Looking Out

Covid has not impacted socializing among my neighbors all that much. Truth is, we don’t socialize all that much. In this quiet neighborhood of modest homes, we simply look out for each other.

I’ve lived here by the river for thirty-eight years. All the neighbors who were here when I arrived have moved on or passed on. I even moved: from the house I lived in for thirty years to a smaller one next door. The population change has not changed the culture: no block parties, no multi-family yard sales. We mind our own business but pay attention.

One time neighbors noticed a side door to my house was wide open. I was out of town. They called police, who entered the premises with guns drawn and found no intruders. I’d apparently not latched the door adequately and it blew open. I was embarrassed when I heard about it later, and at the same time gratified that neighbors were paying attention.

Usually, looking out is more simple, like watering plants for vacationers, or picking up their mail. At this time of year, especially after a snowstorm, my neighbors not only look out but help out.

In the 1990s, after my husband was paralyzed by stroke, neighbor Doug cleared our driveway after each snowfall. Neighbor Jerry shoveled the front walk. One winter, Doug was recuperating from surgery and realized he couldn’t handle both his driveway and mine. He found a snowblower for me. I never did as meticulous a job as Doug, but I felt so macho, so in control running that little single-stage blower. By that time, Jerry was slowing down. After clearing my driveway, I happily steered my snow-blower to his place, clearing out the entry to his carport, which is now my carport.

Snow removal becomes particularly daunting after the city snowplow clears our street, leaving densely-packed snow berms that block our driveways. My snowblower cannot chew through that stuff. A couple winters ago, I was attacking the berm when a neighbor I’d  never really met — a single mom — pulled up in her truck. Leaving the motor running with heater on for her toddler strapped inside, she ran home, grabbed her shovel and had the berm cleared within minutes. 

As we grow older, we find ourselves more often on the receiving rather than the giving end of kindness. It’s humbling, and a little uncomfortable, an acknowledgment that our independence is waning.

After the first snowfall this year, Doug called to say his son Josh was on his way and instructed: “Do. Not. Pay. Him.” Josh has been on the job, gratis, all winter. I remember how Jerry used to venture out to the carport while I blew away his snow. He too must have felt humble, uncomfortable. He compensated with his penchant for irony. “I’ll send you a bill!” he’d call after I’d finished. I’d laugh.

I doubt Josh would understand if I tried Jerry’s line. I compensate with a humble thank you.

A great teacher was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Here’s one of mine

Homelessness Is Not Hopelessness

“Mac died, y’know.”

No, I hadn’t known. Will and I were chatting in the newly constructed main room of the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelter. Will probably has an official title. I just know him as the driving energy and organizer of the all-volunteer, local effort to help homeless people.

Mac had been a regular guest during annual shelter operations from November through March, the cold months. He’d be waiting at six p.m., when the shelter opens, when I’d arrive once or twice a week with a hot casserole for the evening meal. He was eager to carry the casserole inside, eager to tell me about his efforts to find a job, eager to show me his wife’s photo — cracked and creased inside his otherwise empty wallet.

Mac taught me a profound lesson. The shelter strictly requires guests to be clean (of drugs) and sober. Guests spend the first thirty minutes in conversation with screeners before they’re admitted for the night. As far as I knew, Mac never failed the screening. 

After the shelter closed each season, I would see Mac hanging out by the gazebo in Pioneer Park, near my home. My dog and I frequently walk through the small park, which is a way-stop for homeless folks. We’re usually greeted cordially and rarely asked for money — which I never carry. 

One day Mac, alone at the gazebo, surprised me by asking if I could spare a few bucks. I assured him I don’t carry cash and continued home, troubled as I walked. I thought about Mac’s willingness to follow the shelter’s rules, his futile efforts to find work, his estrangement from family. I grabbed a twenty dollar bill, got in my car, and drove back to the gazebo. 

“I know you, Mac,” I said, “and I know you’ll spend this the right way.” 

The next day I again saw Mac in the park, drunk out of his mind. That was last spring. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d taken the easy way out, thrown money at the problem. At the very least, I could’ve driven to a fast food joint and bought a gift card. Mac ultimately died of acute alcohol poisoning. I am sadder and wiser.

All the money in the world couldn’t help Mac, but don’t misunderstand me. It’s vital that we invest in ways to help, both through private charities and public (tax) dollars. There are no quick, one-size-fits-all solutions. Obviously, homelessness is symptomatic of deeper problems. More than a half-million people in our country are homeless any given night. Washington’s homeless population ranks us among the nation’s top ten problem states. 

Still, homelessness is not hopelessness. I’ve witnessed repeatedly how shelter guests move onward and upward — with help: help from friends or families, help from nonprofit or government programs, help from a combination of efforts, from a willingness to give and receive help. Homelessness is not hopelessness, as long as we — all of us neighbors — are willing to help.

