Beyond Urban Energy

Late at night, lost in the cavernous and empty Seattle Convention Center parking garage, I realized the truth of an old adage: You can’t go home again. This was a while ago, before we had smart phones to tell us where we’d left our cars. Even when I finally located the car, I couldn’t find an exit that wasn’t blocked by an unyielding mechanical gate. 

Seattle once was MY city, where I’d studied, worked, romanced, played, and prayed. Except I never lived within Seattle city limits but on Vashon Island, which was then an affordable fifteen-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound. My life style would be impossible today. It was the ’70s, before Microsoft and Amazon. I owned a ramshackle house with a grandiose view of the sound, both Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, and the Seattle skyline. I’d walk to the ferry and commute to class or job or whatever.

My nostalgia was provoked this week by the opening of a new, two billion dollar Seattle convention center. It’s pretty much next door to the “old” center, which opened in 1988, was doubled in size by 2001, and will continue to operate. The hope is that new center will reverse the dismaying decline of the downtown core. Its event and meeting spaces equal ten football fields. That doesn’t include the public parking garage, into which I surely won’t venture. I never figured out the old one.

Navigation aid: J-C-M-S-U-P

I once was a master of Seattle navigation, knew the back streets, shortcuts, escape routes. I learned from one of the best. As an Associated Press editor, I rode along with an AP photographer who I swear invented alleys and byways that didn’t exist for regular drivers.

Even though I was working for the world’s largest news gathering organization, I didn’t want to go anywhere else in the world. I turned down any and all promotions that would require moving. I smiled as I read reports from along the Iditarod trail, written by a colleague who accepted the job in Alaska that I’d declined. Didn’t matter that I was working the crummy overnight shift in Seattle. I could watch the Space Needle’s glittering lights through the office window.

Slowly, though, the idyll was fading. Commuting, even by ferry, was becoming unreasonable as gridlock strangled the city. Eventually I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. It came from the owner of a weekly newspaper in a gritty little eastern Washington town. He was striving for five thousand paid circulation and figured I could help get him there. It was a package deal: a significant cut in pay, a marriage proposal, and a pledge that we’d visit Seattle monthly for my vital infusion of urban energy — theaters, restaurants, and salt air.

In 1994 we dallied for four months in the city following my husband’s paralyzing stroke. John was a rehab patient at the University of Washington Medical Center. I lived in an aging residential hotel on Capitol Hill, cheering him on, terrified of the future, seeking solace in all that urban energy.

Even after John’s death in 2007, I’ve surprised myself by returning to Seattle only rarely. Certain landmarks are still there. No one’s going to move Mount Rainier. They did move the bus depot without telling me.  A couple years ago, thinking about that gridlock, I parked my car in Wenatchee and rode the bus the remaining hundred and fifty miles to Seattle. I was stunned to disembark in a strange area on a rainy night, multiple blocks from the hotel that I’d thought would be just a short walk away.

My long-ago favorite restaurants, hotels, hangouts are either boarded up or replaced with something weirdly nouveau, gleaming towers, and that new convention center. Still unchanged are the names of downtown’s strangely angled streets, laid out — so the story goes — by a couple of drunken city founders. To navigate the grid, one is advised to memorize an irreverent rhyme using something of a stutter: “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest” (Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine). 

It’s unsettling to be a tourist in a place that once was yours. Unsettling and yet okay. The nouveau may be better, maybe not. The future will figure it out. I no longer require doses of urban energy. I fill up each morning with the silence of my neighbor — a slow-flowing river — and the occasional quack of a duck, chirp of a bird. It’s all the energy I require.

A Tale of Two Christmases

Yesterday (January 5) was Twelfth Night, in olden days recognized as the final day in the Christmas season. Ignored by most people now, Twelfth Night may have a ring of Shakespearean familiarity. It is the occasion for which his comedy of that name was meant to entertain.

I still cling to a Twelfth Night observation. Otherwise, it seems as if we catapult our way from Christmas to New Year’s, landing with a thud on January 2. The party is over. We’re befuddled by the new year’s reality, which feels an awful lot like the old year’s. 

