Backyard cruisin’

Before: A jungle of junipers

I could have taken a luxury cruise with deluxe stateroom instead of spending the same amount of  money to tote concrete blocks, watch dirt fly, and avoid snakes in my backyard.

As I inexorably roll through my 70s, I’m recognizing a certain waning of agility. Maintaining my backyard—a gentle slope leading to the river—required crawling through a forest of entrenched junipers. Each year, I’m less inclined and/or able to do so. Reuben, a sympathetic landscaper, designed an alternative for an aging gardener: terraced plantings minus the junipers.

The transformation would require heavy digging and lifting, so I hired a contractor. A Viking Cruise brochure arrived in the mail the same day he handed me his bid. As I flipped through the glossy color pages, I noted the similarity in cost. Oh, well, I thought. I’m at sea most of the time anyway.

It was to be a five-day project, but even Eden was six days in the making. This job required seven.


Day One: Demolition. The flooding river had receded just in time, leaving behind a considerable layer of mud in my lower yard and a lingering stench. The four-man crew dug in and revved up chain saws. As a life-long tree hugger, I couldn’t believe how happy I was to see the venerable junipers disappear.

SculptingDay Two: Sculpting. Reuben adapted his paper plan to fit the naked ground, drawing a shovel to line out terrace walls like a sculptor pulling form from clay.

BlocksDay Three: Blocks. Stacks of retaining blocks magically appeared on my patio in early morning. The stack slowly diminished as Leon, working solo that day, erected walls. By afternoon, as the walls stretched further from the block piles, I watched Leon walk up the steps, retrieve two blocks, descend the steps, place the blocks. Over and over. I picked up one of the blocks, decided I could heft and deliver them one at a time. That would keep him building instead of walking.

“Don’t tell your boss,” I advised. “He’ll want to charge me extra.”

RocksDay Four: Rocks. The morning began with delivery of rocks the size of July Fourth watermelons. I did not even consider picking one up. Toting the rocks one by one down a full flight of stairs, the men meticulously created my lower terrace wall.

fullsizeoutput_1da5Day Five: Shifting sands. At least we didn’t need fill dirt. The river had left more than an adequate amount of sand to fill behind the terrace walls. Did I mentioned the snakes? Dislodged from their hidy-holes, the harmless garter snakes slithered about, futilely seeking a little peace and quiet.

fullsizeoutput_1da7Day Six (after a weekend off): Planting! Shrubs and grasses were carried in their pots to the lower level, where Reuben stood, eyeballing his empty canvas of dirt, placing the pots so the rest of the team could dig in. Irrigation lines were functioning by day’s end.

PerrenialsDay Seven: Perennials. We began in Reuben’s garden, a glorious oasis of color amidst the Okanogan’s sage and sand. He generously donated perennials from his abundance.

Seven days—plus a few years. Reuben’s dictum for new plants is, “Year one they sleep; year two they creep; year three they leap.” I’m calling it my 20/20 garden. By year 2020, it will be a vision. If I’d gone on a cruise, I’d have beautiful memories. My garden promises a lovely future.


The Flood of ’18


Flood of 2018
Life can feel slightly askew when the river creeps into your garden. Thanks to Katie Gandhi for the photo.

Normally the Okanogan River is the Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) of Northwest streams. This spring has not been normal—no surprise in this era of new normals. Usually lackadaisical as it flows past my home, the river has pushed hard against its banks with a force that’s been hypnotic to watch.

For much of its 115 miles, the Okanogan has an identity crisis. It begins as a series of lakes and can’t even get its name spelled consistently. Its source, in Canada where they love their “Ays,” is spelled Okanagan Lake. It doesn’t begin to take shape as a river until it crosses the border, replaces an a with an o, and is joined by its primary tributary: the Similkameen. The beautiful, tumbling Similkameen is longer by seven miles and fed by snowpacks in Canada’s mountains. This year’s snowpack was 200 percent above normal.

