Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve Day

            It’s Christmas Eve day, and here at my house on the mountain the snow is falling thickly. Humpy Mountain is hidden behind a leaden gray sky that has fallen to the earth with heaviness. Everything – evergreen limbs, roof, apple tree branches, the snow, the sky – sinks towards the earth.
            But my spirits are soaring. The snow, the cold air, the blasts of cold wind, the wintry sky – everything weather-wise makes me happy this winter.
            After a ten-year hiatus, due partly to lack of snow and partly to being in graduate school, I can at last go cross-country skiing. Last week my friend Mike and I skied at Lake of the Woods Summit Trail. The skiing was superb –  the snow deep and powdery; the trail gently uphill in a light snow-fall, past big trees and occasional open spaces; the returning memory of the joy of this unique, graceful movement. Even breaking trail, though a powerful exertion, was a joy, but we were grateful enough to the four people who passed us and would now be breaking trail. When we got to the ski shelter, they had already started a fire in the stove.

            The six of us stood around the stove, steam rising from our shoulders as we chatted, ate our sandwiches, and held up our wet coats and hats to the heat to steam dry. I hung my gloves on the back of the stove to dry, but when I retrieved them I found a hole melted right through the thumb and first finger on one. (Fortunately, I had an extra pair with me.) A woodrat scooted around the rafters, darting angry looks at us until Mike threw him a piece of apple. He snatched it and disappeared.

            The return to the car was glorious – long smooth hills, not too steep for this first ski of the season but downhill enough to give us long gliding rides. I was exultant. I remembered how to ski; I could still do it; I had found again that beautiful graceful movement: push, glide, push, glide. I still loved the snow, the cold nipping my nose, the exertion, the demand for skill.

            A few days later I celebrated Winter Solstice with some good friends. We talked, laughed, played games, ate good food, and drank to the return of the sun. I kept trying to get us to toast the dark of the year, but I was the only one who seemed excited about it, who wanted to celebrate the darkest day of the year precisely because it is the time of the dark. Above all, I wanted to celebrate the return of winter to our winter-starved part of the country. So I give it my private toast: to Winter Solstice precisely because the days are short and the evenings long by the fire, because the snow falls gently and silently, because we are fortunate enough to have a winter this year.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Snow Tales

    I’m ecstatically happy to see the snow. Never mind that the electricity was out for thirty hours and the telephone didn't work and I had no internet connection or cell phone service. Never mind that I couldn’t drive out because there was a tree across the bridge. I don’t mind being snowed in.
    I did have to turn in end-of-term grades, though, so as soon as a neighbor cleared the tree off the bridge, I slip-slid down the hill, grateful for studded snow tires on my RAV4, and drove to a cafe where I could plug in my computer and send in my grades.    
    Those efforts to meet that responsibility reminded me of another snow eleven years ago, when I was still living in the old house. I had been booked as an Oregon Council for the Humanities Chautauqua lecturer for 3:00 Sunday at the Applegate Library, so I felt a responsibility to be there in spite of the three feet of snow. When I talked with Joan Peterson, program coordinator, by phone Sunday morning, we agreed to try to do the lecture if at all possible. I suggested I could ski to the main road, three-quarters of a mile down two steep hills, if she could meet me there. She expressed apprehension, but I said I would feel like a hero.
    “A hero is one thing,” she said. “A martyr is another.”
    I said I would make a trial run to see if I could ski the hills and would call her back.
    With the soft, deep snow counteracting the steepness, I was able to ski down the first hill. At its bottom three small fir trees stretched across the road, their dangling limbs frozen into place like a lace curtain. I crawled through the stiff branches, then skied down the second hill and up the slope to the snow-packed paved road, where Norm Young was just driving by in his four-wheel-drive Toyota Tacoma with chains on all four tires. He said the snowplow had stopped at the county line and that the uphill road past the county line was “challenging with a capital C.” He doubted that Joan could get up it in her Subaru. 
    I skied to the mailbox, picked up the latest New Yorker and my mail (the mail carrier had been there on Friday!), and retraced my steps. The uphill skiing was slick but possible. I hoped I wouldn’t be doing it in the dark.
    Home again, changing my wet clothes, I was sorry to see the New Yorker had fallen from my pocket. I called Joan to tell her I could ski down but wasn’t sure she could drive up. She said she thought she could make it with chains. She and Christopher were still trying to disinter her car from snow, but she would meet me at 1:30.
    I had just time to eat lunch and pack what I needed for my lecture: my metal music stand for a lectern, my laptop computer, sixteen books (yes, all necessary), and a change of clothes and shoes so I wouldn’t have to lecture in ski clothes. I slipped my arms into the pack. It was startlingly heavy. I clipped my boots into my skis and took off, but, unbalanced by the pack, I fell at once. Pinned on my back by the pack’s weight, uselessly waving my limbs in the air like an overturned stink bug, I somehow managed to release my boots from the bindings. Using the skis as platforms, I twisted to a sideways kneeling position. The soft snow gave no purchase, but, swaying under the weight of the pack, I managed to stand. I made a successful second start, but when I headed down the first hill, I fell again. Finally I was skiing again, carefully and slowly. As I crouched to ski through the tunnel of snowy limbs, I thought, “This is the hardest $200 I’ve ever earned.”
    Skiing to the top of the second hill, I saw, to my surprise, Tuffy Decker, trudging, waist-deep in snow, up the hill with a cable over his shoulder, on the other end of which was a yellow Jeep, cock-eyed to the road against the snow bank, with two teenagers inside and another man standing in the road. I recognized this as a rescue mission for my only neighbor, who was anxious about being able to get in and out. Tuffy greeted me cheerfully and handed me my sodden New Yorker as I passed.
    By the time I reached the road, I was fifteen minutes late. Joan wasn’t there, but Louise Nicholson was just skiing past. I dropped my pack under a tree and joined her to ski down the road a bit, thinking Joan might be stuck in the snow somewhere. We skied a mile without seeing anyone, then turned back, meeting, on the way, the Jeep and crew of Tuffy’s now unsuccessful rescue mission.
    Retrieving my pack from under the tree, I shoved the books into two heavy plastic bags and into the two mailboxes on the road. I left the music stand under the tree, put the computer in the pack, bid good-bye to Louise, and started up the hills towards home, slipping badly, sidehopping up the steepest parts, thinking, “Someone forgot when we made these plans that I am 60 years old.”
    On the way up, I met Mike Hendrikson, coming down, plowing his long legs through the snow. Joan had called. She had been turned back by the depth of the snow on the unplowed road and was at the Alsenses’ (warm by the fire, drinking coffee, nibbling cookies, chatting with Bob and Mary). She had wanted him to ask me, if he saw me, if I could ski down the road to meet her there.
    I considered the possibility for about five seconds.
    Finally home again, I changed my wet clothes and called Joan. She was glad I hadn’t tried to meet her. She would call Gayle to put a note on the door of the library that the lecture had been canceled. We had done our heroic best.
    I was bone tired. I had skied that route four times, twice down, twice up. I felt more like a martyr than a hero. Weary beyond belief, I stoked the fire, made a cup of tea, and curled into bed to read a slightly damp New Yorker.

