Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Interlude: Winter

Camassia is full of tiny ferns and bruise-colored leaves, and sudden shining mirrors have been inset in the hollows, waiting for gleams of sun. I could see chips fly from the woodpecker at his work, though I couldn't hear a sound.

The world is too large for me. I remember a time when I thought people got bigger, as they got older; but it turns out that the world grows much faster than we do. I dodge from cover to cover, like a timid vole, in the scant winter light, and I reach home with relief.

Fields of seablush and camas lily,fields we knew when the world was young.

And yet -- there at Oregon City, where Willamette Falls runs over the edge of the plate, and the river dodges between industrial buildings and power plant -- there is an older world implicit in it all, a world in which people were proud of what they built. Those people wanted their industrial buildings to be plain works of power. I'm confident that the thought that they were defacing the river never shadowed their dreams.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Springfield, Oregon, 1965

I remember the first black kids, they came when I was seven, two brothers. I had never seen a black person before. In the showers, I had to look: and incredibly, they were black even where their swimsuits would have blocked the sun. 

It didn't occur to me then or later to make them welcome. I had my own problems, and being befriended by the weird kid would have done them no favors, anyway. But I pondered the blackness. I could have forgiven the strangeness if it had been only a burning of the sun. But no, black all through: except for their ghostly whitish palms and soles, which was so contrary to all reason. It's your hands and feet that get dirty, that you have to wash. These creatures turned the world over. And life was already hard enough. 

What became of them? Where are they now? I don't know, but I doubt they have much reason to look back fondly.

Back then, black people weren't ordinarily on television. I had heard of negroes, of course, but they were in far away places, states in the south, of which my parents definitely, if obscurely, disapproved. I knew "nigger" was a very bad word. But the kids who could get a laugh, the ones who actually knew what swear words meant, used it when the adults weren't around.

"Where did you get that?" one would ask.

"Stole it off a dead nigger, and he ain't gettin' it back!" was the reply. Gales of laughter. 

It had nothing to do with the real world, any more than the half-understood sex jokes did. They were just essays, sallies into the forbidden. What happened if you said those words? Where you struck dead? Or did you gain access to something, some secret power or pleasure? Well, I didn't know. Better watch and see what happens to kids who could get a laugh. I had a feeling, and so did they, that they were courting destruction. I don't know what became of those kids, either.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Year, Wheeling

When I got home from my evening massage last night, Vega was setting, and Orion just rising in the east.

At four this morning, I woke, and realized I'd left my pack in the car. I slipped out of bed and walked out in my bare feet, on the frozen cement, to fetch it: I wanted to recharge my laptop before morning. My eye followed the handle of the Dipper, of its own accord, and extended its widening curve, falling toward the eastern horizon: and there was Arcturus -- my first reminder, this year, that winter eventually turns into spring. The year plays out in little, every night.

(This photo is credited to Stellarium, and edited, if I'm reading right, by one Bob King. It's labelled 10 p.m. in March: well, yes, but it's also 4 a.m. in late November, if you happen to be prowling about at that time of morning. The year wheels over your head as you sleep.)

I'm never sure how much people know about the sky. I was startled last year by discovering that lots of people, perfectly clever and informed people, had no notion of the ecliptic: they had never learned, and never observed, that sun, moon, and planets can only appear in one swath of the sky. I absorbed this with some consternation. Were these people who could see a full moon appear on the northern horizon -- or even the sun -- with equanimity? Would they notice at least a certain strangeness? I wasn't sure. The disquiet has never left me. Because of course I am walking about in multiple inexplicable ignorances, quite as obvious to people who have a good high school grasp of, say, chemistry, or classical music. The fact that, after all these years, I still don't know what sort of stuff potassium is, or what instrument makes that hollow moo, is pathetic. Do I pay no attention at all?

Friday, November 28, 2014


Rain: large white drops hang at the bottom of the window-awnings, shifting back and forth as the canvas blows, waiting their chance to drop free. The light concentrates in each one: they seem brighter than the gray sky, brighter than the cheerfully-lit interior of the restaurant. They dart back and forth, unable to quite fall from the bottom seam, like silver beads on a giant abacus. Finally the wind gives the awning a real shake, and all the drops leap off, a brilliant vanishing shower. At once new beads string themselves. They may keep it up all day: this is a true Oregon rain, with plenty of stamina. There's no particular reason it should ever stop.

I'm reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, whose middle initial was not in fact S, but H: West Point took it into its head that the initial was S, and the army obstinately continued to use it, although Grant's middle name was Hiram. Then the newspapers, during the war, took a fancy to pretending it stood for Unconditional Surrender. (Those were the only terms he would offer to the starving garrison of Vicksburg, knowing they had to take them: in fact he tended to be generous in paroling captives, and letting them keep their property, but he didn't want anyone unclear that they'd been beaten.) You might think that at some point he might insist on getting his name right, say when he was president, but it doesn't seem to have mattered to him. He was an oddly humble man, a sort of military boddhisattva, even as he directed the enormous cruelties of the first modern total war: he is terribly pleasing, if mystifying, in his simplicity. Anyway, I have got him to the end of the war, which is the part of his career I knew a fair amount about anyway. Now I strike into unknown territory with him.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Thanksgiving Day, 2014. The pavement and the sky are the same gleaming gray: headlights make brief lines of light on the road, but the Sun doesn't answer, above. She's walking up high in the skyfields, pensive and forgetful. We have to make do with what light we have, here below.

