Monday, March 3, 2014

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Did You Find Your Word?

Here we are, heading into a new year with a word to guide us. In case you're not familiar with the concept of having a word for the year, it's to provide a focal point on which one contemplates throughout the year. Sometimes a word will come to you, or sometimes you will find that you are stuck on a word, and either way is fine. This isn't something mandatory or rigid in the way that one thinks of sticking to resolutions. It's more like expanding any given experience by thinking, "Now, what would (insert your word here) bring to this situation?"

My word for 2014 is frolic, although at first, I tried to scrape it off the way I'd clear the bottom of my shoe after stepping in something unpleasant. 

Words that invoke happy images make me uncomfortable. Part of me believes that happiness is a crock. Happiness doesn't truly exist, except in the form of joy, fickle and fleeting. So I was hoping for a better word, wishing for one to settle down on me, wave a flag in my face so I'd recognize it. Something I'm already comfortable with. Responsibility. Commitment. Family. A word that I could explore a little more deeply, but that wouldn't demand that I expose myself.

Then, my friend Nils died on Christmas.

I met Nils in 2007 when he mentored me for a class called The Particularity of Play. He was eager to discuss his theories on play, and eager to press me into unexplored realms. He had a wicked sense of humor and sensed my discomfort. He said that in order to study play, I'd have to actually do it. Imagine that.

I'd have to do it in ways that weren't comfortable or fun.

Like sit quietly for a minimum of thirty minutes a day and think.
Like sit for another thirty and not think.
Like write whatever came to mind without worrying if it made sense.
Like twirl. Dance. Get an imaginary friend.
Like making marks on paper and calling it art. Change the way I made my mark in the world.

Nils made a lot of marks, and many of his marks were nudes.

I made some attempts to draw marks on paper with charcoal and pencil. They were dreadful. I sent them to him because part of playing is admitting you did. Not caring about the outcome. He wrote back.

"Try erasing," he said.

I laughed. Was erasing the way to improve bad art?

Nils was like that. He took some of his paintings that hadn't sold and drug them along the ground behind his old truck or tractor till they were scraped up and ruined. He thought that improved them some.

"Don't make your work precious," he said.

He made pots and then threw mud at them. I brought him some mud from my lake for a pot. He threw it at paper instead, then painted, then threw more mud at it. I have one of those paintings. He called it Vaginal Discord. There's a companion piece he titled Penile Glitch after his second wife Diane passed away. He was feeling lonely and sad. He was going to give it to me, but I didn't make it over there this summer or fall because my husband was ill.

Nils rarely gave me his art. He always sold it to me for some pittance. The painting would be marked $600, $800, $1200 and he'd say, "For you, it's $99.95."

"Nils," I'd say, "That's ridiculous. If you're going to sell it to me for that low, you could just give it to me."

"I could," he'd say, "but it's more fun to make you pay a little."

Nils published excerpts from my final paper in the textbook he used in his classes at Linfield, The Play Book. For the years I knew him, play was a cornerstone in Nils' life and his work.

Diane Ackerman wrote: “There are moments on the brink, when you can give yourself to a lover, or not; give in to self-doubt, uncertainty, and admonishment, or not; dive into a different culture, or not; set sail for the unknown, or not; walk out onto a stage, or not. A moment only a few seconds long, when your future hangs in the balance, poised above a chasm, It is a crossroads.”

The cataclysmic possibilities for play exist at that crossroads. Our willingness to fully engage in openness, spontaneity, humor, and vulnerability despite the risk of danger and the seeming futility of hope, promises to be a source of transformation through adult play. That apocalypse may come in the deep look that offers ecstatic connection, the automatic response of muscle memory, affirmations of value, release of tension, or mastery of self.

Nils was the master of play. I miss him already.

In his honor, I embrace play's cousin, Frolic. Nils would be amused.

Infuse some humor and play into your experience with your word this year, won't you?

Betty McNamee Explore
Chris Lareau Unperturbable
Colleen Strom Attention
Dani Rexine Release
Deb Stone Frolic
Deb Johnson Nies Stretch
Debbie Meyer Accept

Emilie Finn  Reach
Frankie Kennedy-Sordahl More
Giovanna Zivny Choose
Heather Misner Oster Be
Heather Whitlock Love
Jamie Malone Presence
Jen Kauppi Discard
Jessica Morrell Steadfast
Joe Koziol Honor
Lim Hale Live
Leigh Anne Jasheway Unflappable
Linda Mullen Lloyd Simplify
Lisa Cihlar Seed
Lisa Rymer Aware
Mark Beuger Turn
Mary Ward Create
M.K. Hobson Gratitude
Molly Haslebacher Connect
Molly Mandelberg Patience
Natasha Reck Fullmer Christ
Paige Hirt Less
Robert Holcomb Courage
Sable Jak Be
Susie Klein Wonder
Sunny Olsen Softer
Suzanne Shaw Precious
Toni Morgan Bloom
Vincent Bambini Inseparable

If you find your word, or your word finds you, feel free to post yours below. I'll post occasionally to share how my word and I are getting along, and invite you to do the same.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Who Works on a Holiday?

The holiday season is upon us. A season of love and charity. A season of kindness.

So what's up with so many hateful posts on social media about employees having to work on a holiday, meaning, of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Nobody really gets riled up about employees having to work on Valentine's Day, the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day, do they? Not that worked up, anyway. Not enough to try to shame people into staying home. 