Friday, December 11, 2015

I'm So Glad to Hear the Sound of Rain Again

     Rain pebbles the roof with pied beauty. It prickles the ear with porcupine fingers, then pounds liquidly. A million elves play ping-pong on the roof, then drop their paddles and dance a tattered tune, their tap-shoes rapping a rhythmic tattoo.
     Sheets of rain wrap the mountain in a shrouded dawn. The horizon line between mountain and sky is blurred like an amateur photographer’s clumsy effort to capture the beauty of line. Beauty of color, too, is smeared and bleared; the artist is no more adept with paints than the photographer with the camera. Monotone grey drones over the mountain and over the sky. A drone instrument in a morning raga, it is relieved by a line of melody from the frontal instruments. Their slight variations of green create a morbid tune from their few notes. The key of the day is C Minor, and unlike Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor, it doesn’t splash with exotic emotional exigency but droops with dreary dullness. The cadences are sluggish, the tones grey, the melody difficult to decipher.
     Indoors, it’s a different story. I, the troll in the house, hear the trip-trap over my head, louder and louder. It’s the Big Billy Goat Gruff (and I cower), then a whole herd of Billy Goats Gruff. Then the trip-trap, trip-trap grows lighter and lighter as the billy goats move into the distance, and, timid troll that I am, I wait till it can barely be heard in the distance before I peer out from under the bridge.
     Look! The photographer has learned her art. The saw-toothed edge of firs on top of the mountain is clearly distinguishable, every point darkly defined against a whitened sky. The white-out is over. The artist, too, has had a breakthrough. Greens emerge in richness, still somewhat dulled by an overdose of grey, but the artist is learning. Yellows, blues, purples, and browns have joined her palette of greens. 
     As for the musician, he is packing up his instruments. Sound no longer dominates. Only a lonely harpist sits at the back of the empty chairs of the orchestra, picking lightly at the strings, effortlessly, musingly, letting the notes drop where they will. Thoughts merge and mingle with the rustle of musicians closing cases and exiting the stage, leaving it to the photographer, the artist, the harpist, and the poet.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Thanksgiving at Lee’s