In the early 1900s, the Okanogan was a life line for the small frontier towns that situated themselves next to it. At high water, stern wheelers would transport goods, passengers, and the first fruits of a brand new apple industry. Then the railroad came, followed by highways, and our towns have pretty much turned their backs on the river. Except for people who fish, occasional rafters and tubers on hot summer days, and farmers who have water rights to irrigate, the river is ignored.

Then we get a spring like this one. Throughout May, everywhere you went—grocery store, post office, gas station—everyone was talking about the river. I attended the county emergency services meeting, where we heard that in seven days we’d have the third highest crest in recorded history. Two days later it did crest, the third highest crest on record but nearly two feet lower than originally forecast. When you’ve got water creeping ever closer to your home, a mere two feet can give you space to breathe.

I wasn’t worried about my home. Neither it nor the house next door where I lived for thirty years has ever flooded. Not in 1972, the worst flood on record, nor in 1948, the second worst.

A number of homes and businesses were impacted—usually not from the river spilling over its banks or topping levees, but from the surrounding water table seeping upward. The home of my friend Rochelle Riling—an educator, artist, farmer and wise woman—was threatened. She described the feeling: “We were standing on a river that was rising up through the earth right under our feet, and you could feel it, especially when you tried to sleep on it, and it was intense. But that’s what life does, yes?  Rise up under our feet and force us to rise up with it and figure out how to handle wherever it takes us.”

Her home escaped and the river has receded to normal run-off levels, leaving behind a mess of mud and sand. As Rochelle advises, we’re figuring out how to handle it.

Jazz in the Park


There was a whole lot of toe-tapping going on in heaven Friday night. I could feel the vibrations while I enjoyed a jazz concert at the bandstand in Civic League Park. This little park in the center of town holds the legacies of several generations.

The bandstand is the legacy of the most recently passed generation—folks who had a dream of concerts in the park. A few decades ago they donated money and labor to build an impressive, professionally-designed, concrete structure. Their dream was destined to come true, even after they’ve left us: Dick and Don, Bill and John, Wayne and Ella, Marge and Dave, and others. Their spirits were fully in attendance as music filled the park.

At the south end of the park is the previous generation’s legacy, a thoroughly modern library and cultural center for our small town. Libraries are so much more than just books these days. There are internet services, arts and crafts lessons, read-aloud sessions for tots, book clubs, summer programs for kids, lectures and dramatic presentations.

The legacy of an even earlier generation sits quietly between the bandstand and library: a somber memorial stone for those who gave their lives in World War II.

All around the park is the legacy of pioneer women who settled in a scrappy frontier town little more than a century ago. They envisioned a place of shade in a harshly sun-baked desert. Now we sit under giant trees that grew from seedlings they planted. It was an impossible dream yet they persisted. They pumped water into buckets, then hefted the buckets from their homes to the nascent park. I was told this story by an elderly woman, the daughter of pioneers, when I first moved to town.

I was told another story of an even older generational legacy. About a quarter-mile from Civic League Park, on the other side of the river, East Side Park is a larger and more active expanse with swimming pool, ball fields, rodeo grounds, small museum and RV park. I’ve been told it was originally an Indian allotment, incredibly donated to the community for use as a park.

For many years I held the belief that our parks and public structures should be named for people who contributed to the community, who gave time, talent, and property for the benefit of all. Certainly, I thought, East Side Park should be named for the Native American who gave the land, not for its location relative to the river. But in my town—in pretty much any small town—so many people have given so generously, we’d have to affix a name to every light post and fire hydrant to honor them all.

The sound of high school vocalists improvising scat with convincing skill brought me back to the present from my mental meandering. What, I wondered, will be the legacy of this new generation? They’re already laying the groundwork by keeping the dreams of past generations alive.

Back in the Pit


One benefit of aging is selective memory loss. Nearly thirty years ago I vowed I would never again play in the pit orchestra for a live stage musical show. I clearly remember that vow. My memory of why I made it is vague at best. Consequently, I’m back in the pit, playing for this year’s musical produced by the Okanogan Valley Orchestra and Chorus (OVOC).