When I was young, I worked as a veterinarian’s assistant, dishwasher, and waitress. In those jobs, I worked the holidays, and although I sometimes felt disappointed to miss a family gathering, I was grateful for the extra hours that holidays brought.

I worked Thanksgiving as an electrician’s apprentice (we worked a huge shutdown while the mill was closed for the holiday) and as a foster parent in my thirties and forties, I ferried children back and forth to their birth parent’s homes in Portland, Salem, and around Clackamas county so they could attend their family event even when it meant missing some or all of my own.

It’s na├»ve to believe that if only stores closed, everyone could be home with their family having a meaningful time. Who is everyone?

Everyone means all the employees, I guess, except the food service workers, foster parents, child welfare workers, movie theatre workers, gas station attendants, animal caretakers, veterinarians, electrical power crews, pilots and flight crews, police and fire responders, EMT and hospital personal. Everyone must not count the jailers, dog walkers, funeral workers, Armed Services personnel, toll booth ticket takers and so on, and so on. 

The world does not stop because of a designated holiday. Life, and death, and many diverse activities, including, yes, shopping, go on. Those who work in the businesses that support holiday activities will work for those who partake in activities on those days. Some of those employees will resent working, some of them will be neutral about it, and some of them will be grateful for the hours.

To expect that workers are entitled to that particular day off in a business that depends on holiday activity to thrive is as ludicrous as someone expecting accounting firms to give accountants time off during tax season, or school districts providing teachers vacations during the school year. If an employer chooses to, good for them, but to demand they do is ridiculous.

If you don’t want to support businesses that operate on any given day, fine, don’t patronize them. But don’t expect me to join you in trying to shame them for operating as a business.

I enjoy the frenzy of holiday shopping, or going out for dessert on a holiday evening, or hitting a movie theater after the turkey has settled. And my venturing out into the world on a day you’ve designated sacred, doesn’t make me wrong. You don't get to be the arbiter of what is sacred for anyone but yourself.

For me, every day we’re alive is sacred. Every day is a good day to shop the companies that treat people well and pay them a decent wage, and a good day to boycott the ones that don’t.

Ministers, priests, and comforters of all kinds work on holidays. Funeral directors still arrange to pick up bodies of those we love, social workers still investigate child abuse, coffee shop workers still prepare coffee. We are human beings and live rich, complex lives. Society seldom stands still. 

We could argue it should. There are moments so important that we ought stop in our tracks and reflect. There are moments worthy of a caesura in speech and deed. Let that be when we hear of another person's suffering. When someone dies. When a new infant is born. Let us all stop a moment and praise when some other human being's heart pulses a little more open in love. 

Let's not beat each other up because somebody shopped or profited or worked on the "wrong" day. We are, all of us, more than such arbitrary measure.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Deb's Nail Salon

 Like my twin sons, I, too, had a creative mind. One of the earliest products I concocted is captured in my poem:

Backyard Bundt Cake

Find a good tree with a bald patch
at the base of the trunk. It is perfect
if erosion has worn away a bit of root
to form a puddle from yesterday’s rain.
Find an old Folgers can, rusty will do,
and a thick stick to stir the goo
you will make from two handfuls of dirt,
a bunch of dry leaves crackled into bits,
and (don’t balk now) a bit of dog doo
from over by the back fence. If the tree
is cedar, gather a handful of tiny cones,
stir them in whole. If it’s fir,
you only need one. Crush it
underfoot so the scales slide free.
Mix them in your muck with a little green
grass and dandelion wishes. Stir
vigorously. Your arm won’t get so tired
if you sing, “Delta Dawn, what’s that
flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose
from days gone by?” Make a circle of
small pebbles on a hot sidewalk.
Spread the batter inside the round rocks.
Bake until crusty brown.

My kids never had access to rusty Folgers cans because I buy Starbucks Coffee (Kimodo Dragon, if you must know.) No MJB or Folgers for us. And I don't know if the rap songs the kids liked to sing were conducive to stirring. Their backyard  cake would have turned out lumpy. They never really found the charm in making old-school mud pies.

In fourth grade, I developed a marketable product: Fake Fingernails. 

My friends paid me a penny a set.

I got in trouble in Mrs. Rabey's class for wasting glue. I didn't really understand why she was so upset about it. 

We were required to have one bottle of Elmer's Glue, one container of white paste, and one bottle of rubber cement with a stiff little brush (the kind that could get you dizzy) or the kind with the slanted rubber lid with a slit that you had to bend so the glue seeped out. Wasting a little Elmer's didn't seem like it should be a crime. 

Forty years later, women would pay $40 for what my friends paid me a penny. I should have taken out a patent on the idea, but instead of encouraging my enterprise, the teacher forbid me from making more fingernails in the ruler on the top of my desk.

The desks were square with an opening on one side where students placed their books, paper and pencil boxes. Just inside the lip of the desk was a groove, slightly wider than a pencil. It was meant to lay your pen or pencil in so that it didn't get lost behind the books. 

While Mrs. Rabey read Johnny Tremain aloud to the class, I filled the groove with Elmer's glue. 

After recess, it was dry. I peeled the long strip from the cold metal groove, then snipped pieces about an inch long with my scissors. That went fine until one flipped right out of my desk and landed by another student.

Mrs. Rabey had excellent ears and eyes. (The better to hear and see you with, my dear.)

I had to empty my desk, then turn it around with the opening pointing away from me. All my belongings were crowded on top. I hardly had room to set the paper for my times test.

