Thursday, August 27, 2015

Floral Borealis

    How much money do you think is reasonable to spend on one dress? I sew, I shop Goodwills, I don’t buy expensive clothes. But I do like to try them on. There’s no harm in trying on an expensive dress, is there, I ask in all innocence?

    When Barbara and I went into a shop called Nimbus the other day, the only dresses I looked at were by the same artist – hand-made from a soft, slithery fabric; hand-painted in a swirling, floral print; carefully molded and crinkled by a "rigorous pleating process." I especially liked one with a dark purple pattern of large roses with twitches and twinkles of silver, mint green, and teal blue. Three-quarter length lace sleeves, similarly painted, lace on the top of the bodice, and lace inserts in the hem gave the dress a pert little flair. When I put it on, it settled around my body so well it gave me curves where I had thought curves no longer existed. It snuggled in without tightening. Its flowers blossomed over my bosom and my hips. The silver put sparkles in my eyes. That the artist had named the design Floral Borealis, evocative of midnight suns and poetic dark flowers, was the tipping point of desire.
    “It’s the perfect dress for you to wear to the opera in Italy next week!” Barbara cried when she saw me in it. The saleswoman, of course, told me it was stunning.
    Then I looked at the price tag and hurriedly took the dress off. When the saleswoman suggested that a 48-hour hold would give me time to think about it, Barbara said, with a smile, "There’s no harm in that.”
    Barbara went through all the ways I could afford the dress. I had saved $8 by buying a book used instead of at full price. I had $100 left over when my ticket to Virginia for Thanksgiving was cheaper than the original price. And what about the money I got last week from selling my old wood-burning stove? When I objected that I had put that money away for another use, Barbara brushed aside my argument by pointing out that the payment was more than I had expected.
    I was startled when other friends also encouraged me to buy the dress. Was this capitalism at its most voracious? A conspiracy for nudging me into the pit of over-consumption? Or friends who thought a special occasion called for a new dress? My New Zealand friend said I would be “contributing to the aestheticisation of the environment.” The guys who had bought the stove were delighted to be a part of my trip to Italy. At the end of the day, still struggling with my conscience, I decided I would justify the expense by pledging to give the same amount to my son and daughter-in-law’s upcoming Kickstarter campaign for their performance piece about AIDS among teen-agers. I realized I was doubling the price of the dress, but, I thought, if I can afford the dress, I can afford to give to charity. Otherwise, I have no business indulging in whimsical desires.
    Before the 48 hours were up, Barbara returned with me to the store (I think to make sure I didn’t back out). When the saleswoman handed me the bag with the dress, now my dress, in it, she said, “Have fun at the opera. Take pictures wherever you wear the dress and bring them to show me when you get back.” I walked out giddy with my purchase.
    But Barbara hadn’t finished. She took me to another store and bought me a mint-green bead necklace to match the green in my dress. Later she also gave me a pashmina the color of the plum-purple roses in the dress so I wouldn’t get cold at the opera in the open-air Roman arena. 
    I leave tomorrow to fly to Sweden. A few days later my friend Lasse and I will fly to Italy. The next day I will put on my Floral Borealis dress and the mint-green bead necklace and pick up my dark purple pashmina. Lasse and I will go to dinner and then to the ancient amphitheater to see Aïda. I will gaze at all the fine women in their fine clothes and know that I am one of them. They probably give to charity, too.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hiking Guide

    I love to hike, and I know the Applegate trails well, but I don’t like the organizing or the responsibility of leading hikes. Nonetheless, I said I would lead one on the Middle Fork Trail for the Applegate Trails Association because, as a member of the board, I thought I should take my turn and because the trail is beautiful and not difficult and because I know it well. I thought it would be easy.

