Gone Fishing

fullsizeoutput_1d00Even though he is by his own admission a prominent scofflaw in our small town, I know very little about Robert. I know only that he plants himself fairly frequently midway across the Central Avenue bridge and stands there for hours with his ten-foot cross. I’m guessing that’s the height of the cross. For sure, it’s big.

That bridge is a good site for messaging. It connects the east, or Indian reservation side of town, with the west, or non-reservation side. The bridge spans the Okanogan River, which bisects our town and is the reservation boundary. Every once in a while, if people want to demonstrate or publicize something—like a protest march against the Dakota Pipeline some months ago—they’ll line up on the bridge with their signs. My dogs and I frequently walk across the bridge on our way to the East Side Park. We walk on the upriver side of the bridge to avoid crossing two lanes of traffic. Robert is on the downriver side of the bridge because, I suspect, that sidewalk is broader. People can more easily walk around him and his cross.

Because traffic usually is heavy and noisy, Robert and I merely wave to each other as the dogs and I pass by. One time, though, there were no vehicles on the bridge. In the silence, Robert called across to me: “You need to remember just two things!”

“Yes?” I responded.

“First, love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind,” he answered, “and second …”

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” I joined him in his shortened version of Jesus’ message. He smiled approvingly. The dogs and I kept walking.

fullsizeoutput_1d02Another time when traffic noise was missing, Robert called out: “I’m breaking the law, but no one seems to care.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

Grinning, he pointed to the sign posted above my head: NO FISHING FROM BRIDGE.

“Ah,” I said. “And you’re fishing for souls.” His smile admitted as much.

I don’t know if there’s a limit on how many souls a person is allowed to catch, with or without a license. But judging from the number of folks who drive by Robert with a friendly wave and horn toot, and judging from the number of teens I’ve seen give him a high-five as they walk past, and judging from the occasional passersby who I see stop to talk with him, Robert could be close to limiting out.

Beauty and the Beast Redux

Last month I saw a lavish production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast onstage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Last night I saw a high school production of the same play at the Omak Performing Arts Center. To compare the two would be to mix apples with oranges, or more likely, caviar with popcorn. And I do love popcorn.

I paid $75 for the Ashland performance, and I got my money’s worth. I paid $6 for the high school production, and I got a million times more than that in enjoyment. Professional actors are good, sometimes even great, and you expect them to be. Kids onstage are good, sometimes potentially great, and they’re more: they’re discovering themselves as they venture into a world larger than themselves. That is genuine drama and comedy of a kind you don’t get to see in professional theater.

After school performances like these I hear audience members marvel at the talent of the youngsters. Youthful talent never surprises me. It’s always going to be there. What isn’t always there is the necessary level of adult support that showcases young talent. That behind-the-scenes support and direction was apparent in last night’s performance. Skilled, knowledgeable adults provided the infrastructure that allowed young actors to shine. I’m gratified to live in a community that supports kids, whether they’re on the football field, gym floor, or theater stage. I’m especially grateful for the teachers and volunteers who, as skilled grown-ups, guide youngsters through formative, life-changing experiences.

Flying the Flag

fullsizeoutput_1cf3A drab, overcast, pre-winter day. Perfect for a visit to the cemetery. I prefer to go when I suspect no one else will be there. I like solitude as I visit my husband’s (and someday my) gravesite. We’d chosen this spot on the edge of the Okanogan Cemetery because of its expansive view of the valley, river and mountains. I also enjoy walking my dogs along the cemetery lanes when I know they won’t be bothering other visitors or mourners.

So I was there earlier this week. I’d just conscientiously “bagged” the dogs’ deposits (thank you, City of Okanogan, for providing a garbage can) when a caravan of cars arrived. Uh-oh, I thought. A funeral. I hustled my dogs into the car and was preparing to leave quietly when I turned to see a bevy of teen-agers fanning out among the graves. Turns out it was the Okanogan High School Key Club putting flags on graves for the upcoming Veterans Day observance.

At last, an opportunity to resolve something that had been vexing me for ten years, since my husband died. I approached Dennis O’Connor, Key Club advisor, and asked how the kids knew at which graves to place a flag.

“Is there a list?” I asked.

No list, he answered. The kids read every grave marker, looking for indications of military service.

“That’s all we have to go by,” he said, acknowledging that veterans whose service is not recorded on the head stone don’t get a flag. He’s heard that some people get upset over that.

