"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Friday, July 31, 2009

Yellowstone Surprise

It's interesting the difference between looking forward to something and looking back on it.

I had ideas and expectations for Yellowstone, based in part on our previous visit there several years ago. I was hoping for moose and bear and bison sightings. I was expecting to be stirred to my core by the sights and wonders, the way I was with Old Faithful on that earlier visit.

We decided to start with the north part of the park this time, thinking in some hyper-optimistic part of our brains that we might see all of the park we missed in our first visit.

None of that happened. The only animals we saw were small herds of elk in the distance, one lonely bison bull grazing at the side of the road, and a couple of antelope. None of the incredible sights moved me like Old Faithful did - nothing could because I saw that wonder of the world through the eyes of my inner girls, not my adult. And of course we didn't even come close to doing the entire park.

What happened instead was a surprise symphony. Yellowstone's visual beauty amazed, but it was the aural extravaganza that will be forever linked in my mind and heart with this visit.

It started when we stepped out of our condo into a glorious sunny morning. I thought I heard a woodpecker pocking away somewhere nearby. Walt pointed out the raven sitting on the roof. As I approached him, this huge shaggy-maned trickster flew away clucking like a chicken. We last saw him perched on the bed of a pick-up truck gobbling like a turkey, giving us an exclusive solo performance as we sat with the car window rolled down offering him encouragement.

Once in the park, our first stop was Beryl Spring. It was early enough that there were few people with us, and steam all but obscured the brilliant blue water, so the rhythmic blowing, hissing and gurgling really stood out.

Artists Paint Pots was our next stop. Our walk through began with a few hissing holes and occasional pools of madly dancing water. At the top of the loop the sounds changed to thick bloops and blurps as viscous mud bubbled away. One hole sounded much like a coffee pot at the end of its brewing cycle. An unearthly clear spring at the bottom of the loop boiled furiously for a minute, then stilled completely for a couple of minutes, then repeated the whole thing over and over and over.

Norris Geyser Basin gave us Steamboat Geyser. Potentially much more powerful than Old Faithful, it's much less predictable. Instead of regular periodic shows of grandeur, it puffed and gurgled and blew in a very short cycle like its namesake. Our walk around the loop was accompanied by the rhythmic huffing of Steamboat in the background. Every other geyser we saw sang a slightly different song. Pitch, volume, rhythm - unique to each.

The Grand Canyon's Lower Falls provided us with music on an entirely different scale. Water falling over 300 feet onto solid rock creates a whooshing rumble with the power to hypnotize even the most anxious soul into a state of calm. The smaller thunders of Upper Falls and Tower Fall were ironically more invigorating.

Throughout the day, the gurgles, hisses and rumbles of earth, water and gas were softened by the chattering of swallows, the deep-throated conversations of ravens, and the occasional whisper of wind teasing quaking aspens into giggles. At every stop nature's music was muted and embellished with children's squeals of delight, a Babel of languages and accents, and my own repeated mantra, "Wow, oh wow!" Growling motorcycles, laboring RVs, impatiently tapped horns, tires crunching on gravel, car doors slamming - all provided a steady percussive beat the the day's symphony.

On the drive out, at the end of a very long and happy day, we passed Roaring Mountain. An entire hillside, at the edge of the road, with so much gas being pushed through the surface that it did indeed roar like a lion, or a fierce wild fire, or angry gods.

The very last thing we experienced in the park happened in awestruck silence. Traffic was backed up, creeping so slowly we knew the people ahead were seeing something interesting. We'd already been stopped twice while everyone watched elk graze in the near distance. I hoped for bison or moose - even deer would have been fine. What I saw was a sign: Eagle Management Area - Do Not Stop, Leave Your Car, Or Walk On The Road. And there it was, at the very top of a snag just off the road, a Bald Eagle nest, with one of the parents sitting in a branch of the next snag over.

From Raven's silly songs of imitation to the rhythms of Earth's inner music to the varied songs of Sky's water to the chorus of Human voices to Bald Eagle's majestic silence - no composed symphony could possibly be more musically perfect. Not what I expected. Much much more.

