Blog Archive

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

For the story of how and why we moved, please take your time browsing these pages.  Then join me at my new blog, Wazoo Goes West.  Karibuni--welcome, all!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Last Bit

Our Penske truck loomed outside our house, parked illegally on the street by our red front gate.  Its back end gaped open.  I wasn't sure that we'd fill it, and I certainly wasn't sure we'd fill it in time.  We had to move everything that remained out of the house, which was, despite our sale and numerous ruthless clean-outs, still significant.  Then we had to clean--after moving into a series of dirty houses, I was determined to leave the house sparkling.  And we were a day behind schedule.  Our hotels were booked from Chicago to Montana, and there was no going back.

It was hot.  If you live east, close your eyes and remember July.  Got it?  Feel the sweat trickling down your back?

Martin was at the U, anxiously twiddling his thumbs while an IT guy wiped his computer clean, and I had snuck out to eat lunch down-town with friends.  Lunches with friends had become funny things of late.  Back when all looked clear for the next twenty years or so (our kids would go to school together, possibly but not probably fall in love, and we'd grow old in the long Pennsylvania summers), we'd chat easily about the endless details that sharing daily life affords.  But now, with the house in a constant state of upheaval and an impending move in the air, easy chat, though we tried for it, felt like a sailboat perched in denial on a rolling, stormy sea.  On board we were still toasting each other and eating finger food but we knew the storm, and the tossing overboard, and the ending-up-on-different-islands, was imminent.

All the same our lunch was good and we browsed through the Artisan's Shop afterward, just as if there was nothing pressing to do--no empty moving van, no house to empty and clean.

By three o'clock, the moving truck still looked mostly empty.  The reality of staying up most, if not all, of the night, seemed closer and closer when, around four o'clock, our community began trickling in the door in earnest.  Soon the house was full to bursting with people moving furniture, brandishing brooms and huffing down stairs with boxes.  And before you knew it, seven o'clock rolled around and there was only detritus left behind, a few wisps of us in the corners of echoing rooms, empty mantels and cupboards and drawers.

We sat on the floor in the kitchen and popped the cork from some champagne I'd been saving since my birthday, and then we filled plastic cups and stared at each other.  I raised my cup and bungled a toast:  "To the best friends a person could have," I said, and we drank up.  The children I'd known since they were in strollers, one since birth, tore around the empty rooms in the tricycle and little car I'd left out until the last minute.

Martin raised his cup:  "When we first moved here," he began (oh!  An articulate toast!  Bully for him), "Next to the coal mine, when the black dust covered our windowsills, I said, 'We'll give it one or two years, tops, and then we'll be out of here.'  But soon that year turned into a plan to stay for twenty years, and we were happy about it.  We have all of you to thank for that.  Of course now our plans have changed again, but we love you all and thank you for being part of our lives."

At this point I whipped out the tequila and we finished that off--but there wasn't that much left after all--and I began to feel the reality of what was happening sink in just a bit.  That's what happens when you sit down at the end of a day--you can go, go, go, but then when you stop, what's real is still waiting for you.  And what was really waiting for us now was goodbyes.

Sally had asked us to cry just once before we left, and it turns out that wasn't hard at all.  But as grief can so easily slip into sentimentality, let me skip to the next morning, on our way out of town.

Perched high on the seat of that Penske truck, we surveyed the mess the raccoon had left in front of our house.  We'd just watched the garbage collectors take the twelve or so enormous bags of garbage that stretched from one fence post to the next but they had not deigned to scoop up the disgusting trail of raccoon leftovers. 

We never had caught the raccoon--I called him Rocky--who intermittently disturbed our garbage and whom, one day, I'd seen meandering thorough the garden, apparently shooting the breeze with our well-fed groundhog.  We'd generally opted for a "live-and-let-live" philosophy with the considerable wildlife that kept Wazoo buzzing along, and now Rocky Raccoon had enjoyed the last laugh.

By this time, too much crying had rendered a splitting headache, so every time I bent over to pick up another used, chewed bathroom item, my head felt as if it were going to explode.  But finally the front lawn was clean and Martin turned the key and the Penske shuddered to life.  We pulled away from our curb and left town far behind, sped past the sheep grazing on the hill bisected by a new gas pipeline, looped through the densely forested roads up to a ridge, past familiar farms.  Finally the road spat us onto the Interstate and we were well and truly on our way west.

I shared a generous squirt of hand sanitizer with Martin.  We rubbed our palms hard to free ourselves from raccoon and garbage.  "Somehow that seemed appropriate," I reflected.  Our last act in our beloved, imperfect home had been cleaning up biohazard trash from our front yard.  It wasn't a stylish exit, but it was perfect for us, an act of service to the critters who will live on in our garden long after we settled somewhere else far away. 

And we aren't stylish people, either--we live as fully as we can, love people with as much energy as we can muster, and collect in the warmth and comfort grace and love brings to us.  In the end, we were filled with thanksgiving, more than we could express fully to those who deserved it, and who could have asked for more than that?

