Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-Four: Writing Prompt

My awesome coworker Cecelia and I have just finished the latest writing class at our court. We facilitate an eight-week group for court-involved juveniles during which they write about their choices, their goals, their supports, their obstacles, and so on. We have seen some amazing writing and some amazing juveniles come through our class. Sometimes our juveniles write straight from the heart, and the words are so pure that there is often a silence when one of them finishes reading because everyone is so blown away we cannot even formulate a "WOW!" (Trust me, though, it and other compliments do get said.)

Cecelia and I write alongside them during class and, like the juveniles, share our writing. Having both the youth and the staff write sometimes opens up some interesting dialogues.

Writers are often given the choice of writing based upon the class topic or using a prompt (related to the topic) as a jumping off point. We sometimes dictate the form: write a letter, write a haiku, write stream of consciousness. We sometimes tell them to write in whatever form they feel like.

For the last class, the form was short story. My chosen prompt was "With that, she walked into the rain and did't look back. That was the last time anyone saw her."

When she walked out that night, a few of us had waved or nodded. The party was pretty low key—just a study group that'd gone as far as we could before opening the wine and eating the cookies someone had brought.

She—christ, I can't even remember her name now—had been pretty quiet all night. Oh, she'd commented here and there as we studied, citing some arcane law or opinion that changed the outcome—but not much more than that, really. I seem to remember her pouring a glass of wine, then drinking it in one smooth, long gulp. That stuck with me all these years.

It was raining when she left. Of course it was—it always was in Portland. She gathered her notebooks and her books, pulled on her hoodie, and paused at the door.

"See you around," she said. And with that, she walked out into the rain.

Only we never saw her again. Never. She didn't show up for class the next day or the day after that. One of us, closer to her perhaps, drove to the little house she rented in Multnomah. No one answered the doorbell. Looking in the windows, the place was scoured clean.


And nothing ever came of it—no leads, no crime tips, no note, nothing. She'd disappeared entirely.

Decades have gone by. Whenever my class gets together, we talk about ourselves—who's a judge, who just retired, who's argued before the Supreme Court. We drink the wine and eat the hors d'oeuvres and talk about days gone by. "Remember Lansing's Golden Spare?" "Remember the IRA kegger for St. Patrick's Day?"

And invariably, someone, usually a woman, will say "I wonder what ever became of..." and then pause, because, damn it, no one remembers her name.

Just that she's not there.

No, it's not a true story. Yes, I was surprised to find myself drawing on a topic and era—my law school years—I rarely think about, let alone write about. I'm not even sure where that came from, but clearly it was waiting to get out. Other than two tweaks (we all write longhand), this is what came out Monday.

The next class starts in two weeks. I can't wait.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-Three: Winnowing

How many more times, after all, am I likely to read Walden?

I recently posed that question, largely rhetorical, to my son Ben. I have just finished reading Walden as of this past weekend. This is perhaps my fourth time through it since I first read it back in the 1970s.

Walden came up because I am in the mood to winnow out more of the domestic flotsam and jetsam of my life. A Facebook friend and his wife recently sold the family home and downsized. He posted photos of stacks and stacks of boxes throughout the new space, commenting wryly that apparently they "didn't get" the concept. 

There but for the grace of God go I. 

Some of the impetus is feeling the (very faint) stirrings of Spring—some incipient sense of spring cleaning, perhaps? Some of it, as my close friend Cindy and I discussed earlier this week, is that we have all hit an age (our 60s) where we realize we all just have too much STUFF. 

Some of my mood, I am quite sure, is that I am applying for assisted living for my elderly aunt Ginger. I will be moving her from a one bedroom apartment with decades of accumulations to, in all likelihood, a small studio. Even if not a studio, a decidedly smaller space. This means I will be tasked with distributing and disposing of everything else, which ranges from a small dinette table to sacks full of papers. The papers include but are not limited to the 2013 Changes to Medicare Manual. Later editions may not be available because I have already intercepted and recycled them, but because Ginger has mixed quasi-important papers with the dross, and because some of the papers contain personal information (account numbers and the like), I will have to go through the sacks one by one by one.

It will be an Augean task.

