Monday, February 23, 2015

Why am I still here?

The other day I heard from my friend DH.  She's been visiting her son in Florida and is seriously considering selling her Portland house and moving eastward.  She was calling me to hear just how difficult it was to leave my home and friends of 30 years.

I said, I would never move to Florida full time.  The summer heat is like an assault.  Why not live part time in Portland and part time in FLA, rent the PDX house to a Reedie?  She'd have the best of both worlds. That's been my dream, and I still think it's a viable one.  I went on and on about it, but that wasn't what she was interested in hearing. 

What, she said again, was it like to leave Portland?  I paused and thought.  "It was devastating," I said.  But, I was so exhausted by the failing marriage, I did not know which was the more devastating, leaving my home or losing my love.  She understood that pain.  Most divorced people do.  But it was beside the point.  I thought some more.  Why am I still here?

Thinking back over the past few years, I realized that I have not thought clearly about anything since at least 2009.  I have been reacting:  I didn't want to hurt D, I wanted to get out of MCL, I wanted to find a job after I was laid off.   Then, I moved to ABQ, left D, and started healing.  There were so many decisions, so many changes.  But throughout those changes, I never seriously thought about moving back to Portland, even after I left the ABQ job, even after I started burning out on my caregiving job.  I've been sending off the odd job application to Oregon, but I haven't seriously planned to move back.  If I wanted to move back, I could have gone back.  I could have healed there instead, surrounded by the people I love, a 2-hour drive from the ocean.  Instead, I stayed here and slept and healed and started to build a new community.  Now I've started over again in Taos.  My brain is clearer, and I want to know:  why am I still here?

While I talked with DH, I was walking on the trail behind the parking lot, surrounded by sage fields. My hair whipped in the breeze.  Mountains ringed the horizon.  The sky was a blue upended bowl, edges meeting the mountains, clouds painting swirled and striated patterns.  Two ravens winged their ways overhead.  I could hear the wind in their feathers.  I could hear a far-off caw, see them circle around each other, and then watch them fly steadily west towards the mountains. I had that feeling of serenity and grounding that I get when I walk along the ocean's edge or in a mountain meadow.

Is this where I'm meant to be?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

RIP Aunt J

She raced her plane in
The Powder Puff Derby, and
Her voice soared also.

She was smart and adventurous and creative. She had a sweet and strong soprano voice. She was my godmother, and she cherished a thank you letter I once sent her that ended "I can make fudge." Her favorite childhood story was Muggins Mouse. She took care of her baby sister L and adored her nephew E. She was a secretary at the VA. But, by the time I met her, she had been forced into an early retirement, and she lived a depressing life in her messy overstuffed house half a block down the road from her parents.

This was in 1981, when I graduated from college and moved to Portland. I had a ready-made family and friends. My brother went to Reed College for four years, and, after getting his Master's in Eugene, he returned to Portland. His friends took me in immediately, and I began to meet my mother's family. My mother's parents and one sister lived across the Columbia in Vancouver, but the rest of her family lived in Portland: one aunt, one first cousin, one first cousin once removed, and their attendant relations. It was odd to have an extended family, because our family had been so insular while I was growing up. Our traditions and behaviors were centered around the immediate family. Our extended family lived in the Pacific Northwest and western Minnesota. Grandma S would fly across country for special occasions, graduations and weddings, mainly, but I never met my aunts or cousin. So, this family did not feel like family. I knew we were related, but I didn't grow up with them, and even familiar things like lefse and krub were subtly different.

Technically I knew the Minnesota family better: Dad was an only child, and we visited his family in Minnesota during the summers. However, I was never clear how we were related to most of the people we met. We would go out to the Carlson Farm and my twin and I would play with C, who was our age. We would roam around the barn and the fields before returning to the house for the cakes and cookies and other midwest foods like glorified rice and 3 bean salad. The grown ups would have been talking about people I did not know and reliving the various illnesses and events of the previous year. I was not interested.

By the end of our two-week vacation, we would have visited all the relatives. Every day we swam in the outdoor town pool. Other activities included trips to Granite Falls, swinging on the tire swing, visiting Minneapolis for a day of shopping and some Bridgman's ice cream, and walking along the alleys between Grandma H's and Great-Aunt Inga's homes. I remember visiting F, an enormous woman with tree-trunk legs in support hose. Her sitting room had horse hair furniture, covered in antimacassars, and the house had that special old-person smell of baking, onions, coffee, and mothballs. I'd sit on the floor, looking with awe at her legs and listening to the sing-song immigrant Norwegian tones, the occasional exclamation of "uff da!" And then I'd go outside and explore the yard, with its water pump, white clapboard shed, and short-cropped grass.