Pictures by Walt. The one of us shot by the guy taking pictures next to Walt.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On The Road

Walt and I are on the road. We left home Sunday at 5:00 AM (after getting up at 3:00) so that we could get to Couer d'Alene in time for Walt's afternoon tee time at the CDA resort with the world-famous floating green.

Almost 900 miles and two days later, we're at West Yellowstone.

I love Montana, and had forgotten why. There is something about the huge sky, even filled with clouds that show you their intentions a half day away. The land sprawls, the mountains loom protectively, the roads are long and straight.

We stopped for coffee in St. Regis yesterday where I discovered huckleberry licorice. Huckleberries are as big a deal in Montana as they are in Idaho. They're in everything, and everywhere. There was a fresh huckleberry pie at this place, for $40. Yikes! While we waited for our coffee (which took forever to be made - a good latte is hard to find off the I-5 corridor), I found myself repeatedly drawn to the licorice. Not for myself, but because any year before this one I would have bought a couple of packages as treats for my new group of students. A twinge of "darn!" A jolt of realization: this is real.

We pulled into Superior right after, the town of my early childhood. The old brick school building still stands, the one where I attended first grade, and started second. We moved right after my birthday that year, forced out because the freeway was going to be built over top of the small farm my parents built from the ground up. The intersection of Cedar Creek and I-90 is now so developed there's not one single atom left of that old home.

Our last stop before arriving last night was Virginia City. It's part ghost town, part historical reenactment, part tourist trap. A place I've always wanted to visit, it didn't disappoint, but I was happy with the half-hour we spent wandering. I didn't need more.

The shift in my awareness that started earlier this summer, continues to unfold as the miles present themselves to us. The ghosts are gone, and my need for them as well.

Today is Yellowstone. The sun has risen behind me in a clear pink sky. Venus greeted me with a wink before relinquishing the night sky. Adventure awaits.

Photo of the Tobacco Root Mountains, part of our travels yesterday, from Flickr.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Reunion, Part 6 - Happy Ending

By the time the reunion itself began, I was so full to overflowing with all of the gifts of the previous days I would have been happy to go home without attending the formal events. I'm so glad I gave myself the next two days. Here's what I would have missed:

Not being recognized, over and over and over. Many said it was my hair. I was a brunette at the last reunion - at least if you didn't look at the roots too closely. We all told each other how great we looked, but when a woman I hardly knew asked me if I'd had a face lift, I knew the good stuff was shining through.

The conversation with Sandy, who has self-published four books, and Kay, whose muse has had just about enough of being denied a voice. Three writers, at different stages of development, speaking a common language and sharing our hopes and dreams. Kay told me later that I had inspired her.

Laughing so hard my jaws hurt during bingo with an eclectic mix of classmates, many of whom I avoided in high school. Realizing that my fear of being considered more of a loser than I thought I already was kept me from knowing a lot of really interesting people.

Cory, our houseboat hostess, observing the difference in attitudes between the previous reunions and this one. "At the other reunions people were about being noticed and impressing everyone with their accomplishments. It was about what they could get from everyone. This time everyone seems to really care about each other and seems to want to hear what everyone else has to offer." At almost 60, we have become as a group kind, caring, and compassionate. Who would ever have guessed?

Huckleberry cheesecake. The Saturday night dinner was exceptional for banquet food, and having a huckleberry dessert was a perfect ending. Huckleberries only grow in the wild. Their flavor is the mountains of North Idaho, and has the power to transport me to perfect summer days of healing heat, pure air and the grace of unearned abundance.

The feeling of overwhelming tenderness that washed over me whenever I had a moment to stand back and absorb my classmates' energetic and happy conversations. My surprise at the intensity of my love for people I hardly know. My joy at finding that capacity.

Enjoying the invisible security of my friendship with Marcia. Although we arrived at all the events together, we hardly spoke. We didn't need to. We are effortless and eternal.

