Miles To Go

I just bought four new “premium” all-weather tires, on sale, guaranteed for 80,000 miles. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Back home, breathing fresh air instead of brain-stifling tire store fumes, I did the numbers. I’m about to celebrate my seventy-ninth birthday. I drive a fourteen-year-old car with 111,000 miles on the odometer. I calculate I’ll be eighty-nine or older before I need new tires again — assuming my car and I are both still functioning — a lot to assume. Not to mention, electric vehicles will probably own the road by then.

But this is not a question of life expectancy, either mine or the car’s. The National Institutes of Health says that only twenty-two percent of women over age eighty-five are still driving. (Fifty-five percent of men — let’s just set aside the obvious conclusion that women come to their senses sooner than men.) Drivers over age sixty-five are three times more likely to get into an accident than middle-age drivers per mile driven, and — take a breath — three times more likely to die from a car crash. We older folks are simply more vulnerable.

Exiting the driver’s seat is, for a lot of folks, as traumatic as death itself. My dad, a Lutheran pastor, was one of the most patient, kind, good-humored, compassionate people ever to walk God’s green earth. Thus I gasped when he — well into his eighties — referred to a driver licensing examiner as “that Nazi!” Despite his several physical infirmities, Dad waged an ongoing battle with the Department of Licensing to renew his license. I don’t know if it was Divine Intervention or just weariness on the part of DOL bureaucrats — they finally gave him a provisional license, allowing him to drive a prescribed route between home and church, nowhere else.

Mother, on the other hand, quit voluntarily. Well, kinda. It was after she totaled her car. She was driving home from visiting Dad’s grave one quiet morning when she blew a stop sign and crashed into another car in the intersection. No one was injured, but it was clearly her fault. For the next couple days, she followed her usual course when she had a Big Decision to make: she prayed, then wrote out a pro/con list. Finally, she called her grown children, confessed her sad story and sadder decision. The administrator of the retirement community where she lived thanked her effusively. He hated having to demand that a resident hand over their car keys. I eventually asked her if she missed driving. “All the time,” she sighed. 

Last week a friend told me she’d been diagnosed with dementia. “Of course, I quit driving immediately,” she added. We talked about her cherished pickup truck, which is more than a mere vehicle. The truck, itself older than most drivers on the road today, was her partner in decades of adventure. “I bet you wish you could be buried in it,” I said. She chuckled and agreed.

I have long promised myself that I’ll make the choice to quit driving well before some poor family member is tasked with wrestling the keys from my grip. My current license will expire on my seventy-ninth birthday. I have an appointment to get it renewed next week. Most drivers can do that online, but in this state, you have to show up in person if you’re over seventy.

Quoting Robert Frost, “I have miles to go before I sleep,” but probably not 80,000.

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.

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.”

You Know You’re Old When You’ve Outlived the Trees You Planted

The chainsaw massacre was about to begin when the normally docile young woman intervened. Later, she described the episode during our Zoom call. For years she and her roommate had been ideal tenants, quiet, tidy, paying their rent on time. But when she spotted the crew preparing to remove a stately tree in front of their house, she vehemently protested to her landlord. A conference with arborist, crew and others ensued. The tree survived. Neighbors quietly praised her intervention, admitting they’d been reluctant to get involved. 

“This was so unlike me,” she told her Zoom audience. The chat box filled with congratulatory notes and emoji applause. My emotions were mixed. Trees tend to live a long time and deservedly so, for all the benefits they offer. Yet just like us, trees have a life cycle, an inevitable end.

 I once was that young woman, what the cynical call a “tree hugger.” A love for trees is still deeply rooted in my heart. No pun there; a simple truth. I also know — even without seeing this particular  tree — that its reprieve is temporary. The USDA says urban trees tend to live only twenty-eight years at most — about twenty percent of a normal tree life span. Their congested environment makes them susceptible to pests, disease, inadequate care, inappropriate placement, improper planting, asphalt generated heat, etc., etc.

