had visited, briefly, before it tucked behind the mountain again, winter-brown stalks rose from wet earth. We walked from snow-sprinkled woods to sun-melted patches of browns to shaded open spaces where bushes, earth, rocks, and sticks were painted white.
           Flourishes of ice decorated the edges of Frog Pond. At Cameron Meadow, just under the Mt. Emily ridge, ice had spell-bound the pool into silent immobility.
            Occasionally we could see views of the aftermath of the Seattle fire, where it had spilled over the ridge onto the Middle Fork, burning in scallops down the mountain: a beige-brown scoop of burned trees here, a clump of black evergreens there. Green forest still dominated the mountain. This had not been the kind of fire that swept so fast over the Columbia Gorge or through Napa Valley. This was a friendly fire, the kind to be grateful for.
            At one turn in the trail, we saw, through the trees, a green mountainside polka-dotted with the pointed white cones of snow-burdened evergreens. On the Cameron Meadows trail autumn leaves covered the ground like a fabric of yellow and brown hues: tawny, flaxen, buff, terra cotta, tortoiseshell. A cluster of mushrooms complemented the colors.
            Once, when I stopped walking to take in the beauty of the forest – that carpet of yellow, the early afternoon dusk, the stark linearity of a clump of tall, white-skinned madrone trunks – I saw a bear clambering down one of those long slim madrones after a meal of berries at its top, descending hind end first, looking now over the right shoulder, now over the left, scooting as fast as a fireman down a pole, a rolling black ball on a white trunk.
            Even the hour's walk at the end of the hike, from our exit at the Cameron Meadows trailhead to the car at the Frog Pond trailhead, usually boring and tedious, was enhanced that day by autumn trees and winter air.
            The next day I had a conversation with a friend about what we mean when we talk about the spiritual self (religion aside). I'm not sure I know. I long ago gave up the struggle about whether I am developing my spiritual self. It doesn't seem to matter. What does matter, and is probably relevant to that spiritual self I claim not to understand or to nourish, is that being on the mountain trail with its white beauty, its fallen leaves, and its galloping bear has left me a better person today than I was before.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Story from My Past Unfortunately Still Relevant Today