The old feeling of confinement, I have always felt during the holidays: less now, and lit up with occasional intimations of liberty, but still there's the stubborn mass of humanity on the other side, insisting that today can mean only one thing. I loathe that, and always have, and I expect I always will. In me the impulse to celebration and the dictates of the calendar seem never to coincide. So I wait it out, as inoffensively as possible. But more and more these days, I dream of breaking loose, of going somewhere where Thanksgiving and Christmas have never been heard of, where people go about their business as if it was any ordinary day, free to any experience.

I love routine, doing the same thing every day, beholden to no one: I am not exactly antisocial, I think, but a little goes a long way with me, and to be with people in groups means not being able to hear or understand, and trying to balance jostling, half-caught expectations against each other. I wish sometimes I had a higher specific gravity, that I didn't tumble so wildly in the slipstream of other people's desires, but maybe it's just the price I pay for being able to see as I do. At my age, well into my fifties, I've largely given up on ever being a different person. The question these days is what to do with the person I already am. I will always be timid and eager to please, in my own mind's eye, however stubborn and willful I may appear.

I do want people to be happy, but I'm well past the delusion -- intellectually -- that I will make them happy by doing what they want me to do, or being what they want me to be. What will make them happy is shaking off expectation and seeing with raw, tender eyes -- seeing what's really there to see. What they think they want of me is beside the point, and I don't have the time to throw away on indulging them any more. Or actually, I never did. The time is short. Evening comes early, this time of year.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dentist With Cavities

Ten days ago, there was a windstorm whipping the rotten mountain ash to and fro: it was threatening to bring it down and wreck our fence. So, with possibly more valor than discretion, we determined to take it down: we leashed it so it would fall, hopefully, in the direction we wanted, and sawed it and wedged it and hacked it and hauled on it till it finally came down; or anyway, settled itself securely in the arms of the neighboring pine and silk trees.

The weather was icy cold (for the marine Northwest) and as I was sawing I could feel the various muscles of my abdomen and low back looking at me dubiously. It was so much fun, though, that I ignored them. And when the tree finally did come down, as Martha and I were both hauling on it, and a gust of wind was helping it, I fell down too. Not a troubling fall.

But the next day all my lower back and abdominals were jacked and unhappy: not an honest soreness, but the sort of jolty pain that makes you think about kidneys and gall bladders and makes you want not to bend at the middle, not for anything.

For four days it stayed just like that. I cancelled some of my massages, taking myself down to one per day. (Doing massage actually seemed to help; I felt better after doing one; but I was pretty sure that doing more would be a bad idea.)

The first two days I was not worried. No matter how weird it felt, it was just over-use, and it would go away. I did my back exercises in the morning, though it took twice as long as usual, getting down to the floor and cautiously exploring which moves I could still make. But day three and four, I didn't like at all. What was the deal? It should be getting better.

The cold snap continued, and the cold felt like it was getting into my bones: I felt old and useless. Turning over in bed was something I had to plan and execute carefully, and getting out of it was an ordeal. And the whole thing was humiliating, in a dentist-with-cavities way. Muscle pain was supposed to be something I knew how to deal with!

On the morning of the fifth day, I took a hot bath.

The transformation was extraordinary. Everything knotted loosened, everything crooked straightened. I could breathe freely. The soreness dwindled to ordinary muscle soreness. I was human again. The generalized pain ebbed away, and I could tell that the remaining unhappy muscle -- possibly the only one that had ever really been tweaked -- was my left iliopsoas. I could work it judiciously, making it contract and relax. This stuff I knew how to work with.

From the time of that bath, the recovery that had stalled out resumed. The next day I was better, and the next better yet. This morning I could do all of my back exercises in ordinary way -- no hacks, no workarounds, and at most a tiny reduction in range of movement. Martha found heating pad at the girls' house, and I have used it a lot. Heat. It's a grand thing.

I wish I knew a) if the heat was really the agent -- maybe I was just due to get better anyway -- and b) if it was the heat -- what did it do? Is there a mechanical explanation, or is it purely a nervous response?

Always an adventure, inhabiting a body.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Kiki Encounters Monstrosity

Kiki loves water, and is drawn to anyplace it may be running or trickling. Last night I was taking a bath (my back still being iffy). Showers Kiki knows as normal human behavior, but baths were a new idea.

The noise of water brought her trotting into the bathroom. It was fairly dark: I'd left the lights off. She stopped short, seeing no one at the washstand, her tail lashing. This was just weird, very weird. Slowly she looked towards the tub, and slowly craned her neck to see over its side. It took her still a moment to piece it all together. Her eyes widened, and she backed away, and then fled. It was several minutes before she could bring herself to come look again. She crept in and jumped up on the washstand and gazed down at me in disbelief.

Something spooky to tell her grandchildren on Halloween. "It had lowered its whole huge primate carcass into the water, and was wallowing there!" I have no doubt the telling of the story will become a holiday tradition, chez Kiki.