I am Grateful for Trees

I owe my livelihood to trees. No, I am not a logger or a builder. But I do log experiences and build with words. And how did trees lead me to words?

Tree LagunaI fell in love with trees as a child and was lucky enough to be surrounded by them. In Montreal, looking out from my grandmother’s windows, I could see maples, oaks, 200-feet pines, weeping willows, lilacs. Her house backed into a golf course; she and my grandfather were Scottish and avid golfers. After school, my friends and I snuck onto the course and climbed trees – crab apples, trying to stay hidden from golfers, oaks with giant arms over a pond, scrambling down fast enough to outrun those sent to chase us away. We hiked through neighborhood forests, scaring ourselves with tales of hobos, building forts and letting the trees embrace us.

Trees at duskIt wasn’t just the trees I loved, but the way the sunlight danced through and around their branches and leaves. Even in winter, when the trees resembled scarecrows, there was something magical about the silvery light and shadows. Trees can be hulking, gnarly and scary, embracing and protective, or graceful and lacy dancing in the wind.

I felt compelled to capture this and so I tried drawing. The winter trees I could recreate somewhat – one bony hand after another. But trees in spring, summer, fall – flat. My drawings were average and the magic was not there. I especially saw this when one of my girlfriends started to draw, and it soon became evident to everyone that she was a gifted artist. Her trees were alive and mine were not.Tree Smiling

I then tried photographing trees, but my tiny box of a Brownie camera had limitations. Today I can do more with my iPhone camera.

So I started writing about trees. I had an ability with words. I found myself wanting to describe everything, always searching for words and new ways to combine them. When my 5th grade teacher asked us to describe a season, I was off and running. I proudly brought in my essay-poem. She didn’t believe that I wrote it. My normally reserved mother was incensed and charged into our classroom. Of course she wrote it!

Autumn Leaves
There’s a lovely picture one can form
From floating leaves,
The scarlet red mingles with orange and gold,
As they fall like graceful doves
From the naked trees.
— Linda, Age 10

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My Ugly Out Back, Taming the Last Frontier

I’m almost all settled into my new place now. Everything’s unpacked, put away, hung up or enjoying a second life at the Good Will.

The only unsettled area is what I’m calling My Last Frontier and what an artistic friend of mine dubbed The Ghetto.

For two months, the patio and gravel area behind it were my junkyard. Anything I couldn’t find a place for went out into the ugly beyond – shoe racks, shelf units, bulletin boards, old towels, plastic bins full of who knows what.

According to feng shui, this area corresponds to my romance sector. Now I don’t really believe in feng shui, but if I did, I’d be in big trouble out here. Lots of old junk. Many discards. True, I also have living and flowering plants scattered around, but many are of the arid climate variety with prickly spikes. Ouch.

Finally, with my pre-move energy returning, I go out to tackle the Last Frontier Ghetto. I make piles. Keep. Foist off on family. Good Will. I stuff all the GW items into my car and the faux heirlooms into a closet.Last Frontier

This improves my view somewhat. I now see there are two distinct areas – the concrete patio with an overhang, and the outer Siberia hinterlands, a combination of gravel, round and square stepping stones in no particular order or design, ugly green carpet, tall, dead plants someone left behind in plastic pots, electric meters, and the wall of the carport with my car peeking through. There is no bamboo tall enough to block all that, not within 10 years or my budget anyway.

I can, however, banish Siberia from view with bamboo blinds. I’ll hang them from the patio overhang. Enclose the patio and focus on that for now. Add soft curtains, more artfully arranged plants and flowers, and maybe a love seat and candles?

My next door neighbor has blinds hanging around her patio, so I walk up close and examine how they are hung. Then I take a quick peek around the blinds into the patio. I had already imagined she had a cute little table and matching chairs and I’ve heard her out there enjoying wine or beer with her boyfriend. But there is no table or chair. There are just piles and piles of junk! Boxes, old furniture, various pieces of machinery. It’s a junkyard. This is what happens when we don’t have garages. And even with a feng shui no-no of a junkyard in her romance sector, she has a boyfriend. At least for now.

Haunted

I’m haunted by the face of an old boyfriend. I learned recently that he died. My sister heard through our hometown grapevine. My boyfriend was one of four brothers. My sister knew one and one of our girlfriends married another. In fact, that’s how my boyfriend and I met – walking down the aisle, bridesmaid and groomsman.

It was the summer before we both went off to different colleges. Only 100 miles apart, but far enough so that we only saw each other occasionally and dated others. I remember him as being kind and gentle and being there for me when my father had a heart attack at Christmas and recovered. He was also good-looking.

From the PastToward the end of the school year, he got more serious. But by then I had met the man I would marry. And he – unknown to him for eight and a half months – had gotten a woman pregnant. So we married others. We both had two sons. And lost touch.

I think I remember hearing that he eventually divorced, as did I. To be truthful, I didn’t think of him often. I had good memories of him, but he didn’t feel like the one who got away. It seems unbelievable now, looking back, that our paths never crossed again. He worked for Northrup as an engineer and I worked nearby for Xerox as a technical writer. We knew many of the same people and were circulating in our small community’s singles world – at least until a few years ago when I moved 100 miles south again.