            The brave women who have spoken publicly about the sexual misconduct of people like Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby are helping bring those men to accountability for their actions. Their stories have also opened a path for women to tell about similar misconduct from lesser known men, stories that indicate that a certain permissibility of treatment towards women I had hoped was a part of the past apparently is not. To recognize its existence is the first step towards eradicating it. For that reason, I offer my own story, which takes place at Cambridge University in the late sixties.
            Because students at Cambridge take only one set of exams, at the end of their years at university, the weeks before exams are full of tension and anxiety. After exams, release explodes in the May balls, exotic all-night affairs at each of the colleges, accompanied by a week of other social gatherings, such as the sherry party I attended in the beautiful gardens of Queens College. Flattered to have been invited, I was dressed to English-society perfection. The gardens were beautiful, the grass thick and perfectly cut, as always at Cambridge, and the flowers in full bloom. Butlers passed glasses of sherry on trays through the crowd.
            At some point during the party a dashing young man brought me a glass of sherry and introduced himself as Ian somebody, a student at Trinity College. He was handsome and smart and debonair. He flattered me by his attentions, and he saw to it that my sherry glass was kept full. My head was spinning, but I was so inflamed by the occasion and by Ian's attentions that I didn't realize how drunk I was. Because in 1967 no one ever talked about the dangerous connection between sex and alcohol, I didn't know to be cautious. When Ian suggested I follow him to his digs at Trinity College, I had no objection.
            Nor did I object when he took me to bed. I was not fully aware of what I was doing, though Ian was. He never hesitated. My virginity was no deterrent. "Isn't it beautiful?" he kept saying, and I kept thinking, "No. It hurts. It hurts."
            When I woke up the next morning and saw the blood on the sheets and realized what I had done – what I had allowed to be done to me – I was horrified and in shock. My impulse was to run away. I had to go home. "You should wait until people are coming in and out of the gate," Ian said, reasonably. "Then you can leave without being noticed."
            But I was terrified. I had to go home. I had to flee, to get away from this man. I walked through the gates of Trinity College in the early hours of the morning, having obviously spent the night in a man's room, but the porter, who must have seen me, didn't say a word. (This was part of the culture of the day that allowed a Cambridge University student of good breeding and in good standing to rape a woman without repercussion.) I don't think I was stumbling, but I felt all tight within myself, my vision no bigger than one step in front of me. I made my way home and went straight to my room, where I stayed for days. I didn't speak to anyone and hardly emerged to get food from the kitchen. I lost myself in fantasies that Ian was in love with me and was going to marry me. I was not applying myself to my studies. I was isolated and in shock.
            Classic rape victim symptoms.
            My housemates were worried. Polly, another American student, came into my room to visit with me. Talking about the sherry party or Ian, whom she had seen at the party, or anything she thought might get me to talk about what had happened, she said, in the vernacular of the day, "I'm glad you didn't let him go all the way with you."
            I crumpled. Tears that had been shored up ever since that night poured out. I confessed what had happened. I cried at last, but I was still numb and depressed.
            One day, when the doorbell rang, someone called up the stairs, "Diana. There's someone here to see you."
            I went to the door. Ian was on the doorstep with two of his buddies. My housemates crowded behind me, watching protectively. Ian chatted with me for a few minutes, debonair and impersonal. He didn't come in, and he didn't say anything in particular. He left with an airy wave of the hand, turning to the street, followed by his cronies, who hadn't said a word.
            I have always thought that my housemates had called Ian and told him he needed to see me. And they were right. That's exactly what I needed to bring me out of my numbness. It didn't take me long after that to resume my studies and return to myself.
            No one called it rape. There were no counselors to go to with my story. There were no repercussions on Ian, who, as far as I know, might have deflowered a dozen more young women by deliberately getting them drunk and taking them home with him. I like to think he has learned better by now, that he has come to realize the harm he did to me, the invasion of my body, the trauma he put me through, the villainy of his behavior. I like to think that young men parallel in education, parentage, and social status today would not think of doing as he did. But recent events would have me believe, instead, that a culture of rape as tacitly acceptable in the eyes of some men still exists.
            It was many years before I could call this incident a rape, though it was certainly what we today call date rape. I am lucky that I recovered quickly and that the traumatic effect lasted only a few years. I was lucky in having friends who knew how to take care of me. But it has taken many, many years for me to admit that I was raped – "admit," as though the shame is mine. I do feel shame in admitting what was done to me, and I wonder – did Ian ever feel shame in having done it? Or did he boast to his friends about his exploits – "deflowered a virgin last night" – drinking beer in the pub the next day, before attending to his studies as usual?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Cutting a Pattern for the Perfect Autumn

      Season-makers, I think, should work from patterns. Variations from year to year would be allowed, but if the tailors would use patterns, they could cut the seasons according to what we already know is a perfect fit. My suggestion is that the tailors take this autumn as the pattern for all future autumns, since it is as near perfect as they come.
      Consider, for instance, color.

The tailors this autumn have eschewed the washed-out blandness of some years, pale, uninteresting fabrics, in favor of vividness and sharpness.

They have shunned the monotony of last year's yellows in favor of a rich variety of hues and tints. We don't have to dig deep into our vocabularies to describe the trees. We can take one look and shout, "Red! Yellow! Bronze! Orange! Pink! Burgundy!"

and then if we want to get closer, we can lean in and whisper, "Cinnabar. Magenta. Amber. Terra cotta. Russet. Mauve. Ferruginous."

      Next to color, the most important consideration for a perfect autumn is rain. A long autumn of dry days is wearing on the nerves, since we are never far from the thought that without winter water we face summer drought. Our spirits begin to dry up. We lose the spring in our step. We languish in gloom even under bright skies. On the other hand, an overly wet autumn doesn't give us a chance to breathe. When it rains too long our spirits are dampened. Our step becomes weighted. We peer at the sky as though from under water, looking for that blue that will give us a chance to come up for air. This autumn, which, as I say, should serve as the pattern, has given us a dash of rain now and then, every once in a while a good hard downpour to promise a strong, wet winter, and plenty of balmy, sunny days when we can breathe deeply and swim happily in autumn air.
      Temperature is perhaps the most temperamental element of all, and tailors could maybe make some adjustments in this autumn along these lines. It's easy to spoil the whole outfit by getting things either too cold and dry or too warm. Colored leaves go with cool weather like scones with tea, and cheese with wine. Autumn should be crisp, with nights cold enough to sweeten the apples and days just cool-tipped. This autumn has been a little too warm for the perfect pattern piece. Frost hasn't even killed my zinnias yet. The overall feeling isn't bad, day and night, but adjustments would be in order.
      The night sky of autumn is important, too. It should be keen and lustrous, something with an edge to it, something tinged with excitement or desire. Imperfect autumn nights – too warm, too wet – seem a little warped, the stars globbed onto the sky with glue. Autumn nights that serve as the pattern have a crescent moon and a scattering of stars cut out by a precision die and incised into the sky.
      So there you have it. That's how autumn ought to be, so let the pattern-makers take note: for color, rain, and night skies, (not quite for temperature), this autumn is a perfect fit.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eulogy for my sister Linda