Guilty as charged. Well, not upset exactly. More like mystified. My husband had served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, photographer’s mate. That was long before we were married, and I didn’t know much about it. It never occurred to me to put it on our small, rather simple gravestone. Our family did receive a flag from the American Legion when John died, so I knew there was some official record somewhere. But on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, there’d be no flag at his grave. I knew he would’ve liked his grave to be among those with flags fluttering. I wasn’t sure who to call to get his name on what I imagined to be a list. Then I’d forget about it until the next Memorial or Veterans Day.

When I began to explain all this to Dennis, he immediately handed me a flag. I felt honored to poke it into the earth by John’s headstone. John would’ve been pleased. What would’ve pleased him even more was the sight of those kids, stooping to read every headstone, sometimes having to scrape away leaves, dirt and dried grass, searching for veterans.

Happy Veterans day, John, and all who served. Whether or not there’s a flag flying  at your place of rest, there’s a flag flying for you at this nation’s heart. And just when I’d been needing reassurance, those kids were a reminder that our nation indeed has a heart.

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Dia de los Muertos

fullsizeoutput_1cec“Did you get photos?” my friend Elizabeth inevitably asked whenever I told her about an interesting or beautiful event in my life. More often than not, I’d have to make some lame excuse about why I didn’t have my camera with me or hadn’t pulled my phone from my pocket.

I’m a competent photographer—had to be through all those years as a small-town journalist. But I’m neither brilliant nor passionate about the art. I’d rather enjoy the work of photographers who are both.

fullsizeoutput_1cf0Elizabeth and I were polar opposites when it came to photography. I use photos to illustrate my writing. Her writing was about her photography. She claimed she was merely an amateur with the camera, but she had it with her at all times. Even after her eyesight dimmed, she persisted, setting her Canon A710 IS on automatic, pointing and clicking. Then she’d pass the camera to me (or, I assume, to whomever was with her) so I could assess the image and tell her whether she needed to try again.

fullsizeoutput_1ce9One of the hardest parts of aging is letting go. Letting go of people who die ahead of us; letting go of physical abilities: mobility, the senses, a pain-free existence; letting go of activities that give us joy and express our creativity. We never discussed it, but I knew Elizabeth had reached the threshold of letting go when she no longer carried her camera. By the time she celebrated her hundredth birthday last July, she’d let go of so very much.

fullsizeoutput_1cf1Last week her longtime friend Marsha and I sat at Elizabeth’s bedside during the final hour of her life. I sang some of the old hymns that Elizabeth and I’d been singing together over the last couple months. She’d amazed me by remembering all the verses of any hymn we sang. On that last morning, as her breathing became erratic, she no longer sang. I’m not sure she could even hear me sing, but her spirit did.

fullsizeoutput_1ced“I believe my favorite hymn is ‘This is my Father’s world,’” Marsha commented. I began to sing it. Somewhere around the “music of the spheres,” Elizabeth entered that place of deepest peace. After Marsha and I shared a few prayers, after the funeral home collected the body, I stepped outside into a glorious autumn day. There is a reason that this is the season of “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead), All Saints, Hallowed Evening (Halloween). Autumn is a fine time to die. That fall palette of reds, golds, yellows, bronzes, oranges, and on, and on, are creation’s promise to us. Leaves and grasses shimmer brilliantly before they let go, becoming part of the cycle that is eternal life.

For once, my camera was in my car. I spent the afternoon driving up and down the valley, looping back and forth, past orchards, over the river, through town, stopping with each new burst of color, breathing the redolent smells of apple harvest, the even deeper essence of Mother Earth enriching herself.

Yes, Elizabeth, my friend. I got a few photos.

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The love-hate Facebook relationship

A young friend—less than half my age—emailed a question: “What did people do before Facebook?” Her question was neither rhetorical nor sassy. She’s honestly perplexed. She doesn’t like Facebook. I don’t know her reasons; I only know my own. She was inclined to give up her Facebook account, but death, or near-death, intervened.

She and I are members of the Holden Village community, people who are scattered world-wide, whose lives intersected at one time or another at the tiny retreat center in a remote valley of the North Cascade Mountains. There are thousands of us. One is in his final stages of life. (“Cancer sucks,” he posted on Facebook not long ago.) The community has gathered to celebrate his life and immense talent, to pray and sing together, to be with him and bless him. All on Facebook.