And so the miles fell behind us and the tight hills of Pennsylvania unwound into plains, and the plains broke into buttes.  Four days and thousands of miles later, a scrabbly desert burst into mountains.  But that's another story.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Just a note:  The post, below, turned out to be terribly long.  I'm not sure if it's interesting or as dull as pocket-lint.  In any case, Notes. . .is winding down.  One more post, I think, and then I'll hip-hop over entirely to Wazoo Goes West.  So please, in a day or two, consider subscribing over at that blog.  I'd hate to lose all of you when I move.

Also, at the urging of some, I'm thinking over turning Notes from Wazoo Farm into a book.  I have a few other pots bubbling right now, but I'd love for you all to mull, too, about what you've loved best about Wazoo.  Which posts,  which story-lines, which bits and baubles?  I'd love your input, and thanks, all of you, for being such wonderful readers.
Here's what I wrote, hunkered down at the kitchen table on the day of the big sale--the grand shave of all our worldly possessions--on a shopping list pad, in between totalling purchases.  I was feeling under the weather (think of the book The Red Tent; that's where I should have been hunkered with a cup of herbal and a good book) and Martin was stationed outside, so it was just me, mighty I, in charge inside.  The main floor of the house (except the kitchen where the 'check-out' was), the porch, and the sizable driveway overflowed with everything from furniture to books to our Ford truck.  And it got busy, busy, busy.  We'd advertised in the paper and posted signs all over town.  In hopes of bringing in more earnest buyers, I'd posted adverts for an ESTATE SALE, GOOD PRICES. . .but Martin informed me that you can't have an estate sale unless someone has died.  Our particular endeavor, he said, was a MOVING SALE.  But it was too late.  So outside I'd thumbtacked a huge sign reading, MOVING/ESTATE SALE (NOBODY DIED).  Before we'd drunk our first cup of tea early in the morning, the first buyers had pushed by our barrier and were asking about prices.

Here's my constantly interrupted write-up, spanning about eight hours:
*     *      *     *
There's a big sale going on and I am in the kitchen wishing I were elsewhere.  How strange to have your house filled with people buying your things!  I have--count them--six signs in the kitchen telling people nothing in here is for sale and yet a few people keep wandering in, asking--yes!--if anything is for sale.  SIGNS, people, SIGNS.  Martin, bless him, is outside working the crowd.  A lady just told me it's supposed to rain this afternoon, so she, and I, hope that our stuff is sold by then.  Otherwise there will be a lot of soggy books.  I wish Martin and I could communicate by mental telepathy.  He just came through on a mission with a phone to his ear.  Martin says MADNESS OUTSIDE so I am very glad that I am inside--albeit alone--after all.

9:42.  Much of the less expensive furniture has been hauled off at a bit of a discount.  It's better not to think of how much one paid, originally, for items.  It's certainly best to get thing gone as fast as possible. . . .I just had this absolutely absurd urge to keep a black cat candle holder for Halloween.  Maybe I'll nab it and--I DID nab it--and take it out this October and WONDER why I saved it from being sold!  It was hand-made in India, after all.  I will pay myself a dollar for it. 

Someone just bought the giraffe book-end and the jade good luck charm that our foreign-exchange student from Hong Kong gave us.  All the mattresses [our guestroom beds which we gave away] are gone now.  The queen got taken by two fellows, one very tall one in a sleeveless T-shirt with luxurious, long, curly hair--"Y'uns leaving Greene County?"  he said, and addressed me as "Miss" which I thought was quite nice and archaic, really. 

Quarter after ten and I am very warm but the house is just a big lighter.  I just gave away three books to a rather nervous young Elementary Education major who had a lovely smile after she began talking.  IKEA bookshelf is gone!  Someone sat on the twin leather chairs and seemed to like them but decided not to buy.  The camping mats are gone to a hunter-looking fellow who seemed a little doubtful about the rock-bottom price (how could I go any cheaper?)  For a minute, all is quiet. 

10:32.  An older lady with a cane just picked up the mop [almost new with a big new bottle of cleaner--I wasn't selling anything nasty, promise] and put it down again.  10:42.  A woman loved the big white mirror from Texas but decided against it.  I had high hopes because she looked like a hippie.  Microwave cart and bookshelf, gone!  Drying rack is gone.

Martin says to stay firm on prices but I just want to get rid of everything and see it all go to good homes.  Otherwise, we'll just end up giving it away anyhow.  A man with a prosthetic leg walked in--"Just lookin'!"  Wonder if he'll find anything that interests him?  How about some doilies? Four wine glasses?  An antique shabby chic mirror?  He found the poker chip set--still almost new--I bought Martin some years back.  Turns out that we don't play poker all that much and you don't need to ante up for Scrabble.

I have been smiling and being pleasant to beat the band.  Martin, by his account, is a total stickler and does not back down on prices.  I cannot say the same for myself.  The old woman who bought the mop--her husband held it at arm's length and said, "Don't we have these all over the place?"  Mops?  How many mops does she have?

I think we should slash down everything by half and move it out of here.  A lovely woman just poked her head in and told me her daughter used to live in Seattle but now she's in New Orleans.  It's so hot today, I can just imagine what it's like in New Orleans.  Just let the drop-leaf desk go for ten dollars under.  Sold the small antique table, some lamps, a couple of pretty plates.