A lot of the time was spent sitting around the house, reading, listening to the victrola, looking at the stereoscope. Grandma H had some books: I read Anne of Green Gables in an old green hardcover, with black and white plate illustrations. I still remember the picture of Anne trying to walk across the ridgepole, wearing her unattractive aproned dress, her hair in two braids.

I remember those activities more than I remember the people. As a general rule, my attention was inward, and I did not really connect with anyone. Now I thought that the family gatherings in Vancouver would be different. I was an adult, and I wanted to know who these people were. I had heard stories of all of them, and there were cute pictures of my twin and I as flower girls at L's first wedding; but I remembered the punch fountain at the reception and the black waiter on the train better than I remembered my family. My cousin was literally half my age, and L was only 4 years older than my brother. My brother was 10 years older than me, and I didn't know him well, either. 

My brother and I usually drove over together in those early days. The gatherings centered around my Aunt L, and it was clear that had always been the case. She was always well put together, with ethnic jewelry, hats, and tailored outfits of rich materials. She talked of art, history, literature, music, with a well modulated voice and careful enthusiasm. Aunt J was usually there when we arrived, bulking in the corner. She wore tent dresses, and her cheeks were flushed with rosacea. Her iron grey hair was short, wiry, and unkempt. When she spoke, there was a subtle undertone of resentment. She would talk about her "patients" and other grievances, and we would wait for a pause and then change the subject. 

I became close to the rest of the family. I saw my Portland aunt regularly, and when he entered college, my cousin lived in my house. Once I had a car, I visited Grandma S on a monthly basis, taking her to lunch at the Holland restaurant, going shopping, going to the doctor, driving out to the cemetery to visit Grandpa. Aunt J often hitched a ride on these excursions, and it was always uncomfortable.

As the years passed, the discomfort of Aunt J's presence grew. She would ramble about the past, and it was never a pleasant reminiscence. She would talk about her ailments: teeth, digestion, and legs were always giving her trouble. She would accuse neighbors and shopkeepers and family of various ill-doings. Eventually she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and put into a care facility. She would call us with threats and anger. There were problems with her housing and her guardian, but the family had no legal right to help, and she refused to relinquish control. Her guardian sold her house, and she spent her last days in assisted living, barely able to walk. Once she became less mobile, we did not even see her at family gatherings. Most of her possessions were sold or stored in her sister's garage, although she frequently sent pictures and photocopies of legal papers to us.

And now she is gone, and I don't know what I feel. I used to think I would be the Aunt J of my generation: single, childless, smart, quirky, crazy. But even that thought did not make me compassionate towards her. I avoided her presence. I did not answer her illegible and rambling letters, I did not answer her phone calls. Oh, occasionally I would write or call, but not much, not enough. And I would sit next to her at gatherings and talk with her, and remember her at Christmas and birthdays, but I made no special efforts to see her outside of the group. I do remember the mortification of attending the St. Olaf Choir performance with her; she spent 10 minutes rustling through her purse before I finally spoke up about it. Was the offense really bad enough to keep me from doing anything with her again?

Her sad and angry later years have swallowed up her adventurous and joyous early years. I am sorry I did not spend more time learning about her. I am grieved that I was not part of her life. And I am frustrated that I cannot write a suitable farewell to her. All I can say is, she was a remarkable and creative woman who accomplished much in the face of great obstacles. And I wish I'd known her.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: healing, endings, and beginnings

Last year I did my year-in-review by pulling the first lines from each month's blog.  This year I cannot do that:  I didn't blog in November because I was taking the NaNoWriMo challenge (hey, I won!) and I was prepping to leave Cerrillos and Wit's End for the new job in Taos.  I was finding my replacement and looking for a home. I didn't blog in December because I was finishing up concerts and packing and planning for holidays.  And, basically, the muse was gone for the time being.  I was too busy living, and not able to put my energy to contemplation.

Today, however, I am doing some retrospecting.  I used the Facebook apps to create a status/photo update and realized afresh how rich my life is with travel, friends, family and the beauty that surrounds us all.  After years of focusing on stress, in 2014 I could focus on the small wonders of each day.  And each day inspired photographs and haiku.  I didn't post all of them, but I could see the change in emotion; as the year got older, I became more serene.

The typical day started slowly:  doing the crossword and drinking good coffee while watching clouds float above the mountains and birds perch in tree tops.  E would read the NYT and share the headlines or ask questions about them.  I have an image from the early months:  we are outside, facing west, the sun shining over our shoulders.  She reaches for her toast and smiles at me:  "This is the life," she says.