On my own home front, I have been building a small wall of paper sacks in my study, all destined for Goodwill. One bag holds strings of large, incandescent Christmas bulbs, the old fashioned kind that look like glowing snowdrops on a snowy night. The last time we used them, our electric bill doubled. Another sack holds Boy Scout popcorn tins, the overpriced decorative ones that Cub Scouts with innocent faces sell. I've held on to several thinking they'd be perfect for holiday treats. The holiday treats, incidentally, that I do not make (other than biscotti). The cup cozies from conferences, the dress pants that were never comfortable, the jigsaw puzzles that have been worked—you get the picture. 

The bags will head to Goodwill soon enough. Having finished Walden, I walked it Sunday to a nearby Little Free Library. I'll still have a house and life full of stuff, but maybe just a little less stuff.

Thoreau, in writing Walden, exhorted the reader to "Simplify. Simplify." I'm trying, Henry. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-Two: Friends

My friend Cindy's dad, Jim, died last last week.

Jim was 86, well on his way to 87. His physician had discovered end stage cancer several weeks earlier. His death was not unexpected.

Cindy and I go way back. She is a year older than I am; we grew up together. Her mom, Mary Lou, and my mom became friends in their girlhood and graduated from high school together. My dad and Jim knew each other from young adulthood on. My maternal grandparents knew Cindy's maternal grandparents. Our families have been linked in so many ways for so long.

Growing up, it was not unusual several times a month for my family to be at Cindy's house or her family to be at my house. The adults would play cards and drink pots of coffee all evening; we kids would play endlessly (when we were little) or talk nonstop (when we were older).

I always knew that my dad and Jim were close friends but I didn't realize the foundation and depth of that friendship until Jim's funeral.

My dad was asked to speak at the service. For me, it was a first to sit back and listen to my father speak in public. In keeping with his personality, Dad kept his observations short and plain. In talking about Jim, he told a story I had never heard before.

When Dad was a young adult, newly married with a baby on the way, he was trying to learn a trade. Because he was draft age, the local industries in this town did not want to spend time training him. So while he found work at low-level entry jobs, he was shut out of learning machining, which is where the money was.

When Dad finished his Army stint and came back home, he had the same dilemma. He needed a job with a future in it if he were to support his growing family. He had mechanical skills, but still few marketable trade skills.

Jim had those trade skills. Three years older than my dad, Jim had learned machining somewhere along the way. In addition to his shop job, Jim also owned a lathe and did piece work for his employer as a way to earn extra money. Jim used his lathe and machining equipment to teach Dad the basics on being a machinist.

My dad paused in speaking at this point.

"Because of Jim teaching me, I was able to get a job as a machinist, improve my skills, make better money, and work my way up. If it hadn't been for Jim, I would have gotten by, but not had the opportunities or the eventual good income that being a machinist gave me."

Several years before ever meeting Jim, Dad had been told by some stranger that he'd one day work with electrical things. When Dad retired as a master machinist after a lifetime of machine shops, he retired from General Electric.

"So you see," Dad said slowly. "It must have been predestined that I'd meet Jim."

Predestined? Who knows? The common thread more likely was Mom and Mary Lou being longtime friends and young wives and mothers. But put in the context of a lifetime friendship, of gratefulness for another man taking the time and effort to teach a valuable trade—well, maybe predestination does play a part.

It was a touching tribute and a fitting goodbye to a lifetime friend. We should all be so lucky to have a Jim in our lives. We all be so lucky to leave behind such a powerful impact.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty-One: My Reedie

I love Reedies.

Reedies are students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Twice a year I get a phone call from one of them as part of the fall or spring college fund drive

Tuesday night my Reedie called.

All Reedies follow a script; that's just the reality of fundraising. But what I love about Reedies is how they deviate from the script quickly. My Reedie, looking at my connection to Reed College, asked me about my son Ben (Reed, 2008). That lead to my commenting about my daughter-in-law Alise (also Reed, 2008). She then asked questions about whether they met at Reed (of course) and all but swooned when I said they got engaged on Commencement Day. "That's so romantic," she breathed.

My Reedie this time around is a linguistics major. She knows German and "some Chinese," but the language she is concentrating on presently is sign language. To me, that was a classic Reedie answer.

