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 For two days he and I picked up soda cans and plastic water jugs, took out-of-date canned and packaged food from the pantry, stuffed ragged old shirts and pieces of foam and broken flower pots and a hundred other useless items into garbage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.