Twelfth Night offers a more gentle landing, like reading a good book, coming to the end and closing the cover with a satisfied pat. It’s a lovely day for lighting candles one more time, listening to carols before tucking them away for another year, packing up decorations, and reflecting on lingering joy. I celebrated this year by lunching with two friends who described their Christmases.

“I boycotted Christmas,” announced Friend No. 1. So much for my gentle landing. She sounded both defiant and liberated. And really, if I’d had a December like  hers, I would’ve boycotted not only Christmas but the entire world. She had demands for year-end reports piling high on her desk when (a) both of the family’s two cars quit running, which maybe wasn’t that big a problem because (b) two family members were stuck at home with Covid, which was anxiety-producing because (c) this year’s especially heavy snow load has resulted in their home’s cracked ceiling.

Because they have offspring, my friend’s boycott was not total. There was a small tree and gifts. Otherwise, she advised extended family and friends that there’d be no packages or cards in the mail, no cookies in the oven.

And then there was Friend No. 2, who began by listing her Christmas dinner guests. They were a variety of ages, religious backgrounds, interests, etc., with one thing in common — they all would have been alone for Christmas dinner. (May I digress: there’s nothing wrong with peaceful solitude on Christmas if you enjoy it, and I do, but that’s another story.) 

Friend No. 2 admitted she was two hours behind schedule getting her guests seated at the table. The meal was delayed by numerous side dishes. I’m not talking about the mashed potatoes, vegetables, salads, etc. Her side dishes were plates of food she and her guests delivered to folks who couldn’t make it to her house for various reasons. I would have found the combination of guests in my home AND deliveries a hair-pulling logistical challenge. She  made it sound as if it’d been no more complicated than buttering toast. She adopted just the right tone of humility, telling us everyone proclaimed her meal delicious.

After our luncheon, I considered the many ways people celebrate Christmas, including — maybe especially — the self-proclaimed “boycotter.” Her day job involves helping people solve problems that are too often unsolvable. She’s overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated and above all, compassionate. Boycott Christmas? Nah, she observes Christmas — the REAL Christmas — every day of the year.

A Light in the Dark

I learned a new-to-me Christmas carol this year. Or maybe it’s a Hanukkah or Solstice carol. It’s pretty universal.

For the first time since Covid, I was back to narrating the annual Christmas recital for a music teacher friend. Every year she writes a story based on the various pieces her students will perform. I read the story — with a modicum of dramatic effect.

I was feeling the holiday spirit as I drove the thirty-miles up our snow-blanketed valley to her studio. Echoing one of my favorite carols, “In the Deep Midwinter,” there was “snow on snow on snow.” The hills and mountains shimmered with whiteness under thin ribbons of blue sky, like remnants of some extravagant gift-wrap.

It was nearly dark when I entered the studio with its two grand pianos nestled into each others’ curves. The audience waited with a hushed, almost reverent expectancy. As a long-ago music teacher I can tell you with authority, the primary element in any student recital is not music, but courage. Every student has practiced hard and long, conquering the challenge of memorization, playing the piece just once more before leaving home, praying to be spared public humiliation.

My friend teaches students of all ages, and I’ve always assumed that adult students must feel especially nervous. They have, after all, their dignity at stake. The first performer allayed that assumption. I don’t know her age but I’m pretty sure she — like me — will never see seventy again. In a brief post-recital chat she acknowledged she’d taken a fifty-five year hiatus from piano lessons. She nevertheless approached the Yamaha unflinchingly, methodically exchanged her bifocals or trifocals for her music-reading glasses (a ritual with which I’m VERY familiar), and played a simple Chopin waltz with adult authority.

When it was the youngest student’s turn, the tiny girl in a ruffled dress was gently nudged forward by her mother. The teacher escorted her to the piano with a whispered reminder, “Say it aloud.”

