Saturday, May 31, 2008

Summer Thoughts

Recent excavations at Stonehenge in England have revealed that the site was, among other things, a burial ground. I didn’t know that. What I did know, and what pertains to our discussion here, is that Stonehenge is built so that on the morning of the summer solstice the sun’s light dawns right through the middle of one of the arches. This is one clue among many that the summer solstice had great meaning for ancient peoples.
It’s the longest day and the shortest night of the year, and as such was a time of celebration. Summer is the year in full bloom. Summertime is when, according to George and Ira Gershwin, the living is easy.
In the Christian calendar we mark the solstice on June 24 by remembering the birth of John the Baptist. Even some Christians will read that and say, “Oh, really?” Poor old John the Baptist – he gets nothing like the press and hoop-la that Jesus gets for his birthday six months later, not to mention the cultural excesses.
Christians most often hear about this John during Advent, when we hear him speak of one who is yet to come who is greater than he. He also tosses a few choice epithets at the Pharisees and Sadducees and by extension at us. For example: “You brood of vipers,” one of my favorite epithets. John is usually pictured in church bulletins as looking like an ascetic Fred Flintstone, wrapped in a short robe of camel hair, sporting a scruffy beard, his arms raised in warning: repent oh sinners!
The fact that not much is made of John the Baptist’s nativity observance either religiously or culturally demonstrates the point I wish to make about summer spirituality: everyone is busy in summer.
Whether tilling the soil, vacationing, getting married, going to or playing games, swimming, sunning, picnicking, going to summer festivals, driving the kids to various activities, et cetera, we are all basking in the warmth and light of the season. Even the homeless have an easier time of it in summer.
In December we all huddle together to beg whatever powers that be to please send the sun back because if the light doesn’t return this time we’re all going to die in the cold and dark. In the summer the terror of darkness is far away. Even rain is pleasant in the summer, because it’s warm, and bright, and it’s followed by more sunshine.
Oh, I know that you pagans are going to be out dancing on the night of the summer solstice and goddess bless as you do, but for most of the rest of us, it’s the end of the school year, the beginning of vacation time, a time of getting out and doing things rather than hunkering down to contemplate rebirth. In summer we are alive and living as fast as we can. Our spirits are more extroverted.
So I don’t have any deep thoughts regarding summer spirituality. It’s all about living in the light, with the confidence that life is with us indeed. Life is good, and it’s good to be alive in this beautiful world. That’s summer.
There is, however, a darker side of summer. As the summer wears on, and the days begin to shorten, there is a pressing spiritual question that arises, something we all must face and with which we must deal. That question is, of course, “What in God’s name are we going to do with all this zucchini?”*

*Thanks and a tip o' the hat to my writer friend Susan Bardwell down in Angleton, Texas, who got me thinking about zucchini.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Further Adventures in Parenthood

Or, the iPod at the Bottom of Lake Union

“Well, the cops finally brought my kid home,” my friend told me the other afternoon when we ran into each other in the book room at Granny’s.
“Ah,” I replied, putting an arm around her shoulder, “You are no longer a ‘having the cops bring your kid home’ virgin.”
A mother of young children who was standing nearby overheard this exchange and glanced at us with a startled expression. She said, “Something I have to look forward to, I suppose.”
Not if you are fortunate. Perhaps. There is a large club of parents who get phone calls they never wanted to get.
In this instance the (adult) child in question had not committed a crime. She had not shoplifted, or taken a car joyriding, or wrecked a car she’d taken joyriding, or wrecked her own car. Please do not ask why I am familiar with reasons why the cops might bring your kid home, or ask you to come bring the kid home.
My friend’s daughter was in a boat that submerged in Lake Union. “The boat didn't sink,” her mom explained, “it submerged. It is a Port-a-boat® and will not sink due to flotation around the gunwales.” The Port-a-boat® belonged to Mom, and was powered by a two-horse motor she had purchased for the boat the day before. Daughter was under way with her mother’s blessing and a few friends and relations.
“I was going this way, Mom,” her daughter said, pointing straight ahead, “and then I was going this way,” pointing down.
Daughter did have the presence of mind to turn off the motor when she saw what was happening.
It was a maiden voyage for the boat and the motor. Daughter and friends had piled in without stopping to spread the ballast evenly throughout the boat, and the bow was a little low. They were putting along at a strolling pace when the bow began shipping water, and pretty soon, it was under water, and right after that everyone and everything in the boat was in the water. Daughter had insisted that everyone wear life vests, so they floated, but there was a tragic loss of iPod and cell phone. Oh, the humanity.
“It was a case of mis-loading and not sitting in the right places,” Mom said.
Given that everyone was safe, not drowned, and escorted safely home by Seattle’s finest, Mom was concerned with the fate of her boat and motor. The boat, once pulled out of the water, was fine. The motor, not so much.
So she took the motor to her boat engine guy, and he took it apart and cleaned it and oiled it and put it back together, good as new or nearly. Then it slipped out of his hands and cracked its casing on the floor.
“God does not want me to have a two-horse motor,” my friend mourned.
I commiserated with my friend on this whole turn of events. It turned out pretty well, considering. Daughter did show presence of mind, the passengers were fine, the boat was fine, and the motor dealership had a supply of casings on hand because apparently dropping and breaking them is a common occurrence.
You’ve heard it before and I’ll say it again: being a parent never ends. They grow up and you’re still praying for their safety and well-being, and sometimes things happen that are not at all what you planned or expected. In fact, most of what happens falls in the unplanned and unexpected categories.
As for having your kids brought home by the cops, or getting that phone call telling you to come pick up your kid – well, if you are fortunate, that will never happen to you.
If you are not so fortunate, you will have to adjust your expectations and understanding of what raising children and being a parent can be. We are united in sympathy and understanding, so if you get that call, remember – you’re not the first, you won’t be the last, and there are a lot of people who understand exactly how you feel.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Going Sixty Beautifully

