Thursday, August 17, 2017

On the Oregon Coast

            Car-camping isn't my usual recreation, but I thoroughly enjoyed last week's trip (compensation for the scuttled backpacking trip in the high Sierra) that Mike and I took on the Oregon coast: from Bandon up the coast, past the Heceta Bay Lighthouse, 

to Nehalem Bay, then inland for two nights in motels for wine tasting in the Willamette Valley, an afternoon at Oregon Garden (with its amazing conifers-used-like-flowers garden and a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), and a day at beautifully forested and waterfall-rich Silver Falls State Park, where I wanted so badly to swim in those luscious pools! 

We took long walks on extended stretches of white-sand beaches, walked through the coastal forest at Shore Acres to see the newly arrived California sea lions, barking and baying on the rocks; kayaked on the Nehalem River; and stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel,

named not for the beach in Newport, Oregon (that's Nye Beach), but for the American bookseller and publisher who was a major literary figure in Paris between the two World Wars. Its literary-themed rooms – Shakespeare, Kesey, Colette, etc., including the Jane Austen room, where we stayed – made it a place where I could ask people, with complete appropriateness, "What are you reading now?" 
            The Oregon State Parks where we camped were crowded with both RVs and tent campers. For a person used to wilderness camping, the proximity of neighbors was unsettling, but I did appreciate the way so many people were using these parks. Mostly they were families (though I might not have seen the more elderly couples, enclosed in RVs). They didn't seem to be just camping for the night on their way somewhere else, as Mike and I were doing, but staying for a week or two weeks. This was their vacation, and what a wonderful vacation it was. The kids dashed around on their bicycles. Cars carried kayaks on their roofs. Little boats, fishing gear, and beach toys lay about campsites. Fathers and sons threw footballs. People walked the beaches, flew kites, built sand castles. Dogs chased balls or bit at waves. In the campgrounds, people sat under canvas tarps at night, playing cards by lantern light. It did my heart good to see so many people outdoors, eating, sleeping, enjoying themselves without technological devices.
            Besides the numbers of people, I was impressed with their varieties – the predominantly but not entirely Hispanic family that camped next to us at Sunset Beach State Park; the Hispanic wedding party with a couple of white people mixed in that we passed at Silver Falls State Park; the number of mixed-race couples we observed at restaurants and on the streets; the families with dark-skinned and light-skinned children; and that's not even counting the Indians running the motels or the foreign-born visitors we had breakfast with at the Sylvia Beach Hotel: a young Russian woman who taught physics at a community college in California and owned fourteen horses (there with her American-born security-guard husband, who wrote crime novels); a woman from England; an Irishman who had been living in Milan for many years. There was the tediously voluble owner of the Tsunami Gallery in Gardiner, who maybe talked so much because, in a tiny town so diminished from its glory days as a bustling port, he had someone new to talk to; the attendant at Prehistoric, a fabulous store in Lincoln City with fossils of fish, petrified wood, thunder egg rocks, trilobites, ammonites, and similar marvels, who spoke with such enthusiasm about the archeological process of finding and cleaning fossils that I thought to share one's passion with people who are interested must be the best thing in the world; the four-year-old boy hiking up the hill from Winter Falls at Silver Falls State Park, with his tiny back-pack and hiking stick, and he was so-o-o tired already, and his mother said, "What do you do when you face something difficult? Do you give up?" He sullenly didn't answer, but then, with a burst of speed, even running a couple of steps, hiked strongly to the top of the hill and waited, breathing hard, for his mother to catch up.
            With only one exception (the surly young man who rented us a kayak, and why should he be so unpleasant, with such a job on the lovely Nehalem River?), everyone we met or even observed was pleasant, friendly, and good-natured. The varieties of people foreshadowed a more happily mixed nation in years to come, and the children having a good time with their families in the outdoors foretold happy generations in the future. My car-camping and motel-staying vacation reconfirmed in me that (since I couldn't imagine that people so much enjoying life and being so pleasant were Trump voters) there is hope for our nation.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Waterfall Magic in the Hottest Days of Summer