Starting from the lowest end of the keyboard, the child played a rhythmic counterpoint, two black keys with one hand, the white key between them with the other, while chanting: “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Then up an octave: “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Up and up, octave by octave, all seven of them, until she reached the clanging high notes at the top, and then … all the way back down. She ended to thunderous applause. I felt as if we’d scaled Everest and back. What a great way to teach navigation of the keyboard: look for the two black keys and D will always be in the middle. A surefire compass for beginners.

I drove home under a moonless night sky, way slower than the speed limit, peering into the darkness beyond my headlights, watching for deer who frequent this stretch of highway. I was willing my memory to replay Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” A young man had performed it admirably, melting my heart. But a persistent ear worm blocked it. I kept hearing, “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.”

Of course. That’s what this time of year is all about. We stare directly into the darkness — the black keys — and we find the light. On that very Sunday, Christians were lighting the fourth candle on their Advent wreaths, Jews were lighting the first Menorah candle of Hanukkah, and tonight — winter solstice — people will repeat an ancient tradition, defying the darkest night of the year by lighting brilliant bonfires.

“D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Or as the writer of the Gospel of John said — a bit more poetically: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

(Image thanks to pixabay.com.)

What Goes Around

I’m down for the count, if someone could just figure out what the count is. I’m on Day Eight of whatever-is-going-around. A friend told me another friend told her this stuff hangs on for twelve days. Great. The Twelve Days of Crudness.

“On the first day of Crudness, my true love brought to me, a carton of nose tissues!” On the second day, two bottles of cough syrup. Third day, three gallons of chicken soup. No, wait! Adding insult to injury, while I was slurping chicken soup an upper left molar cracked and crumbled. The dentist’s office asked if I was taking anything for the pain. The stupid tooth is the only part of my body that DOESN’T hurt, I answered. They’ll try to get me in before Christmas.

Whatever is bugging so many of us is apparently a multiplicity of infectiousness. I’m fully boosted against Covid and consistently test negative. I got my flu shot. Still I wheeze and sneeze. My cough sounds like a Washington State ferry signaling distress. I have no fever, yet no energy and even less motivation. Further assaulting my otherwise cheerful facade was a headline in the Washington Post: “How a viral siege is making some people sick for weeks, even months.”

The article lists all the stuff that’s going around: “Parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, rhinovirus, adenovirus, influenza A and influenza B. Respiratory enterovirus and human metapneumovirus, too. And then, there’s the rebounding coronavirus …”

I’d been feeling particularly sorry for myself because this is the second time this year I’ve been flattened by an extreme version of what we used to call the “common cold.” But the article cites a CDC determination that normal adults can hit the mat two or three times a year and still be considered healthy overall.

Enough of my wheezy whining. For me this has been an uncomfortable inconvenience. For too many it’s deadly serious. Yesterday the daughter of a dear friend called to tell me her mom is under hospice care, deeply sedated, death imminent. She wanted me to know in advance so I could be “with” her mom in these final hours, even though I’m a hundred and fifty miles away.

Life on the edge of thin ice

In truth her mom is with me. She was a frequent visitor for many years, especially during the holidays, exuberant over being here by the river. With her in my heart, I’ve been watching the spectacle of life and drama of death that unfolds especially now with the river partially shielded under ice. 

Ducks and geese — those sometime swimmers and frequent flyers — land for a while, drift a bit, then lift off, first one or two at a time, finally an entire flock swooping skyward, the ducks’ wings beating frantically, geese honking their irritation (or maybe exasperation?), only to return again minutes or hours later. Their reasons for leaving or returning are known only to them.

Two river otters scamper across the ice before sliding into open water; wild turkeys step gingerly along the brink as if wondering why they’re there; a lone great blue heron stands regally, stretching its elegant neck. 

At one point, a Canada goose isolated itself on the large shelf of ice, settled down, and died. I was depressed, thinking I’d be distracted by the sight of its corpse for some time to come. Then a bald eagle arrived and made quick work of the cleanup. Nature’s own undertaking.

Life is brutal, and it’s beautiful. Pain amidst pleasure, loss after loss, yet ever flowing. Goodbye for now, my dear one. No one ever lived life more fully than you.