Being told by Jacquie, with whom I used to exchange wild letters written on weird material in the summertime, that she caught a glimpse of my mom (the woman I spent a huge portion of my adult life trying not to be) in my face while we were talking. She meant it as a compliment. I received it as one.

Getting to say over and over and over again, "I'm taking a leave from my teaching career to start a new career as a writer. I'm looking for an agent for my memoir, God Has No Daughters, the story of my time in a small Bible-based cult." I never did get tired of repeating my story, or answering the questions that almost always came.

Being asked to dance at the street dance, the last event of the reunion. At previous reunions I needed to be asked to feel like someone noticed and cared about me, to believe I was attractive and important. This time I wasn't thinking about any of that, and just had fun visiting with my partners during the dances. I could feel the teenager inside doing her own private happy dance, and I was happy for her.

Being told, by Larry whom I dated briefly in high school along with about half the other girls in our class, during our dance, "It's so nice to see you happy." It's unbelievably lovely to be a happy ending.

photo from Flickr

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reunion, Part 5 - Life and Death

On a perfect July Friday afternoon, sunny, 80 degrees, just hours before the reunion officially begins, a small group of classmates gather.

The nine of us on this houseboat have settled into a loose circle. The day and the water surround us in gentle waves as we travel without any purpose beyond being together. We're past the excitement and surprise of seeing one another again after so many years. We've shared food and the basics of what our lives are like now, who we've become in the last decade.

All afternoon, four other presences have traveled with us, and the conversation now shifts to include them.

Marilyn, whose sharp wit and exotic looks have softened only a little over the years, lost her brother two weeks before our graduation.

Beth, whose beauty and musical talent came into full bloom after we graduated, lost a son just over a year ago.

Cory, whose warm smile has only grown brighter over the years and who brought us together today, bought and remodeled this boat with her father in the last years of his life.

Larry, who dated every woman on this boat in high school, missed the last reunion because he was at home in Florida with his wife, Antonea, who was dying of cancer. I've felt her energy with us all day, and surprise myself with the depth of my desire for her physical presence.

In junior high Beth and Antonea and I were in constant competition for first chair of the flute section in band. Antonea went on to become the majorette of the high school marching band. Beth is a Sweet Adeline and directs musical groups. I hum along with Christmas carols. In high school our circles often overlapped and I considered both of them close friends. For a good portion of my early adult life, I would have given anything to trade places with either of those women.

Someone asks Cory if her dad ever visits her on the boat. Her affirmative answer leads Beth to tell the story of her son coming to her shortly after his death. Marilyn acknowledges that her brother is still a regular and real presence in her life. Larry's recounting of Antonea's visit to the home they shared in Florida has us laughing. She moved things from one place to the other, in such a conspicuous manner that there was no way he could miss that it was her.

Later that afternoon Tom and Marcia and I are relaxing in their living room, reliving the intimacy of the houseboat gathering. Marcia is in the middle of a new Antonea story when the fireplace poker flies from its stand, clatters on the hearth barely missing Tom's glass of soda, and comes to rest on the carpet at his feet. We look at each other, laugh with the delight of children who've discovered a new treasure, and offer our verbal greetings skyward to our dead friend.


At the Saturday night reunion dinner, all the names of our classmates who have died, maybe a dozen in all, are read aloud. There are the two boys who were struck by lightning the spring before graduation. There are the two Steves who died of drug overdoses: one a hood in high school who never found his way, the other a popular jock who became a doctor and then lost his way. There is Antonea. There are several other names for whom I feel little connection, but for whose passing I feel a real and aching sadness.

I look around the room, filled with people who know me in a way no one else can, and realize our dead classmates will always be alive whenever we gather. Our remembering, our stories, our shared feelings of loss have the tremendous power to resurrect them. For this weekend at least, all 188 of us exist together - the dead, the absent, the lost, and those present - bonded by the adolescent passions that continue to create life.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Reunion, Part 4 - Maria

The tall blonde woman strides toward me, her smile as wide as a Montana sky. I search her face for something, anything, that might be familiar. I search myself for a stirring of recognition, and come away empty.