Going Sixty Beautifully

“Hey, Beautiful Cousin,” my cousin Nancy began, “I have a week off at the end of April. Let’s go down to the Oregon Coast.”
Note: My cousin and I call each other beautiful as often as possible. I have friends with whom I do this as well. We’ve learned that greeting someone as beautiful, and being greeted as beautiful, makes you feel beautiful, and actually lights up your true beauty. You might want to try it, if you haven’t already.
Back to our story.
So began the celebration of my sixtieth birthday, which is still a few weeks off. Nancy said we would begin the celebration early because this was the only time she had off.
She took the train over to Seattle last Sunday, and we began our week by having brunch at Ivar’s Salmon House. This was unintentional – we meant to have lunch, but it turns out that Ivar’s has a rather famous buffet brunch it serves every Sunday morning. We did not complain. It was good, if overwhelming. The American dilemma – too many choices.
We came out to the island so Nancy could see our new house, and we stayed the night here at home.
Monday, we beat feet south to Longview, where we met up with my beautiful friend Sonya, who had taken the train up from Vancouver, and my beautiful friend Jan, who lives in Longview.
When you’re traveling, even as short a distance as a couple of hours down the freeway, it is a great thing to have someone who knows the city you’re in to show you around, and Jan is all hospitality. She gave us a choice of three Great Places to Eat. We started at a place (whose name I cannot remember) that served boba tea (tea with large pearls of tapioca in it) and great panini. I had the grilled avocado melt. Yum.
She then took us on a tour of Longview’s cultural high spots. OK, she took us to the library, where she works, and drove by her church and her house. We ended up at the British tea room where Jan told us the story of the traffic ticket she got in Arizona.
She and her mother and sister (all beautiful) were on vacation when Jan got pulled over for doing 72 in a 50 mile an hour zone. This was a $200 ticket. But Jan is so charming, beautiful, and obviously decent that the officer decided to give her a $30 ticket instead, and wrote her up for “the abuse of finite resources.”
Let us savor that phrase: “the abuse of finite resources.” It rolls around in the mouth with all the flavor of a chunk of grilled avocado melt. Aah.
After a marvelous few hours together, Jan had to go to work and Sonya had to catch the train back to Vancouver. We all parted at the train station and Nancy and I headed out Highway 30 to Astoria, Oregon.
On the way we passed the remains of a mud slide which closed the road during last December’s flood rains – whoa. I remember seeing this on the news at the time – there was a house that had been transported by the mud right down across the highway. The road is open now, but when you’ve said that, you’ve said it all. The slide and much of the damage it did is still there, including wrecked buildings and half-buried cars. If you want to get a glimpse of what a little mud can do, drive out Highway 30 sometime.
Tuesday, we drove around Astoria, enjoying the views. Astoria was the jumping off point for lumber logged for John Jacob Astor. The lumber was loaded up here and was shipped to Astoria, New York. My friend, Alice, who used to live in Astoria, New York, told me this.
The superfluity of lumber (I love slipping words from the Book of Common Prayer into ordinary speech) meant that Astoria was built with all the Victorian flair that 19th century builders could muster. So the town seems to consist almost entirely of Victorian mansions, or at least large and beautiful Victorian homes, complete with gingerbread. Many have been fixed up and given fresh paint; some have not, and show the wear and tear of many decades of coastal rain.
What Astoria has besides gorgeous Victorian architecture is a superfluity of views of the Columbia River. You almost have to work to find a place without a view, and from the ridge at the top of the hill you can gaze out at the mouth of the Columbia, and the Washington coast going north and the Oregon coast going south and the Pacific Ocean out to the western horizon. There are people living up there who can see this view from their homes every day. Imagine getting up and having your morning cuppa while contemplating this vast expanse of earth and water.
