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)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Whisperers of the Forest

             We don’t have to go to the extreme of Jains, who wipe the ground in front of them to avoid stepping on bugs or spiders, but it does matter how we treat the creatures of nature. Catch-and-release fishing, for instance, might be a good start towards treating wild animals better, though some animal rights fanatics point out the cruelty of even that sporting method. John McPhee, a fanatical fisherman who has written a book about shad fishing, gives their arguments in that book. Then you expect him to defend the sport he loves. Instead he says, somewhat shamefacedly, “They do have a point.” Perhaps, he says, generations years hence will be aghast to think how we treated animals.
             I have long been neighbors with wild animals, having lived for thirty-five years on the mountain, not at the edge of nature but in its lap, not on the margins of the woods but in the forest itself. I allow wasps to fly in and out of my open windows along with butterflies. Yellow jackets, though, are bullies and deserve to be knocked out of the way with my hand if they're hovering while I eat lunch on the deck. I can almost but not quite understand what the raccoons are saying when they warble to each other through the woods at night. I miss the porcupines. I haven't seen one for decades. I love the blue-tailed skinks disappearing with a flash of cerulean under the front step. I would like to see more snakes in my yard. Contrary to iconography, I consider snakes good omens for the land.
             Once I was on a hike with a ten-year-old boy who found a snail in the middle of the trail. Afraid someone would step on it, he stooped and picked it up. Though snails usually retreat into their shells at the slightest sign of danger, this one stayed fully extended in Condor's hand as Condor stroked and petted it with one finger. The snail seemed to be in sensual heaven, even turning on its back, like a dog, for more petting on its belly. Condor, the snail whisperer.
            One summer day I was sitting on the bench under my cherry tree when the bear walked by (my bear, Mr. Bear) through the woods behind me. Stately and huge in his shaggy coal-black mantel, he ambled om past, then scrambled up the hill. If he knew I was there, he didn't care. That evening three does and a pair of fawns galloped under the plum tree, frightened by some unseen danger in the woods. Later, at dusk, on an errand outside I heard my barred owl on the path just behind my house, very close, very loud. Early the next morning a fox stepped on the path in front of the house and stood there barking. Did I have a whisperer's connection with these wild animals who called my home their home? I had talked to each of them, whispering my thanks. I wouldn't mind being the bear, deer, owl, and fox whisperer of the forest.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Murmuration in the Park