I missed recess where the other girls--one was a girl named Dawn Reams, I think--sat out in the grassy field and talked about Tom Jones. That day, I had to clean the blackboards and the erasers instead. CLAP-CLAP-CLAP: Chalk dust everywhere. 

There went my nail salon. I don't wear fake nails to this day; you can blame Mrs. Rabey for that. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Behold Their Creativity

On the afternoon of July 3, I was selling fireworks in the Jaycee Fireworks Booth in Vancouver, Washington when I went into labor. On the way to the hospital, I held a 32-ounce Big Gulp between my legs. When a labor pain struck, I spilled the drink. The hospital thought my water had broken and rushed me in. After checking my cervix they sent me home. I had a week or so left, they said.

Within hours, I was back for the full meal deal. Eight hours later, twin A was born: 4 pounds, 13 ounces. Twin B weighed in at 5 pounds, 15 ounces. That extra pound meant it took him an hour and forty minutes more to blaze the trail.

Happy Fourth of July!

Once I was settled in my room, the thick-bodied nurse with the German accent expelled the contents of my bladder into a bedpan, gave me a spit shine from a washbasin, and wrapped me in hot blankets. It felt like the nicest thing anyone had ever done. Then she brought the babies swaddled tight in cotton receiving blankets. Three inch cotton tubing tied at one end served as little caps. I stared at their tiny faces with a mix of wonder and curiosity.

Nobody told me I was allowed to unwrap them, so I didn’t. It didn’t occur to me to check all their fingers and toes. I held them and stared with wonder. Were these really my own two sons?

Who knew what joys and challenges they would bring? 

From the moment I discovered I was pregnant (and in the eighth month, pregnant with twins) my priorities began to change. It took time to grow into motherhood, and fortunately, they were the kind of kids who allowed me those years. 

They were sensitive, intelligent, and funny boys who would later grow into amazing men. Along the way, we had our share of verbal and emotional tussles which were no fun, and I'm certain they could attest to days wishing they'd had a different mom, or at least, that I'd have behaved differently. It's also safe to say that I learned as much from them as they did from me. 

One of the things I've always appreciated most is their resourcefulness and creativity. It started early with Duplos and Legos, and progressed to scissors, paper and tape. They knew I trusted them with tools, so by second grade they'd lobbied hard for pocket knives although I'd never permitted toy weapons outside of squirt guns or Nerf.

What did they do?

They used their tools.

And lest you underestimate what seven-year-old boys can create with a hammer, handsaw, pocket knife and electrical tape...

Behold the sword--

And the spear.

And the mother who acquiesced. 

Homemade weapons were fine, I decided, so long as they weren't directed at animals or people.

Twenty-some years later, they've both earned their Master's degrees. One is an aerospace engineer at Boeing. The other creates and produces events for top marketing execs of Fortune 500 companies. 

And me?

I'm so grateful I get to be their mom.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Gift I Regret

Dad and I 

The equity of a parting gift is a matter of perspective, depending on whether you inhabit the point of view of the deserted or the departed. 

The last gift I gave my father was arrogant and cruel, although I didn’t know it at the time.

We were coming home from chemo, and his arm, swollen deep-purple red from edema, throbbed worse than the incision from the base of his neck to the crown of his head where the doctors split the skin and the skull to probe at the brain. 

“Really, Dad?” I said when he told me he was having brain surgery. He was terminally ill with bone cancer. It seemed absurd to undergo such an invasive procedure given that he was facing the end. 

“I don't want that goddam thing in my brain,” he said. 

He was agitated when he came back from surgery. The nurse handed him a cup of ice chips to suck.

“I don’t want ice. I want a goddam steak!”

He always was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. He probably was always stubborn too, but I didn’t notice until he got sick.

He refused to ride in a wheelchair for the follow-up MRI. He wore his own thick socks, slippery on the waxed floors. It took two orderlies, one on each side, and a nurse behind him, as he shuffled one painstaking step after the other down the long hospital corridor to the radiology department. 

I don’t remember if Dad ever owned slippers. When I picture him as I remember him from my youth, I see his flat top haircut, blue jeans, and, when he wasn’t working, a double knit shirt with pocket over his heart, the pocket he always reached for, the pocket that held his cigarettes.

Dad in 1977

I can hardly remember an instance of him without smoke curling up from his hand. He held a cigarette in his right hand so consistently that it could have been a sixth finger, smoldering between his index and his middle finger (the one that carried the tip of a lead pencil from when a boy in school had stabbed him years earlier).

I’d asked him to quit smoking since elementary school, when I saw a commercial with the district attorney Hamilton Burger  (played by William Talman) from the Perry Mason series. 

I loved Perry Mason. I loved Della Street. I loved Paul Drake. I even liked the district attorney. If any one of them had said that it was bad to eat candy, I would have believed them. 

It wasn’t common knowledge—at least in my world—that smoking could kill you. Cigarette ads were still routinely shown on television. William Talman's commercial haunted me. 

I pestered Dad to quit from then on. 

My dad without a cigarette? Unimaginable. There were always a couple of cartons on top of the refrigerator, waiting for him to slide another package out the end, to tuck the pack in his left breast pocket.

Dad smoked for years, even when he was so sick with cancer that he could hardly raise himself out of his recliner. Even when he was so weak he could no longer walk to the bathroom. (He damned well wasn’t going to rent a commode or buy a urinal; he used an emptied coffee can.) 

He expected to beat cancer. 

Who could blame him for hoping? He was 59.