We drove up to the Astoria Column, which is located on top of the second and taller hill behind Astoria. On my 50th birthday Nancy and her sister Charlotte and I visited Astoria, and discovered that a fellow named Electus Litchfield had a hand in building the column. He knew how to do the murals which spiral up the column, depicting scenes from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. There is a lot of Lewis and Clark awareness out on the Columbia.
Being Litchfield descendants, we decided we had to see the column.
Charlotte and I climbed the Astoria Column’s interior staircase that time, just to prove to ourselves that we could. Ten years later I had no intention of climbing the Column again, but they’re building a new staircase so no one is climbing the Column at present. Don’t you love it when you can’t even be tempted to do something you don’t want to do?
We drank in that view and asked a nice young woman to take our picture with our cameras. She was a professional photographer, carrying a camera with a lens the size of a (large) Dachshund. She was a little confused by our simple snapshot cameras, but she graciously took our pictures.
After that we drove around town some more. We drove by the elementary school featured in “Kindergarten Cop,” but we couldn’t find the house featured in “The Goonies.”
When we decided we were done with Astoria, we drove south. We went to Cannon Beach, a town which seems to exist solely to delight the tourist eye and pocketbook. It is lovely and cute in the extreme, and I am sure that many people enjoy it immensely.
We ambled south to Tolovana Beach, to a public beach with restrooms and a parking lot, and we parked there looking out at the ocean, watching the waves roll in. We talked about our lives, our family, and the one ship we could see out on the horizon, most of it hidden beyond the curvature of the earth. We sat there watching the waves for at least an hour.
This was the high point of the trip.
Then we drove back to Seaside where we got a room with an ocean view and watched the waves a while longer. Had dinner in the hotel restaurant, where a waiter named Franklin treated us like queens and brought my dessert with a lit birthday candle. Oh, yeah. We were celebrating my 60th birthday.
Wednesday, we sampled the fleshpots of Seaside, which were fairly quiet as the tourist season has not launched yet. Seaside reminds us of the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, where we spent many happy hours as children. We ate lunch at the Pig ‘n’ Pancake, and then decided to mosey back north so Nancy would catch her train home the next day.
We crossed the bridge over the Columbia at Astoria and drove back to Longview on Highway 4. No spectacular mudslides, but many beautiful views of the Columbia and the countryside, and at least one Elder Hostel, of which I made a mental note. Sonya has reminded me that once I turn 60, I qualify.
Once you’re on I-5, you’re just driving, and that’s what we did, all the way to Puyallup, where we made a stop at the casino. I made my contribution to Native American prosperity, and walked out broke. Nancy walked out with $50, but we will gloss over lightly how much she contributed to Native American prosperity before she hit that whooping slot machine that sent us into the night giggling.
By that time it was so late that we wouldn’t have been able to get back to the island until 2 a.m., and then we would have had to turn around in the morning to bring Nancy back in to the train station in Seattle. So we stayed the night at a Howard Johnson’s where the heat didn’t work, the flush handle had fallen off the toilet, there was a big hole in one of the bedspreads, and we were awakened early by a leaf blower. This was not the worst motel room I’ve ever been in, but it reminded me of the worst room.
Our last day we moseyed up Highway 99 to Seattle, hit my favorite yarn shop in West Seattle, had lunch at Ivar’s (in the best seat in the house, the southwest corner looking out at Lake Union), and then I dropped my Beautiful Cousin off at the King Street Station.
So ended our trip to the ocean, and the first chapter of my sixtieth birthday celebration. We had fun. I am exhausted, and realizing I was wise to call off the trip to England that my friends Tara and Becky were planning for this month. I’m almost over the mono, but not quite. Maybe England next year.
Sixty feels like an auspicious age. I find myself thinking of all the people I knew who have not made it to sixty. I feel obliged to live life to the full, to try to make up for my friends’ absence, not to mention my own sense of how blessed I am to still be here.
I invite my dear departed friends to watch the waves through my eyes. I am happy to be here, pain and all. I intend to go on abusing my finite resources as long as I can.