Marcia has already told me this woman is Maria. She spotted her in line ahead of us at the grocery store check-out. I know some other things about her, but only because Marcia told me earlier.

When we talked the week before my visit, Marcia said we'd be going to a memorial service on Saturday for Maria's mother. She said Maria was excited to know I was going to be in town and really glad I might be at the service. She said Maria went to school with us for the first part of our senior year, but went back to California to finish the year. She said Maria lives in Sandpoint now, is a successful artist, is happily married with three grown kids.

A thorough search of my late middle aged memory banks revealed nothing. In the absence of any concrete information, my brain formed a picture of a vaguely Hispanic woman. I hoped if I looked away, some real memory might eventually find its way to the surface.

This radiant force of energy wrapping me in a joy-filled hug is not at all what I expected. She's warm and beautiful and strong, and makes me think of women I met in Scotland last summer. I respond in kind, still not really knowing who she is or why she's so happy to see me. We beam at each other, some younger part of ourselves clearly connecting and so glad for the reunion. We chatter away, happy words with no real information, but with hope and promise and wonder. I still don't know her, but I can't believe my luck that she knows me. This is someone, even without a sort of common history, I want to be friends with.

It's a short visit. Maria finishes at the check-out and heads out to continue the preparations for her mother's memorial service. I ask Marcia questions all the way home from the store, trying to find the memory. It's inconceivable to me that I have no memory at all of someone who is that glad to see me. Someone who said she's thought of me often through the years. Someone who is happy to have me attend a family ceremony honoring a woman I never met.

By the time Marcia and I have driven across the long bridge over Lake Pend O'Reille toward her house, my brain has released a hint of memory. It's more deduction than picture. But it has the feeling of truth that I've come to trust.

Maria and I became friends during those months she attended Sandpoint Senior High. I was drawn to her newness and warm friendliness. She was drawn to some whole part of me that no one else seemed to know. I opened my heart to her. A connection formed. She moved back to California. Promises were made that we'd stay in touch. We'd be friends forever. We never heard from each other again.

Already an adept survivor by my senior year, I knew what to do with loss and disappointment. I buried it, unfelt, and covered it over with another layer of I-don't-care. No memory at all was far preferable to the pain.

Until this day in a small town grocery store forty years later.

I marvel that someone like Maria - healthy, creative, successful - loved my teenaged self enough to carry her in her heart all these years. Maria's knowing of the young woman who wall-papered a closet with the flair of an adventuress makes her somehow more real. I can feel my teenage self sigh with relief and settle herself into my soul. We both look forward to what the future might hold for Maria and Deb, the adults with the power to keep promises.

photo from Flickr

Friday, July 17, 2009

Reunion, Part 3 - Homecoming, The Closet

After the pantry, I wander the rest of the house, wanting the leave my bedroom for last. I keep expecting to feel something from the girls who lived here - longing, pain, fear. The only feeling I can name, however, is curiosity. I breathe deeply, look the blackened brick fireplace in the corner face-on, make myself stand still in my parents' bedroom. No Pall Mall or Swisher Sweet smell remains. No feeling of not belonging. No remnants of Mommy Shame or Daddy Anger.

There is only one person here.

Satisfied I'm not going to find any new and hungry ghosts in this place, I move toward the room that was mine. I was given my own room after years of sharing one room and two bunk beds with my three younger brothers. It was a point of pride for me, one of the few good things about being a developing girl.

My bedroom was sanctuary, although one that could be breached at any time. I was allowed to paint it any color I wanted - lavender and yellow the last and favorite. I chose the daybed and its cover - gold corduroy - that made me feel so sophisticated. My dad built in bookcases, just for me, one of a very small handful of times I felt loved by him. I filled them with my mom's childhood books, all my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, and later, books on the occult.

Marcia and I spent hours in my room playing endless games of gin rummy, discussing the various boys we liked, giggling in the freedom of our friendship and youth. It was possible in that space, with my best friend, to feel normal and hopeful and alive.