          It has been hot, hot, hot all week, over 100º in the valley. Monday afternoon I started to drive to Ashland for yoga class, then abruptly changed my mind. It was too hot to leave the mountain. For the first time since I joined this yoga class, I played hooky.  
          Nonetheless, I was in town yesterday, in spite of the predicted 116º, but that was because I was driving through the valley on my way home after a perfectly delicious night under the stars, tucked away in the forest at a 4000-foot altitude, listening to the musical tinkle of a waterfall after an evening swim that washed away all the day's heat.
            It was my friend Mike who took me there. We arrived, up a bumpy dirt road and down a mountain path, late in the evening, well after dinner. No one else was there. We gazed from the rim of a canyon onto a round pool at the bottom of a long, late-summer-thin, splayed-out waterfall.
We immediately set our sleeping bags on the ground and started the hike to the pool. The trail crossed the creek at the top of the waterfall, then turned treacherously slippery with loose dirt as it descended steeply into the canyon. Only exposed roots gave footholds. At the creek itself we clambered over logs and rocks till we came to a vertical rock wall holding up the waterfall's pool. Here we had to do a short spurt of real rock-climbing before we stood at the lip of the pool with the waterfall on the far side, forty feet high.
            The water was brackish and dark, pooled in a perfectly circular bowl in the rock. The top of the canyon rose vertically above us, its rounded opening thirty feet across. Some people in Ashland lead a "secret waterfall vortex tour" to this place, which they call a "vortex field and dimensional doorway. …Standing next to the waterfall pool," they say, "you will feel the full and majestic power of this amazingly powerful positive energy Vortex."
            Maybe. I mean, maybe there's a vortex and maybe a dimensional doorway, but certainly, no matter how you word it (I favor words like "magical" and "naiads"), it's a beautiful and special place, even in late summer, when the aquatic energy is diminished into quietude. 
             But I am not one for just standing next to a pool of water and appreciating its spiritual power. Although it was 8:00 at night, although the water temperature intimated origins in snow-melt, although the air temperatures at this elevation were cooler than in town, I didn't hesitate to think about dimensional doorways or fairy dust before taking a dip.

I swam across the pool to the waterfall itself, at the base of the moss-covered rock wall that was ceaselessly dripping, with long streams of water flowing through the mosses and silver drops splashing off rock surfaces. The water was deliciously cold. I was utterly enchanted.
            We climbed back to the top of the canyon in slow-falling twilight. The wine in Mike's pack was still cold. The under-full moon was glowing white as it slipped behind trees on the far side of the canyon. One by one, stars pricked their way into the darkening sky. The bear we had seen on the way in, dashing lickety-split up the mountain, lingered in essence, a fairy-tale bear. Deep in the night, when everything was still, I woke up to hear the musical tinkle of the raindrop waterfall. I fell asleep again under its spell.
            The next morning we hiked back down to the pool. I had an even longer (and colder!) swim, exploring the entire little round hole of the canyon from the water. Then we climbed back to our campsite, had a bite of breakfast, packed up our sleeping bags, and walked out before the sun became unbearable. It was unbearable by the time I was doing errands in Medford, but not to me. My bones were still carrying the cold of the waterfall long after I came home to the mountain again.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Parliament of Owls