      A group of starlings is a murmuration. Murmurations flow and swoop in aerial dances, individual birds communicating by anticipation, like a line of chorus girls, each knowing when to lift her leg at the precise rhythmical moment. Dancers of all traditions communicate in the same way. Whales in pods communicate.
     With that inspiration, a performance troupe called Lelavision (my son and daughter-in-law, Ela and Leah) created Interspecies Communication, both a sculpture, conceived and built by Ela, of a starling with movable wings, flying over a truck-bed whale, and a community event, a gathering of dancers and musicians of many traditions, conceived and organized by Leah. This murmuration took place in Duwamish Waterway Park in Seattle last weekend, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
      I arrived the day before the event to help assemble the sculpture, which had been packed in pieces onto a Mitsubishi flatbed for travel. It was after dark when the forklift raised the bird, with its sixty-foot wingspan, into the air and lowered it carefully atop the thirty-foot poles bolted to the truck at the back of the cab.
It glowed and glittered in the floodlights, its two hundred smaller birds, lined up in the open-frame wings, twirling and twinkling in the wind.
       The next day the whale was assembled over the truck (head on the cab; tail drooped down the back end),
and at 3:00 two men from a yoga institute in Seattle, one dressed in white with a tall white turban, started the event with a gong and a drum.
Then the president of the Duwamish tribe, on whose land the park had been established, accepted tributes. After that the murmuration swirled and swooped: an Indian mudra dancer in bright fluttery scarves and skirt; dancers of the Japanese Butoh, in white-face make-up, black pants, and white tunics;
a gaggle of children dancing with miniature movable-wing bird sculptures they had made; a large black woman in a high black turban drumming and singing for the Interplay dancers (one of whom danced in bright yellow rubber boots). The dancers were on the grass, the musicians on the back of the whale, the audience facing the river and a swoop of crows over the Seattle city-scape beyond it. Above everything rose the sculpture with the bird's long beak pointing into the distance and the smaller birds in its wide-spread scalloped wings whirling and twinkling against the black clouds that threatened but never produced rain.
        Then Ela, on the stage, started playing his smaller sculpture-instruments, recording their music in a feed-back loop. Behind him Leah pulled a strap hanging from the body of the bird, down and up, making the bird’s wings wave. As the music swelled orchestrally and the bird flew gracefully thirty feet overhead, Leah, dancer and aerial artist, pulled herself into the strap, letting her acrobatics and rhythmical movements keep the bird flying, wingbeat by wingbeat.
Somersault by arabesque she hoisted herself higher and higher until she was just under the body of the bird. Ela left the music to loop along by itself and climbed onto the top of the whale’s head. Muscularly, he and Leah pulled themselves into the open framework of the bird.
They lay down in the body, their arms outstretched like wings. Because they were in the sky and the bird's wings were flowing, the impression, movement by movement, was that the dancers, too, were flying: dancers, bird, whale, and audience in an interspecies communication. Finally the dancers stood upright in the body of the bird,
their arms straight overhead, flying over the trees, through the sky, and on to unknown heavens, their silver-gray and sequined outfits sparkling like the inset twirling birds against the dramatically dark sky.
         Back on the ground, Leah led us all in a communal dance: “Walk. Come on. Everyone can walk. Run. Spin,” and so on, until most of the audience was running and spinning and dancing. Then she had us join hands and led us in a spiral, into the center and back out to a circle. 
        After more dances, and recitations by Seattle's poetry-slam winner, and fabulous nonsense-word singing by a Seattle artist, Ela invited the audience-participants – anyone who wanted to – to climb up the whale-tail ramp and pull the strap to send the bird a-flying. It was surprisingly easy to do. Little children, hardly tall enough to reach the strap, could pull it.
The trick was to listen to the bird's communication of movement, to find its graceful, meditative rhythm – the pull-and-let-go, the beat of the twinkling wings. 
       As twilight darkened into night, we ate grilled hot dogs and continued the murmuration in smaller groups. Green and purple lights came on the sculpture. The wings twinkled with subtle color, no less aerial than those of the planes flying over our heads to a landing at SeaTac airport.
       The next day we disassembled everything, loaded the bird and the whale onto the truck,
and Ela drove it all home to await the next murmuration in some other city at some other time. If it comers near you, don't miss it.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

There's Nothing Like a Good Book

            That there is nothing like a good book is a truth my students at Rogue Community College didn't always know. One of the most important things I did during my teaching career was create an assignment that taught them that truth.
            One spring term, when I was reading The Fate of the Elephant, by Chadwick Douglas, a most excellent book, I couldn't help talking about it in my class on argumentative writing, in which students write about socio-political issues. Students listened, enthralled partly by the book and partly by the fact that anyone could be so fervent about a book. Suddenly I said, "I just had a great idea. I'll make a list of books, really good books, about various issues. Students can choose a book to read and make an oral report to the class."
            The students groaned. They thought that was a terrible idea. "What? Read a book? NO!" they said. Immediately, for that reason, I determined to do it.
            I spent my summer reading books about issues. My goal was to have a variety of issues, so each student would find a book on a topic of interest, and to make sure that each book on the list was of the can't-put-it-down sort. I ended up with thirty books covering five issues: environmental, judicial, cultural, political, and women's and gender issues. Books ranged from the very long (500 pages for A Civil Action, by Jonathan Carr) to the short but powerful (164 pages for Ultimate Punishment, Scott Turow's book about the death penalty. The latter was more popular than the former.) A few, like Orwell's 1984 and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, about apartheid in South Africa, were novels. Some, like The Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry, presented challenging ideas. Some, like Wendy Kaminer's Sleeping with Extraterrestrials, had deceptively lightweight titles. Topics ranged from genocide, as in We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, to issues closer to my students' personal experience, such as Reviving Ophelia, about the difficulties preadolescent girls face as they grow up in today's society. John McPhee, David Brower, T. C. Boyle, Alice Walker; Eric Schlosser on marijuana issues, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, Samantha Powers's A Problem from Hell, Anne Fadiman's great book, The Sprit Catches You and You Fall Down, about culture clashes between the Hmong and the American ways of treating epilepsy – famous books, great writers, good reading, and plenty of variety, in topic, reading level, and writing style. There was a lot to choose from, and it was all good. 
            I used this assignment for years, until the curriculum changed and I didn't have room for it in my syllabus. I would hand out the book list at the beginning of term, explaining that no two students could read the same book, that the books were on the "reserved" shelf in the library, and that after finishing the book, the student would give an oral report to the class.
            Inevitably students resisted this assignment with groans and unhappy faces. Then, just as inevitably, they would open their reports by saying, "I didn't want to read this book, but it's so good. You should all read this book." Their enthusiasm was the measure of my success. Certainly they learned something about the issues, and certainly their perspectives were broadened and they were made to think more deeply, but the more important lesson, the impetus for creating the assignment, was also ingrained: There's nothing like a good book.
        Sometimes, when I tell this story, friends ask for copies of the list. The books are as good as ever, but many other excellent books about issues have come out since I made this list, and some issues, like terrorism, have become important that weren't important then. I sometimes think I should update the list, but the compilation took enormous work, and, of course, since I'm no longer teaching, motivation has dwindled. But to look at the list brings back such good memories, not only of the books themselves, but also of my students, who learned, through it, one of the best lessons I ever taught.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Sudden Shift of Seasons