When I step into the room at the end of my explorations, the first thing I notice is the hideous teddy bear border running around the walls at the ceiling. My bookcase is gone. There is nothing of me left here. Until I turn toward the closet.

It looks exactly the same as it did when I left home 40 years ago. The wallpaper my teenage self chose, feeling worldly and creative and somehow powerful, shines back at me, as clean and bright as the day I hung it.

In this house where little care was ever taken with anything - furniture, the house itself, the hearts it held - my old closet has not only endured, but survived in a kind of otherworldly newness and beauty.

I wander back outside and find myself headed toward the apple tree planted when the farm was a homestead, under which I spent countless childhood hours begging God to help me. As I stand there in the playful wind, the gentle warmth of a July sun, and the ancient energy of that tree, I understand what really happened in the house that was what I knew for home for most of my life.

I've spent years working to heal what happened to me there, coaxing up the wounded girls, affirming the truth they were denied, loving them. In the bomb shelter pantry and in the hidden hopefulness of my closet on this day, I have discovered the spirit that was not allowed to flourish in the poisoned air of my childhood. I am that feisty ten-year-old. I am that hopeful, creative and adventurous adolescent. I am a grown woman ready to embrace their energy and use it to create the life we've all waited a very long time for.

As Marcia and I drive back toward town, I hold this new gift gently, not able to put it into words just yet. I wonder what it will be like to see my old classmates through these new eyes, to meet them with this newly opened heart. I smile - one whole person - in anticipation of whatever the reunion might bring.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reunion, Part 2 - Homecoming, The Pantry

We're most of the seven miles from town to the farm when Marcia begins to wonder aloud where the turn-off is. She comments that given the number of times during our high school years she bombed out to my house to either get me or to spend the night, she should remember. And she does.

The Selle Road turnoff is visible up the highway from the back property line - the one that used to mark one side of the 80 acre rectangle that was Sunburst Dairy. When it was my home, the line was a straight, well-maintained, barbed wire fence. Now the line exists only in my memory, and as the blurred edge of the woods that sit in the southwest corner.

We turn left onto the road that leads to the house - the quarter mile stretch I walked eagerly to the school bus every morning, and trudged reluctantly home every afternoon from second grade through senior year. The hills between home and the highway seemed so much steeper than they do now, the creek under the bridge in the middle seemed so much more alive.

Marcia turns into the driveway, and decides not to push through the dense growth of weeds to the house. We get out of her car, stepping carefully, uncertain what might be hidden in the wild green that has overtaken what was once a gravel driveway. I monitor inner voices, prepared to comfort the girls for whom this was a place of suffering. The only thing I hear is Marcia's concerned friend voice, the swish of waist-high tansy ragwort parting as we pass, and the wind playing in the overgrown Lombardy poplars.

The house, which has been empty for years, stands solid in the shadows of fifty year old trees whose unrestrained growth is horror movie creepy. Marcia looks through the broken living room window as I pick my way carefully to the front door. There's a huge crater at the foot of the steps that I'm at a loss to explain. I step over it, test the wood of the first step, and breathe a little easier once I'm standing on the brick step at the door. I try the handle. It's locked. Preparing to bushwhack my way around back, I accidentally bump the door, which swings open. I hear the voices of the movie audience urging me to turn back, to save myself, to run.

I step into the house, pretending the goose bumps on my arms are from the wind. Marcia goes back to her car to allow me the privacy I didn't request, but am deeply grateful for.

I'm here searching for ghosts - any unfinished anythings that might still have the power to hurt me. I don't expect to find any, but know that if they exist, they'll have to show themselves here in this place where memories of pain and shame far outweigh any others.

There are two rooms in particular I need to feel: the pantry and my old bedroom.

The pantry, with its concrete floor, shelved walls and rotten potato damp earth smell was our designated fall-out shelter. A single bare bulb in the ceiling barely pushed the darkness back far enough to identify whatever we were sent in to fetch. In childhood the shelves were packed with hundreds of jars of beans, pears, peaches, jams, cherries, plums, tomatoes, applesauce, sauerkraut, pickles and occasionally home-made root beer.