The show is “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a breezy comedy with a jazzy score and sensational costumes, poking fun at 1920s show biz. The show that led to my long-ago, semi-forgotten vow was “The Music Man.” It was the first musical to be presented in our brand new, then state-of-the-art theater. We’d previously put on community musicals in other spaces but never had an actual pit for musicians. I was thrilled to descend the concrete stairs and settle into the snug space beneath the stage. Then it dawned on me. One of my favorite musicals of all time was unfolding overhead, and I would never get to see it. Ever since, I’ve relished my seat in the audience while sympathizing with musicians in the pit.

Musicians aren’t the only one who don’t see the show. The backstage crew is limited to occasional peeks at the action. They’re all volunteers who love theater so much, they’re willing to miss out.

Last fall, OVOC’s concert coordinator asked if I’d consider being rehearsal pianist for this year’s show. She added in a quiet voice—quieter than a stage whisper—“and maybe the pit orchestra, too.”  I agreed to play for rehearsals even though the music was beyond my technical ability. The rehearsal pianist plays all the orchestra parts, but since it’s only rehearsals, you don’t have to worry about clinkers. You just have to keep the beat.

Community theater is as much, if not more, about community than about theater. A bond develops among volunteers who find energy after their day jobs to devote evenings and weekends to rehearsing, bringing a script to life. In this case, hilariously alive. After months of watching the actors develop their characters and master complex choreography, I was too invested to back away. I wanted to go down to the pit.

That’s where I was opening night with a dozen or so fellow musicians who would play the notes I couldn’t find. House lights dimmed, audience settled in, curtains parted, a funny line delivered, a shy titter from the audience, more lines, heartier laughter, and  we were rolling. By  midway through Act One an ambitious tap dance that’d required extra rehearsals had the audience screaming and shouting—a bonus when that’s all the pay volunteer actors get.

I was reminded. It’s the audience that strikes the match that lights the fire of live theater. Even down in the pit, I didn’t need to see the show to feel the flame.

(If you’re in the neighborhood, you have three more opportunities to light that fire: May 11, 12, and 13.)

Bear tracks and yellow bells. Yup, it’s spring

I dragged my heavy, insulated, lace-up snow boots from the back of the closet where they’d been lingering ever since I returned home from Holden Village four years ago. I have to lace one of the boots in a wonky way because the Holden mice chewed off a few of the loops. I was ready to give the mice a chance to repeat their efforts on the other boot. Even as spring was popping out all over at home, I’d decided to revisit winter and the village, where two-and-half feet of softening snow still lay on the ground.

From 2011 to 2014 I was a staff member at Holden, a spiritual retreat center high in the mountains above Lake Chelan, on the Glacier Peak Wilderness boundary. (My occasional essays about that experience are here.) I returned home just before turning seventy, the gateway birthday to what a friend describes as “s-aging.”

If I’ve acquired any wisdom thus far in my seventies, it is this: don’t get too comfortable. The tempting path of least resistance is the path to immobility. Holden is no longer in my comfort zone, which is why I went. There’s not only the physical challenge of tromping through the snow. Solitary living gets to be too comfortable. I needed to spend a few days and nights sharing space—including bathrooms—with other folks.

It was the week after Easter and the beginning of “post-holey” season at the village. That has nothing to do with religion. As layers of snow begin to thaw, the unsuspecting pedestrian can break through the top crust, plunging one leg knee- or even hip-deep into the snow, creating a “post hole.” Retrieving one’s buried foot can be a challenge—some folks have been known to leave an entire boot behind. Every step along the slushy paths is a journey with uncertain destination.

A still-sleepy bear leaves a meandering track

One afternoon I happily donned snowshoes to join the village naturalist on a short hike. Despite the thick cover of snow, the naturalist pointed out signs of spring emerging all around—including a meandering set of bear tracks that crossed our trail. I imagined a bear just waking from hibernation, still groggy, like me in the morning on my uncertain way to that first cup of coffee.