I have other images too, mostly from our various journeys and errands.  We are in Albuquerque,  driving past the yellow cottonwoods in the Rio Grande as she gasps in wonder, "I'm in heaven!"   We're going down Goldmine road, watching the cloud shadows on the Cerrillos hills and singing "White Coral Bells" and other old fashioned rounds.  "Do you have music in your head?" she asks.  We pass the park in Santa Fe where she remembers sitting with both her daughter and her favorite caregiver.  We sit at a table outside Echo gelato, the small bright orange and yellow cups filled with our chosen frozen concoction.  We take the tiny plastic shovels, carefully spooning small tastes.  I share my stracciatella, and she says she'll get that next time. We're walking along the Cerrillos Hills State Park trail towards the overlook:  she is mesmerized by the plaque depicting the animals, illustrated by local schoolchildren.  She finds the lion outlined in the cliffs across the valley, its mouth open in a yawn.  (While I could recognize her cloud images, I never saw that lion.)  We're at San Marcos Cafe, watching the peacocks pecking in their enclosure or walking past the windows.  She says, "they don't have ducks?" and "soon it'll be time for a fire."  She loves the cinnamon rolls, so we share an order of that and an order of Eggs Benedict.

There are so many moments. She hated the electronic keyboard that we had on loan, but I coaxed her into accompanying me for some singing.  On our regular walks, we would stop to look at the arroyo:  "Do you suppose it will ever fill with water?"  The bird seed drew out foxes at dusk, and she pondered about them:  "Where do they live?"  The flowers made her catch her breath:  "Oh I hope E will be able to see them!"  E is never far from her mind or her conversation.  "When will she be back?"

Then there are the lost moments.  I never wrote down the way she would mis-hear me, but we laughed at each piece of delightful confusion.  I never found out why she was crying that night in bed, but I held her until it stopped.  I never learned Spanish from her, never took her to the Atomic Museum or Los Alamos or Bandelier.  She only came to a few of my concerts, and I only went to church with her a few times:  those were usually when the respite caregivers were on duty and I was visiting friends in ABQ or rehearsing or playing concerts.  And much of each day was spent in separate worlds, she reading Liz Gilbert or the biography of Oppenheimer or a history of New Mexico, me tutoring, writing to friends, editing photos.  Those moments are gone now, and I miss them.

But, she is there:  laughing, perseverating, forgetting, and loving.  I sit by her chair and put my head on her knee, and she strokes my hair.  "I'm going to miss you so much," she says, and I reply, "I'm going to miss you too."  We make plans for visits, and I know that this is something I need to do, and I hope she will become resigned to the change.  However, deep inside, where I am ashamed to acknowledge it, I hope she doesn't like the new caregiver TOO much:  I am jealous, even though I'm the deserter, I'm the one moving on.  She has taught me so much about aging gracefully, about living fully.  We both have experienced loss, but we both know how to recognize and share joy in the midst of that.

I was so lucky to have this time of healing.  I don't know how to thank her, and the other Co-op members, and the people in my musical organizations, and my hiking buddies, and friends and lovers, and family.  They have made up a huge net that has held me, bobbing up and down after the fall, inches above the water.  I lie face down, looking into the depths, and I see they are filled with light and color amidst the sharp coral rocks and tunnels that threatened to trap and drown me.  I turn over on my back and look at the clouds that sail by.  I don't do anything for a very long time, but gradually, as I bob gently, I close my eyes and surrender to the peace.

And now, I have found my healing, and it's time to climb out of the net and swim to shore.

Thank you, E.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Three weeks ago, I was in Melbourne, Kentucky, at G's riverside family vacation home, for the 2nd Annual Spider Reunion.  Only four of us made it, as with the 1st, but the rest were there in spirit.  As we drove and photographed and chatted and posted silly things to Facebook, I realized how deep the friendship is.  We bonded at a young age, and when we meet, we fall back into the old patterns as if we never parted.

37 years ago, we were callow 18-year-olds.  We didn't know who we were, or who we wanted to be. By the end of the four years, it was clear that few of us would turn out as planned.  In the interim,  we had our differences, we had our crises, we grew up, we disappeared, we reconnected, we remained friends.  And now it turns out, the most important discovery from that long-ago freshman year is that friendship endures.  What a splendid discovery that is!

That being said, another discovery is how very little people change at the core.  The process of living has refined and winnowed, and we are unapologetically ourselves, without much veneer, and without much desire to have one.  In fact, we embrace our quirks, as evidenced by our ready assumption of the nicknames G's boyfriend M assigned to us (he couldn't remember our names.)  B was the Manly One, C the Child.  I was the Hippie (that's Bohemian to you, M!)  And yes, that's always been my bent:  slapdash with my house-keeping and organization, living in the moment, wearing comfortable swirly clothes, dancing and singing at the drop of a cue.  What sealed the deal, for M, was my home-made kale chips.  He took one, politely, nibbled and said, "that's good!" and then turned to G and made a WTF?! face.