    I was at my brother’s home in Virginia for Thanksgiving. We were eighteen around the table: My brother, Lee; his wife, Linda; their three daughters with their (1) husband, (2) boy friend, (3) best friend. My two sisters and their husbands. (Another sister was absent, too ill to participate.) A Coogle-by-marriage cousin, her mother, and her two daughters. Linda’s mother. Me.
    Here’s what we had for fun:
   A hovercraft – an air cushion vehicle that Lee built a few years ago, devilishly difficult to steer because when you turn the rudder, it responds with a slow drift or a 180º circle – but that’s the fun. It flew over the grass – danger! low-flying vehicle! – at 30 miles an hour.
    Swings. The most challenging was a swing Lee built with bars instead of ropes, that you stand on instead of sitting on, and that goes in a circle up and over, if you’re good enough to make it do that. The most relaxing was a small rubber seat on a 75-foot cable that provides the longest glide imaginable, from up one hill over the bottomland to the tops of the trees. I want one.
    Zip line. Lee’s is 200 feet long. You climb an enormously tall ladder onto a platform in a tree, where Lee tightens you into the harness.
Then you put your gloved hands over the cable, drop off the platform, and whiz through the trees then high over the meadow to the disembarking platform, 
where, fortunately, someone is yelling, “Brake! Brake!” because if you brake too soon, you’ll end up pulling yourself hand over hand along the cable to get to the platform, and if you brake too late, you’ll crash into the wall of the platform. It’s a glorious ride.
    Games. Speed Pictionary, played with teams and lots of dashing back and forth and lots of laughter. Somehow “hovercraft” needed only a horizontal line and another above it for my team to guess, but when it came to Elmo, how was televisionless I supposed to know what Elmo looked like? Bocce on the lawn on a lovely autumn afternoon. Balderdash, a competitive definitions game. I didn’t win, but I did get the biggest laugh for my definition of a law that, I said, forbade walking with an unaccompanied woman.
    A 1000-piece puzzle. At any stray moment, any particular person would wander into the living room and work 20 or 30 minutes with whoever was there doing the same thing, so there was a constant interplay of different people. After two days of struggling with a diabolically difficult puzzle, we threw it in the garbage. It seemed cruel to give it to anyone we knew. With everyone’s help we brought the second 1000-piece puzzle to a full finish the day before I left.
    Beautiful walks in the Virginia hills: one on a trail up to Monticello with just about the whole party, another around a lake with only my brother and me.
    Wine on a hillside winery, the weather beautiful and the Virginia hills spread before us, dotted here and there with large white plantation-style homes.
    Movie and dinner in Charlottesville. "Spotlight." Burgers. Both good.
    Gifts. Lee gave each of his siblings an iPhone speaker he made from walnut from our father’s shop. I gave each of my siblings and nieces a hat I had knitted the week before

and everyone else rum balls I had made. One sister gave me a scarf she had woven. Another, who is a yoga teacher, gave me a book to improve my health and private yoga instruction every morning.
    Thanksgiving dinner. Everything was as Thanksgiving dinner should be with the added bonus that Linda is the most organized person in the world, so it looked as though the whole turkey-dressing-potatoes-cranberry-sauce-pies meal miraculously appeared on the table. The kitchen stayed miraculously pristine, and I’m not sure who cleaned up, but it seemed as miraculously easy as the rest of it.
    It was a wonderful time at the Coogle Fun Farm. I love my family.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Enchantment in the Woods

    Stretching across the mountainside of my property is a mining ditch dug by Chinese laborers more than a century ago. I built my new house in the woods just below that ditch and my old one on a widened spot of the flat ground that makes a trail along the ditch. When I lived there, I used to walk that trail a mile or so to the creek and then up the creek to a waterfall.
    Last week I took some friends along that ditch from my house to the edge of the property. A small tag on a tree marks my boundary with BLM, but the woods don’t recognize a property line, and there was nothing to stop our walk if we wanted to keep going. Downed trees and a tangle of branches obstructed the trail ahead, and none of us was dressed for a rugged hike – I in a silk skirt; Chelsea in fancy dress boots and carrying a 24-ounce cup of coffee, and Travis in a fine black coat and shoes that were not exactly hiking boots – but some enchantment was drawing us on. We kept walking.
    If this were a fairy tale, it would have been an evil troll who put obstacles in our path: the logs we had to crawl over and under, the brambles that reached out to tear my silk skirt, the sticks and branches strewn on the ground, slick with recent rain. But time and again we foiled the troll. No obstacle turned us back. When we came to a mud-slippery bank too steep to climb, tall, muscular Travis scrambled up it first, then turned to give Chelsea and me a hand. When the path seemed impassable with an avalanche of branches, Travis crawled over it to prove it could be crossed; then I followed, stepping on branches without touching the ground. When Chelsea followed me, the troll grabbed a foot and pulled her down. Hands reached out to help her up, and she emerged laughing, the coffee unspilled.
    As in a fairy tale, we were drawn deep into the woods, the mountain rising steeply on our left,  sweeping downhill on our right. All the woods glistened from a recent rain – the massive dark trunks of firs and cedars, the arboreal verdure, the snaky red limbs of madrones. Golden-leaved maples lifted their arms in bright glory. A dim sun cast a misty light through the trees. Mosses greened the trunks, softened our tread, grew thickly luxuriant on a rocky hillside. There was no music, but it was as if there were. There was no Titania peeking around the trees or Puck beating on a mushroom as on a drum, but it was as if there were. There was no tangible evidence of a magic spell, but we could feel it, anyway.
    Finally we came to a spot where I could see another obstacle of logs and branches ahead. I could sense the day dwindling. If we were to get home before dark, I said, we should turn back now. Chelsea and Travis agreed. But still we stood there, gazing at the woods. Below us the creek sparkled through the branches of trees. The late afternoon sun slanting through the maples turned the light golden. A tinkling murmur of water intensified the silence. We stood there, unspeaking, washed in the softness, the colors, the richness of the woods, enraptured by the quiet beauty, the unassuming beingness of this spot in the woods, bewitched and beguiled by the spell of the sensuous.
    In the gathering dusk we retraced our steps to my house, which appeared through the woods like a gingerbread cottage of enchanted beings, where spells are woven and tales are told.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ferry Wedding