Winter’s Here: Time for Inaction

A storm is brewing, possibly a foot of new snow, we’re told. After a lifetime of confronting winter’s challenges, I still love it, but in a different way.

I can’t predict the weather, but I can predict what will happen when it snows. The city snowplow will begin its rounds at o’dark in the morning. Snug under the covers, I will awaken to the scrape and rattle of plow on my street, knowing what will greet me when I get up. In addition to the beauty of a crystal white blanket as far as the eye can see, there’ll be a plow-created berm of snow and ice blocking the end of my driveway. 

Not a real recent photo, but a celebration of snow

There’s a reason I live in a four-season environment. Winter feeds my soul as it nurtures the earth beneath our feet. Since childhood I’ve viewed snow as an opportunity for play, from building snow people to skiing down mountain slopes. Even the task of moving snow from an inconvenient place to somewhere out of the way made me a happy warrior. I would don layers of clothing, woolen hats, scarves, and mittens, and fire up the snowblower.

My trusty little snowblower had an electric starter, but I took macho pride in setting the choke, pulling the cord and thrilling to the roar of its instantaneous response. I relished guiding clouds of snow onto ever-higher banks lining the driveway. It was so much fun, I cleared not only the driveway but sidewalks, parking space along the street, and the broad concrete patio on the river side of my house. 

Things change. Just as we cannot deny our reality of climate change bringing wetter, heavier snow, I cannot deny my reality of osteoporosis, resulting in a series of spinal compression fractures. My snow removing days are done. Reluctantly, I gave the blower away last fall, removing temptation. The glacial berms were impenetrable for the little machine anyway, and there are safer ways for me to exercise.

The early snow storm a few weeks ago resulted in a solid berm that kept me housebound for a couple days. I’m within walking distance of grocery store, library, post office, and yarn shop, but the daily cycle of melting and refreezing made walking too treacherous. I was perfectly comfortable in a warm house with well-stocked kitchen. Only the dog gets cabin fever. 

We were ultimately liberated with the help of attentive neighbors and my yard guy. I hadn’t even tried to call the commercial snow removers. I’m told they were so besieged they quit answering their phones.

It’s about to happen all over again. I used to prepare for snowstorms with an action plan, and I still do. My action was a voicemail message to the yard guy, who will show up eventually, probably later than sooner. I’m settling in like at the theater, waiting for the drama to unfold.

I’m content. It’s the first week of Advent, my favorite liturgical season, a time of anticipation and preparation. In my younger years the preparation was external, now it’s internal. I’m learning that life is amply rich when we do less and be more.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about times when he “could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of head or hands.” He described endless hours of simply sitting, time not wasted, hours not “subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.” 

Need more time, a longer day? Let it snow, and then let it be.

Sylvia Beach Revisited, At Last

Thirty-or-so years ago my husband and I discovered a quaint hotel on the Oregon coast. We were so charmed that we agreed it would become a side trip on our annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Well, you know the old truism: “We plan; God laughs.” Turned out, our lives took us in another direction. 

It wasn’t until last month, fifteen years after my husband’s death, that I finally made that return visit to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport. If you’re a lover of books and their writers, you may have heard of it. The hotel, located on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is named not for the sands below (Nye Beach) but for a bookstore owner. Sylvia Beach was an American expatriate who in Paris in 1919 opened her shop called “Shakespeare and Company.” Notable writers of the era, from Hemingway to James Joyce, hung out there.

The vintage hotel, named the New Cliff House when it was built in 1912, was renamed in the 1980s along with a literary themed renovation. Each of the twenty-one guest rooms is dedicated to a different author and decorated to complement the authors, their era, and their work. The Shakespeare room has an Elizabethan look, with canopied bed and a throne-like chair, while J.K. Rowling’s space has a more wizardly flair, right down to the stuffed owls. 

The hotel is not for everyone. “When you walk up our garden path to the front door, the old building will give you a big hug or spit you out, depending on what really matters to you,” writes co-owner Goody Cable on the hotel’s web page. No TVs, no internet, no elevators, no pool or spa, no phones. Cell phones (allowable in the privacy of one’s room) are banned from the best room in the house — a spacious top-floor library affording an ocean view that stretches north to the historic Yaquina Head lighthouse and endlessly west until water dissolves into sky. Guests are welcome to curl up in the library’s capacious easy chairs day or night. Last one to bed is asked to turn out the lights.