Fifty-nine years old, and I was driving him home from chemo that warm July day. He’d stopped driving a couple weeks earlier; he knocked the mirror off of a parked car when he wandered out of his lane. He didn’t want to kill somebody, he said, so he let me drive him after that.

“Pull in and stop right there,” he said. "Will you run in and get me a carton?"

“No, Dad.”


“I’ve never bought them for you. I’m not going to start now.”

Recently, I’d said yes to other things. Yes to fixing his coffee so he could drink it through a straw. Yes to sponging his lips when he was too tired to drink. Yes to helping him fumble his penis into an empty coffee can so he could pee. 

On that particular righteous and awful day, I said no. 

He nodded softly at me and opened the car door. I watched him stagger thirty feet to the storefront. He pulled the glass door open as if it were lead, as if he had not spent his entire adult life falling trees and packing out deer, as if the door required the last bit of resolve he held.

He waited in line behind two redneck punks in sawed-off pants and red suspenders. They jostled one another and bullshitted with the clerk while my dad stood in line, wobbling with the effort it took him to stand.

I sat in the driver’s seat and watched him as he made his way to pay. He leaned on the counter for support, handed over the money, and took the carton of cigarettes from the clerk. He shuffled slowly... slowly... slowly back to the car, clutching the Benson & Hedges 100s to his chest as if they were gold.

It was the last carton he would ever buy. It contained the last pack he would ever open. The last cigarette he would ever smoke.

Maybe I hoped he wouldn't ask. Maybe he knew that I refused out of love. Maybe it was fair. 

I had always thought of my unwillingness to contribute to his habit as a gift. But the last time he asked, I wish I'd said yes. 

It's the one gift to my father that I regret.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Speaking of Roots and Wings

We live on a parcel of land outside Portland with many species of birds. It's not uncommon to see a Redtail Hawk, Blue Heron, Redwing Blackbird, and the occasional Bald Eagle. We always have American Robins. We have so many robins that I sometimes cursed their pirating ways. Hardly a cherry would come ripe before one had thieved it from the trees.

I was walking between the fruit trees one summer day a dozen years ago, and there in the grass lay three small pink objects. For a moment I thought my daughter Alyssa had left one of her old Strawberry Shortcake dolls in the yard. But she was well past playing with Strawberry Shortcake, wasn't she?

I stepped over to peer at it, the brown doberman Sophie wagging her bobbed tail on my left, the shaggy tri-colored Australian Shephard Shadow on my right. ChaCha, the aging shephard mix, was wandering around somewhere. 

I recognized them as soon as I bent over. I'd raised parakeet babies when one recalcitrant parakeet mother lost interest in her cheeping hatchlings. It was grueling work to feed every two hours: mix the special bird baby formula, get it to the right temperature, feed it in a tiny syringe to one tiny open beak at a time. Ignore them, I thought.

When I stepped past, Sophie nosed them. Or maybe it was Shadow; it's hard to remember now. But the next thing you know, I was picking the three little sparsely feathered nestlings into the palm of my hand. They were cold. Their eyes didn't flutter and their little heads lay curled on limp necks. They'd been pushed or fallen from the nest in the apple tree. But they'd lain in the cool grass too long. They won't survive, I thought. 

I filled a hot water bottle, lay a pillow case inside a bowl over the water bottle but not touching, and laid them in it so the heat could radiate up to warm them. 

I covered the entire thing with with another pillow case to hold the heat in, as if waiting for yeast bread to double in size. Maybe we would have our own little version of Jesus rising.

When I lifted the top an hour later, they were wriggling around. It meant they needed food, and if parakeets were any indicator, it would be every hour and a half through the night for the first few days. 

 I looked online to see how long it takes a robin to feather up and leave the nest. The web site said it would be two to three weeks. Meanwhile, because they were so young, they probably needed specialized bacteria formation to aid in digestion. Ordinarily, the mother regurgitates food in the beginning and that slop contains the biological agents the babies need for their stomach and intestines to work properly. I went to a bird specialist in Portland for the feed and bio additive, went to the pharmacy for a couple tiny syringes, and started feeding them around the clock.

By the third day, they were holding their heads up well and almost standing on their feet again. That's when I went back online and found out that robin babies only eat sun up to sundown. That seemed like a radically long time, but hey, if it was good enough for mother nature, it was good enough for me. By then, the babies were eating a little thicker formula/bio mix, rolled into tiny 1/2 long vegan "worms" and tiny bits of cantaloupe. I knew it was easy for them to choke on liquids and figured the cantaloupe could provide the fluids since the little fake worms were drier than the formula in syringes. 

They waited patiently until a bite appeared above their head and then they opened wide. They pooped tiny fecal sacs that cleaned up easily, like little balloons of waste in tidy natural garbage bags. Online, they said the mothers ate or pushed these out of the nest. Once a hatchling began pooping without a fecal sac and soiling the next, the mother gave them a nudge out of the nest.

We also learned that the babies would learn to distinguish their mother's distinct chirp, and once they were fledglings, she would use this to call them for food. Robins continue feeding their young for a couple weeks after the young leave the nest.

Once the babies could eat solid food, I enlisted my daughter Alyssa to be the primary parent to the birds. Each time she came in the room to feed them--every couple hours during daylight--she would whistle the same sound. Within a couple days, the babies would come alive as soon as they heard her whistle. 

Here you can see they are all clamoring for the rolled formula worm Alyssa is feeding. 

After feeding, Alyssa would hold each bird a minute or two and stroke its feathers, much like a bird might preen itself. They always seemed content after their meals.