Living where I do, in a rural, desert-like shrub steppe environment, I’ve been a rabid defender of trees. While I was still editing the local newspaper, the city superintendent knew me well enough to call in advance whenever a tree had to be removed from the public domain. He’d explain the detection of disease and consequent threat to human health should the tree keel over on its own or topple in a windstorm. 

My town boasts a luxurious canopy of green, none of it native, and has been officially declared a “Tree City U.S.A.” by the Arbor Day Foundation. This small urban forest is a legacy of pioneer women, who a century or more ago planted the first deciduous trees, hauling water in buckets to nurture them in this arid country. More recently, volunteers tore up sidewalks to provide irrigation for trees along Main Street.

I’ve planted my share of trees over the years. I remember how eager I was the day we planted red maples in the front yard — anxious for them to grow and give luxurious shade. What I hadn’t figured on was that I’d be aging right along with those trees.

Once, my husband and I made an impulse buy in support of a newly established nursery. We brought home the tiny pine and scouted the yard for a place to plant it. While I looked around for available open space in the lawn, my wiser husband looked upward. He nixed my first choice because eventually the tree would get tangled in wires. Pines generally live at least fifty and often hundreds of years. This one gave us three beautiful decades before it became mortally diseased. 

Even as I mourned, I marveled at the skill of the sawyer who limb by limb denuded the tree and finally sawed off the naked trunk. He was, I hate to admit, graceful.

“I make it look easy, don’t I,” he boasted with a grin. I witnessed the deafening process as tree limbs and trunk were chopped into chips that would become mulch that would eventually fade back into Mother Earth. All is temporary, yet circular.

My diseased pine on his way back to Mother Earth

A question of location

“How did she end up there?!” (Read the word “there” with a tone of disbelief and possible disdain.) The question — more of an exclamation — was relayed to me by a friend. He was recounting a conversation he’d had with a long-ago mutual acquaintance who, when informed of my whereabouts after all these years, posed the very question I ask myself frequently.

The average American relocates about a dozen times over their life span. At some point do they, like me at age 77, wonder if this is the last stop. If so, how did I end up here (a tone of disbelief? disdain? delight?).

“Here” in my case is Omak, Washington, a gritty small town that wrestled itself into existence a little more than a century ago, smack-dab in the middle of a shrubsteppe valley — the Okanogan — where natives thrived for at least ten thousand years. Romance brought me here more than forty years ago — love for a man and our mutual love for small-town newspapers. My expectations were clear. We’d have fun running a newspaper until retirement, when we’d move to somewhere more, uh, civilized. Then karma happened, and here I am. Still.

The why-here question arises this gloomy morning with no glint of sun, with dingy snowbanks likely in place until June’s 100-plus temperatures, with memories of the many choices I’ve made in a lifetime. What about those roads not taken? Where else might I be now? Just then, an eagle soars past at eye level, scanning the river for fish, disrupting the ducks that have been quietly meditating just a few yards from my back door. 

The river is why I’m here. Not a raging, white-water river nor a large channel with ships and barges. Just a pleasant, hard-working stream, remnant of the Pleistocene-era glacial movement that shaped this valley’s cragged walls. The Okanogan River waters crops and wildlife, nurtures fish and fowl, and entertains folks who float aboard inflatable vessels on a hot summer’s day. 

The eagle having lifted my spirits upon her mighty wing span, I turn to breakfast — a few strips of beefsteak over toast. I eat meat only occasionally. These slices of steak originated from an animal raised on friends’ ranch, up-valley, where cattle really do live out their days beneath blue skies, never see a feedlot and are humanely butchered. The toast is artisan bread, baked locally, sold at the Okanogan Farm Stand, where I also buy local organic produce and eggs.

Still, I have an appetite for the world beyond. I open the Feb. 7, 2022, issue of “The New Yorker” magazine as I cut into my breakfast. And there, on page 28, in an essay by the esteemed John McPhee, I’m right back here, in the Okanogan. (Spoiler alert: I plan to give away McPhee’s punch line. If you want to read his version first, go here and scroll to “Citrus, Booze, and Ah Bing.”) An Easterner and aficionado of fruit (he wrote the book “Oranges” among many), McPhee and his wife were touring Washington state in 1982, hungering for cherries. He exults that “the Okanogan Valley is the Oxford and Cambridge of the Bing cherry.”