I’ve experienced other death-watches on Facebook. It’s a privilege to add my prayers to those who are at the bedside. Our Holden community also gathered on-line recently to offer prayers and condolences when one of us was killed in a vehicle accident. I appreciate being connected with people in this intimate way when they’re thousands of miles away and suffering.

And yet.

The medium, I try to remind myself, is not the message. Because this medium—most of the various social media for that matter—is at times raucous, chaotic, hostile, and yup, offensive. Opening Facebook on my laptop is like walking into the marketplace, a bawdy, noisy free-for-all where people bump into each other, step on toes, point fingers (especially one), and settle arguments by yelling louder and longer. It’s also a place where people ecstatically share their joy, their celebrations, their loves, and their everyday lives. In other words, Facebook is everything that we are.

In the past, my young friend asked, how did people stay in touch when important events like birth and death occurred? There were, of course, telephones and the postal service. Just yesterday, as I was contemplating all this, a family member called to tell me she’s pregnant. I was grateful not to have learned this on Facebook.

But honestly, we can’t call or write everyone. When my husband died ten years ago, I would’ve thought it unseemly to post on Facebook. Yet a friend who lived elsewhere would’ve attended his memorial, if she’d only known. With Facebook we’re more connected with other people than ever. And that’s the rub. Being connected is not always comfortable.

For years I tried to pretend Facebook would fade. It hasn’t. Two billion active users, the site claims. I choose to engage for a limited amount of time each day, and I choose to empathize with each and every post I read. That is, I try to understand, with respect, what others are experiencing, what they’re feeling and needing. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes my attempt to empathize is through gritted teeth. Still, there’s a reason there are two billion of us. We really do want to connect.

Full Circle

Life has a way of coming full circle, as I was reminded while attending a funeral recently. We were celebrating the life of Clara Thorp, who’d represented goodness-on-earth for 92 years.

I met Clara decades ago when I interviewed her for a newspaper story. She was retiring after a sterling career at the local nursing home. A single mom, she’d started as an aide, got her nursing degree, and devoted her life to the elderly, the dying. Hers was one of those stories you relish writing.

As with so many others whose stories I wrote, Clara and I went on to live our separate lives. She reportedly enjoyed her retirement, though she continued to help out at the nursing home when needed. A stone marker was placed in the home’s lawn to honor her. That old building outlived its usefulness and is boarded up now, the stone marker removed. Yet legacies of love outlast even stone.

Full circle, I met up again with Clara late last year. Her final passage in this life was spent at an adult group home, where I visit most days to read aloud to my centenarian friend Elizabeth. Many—not all—of the residents are living with neurological loss: dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc. One of Clara’s daughters had copied that newspaper story from long ago and posted it on the refrigerator at the group home. It served as a daily reminder that Clara, who may’ve been confused and lost in the present, had lived a full and meaningful life of service. It had to impress those caring for Clara to know that she’d once provided the same kind of care for others and did so from her heart.

I, too, was grateful to reread that story, to remind myself of the impressive woman I’d interviewed all those years before. Though still tall and slender, the Clara I re-met was a shadow of herself. Sometimes though, a light glimmered through that shadow. Occasionally, as I read to Elizabeth, Clara would shuffle past, pause, and stoop down to straighten the blanket that covered Elizabeth’s feet.

In death, Clara left behind a large and loving family, a crowd of friends who turned out for her memorial, and something else. A vision of heaven. I usually eschew descriptions that  mere mortals try to offer of heaven or the after-life. Eternity is a promise and a mystery. I’m willing to wait for that mystery to unfold. And yet Jack Schneider, who officiated at Clara’s memorial, offered a vision that I embrace. He reflected on the people whom Clara had tended as they approached death’s door: the many—the frail and perhaps the fearful—whom she’d comforted at the end. What a crowd of hands there are, ready to lovingly welcome Clara home, Jack concluded.

And will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by?

Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

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Omak Mountain hulks behind the haze of wildfire smoke

The Okanogan Valley, where I live, took a deep, collective breath yesterday and probably exhaled with a sigh. It was our first day of smoke-free air in weeks, a classic summer day, high in the 80s, blue sky, gentle breeze. Besides that, it was the day after the Omak Stampede, which informally serves as the apex of summer hilarity around here. After Stampede, we get back to business. The return to school, work, harvest, and the county fair are coming at us all too soon. The smoke was forecast to return, too.