Then she loaded them back into the nest that we'd retrieved from the apple tree. 

Sometimes little brother Jon would have a go at holding them a minute before they and their nest went back into the cage that sat on the kitchen counter. 

This kept them safe from predators and family pets like the two dogs that had originally been curious about them.

They graduated to meal worms and earthworms. Alyssa and I would spend more than an hour digging and overturning rotting things to find worms and only find a couple. 

Within a week, the babies could stand on a perch. We left the nest in the bottom of the cage and they sometimes slept in it, but they were getting more adept at hopping and climbing around the cage.

It was time for a move.

I didn't want them to be indoors any longer than they needed to be. The nights were cool, but they'd been born outside and only indoors about a week. They were fully feathered out. We hung the cage under the branches of the apple tree where they were born. They still weren't independent feeders yet.

Alyssa whistled when she came out to feed. They chirped back at her.

They were a little wide-eyed about the outdoors at first. They'd become habituated to the indoors in that week. We hung cherrys, and left earthworms and a dish of shallow water. 

Their fecal matter was no longer in tidy sacs. We knew this meant it was time to push them out of the nest. But we couldn't really see ourselves pushing them from that high up. Instead, we build a mesh fence around the apple tree to keep the dogs and wild predators like racoons and skunks out. We put the cage on the ground and left the door open. We put a some small fruit shrubs in their pen area, with a flat tin of water. 

They began spending their time outside the nest and cage but confined within the pen. Alyssa still came to feed them and they still chirped to their "Mommy" but she stretched the feedings out longer to encourage them to explore and check out the fruit and grubs we left.

Guess what happened?

Alyssa came running inside to tell me that an adult robin was watching them. The adult bird walked around the cage. It flew up into the branches of the apple tree and chattered at them.

They didn't chirp back. The robin flew off, and within a minute came back with a worm. It poked a baby in the head, baby went "AACK" and it shoved the worm in its mouth.

Off it went, returning with another worm in a matter of minutes. How could it find them so fast?

The adult robin (Mother or father? We don't know.) flew back and forth bringing worms, grub, even picking cherries off of our tree and dropping them to the babies. 

We were never so happy to see a robin pick a cherry!

We took down the little fence now that the babies could hop around and fly short distances into the lower boughs of the apple and cedar trees. 

Alyssa still whistled and when they answered, she fed them. But mostly, the adult robin took care of them now that they were fledged. 

Sadly, one of the babies died, and another apparently succumbed to a predator as all we found was a fluff of feathers. But the last one continued to answer Alyssa's whistles for another week or so. 

And then, like all wild things, it was gone.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Family Roots

 A horticulturist will tell you that the roots of a tree are the mirror image of the branches. Given a father and a mother, a child’s roots double backward, sometimes doubling twice where marriage, divorce, and remarriage occurred.

Take one man, watch him marry three times (divorcing twice), each wife linked to other men with whom she has lived or  married. Toss in the other men's children from the pairings and partings, and you have twelve adults and twelve children. This is not a tree; it's a hedge, but it's the hedge I call family.

A decade ago, I began researching a friend’s genealogy. First, as a puzzle, and then, as a gift, I began unraveling his roots. In the process, I became adept at online research. I started the slow untangling of my own history. I began to make sense of the mingling and comingling of my parents, and the other children they bore.

Moving frequently as a child affected my ability to track memories. I couldn't gauge who I was against the same aging appliances or the size of the shrubs in the yard. And though we may not always know it, the place we call home has tangible weight and space in our life.

When a building is a blueprint, architects provide renderings to suggest the shape it will become. When a building takes form, with entrances and exits, you can imagine the lives it might contain, even if there are many who come and go. You can sit in the house and hang your history on the walls.

For a forty-year-old woman whose understanding of her own history went no further back than two generations, it’s a grounding experience to realize your ancestors extend backward into perpetuity. Names and places make them real.

The internets have made the search for family history more accessible. Fellow searchers upload their family photographs and records, which you then can discover as your own. Sadly, I didn't find a Tim Tebow or Kelly Clarkson in my family tree. But I did find more than a few interesting characters.

Mumford Eldred married Jane Whittaker. She bore him thirteen children, the first in 1805, including a pair of twins. I had twins. Who knew there were twins in my family?

One of my great-great grandmothers was named Martha Myda Barker, born November 8, 1872 in Scottsville, Arkansas. This means I could try to lay claim to my own Ma Barker, even though mine wasn't the infamous woman that accompanied her sons on various criminal enterprises. My Barker ancestor married James Lewis Hale in 1984 and thus, potential standing as a Ma Barker was forever lost.

Florence Olive Treffry, born in Manitoba, Canada in 1895. She died before she was thirty-five. Her eldest son, my purported grandfather, worked as a cook in Seattle while he was on the lam from the state penitentiary. I've been unable to locate much information about what happened to him, but did find this.

Haley Tatum, my sixth great grand uncle was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1760. Online, I found Haley Tatum’s will dated March 20, 1819:

In the name of God, Amen. 

I, Haley Tatum, of the county of Rowan and state of North Carolina being now in my perfect mind and memory do make and ordain this to be my last will and testament.  First, I leave to my daughter, Milley Merrel, one negro girl named Liza and all her increase during her natural life and then to be equally divided between all the heirs of her body.  I also do leave her the tract of land that Moses Claybrook now lives upon during her natural life then to belong the the heirs of her body.  I also give her ten dollars forever and no more of my estate. 