My sister Linda, a year and a half older than I, died on Oct. 13, from Lewy body dementia. My post this week is my eulogy to her, dedicated to her memory.
Linda Rose Stephens, 1943-2017
            Linda had our parents to herself for a year and a half, but I know, by extrapolation from the person she was in later years, that she was not jealous and angry when I arrived but generous and loving. I adored my older sister. We played dress-up together, had a wedding for Raggedy Ann and Andy, explored the woods like little elves, climbed the mimosa tree like monkeys. Dad's nickname for Linda was Monkey. When Linda went to first grade, I moped so much that Mom and Dad put me in kindergarten, but Linda shared school with me. She taught me to read. For twelve years I followed her through school. At the beginning of every school year, teachers would say to me, "Are you as smart as your sister?"
            When Linda was a senior in high school, she wrote in my yearbook, "You have been my roommate for so many years it will be hard to break a new one in." We angled the heads of our beds in a corner so we could whisper late into the night, commiserating about the girls who snubbed us and mooning over the boys we loved. Linda handed down her clothes to me. We participated in church youth activities together, played in band together (Linda on clarinet, I on drums), were in the same Girl Scout troop, camping and canoeing and doing good deeds. Linda learned to sew through Girl Scouts and was a fine seamstress. It was through Girl Scouts that she learned about occupational therapy and decided to make that her career.
            The summer before Linda's sophomore year in college, a man in our youth group at church asked me if Linda could cook. She couldn't, but he married her, anyway. Consequently, maybe, the marriage didn't last, and Linda moved back to Atlanta to raise her two boys and create a sparkling career. I have always had the greatest respect for her for doing both things so well.
            I knew Linda as a sister and a friend, but not very well as an OT. I remember when she got her Masters degree, and I was vaguely aware of her leadership in the Georgia Occupational Therapy Association. Linda was never very good at blowing her own horn, and I understood how good an OT she was only when I witnessed her at work. I was so impressed with the way she handled the kids and, especially, with how much both the kids and their parents loved Linda. They thought the world of her.
            Linda's happiest adult years were those with Bruce. She relaxed with him. The sharp edges blunted. She enjoyed life's pleasures. I am grateful to Bruce for providing that for her.
            The last years were a painful degeneration.
My siblings at my new house, 2010 (L-R: Sharon, Laura, Lee, Linda)
 It broke my heart to find her less and less cogent each time I visited her, all that intelligence and sweetness rotting away by her disease. I felt so far away and useless at my home in Oregon. I sent her cards twice a week until, last spring, even those became useless. All I had left was thoughts and sorrow.
The sisters at the first nursing facility Linda was in, 2014 (L-R: Diana, Linda, Sharon, Laura)
            I am inexpressibly sad to have lost my sister. There is a hole in our midst when the siblings get together. It is hard to think of us as four instead of five. I know now the truth of something I said in an essay many years ago, about seeing a V of geese flying south: "Flying exactly, symmetrically in its place among the seven dark gray silhouettes, but barely distinguishable against the pearl-grey clouds, was an albino goose. Keeping up wingbeat for wingbeat in the rhythmic pulse of flight, it was like a negative of its neighbors, like a placeholder. It must be like that to have a beloved companion die: an emptiness in the shape of that person where that person had once always been."

            There will always that emptiness now in the place where Linda had once always been. She is that albino goose in the flock of our siblings.
2012. L-R: Diana, Lee, Linda, Laura, Sharon
 I am going to miss my older sister.
2009 (I am in front, Linda behind me)