The amoire--the beast--must go!!!  An older woman just walked in with a wad of chewing tobacco in her cheek.  Martin is "trolling" as he calls it.  How much is the bike trailer?  What is the Pack 'n Play?  Lots of stuff still for sale, Martin is telling a man, but no corner stands, which is what the guy's looking for.  Somebody wants to trade our truck for his motorcycle.  "I don't do motorcycles," Martin told them.  I'm getting reading to just pack this stuff up and take it to Goodwill.  Two more folks coming up the front stairs.  11:55.  Boredom sets in.  At some point I'll have to eat.

People are comforted by chatting about the weather.  "It's a hot one," a woman just said, no exclamation mark, just flat.  That last stair to the front porch is a real doozy.  An older woman just struggled up it and into our living room where she collapsed on our front porch.  Sold the mirror to a young couple for half the price.  He said he's going to hang it over the couch and I warned him repeatedly to anchor it--it's huge--so it won't brain anyone.  He's a former boxer and looks rather tough so hopefully he really knows how to anchor.

4:07.  Not much left.  The amoire is still there.  It will never leave apparently and we will have it in our driveway forever.  Lots of looking from a family of ten from Arizona who has bought the notoriously huge but beautiful historical home on Sherman Avenue and High Street with the stained glass window.  Wow, Martin is so great at chatting with strangers.  I am tapped out at the moment.  Just sitting here, having my period and watching the house empty out. . .too bad the family from Arizona is squeezed into a tiny apartment in West Virginia--is that legal?--while they wait for the house.  Oh, man, I could really use a cool shower.  At some point we will have to shut down but for now, here I sit, hiding. . .again, and counting the money.  We made over a thousand dollars!

*    *   *   *
We ended up finally selling the amoire for a song to a single mom with two kids who offered to take anything else we wanted to give them.  The daughter followed me around, asking "Can I have that?  What about that?"  as I unstrung the curtains and piled things for them in the corner of the driveway.  The family settled down on the furniture there and the mom smoked and waited for a brother and his pick-up but I couldn't make any more small talk.

At last, I shut our front door and locked it.  The house echoed.  It's amazing how you can lighten yourself in one day, let go of a thousand things that you held onto for almost a decade.  And nobody misses any of it, bar Bea who noticed her little telephone has mysteriously disappeared.  I promise myself never to accumulate like that again.  Freedom is a more wonderful thing and the getting-rid-of process is such hard work.

The day after the sale, a couple of people dropped by to check out a few remaining pieces on the porch.  As I spoke with them about my antique banker's table where I'd done years of writing, I realized I was seeing only half of each their faces.  I couldn't really tell what they looked like, because I could view either their noses and eyes or their mouths and chins.  Then my vision completely dissolved into waves--a classic migraine, which I used to suffer through frequently in high school but now only get during periods of extreme stress, like the time I fell down the stairs when I was pregnant.  I lay down with my eyes tightly shut, turned on the air conditioning, and tried to forget where I was.  Four days later, we would truck out our remaining belongings and head west--and we would still be surprised by how much we had kept.

The money from the sale went to new bikes when we reached Washington.  And the truck?  Our beloved old Ford stayed "in the family," so to speak--Tonya and John bump around the ridge with it, and their girls have found "Ole Bessie's" wide bed a perfect perch from which to swing from the barn rafters.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

One big farm house packed to the gills
+ one moving van
+ small house at destination
(X astronomical gas prices)
=one huge moving sale

This was an equation even I, math-challenged as I am, could figure out.  Martin and I gave ourselves one week to fly back to Pennsylvania and (sans kids) unleash a fury of fixing, cleaning, selling, and packing on our big old Dutch Colonial.

When we walked in the doors, our home smelled the same, of herbs and sleep and rich old wood.  The stairs wound up to the second floor as they always had, and at the top, the childrens' beds were made, ready for their travel-weary bodies to slip between the sheets.  But they weren't with us, and Martin and I gazed at our house--everything clean, everything in its place--and thought of the work that lay before us.  We gazed up at our ceilings where the electrician had rewired the house in our absence, and big holes in the plaster gaped back at us.

The very next day we dismantled the childrens' rooms.  Then we plunged onto the rest of the house.  That week felt like a dream, punctuated by sweet breaks with friends, a last dinner at our favorite sushi restaurant and a midnight trip to Walmart to collect packing boxes.  I realized that the west had already made me soft; the massive, dirty trucks that have clogged the county's streets since the gas boom and the poverty that marks the hilly, green county that we grew to love so well shocked me again.  The houses of my friends and our garden, nearing the peak of summer color, spoke of home but didn't quite feel like home.

Early in the week Sally dropped into our house, a mess of cardboard boxes and plaster dust, and before she left she said, "I want to see you people cry just once before you leave."

Of course we'd grieved plenty by this time, but as a veteran mover--I've moved sixteen or more times now--I know you can't pack up a house and cry at the same time.  You have to be able to see the teacup you're wrapping, damn it.  You pack like crazy and then you leave yourself a little space to let the transition sink in before you jump into the next world--a couple hours at the end to say goodbye, goodbye to the house and your friends and all the goodness that has surrounded you like a choir of voices.  But the packing and the moving is hard work and you have to be wiry and go back to your peasant roots and show a little sisu, as my muscular Finnish ancestors would say.