He describes crossing the North Cascade Mountains on famed Highway 20 with nary a comment about that breathtaking route. His description upon descending into the Okanogan: “Dessicated. Lovely. Irrigated green. Trees punctuated with deep-red dots.”

He didn’t stop at the newspaper office, which was just as well. We were probably busy and would’ve given the famous author short shrift unless he had local news to report. Turned out he did. He’d been given directions to an orchard owned and operated by “a knowledgeable married couple who will prefer to remain nameless.”

Too bad. In small-town newspapers, the rule is, “Names are news.” McPhee tells of arriving at the orchard, finding an abundance of cherries along with “shouting, angry shouting, more shouting, and the married owners appeared, on the apron of their barn, in a fistfight.”

Forty years later, the Okanogan cannot claim to be more civilized, but we are exotic enough to make it into the pages of “The New Yorker.” Could be, that’s why I’m here.

Winter ice turns the Okanogan River into a jigsaw puzzle

When Time Speeds Up

I’m tired of hearing the weary maxim that old age is not for the “faint-hearted” (attributed to Mae West) or “sissies” (Bette Davis). Could we of a certain age show a modicum of gratitude?

Most studies on aging set the boundary for being old at sixty-five. I know of no one who feels old at sixty-five. If they do, they probably felt old at thirty-five. But something — something — happens in our seventies. A friend, seven years older, alerted me on my seventieth birthday that major changes were ahead, and soon. 

That was just recently … No, wait! That was nearly eight years ago. Or, as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad observes at age seventy-two: Time “actually speeds up as you get older. It speeds up exponentially every month, every day, every hour.” She was quoted in New Yorker magazine’s review of the podcast, “70 Over 70.” Reviewer Rachel Syme observed we might seek wisdom from the old but not always find it. “[W]e’re all works in progress,” she concluded, “up to the very last moment.”

That “very last moment” once was so far distant I couldn’t see it over the horizon. Now it’s visible, flying fast in my direction. Life expectancy is declining in the United States — by one-and-a-half years in 2020. The average life span fell from 78.8 to 77.3 years. Looking at it another way, if you’ve made it past age seventy-seven, you’re into the bonus years!

Also on that seventieth birthday I was given a book, “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70.” I haven’t had time to read it yet. Flipping through, I spotted an essay by a social justice activist, Sandy Warshaw. She wrote: “My seventies have been a time of self-realization and self-actualization built on the foundation of the three decades before.” 

For most of us bonus-year recipients, those “decades before” produced scar tissue — physical and emotional. We’ve been there, done that, don’t need to any longer. We’re free to let go of stuff, of attitudes, judgments, grudges and fears.

“When you age, you become wiser in so many ways,” said the late Coretta Scott King at age seventy-four. “You make adjustments for having less stamina, but you know in your mind what you can achieve.”

Living fully in the bonus years is not the same as retirement. Many retired folks think they’ve “earned” a particular lifestyle, so charmingly illustrated in AARP magazine ads. All that golfing; traveling; sunny climes; and electrically powered, multi-position recliners. Bonus years are not what we’ve earned but what we’re given as a matter of grace.

Years ago, my late husband was studying life expectancy charts. Given the difference in our ages, he predicted I would live another twenty-two years after he died. He lived to age seventy-five, “graduating” (as a friend refers to death) in 2007. You do the math, because I won’t bother. All I need to know is, I’m alive and feeling good today. With grace, tomorrow will bring the same.

Simply Christmas

Old folks, I decided as a child, don’t know how to celebrate Christmas. I occasionally accompanied my parents visiting elderly church members, most of whom had no Christmas trees or decorations, no apparent interest in presents. Cookies, if offered, came from a tin and tasted weird.

Now after nearly eight decades of Christmases, I get it. At a certain age (varies for each of us), we let go of futile attempts to recreate the Christmas magic that can happen only when we’re children. 

When it comes to remembering childhood Christmases, no writer can outdo Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My memories of a child’s Christmas in Minnesota echo Thomas’s opening passage: “One Christmas was so  much like another … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

Probably both.