“Unplug, unwind, and sleep with your favorite author,” the website suggestively invites. That last was, um, problematic for my stay in the Oscar Wilde room — not to make light of Wilde’s unjust fate. One of London’s most celebrated playwrights, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1885 for “gross indecency.” He had a male lover. The cruel imprisonment destroyed Wilde’s health and his life. He died sick and impoverished at age forty-six.

The Oscar Wilde room: wallpaper you could live with. Or not.

Aware of that tragedy, I was a tad uncomfortable reserving the room. Still, the comfortably small room is ideal for a single person, has a large private deck, and is on the lower end of room rates. At the time of his death, Wilde was holed up in a dingy Paris hotel and supposedly said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” The wallpaper in his namesake room strives to live up to that legacy. The guest journal in the room suggests some visitors appreciate the garish paper, others not so much.

I intended to spend my time in quiet retreat, reading, writing, sinking into the hushed luxury of the library. There was ample opportunity for that. And more. Meals in the “Table of Contents” dining room are served family style. The food is excellent, the conversations engaging. You sit down for dinner with strangers, and leave (some two-and-a-half hours later) as friends. 

I had breakfast the first morning with a highway engineer whose wife was sleeping in. It gave me a chance to complain about various freeway ramps and he ruefully acknowledged, “We have a saying: everyone with a driver’s license is a highway engineer.” There were opportunities to commiserate — one table mate was determinedly moving forward after the death of her husband from Covid — and celebrate — our entire table hurrah’d a cheerful single woman enjoying her eightieth birthday. 

There was synchronicity. I was befriended by a pair of identical twin sisters, Lutheran PKs (preacher’s kids), as am I. (A Lutheran PK, not a twin; Sylvia Beach herself was a Presbyterian PK.) I played Trivial Pursuit with a couple of former reporters as we shared stories about the now gone glory days of newspapering. It’s a hotel that — if you choose — folds you into a community, something you’re not likely to experience at a Hilton.

When I made my reservation several months ago, I was thinking it would probably be my sayonara visit to Oregon’s coast. It’s a gorgeous drive but a thousand-plus-mile round trip without public transit options. Sylvia Beach reinvigorated me. I hope to return. 

And, oh, please keep that just between you and me, dear reader. I’ve given God more than enough to laugh about.

NOTE: Sylvia Beach (1887-1962) was obviously unaware that a hotel would be named for her. She was well worthy of the honor as you can see for yourself if you watch this interview, made shortly before her death.

Memento Mori

When the committee that organized my high school reunion announced that the sixtieth would be our last, it was like having an ice bucket challenge of mortality dumped on my head. 

They didn’t say why there’d be no more reunions. They didn’t have to. We needed only to observe the “memorial” posters — thumbnail photos of our fellow graduates who’d passed their final, final exam. There were more faces on the posters than living souls in the banquet room. Fewer than twenty percent of our class were still alive and adequately interested and/or able to attend. We survivors among the Class of ’62 should not feel too bad. Born just ahead of the Baby Boom, we “war babies” have already outlived the age expectancy for our generation.

The reunion was in September, a month that ushers in autumn. Poets love to use autumn as a metaphor for old age, preceding winter and death. Hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien began cheerfully enough with “O blessed spring,” followed by a stanza about “summer heat of youthful years,” then getting to “When autumn cools and youth is cold …” and ultimately, “As winter comes, as winter must, we breathe our last, return to dust …”

The last summer roses and Christmas decoration at the cemetery

I’m writing this on November 2, “All Souls Day,” also known as “Day of the Dead.” This is the time of year when many traditions, dating at least back to ancient Celts, focus on death and those who’ve departed. The Celtic tradition of Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve after Pope Gregory III declared November 1 as All Saints Day in the eighth century. Our death-denying culture has commercialized it as Halloween, a time of macabre costumes and candy treats. Even that is quickly overcome by Christmas hysteria. A stubborn traditionalist, I visited the cemetery on this All Souls Day. As I lay the last roses of summer on my husband’s headstone, I noted a large candy cane with flying reindeer decorating a grave nearby.