My parents call this in-between space--and so I've come to think of it--"the wood between the worlds."  You Narnia buffs, you know what I'm describing; in The Magician's Nephew, Digory and Polly slip the evil uncle's rings on their fingers and find themselves splashing up through a shallow pond into a forest.  The world--which has a series of ponds, or pools, is comforting in a way--it makes you a bit sleepy and complacent, but there's a feeling of discomfort, too, as if you're not quite anywhere specific, but in a waiting place.  You're neither here or there but somewhere else all together.  Digory and Polly must plunge into another pool to access the next world, full of adventures (frightening or pleasant). 

I have been in dozens of woods between worlds, and the feeling is one of waiting, caught up in suspense between one reality and the next.  It always feels as if I'm dreaming (almost jetlagged) and if I have to wait too long in the wood between, I begin to feel lost and frustrated.  So I take a breath, grope toward the next pool, hold my nose, and plunge in.

In our wood between the worlds, we had to cut all our belongings in half or more.   We'd done much of that already; we'd excised about 2/3 of our books, clothes, toys, and miscellany.  The furniture had to be rooted through, our beloved old pick-up sold, and our house still felt as if it were at capacity.  Ah, sigh.  I began to think it would be a relief if the house burned to the ground.  We'd book a flight back and arrive completely unencumbered.

And that was a pretty good rule of thumb, in the end.  If the house burned down, what would we miss?  The answer was, not much.  We tried to marry that somewhat reckless rule with the check of practicality (don't burn the mattresses; they are too expensive to replace), and then we began pricing the house.  Soon the entire first floor, the porch, and the driveway were jammed with things we no longer wanted.  Too much stuff had become a price to pay for freedom, for the wind at our backs and our feet shaken free of the wretched dust (the untimely, sad end to a job) that still clung to our feet. 

Now we only needed to sell it all, and that I dreaded more than anything, not because I didn't want to see it go, but because selling my own stuff makes me skin-crawlingly uncomfortable.  (Once we listed a couch on Freecycle and when a family came to pick it up, I made the children hide with me under a table so we wouldn't have to face them.  There was nothing wrong with the couch; it was a great giveaway.)  I just have a paralyzing sort of embarrassment about passing on my stuff.  Maybe it was growing up in developing countries.  Maybe I feel guilty about owning things.  Whatever it is, it made me hate the upcoming sale--which was necessary for our resettlement elsewhere--with a vengeance. 

In the end, I made it through by writing a running narrative on a shopping list pad while two hundred people or so tromped through our house.  I'll include the best bits in the next post.  

Thanks for rehashing it with me.  Soon we can all move west.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There's nothing to make you fully present in a place than killer exercise.  I couldn't resist writing the present today. . .check out Wazoo Goes West HERE.  I'll be back here again soon. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

So, to pick up from yesterday. . .

We began to think about leaving.  How do I begin to describe the mixture of emotions that accompanied our choice to pack up one year early?  Elation, grief, a dogged determination to work hard and quickly, dread, hope. . . .

The worst part was telling our community.  I thought we'd wait for a few days until details began to settle more quickly but I couldn't stand it.  I'm a terrible secret-keeper generally--secrets (unless they're pleasant ones, delicious to hide away until a joyful revealing) crush me like a cider press, work me like gears, until I yield them up.  And so the day after we reached home, Sally came over and I felt as if I would crack in two if I didn't tell her and get it over with. 

You must understand that Sally and I have seen each other every day for the past five or six years.  Beatrix reminds me if I forget ("I want to go to Will's--her best buddy ever--house!") but there's not much chance I could forget a constant source of sanity, irreverent humor, and tender compassion that comes in the form of my friend Sal.  She kept my life in order, reminding me of forms that were due, snack times I promised to provide and would have missed, children I forgot to pick up at preschool, and she told me the truth when it needed telling.  One especially kid and cleaning and monotonous morning I doubled over on her floor in tears: Surely there's more to life than this!  I cried. . .she consoled me and then she sent me downstairs to run on her treadmill, which did me a world of good. 

We were not of the mall-crawl moms.  We did the occasional lap around our local Walmart in the winter when all was dreary and there was no other place to go, but our days subsisted of cups of tea and library trips and watching her son, Will, dress in Bea's pink pjs and Bea dress in Will's cars pjs.  Dressing in each other's pjs was an especially highlight for our kids and they usually got busy doing just that the moment they stepped over the other's threshold.

When I was gone on the west coast during our dear friend, Nancy's passing, Sally sat with Nancy every day, rubbing her back and keeping up a flow of cheer that I wished I had been there to help provide.  I'll never forget how she told me that she was there for both of us, and when I arrived home, too late to say goodbye to Nancy in person, we cried and laughed and ate and then we cleaned Nancy's room together.  We cleaned each other's kitchens, cooked together, huffed up hills, red-faced and cursing, to try to lose a little winter weight.  She drove me on endless interviews through the winding roads of Greene County and I believe I probably owe her about a thousand dollars in gas.  She was my companion through the crazy, bizarre, hilarious, and trying young-children days.  Our families knew each other in the daily sort of way families used to and I have yet to meet more generous, sacrificial people.  We made it together until our children were in preschool, and for that I am grateful.