    Two weeks ago I went to Vashon Island, a short ferry ride across the Puget Sound from Tacoma, to be with my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter for Halloween. For my costume I decided to be the Rose Lady, in dark rose stockings under a short rose-print skirt, all pinks and reds, with a rose-pink sweater and a large, loose, rose-patterned scarf. A wreathe of artificial white roses would encircle my head. It was almost November, so in a fit of pique at having roses in bloom when by all rights we should have had freezing weather to stop flowers in their tracks, I picked all the roses in my garden and filled a basket with their petals. When I told my son I was going to be the Rose Lady for Halloween and throw rose petals on everyone I met, he said I was the Rose Petaler.
    I put all the costume except the basket of rose petals in my suitcase and drove to Eugene to take Amtrak to Tacoma. I carried the basket by hand. 
    In the waiting room for the ferry at Point Defiance in Tacoma were three other passengers: a woman of early middle age in an elegant black and white dress, a man of the same age in a nice suit, and a younger woman dressed in black. The first woman was carrying a small bouquet of flowers; the man’s jacket sported a boutonniere, and the woman in black was writing in a large notebook. “Oh,” I said, delighted, “have I stumbled upon a wedding?”
    They nodded. They were eloping, the younger woman, the officiant, told me. They had been living together for seven years, the bride added, but they didn’t want all the fuss of a wedding, so they were going to get married without anyone knowing. They were both water people, she said, so the ferry to Vashon seemed the perfect place for the wedding. They needed two witnesses. Would I be one?
    Of course! I was the perfect witness. I, too, was a “water person,” and I had rose petals to enhance the ritual!
    Once on the ferry we hurried to the bow for the ceremony, outdoors, on the water. On the way I dropped my suitcase at an indoor table and the officiant grabbed another passenger to act as witness. The second witness’s friend would be the third audience member.
    The ride to Vashon takes thirteen minutes, so we were hurrying to get everyone in place and the ceremony underway when an announcement over the public address system notified us that there were unattended bags on the ferry and that the owner should retrieve them immediately. There was a slight delay as I ran back for my bags and wheeled them onto the front deck with me. Then we started the ceremony.
    The bride and groom stood at the bow with the gray-green water of the Puget Sound stretching wide towards the islands behind them. The wind whipped the hair of the bride all around her face, but we could hear the officiant’s words and the vows of the wedding couple without trouble. The bride and groom, who had been laughing and smiling at the coup of their elopement, suddenly turned serious as they listened to the words of the marriage ceremony, beautiful words that brought tears to the eyes of the bride. Tears came to my eyes, and I didn’t even know these people, but it was all so beautiful – the water, the landscape, the wind, the vows to love and care for each other, the slipping of rings onto fingers, and finally the kiss between husband and wife, with my rose petals scattering in the wind over them like a sudden rush of doves.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Tearing Down the Old House – Memories

Tearing down the old house – Part 2

    Shortly after I cleaned my old house of its trash (see previous post), I answered an ad from two young men and their friends looking for used building materials. When they saw my little handmade house in the woods, they immediately loved it. They could see its past glory in its ghostly present. Wasn’t it a shame to tear it down? they asked. 
    Of course it was, but I had already struggled with that decision. It was time to let it go, and having Charlie and Travis recycle its materials into their own similar house was the best possible solution. When they began the demolition, I picked up my hammer and crowbar to help.
    Charlie and Travis respected all the love – and blood (yes), sweat (lots), and tears (of frustration) – that had gone into the building of the house. They never hesitated when I said, “Oh, wait. Don’t take that. I want to keep” – the “Live well; laugh often; love much” sign my mother painted on an old board; the stained glass window my daughter-in-law made;
the weaving on the missing window of the door to the pantry, where, when my son was little and before I did the weaving, we used to do puppet shows; the table top I made from tiles my brother gave me; the pole ladder I built to my sleeping loft, its rungs well oiled with my hands and feet climbing up and down every day for thirty-five years, one upright pole marked with my son’s yearly growth, like rings on a tree. 
I even salvaged the broken-plate mosaics I made when, after many years, I put a concrete foundation on the original one-room cabin and replaced the dirt floor with an oak floor.