As for my own demise, my attitude varies from Woody Allen’s oft-quoted philosophy: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I have a healthy fear of death. I just want it to catch me unaware, suddenly. I’d like to avoid a lingering illness, disability or —dear God, please — senility. And wouldn’t we all?

Even when we outlive actuarial tables, it can be challenging to celebrate these “bonus” years if our bodies taunt, even torture us. Some folks thrive. Others endure loss after loss: mobility, independence, dignity. 

If autumn represents old age advancing toward death, then let my autumn be like today. This autumn day the leaves on my front yard maples turned a shimmering gold so exuberant you could almost hear them shouting an alleluia chorus. 

This day the prolific cherry tomato vine gave up its final, generous bounty before tonight’s killing frost. 

This day sunshine reflected on the river as it quietly flowed beneath a necklace of brilliant, shimmering diamonds. 

This day I received two pieces of news: the unexpected death of one friend and the full remission of cancer for another. 

May all my autumn years be as generous as this day. May I embrace the paradox of autumn, its extravagant celebration of life as a last hurrah and gateway to the mysterious inevitable.

Remember those “American Graffiti” teenagers? We’re seventy-eight

“You have five months to lose twenty pounds and get your teeth whitened.”

That was my friend Sally after I told her I’d registered for my high school class reunion — sixtieth! As the date draws ever closer, I still haven’t followed her advice, including item three on her list: buy an underwire bra with power uplift. Solitary life following Covid lock-downs freed my girls to hang loose. We’ll never go back.

This will be my first reunion since the twentieth. That was a noisy, crowded cocktail party — the kind of event I like to avoid. Conversely, I enjoyed my late husband’s reunions. His small-town graduating class numbered fewer than a hundred; they got together for convivial, laid-back dinners. Everyone knew everyone, unlike my graduating class of some five hundred. 

My graduation photo

The Class of ’62 was comically and accurately depicted in the film “American Graffiti,” whose high school seniors were obsessed with rock ’n roll, cruisin’ and hormonal confusion. George Lucas, who wrote and directed the movie, also graduated in 1962, in Modesto, California. My high school was Woodrow Wilson, Tacoma, Washington. I travelled across the country the summer after I graduated and found that my fellow eighteen-year-olds were pretty much the same nationwide. I wonder, as we confront the deep polarization in our country now, if the Class of ’62 is still so homogenous.

No question these sixty years have been tumultuous, shaking our very foundations. We’ve weathered Vietnam and draft card burning, the fight for women’s rights and bra burning, racial protests and entire neighborhoods burning, and now our mother — Earth — burning. There’ve been assassinations, the technology revolution, 9-11, the longest war in American history, climate change, global shifts toward authoritarian governments, and a pandemic. Not even Lucas could’ve dreamed up such a sequence of events in one lifetime.

As just a slight tremor among all those earthquakes, Woodrow Wilson High School no longer exists by that name. Given our twenty-eighth President’s dubious record on issues such as racial equality, school district powers-that-be changed the name to Dr. Dolores Silas High School. She was the district’s first black woman administrator and also sat on the city council. We’re told students have shortened that to “SIHI,” which sounds like everyone’s taking a deep breath. Advisable.

I likely wouldn’t attend this reunion except that I promised Nick, one of the handful of classmates I’d kept in touch with. After the fifty-fifth reunion, Nick scolded me for missing — again! — and made me swear I’d be at the sixtieth. Last year Nick, the picture of health, keeled over and died of an apparent heart attack while running a weed-eater in his yard.

The reunion invitation was accompanied by a list of classmates who have died. I got out my yearbook and looked up the graduation photo for each name. Given our class size, there were many I didn’t remember. For those I did know, looking at their eighteen-year-old faces felt like they’d died way too young. By skipping all those reunions, I knew nothing about their lives after high school. I missed a lot of good stories. Everyone has at least one.