But I was the luckiest of all women, for I had other dear friends, too, who bound me up day after day and filled my life with the peculiar scents of their personalities and. . .also somewhat irreverent humor (there's a link here--you can't make it through parenthood without somewhat wicked friends).  Tonya is a bad-ass farm girl who butchers her own chickens and smacks rabid possums upside the head with flashlights.  She lives up on a ridge in Greene County and manages a passel of chickens, two cats, two daughters, endless laundry (of course she hangs it all up to dry on a quarter-mile laundry line), a rotating schedule of canning and preserving and freezing, an enormous garden, a part-time P.A. career, and punctual thank-you notes and social events.  She also home-schools and hunts. 

I spent one lovely evening with her up in a tree blind.  I was there to record the experience (the sound of a stream, the autumn colors, the smell of leaves) and she was there to blow the brains out a doe.  That evening, I left her crashing into the dense undergrowth in her orange vest, a rifle under her arm.  I am not joshing you.   Tonya's from good, work-til-you-bleed Mennonite stock and her house and yard is always neat as a pin.  You would think all of this would equal a totally crazed, secretly bitter woman, but it doesn't.  I love spending time with Tonya.  She's ruthlessly honest about herself and her life.  I am about to scream, she will tell me on the phone.  Do you think it's too early for Kahlua?  Needless to say one of my favorite things to do with Tonya (and her dear husband John) is drink and eat late into the evening until I almost feel sick but mostly feel blissful and sated.

Then there's Michelle, a ravishing beauty who, on her first visit to our house, sat down fully clothed on our homemade slip-in-slide and scooted down our hill to the bottom.  When I first met her at a University picnic, a fly-accompanied affair where I usually smile at people until my jaw aches, I felt that instant draw that I will occasionally feel with a potential dear friend.  My mother describes the feeling as souls leaping toward each other.  I dropped off a bouquet of herbs at her house and we--and our families--were wonderful friends from then on.  It was with them that we fixed homemade truck balls to the back of Sally and her husband, Kevin's car, and it was with her that I heard the most revolting stories of her PA experience.  I oft liked to ask her: What is the grossest thing you did today?  I liked affirming my choice never to dabble in any of the medical professions.  She took Sal and me to New York City, showing us how to move with alacrity through the subway and sharing a steaming cup of hot chocolate spiked with cayenne.  The only time she left us in that metropolis was to duck into a disappointingly-well-lit palm reader's to do a little research about how palm reading is done.  Sal and I stood outside, shivering and watching.  Maybe there's more of an art to it generally, but mostly it was a useless counseling session where Michelle was informed she'd be happy for the rest of her life.  And so I hope she will be.

There was Nancy's precious family; her children who I'd promised Nancy I'd love and care for, most specifically, her daughter Catherine, who spent much of her time at our house and had become a fourth daughter to me, bound up in my heart with my love for Nancy and my trust that I had been in the right place at the right time to wrap up Catherine in tenderness.  I couldn't understand why the non-tenure had happened, why we were being moved on from a place that seemed, for all purposes, like a place we were needed.

 And there were more good women and men and children who wove our lives up into a fabulously diverse, wonderful rope of goodness that kept us truly safe.

So that morning I sat with Sally on the porch as our kids ran from inside the house down the stairs and back again with brimming cups of water (they were making a pond or something) and I said, "I have news and I don't know how to tell you."

Her face immediately fell.  "Just tell me," she said.

"We're leaving a year early," I said, and then we both started crying.  "Are you angry with me?"  I asked.

"Of course I'm not," she said, and then we sobbed for a while.

I told Tonya on the phone and she was surprisingly calm, but then she told me later that's what PAs are trained for, and that she'd scrapped her work for the afternoon and sat on her porch, watching the sky.

Michelle looked me straight it the eye.  "Why?"  she asked, and I explained,  and nobody slept well for a while, especially because others we loved received notice, too.  It seemed that with one fell swoop our lovely, beautiful community had been mangled.

But, as I so often told Martin, big powerful people can only take so much away from you.  They can make you move and shake up your world but they can't change what's deeply true about you--and here, buckle up for a Disney moment--they can't take away your love for one another.  Our community poured more generously than ever into our preparations to leave.  From the time our house went on the market, it was under contract in two weeks.  Care for our children (my family in Washington) was already in place, so we made two trips across the US, one with the children and then another--just Martin and me--with our very pared-down possessions in tow.

I have a few favorite memories of leaving.  One is the night that Martin was gone doing a two-week job in Kentucky right before our first house-showing.  Our friends turned up just in time and we worked on our massive yard for hours, cleaning, trimming, mowing, tidying and tying up trash while our children played.  Then when twilight finally began settling in, just before the fireflies began to prick the darkness that collects down at the Black Walnut tree, we all sat in the yard and drank wine together.  Michelle's husband, Noah, said, "This is a beautiful piece of land.  I'd jump at it if I were looking to buy."

"It's like a park," I agreed.  "Maybe we'll stay here forever."  And then I laughed--a good belly laugh, not a thin, bitter laugh--because we weren't staying forever.  Our move had been decided, and for those of us who were staying behind. . .well, nobody stays anywhere forever, do they?