    As though it had functioned as a mnemonic trap, each board I pried off released a flock of memories. “I bent a dozen nails trying to get this board in,” I remembered as I forced my crowbar under the oak flooring of my bedroom loft, wood that had come from a demolished 100-year-old house forty years ago.
    As I knocked out the framing of a window in the larger room, I told Travis I had added that room six years after building the original ten-by-twelve-foot house. “My son, Ela, was eight years old by then,” I said. “He was beginning to look like Alice in Wonderland with her arm sticking up the chimney and her neck bent against the roof.”
    As I pulled down paneling (rough-cut red pine a friend gave me and white Port Orford cedar I bought for a song), I remembered that for years those walls were burlap. Then one summer Ela, who had graduated from college and moved to Seattle, came home to help me replace burlap with this beautiful wood.
    As I pulled up the tongue-in-groove laminate flooring, I remembered putting it in – sawing the boards to fit, pushing the tongues into the grooves, forcing the last piece against the wall. Underneath was the plywood with its stenciled design my mother had painted when she came to visit. She didn’t much like the house (“It’s like camping,” she said, a derisive comment I took as a compliment), but she gave it her art.
    Upstairs, in what had been Ela’s room, I tore apart the bed I built him. The construction wasn’t the usual style, but the bed was strong and well braced. On the underside was a piece of rope running through a u-nail, part of a hammocks loom the bed became after Ela went to college.
    The manzanita railing Ela built on the deck was now broken, the deck itself unsafe under my feet. There were rotten boards on the back deck, too, just at the stairs I walked down every day to take a shower, outdoors, in view of Humpy Mountain, rain or shine, ice, fog, or snow. In winter I left the water running overnight so it wouldn’t freeze. One winter I had to step over a foot-high wall of ice made by the splashing water.
    The memories wouldn’t stop, but it seemed so right to be recycling one beloved house into another like it, to be giving my house, in a different form, to people who understood and loved it, that I couldn’t feel bad about its destruction. When Charlie and Travis left with the last trailer load of building materials, I gave them a copy of Living with All My Senses, my book about living in that little house. Holding it fondly, they said they would keep it on a table in their house as a reminder of the recycling of memories.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tearing Down the Old House – Part 1

    More than forty years ago I built a little house on a mountain. It had no electricity, so I used a carpenter’s saw and a hammer, a bow saw and a draw knife. It had no driveway, so I carried windows and lumber up the hill on my back. 

    I loved my little house in the woods, the one I raised my son in, the one for which, piece by piece, I had to figure out how to do things: hang shelves on chains, notch poles for roof rafters, hinge counters to allow more space in the room. I loved its bedroom loft,  

its kerosene lamplight, its outdoor shower, its bookshelves in all corners and in every available nook, its wood-burning heat stove that I also cooked on, its tiny antique propane stove with the temperamental oven that nonetheless made so many pies, cakes, and cookies. Peonies blossomed in the front yard. A grape vine shaded the pantry roof. A trail curved through the woods and up the hill to the house. 

On dark nights, stars sparkled like distant candles through the skylights in my bedroom loft. When I found a scorpion in the house, I would carry it outside. When the bear came after apples from the apple tree hanging over the deck, I slept on the deck. When I saw the cougar amble nonchalantly towards the house and then, two feet from the back door, turn into the woods, I was thrilled. I loved everything about my unique little house. It was so charming.

    Five years ago I moved into a new house on the same piece of land. My son designed it, and it has electricity. Everything works. Lights turn on with the flick of a switch, food stays cold in a refrigerator, and clothes get washed at home instead of at the laundromat. Living is easier in this beautiful house. I love my new house. 
    But the old house has stayed part of my heart. When I moved out of it, I let an acquaintance live in it, but every time I stopped by, I cringed at the change. The house looked like any old shack in the woods now. All the charm had seeped away. The yard was hard dirt, and there wasn’t a small amount of dirt in the house, too. The bedroom loft, unused, was hung with dirty cobwebs. The outdoor shower was let to ruin. When this man moved out several months ago, he left a lot of junk behind.
    My friend John offered to help clean it up. For two days he and I picked up soda cans and plastic water jugs, took out-of-date canned and packaged food from the pantry, stuffed ragged old shirts and pieces of foam and broken flower pots and a hundred other useless items into garbage bags.
    At first I was angry: how dare this man treat my beautiful home like a dump? How dare he be so disrespectful, so careless of what had been so close to my heart? Then I let it all go, and just dug into the clean-up.
     It took two very dirty days to pick up all the junk and haul it to the dump and then another day to haul off the overstuffed chairs and other large items. The Metal Man took the non-functioning RV propane refrigerator, the water heater, the metal table, the old batteries left on the doorstep, and many smaller items.
    The house had dusty cobwebs in all the corners and was filthy dirty, but it was mine again. Old, decrepit, creeping out from under neglect and disregard, it nevertheless began to exude a memory of its youthful self, to regain an echo of its former charm. Now I could take a look and determine what to do with it. Fix it up as a guest house? Rent it out? Or tear it down? Renting it was problematic because living in that house was difficult – no electricity, erratic water, foot-only access. Besides, I didn’t trust its safety any more and didn’t want the liability of having someone rent it. Even to use it as a guest house would mean constant upkeep. Houses need to be lived in. Maybe it was time to admit that it was the end of an era. Maybe it was time to let go of my little house in the woods. Maybe I would tear it down.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Swedish Day in Oregon