My visit to the village was just long enough to challenge but not destroy me. Departure day happened to coincide with my thirty-ninth wedding anniversary. Down at the lake, where snow had melted into mud, I had a couple hours to wait for the boat. Still wearing snow boots, I lumbered up a portion of the Domke Lake Trail, thinking about my late husband. John liked to give me my favorite—yellow roses—on our anniversaries. He didn’t fail me. At a turn in the trail I spotted a “yellow bell,” one of the earliest blooming wildflowers in sagebrush country. Another turn and a carpet of the dainty blooms spread before me. What’s a little discomfort when the heart is full?

A yellow bell–on of the first blooms of spring

Promising The Future

One week in February brought news of two deaths and one birth. At my age that’s about par. I’m fast approaching an ominous passage in life: more friends deceased than alive. Both friends who’d died, closing out good lives, were similar in age to me—in their seventies. I’d known them at different times and not seen either for quite some time. Yet knowing I’d never see them again on this sphere left a sad emptiness. A birth does not fill that void but represents the joyous reminder of continuity, one more step forward in the saga of humanity.

Lilja Gene was born February 9, a seven-pound, four-ounce promise for the future. Prior to her birth, her family held a traditional baby shower. Yet her mother, Ashley, was looking for something a little deeper as she prepared for her first child. She gathered a circle of women, some of whom traveled a distance, for a “blessingway” ceremony. Not only was I blessed to be included, I was the oldest.

Based on Navajo tradition, the “blessingway” is gaining popularity among mothers-to-be. In this instance the living room setting was casual, the intent sacred. We prayed, read poems,  sang, shed happy tears, and laughed. The women painted an intricate design in henna on Ashley’s rounded belly. Lilja tried to disrupt the artistry with an occasional kick. We each brought three symbolic beads—one for baby, mother, and family. They were strung into a birthing necklace for Ashley to wear during labor.  We looped our wrists together with yarn, making bracelets that we wore through the rest of the pregnancy.

Then ancient tradition melded seamlessly with 21st century technology. Niko, Lilja’s dad, texted us all when Ashley’s water broke. “Cut those bracelets!” he typed. Cutting the yarn symbolized a release of blessings for mother and baby. Those prayers of blessing traveled across the miles through the mysterious space of the Spirit. They mingled with texts of encouragement traveling from our smart phones through cyberspace. After many long hours came the joyous text announcing Lilja’s arrival, followed almost daily by photos.

New parents these days are bucking a trend. In 2016 the national fertility rate dropped to its lowest point since record keeping began in 1909. Women are having babies at half the rate of the fecund 1950s. Academics and researchers offer all kinds of theories about this. I have one, too. Parenthood is a calling. People no longer reproduce in order to have enough helping hands around the farm. Couples decide to get pregnant because they feel called to give the world one more unique individual. They are not daunted by the problems my generation is leaving.

As I was writing this on March 5, my computer dinged—a text message with photo of just-born, great-grandson Lucas Cole. Even with 7.6 billion people on earth, there’s room for more. We need new ideas to uphold our ancient values. Isn’t that why newborn babies look so old and so wise?

Lilja Gene, just a few days old and ready


IMG_1935The chance combination of seeing a particular movie and reading a particular book stirred sorrowful memories of bullying in my childhood. Sorrowful because I was not bullied; I was among the bullies.

The movie is “Wonder,” something of a feel-good tear-jerker based on the novel by R. J Palacio. The book is Sherman Alexie’s memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” The two are not related but separately shine a light on the human proclivity for bullying.

In the movie, a ten-year-old boy born with severe facial deformity attends school for the first time after years of protective home-schooling. He is mercilessly bullied by his classmates. The story follows a conventional arc. The boy, initially crushed by bullying, uses his wits to ultimately win affection and esteem. Even though the joyous ending was a little too pat, I teared up.

Bullying is only one aspect of Alexie’s stark childhood. His vivid telling of events compelled me to set the book aside at times, simply to regain my breath. You might assume he’d been an American Indian kid bullied by whites. Just the opposite. It was an Indian kid in a reservation school who organized the torment. Alexie finally escaped to an off-reservation school, where he gained esteem among his white classmates. Yet even now, as a successful writer and film maker, Alexie tells how his grade school bully continues to show up in his life. 