Suddenly, slavery was not a distant construct that happened to other people way back when. It was something that my ancestors inflicted on others. I carry that history now. I have a small stake in that pain.

For a long time after reading Tatum’s will, I worried about “the negro girl named Liza” and “all her increase”. What had happened to this woman? I felt concerned for Milley Merrel: What does it do to a person’s soul to inherit another woman and all her kin? 

Did I unwittingly become like her when the judge in the black robe signed the adoption decrees declaring that the children I adopted no longer legally belonged to the parents of their birth, but instead to me? 

From the loins of these people, I sprung forth. It gives you pause.

You are neither the richest nor the poorest. You are not the least nor the most educated. You are not the prettiest or the most plain. You are one in a long line of human beings that are born, struggle, grow, work, compete, love, reproduce, and age.  Then, you die.

You will leave a legacy. It may or may not be what you dreamt at your mother’s knee. Over time, it will fade to a few discrete facts on a graph. If you are lucky, there will be a few photographs, and a few discreet stories relatives will share.

This is the thicket of life. This is family. Tangled roots, tangled branches, tangled lives.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Things You May Not Know

I am the stone that marks the grave of Johnie Armstrong, slain despite promises to rise again.

I am the wish closed, the rose that folds in death’s rendering.

I am the open palm, the understanding one man asked me to hold. I am closed after unveiling the gift he refused.

I am the ready shovel, the willing labor, the mover of impossible mountains. I gust tornados. I cry floods. I unwrap silver linings in slivers of time so thin they barely ripple in wind. I am purple-black bruised. Burnt orange-brown. I am sometimes tired-with-a-T.

My lining is sheer. I stretch past what is asked to intuit what others yearn. I talk too loud, too long, too often. I am the one to whom Herbert said, “It was nice listening to you.” I am the one to whom Hank said, “Any man you loved would be a lucky man.”

I am debbie the difficult. I am too much desire and not enough satisfaction. I preach possibilities. I dance could-bes and why-nots. I wear a tattoo as a slit on my wrist— and so—to negate Vonnegut’s declarative it is.

I am fickle: thoughts flicker like fireflies. I am the brown bat that flaps along the picture window capturing bugs drawn by indoor light. I am many opinions and not enough facts.

I am trillium: delicate-flowered, woody-stemmed. Easily broken, tenderly rooted, I live tri-parted. I am water, and wear others thin. I am transience in a steady state. 

I twirl my mind to let go of preconceptions disguised as truth. I think if I thought less (a conundrum at best) I would be pleased to live what I live. I am an imposter in thin skin.

I yell in all caps and write in white font, then lose myself without a mark to know where I am. I dream of petals unfurled into Armstrong’s wings. I am stuck, arms flailing in too-deep water, met with glances rather than alarm, as if to say, “How interesting you chose to swim over your head again. How strong and silly you are…”

I am gold filigree in the apple blossom’s center, heavy with pollen, ripe for the bees. I am heady undulations, and waves tripping treetops, branches pricking holes so the light gets in. 

I swell with irritation, but have lost too much to rage, so I poke and I prod and I bore into white collars of buttoned-up rules. I weary of explaining why assumptions are helpful. I am human, and I hate it: fallible, vulnerable, sanguine, alone.

I am the sometimes-black pennant bolded white with DESPAIR. I am the top deck of the cruise ship unworried about waste. I'm the blind eye where water buffalos are slaughtered. I am the forgetting of stars that hours ago lamp-lit bleeding Syrians. 

I am denial refusing loss.

I am the way children play war (plastic soldiers dying blood-free deaths, resurrecting to re-challenge foes): innocent, creative, filled with faith in heroic acts. I am determined.

I am the dissolution of marriage Alzheimer’s promises to bring. I am my daughter’s depression treated with the right medication, and my foster son’s brain cyst drained and removed. I am counterbalance to the promises of the United States government that fails to tell my son the consequences of interrogating prisoners on this nation’s behalf. I am the mother of a boy who carries the sex offender label. I am the hurt of children I could not help. 

I am a decent rendition of humility and creation. I am ridiculous and delightful. I am shy at the center of groups. I am deep friendships—short or long-lived. I am a smooth bend, the way a convertible corners, strange as the curl of letters on the slick glide of a page. I am a straight shot of Petron chilled over cubed ice and crushed lime, poured in a glass.

I am a mouth full of wasps and bees, trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. I am fierce protector. I am thorn in your side. I know when to stop, but I don’t always manage. I am the right choice every wrong time.

I am the edge of the abyss, the fluff girl for lost leaps, the one not-splayed across the table at Starbucks despite invitation. I am thirteen in pigtails, lost to the rapture of equine muscle. I am regret that a toddler was killed by her mother. I am October 20—the date of her death. I am all the promises I ever made, especially the ones I did not keep.

I am fuck as a holiday and a punctuation mark. I am masked. I am hidden. I am partly revealed. I am peonies blossoming slow motion, waiting in shade for he-who-chooses. I am life in this moment. I am ordinary. I am pedestrian. I am the muse I find in others, and the chagrin that it is not easily within.

I am relational beauty cohabitating with the trouble of integrity. I am love and loss irretrievably entwined. I am every hue of green except eco-activist, which admittedly misses a great spectrum of things. I am protector of bees, and ants, and biting insects. My mouth full of wasps sometimes stings.