    To my dismay, forty people signed up. Too much responsibility! Bloody knees from falls on the trail. Twisted ankles from slipping off rocks at the river crossing. Lost hikers. I wanted to back out. I wanted to cancel the hike. I wanted to never lead an ATA hike again.
    By the day of the hike, though, people had dropped out, and only twenty met me at the Applegate Store. An unknown number more would meet us at the trailhead. I slightly undermined my credibility as leader by making a wrong turn on the way there, but as smoothly as Siri I immediately adjusted and told the driver to take the next left. The four drivers behind me followed trustingly, because, after all, I was the leader. They didn’t need to know I had taken a roundabout route to the trailhead.
    The group meeting us there had grown tired of waiting and taken off on their own. Good: fewer people to be responsible for. Two had returned to the trailhead to hike with me because the other leader was too fast. Good: my triumph. The group size was looking manageable. The weather was lovely. The trail rose gently along the creek, and Emerald Pool, when we stopped to look at it, was stunningly beautiful, deep green and elfin under its little waterfall. We followed the trail on up the hill through magnificent old trees to the creek crossing. When I asked my hikers if they wanted to stop there or try to reach the top of the trail, they enthusiastically opted to rock-hop across the water and continue.
    The trail grew increasingly steeper, the walking harder, the forest thicker. Viney maples filled the understory with lacy greenery. When I stopped to see if a restless rebelliousness was seething 

through my hikers, two said they would happy enough to go back and waitf for us at the creek. The others said they were game to go to the top. “Define ‘top,’” one woman said with a smile. “How far is it?” they asked. I said, “I think we’re almost there,” which they took as the joke it was meant to be. Spirits rose as the trail rose higher and the exertion got greater.
    In two and a half hours we were at the top. As each hiker stepped off the trail onto the road, I shook his or her hand, adding congratulations for having made it to the top of the Middle Fork Trail, even though, in truth, it wasn’t much of a feat. The trail wasn’t really very difficult, and there was no pay-off at its end – no mountain views, no body of water, no rock outcropping to sit on, just a dusty road through the woods and a sense of accomplishment. Some people sat on the bank, others stood in the shade, to eat their lunches. Spirits were buoyant. When I said I had to be back at the trailhead no later than 3:00, someone said, “Oh, I see. You’ll be cracking the whip on the way down.” When no one groaned and everyone laughed, I felt I had succeeded as a hike leader.
    You know, I just might lead another ATA hike, after all.

(Photos by Pam Sewell, from Favorite Hikes of the Applegate: A Trail Guide with Stories and Histories, by Diana Coogle and Janeen Sathre)

Thursday, August 13, 2015


"Square up to the base. Put the bat over your shoulder. Keep your eye on the ball. YES! It's a hit! Run, Jayleen!" With everyone cheering wildly, eight-year-old Jayleen made it to first base.

 The 83-year-old pitcher checked all the bases, then turned to face the next batter, a strapping, strong, sporty type from the generation between the pitcher and the previous batter. The outfielders backed up, ready for the big hit. It came, but the 40-year-old woman playing right field made an easy catch for the third out.

Score: 15-18, top of the ninth (so-called; we skipped a few innings to get there).

Yes, we were keeping score, though no one cared much what it was, and yes, we had rules, which were sometimes ignored for the sake of letting a child get on base. After all, it was wiffleball, and nothing rivals wiffleball for a multi-generational game because nothing rivals wiffleball for equalizing skill levels between children and old people, out-of-shape adults and well buffed sports types, men and women. So it was wiffleball, more than the swimming hole (where many adults sat in lawn chairs at the edge of the creek), more than the piñata (which was only for the children), more than cornball toss (since only four people at a time can play), even more than the magnificent meals (because twenty people couldn't sit around the table at once) that brought together all ages and all types at the family gathering I attended last weekend.