Catching up on those stories is reason enough to attend the reunion. That, and my promise to Nick.

Ah! The patina of age

Flushed With Success

Seven a.m. My first thought as I awaken this perfect summer morning, a cool breeze gently lifting my eyelids, is of the clogged drains in my kitchen sink. No! I inwardly moan. I don’t want to think about plumbing issues first thing. I want to wake up with gratitude, with joyful expectations for the gift of a  new day.

But what can I expect when the last thing I encountered the previous night was a sink half full of backed-up, icky gray water, a sight as welcome as a slug in the garden but draining at nowhere near a slug’s pace. I’d spent the evening as YouTube instructed, dosing the drains with boiling water, baking soda and white vinegar. While the soda and vinegar combo created a satisfying froth, they did nothing to clear the blockage. 

It’s early, but with a twinge of hope I call The Plumber. The answering machine gives me his cell phone number “in case of an emergency.” One person’s emergency is another person’s mere inconvenience. I won’t call the cell phone because I want to be in good graces with The Plumber, because I want him to come THIS day, because it’s Friday and because I’m expecting a house guest this weekend.

Seven-thirty a.m. My dog and I head out for our morning walk, basking in 70 degree temperatures, knowing it will be in the 90s by this afternoon. The dog is basking, at least. My mind is going round and round, practicing words of entreaty for The Plumber. Stop it! I interrupt myself. And I scold: you should just be thankful you have pure, safe water that runs, even if it doesn’t drain. Think of all the people who don’t have the conveniences of kitchen, bathroom, laundry. And when you’re done with that, pay attention to the pastel blue sky, the floating clouds, the swaying trees, the sweet air, the bird songs, the river’s persistent flow … oh! that my drains would flow as freely as the river.

Eight-thirty-two a.m. I call again and a real live human answers. I explain my plight. “Okay, I’ll tell them,” she says, carefully making no promises. I babble some more. “Yup,” she says. “I’ll let ‘em know.” I envision The Plumber and his crew casually discussing triage over their morning coffee. Which of the callers have a bona fide emergency and which are merely inconvenienced?

My neighbor and his son happen by and chide me for not calling them first. The son would’ve freed the drains with a plunger (at this point the son makes plunging motions in the air) and would’ve saved me a lot of money. 

Eight-forty-five-ish. Plumber and helper arrive! They go to work as quickly and efficiently as an ambulance crew. While the assistant operates the electric rooter, The Plumber explains why plunging wouldn’t have been sufficient. In older houses like mine, he says, the pipes slowly deteriorate, the metal chipping off in flakes that need to be ground up with the rotating rooter head. As he lectures, he too is demonstrating with his hands so I can envision the chipping metal and rotating machinery. The eroding bits of metal and other gunk need to be forced through my pipes and carried away into the city sewer.

In his own home, The Plumber continues, once a month he fills his sinks with hot water, then pulls open the drains simultaneously to create a tsunami that will push accumulated debris onward to the ultimate destination, the city water treatment plant. Suddenly my mind is swirling as fast as the rooting device, only I’m moving backward, through decades, to The Big Flush! 

My late husband and I lived in a house twice as old and three times as big as my current home. Every once in a while, when the aged drains began to balk, he would announce, “It’s time for The Big Flush!” He’d fill all the sinks, stationing me downstairs, poised for action, with him upstairs at Command Central. When all was ready, he would yell, “FLUSH!” We’d run around opening sink drains and flushing toilets.

I thought it was hilariously fun. I didn’t understand the mechanics, but it worked. As far as I knew, he was employing some kind of metaphysical incantation. I never knew how he knew what he knew. He had an uncanny genius for solving household problems, maybe the result of growing up on a farm.

Nine-thirty-two a.m. Plumber and helper have cleaned up and left. Drains are draining. I’m  reliving cherished memories of my problem-solving beloved. I learned so much from him, and — fifteen years after he’s gone — still I learn. I open my calendar, click on the date one month from today and type in a reminder: FLUSH!

shiny kitchen sink
Happiness is a well-drained sink

Roads Less Traveled By

Coyote Falls in the foreground, Enloe Dam in the background

My late husband John could recite from memory Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I too relish roads “less traveled by,” sometimes to my peril.