            Tomorrow is the fall equinox, officially the first day of autumn, but everywhere I went in town the other day people said, "I can't believe it's winter already." What they meant is that suddenly it's cool and rainy, and since that's what winter is like, that's the way they phrased it. It's not really winter – we are proud of having four distinct seasons in southern Oregon – but the seasons have shifted.  
            This autumn-that-seems-like-winter began, at my house, with a strange clanging sound in the night that I finally identified as rain in the gutter. Rain! – if not the beginning of winter, certainly the end of summer. Later the sound changed to the fuzziness of a steady Oregon-style drizzle. The air smells of damp earth, wet leaves, and, vaguely, wet ashes from the fire over the ridge.
            I feel like I've awakened from hibernation – only, of course, it was estivation, the long summer sleep. Not many animals estivate, but the human animal might, given the "lazy days of summer." Most animals, like the chipmunk on my deck, follow the other maxim, making hay while the sun shines. For three summers now I have watched him scurry around the flower boxes, burying his acorns in the soft dirt. Every spring, when I plant my zinnias and verbena on the sunny side of the deck and impatiens and geraniums on the shady side, I pull up the fruits of his labors, oak seedling after oak seedling with its long root deep in my pot.
            Unlike my chipmunk, I'm not ready for winter. There was no time between the lifting of fire restrictions, allowing me to run the machine that would split my firewood rounds into usable pieces, and the rainfall now soaking all that wood Mike and I worked so hard to get down the hill. The rocks that snow and frost knocked out of the rock wall last winter are still lying on the ground, leaving holes in the wall that weaken its structure. I have been meaning all summer to repair that wall, before more snow and frost bring more of it tumbling down, but the heat, the smoke, and procrastination kept me in estivation.
            I am dismayed that my nice wooden table and chairs, for summer breakfast on the deck, are getting wet because I haven't stored them in the shed for the winter. The house plants are still on the porch by the front door, taking the space where, in winter, I keep several days' worth of firewood, easily accessible, for building the morning fire. This morning, when I built the first fire of the season, I had to walk to the woodshed with a flashlight for an armful of firewood to carry back to the house.
            Is it already time for sweaters and heavy socks? What clothes do I have that are not for summer but not for winter, either? I look fondly again at my pretty sweaters, my long wool skirt, my leather-and-fur (fake leather, fake fur) coat. This winter maybe I'll wear my long woolen cloak more than I did last winter. I'm old enough to look eccentric.
            Gradually I remember the pleasures of winter – the fire in the stove, winter clothes, cross-country skiing. Today I'll take the house plants inside and stack firewood on the front porch. I'll get the firewood split this weekend and fill the woodshed with wood, where it should dry quickly. And when the rain lets up and the air is less chilly, I'll fix the rock wall, too.