     I know you’ve seen a flock of geese and a litter of kittens, and you’ve probably also seen a herd of deer, a swarm of bees, and a murmuration of starlings, but I doubt that you’ve ever seen a parliament of owls. I can tell you it’s a beautiful thing. Strictly speaking, of course, I didn’t see the parliament of owls outside my bedroom window last week, but I did hear it, and it was one of the most wonderful things I have witnessed in nature, even though I was in my own bed in my own house in the dark at the time.
    Seven summers ago, when I moved into my new house, I would hear an owl calling night after night from somewhere near the house, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away, but always in the vicinity. One evening, in the fade of twilight, he suddenly swooped close above the floor of the deck, grazing my vision with a dazzling white underlayer of feathers and startling me with his immense size.
    I kept trying to find him in the binoculars when I heard him calling, but he was always too hidden in the trees until one night, before the fade of twilight, I heard him in a tree ten yards or so from the deck. Immediately retrieving my binoculars from the house, I raised them to my eyes, searched to orient myself in the larger landscape, found where I thought the owl was – and there he was, clearly focused in my enlarged vision. He was startlingly beautiful, with black bars across a white chest and gorgeous big eyes. But those eyes were staring straight at me! Disconcerted, I lowered the binoculars, feeling vaguely ashamed, as though I had been caught spying. But now I could identify him as a barred owl. I was supposed not to like barred owls because they drive out the more rare spotted owl, but he was so beautiful I couldn’t dislike him. I loved my owl.
    I paid a heavy price for capturing him in my binoculars, though: that was the last time he came to my house. For years afterward I heard him in the woods, sometimes closer, sometimes far up the mountain, but never in the woods immediately around my house. I always recognized his beautiful four-syllable hoot with a slight waver at the end. A few years ago I started hearing two owls, a male and a female, according to the timbre of their voices, one higher, one (my owl), in a lower register. One would give a call: “I’m over here!” The other would answer, ”And I’m here.” “I love you-ou-ou.” “I love you, too-oo-oo.” Maybe that’s not what they were saying – I don’t know their language – but they were definitely communicating. I felt in a community of beings with my owls, knowing they were there, knowing they knew I was here. I felt privileged to be included in their woods.
    Last week I woke up to hear the owls in the very trees just outside my bedroom window. The first owl, my owl, the one I have known since I moved into the house, had convened a parliament of owls. His voice was the leader’s; I knew it well. I could distinguish at least four, probably six, different voices, all from the same small clump of trees. They had different calls – one with more of a waver, one with a caw-like hoot, one clearly my owl, another clearly the mate I had heard him talking with. The voices were different and the words were different, but the owls were all speaking the same language.
    It was a strange parliament. My owl would begin things, bringing the meeting to order. Then everyone else would join in with his or her own words. There would be a jumble of voices, everyone talking on top of everyone else, all those various calls distinguishable one from another. Then they would all fall silent. After a bit, my owl would ask another question, and there would be another mishmash of responses. I’m not sure that anything got accomplished. I’m not sure what was supposed to be accomplished. Maybe it was more of a choir than a parliament, the conductor laying down, then raising again his baton. It went on for about an hour, all that various hooting and cooing and calling. It wasn’t territorial – they were all in one place. It didn’t sound angry; it sounded conversational. It sounded like a parliament of owls taking care of owl business, to which I was a privileged listener.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Birthday post

    It’s my birthday today. It’s also the birthday of a dear friend, and because it’s her 60th, she is having a party, and because it’s my 73rd, an insignificant number, I’ll give up a celebration of my birthday to join her for hers. She did the same for me when I turned 70. I did the same for her when she turned 40.
    Nonetheless, the day should not go by unremarked, so I’ll remark on it with a poem from a series of poems I’m working on about aging.

    I Always Thought I Would Grow Old Gracefully

I always thought I would grow old gracefully
    graying graciously as I knitted by the stove
    smiling sweetly as conversation wafted
        unheard over my head
    setting aside my tennis racket with just a tiny sigh
        when arthritis-riddled hands
        lost their grip.
I always thought
    I would use my cane with dignified acceptance
    and be an example to young people
    that growing old
        is not the horror
        they think it is.

But now that I am here
    growing old and graying
I see the fallacies of my fantasies.
I am fighting tooth and nail
    (thank goodness I still have tooth and nail)
    against the signs of old age coming.

I swear at the tennis ball that knocks the racket from my hand.
I rant without cease over hot flashes and night sweats.
I curse the knees that creak and moan
    as I stoop to wipe
    a spill from the floor
I weep over the thinning of my once-luscious, thick hair.

