Silent Tide

Surf foaming over feet

Puget Sound, Fort Worden

In the year after we moved into our building, we never met the reclusive white-haired woman down the hall, and then she was carried away on a stretcher and didn’t come back. Some months later, Arline offered to periodically check her apartment and run the faucets. In a co-op, everyone owns the whole building, so we have a communal responsibility. I followed as Arline went on her first visit.

Arline turned the key in the lock. The wood in the door frame had splintered when the medics broke in. The door opened to a dark, aquarium-blue room, the blinds closed to the afternoon sun. A walker stood near the door, no surprise, but beyond that was a tandem Rodriguez bicycle, a high-end custom brand that is made at the bike shop down the street and sold nowhere else in the world. Suddenly, a life sprang open like a paper accordion. She was not just a frazzle-haired old woman bent over a walker; she was an adventurer bike-rider who had pedaled the city with someone on the second seat. Who was that someone?

The dim, abandoned apartment made me shiver. I wanted to quickly move through every room, flicking on each light to make sure there were no moldering bodies, which made no sense because, of course, the owner had not died here but been rescued. She was presumably resting in a place where nurses regularly checked her pulse. Still, the apartment felt haunted.

It took me awhile to figure out why. On the dining room table were bird books and a pair of binoculars. Everywhere, there were birds: a ceramic owl, a dangling mobile of mallards, a framed sheet of bird stamps. In the second bedroom, two more bikes, single-seaters, hung on a rack. In the kitchen sink were her breakfast dishes.

The apartment was haunted by a living woman. She may not have ridden one of those bicycles lately, but she had surely lifted the binoculars to her eyes and looked through the dining room window at the trees along Ravenna Boulevard. Maybe she had been doing just that when her heart or her brain seized, or whatever had happened that had drawn the medics. And in a moment, she had been carried away from this life she had spent years making.

We returned to our apartment, and a heaviness settled. It wasn’t the things themselves that made me sad, the bicycles that gave evidence of a more robust life, the dangling mallards that must have made her smile. It was the sense of her things being set down with the intention of picking them up again. She had put down her binoculars. She had set her breakfast dishes in the sink. She had closed the book of birds. Later, her hands would grip the binoculars again, would wash those dishes, would open that book. But they didn’t.

Whenever I grieve for someone, I know I’m grieving for myself and for everyone I’ve loved and lost. Age spots, like fat freckles, have appeared on the backs of my hands. They remind me of my paternal grandmother, whose early-grey hair I inherited. I used to watch her spotted hands play the baby grand piano while I sang, “Lightly row, lightly row, o’er the glassy waves we go. Smoothly glide, smoothly glide, on the silent tide.” Twenty years ago, her hands stopped moving, and someday, so will mine.

A couple of years after Arline started checking the woman’s apartment, a city caseworker was assigned to manage her affairs. People moved out the ceramic owl, the bird stamps, and the breakfast dishes. Workers painted the walls and sanded the floor. And then we got word that she had died. The apartment no longer feels haunted.

But her birds and bicycles are out there. And somewhere there is a reel-to-reel tape of my grandmother and me. My grandmother’s hands make the notes, and my little girl voice trills the words. Into eternity our music glides, on the silent tide.

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Ghosts on Pinterest

The lovely team at Ooligan has made a Pinterest site for my book. How about that?

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Four Writers Writing

Writing Group 2011

Alma Garcia, Donna Miscolta, Jennifer D. Munro, and me in the back

The secret of my success? My writing group. Over on her blog, Straight-No-Chaser Mom, Jennifer D. Munro tells the story of how she joined the group and I started writing what would become The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. Happy Valentine’s, Writing Group. I ❤ you.

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December 31, 2014

IMG_1266

Miami Beach, December 2014

1
Lucy diagnoses Charlie Brown’s seasonal depression as pantophobia, fear of everything. Wikipedia’s definition: “a vague and persistent dread of some unknown evil.”

2
A coworker my age died unexpectedly last month. What started as a cough turned out to be stage four breast cancer that had metastasized to her lungs. Soon after she was diagnosed, she was gone.

3
Every death recalls every other death.

4
A good friend in Miami. Arline’s best friend from high school. Our black lab, Pogo. An elderly woman who lived in our building.

5
Every death recalls every other death.

6
Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. Israel Hernandez, tasered to death by Miami police for painting graffiti. John T. Williams, a carver of the Nitinaht tribe, killed by Seattle police for brandishing a carving knife.

7
Unknown evil? White supremacy holds tight. I have to look hard to see it at work in the world, listen hard to hear it. The excuse for the ideology of white supremacy is my safety.

8
Vague and persistent dread. Paralysis. Wariness. Withdrawal.

9
The end of the year comes.

10
A wise friend says: Out of every death comes a birth.

11
What slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

12
The daylight is lengthening, although it doesn’t seem to be lengthening. I pray for hope, a vague and persistent hope.

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New Publication: “At Fifty”

Cover of Outer Voices, Inner Lives

In this season of gratitude, I’m thankful for the editors, designers, publishers, and others who labor at making books. Reading and writing are what sustain me. You sustain me.

Thank you to Mark McNease and Stephen Dolainski for including me in this anthology, Outer Voices, Inner Lives: A Collection of LGBTQ Writers Over 50.