Stampede is a mixed bag of community celebration with a professional rodeo and controversial horse race at its heart. There’s so much more—from art shows to the colorful and exotic Indian encampment, from swilling suds in a totally unglamorous beer garden to singing hymns at the Sunday morning cowboy worship service, from tubing the lazy Okanogan River to partaking of dizzying carnival rides. It’s too much for some of the citizenry, who leave town to escape the dust, crowds and craziness.

I agreed this year to volunteer for a few hours at a voter registration booth in the Indian encampment. I told a friend what I’d be doing, and she made a comment that shocked me. I know she thought she was saying something funny. What I heard was racist. I gasped and mildly chastised her.

Later, I regretted my response because I’m pretty sure she thought—if she thought about it all—that I was objecting on the basis of political correctness. I’d failed to tell her how I felt. I felt sad—sad because her comment reflected an unfair stereotype of Native Americans, sad because those stereotypes negate possibilities for compassion and connection, sad because I didn’t want to be in a position of judging or thinking less of a friend whom I admire.

Today the haze has returned to our valley, smoke from the myriad fires in British Columbia and in our own Pasayten Wilderness  to the north. A different kind of haze lies all across our country after the events in Charleston, Virginia—yet another episode in our confused desperation over our national legacy of racism. It’s a dense, smoky cloud that strangles us as we struggle to find ways to clear the air.

Yes, it matters what the President and all our leaders say from their bully pulpits. More important to me, however, is what I say. And what you say. I might have said to my friend, “Your comment was painful for me to hear. Could we talk about it so that I can understand how you truly feel?” I’ll try to remember that next time. And there will be a next time—probably not with this friend, but comments and attitudes are out there all around me. To work our way out of the blinding haze of racism—and all aspects of discrimination—will require each of us addressing it, one by one by one.

Detracted Driving

IMG_4133I was behind the wheel when my phone vibrated with an incoming text. It was the day before Washington state’s new, stringent “distracted driving” law (or DUIE—Driving Under the Influence of Electronics) went into effect. From now on, we can get a hefty fine for just holding our cell phone, never mind looking at it. Other distractions, like eating or taking a sip from our latte, can result in a thirty dollar “secondary” fine. This in the home state of Starbucks!

Feeling a little rebellious, I read the text, and I took a swig from my thermos. The message said, in effect, “Hope you’re feeling grounded today.” It referred to a conversation the sender and I’d had the day before. Grounded? Very much so. I was sitting in an automated carwash that had engulfed my vehicle with sudsy water, then inexplicably stopped. No rinse. No blow-dry. Just soap suds slowly drying all over my car.

I should’ve known this was not going to go well. At the get-go, when I pulled up to the automatic payment machine and inserted my credit card, it was rejected. “Network error,” beeped the LED display, which I could not read because the sun was in my eyes. On my knees, in hopes of reading the LED, I inserted a crisp, new twenty dollar bill, then a wrinkled, ripped bill, both of which were spit back as if the machine were sticking out its tongue.

This was becoming a battle of wits with Artificial Intelligence. I won’t say which of us was employing AI. Finally, my debit card was accepted. I got the green light to enter the tunnel of suds.

When the machine quit working, I waited to be certain I wouldn’t get inundated with rinse water, then got out of the car to phone the emergency service number posted on the wall. By now, several vehicles were lined up, waiting. A guy emerged from the car immediately behind me and walked into the wash bay, asking in a surprised voice, “Mary?” Bob! Hadn’t seen him in years. We chatted for a few minutes, catching up, ‘cuz that’s what you do in a small town. Then we remembered the cars in line, everyone waiting patiently, no one honking, ‘cuz that’s NOT what you do in a small town.

I called the service number and the guy wearily asked, “Are you in neutral?” Ah, I’d forgotten that. I’d automatically shifted to park.

“There are sensors that can tell when you’re not in neutral,” he said. That, it seems to me, is carrying AI a bit far.

Later, I texted my friend about the “grounding” carwash incident. She sent an emoticon of a lop-sided smile. I’m skeptical of emoticons. Seems to me that with 171,476 English words at our disposal (says the Oxford English Dictionary), we don’t need goofy little icons to say what we mean. But she chose just the right two words to go with the smiley face: “Rueful laughter.”

The Paradox of Age

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Friend and colleague Elizabeth Widel celebrates her hundredth birthday

If you’re like me, you want two things that don’t match up: you want a long life, but you don’t want to grow old. This is especially true in America’s youth-adoring culture: “60 is the new 50,” “you don’t look a day over …,” “young at heart,” etc.