This sounds like fun doesn't it?  And it was:  zip-lining between two backyard trees, sitting on the deck watching the barges and drinking coffee, walking through the woods and parks, listening to Latina jazz at G's regular Tuesday night music venue, and talking, talking, talking.  However, on the next to the last night, I got into a confrontation with G and realized how thin my skin remains.  I know it always has been, but I had thought that, since the divorce, I had toughened up.  I thought that I accepted myself and trusted in the love of my friends and family.  I was startled when, during the confrontation, my throat tightened with hurt and tears.

In many ways, it is a silly fight.   She says, "Tomorrow it's your turn to pick up and clean and decide meals."  Surprised, I say, "sure..."  and then I pause.  "Do you think I'm not pulling my weight?"  She looks at me and says, rather like a manager/psychologist, "What do you think?"  In times past, I would have crumpled and apologized, for what I wouldn't know, but I'd apologize and grovel and feel like pond scum. I would embrace the judgment and feel hurt by it at the same time. On this occasion I say, "Yes, I do think I've been pulling my weight.  I've been doing dishes and picking up and contributing."

She does not agree, and I recognize afresh how little power one has to change an opinion.  Because, yes, I am doing my share.  But, I am also leaving coffee cups on side tables, snack dishes on bedside tables, doors ajar.  I am making my bed, but leaving my coat and scarf hanging on chair backs and my knitting and camera bags on the floor by the corner chair where I download my pix every night. I am trying to contain my overflow, but, catlike, I am scattering my fur everywhere and sitting wherever I damn well please.  In her eyes, I am a nightmare guest, selfish and disrespectful of others.

I am hurt, and I leave the house and sit out in the old Shawshank bus/guest house, editing pix and talking with C on speaker phone.  I think about my reaction to criticism.  I can't totally blame D for it.  Yes, his constant picking amounted to emotional abuse, and yes, I am slowly recovering from that.  But, I wouldn't have been vulnerable to him, and I wouldn't feel hurt by G's irritation with me, if I didn't, at the core, believe that I am a pain in the ass, unproductive and unlovable.  I used to tell him, "I have my own voice telling me I'm a fuck-up, I don't need yours as well."  Now, although I stood up for myself with G, I don't really believe it.  I grieve:  why don't people notice the GOOD things I do?  Then  I think, why would anyone be friends with me?   I feel myself spiraling downward into the old self-loathing, and then I realize what I am doing.

I give myself a talking to:  People are quirky.  People have different priorities.  People have different ways of looking at the world, of being productive, of being friends.  People have flaws, and self-awareness only goes so far.  People are lovable.  And I am a person.

So, I talk myself out of the bus and into bed.  I get up and do dishes and put things away.  I wait on my friends. I sit quietly on the edge of group.  I get through the last day, uncomfortable, wondering if I will be welcome at the 3rd reunion, fumbling through an apology in my brain.  I talk with B on the drive back to the airport, working through my feelings, honing my arguments, shoring up my defenses.  I go home.  I act like nothing happened.  I don't send G an apology (although I do send a thank you.)  In the end, I have almost forgotten about it.  Until this week.

Yesterday would have been my 10th wedding anniversary.  For the last week, I've been in a mini-funk, without really knowing why.  It's October; the aspen and cottonwoods are golden and the deep blue skies are full of clouds and rainbows.  I'm making music, I'm seeing friends.  It's my favorite time of the year.  What is wrong?  And then I remember.  10 years ago, I was in Portland, marrying D, filled with joy and light and hope.  I was so sure I was doing the right thing, so confident in my friends and my love and my family.  The day was golden, the food was excellent.  I honeymooned in Santa Fe, I visited Madrid.  I planned to come back here to live.

Ten years ago, I felt like the most lovable person in the world.

I remembered this, because E and I were driving through Madrid back from ABQ, having dropped off her high-maintenance friend.  The relief was overwhelming, and I thought, G and D should try living with her.  I thought, maybe my funk was because it was so exhausting hosting her.  Then I recalled the date, and out of the blue, I emailed M and S and N:  "Care to meet me for dinner tonight in SF after rehearsal?  I'll be free at 7."

Why did I do that?

