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

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.

Flood waters: A week of flow going

The normally placid Okanogan River that flows past my home decided to exert its authority this week, egged on by its major tributary, the volatile Similkameen. What, I wonder, makes a tributary a tributary, especially when the supposedly junior partner runs amok?

We on the U.S. end of these two international rivers have not been as adversely impacted as our neighbors in British Columbia. I’ve not been impacted at all other than hypnotized while watching the urgent flow of forceful currents.

Ordinarily, especially at this time of year, the Okanogan is one of the slowest moving rivers in Washington state. Its source is a series of lakes in Canada. The southernmost, Lake Osoyoos, ushers the river into the United States, after which it drops a mere 125 feet along seventy-seven miles to the mighty Columbia. Contrast that to its raucous neighbor, the Methow, which drops 1,740 feet in its final fifty miles to the Columbia. 

White water rafters prefer the Methow during runoff in spring, while the Okanogan plays host on hot summer days to inner tubers who lazily drift, often towing a floatable cooler. My husband and I used to keep a small motor boat in the river during high water months, usually April into June. At that time of year, there was just enough current to create a wee bit of white water upriver. John delighted in taking grandchildren to experience what they dubbed the “wimpy rapids.”

Canada geese scramble for higher ground as the river inundates their small island

At this time of year, the most frequent river residents are mallards and Canada geese, serenely riding the slow current. Their tranquility was rudely interrupted this week when the river began to gradually rise from its normal five-foot level. Suddenly, in forty-eight hours’ time, it skyrocketed to 15.48 feet, officially a flood.

All of this at the insistence of the Similkameen, which joins the Okanogan some forty miles or so north of my home and contributes seventy-five percent of its flow. I’ve tried to determine if there’s some kind of standard for distinguishing between a tributary and main channel. The best Google could offer was that a tributary feeds into a larger river. 

Well. The Similkameen at 122 miles has a seven-mile edge over the Okanogan’s 115 total. At their confluence, the Similkameen clearly has the greater volume, turning the Okanogan’s clear, lake-fed water muddy brown. My husband called it “Similkameen silt.” Shouldn’t this river (and the valley it created) be named Similkameen?

It’s futile to suggest. Our tourist industry, which spends beaucoup dollars promoting “Okanogan Country,” probably wouldn’t want to rebrand. Their website goes so far as to dismiss the Similkameen as a “small, scenic river,” about four miles long. Which brings up the question of where does a river actually begin, but we’ll ponder that at another time.

At least we’ve managed to retain an indigenous name, or something close to it. Maps created by early fur traders in the 1800s tried to name the river Caledonia, but the British Empire lost out. Okanogan is an anglicized version of the native term. In his book “Late Frontier,” historian Bruce Wilson tracked down fifty ways newcomers tried to spell the word that they were hearing natives speak. Attempts ranged from “Cachenawga” to “Otchenaukane.” Even the U.S. and Canada can’t agree on its spelling. In Canada, it’s the same river and valley but spelled O-k-a-n-a-g-a-n.

Similkameen reportedly means “treacherous waters” — true enough when flooding. The translation of Okanogan is “rendezvous” or “meeting place.” Yeah, probably better for tourism. By week’s end, as flood waters recede, I’m just happy to go with the flow.

What’s Real? The Stories We Tell Ourselves

While I was waiting to get my Pfizer booster vaccine, a thirtyish woman and and her male companion entered the small pharmacy. They were first-timers, there for the single-shot Johnson vaccine.

We briefly chatted in the waiting area until the pharmacist appeared, motioning me to the curtained alcove where the shots are dispensed. He was efficient and quick. I felt only the slightest prick in my left arm.

As I settled back in my chair for the recommended post-shot wait, the woman began to murmur how worried she was about getting the shot, how needles terrified her.

“I could pinch your arm and it would hurt more than that shot did,” I tried to assure her. To no effect. She claimed she was about to have a panic attack because of her dread of needles. I suggested that she go outside, remove her mask and take some deep breaths. She agreed, and I watched through the door as she stood on the sidewalk, gasping. Within seconds she returned, although now nearly hysterical.

Soon it was her turn behind the curtain. I was astonished to hear the pharmacist say, “Oh, what’s your tattoo?”

“A butterfly,” she answered. Moments later, she emerged, glaring at me.

“That was WAY worse than a pinch!” she complained.

She returned to her chair, and I scooted over next to her.

“I’m sorry if I’m being nosy, but I heard the pharmacist say you had a tattoo. How did you manage that?”

“I was drunk.” Made sense.

“It was a bet,” she continued. 

“Did you win or lose?”

“I won,” she said. She started to explain when the pharmacist showed up with her proof-of-vaccination card. She asked where she could get the card laminated. The pharmacist replied that it wasn’t a good idea to laminate the card because he wouldn’t be able to write on it if she needed a booster shot.

“I’M NOT GETTIN’ NO BOOSTER SHOT!” she shouted as she grabbed the card and headed out the door. “I wouldn’t have got THIS shot except for [insert profanity] Inslee …” That would be Gov. Jay Inslee and his vaccine mandate. Her words trailed off as the door swung shut.

She got me thinking about the stories we tell ourselves. We might tell ourselves we’re deathly afraid of something and then find a way to anesthetize our way around that fear. Or we might tell ourselves that we’re victims, helplessly pitted against someone or something more powerful. I wonder if this woman’s story would include intense pain in her arm and side effects from the vaccine so severe that she wouldn’t be able to work the next day. It’s all the [insert profanity] governor’s fault.

Reality is subjective — subject to the stories we tell ourselves. You know the cliche? “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!” Yet whenever I’m feeling unreasonably angry or unreasonably dejected or just plain unreasonable, most likely the fix is not “out there,” but in my own head. The story I’m telling myself could use a rewrite.

Just a pinch?