Just last week, I started off innocently enough. Destination: Coyote Falls on the Similkameen River, near the Canadian border, less than an hour’s drive from home. I planned to attend the traditional Native American salmon ceremony, when fish are invited to return to their spawning grounds. Tribes have been doing this for millennia, although these days the ceremony is pretty much symbolic with a soupçon of politics. Just above Coyote Falls, salmon are blocked from proceeding upriver by the defunct Enloe Dam. The dam hasn’t produced power in half-a-century. Indian tribes on both sides of the border and various environmental groups are campaigning to have it removed.

There’s a fine hiking trail on the other side of the river, but the ceremony was to be held on the road side. In my case the wrong road. The river flows through a deep canyon. High on the canyon wall, a two-lane, paved road snakes around multiple curves. I knew I’d have to turn onto a gravel road to reach the canyon bottom at some point, but I couldn’t remember where that turnoff was. I’d noticed a bright blue car in my rearview mirror and then, after one of the curves, that car had disappeared. By then I’d driven beyond the falls and dam and decided I must have missed the turn-off.

After a quick u-turn, I spotted a flash of blue making its way down a steep, winding gravel road. You don’t usually follow someone who’s behind you. That alone should have been a warning. Slowly, cautiously I proceeded downward, noting the “Primitive Road” warning sign that the county posts on back roads that are not maintained. This one should have had a skull and crossbones at the bottom.

By the time I realized I had no business on that road, it was too late. With barely a single lane, I clung to the canyon wall that brushed my car on the left, trying not to think about the sheer drop-off on my right. The ruts were troughs, littered with rocks and shards that threatened to high-center the car. Downward I crept in low gear, wishing I had a lower than low-low gear. I tried to calm myself by talking to John, pleading with his spirit to intervene, rescue me.

Finally, miraculously, halfway down the canyon, I reached a wide spot. The blue car had pulled off and parked, as did I. Thank you, John! I noticed the other driver, whom I didn’t know, had started walking downward and then stopped to wait for me. 

“I’m so sorry I took that road,” I said as I got out of my car. “Me, too,” he admitted. Turned out he was a tribal member from British Columbia. He asked where I was from. When I answered “Omak,” he asked, “You Colville?” Never before has anyone confused this blue-eyed blonde as Native. I was deeply flattered. I explained that I’ve lived for a long time along the Okanogan River, which is fed by the Similkameen. “I love the river and all its inhabitants,” I continued, as if I expected the cast of characters from “Wind in the Willows” to join us at any moment. 

Despite my lack of tribal bona fides, he treated me as the elder that I am, generously offering his arm to steady me as we scrambled downward. At this point, the road was pretty impassable even on foot. I gasped when we finally reached a large, flat area, where a dozen or more cars were parked.

“How did they get here?!” I exclaimed. That’s when we noticed the other road — the one MORE traveled by. We could have taken it had we gone up the canyon a little further.

I never did make it all the way down to the river but watched the ceremony from the bank above. The drum beat and chanting were inaudible above the roar of the falls. Still, I joined others in rhythmic clicking of rocks, calling to the salmon. Tribal biologists tell us that native fish returning to our river are pitifully few and far between. Eliminating the dam, one biologist said at a recent meeting, is “their only chance.”

I walked away from the river, wondering if my own chances of getting my car back up that road were equal to salmon butting heads against a concrete dam. But a combination of prayer, John’s encouragement, and front-wheel drive pulled me slowly, safely upward. Back on pavement, I was heading home when a coyote ran across the road ahead of me. I slowed and noticed that he stopped in the middle of an alfalfa field, turning back to watch me. In Native legend, the coyote is a trickster, a mischief-maker.

“Yeah, you thought you had me back there at Coyote Falls,” I said. “But all you did was teach me a lesson. From here on, I’ll be taking the roads more traveled by.”