    When I knew I would be hosting last week’s Grayback Salon, a monthly gathering of six friends who read poetry together, I decided to make it a day of Swedish flavors.
    That morning I set the table with my Swedish things: a white woven tablecloth from Gothenburg; wine glasses from Örrefors; napkins embroidered with Swedish forget-me-nots; and blue and white dinner plates of a pattern called Marbacka, the name of novelist Selma Lagelöf’s house. For a centerpiece I used a small red-painted carving of a Dala horse; a little doll carrying the Swedish flag; and a wooden girl in Swedish costume with uplifted arms bearing candles. On a separate table I set my collection of Swedish literature: a book of photographs from Gothenburg, art books of Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn, some Swedish novels and poetry books, and some print-out versions of dramatic monologues by August Strindberg. A tomte kept watch over the table next to a vase of roses.

    The menu came from my request in Gothenburg last month that Lasse teach me to cook a typical Swedish dinner. As he cooked that meal, I followed him around the kitchen, writing the directions in my journal. The meal he set on the table that night was both beautiful and delicious. I hoped I could do as well.
    When my five guests arrived, Joan was wearing a bright yellow blouse with a blue scarf, Swedish colors. While the wine was being poured, I toasted the Swedish rye bread Greeley had brought. Then everyone sat down at the Swedish-set table. When Greeley gestured that we should hold hands around the table, someone said we should have a Swedish blessing, and I said that would probably be a Swedish drinking song. To my delight, Christopher broke out with a drinking song he had learned in Sweden years ago. We all ended it with a rousing “Skaal!” 

    For the first course we had potatoes, boiled and sprinkled with dill, Swedish style, that Joan had brought, and the mushrooms Lasse had taught me to make – sautéed with bits of onion and ham and served on toast. Then with my Swedish wooden dipper, I ladled into soup bowls the piece de résistance, Lasse’s creamy fish soup with fennel. The broth was creamy and smooth, the taste of fennel feathery light, and the chunks of salmon, cod, and shrimp perfectly cooked. A sprinkle of dark green dill on the cream-yellow soup with its chunks of red, white, and pink seafood was the finishing touch. Like Lasse’s, the soup was both beautiful and totally delicious.
    After the soup, I cleared the table for the readings. Dan and Joan read poems from the recently deceased Swedish poet Tomás Tranströmer. We took turns reading Strindberg’s dramatic monologues. I read a slightly too long chapter from Lagelöf’s Gösta Berlingssaga, but everyone listened politely. We read other poets and talked about their poems. We talked about our various visits to Sweden. We talked about Swedish culture and customs, about the effects of the long dark Swedish winters, about Swedish food.
    When we were sated with the discussion, I cleared away the books and served the dessert Lasse had suggested: vanilla ice cream with warm cloudberry sauce, a taste unknown in this country except that someone might have carried the cloudberry sauce here from Sweden in her suitcase. I had no more than 3.4 ounces of it to serve, but that was adequate for topping the six servings of Haagen Dazs ice cream. Cloudberry sauce was a taste of Sweden itself.
    The whole day, in fact, had been a taste of Sweden. I went to bed with Swedish food and Swedish literature swirling through my head, memories of Sweden and all my Swedish friends mingling with a Swedish day spent in Oregon.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Colors of the Sierra Nevada

    September was a fine time to hike the Emigrant Wilderness Area – great weather, good swimming, few people, and magnificent colors, even without the rampant color of wildflowers. Here, in layers, were blue sky, white-granite mountain peaks, and green conifers; here, pasted against a blue sky, was a white snag with a slash of red wood in it and some green lichen on it; here, layer by layer leading the eye upward: pale green water grasses, Easter-egg-blue water, dark green conifers, white rock, blazing blue sky. 

    Walking up or down a massive slope of white granite towards or away from Big Lake revealed the same blue-on-white juxtaposition: granite and lake, or granite and sky.