And that's what it is when you really love a group of people.  Grief turns easily to work and work together yields laughter, and joy, too.  And you take that with you wherever you go.

Monday, September 10, 2012

It strikes me that perhaps I should give a brief overview of the events of the past few months.  In many ways, it seems as if magic has dropped us in this little red house, trimmed in wisteria, just a walk away from the water.  On clear days the Olympics, framed by cedars, rise dark above the bright glimmer of Poulsbo's harbor. . .but that is for later.

Here, on this page, at least for a while, I am still at Wazoo Farm, though that beloved, rambling, hard-won old house and yard belongs now to two young women, who, on their free time, have been refinishing the floors and doing who-knows-what. . .there was always another job, or two, or six, waiting.  So let me back up: it's early-June, and a hot early-June it is, too.

As most of you know, in a series of most unfortunate, rather awful events that had nothing to do with his excellent work or much-loved reputation, Martin did not receive tenure, and this signalled to us the beginning of an end.  As some of his beloved colleagues began to lose their jobs as well, we realized that the University was taking a road we could never, ever walk (at this point, the decision had been made for us anyway, so in a way, that was a great relief).  It became harder and harder to live in a town where we had invested everything with feeling that our departure, and the sale of our house, and all the work that leaving such a life would entail (mentally and physically) was imminent.  Indeed it hung over us like a great heavy cloud.

We also realized that Martin's "sabbatical" year, for which we'd been tentatively planning, was suddenly upon us: a full year, at full pay, without any teaching obligations.  We'd talked of travel and spending time near family; now there was no promise of work at the other end--so why not have the adventure we'd been dreaming of?

We came to all these conclusions, at the same time, silently and independently, on a hike in the mountains of West Virginia.  The weather had been utterly sweltering and our lovely old home had no air-conditioning. Every time I looked out the window at our garden I despised it and all the work it entailed; it was so longer ours, it seemed, but we were still responsible for readying it--and the whole house--for someone else.  We'd planned, of course, on pouring the next twenty years into it; now we had a year. 

Our house was bursting with house guests, one of whom was in a life-changing crisis.  A woman had verbally abused us on our front doorstep and threatened us and the police had awakened us one morning at one o'clock.  (That's a whole story unto itself).  We hadn't spent any quality time with our children in goodness knows how long and we felt unbraided and unravelled.  So we escaped.  We packed our car and drove up into the mountains and stayed in a little forest-service cabin, our first family vacation in what seemed like years.  I hadn't been able to do any work so I planned to pack my laptop and squeeze in some good writing time, but Martin was adamant: no technology.  No computer.  No phone.  Only a few games, our swimming suits, and groceries. 

The first evening, after unpacking, Martin took the girls down to the swimming pool.  The evening was cool and I searched around under the maples and oaks for kindling.  Then I built a fire, sat back, and stared at the flames.  Inside I felt a great knot, one that I'd felt looping and tightening in February, when Martin received his letter, finally beginning to loosen.  I hadn't known it was there.  I fixed a simple dinner in the tiny kitchen; I made the beds in the two rooms.  Everything smelt of wood and woodsmoke.  There was no noise.  The girls came home, happy and flushed, and soon we were eating together around the chunky, awkward wooden table.  We played a game and drank hot chocolate.  That night I read a book silently with Martin in front of the fire. 

I realized I hadn't spent such a simple, wonderful evening with my family in many months.  Our house, our schedules, our hearts and minds--they had been full and frantic, so good and blessed, a basket always overflowing, that this evening felt almost ascetic, as if we'd walked out of a bizarre and fabulous and noisy carnival into a monk's cell.

The next morning we hiked together.  The day was overcast, the path sylvan and full of wonder.  We meandered around deep seas of green moss and gnarled, old roots that tumbled and twisted over each other.  Here and there we found smooth, grey rocks balanced on top of each other in piles, and it seemed to us that other-worldly creatures, not hikers, had stacked them there.  A wooden bridge curved over a clear sandy bank, crisscrossed by a clear stream. At the turning-about point, an impossibly large boulder balanced on a tiny rock.  Then, at the very end of our hike, we found a thousand piles of zen rocks, all balanced perfectly.  We stacked our own.  Martin and both knew--independently--exactly what we must do.

On the way back to our cabin, I looked at Martin.  "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"  I said in a low voice.  I didn't want the children to hear.

"I think I am," he said.

Sure enough, on the way home as the children slept, we began to plan our departure.  It would be a quick, easy escape from all the heartbreak but it would be a tearing wrench to leave our community, whom we loved as our own family, behind.  But the more we spoke, the more we realized that a flight northwest, thousands of miles away and without a long term job waiting for us, was an inexorable reality.   For our family, for ourselves, for reasons we couldn't even articulate.  We'd been planning to spend our lives invested in one place; we'd been released from those plans; we felt God's loving but insistent boot in our rears and felt the wind from an open door.  Take as little as you can and leave as fast as you can.  Go.  You're released from all this goodness and heartache; there is new good waiting for you.  Go.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Today, in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, I peeled and chopped tiny yellow apples, a crop the girls and I had piled into Bea's bike basket days before at our nearby communal orchard.  I added peaches that were so ripe the skin slipped easily under a hot stream of water, and I broke them into a pot with my fingers.  The girls scooped up a pile of windfalls from our own apple tree and I added them, too, still hard and green.  As the sauce simmered and filled the house with a familiar heady scent, I thought of long mornings in Pennsylvania, a bushel of apples between my feet, bent over the peeler as I chatted with Nancy Thompson and we sipped tea.  I thought of winding through roads swept with yellow leaves with my friend Tonya (or Sonya, as she appeared in my columns), on our way to the local apple and peach orchard. 