My Reedie asked me if I'd ever been to campus. Oh, yes, oh, yes. I explained that besides Ben's commencement, I was occasionally on campus during my Portland years (1977-1983). In fact, as I shared with her, when I transferred at the tail end of my junior year to a Portland college, the only reason I applied to Lewis & Clark instead of Reed was that L&C had a three-quarters residency requirement, whereas Reed required six quarters. Wanting to be done with my bachelor's degree, I chose efficacy over quality. It was the right decision for me at the time, but I always had a slight tinge of regret that I skipped Reed.

Maybe that's why I encouraged Ben to look at Reed closely when he started his college search. And when Ben said he was applying only to Reed, I backed him 100%.

Reed gave Ben a lot of thing, starting with acceptance. At Reed, he gained intellectual growth, being a part of a close community, and his wife, among other things. Because of our greatly reduced financial circumstances (Ben went to Reed during the years I was in dire financial straits), much of his education was free.

It is that last point—that Reed paid for much of my son's college—that explains why, when my Reedie asked me if I would give again, I said yes and pledged $25.00.

Under my current stringent financial controls, that small pledge will come out of my "spending money," which currently stands at $74.00, with another week until payday. That might make things a little tight, especially if I end up buying any groceries this coming week, but I can make it work.  It's for a college that set my older son on his path to adulthood.

And besides, my Reedie asked.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inch One Hundred Sixty: It

As I wrote last week, I was sick with some sort of short-lived respiratory virus. Short-lived, but intense. I was sick sick sick. Sick enough that I missed work, which almost never happens. Sick enough that I ran triple-digit fevers that should have sent me to the ER, only I gambled that acetaminophen and sleep would knock them down. (I won that bet.)

Sick enough that it took me until well into this week, as I eased back into work, before I could discern between the remnants of the mystery virus and the perpetual sickness I carry with me. That moment came Wednesday of this week, when in a quiet spot I felt and thought, "Oh yeah, there It is."

"It" is what I have come to call a sickness I carry in me. We—my two oncologists, personal physician, Warren, and I—don't know exactly what It is or why It is omnipresent in my body. The most popular theory, and one I agree with, is It is what twelve and a half years of myeloma and lots of treatment, more or less nonstop for almost five years, looks like. It is not nausea nor exhaustion (which I also deal with on a daily basis). It is a blend of malaise and ill-feeling, waxing and waning throughout the day and night.

Whatever It is, It sucks. And as I age, and the myeloma continues, It takes a bigger toll on my day to day life.

With very few exceptions, lunches with friends or my husband are out. They take too much out of me, especially if I am working that day. I've given up the Mansfield rehearsals (but not the concerts) for the same reason. I put off many coffee dates, missing the camaraderie, but not having the reserves to focus on them. Besides my job (which is simultaneously grueling and stimulating this time of year), my only outside activities are Legal Clinic one night a month and Poetry Night two nights a month. I worry that I may have to cut back on the former at some point; I leave the latter early and come home both exhilarated and exhausted from the talk and the poetry.

Travel, especially longer distances, is becoming harder, thanks to It. (Hell, some days a walk in the neighborhood is a stretch.) That's why my kids are coming here this summer for a week instead of me flying out there.

Well-meaning people, and by that I mean almost everyone, tell me I look "great." People, people. One, I know what I look like and "great" is not the word. I look passable, but give me a break. I know It is taking a toll on all of my body, not just my face.

So what does this all mean? Frankly, not a whole lot. It is not going away. Neither is the cancer. I have learned that if I am deep into something—a mediation, a good book, writing, for example—I can shove It aside for a blessed hour or two. When I am sharing time with a friend or Warren, I can relegate It to the back row. Although It tracks me all night long, I am able to sleep most nights without It taking up the bed space. (I am only aware of It when I wake up in the middle of the night, and with luck I am soon back asleep.)

And I go on, because that's what we all do.

The past several months have been hard on our community and on my circle of friends and family. Yet we all go on. I have come to appreciate that simple reality: we all go on.

Here's to those who simply go on. You know who you are. And I am right there with you.