M couldn't make it, but S reserved a table at El Meson. It was a lovely dinner.  We shared our tapas, and we caught up.  They looked so happy with each other, both so beautiful and charming and smart and witty.  They talked of their jobs and their lives together. I talked of my travels and my future plans.  I pondered the idea of the library job in Taos:  it feels like I'd be moving backwards.  S said, no, care-giving is moving backwards:  you've done that for 10 years.  I did a double-take:  I've only been with E for one year.  And then it hit me.  hmmmm.  Yes, I was the caregiver in my marriage, and it is time to take care of myself, to trust that I am worthy of that.

S is not the best friend I've ever had, and I have been avoiding him for months because of past hurt. However, last night I remembered why I cared.  He listens to me, and he makes connections.  He helps me grow. He tries to grow himself.  And, like my old friends, he judges me and loves me anyway.  He and N were the perfect choice for my non-10th anniversary dinner.

As we talked, he reminded me that his ex died a year ago.  I was humbled.  I'm mourning the loss of my marriage, but there are other, deeper losses.  Yes, every day is an anniversary of something, and every day is a chance to make the choice of forward movement.  I don't have to wallow in the mistaken choices of my past.  I don't have to accept the mistaken judgments, even those of people I love.  I don't have to partner up, and I don't have to be alone.

I do have to have friends.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Remembering our childhoods

Tonight E and I were discussing our very similar childhoods. There were some basic differences of course.  Her father was a farmer/sharecropper near Bakersfield, CA, and mine was the head librarian at a small private liberal arts college in Monmouth IL (pop 11,000 at that time).  She was born in 1915, and I was born 44 years later.  When she did the weekly ironing, she used a flat iron heated on the top of a wood stove, she sprinkled everything before ironing, and she ironed table linen, bedsheets and pillow slips, as well as her father's shirts.  Her sisters never had to do the ironing, but she enjoyed "doing it right."  (She still does for that matter.)

I too did the ironing, but my work was less arduous and was shared with my sisters (in fact, they did much more than I.) When it was my turn, I pulled ironing from a big basket in Mom's closet and brought it to the TV room in the basement,  There, I watched soap operas (Another World, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows) while I plied the electric steam iron, which I filled with distilled water from a nearby jug. I only ironed the table cloth for holidays.  But, we both hung clothes on a line in the back yard.

And, of a Sunday. we both went for family drives to the river.

They took ice cream, home-made with a hand crank and still in its rock-salt-and-ice-filled container. They built a fire and roasted chicken pieces before wading out (in somewhat sketchy bathing attire) to the sandbar.  Diving and other deep-water tricks were reserved for the reservoir near the farm.  We went to the Lock and Dam 18 on the Mississippi and watched the barges go through, singing the old campfire girls song.  I remember going to a nearby tiny crescent of a beach and looking for the round mud rocks that were potential geodes.  Sometimes we went to the covered bridge near Gladstone (aka Happy Rock), and in the autumn we stopped by Weir's Fruit Farm to get Mom's favorite apples (Johnathans) and drink fresh cider from the keg, using those pointed paper cups that we also used in school for the milk breaks.

I told E about the July 4th picnic with the Buccholtz's, where we also had home-made ice cream. Instead of a bonfire, though, we brought a portable barbecue and charcoal briquettes, and Bob marinated the chicken in Italian salad dressing, which made the skin crusty -black and tangy.

She nodded.  "I had a wonderful childhood," she said, and she proceeded to talk about the long rope swing in the barn.  "You could swing all the way across the barn, 10 feet high."  I told her of the tire swing that hung from a tree near my Grandma's house in Minnesota:  we'd sit in the hole of the tire and use our feet to push back and forth; or we'd climb on top of the tire, clinging to the rope while a sister would twirl us until the rope would twist no more and then let us go with a push. We'd swoop back and forth, madly twirling and clinging while the centrifugal force pulled the tire straight out.

She said, oh yes, she visited her grandparents too.  Like me, though, she only visited one set.  Distance and expense restricted my family to the Minnesota kin.  In E's case, her father was 20 years older than her mother, and I get the impression that his parents were gone by the time she was born.  Her father, being a farmer, could only get away for a short time, but the rest of them stayed for one to three weeks.  Her grandfather worked on the SP railroad, which ran in front of the house near Fresno.  "My grandmother was a 5x5, She was enormous (arms held wide),  as wide as she was tall.  She couldn't walk very well, but she was always in the kitchen, cooking. Grandpa was a very skinny man, no taller than she, but somehow he could command the respect of the crew."  He had a crew of around 20 strong Mexican men, who worked on the railroad under his supervision.  They lived on the other side of the fence with their families, and E used to lean against the fence, watching the children "laughing and crying and singing" on the dirt space between the two rows of houses.  Actually, she specified that the houses were not really houses, but residences constructed of canvas and boards, etc.  They were arranged in two lines, facing each other.