I think, too, of a brilliant day when the sky was the color of my daughter's eyes, swinging myself up into an apple tree not far from town as Sally (or Sal, as she appeared in my columns) snapped photos of our children.

Our little house smelled wonderful and as my sister and brother-in-law, my cousin, my nieces and nephews and my own family spilled in the door from the chilly outdoors, I relished sharing it with them.  This process--harvesting, cooking slowly, eating together--the smelling and the stirring, the sugaring and the spicing--all of it recorded my belonging in a new place.

Tonight, stepping out of a hot shower, I looked in the mirror and read much of my life on my body: a series of maps that trace my daughters' first growth as they stretched and pushed from inside my belly.  I suddenly realized that each day in my life never feels truly finished unless I've processed it somehow, and as a writer, I do that by recording, by mapping.  When life is busy, I write the stories in my mind in a quiet moment, but that feels incomplete.  Settling myself here, then, must mean that I have to return to this place to find these words and share them with you. 

Writers often advise their students to let a life-changing experience stew for a while.  Walk around it slowly, smell it, taste it, let the flavors mingle.  Then offer it up.  I've waited for a few months now.  We're well and truly moved, but so much of my soul lingers behind.  How will I center myself in this new place?  Write, write, write.  It's time.  Thanks for waiting.

"Wazoo Goes West" will wait as I find a way to leave "Notes From. . ." behind.  Bodily, I left it some time ago, but the recording must still be done.  I'll try for as long as I can stand it and then I'll move on.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

More to come, but for now, read my last column for the Observer-Reporter by clicking HERE.

Changes are imminent, transitions are afoot, and the end of chapter still needs to be written.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Beatrix & Bouquet May 2012

Now, in the great tradition of "Beatrix and Bouquet Photos",

which I began shortly after Bea was born,

here are a few new ones:
 The difference, now, of course, is that Bea is picking the bouquets.  I used to lie her down or prop her up by the bouquets I arranged.  Things have changed.  Bea is the main supplier of freshly cut flowers for our house.  She has an impeccable eye for color.  Yesterday she brought in a bouquet compiled entirely of different shades of purple. . .beautiful.
For the early Beatrix and Bouquet photos, click HERE or visit the category link in the list, below right.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Happy Land

I sat down hoping to share with you.  But I'd prefer to share not my words, but my cookies.  All the gingersnaps our friend and once-student Natalie (who is staying with us for a month or so) and the girls made, the vegan chocolate cake (safely covered on the back porch) for a dear friend and precious colleague of Martin's, and the banana bread waiting in its foil for breakfast tomorrow.  These are my offerings for today.  I have little to offer in the way of words but I have a lot to feed you.

So I'll clip another little e-mail that my mother wrote to Merry and let that suffice for this evening. 

Grandaddy and I went to Happy Land this weekend.  We went for a walk and ended up there…lot’s of slimy mossy green water with boats with duck heads that you pedal to make it go.  It was lots of fun; it cost us about 30 cents to get in and another dollar to rent the boat.  There were funny statues that we will send you pictures of. 

Fancy a trip to Happy Land?  It will only cost you a mere thirty cents, which doesn't seem like anything to us--but from my quick research, is far too expensive for most Burmese families to afford.  If your daily wages are less than a dollar a day, Happy Land is not going to be on your agenda.  I did find a photo HERE.  Pretty crazy.

 Martin and his father worked on our 3/4 acre today, mowing and weed-whacking until they could barely walk straight.  But this last bit from my mother's e-mail certainly puts things into perspective:

Today I went a lovely long walk first thing in the morning, because it gets hot early in the day.  There were lots of people cutting grass…all with scythes, long knives, no lawn mowers here.  Can you imagine if your mom and dad had to cut your big yard that way?  And then there were women wearing bamboo hats who squatted down with smaller knives and went inch by inch pulling up each weed in the lawn.  They do that every day, all day long; they put kind of white paint on their faces so that the sun won’t turn their skin dark.  I carried an umbrella even though it wasn’t raining, to shade me from the sun.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Two hours of editing is nothing.  Two hours of writing is even less.  Sometimes I feel as if I could write for about twelve hours straight.  For about twelve months straight.  But, alas, and hallelujah too, school is almost over and soon my beautiful girls will be home with me.  All day.

Right now I have, at the most, five minutes to scribble a blog post.  Let me begin with Rilke's line, or the imperfect remembered version:  "Though we strain against the deadening grip of daily necessity, we sense this mystery: all life is being lived. . ."