One Simple Move

I moved my chair. I mention this only because you may have a chair like mine. It’s your sanctum sanctorum, your refuge dedicated to comfort, relaxation and an occasional nap. On an adjacent table you may have piled books, newspapers, magazines, beverage of choice, digital devices, remote controls … whatever sedentary activities your chair accommodates. 

Your chair may be a recliner. Mine is not. It’s the old-fashioned Queen Anne wing style with a high back so I can rest my head when I feel a snooze coming on. Both chair and matching foot stool have been reupholstered twice over their many years of service. They’re looking worn and dingy yet again.

It’s discomforting, this new location. I can’t say I like it better. In fact, I may not like it at all. Yet, there are advantages. The light is better for reading. The chair previously blocked a section of bookcase that I needed to reference frequently. I could’ve moved the books, but the chair was easier. Now it blocks a closet that houses out-of-season clothes. I’ll need to shove the chair aside only a couple times a year.

The real reason for relocating is a change of perspective. I needed a new way of looking at the world, because the world itself isn’t looking at all the same. Most — maybe all of us — are experiencing that sense of unfamiliarity. A poll cited in “The Week” magazine reports that eighty-one percent of Americans do not expect life to return to normal anytime soon. Twenty-six percent say life will never return to normal. Whatever normal was. 

And was normal all that great? My dad liked to say that “the ‘good old days’ were formerly known as ‘these trying times.’”

I can still watch the Okanogan River from my chair’s new location. At the risk of overextending a metaphor, my previous view was upriver. The current, along with occasional flotsam and jetsam, headed my way. Now my view is downriver and the flow of energy pulls away from me. I trust it won’t pull from my own energy.

Whether looking upriver or down, I watch the constant activity of wildlife: birds, ducks, geese, great blue heron, eagles returning soon, the occasional leaping fish, and playful river otters. Add to that, I now face the downriver bridge with a different kind of wildlife. It’s a busy little bridge with a steady stream of trucks, cars, and buses. From this distance, I can’t make out the people inside the vehicles. I don’t know their gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, political preferences, income level, intelligence, interests, or skill set. But I feel connected. I extend a silent blessing, because they’re people on a bridge, coming from somewhere, going somewhere.

That’s pretty much where we all are these days. On a bridge, headed somewhere even though the destination may be uncertain. Some people believe we’re headed nowhere. If that’s your point of view, it might help to move your chair.

The Good Life: Making Room for Interruptions

Tuesday, according to my plan, would be a day of quiet, solitary remembrance. Then life interrupted.

A year ago, on September 26, 2020, my longtime friend, Mary Lou — more intimately known as Lou, quietly passed into her next realm of existence. She’d been a partner in music and adventure, my confessor, stalwart supporter, and exemplar of life well-lived.

As we do every morning, my dog and I greeted Tuesday by heading outside to the patio to stretch and survey life on the river. A great blue heron that had been stalking fish from the riverbank quietly lifted itself into flight. The day before it had squawked at me angrily for interrupting and flew upriver in a huff. This day it changed direction, gliding downriver, a weightless soul in the air, an invocation for this sacred day.

Thus ended my solitude and silence. The first phone call came from a friend whose widowed father had suffered two TIAs (“mini” strokes). She’s confronting the multitude of what-next questions that comes with aging parents. She doesn’t need me to tell her what to do, but she did need an ear willing to listen as she ponders her options.

Ensuing calls were less critical. The fellow who was scheduled to come last week to wash windows and didn’t show up wants to come next week. Whenever, I said. The fellow who was supposed to come last week to finish putting heat tape in my gutters and didn’t show up wanted to come Wednesday. Fine, I said. The soonest the optometrist can see me is January 13, 2022. Great, I sighed. 

An inheritance and a hug

I put my phone in my pocket and slipped into Lou’s sweater jacket. It’s a multi-colored, heavy knit, perfect for walking in autumn. She’d loved it, and her husband insisted I inherit it. I could feel the warmth of her hug through the sleeves of the sweater as the dog and I walked through the park. The trees that had been wearing a brilliant display of gold were now shedding their leaves with the insouciance of a rich woman dropping her jewelry onto the dressing table.

It was a day for homemade soup, but the black beans and rice concoction I had simmering on the stove tasted flat. I reached for “Slap Ya Mama.” Lou, a southerner from soul to drawl, introduced me to this zesty spice mixture on my first visit to New Orleans. She was, as usual, ahead of her time. It’s now available at supermarkets nationwide.

Two more phone calls. Both from fellow widows — one a few years in, the other less than a year — both, like me, figuring out where we are in life, simply wanting to chat. 

Finally, a brief visit from my neighbor and his sister to discuss the music I’m to provide for their father’s memorial service on Sunday.

By now it was past dark. I was remembering Lou’s final weeks. No matter how exhausted she was, she refused to turn away visitors. “Hey, how are ya doin’?” she’d call out cheerfully when they were barely through the door. She’d somehow muster energy her body didn’t have to chat, counsel and console. 

I thought about how she’d woven herself into the in-between spaces of a day I’d intended to be all about her. And I knew. Mary Lou wouldn’t have had it any other way.