During the summer of my tenth year, when there was a very real possibility of nuclear war, my parents decided we needed a place for the family to be safe while waiting for radiation levels to diminish in the event the Russians attacked.

Old gallon mayonnaise jars were filled with water. A pile of moth-eaten olive wool army blankets was tucked into a corner. Empty coffee cans were stacked on a shelf along with toilet paper.

I was appalled. And said so. I did not want to spend any time at all, let alone the possible weeks, stuck in that cold tiny stinking place with five people I could barely stand.

My questions weren't being answered. Where would we sleep? Would we have to stand the whole time? What about privacy? Would we watch each other go to the bathroom? What would we do with all that time? What about books to read? How would we cook our food? How would we know when to come out? What if someone got sick?

I said I would rather take my chances on the outside, alone, even if it meant dying, than have to live in the pantry with my family for weeks on end. My mom's response was no surprise: if I was going to be that ungrateful then maybe it would be better for everyone if I wasn't in the pantry with them.

As I stand in the middle of the room that has not grown larger over the years, I surprise myself by smiling at my ten-year-old choice. I'm proud of her. I love that girl's spirit. That love, and her spunk, are the only energy left for me here in this space.

(to be continued)

Monday, July 6, 2009


I leave today for Sandpoint. Even after all these years, seeing the name of that town in print creates a certain vibration that has the power to call up ghosts.

We moved to Sandpoint from Montana when I was 7. It was a sad move for the family. Sadness became the soil from which our lives there grew. Sadness and secrets and soul-killing anger.

I graduated from high school and left Sandpoint when I was 17. While that was a move I had longed for since I was old enough to know that leaving could happen, the joy I expected to feel was drowned in my family's disapproval and my own fear.

I'm going to spend the week with my best-friend-since-seventh-grade, Marcia, at her beautiful lake-side home. We'll do what we always do during our summer visits: enjoy the lake and the sun, eat Pringles, and talk for endless hours. Shopping will happen. Books will be shared and read and discussed. Marcia owns a book store. One summer I read a book a day while I was there. If I were going to design a summer camp for adults, it would look just like our time together.

This year, we're also going to attend our forty year high school reunion. Forty. Years.

I missed the ten year reunion. Those were my cult years. High school reunions were considered far too worldly, and I was glad for the restriction. The shame of my life immediately after graduation was still too fresh and raw. I didn't want to be seen or known or even remembered.

Walt went to the twenty year reunion with me. We'd only been married a short time. I was still a new teacher. I was proud to show off my new respectable life. I dieted for weeks before, bought new clothes, held in my stomach and breath during the whole event. The only thing I really remember is how bad the band was, dancing to Louie, Louie, and feeling every single high school emotion I thought I had left behind.

I went to the thirty year reunion by myself. I was sober and in therapy and wanted everyone to see how much I'd changed. Again I dieted, bought new clothes, got a new hair style. What I remember from that summer is discovering for the first time that I couldn't lose ten pounds in a month, no matter how hard I tried. I remember being crushed that I didn't get voted most changed - that no one could see the results of all my inner work. I was terrified that if it didn't show, then maybe it wasn't real. I remember being noticed and flirted with by a guy who had been one of the most popular in high school. I took the memory of that attention home with me, like a certificate of achievement.

Fast forward ten years. No dieting this time. No point. No frantic shopping expedition to find just the right outfit. I'm going as a healed, thriving woman, writer, seeker of adventure, connection, and the next good story. The adolescent yearning for approval, validation, and acceptance has been filled finally, from the inside out. This time I'm free to be the whole self I've earned, with people who shared a time of life that is so significant we need to get together every ten years even though we have little else in common.

I think I'll go out to my childhood home this time. It still stands empty along the highway, all 80 acres of it, the barns, and the house. The house has begun to fall in on itself. There are ghosts who deserve to be put to rest finally into the sad soil that has waited forty years to receive them. It's time.