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Ghosts

MFA

Master of Fine Arts, 1991

The first words of the project that became The Ghosts Who Travel with Me were written in fall 2008. As the nights lengthened and darkness ate into my mornings and afternoons, I wrote free-form responses to chapters from Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, a book I had read and loved thirty years before. I wrote everyday, but I had no idea if anything readable would come of it. I was enjoying myself. Memories led to memories; sentences in the old paperback inspired new sentences.

I wrote without destination and I wrote what pleased me, but it’s never been possible to completely let go of the expectation that what I’m working on will someday develop into something worth sharing. And that means there is always an underlying anxiety that once again I am writing something that few will read. There is pleasure in the writing, for sure. But ultimately the goal is to reach readers. When a piece doesn’t get good enough, it’s disappointing.

The work of revision began in the winter. My computer folder has multiple versions of what I was then calling Trout Frying in America. It has an extremely short version that I thought might make an essay. It has outlines, plans, alternative openings, sections for my writing group, and a file called “extra usable stuff.” During one revision, I wrote each chapter title on a post-it note and put it on the wall of my work space. When I finally took the notes down, they left dirty rectangular outlines on the wall.

And still I wasn’t sure the manuscript could be good enough. My writing group said it could. I wanted to believe them.

So it is a surprise to suddenly have my team at Ooligan Press telling me it is good. My project manager, Ariana Marquis, posts to a blog about the process of publishing the book and says the most flattering things. I am, of course, happy. But it’s also strange to see my words and ideas move from the privacy of my computer folders to that big World Wide Web. I panicked before I submitted a final revision to Ooligan and made sure a few people mentioned in the manuscript got a chance to read it. I honestly hadn’t thought to run it by them before. I hadn’t thought the manuscript would ever get good enough that anyone besides my writing group would read it.

And now the paragraphs and chapters have begun to take on a feeling of inevitability, as if they were destined to be written the way they were. I can’t remember how my first draft began; how could it have begun anywhere else but as we were getting our coffee before heading for Idaho? I can’t remember the chapters that were jettisoned or which ones were written late in the process and massaged in. By the time the words are printed on paper, the previous versions will be ghosts. These, too, are the ghosts who travel with me: the sentences, the essays, the projects that never fulfilled their promise. And the versions of me who produced them. But without them, all of them, this book would never have been written.

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Reunion

Priest River bears

Bears like the Eagle’s Nest Motel in Priest River, Idaho. They lounge on the railings, shimmy up poles, and dangle from porch swings. We spent a couple of nights there this summer while attending a family reunion at nearby Diamond Lake, and all I could think was that someone with a knife – or chainsaw? – had had a really good time carving all those smiling bears. They made us laugh every time we came back to our room, even on the night when a storm had blown down trees, and we had to navigate the branch-strewn roads back to our motel in darkness.

One morning, Arline and I took a walk through Priest River and discovered a book sale at the town’s library. There were some good books there, but the one I chose was from 1981: Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man? The 20 Questions Men Ask Most Frequently about Women by Celia Halas, Ph.D. Those twenty questions included some beauties: “Why does she act so helpless?” “Why can’t she handle her emotions better?” But once I started reading the book, I discovered that the questions were a marketing gimmick; at the heart of the book was a plea for feminism: “Stop seeing ‘women’s liberation’ as a dirty word. Recognize that the women’s movement is not ‘out to get’ men. It’s purpose is to equalize power between the sexes to the benefit of the human race.”

I looked up Halas and found that in 1972, at age 50, she went back to school to earn her doctorate in counseling psychology. She joined the women’s movement and focused on counseling women. In a small Idaho town, in a small library, in a small room, I found a book, and in that book was the voice of a foremother.

Ancestral voices spoke throughout that weekend. I heard the calm, kind voice of my grandfather, who had built the family cabin, in the roof-beams and plank floors. I heard my grandmother’s easy conversation in the quilts and tole paintings hanging on the walls. Sunday morning, we gathered in a neighbor’s garage to remember them and the others who were not here to eat blueberry pancakes with us: uncles, an aunt, a cousin. For each of the departed, someone stood and told stories, and the tissue boxes were passed up and down the tables. And then we hugged and sang, and it seemed as if all our voices together made a song that every one of us had always sung and would always be singing, and the ones we could no longer see and touch were singing with us, and that was how we would hear them now, and that was okay; that was good. And then we got to those blueberry pancakes.

The night before, the storm had hit. My uncle had got word that a bad one was coming, and the neighbors offered their garage for our dinner, and just as fifty members of my family sat down to eat barbecue, the lights went out, and a fierce wind whipped up. Lanterns were lit. We heard a crash like glass breaking. The children were oblivious, digging into mac-and-cheese, but the adults shared worried looks and picked at their dinners. And then the wind was easing, we realized, and within an hour it was over. As soon as someone went outside, we discovered that a huge Douglas fir on our property had fallen – away from the cabin, away from the garage, and into the only empty space between nearby structures, missing even a small shed. It was a tremendous sight that Douglas fir with its branches heaved from the ground.

That night, Arline and I drove back to our motel and our cheerful bears. The clerk gave us an electric candle, and we poured wine. The electric candle was tiny, about the size of a stack of three quarters, and its light didn’t flicker like a real candle’s. But in the almost complete darkness of that small town, it was what we had. Our little light.

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