For all the good it does.

It would be better to ease gracefully
into old age
better for me and better
for those around me,
because, after all,
what is there to get so worked up over?
It's just a little bit of gray,
an ache and a pain here and there,
and if it's a sign of what lies ahead,
isn't it better to bend to the inevitable,
smile and say, "You win,"
than to be a poor loser
with the temper of a child?

Thursday, July 13, 2017


            Though I wasn't particularly looking forward to attending a high school graduation last June, I wanted to honor a young friend who was graduating, in this case from the International High School in Eugene, so I went. Being with her and with her family, good friends I don't see nearly enough; remembering what she was like when I met her, a nine-year-old child swinging from a tree; contrasting that memory with the confident, joyful young woman walking down the aisle to receive her diploma; hearing the kind words said about her at the ceremony – I was so glad I could be there.

            Beyond that was the graduation itself, in the Holt Center auditorium. The graduates sat on the stage in tiered seats with an aisle down the center. On each side of the stage were lecterns where the faculty spoke, alternating sides to give two or three sentences that particularized each student and told what that student would be doing after graduation. It was briskly done, and the achievements and plans were impressive. This one was a soccer player and a runner, that one won a literary prize, another spoke three languages, another excelled in music. Many were going to impressive universities: Brown, Boston, MIT. Almost all were going on to college. Maybe in a few cases the teachers had a hard time coming up with complimentary things to say ("He will be remembered for his bright smile"), but listening to the list of accomplishments and future plans, I could only marvel at these fine young people preparing to be leaders in our world tomorrow. Public school, parents, teachers – we have done a fine job.
            Graduations are one of the most meaningful rituals in today's society. It's no wonder we have started including graduation ceremonies for each school students leave, from kindergarten to elementary school, from elementary school to high school, from high school to college, from a community college to a four-year college, from college at the B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. level. Each step is an achievement worth celebrating. At my son's graduation from the Atlanta College of Art, I remember the rousing cheers given a young black man as he received his diploma, and suddenly I saw what an achievement this moment marked. He graduated from college. Maybe they never thought he would do it. Maybe they had pulled and pushed him through it. Whatever the background was, whatever his grade average, here was a man who had achieved a terrific accomplishment. My respect ran high.
            My granddaughter also graduated this year, moving into fourth grade at a school different from the one she had attended since kindergarten, which only goes through third grade. By now, in her eyes, it was a school for children, and she has grown up and moved on. Time to graduate. So there was a ceremony. The graduates didn't wear gowns, but they did wear caps, and they threw their caps into the air. There were no speeches but there were games and presentations to the teachers who had meant so much to the children. There was lots of singing and lots of laughing. The pictures were wonderful. What a good time they had! What a special occasion for those children. 

            Do you want to keep kids in school? Make it exciting to be moving to the next stage.
            One of the best graduation traditions I know takes place at Central Point Elementary School here in the Rogue Valley. Graduating high school seniors who had gone to Central Point Elementary came back to the school, in their caps and gowns, to make a procession through the outdoor hallways between lines of current elementary school students and their teachers. Teachers high-fived the graduates as they walked through the school courtyard, reached out to shake their hands or give a special one a hug, the little kids clapping for them and high-fiving them, too. The graduates looked grand. They looked excited and proud. They were being highly honored. And those little kids? They were in awe. You could just feel them thinking, "That could be me. I could get there, too."
            It's a big thing to graduate. It's an accomplishment to be proud of. At any level.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ending a 30-year Career