As I walked through a wide expanse of dry-grass meadows, a pair of Western bluebirds, flying from rock to rock over the muted browns, flashed a pure indigo that was as much an enrichment against the dun-colored grasses as entire banks of scarlet Indian paintbrush and yellow Oregon sunshine.
    One morning I awoke to a deep red sunrise over Emigrant Lake that changed so swiftly from red to pink to gold before fading into the pale blue morning sky that I didn't make it to the lake in time to swim in the colors and swam instead in steel-gray-green morning water. At mid-day I swam through blue. In the evening, the water was black.
     Granite, I saw as I walked day after day through Emigrant Wilderness, is not monochrome white but a multitude of soft colors, the same colors of Veronese houses in Italy. Last month, at a cafe on a street corner in Verona, I wrote in my journal the names of those colors: mustard yellow, mustard brown, salmon, pink rose, the lightest possible chartreuse or yellow – all with an underneath hint of brown; pale lemon, burnt sienna, cream, orange, burnt umber, salmon pink, blue-gray with a tinge of lavender. Or go ahead and call it lavender, I said in my journal. 

    Now I saw those colors again, as though the Veronese painters had made a trip to the Sierra Nevada and exulted in the colors that striped the granite and bundled in it. When they returned home, they painted their houses those exact colors. In Verona, the colors enriched every street. In the granite, they emerged subtly from the predominant white. Finding them was like finding Easter eggs in the grass.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What We Do in the Wilderness

1. In all that beauty, we meditate, we contemplate, we ruminate. 

There is such beauty we cannot absorb it adequately – a brilliant full moon spilling white paint over the granite; a mountain at sunset reflected in a lake; a statue-still deer twinkling its ears as she watches us pass; an aster blooming in a dry meadow or a trout swimming in a pool of a drought-stricken stream that is no longer running. In sky and water and mountain, in plants and creatures, in expansive views and the tiniest Persian-blue dragonflies darting over a lake we see beauty. We can gaze and gaze, we can stand in awe, we can try to grasp it, but in the end, however large or small the thing itself, its beauty is bigger than we. 

2. We walk. With everything we need in the packs on our backs – shelter, food, bedding, warm clothes – we walk to get wherever we go. We move at the speed of feet, and with a pack on our backs, speed isn't fast (but it's faster in hiking sandals than it is barefooted!). Uphill speeds are the slowest of all. But it is the foot-slow movement that takes us from beautiful place to beautiful place, the slowness that allows for meditation. It's the walking that makes us strong, and even when we've hiked so long over such difficult terrain and up such steep slopes we think it's the walking that has broken our strength and fall exhausted into our sleeping bags, we get up the next morning eager to walk again.

3. We read. Although at one time I eschewed reading as a part of the wilderness experience (I thought the contemplation of nature should be entertainment enough), sharing a book with my hiking partner has become one of the delights of a backpacking trip. To save weight, I read from a Kindle. Last month, in the Emigrant Wilderness, I was reading All the Light We Cannot See to my backpacking partner, Bob. It is a great read-aloud book. The sentences have such beautiful rhythm.

 4. “We” may not do this, but of all the things I do in the wilderness, my favorite is to swim in those ice-blue high-altitude lakes. I like to ease my way into the lake, wading, preferably not through ankle-deep mud that releases bubbles with every step, as though some unknown creature were lurking under my feet, but over a steeply sloping sandy bottom that puts me waist-deep in the cold water in only a few steps. I stand there a moment, telling myself, “This is the hard part” – the moment when my chest hits the cold water – then I take a breath and, with my hands in breast-stroke formation, push off from the bottom and am water-borne in the blue. 

Sometimes, if the water is very cold, it takes a few minutes to adjust to the temperature. When I do, I know I can swim forever, or, at least, that it's not the cold that will drive me back to shore.
    I can swim to rock islands. I can swim through kaleidoscopic images of mountains, trees, and sky shattering and reforming with every pull of my arms in the breast stroke.

I can swim across the lake to examine a flower in a crevice or I can swim far to the center of the lake, to the center of the blue that is the ecstasy of the swim. Though I know it's not “real swimming,” I swim with my head above water so I can look at the gorgeous landscape I'm immersed in, so I can experience the blue I'm swimming through. Otherwise, I might as well be swimming at the Y. And this is emphatically not the Y.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bhutan princess

    Italian trains are clean, modern, and very fast. Unfortunately, they are not always on time. Lasse and I were dismayed to discover, when we arrived at the train station in Verona for a train to Venice, that a delayed train would cut short our day in Venice by an hour and a half. Resigned to the wait, we whiled away some time at the very inadequate station cafe, where coffee was to be drunk at stand-up tables. Then we found some chairs in a passageway and sat down to read (me) and do whatever it is that people do on their smart phones (Lasse).

                      (Later, 20 more minutes were added to "ritardo delay.)