This morning, robin's song.  Sunlight caught by curtain.  A yellow butterfly among the climbing rose, just now bursting with deep pink blooms.  Blue paths in a cloudy sky, the passing roar of cars outside, the hum of a lawnmower.  All life is being lived, a million lives just outside in the garden, and so many more in widening circles from this one point, where Martin and I sit and record more unfolding life, the life of characters--fourth grade Maple Mullihan who must try to find her talent, must find the key to the locked door that leads to the extraordinary.  Across from me, Martin ignites word after word on a blank white page, tending the many tiny flames that make a poem.

And now my minutes are up, and I must go and make myself presentable for the world, shake off the cloak that quiet writing wraps me in, put on my company face.  Two hours, such a very short time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Perched on a Strand of Buddha's Hair

Picture from Wikipedia--The boulder is covered with gold leaves adorned by devotees.  Read more about this amazing pagoda and its mythical story by clicking HERE.

From my parents in Myanmar:

I just heard a gecko revving up with his obnoxious call, kind of gargling at the first and then going into a loud, nasal geck-ooo, gecko; took me right back to our early days at Kamalganj. Inside our room we have a little tik tik lizard who chirrups occasionally. We traveled north from Yangon today to Mon State and got here a couple hours ago; I expected to drive up to a little hotel downtown on the main street, but instead we pulled up to an incredibly lovely “resort” in the middle of lush trees and flowers. We had driven through mile after mile of rubber plantations, and suddenly pulled into this wonderland. 

Driving up to the resort, we drove through rubber trees, rows of papayas, lemon trees, and interestingly, pan vines…the leaves they wrap betal nuts in. The pan leaves and the nuts are slightly narcotic and a hot item all throughout Asia. The dining area is a large open veranda with a teak floor…you leave your shoes before stepping onto it. It is surrounded by bougainvillea, frangipani trees, banana plants and coconut trees with orchids growing out of their bark. The air is dense with sweet smells and almost dizzyingly exotic. The hotel isn’t what you’d think of as a 5 star place; the rooms are semi-attached at the top of the hill, each with a sweet little veranda with two heavy wooden chairs, where we sat and watched the wind rustle the coconut palms for as long as we dared as darkness fell (it’s a malarial area). Our room has a small airconditioning unit that barely cools the room, two dim lights and no mosquito nets . There is a TV but no reception.

Now it’s Monday afternoon. We ate fried rice and egg for breakfast and took off by 6:30 a.m. to see the local attraction; it’s a big one. The Kyaikhtiyo pagoda rests on an unlikely foundation; an unwieldy rock balanced crazily upon another rock on top of a mountain. It is at this site that Buddhism came into Burma, and it is their most revered site. To get there, you leave your car at the foot of the mountain, climb a wooden platform onto a flatbed truck fitted out with two x four benches, each about five inches wide, jammed in at one foot intervals. After jamming every single person that can possibly sit on this arrangement--Meredith was sitting with his legs splayed out because there simply wasn’t enough space between benches to accommodate his legs--the truck lurched off up the mountain.
It was a crazy, amusement park kind of ride for the next 25 minutes, the truck went as fast as it could around hairpin turns, bouncing over potholes and careening from side to side. Everyone in the back of the open truck gripped the person next to them, braced to offset the current turn as one collective body, a strategy that was pretty good except when we hit a pot hole everyone bounced into the air and came crashing down into new formations. Meredith was holding on to the low rail as he was on the outside and I was clinging to his leg so I wouldn’t smash the old man behind me. It was a very entertaining ride and incredibly beautiful, reminding me of the pictures I have seen of the heavy forests in Rwanda, with mist coming off the hills. I almost expected to see gorillas coming out of the trees.

When we got to the end of the line, there was still close to a mile to hike up a very steep incline that zigzagged to the top. We could see the golden pagoda in the distance and knew we had better get going, as it was only going to get hotter. I think that I was about as hot as I can ever remember being. To our astonishment, there were curious contraptions right out of old, old pictures; a reclining bamboo chair on two bamboo poles, carried by 4 porters. There were plenty of them and one attached itself to us, asking if we would like to ride. We declined repeatedly, but they patiently and discretely walked behind us, much like vultures who knew we would fall eventually. It was so hot and steep, the air so thick that we were streaming with perspiration, I in my long skirt that was prerequisite for this area.
Your dad takes blood pressure medicine that dehydrates him when he is in the sun, and it was clear that this was not going anywhere good. He began to get nauseous and dizzy and his vision was swimming. (it was about a constant 30-40 degree incline on a concrete road in the full sun with little shade. The temperature was probably in the mid-80’s as we began and became hotter as the day wore on.   Dad really did not want to get into one of those chairs, but finally I persuaded him…I was afraid he was going to have heat stroke. He finally gave in and I DID NOT MAKE A JOKE OUT OF IT because he felt really bad. A staff member with us said she couldn’t go on and we finally persuaded her to take a chair as well. That left me, the government doctor and the driver and we took it carefully to the top.

There were lots of fancy buildings, one honoring the goddess who is believed to be looking after the mountain, and the pagoda, which is believed to be 2000 years old.
When we all got to the bottom again around 11:30, we bought drinks and expected to be able to get on the truck and return to our car, but it turned out that the truck only went when it got full. So there we waited for nearly two hours.


Mom and Dad finally got back to their rooms, where they drank water all afternoon.