I am bossy and indignant because I think I am right, especially and always when I am wrong. I am success with difficult children due to my weaknesses more than my strengths. I am stories my children tell about my failures. I am pancakes served on the unset table, homework torn up in a fit of frustration. I am gifts of lessons each child taught me. I am every shortcoming seen in others. I am grateful for forgiveness and trust.

I am loving too many which cost me too much. I am bad at compartmentalizing (but getting better, a feat that offers little solace or pride.) I am stories and meanings, a world and a wonder.

I am the comma that says, "Pause."

Monday, October 14, 2013

I'm So Hot! (Not.)

When I was in high school, there was a popular way to introduce a topic where the first person would say, "I'm so __________"  and the second person would say, "How _________ are you?" 

I was never hot enough to have a cool retort to the how-___________-are-you response. I wasn't funny. Instead, I hung around funny people. They made me laugh, or they made fun of me so they could laugh, which struck me as funny.

Me and my funny friends

Because they were funny, they could maneuver in and around the popular crowd (maybe they were popular) and on occasion, so did I. But I was way too into riding my horse and slinging plates at the local Pay-n-Save Coffee Shop to be cool.

I'm too bossy, or as one of my elementary teachers phrased it on my report card: "Debbie sometimes has too much leadership over others."

My diaphragm should have developed in the body of an opera singer (I can't carry a note) or a theatre major. Even my whispers are loud. If I were a child today, somebody would put me on Ritalin. Instead, I live with a cluttered brain and a voice that carries way too far.

I was never cool. I just never made the grade. I was never all that. When ragged bottom jeans were hip, I wore polyester double knit pants. When hot pants were rad, I wore pleated skirts. The one time in my life when totally out of control frizzed out hair was mod (thank you, Janis Joplin), my mom smoothed mine into sleek ponytails with Fabric Finish. The kind for ironing clothes.

When I grew up, my twins were happy to see me after work each day when they were small. But then they grew into teenagers, and weren't that thrilled with a bossy mom. Further, I filled our house up with so many children, it was often hard for them to get face time. The foster kids wished I'd fall off the face of the earth so they could have their real moms back. 

Sometimes, when one or the other of them was screaming, "I want my REAL mom!" I'd scream back, "What do I look like? A cartoon?" One twin would retreat to his bedroom, the other would say, "Mom! You need to take a chill pill." The dogs would bark, my husband would raise an eyebrow, and the parrot would shriek, "Get in bed, right now!"

Since the parrot did a really mean imitation of my husband's side of a phone conversation ("Hello. Yes. Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, G'bye.") and his deceased wife's CB chatter (10-4, good buddy!) I knew that evil shrieking get-in-bed command was a fairly accurate rendition of me.


I would never gain popularity with an evil avian critter mimicking my worst moments.  Years passed. Children grew up and left home. I had more free time with which to connect to the world. Still, I never watch television and rarely listen to the radio.  It's probably no wonder that I'm not a very good measure of current trends but I love to torment myself, so I decided to Google the top internet searches to see if I could guess what they'd be. I surmised:

Government shutdown
Breaking Bad

That's it. That's all I could get. I couldn't even come up with a third.

Then, I clicked on Hot Trends in Google Searches which gave me a list for today:

1. Banksy
2. Steve Bartman
3. Common App
4. DeMarco Murray
5. Ed Sheeran
6. Bob Costas

Of the six, I've only even heard of Bob Costas. Seriously. That's how uncool I am. I hate to admit that because I'm so out of touch you probably think I'm living in a partially buried culvert at the back of someone's property.

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, I clicked on the link that said Top Charts which brought up a list of the top Animals, Athletes, Books, DJs, Foods and so on.

I'm happy to report I'm familiar with all five top animals (dog, cat, horse, fish and bird), recognize three out of five names of the top athletes (although I'm not sure which sport they play), know four of the five top-rated books (didn't know "Under the Dome"), have never heard of any of the DJs (there's a top DJ rating? Really?), and I'm more than a little familiar with chicken, pizza, cake, wine, and apples.

What does this have to do with anything?

As a writer, you're supposed to develop a platform. I imagine that it's supposed to be comprised of fans and followers who are keen on your work. Kinda like being popular. And since, I'm not personally popular nor am I remotely in the know about popular culture, developing fabulous Facebook posts and titillating Tweets is gonna suck so much--

How much is it going to suck?

I need to find some funny friends.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Move. Move. Move.

This week's theme for Jane Ann McLachlan's October Challenge is relationships. So many of our relationships are the result of proximity. We meet someone because they live, work, or play near us. I began thinking about how my many moves have affected my ability to establish, maintain, and release relationships.

From birth to high school graduation, I moved at least fifteen times, but probably closer to twenty. Most of those moves meant a new school, new teachers, new friends. When you have so many people and places changing in your world, it's hard to have a clear narrative of your own life, let alone of the people who are constantly passing by.

When I began writing my memoir about two years ago, my memories were a jumbled mess. I could hardly remember what had happened when. I had a slightly better recollection of where certain things happened. I began visiting the exteriors of places I had lived, so that I could figure out the order of my memories. I still have gaps, but each time I revisit a place I have lived, I build a little more structure on which to hang my past.

Between the ages of 18 and 20, I lived in eight more residences before landing in Vancouver, Washington where I started attending Clark College. Within a couple years, I got pregnant.