It was her first real experience with The Other, and she wanted to join them, to understand what they were saying, to play.  But her mother wouldn't allow it. Why?  I asked, probably naively.  To her credit, E didn't say:  because that's what the relationship was at the time. She thought for minute, considering the question.  "I don't know.  Probably she felt it would be too much trouble."  She'd have to chaperone, something might happen, they might not be welcome.  And she didn't speak Spanish either.

So, E stood at the fence and wondered about the little community on the other side, so close, but so far.  At night, they could hear the laughter and singing of the adults, and the shrieking of the children at play.  Later, E would learn their language, among several others, and spend close to a year in Spain.  But, she never connected with the foreign culture in her own country, and when she was in high school, her grandparents were no more.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Encounters in the High Desert

Late last night, as the respite caregiver got ready to leave, she said, "Wow, look at that walking stick!" I peered out the window to the lighted front porch, wondering if I'd left M's long wooden stick there, instead of putting it away in the casita. I saw nothing but the gnarled silver-gray log, sitting by the porch stanchion. "No, there on the screen!" It was a small insect, long stick body supported by four stick limbs which were splayed on the screen in a perfect X. Oh, right. I used to see walkingsticks in the zoo's insectarium, which my friend M regularly visited as part of her Aversion Therapy.

I saw tarantulas there too, and now they are a regular part of my autumn drives.  I see them advancing slowly and elegantly, crossing the roads or crawling down the driveway, large furry bodies arched above the stately-stepping legs. They are looking for sex, but they have the aspect of a regal progress. I carefully swerve aside. Other drivers are less respectful, and I look sadly at the furry brown carcass mounds as I drive past.

EB tells me that when she first arrived she had a huge spider phobia. I lost that phobia when I lived in the milk barn on Taylors Ferry Rd, back in the late '80s. My bed was in the loft, among the rafters, where huge barn spiders lived. I watched them warily for awhile, but they stayed on their side, and I stayed on mine. They took care of the flying insects and the silverfish, so I let them be.

EB isn't so accepting of the Epod spiders, but she doesn't kill them. She uses the glass and cardboard technique. You wait patiently for the spider to reach your level, plop the glass over it, rim tight against the wall or floor, ease a thin cardboard or paper underneath, being careful not to nip a leg or squish a body part, bolster the paper with a clipboard (to prevent flopping and gaps), and escort the offending arachnid outdoors. The tricky part is when you remove the glass:  will the spider leap onto your face and bite?!  I suggest a plastic glass, so she can just fling the whole thing into the brush and retrieve the equipment later.  

Right now the Epod is home to several varieties of arachnid. At any moment cone can see them marching around the ceiling, popping out by the bathroom sink, scuttling across the tile, crawling into crevices. I don't know their names, but one kind has a thin grey body with two hornlike front legs, another has a thick black body with stubby legs like eyelashes, a third has a long black body with a reddish brown abdomen (not the fiddle shaped black widow). EB has even encountered a small scorpion. It came scurrying out of the broom closet in the bathroom, and when she pinned it under the glass, it shriveled and changed color. She decided it was killed in the process and tossed it down the toilet, but now she thinks it may have been a defense mechanism, and she is racked with guilt.

I don't go that far.

The insects have cycles in the house. Spiders are a constant, but in the summer, the crickets invade regularly, filling the bathroom with echoing calls, undeniably present, but unfindable.  It keeps me awake, and I whine about it on Facebook:

The stridulator
Came out of hiding tonight.
It is outside now.

Outside, cicadas fill the air with their mating calls, loud and monotonous.  These are not the fat night-time cicadas of my youth.  Those used to congregate on the lighted tennis courts and stoops, massively ugly, with a singing cricket-like song.  When I moved to New Mexico, they lived in the cottonwoods and, on one memorable evening, drowned out the band on the stage at the Biopark concert and dive-bombed my hair. But the cicada on this high-desert mountain confounds me. It fills the hot mid-day afternoon with a endless percussive clicking, produced by wing-clicks instead of the more resonant abdominal tymbal. I learn that it's  a periodical cicada, a smaller variety with a 17-year life cycle, spent mainly underground. This is he year of a population explosion. It takes weeks before I track down the source of the sound, even though they are inches away from me.

After much peering
Into clicking junipers,
I locate the source
A friend commented, "OMG, Now I remember why I am not fond of the hot dry places."  Well, yes, but it's fascinating, too, and they don't harm you, unless, like C, you shake the limb to watch them scatter into the air.  One of them bit her, and serves her right.