In my childhood, certain traditions were sacrosanct. The main course on Christmas Eve, in deference to my Swedish father, was the notorious Scandinavian seafood dish, lutefisk. It was the only meal of the year when we children were allowed to pass up what was placed on the table. As an adult, I finally developed a taste for the pickled-in-lye white fish, but where I live, it’s impossible to find.

My memories of unique Christmases have to do with presents — which for a child is the whole point. There was the year I was given a Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer lapel pin for my coat. His nose lighted up — a handy way to illuminate the hymnbook during our candlelight worship service. 

There was the year I received a much-longed-for doll with REAL hair. I immediately gave her a shampoo and set. As a result, every day was a bad-hair day for the rest of her existence.

There was the year the gift from my mother’s “rich” aunt arrived in a large carton, too heavy for just one person to lift. We kids were intoxicated with anticipation: it was the size of a TV console, and we were the only home in town without a TV. Or so it seemed. Finally, the moment arrived. As the carton was slit open, we spotted a lovely mahogany case, containing? 

An entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Even my adult Christmas memories have a childlike flavor, such as watching my husband meticulously place his favorite, bubbling lights on the lower branches of our tree where his tiny grandchildren could enjoy them.

Now my favorite Christmas present is the presence of Christmas. We open that gift simply by opening our hearts. Because my late husband was born on Christmas day, the high point of my celebration is laying a blanket of greens on his grave. Any self-respecting kid would roll her eyes, but that’s okay. Kids have important work to do, living the magic that will become precious Christmas memories decades from now.

The Joy of Solitude

A friend asked if I went on a silent retreat during Thanksgiving. True, I spent the week at Holden Village, a spiritual retreat center where I lived from 2011-2014. A former mining town high in the North Cascade Mountains, Holden was once described by a former director as “a retreat for extroverts.”

Holden Village dining hall decked out for the Christmas feast. (File photo from a previous year.)

I, like most people who live alone, have been on pretty much of a silent retreat since spring of 2020. I generally read during my silent, solo meals. Thanksgiving dinner in the Holden dining hall was served to about a hundred folks, all masked unless fork was en route to mouth. Masks did little to muffle the crowd’s chatter and musical laughter, accompanied by the percussion of clanging pots and pans in the kitchen and metronomic beat from the ping pong table in a corner of the large hall. Music less symphonic, more heavy metal rock to my ears. Unnerving, which is exactly why I needed to be there. Solitude had been getting altogether too comfortable. 

Last summer a few friends and I, gathered outdoors, admitted to each other that we were thriving in social isolation. We felt almost guilty, enjoying ourselves when many people are suffering and grieving. All of us in that group live close to nature. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I were stuck in an urban apartment with a view of concrete and asphalt. I know I’d feel differently if I didn’t have the companionship of my dog.

“Don’t fear solitude,” advised writer Paulo Coelho. “If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. But don’t get too attached to it — it may become an addiction.”

Besides which, snarked another writer, Erica Jong, “Solitude is un-American.” Indeed, we loners are under a lot of pressure not to enjoy solitude on that thoroughly American holiday, Thanksgiving. The pressure will only increase as we move toward Christmas, a day not even Scrooge was allowed to spend alone.

Being alone does not equate with loneliness, and loneliness is not the same as solitude, noted a lovely essay in Psychology Today — in 2003! That was long before “social distancing” became common to our vocabulary.

“Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation,” the magazine explained. “Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.” 

If solitude were to have a patron saint, a likely candidate would be Henry David Thoreau who observed, “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”

Even during my un-retreat, in between meals and various gatherings, I’d seek refuge in the solitude of my room, curled up with a good book. Much as I enjoyed meeting up with old friends at Holden and making new ones, I’ve gotta admit: the best part of the week was reuniting with my dog (he’d spent the week at the pet resort) and stepping into my house, embraced once again by my silent retreat. 

Thank you to Maxime Lagacé, whose web site, “Wisdom Quotes,” provided a few of the above quotes. Visit the site to read more pithy observations about wisdom.  

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.