My twin sons and I moved eight more times before we settled in Oregon when they were six. During those years, I had a number of beater cars: Ford Mustang II, Chevy Capris, a green Ford Pinto, a yellow Ford Pinto, Buick Skylark, and a Mercury Zephyr. I had a bunch of jobs, too, working my way up from Dairy Queen to Bonneville Power to the Social Security Administration to becoming an electrician's apprentice in Local 48. 

When my sons and I moved to share the home of my husband-to-be on the 13 acres he owned, we found the consistency I’d always sought.For the first couple of years, all was quiet. Or as quiet as any home with two working parents and twin boys can be. And then, the other children began to come. Some left. More came. It went on like this for a decade, by which time, our family looked like this:

In thinking about how proximity begets relationship, I can’t help but believe that my early childhood changes: learning to adapt, make anew, create a family out of whoever was close, promoted my later life choices. I was adamant that my sons would have stability and would finish school in the place they started. They would know the constancy of both their parents actively participating in their lives. And they did.

I didn't see it at the time but it's ironic and a little sad for me to recognize that the stability I strove for on their behalf was compromised when we became a revolving family system comprised of additional children who started their lives in families other than our own. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Morning Routine: 2001

 Three a.m

I wake up spontaneously. Stare at the clock. When I'm writing the first draft of something, I leap up, but this week I'm on an edit, so I roll over and go back to sleep. 

Five a.m.

Something nudges me testing the receptiveness of an early morning probe. I slap it down. Any minute a teenager will poke his head in asking for gas money. 


Two-year-old Jonathan calls from his bedroom. "Mommmmeee. Mommmmeee.." 

I get up. Bang on the bathroom door. One of the teenage boys is in there counting zits or applying toilet paper to tiny nicks. I try to see through the half inch hole made by the broom handle when they tried that Bruce Lee trick. It just looks dark in there. "Do you have the light off?" I ask.

"Mom, there are laws against peeping." he says.  

"You're gonna think peeping when I remove the door so I can get INTHEREWHENIWANTTO!" 

I rescue the toddler from the crib. Never mind he could scale his way out with a bottle in one hand at ten months. When you're two, you have to be lifted up...but only when you ask to be. Never in busy parking lots, on fast escalators, or in clothing stores that have lots of low-hanging racks on which to swing.

I start coffee.


The three high school boys head out the door. They holler afternoon schedules over their shoulders. I remind them not to say "pissed off" even if they are. Their expressions remind me I'm so lame.

Four middle-sized kids crunch through bowls of cereal. 

I pour the two-year-old a cup of juice. Put on Lion King. Throw in a load of laundry. Go back to the bathroom. Occupied. In my nicest shrill-evil-mother voice I demand she vacate.

"I'm washing my hair," she hollers back.

"Mommmeeee...  Go-go." The two-year old wants to watch Inspector Gadget.

"Earth to ADHD warriors. Come in please."  For some reason, taking medicine and doing chores is more palatable when children are permitted to be warriors, monsters or ninjas with nineteen syllable names they can pronounce perfectly, despite not being able to utter "please” at the dinner table. 

I dole out Concerta and Wellbutrin to ensure two children will make it through the school day. Sign my daughter's behavior sheet for Special Ed. Brush hair out her beautiful eyes. She shakes it back.

I race to the bathroom. Vacancy! I pee. The two-year-old bangs on the door.

"Mommmeee...  Ayee."

Alice in Wonderland. Not the cartoon, the one with Whoopee Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat. Two-year-olds have trouble deciding which movie to open their day with and hey, if he wants some delusional, drug-induced fairy tale, far be it from me to stand in his way.

I run upstairs (not upstairs at all, but a mobile home adjacent to our home) and make sure my mother-in-law's schedule is in order.  Set her pills out in plain sight so she won't forget to take them.   


Hubby gives me the one-eyebrow waggle.  He thinks it's sexy in a Jack-Nicholson-when-he-was-young-and-virile kinda way. 

"That thing gets any bushier, "I say, "you're gonna need a license for it." 

Seven fifteen.

Eat, children, eat. A child's appetite is inversely proportionate to the amount of food a parent thinks they might consume. Buy three large deep dish pizzas...nobody's hungry. Buy one...everyone's starved. My middle-sizers purposely eat slow so they can slurp the milk from the bowl at the last minute. This despite years of nagging that drinking from bowls will cause your tongue to lap backward like a dog's.   


I lock one dog in the kennel and two in the back hall. I kick the four middle-sized kids out the door in time for them to run up the ¾ mile hill to catch the bus. They have time if nobody starts an argument. It's a little known fact that the hip bone is connected to the jaw bone. If the jaw bone gets going, the hip bone is paralyzed. Some break dancers accommodate for this by wearing baggy pants that appear to move when they shuffle their feet.

I turn on the computer. 

Seven forty-five.

Supervise the two-year-old making his own toast, so he doesn't dip the knife back in the peanut butter after licking it. Or electrocute himself.

I let the dogs out of their respective holding cells. Feed them. Throw in another load of laundry. Stare at the mound of unfolded laundry from the day before. Pray for a vision of the Virgin on my sofa. I'm pretty sure if the vision was there, the laundry would auto-fold.

The phone rings. A salesman wants to sell me a new windshield. 

I tell him he doesn't sell the the kind of shield I need. He can't find the response to that on his super-duper-cold-call-sales-teleprompter card they gave him, and hangs up on me.

"Mommmmeeeeee. Me-ow."  Cats. Yes! God Bless Andrew Lloyd Webber. I can grab a quick shower.  I've got my lather and rinse down to a few seconds less than the "Jellicle Cats".   

Unless it needs a rewind.