Me? I’m remembering Michael. Even for a fifth grader, he was small. Now I realize he’d probably been under-nourished all his life. He had ear-to-ear freckles, bad teeth, and squinty eyes beneath floppy red hair that begged cutting. Worst of all, he smelled—both his body and clothes, the ill-kempt pants and shirt that he wore day after day. Everyone knew everyone in our small-town Minnesota school. We’d been classmates since kindergarten. Michael suddenly appeared in fifth grade. If anyone knew his family or where he lived, they weren’t letting on.

We considered Michael so disgusting, we avoided being near him. If anyone accidentally bumped into him or touched his hand while passing papers, they had the “Michael touch.” We couldn’t wash it off; we could excise it only by passing it on to another classmate. Michael-touch tag became an all-consuming activity on the playground at recess.

For all his social deficits, Michael was shrewd. When he realized his power to make classmates—especially us girls—shriek and run, he gleefully joined the frenzy, spreading his “touch.” Unlike the “Wonder” boy of the film, Michael never won our affection. I’m left wondering if there were any winners in that game—only losers.

I don’t know what happened to Michael. He wasn’t there for sixth grade. He may have survived a hard childhood using his wits. As for me, I’d like to do the fifth grade over again. Or maybe I have been, ever since.

With the Jerk of a Knee

Shirley Hills School
Shirley Hills School in Mound, Minnesota, was brand new when I attended as a second through fourth grader in the 1950s.

Whenever a school funding proposal appears on the ballot, many voters react in knee-jerk fashion. I’m among them. Some of the knee-jerkers would never consider voting for any tax, schools or not. They look for reasons to oppose. Others, including me, can’t imagine NOT voting to fund schools.

It’s all about gratitude. For thirteen significant years of my life, people who for the most part didn’t know me paid taxes so I could get an education. I’m grateful. Throughout those thirteen years a cadre of public school teachers devoted themselves to my growth and betterment. I didn’t always appreciate their efforts at the time, but I’m indebted to them now: from the aptly named Miss Gardner, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the enchantment of learning, to Mr. Thornburg, the twelfth grade yearbook advisor who sparked the possibility in my mind that I could be a writer. I can still see the smile on his face when, years later, I ran into him in a restaurant and told him I was an Associated Press editor.

I’m grateful that all my teachers provided a legacy that today’s teachers can build upon. Teaching today is certainly more stressful. Sadly, educators must work much harder to gain community and parental support.

Five school districts in Okanogan County, where I live, are placing funding issues before voters Feb. 13. Washington state has been wrangling for years over how to fund education. Now the state has a new formula, which means operating levies in some districts may be reduced. Less means more, thanks to state matching funds. My district—Omak—stands to lose $7 million from the state if the levy fails.

Omak is also asking voters to approve bonds to build a new middle school. The school will be vitally needed by the time our burgeoning enrollment of kindergarten through second-graders reaches that level.

I was in the vanguard of the baby boomer generation. Lucky for me, voters in the 1950s recognized the need for more schools. Instead of being squeezed into antiquated buildings, I attended mostly new schools from second grade on. Even then, I recognized the difference it made.

Last week I went to an informational meeting about our proposed middle school. I didn’t need to be convinced. I showed up to support the volunteers and school leaders who’ve worked for years to develop a practical plan for addressing future needs. I was heartened when a gentleman spoke eloquently about his gratitude to Omak schools for giving him skills that, he said,  “I use every day.” I was disheartened when the same gentleman voiced skepticism over the likelihood of this bond issue passing.

I agree with him that our method for funding schools is inadequate and sometimes unfair. But those kindergarten through second graders, who are being crowded into so-called portable classrooms even now, didn’t invent this system. Maybe, if we give them a good enough education, they could eventually find a way to fix it. I hope we don’t wait that long.


What fifty-five years can do to/for a person

A reunion can feel a lot like drowning. Supposedly, a drowning victim’s life flashes before them on the third, fatal time down. My life, or at least the past fifty-five years of it, was flashing before my eyes as I prepared to reunite with someone I’d not seen for that many years.