Amazing and ever-present in their various shapes and often-noxious qualities, the insects are still not something I study carefully. I mainly learn how to co-exist, how to escort them outside, and how to avoid them. The beautiful two-toned tarantula wasp feeds on the yellow flowers, unmolested. I walk too close to the matte-black stink bug, and it points its abdomen upward, warning me away. I take pictures of bees and flies as they burrow into the cactus blossoms.  They are there, they are often beautiful, but I don't really like them.

When I first arrived here, I was more interested in the larger wildlife.  C showed me the bear scrape in the parking circle:  long ridges in the dirt that didn't look like much, but were the bear's attempt to find insects to eat.  She also explained how to differentiate mountain lion scat from coyote scat:  the former has a corkscrew quality.  This is the closest I have been to those mammals.  Sometimes on my evening walks I hear a yipping or a howling out of the scrub, down the hill.  I'm never sure if it's a coyote or a lost dog:  Reina and Tessa regularly roam the mountain, and Reina often gets lost.  When she appears without Tessa on our doorsteps, we call her into the car and take her half a mile down the hill to her home.  She sits in the back, ears alert, tongue panting through her smiling mouth.  We pull into the drive and open the door and she leaps out, then looks up, reproachfully.  This is it?  "Yes, go home."  Slowly and sadly, she walks down the drive, looking back once to see if we've changed our minds.  "Go on!"  

Last winter, we hosted a nightly supper party for the foxes. We discovered by accident that they were partial to birdseed, and we began scattering the seed on the portal. Chipmunks and birds took their share of the bounty during the day, and the foxes came out in the dusk. The mother was very cautious, watching for movement through the doors, but the two kits were braver.  E was enthralled, and mourned when they stopped appearing.  "Are they alright?  Where did they go?"

In another month, we will be putting the feeders out again, and hopefully the foxes will return. Right now, though, it's still rattlesnake season. I haven't seen a single one, but C has pointed out their holes, and she has seen the long tube-like paths they take to the shady regions under the greenhouse. We do what we can to not attract them to our homes, and when we walk we keep an eye on the shady bushes and rocks.

The birds are the most overt presences.  In the spring, we monitor the thrush nest in C and M's front porch rafters. The mother circles, shrieking at our presence as her chicks whine for food. In the summer, the high-pitched squeaks of the hummingbirds and their WWII airplane buzzing fill the air. They dominate the landscape as they dart and skirmish around the feeders and hover at their reflections in the windows.  High overhead, the crows soar.  Western scrub jays perch in the tree tops, Occasionally we hear the mournful coo of the white winged rock doves.  But the smaller, more social birds are not in evidence yet.

Still, for the most part the desert creatures are shy and unobtrusive.   Dead mice, captured inside and flung under an outside bush, are gone within ten minutes, but you never see the snake that took them. EB says that one day when they left the house, she saw crows or vultures clustered on the road, and, as they lifted into the air at her approach, she saw the mangled remains of a rabbit. Upon her return, 4 hours later, there was no sign of the blood and violence. The desert had cleaned itself, presenting a smiling emptiness to the gaze.  Clouds sail serenely overhead, casting moving shadows on the trees and flowery underbrush and rocks, but you have to be very alert to see the animal life that prospers within. 

Perhaps that's the enduring magic of this place.  It contains multitudes, and every day is a discovery adventure, repetitive and new at the same time.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Awhile back, my friend L posted pictures of things that made her glad. One of them featured Simone in the garden, and I felt a tug at my heart. I miss Simone so much, but she is no longer my cat (if she ever was), and this is not a good environment for an adventurous outdoor cat, anyway. She may be street smart, but I don't think she can acquire the feral knowledge of dealing with coyotes, bobcats, and bears. Or rattlers and hawks for that matter.

So, she will need to stay in her luxurious digs with H and S, who treat her like the little princess she is.

Meanwhile, I have been nudging EB to get a cat. She wants to wait on getting a dog until she is a full-time resident, as she wants to bond with the dog and be the alpha. But, she is becoming amenable to the idea of a cat for the here and now. E wants the furry companionship, and so do I.

This longing became acute last week. I was in the Olympic Peninsula, visiting J and H. Their friend, A, who lives on their property in a house they built for him, was scheduled to get an indoor cat from the local shelter, PFOA. H and I drove with him, with strict instructions from J to check out the setup:  they are donating money to several shelters, and she wanted to be sure it was well run.

Well, those cats have it great.The shelter is located in a rambling two-story house, situated in the country near Sequim. The outdoor balconies and patios are encased in plexiglass and bird-netting.  Each room has access to the outside, and each room is carefully populated with a reasonable number of cats and kittens who get along with each other reasonably well. They have their own beds, climbing perches, and toys. The "wands" are kept outside the room, so they don't choke on them, and each room has hand sanitizers which are to be used upon entrance and exit. The kitten room has the added precaution of foot protectors, which go over the shoes.