Confronting old age is like staring at the horizon while driving on a long, flat road. The horizon never gets any closer. I’m getting old-er, but I assure myself that I have yet to reach the horizon of being old. I’ve developed a new definition for middle age. When I look at the newspaper obituary page, I notice that half the deceased are younger than I and the other half are older. That makes me middle-aged, right?

I wonder when old begins. And why is it such a pejorative word? A thirty-year-old friend recently sent me a link to an article entitled, “How Acting Like an Old Person Actually Makes You Happy.” The article was based on a study reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that concluded: “Comparison of age cohorts using polynomial regression suggested a possible accelerated deterioration in physical and cognitive functioning, averaging 1.5 to 2 standard deviations over the adult lifespan. In contrast, there appeared to be a linear improvement of about 1 standard deviation in various attributes of mental health over the same life period.”

Did you get that? My cognitive functioning may be deteriorating, but I think it says that while our bodies and minds may decline as we age, we get happier. The article suggests we embrace our “inner oldie:” live in the present, have a positive outlook, never stop growing, and develop fewer but deeper friendships. Honestly? That stuff automatically comes with age?

When I turned seventy, I figured this decade would be pretty much like my sixties. A friend who is eight years older warned I was in for major changes. She may be right. Things keep disappearing, like my eyebrows, my chin and my abdominal muscles.

A recent article in The New Yorker magazine quoted Eric Verdin, C.E.O. of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, saying “if you just kept aging at the rate you age between twenty and thirty, you’d live to a thousand. At thirty, everything starts to change.” The article continues with the dreary news that from thirty on, our risk of mortality doubles every seven years.

This weekend we celebrated the hundredth birthday of my longtime friend and colleague, Elizabeth Widel, who still writes a weekly newspaper column. In her usual self-effacing manner, Elizabeth dismissed the “awful lot of fuss. All I had to do was stick around.” She’s done more than that. She always has and continues to live a full and rich life. She teaches by example.

As each day dawns, I recognize I’m another day closer to dying. That may sound dismal. In fact, it’s motivating. I know I’d better make it a damn good day.

An Irony of Goodness

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Families gather in the park at dusk for the “Butterfly Release” ceremony to remember loved ones

I went to watch butterflies being released. It’s an annual ceremony sponsored by our home health and hospice agency as a memorial to those who’ve died. Tiny Monarch butterflies flew free as a symbol of life’s transcendence. The ceremony was beautiful, yet I kept thinking: the irony of it all.

The event was held in our city’s newest park, a memorial to the pioneer Dalton-Klessig family. The park exists solely due to the vision of a now elderly woman named Mary, who is still very much alive but well into her journey of dementia.

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Butterflies fly free

In the ’90s, two long-term care facilities for the elderly were built on the north edge of town in an area landscaped with sagebrush, tumbleweed and sand. Mary dreamed of a park designed especially for senior citizens, one with shade trees and grass, a paved pathway for wheelchairs and walkers, a gazebo, a water fountain for the disabled, even a playground for visiting grandchildren. Always a generous donor to community causes, even Mary didn’t have enough funds to buy the land and develop the park.

Pretty much out of the blue (some would recognize it as God’s hand at work), Mary was contacted by descendants of the Dalton-Klessig family. None of them live here any longer, but they wanted to donate toward a memorial to their forebears. Did Mary have a project for them!

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A toddler tracks the butterflies’ flight

It wasn’t easy. There was the political hurdle, convincing the city to accept yet another park that will require ongoing upkeep and insurance. Our city is small but blessed with numerous “nuisance” parks, as one city official described the little green areas that dot our neighborhoods. In the past, the city council had refused to accept an offer of yet one more park.

Mary’s longtime service on various boards and commissions was legendary. She had political pull and prevailed. She oversaw the complexities of land purchase, planning, construction, landscaping, plus a myriad details. She invited my late husband, a wheelchair user, to inaugurate the asphalt trail.

Now Mary lives across the street from her park in an assisted-living facility. She was not at the ceremony. Whenever I talk with her about her park, she smiles vacantly, not understanding. Her inability to enjoy the fruits of her labor is, for me, salt in the bitter wound of dementia. Yet I have to consider that we all do good things, large and small. Sometimes we leave a legacy of good without even knowing it. That would be good in its truest form.