     In mid-June I turned in final grades for spring term, always a moment of complex emotions as I grapple with disappointing work, give every break I can to bring grades up, and marvel again at the progress of some students and the superb work of others. The emotions I faced this time were particularly complex, as it was the last time I'll turn in grades. Or grade papers. Or teach class. My long teaching career at Rogue Community College is over.
     Oh, how I will miss it! I'll miss being on campus and around young people. I'll miss the challenges of teaching – figuring out how to make concepts clear, coming up with creative and interesting assignments, helping students think critically, analyze judiciously, and pay attention both to the world around them and to the words they use. I'll miss seeing the amazing improvement as students apply themselves to my class. I'll even miss that frequent and gratifying comment, "This was the hardest class I've ever taken. But I learned so much!"
     I am not voluntarily retiring, though the new minimum enrollment of 17 would be hard for me to meet. Students don't flock to sign up for my classes, since I have a reputation for being tough. As a teacher, I am like the recipe for an orange and garlic salad I read about years ago: "Not everyone who tried it liked it, but those who liked it loved it." I received many complaints, but other students thought I was the best teacher they ever had. They said things like, "This was the first real college class I've taken at this college" and "You are the first writing teacher who has ever taught me anything. They usually just give me an A, and that's the end of it" and"Every time I write anything now, I think about what you taught me."
     But my supervisor, new this year to the position (though she has been teaching at RCC for as long as I have), apparently dislikes me intensely and does not think I'm a good teacher. (She is very good with the students in the bottom half of the class, helping them succeed. I am very good with the top students, who, I think, are just as often neglected.) I received an email from her mid-term this spring telling me that, because she is having to cut classes with enrollment under 17, I need not return "for fall [term] and beyond," adding, "You are a gifted writer and thinker, and I know you will have other opportunities opened to you."
     The omissions were glaring. Not a gifted teacher? Not a word of thanks for teaching at RCC for more than thirty years? Not the slightest acknowledgement of what I have done for so many students? Incensed, I wrote back something along those lines, giving her a chance to rectify her oversight, mentioning some of the students who have expressed admiration and gratitude. She replied only, "Isn't it nice to have good memories?"
     It has taken me all these two months to let go of the insult. My former supervisor, who is still at RCC, helped by stepping into the gap, when I told him of my dismissal, with words of appreciation and praise, recognizing that my hallmark has always been academic rigor. My secretary gave me a gift and a card, saying she knew that leaving was bitter-sweet for me. (Yes, I thought. "You're the sweet. Midge is the bitter.) Cleaning out my office plummeted me into nostalgia. I threw out the years' accumulation of class assignments, knowing I'll never teach those courses again. I found a thick folder of thank-you notes from students over the years. I read a few. They all said the same thing: "You are a great teacher. I learned so much in your class." I remembered the former students who had come to my seventieth birthday party and given toasts with stories about my teaching.
     Although I had the satisfaction of seeing Midge skulk out of sight whenever she saw me on campus after her notice of dismissal, I did run into her once, as she was going out of the English office and I was going in. Disappointingly, I didn't say nearly half the things I had thought I would say. She apologized for "doing it badly," but that was all. Even given this second opportunity, she still couldn't say anything nice.
     Immediately after that encounter, I saw a former student on campus. She ran towards me. "Let me give you a hug!" she cried. "You did so much for me. I loved your class. I recommend you to everybody. 'Take Coogle,' I say. 'You'll learn so much.' Let's get together for coffee this summer. If you ever need your ego stroked, come to me."
     Such moments were always my best reward. Midge can think what she wants about my teaching. It is not the humiliation from her with which I end my teaching career but the humility I feel before my students' gratitude, admiration, and recognition and the difference I know I have made in so many lives. Besides, my former supervisor, who is the one who schedules literature classes, said that when enrollment at RCC picks up again, he wants to offer ENG 204 – Medieval and Renaissance English – and when he does, he wants me to teach it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Return to Houkola – Part 2

(See previous post for Part 1, if you missed it.)
Miriam, in front, and I walk towards the buildings that are all that's left of Houkola, the commune of the seventies.