A was pretty specific in his requirements: a de-clawed old-lady cat. They live in the woods, on a bluff overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca, so he wanted an indoor cat that would not outlive him or destroy his furniture. His previous cats had been ripping up the carpet, and he himself is 89 years old.

The shelter had one cat that fit the bill.  While not a proponent of de-clawing (the adoption papers specify that cats will NOT be de-clawed), they do of course sometimes receive cats in that condition. So, Orange (a not very imaginative name, but better than Cutie Pie), received a visit from us.  She was shy, downright unfriendly in my book, and, after standing on the perch to be petted, she stalked outside, out of range.  A didn't mind:  his expectation was that she would, like his previous cats, spend two weeks under the bed before deciding to be sociable.  So, the deal was cut, and we went back upstairs to the living room to look at the papers.  It was a long process, and I opted to go visit the kittens.  They were, of course, adorable.  One skinny, pale red tabby was dominant:  she climbed up my back, draped herself on my shoulders, nibbled at my hair, and purred exceptionally loudly.  Here ears were like sails.  She kept the other kittens at bay, but they swarmed around anyway, and I petted a very soft all-grey, a sweet-faced calico tabby, a black cat with a bent tail, and a smart-looking shy tabby.  The tuxedo kittens stayed out of range, for the most part.

Eventually the dominant one found the lavender that I had put over one ear, and she took it away and started batting it around like it was a mouse, growling as the other kittens came near.  That gave me a moment to focus on the other purr-balls.  Eventually I retrieved the lavender and left the room, to find the paperwork still going on.  The kittens came out onto the balcony which encircled the living room, and I took some pix through the window.  I sent this one to EB...

Orange was retrieved and put into a loaner traveling cage:  she was a huge 16+ pound red tabby, and the cage A had brought was inadequate to the task.  I sat on the steps as they discussed final plans:  a mentor would be calling later to see how things were going, he had sample foods and instructions for gradually adjusting the diet, he made plans for returning the cage.  Orange mewed fairly constantly, and I put my fingers through the mesh, speaking soothingly.  I decided her name was Maggie, and told A so.  He was offended:  "We won't know her name until she tells us."  His previous cat was called Her Royal Highness Princess Pettipaticah (or something like that, no one could remember it), so I braced myself for something equally awful.  (It turned out to be Countess Brewsterbury (?) O'Bama.  O'Bama because she's Irish, and because he knew it would irritate J, which it did.)

Later in the day, A came over for drinks and snacks and I asked how Maggie was doing.  Ignoring the name, he said, "She's disappeared."  Apparently he had opened the cage in a middle area between bedroom and bathroom.  She sat in there while he set up food in the former and a litter box in the latter.  When he returned to her cage, she was gone,  An exhausted search (under his bed and in various rooms) netted nothing.  He was clearly distraught about it, so I went back with him to search.  No luck.  I checked all the open rooms exhaustively, looked in cupboards with doors a cat could maneuver, looked on top of furniture, glanced through the closed rooms and closets, looked in the kitchen sink and the bathtub.  No signs of her anywhere.  He said, "This is terrible!  I wish you hadn't come over, now I know she's really gone."  I said, "She'll turn up, give us a call when she does," but I was not sanguine.  My theory was that she had slipped out (if a 16 pound cat can be said to slip) while he was putting the smaller traveling cage out on the back porch, so I looked around outside for a bit.  His house is surrounded by trees and deep undergrowth,though.  There was not much hope of finding her, if she was outside and didn't want to be found.

J was also distraught:  she saw it as a sign that his memory had deteriorated more than they'd thought, and that he could no longer take care of other creatures, and maybe not even himself.  However, the next morning he called and reported that she was sitting on his lap and purring.  She'd somehow made it into the shut back bedroom (which I had searched).  I'm still mystified:  yes cats are good at hiding, but she's HUGE, and there was very little space for her to hide in.

Anyway, happy ending, except for the name.  I have continued to call her Maggie, and J and H have followed suit. The next night at dinner P was pushing Beatrice (pronounced in the Italian way...Bee ah TREE chay), and trying to convince A that, as she passed his house, the cat was in the window saying, "I'm Beatrice, Meow!!!"

A paid no attention but they did have a long discussion about Dante.

This morning EB and I exchanged cat stories, and she has agreed to go with E and me to a local shelter to pick out an elderly friendly cat that will be happy staying indoors.  The other stipulation: if the cat does not bond with her, I will be taking it with me.  That will cramp my proposed vagabond lifestyle, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.  E needs a cat.

And so do I.