    Among the many people hurrying through the passageway appeared a startling apparition: a young Asian woman in a yellow dress as bright as sunshine itself, cadmium paint straight from the tube, full-skirted and midi-length. She wore a large red necklace. Two red bows on top of her head pinned back her sleek black hair. Lasse said later he thought she might be dressed in an anime costume or that she was a part of a theater performance. But no. She was just a young woman in a yellow dress traveling in Italy.
    Lasse was sitting in the end chair in the row of chairs. I sat next to him, and the young woman in the yellow dress sat down in the empty chair next to me. We chatted a bit – that is to say, she chatted. She was dimpled and twittery, like a yellow canary, in a constant movement of excited little gestures. She told me, and Lasse on the other side of me, that she was from Bhutan and was taking the train to Munich to meet her husband. Then she jumped up and twirled – or, no; I think she just seemed to be twirling  – and, by-passing me entirely, asked Lasse if he would take a picture of her with her phone. Lasse was pleased to comply (to say the least). She walked a few steps to the center of the passageway, set down her bag, and posed prettily for her photograph, her bright yellow dress and red ribbons looking as out of place in the dingy Italian train station as a vase of roses set on the floor there. She cast an aura of control over her own dominion in the space around her, a princess commanding her space. People gave her a wide berth, maybe for that reason or maybe because she was having her picture made. Lasse took two pictures, then handed her phone back to her, and they sat down, one on either side of me.
    Lasse returned to Facebook, and the black-haired young woman in the yellow dress looked at her phone to see how the pictures turned out. She wasn’t satisfied. Would Lasse take another picture, this time without her bag at her feet? Again she posed, smiled, looked utterly charming and bizarre, and again Lasse snapped the picture and returned the phone to her. She sat down to look at the picture. Satisfied with this one, she jumped up, thanked Lasse with a dimpled smile, and sped off to her train.
    Lasse has regretted a thousand times over that he didn’t say, when he handed her phone back to her, “Now may I take a picture of you with my camera?” But the best picture, the one the camera of my mind has captured for me, is of Lasse being so pleased to take a picture of the Bhutan princess posing so prettily in her yellow dress in the Verona train station as streams of people hurried by without taking notice.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Venetian Ode

     No city in the world – none that I know of – stimulates the imagination the way Venice does. With no motorized vehicles on the island, with no modern buildings stepping on the toes of old buildings, the city remains as it has been for centuries.
To walk through Venice is to fall through a time tunnel into the Venice that was the queen of the Western world, when her sailors plied the high seas and sailed 'round the globe, when Venetian merchants brought home spices and silks and tales of monsters of the deep, when the merchant class was burgeoning with new wealth and the aristocracy was flouting its superior status in their grand houses and rich clothes from the fabrics and embroideries the merchants provided, when the world's boundaries were being extended into new worlds of geography, art, and science.
     I could easily imagine myself in the Venice of 1269, catching sight of a young girl watching from a black-rail balcony while 16-year-old Marco Polo strode through the crowds with his father and uncle, Niccoló and Maffeo, to board their ship headed for Asia, where Niccoló and Maffeo had met Kublai Khan nine years before.
     It's easy to imagine Bassanio stepping from a gondola to knock on Shylock's door to negotiate for a loan so he could marry Portia from Belmont. Perhaps the canals weren’t quite so crowded with gondolas then – or maybe they were. The Venice of old was a vibrant, crowded place; the roads were just as narrow then, the houses just as close together, the church squares just as much communal gatherings then as now, even if for different reasons. 

Even today the Grand Canal is the major roadway, bearing (as I saw while Lasse and I waited for a vaporetto – water bus – to take us to St. Mark’s square) taxis and buses and even an ambulance, the blare of its siren sending all other boats careening to one side of the canal or the other. I’m sorry for the people whose emergency called out the ambulance boat, but seeing it reminded me – as did the boy I saw walking through the streets bouncing a basketball, dodging tourists without noticing them, into a deserted little square and then disappearing down another narrow street – as did the laundry hanging out the window of a house on a narrow canal above the heads of a gondolier and the 

tourists he was poling through the waterways of Venice – that Venice is a real town with ordinary people living ordinary lives, not just a setting for one's imagination about the past. (Admittedly, the laundry could have belonged to tourists in a bed-and-breakfast, but I'll assume not. I guess the boy could also have been a tourist, but I don't think so. I think he was on his way home from school.)
     The arched bridges and elegant houses; the Renaissance symmetry of St. Mark's Square; 
 the church towers; the architectural details giving expression to the deepest aesthetic sense everywhere I looked; the sidewalk displays, today as of old, of Venetian merchants and craftsmen; 

the occasional emptiness of a side street or a beautiful little church square where a trio of musicians were just setting up to busk, the guitarist already sending sweet melodies into the  open space – if I redressed the tourists into Italian Renaissance clothes, I could have been walking in the ancient city. In Venice, that’s easy work for the imagination.