            As Miriam, Sequoia, and I ate lunch on the slope above Sasha's cabin, 

looking over the distant hills, forests, and fields to the freeway and its tiny moving vehicles,

the memories spilled over. Stories poured uncontrollably from my mouth. "We used to walk up that ridge so we could see Mt. Shasta from the top," I said, gesturing to my right. "Ela learned to ride a bicycle on this flat spot where we're sitting. Sasha said it was like having a mini I-5 out her door. One night I woke up hearing, 'Ohmmmm. Ohmmmm.' I thought it was strange that someone would be outside ohming at that time of night. Then I realized I was hearing the trucks on the freeway."
            We peered through the windows into the house but didn't try to go in because it was filthy with animal droppings. I could see the doorway into the one bedroom, where I had lived during my first winter there, after abandoning the tipi; the long narrow kitchen, where we would make voluminous salads from the garden, which, augmented with brown rice, were our dinners, night after night; the very living room, where we would spread cushions and tablecloths and have dinner on the floor, and then the music and stories until late in the evening. The rainbow paintings were still on each side of the windows.

The rainbow paintings in the living room

"When I first got here, I was taking heavy anti-psychotic drugs," I told Miriam and Sequoia. "They made my neck and shoulders so stiff I moved like a zombie. Mariposa told me later that she thought I was the strangest person she had ever met. I felt strange even to myself. Then one day my doctor gave me a medication to relieve the stiffness. There was instant relief. That night as we were having dinner here in the house, Rachel walked through the door – this door – took one look at me, and said, in her dramatic way, 'A veil has been lifted' – as good a way as any to describe the difference."
            Miriam's memories and mine were sprawling out, sometimes converging, sometimes not. People's names tumbled from our mouths – Seven, Running Deer, Vicky, Ruthie, Rachel, Frank, Apple, Sasha, Mariposa. Juice Lenny and Air-brush Lenny. Tom, Eric, David.  People who had come to Houkola for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years; people whose names were forgotten, but who gave us music or stories or help in the garden; people whose names came back to us as we sat there where we had once known them. Memories of communal living flooded our talk: working in the garden, cooking dinners, playing music, doing crafts, hitchhiking to town and back and asking the driver who gave us a ride back to let us off at a certain spot on the freeway, saying we would walk from there, astonishing the driver as we shouldered backpacks full of food and town trip items and walked into nothing but woods and mountains, into emptiness, because somewhere out there in that wilderness was our home.
             Miriam, Sequoia, and I walked up the hill to the spot on the knoll where Miriam and Eric had built a hogan, where Sequoia had been conceived. Now Sequoia stood inside the square of boards on the ground that was all that was left of the hogan, standing on the spot where she had been conceived.
Sequoia (r) and her mother, Miriam, on the site of the hoagn

Here Miriam's memories spilled over as mine had done below – walking up the hill to the hogan through the snow and in the dark after dinner at the house, her mother and brother coming to visit from Switzerland (Miriam, too, is Swiss), the cross-country trip she and Eric had made just after she became pregnant.
             As we walked back down the hill, I told one last story, about the time when we in the commune had decided to go to Lake Chelan, Washington, to pick apples for much needed income. But someone would have to stay behind to take care of the land. I said I would stay. As I walked down the hill now, more than forty years later, I remembered watching everyone else drive off in our orange and white jeep, O.J., and feeling my utter isolation, the enormity of the wilderness closing in around me.

I looked up now at the mountains and the vastness and felt again that moment of fear. Now, too, I remembered just as vividly throwing off that fear at once, so I could do what had to be done. That I could stay alone in that isolated spot for that long was a test of my wellness. I did it, and I knew by that that I had returned to myself, that I was fully healthy again.
            Houkola was a healing place – for me, for the young woman whose boyfriend had been killed in Vietnam, for others whose hurts I didn't know. Like many communes, Houkola was a place of openness and acceptance, healing factors in themselves. Many legacies of the hippy movement are of questionable value, but I think there are few places in this country where I could have had the freedom and the support that Houkola gave me to return to myself, as I so desperately needed to do.
         Before Miriam, Sequoia, and I left Houkola, I dug up some irises and pulled up lilac shoots to plant at my own home, like the memories planted at Houkola that still nourish who I am today. 

Miriam and Sequoia in front of the main house at Houkola.