"Family," these days, is a stretchy term. As mother of the hostess's stepson, I was on its stretched-out periphery, as it was her side of the family, not her husband's (my son's father's) who were gathering. The second-generation cousins, six little girls between the ages of ten and two, were the highlight of the weekend: playing at the creek, dressing up in high heels and slinky dresses, swinging on the swing, falling off the foot-high tightrope, sharing candy from the piñata, making hits in wiffleball. The matriarch of the family – the mother and grandmother and great-grandmother of this side of the family – had died only the year before, so there was a sense of generations moving on as her children, in their sixties and seventies, were now the elders.

Elders and children and in-between-ers came together on the wiffleball field for a good long warm-up session, with the pitcher throwing balls from behind the back, from under the leg, and after endless wind-ups. Team captains chose teams, picking children early so they would feel important. The rules were explained: There was no such thing as a strike-out. Foul balls didn't count. Pop-up flies, if caught, counted as outs. No stealing.

The weather was lovely. In the outfield we daydreamed under lofty clouds. Runners ran without getting overheated. We used oversize bats for the hard plastic, perforated wiffle ball, which was easy to hit, anyway, and easy enough to catch that even the children occasionally made a good catch. The ball could also be hit a long distance by a mighty swing, so good hitters had a chance to strut their stuff. In the second day's game my team lost by an embarrassing number of runs, but no one was dispirited. The children ran off to other play, the adults gathered the bats and balls, the sun beamed, and the day leaned gently into the evening.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Moonvine Magic

    After dinner on warm summer evenings when I was a child in Georgia, the family would scatter to their various activities. My mother would be in the kitchen washing up, with one or two children to help dry the dishes. Dad would be in his workshop in the basement. I would be on the terrace, maybe, playing hopscotch with a sister. As we played, we would keep our eyes on the moonvine that grew up a post at a corner of the terrace, twining into the brass bell at the top of the wooden column. Someone would have noted earlier in the day that the moonvine had one or two fat buds just showing white through their green covers and would have alerted us all that a moonvine would open tonight. After hopping through the hopscotch court, I would look at the blossom before throwing the rock into the next square and hopping through the court again. If the blossom was beginning to shake, I would sound the alarm: “The moonvine is opening! Come now. The moonvine is opening!”

    Mom would appear, drying her hands on a dish towel. Dad would dash up the basement stairs. Children would gather from books or games or piano practice. We would all come immediately because we knew there wasn’t much time. As we stood there on the terrace, in the soft Georgia twilight, cool at last after the heat of the day, the blossom would shake like an insect about to emerge from a cocoon. Slowly it would begin to unfurl, spreading its white tip first, speeding up as it unwound its moonglow white petal, until it had opened into a rippled saucer of a flower turning its face towards the night sky, the white opposite of its cousin, the blue morning glory. We stood rapt at the miracle. It wasn’t a sacred moment – we might talk or gasp or caper – but the drama created its own hush. I never ceased to be awed, night after night, summer after summer. That I could in a few short minutes watch a flower blossom seemed miraculous. I knew that I could, if I were in the right place at the right time, witness the emergence of a butterfly, the birth of a kitten, the changing colors of a chameleon, but flowers bloomed so slowly that to see that miracle seemed impossible. Yet here was a flower opening, night after night, within the speed of human understanding.
    Two or three blossoms might come out each evening, never at exactly the same time but close enough, sometimes, that we had to divide our attention between the unfurling of the one and the shaking beginning of another, like watching a Barnum and Bailey circus. Afterward, we would go back to hopscotch or games, woodworking or books, separate people once again. But for those few moments the moonvine had entertained us as a family.
    When I moved to Oregon and built my house and started a garden, I wanted to recreate that experience in my family. But the local nurseries didn’t sell moonvine plants, and moonvine seeds don’t germinate easily. Two of my seeds did sprout, but the plants didn’t do well, succumbing to drought or deer or cold or heat or some other condition that moonvines don’t like in Oregon. Perhaps the moonvine, like fireflies and chameleons, is a miracle of my Georgia childhood that must remain both in Georgia and in my childhood. But, like fireflies and chameleons, the moonvine is a part of who I am today.