A junior/senior high school classmate emailed out of the blue a few months back. I’ve not attended high school reunions of late. I stayed in touch with only a handful of classmates, and she wasn’t among them. We hadn’t been close friends, but shared a few classes and played in the band. I didn’t consider myself on her level of the social strata that were implicitly delineated in that large, urban school. I saw her as popular, well-grounded, confident, coming from an affluent family, perfectly dressed and coiffed. Me? Less so. She was the classmate I most wanted to be like and be liked by. I’m sure she’d be surprised—or maybe even amused— to know that, then and now.

I responded to her email, and we ultimately made a date to have lunch on my next trip to Tacoma. That’s when I began mulling the past fifty-five years and wondering how I’d ever describe them to her. How to avoid a boring monologue of “and then I . . . and then I . . . and then I”? Besides, what I most wanted was to hear about her life. It would be, I guessed, a story of success after success. And it was.

Her story started exactly as I expected. As she described it, after college and sorority life she had her china and silver as planned, her three children as planned, her husband with secure, professional career—as planned. Then it all blew up. I won’t provide details because it’s her story, not mine. She didn’t tell it in the sequence I laid out, but started with the hard stuff, as if to lay her cards on the table. As if to say, “There’ll be no secrets; nothing will be held back.”

It turns out she and I have walked a parallel path these fifty-five years, living lives that pulled us every which way other than the direction we’d planned. That included our lunch: the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet was closed. We found another, really nicer, restaurant on Tacoma’s waterfront—a metaphor for what happens when plans don’t work out. We lingered for hours over lunch, telling not so much the details of our lives’ events. It was more about lessons learned, wisdom acquired. It was a sharing free of hubris, filled with the joy of discovery. We both had learned that when life interrupts your plans, take it as a gift and run with it. That’s success.

Given our mutual age of seventy-three, we can’t afford to wait another fifty-five years for our next reunion. I hope we won’t. She is a woman I want to be like, and be liked by.

Just Ducky

fullsizeoutput_1d1aThe river in front of my house is now a duck pond. Various sections of the river are frozen bank- to-bank, but here free water flows and water fowl float. It’s a busy sight/site with ducks and geese paddling upstream, cruising back down, taking off into the air with the frequency of planes at O’Hare, and landing again in small squadrons. The mallards come in for their landing with wings bowed, braking their speed just as they hit the water. Canada geese are less elegant, splashing onto the river’s runway in noisy, squawking turmoil.

My favorites at this time of year are the bufflehead (who I may be confusing with golden eye, or maybe we have both). Their radiant white caps make me think of novice nuns. They dip smoothly below the water’s surface, later to bob up again—never in the same place. My eyes scan the river, trying to predetermine where they’ll suddenly surface. I almost never win this game of bufflehead bluff.

At times some ducks leave the water to cluster on the edge of snow-covered ice—not exactly dry land. I have to wonder if they’re warmer, leaving the icy water and hunkering down in the wind-chilled air. I’ll bet they’re warmer in the water. What we don’t see is those webbed feet paddling hard like a cross-country skier following an uphill trail, warmed by the effort.

Occasionally—and suddenly—the pond empties of water fowl. Only small chunks of ice float desolately along the current, destined to join the glacial islands downriver. That’s when I know to look up and search for a bald eagle. Or perhaps some other raptor, an osprey for instance, is temporarily scattering the flocks. In only a few minutes, the ducks will return to resume their routine, up and down, forth and back. They organize themselves like an Esther Williams water ballet, sometimes in straight lines (although those are most often the geese, who have a penchant for the military), other times in complex choreography that unfolds like time lapse photos of flowers blooming.

There is other winter wildlife along the river bank—the hardy birds, of course, and an occasional river otter. The plucky quail scoot in nervous groups, puffed up to twice their miniscule weight to insulate themselves against the cold. I could see more if I would take time away from my ceaseless chores and distractions. Is that a resolve for the new year? Seems like a good one.