So why does he haunt me now? Because his face came into my life again. He lives beyond death, thanks to the séance stalking of the Internet. I found his obituary and a video posted by his family. He was not old. Apparently had diabetes. He leaves behind two sons, three brothers, and a sister. No mention of wife or girlfriend. I didn’t recognize him at first in his online picture. He had gone bald and his once strong eyebrows were pale and his face puffy. But the video (In Loving Memory Of … ocean scenes, music, What a Wonderful Life, My Way …) included photos of him from birth to almost death. There he was as a cute little boy, a hunky surfer throwing back beers with buddies, in his brother’s wedding party, with his new bride, and then with his sons. His sons looked a lot like mine – blond mops of hair. Sailboats in the background. Near where I used to sail with my father.

Then the slightly heavier middle-aged engineer with thick glasses, an older son with hair gone darker as one of my son’s did. His brothers growing beards and paunches. A daughter-in-law and grandson. An attractive woman in a baseball cap – his sister?

At the end of the video, I was in tears, but his face now seemed familiar. It also seemed sad. Was he sad, or ill, or both? Was he surprised at how his life turned out? I wanted to reach back somehow and offer comfort. Should I have tried to find him 20 years ago? Would we have liked each other? If we had married a long time ago when we met, when our lives were still ahead of us, would we have been happy? Would we have had similar sons?

So, he haunts me – the fact that I’ll never know the answers and that the door is closed forever. Maybe he was the one who got away.

When Less is More, More or Less

I can’t tell you how annoyed I am at this woman, Debora Spar, for writing yet another advice book, but I am going to try.

Her book is called “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” She is the president of Barnard College and her message is that women can’t have it all and that feminism has led us down the wrong, harried path by telling us we can. I’ve received a double whammy of her message in the past week, an interview on The News Hour and a review and interview in a women’s magazine called “More.”

She admits she is too young to have been a part of the ’70s wave of feminism from which she benefitted. She seems to equate feminism with having it all and persuing perfection. I wish she had been around then to see what most of us wanted – when we first read “The Feminine Mystique” and pulled together in consciousness-raising groups. Most of the women I knew then, including myself, were trying to figure out our lives and what we wanted. We were trying to cut through illusions that defined us, not erect delusions about perfect lives.

We didn’t know anyone who had it all.

Some of us had wonderful husbands but felt trapped at home. Some of us had great jobs but crappy husbands. Some of us had wonderful children, some had troubled children, and some had no children and wanted them.

We Can Do It!Some of us had ended bad marriages and entered the workforce after a few years away. We took jobs that were beneath our abilities and pushed to learn more. We often met with barriers, with closed doors. Women can’t write about technical stuff. Women can’t work safely past the fifth month of pregnancy. Women can’t wear pants to work. Oh wait, you can wear pants to work, but the tops must cover your butts. Mini-skirts are okay. Seriously! It seems hard to believe now, when girls wear shorts and flip-flops to school.

Those of us with close to perfect lives – content alone or with a mate, with or without children, interesting work and activities – knew we were lucky. In life, we never know what will happen.

What we wanted – and still want – is to be treated with respect, by men and women, and to have equal access to opportunities, including the opportunity to choose. We may decide to work full-time, part time or to devote our time to our children or a worthwhile cause. Not all of us can make this choice if we have to support ourselves or children as single parents. If we are working, it helps to be making the same wages for the same work as men do. This is not the same as “having it all.”

Ironically, Spar is a perfectionist who ignores her own advice! She seems driven and even her own daughter tells her she’s setting a bad example. On one particular day, her husband is having shoulder surgery, she has a meeting with her publisher, an interview about her book, and then three – yes, three – parties to attend in different parts of town. She chooses to do them all and not visit her husband. For all we know, he was okay with that and even encouraged her to do her thing, so I’m not necessarily criticizing her. Me, I know there’s no way I could do all that in one day and still be a pleasant person who could converse. If Spar wants to be a super-achiever, that’s okay with me, but why tell other women not to do it – or confuse it with feminism?

And “More” should have less of this claptrap.

The Laundry Room – Part 2

I am not much of a one for airing my dirty laundry in public. You won’t see me writing a dark memoir about ex-husbands and boyfriends, unless I can make it funny, which is possible.

However, I’m considering beating my clothes against the rocks in my garden, maybe even turning on the garden hose. If there were a riverbank nearby, I would carry down my basket on my head.woman at pond

Yes, doing my laundry outside is more appealing than inside my new laundry room. Technically, it’s not a room. More like a shed – or a shack. Obviously an afterthought, an add-on. “Oh yes, I have these rentals, tenants need a place to do their laundry.” Someone has erected two pieces of plywood into a corner of the carport, one with hinges, an ersatz door.

Opening this door isn’t easy, too close to a big SUV. To get in, I have to turn sideways and worse, tip the laundry basket sideways too, spilling my clothes and contorting myself farther to pick them up.

The inside of the shed/shack is barely big enough for a washer and dryer, a hot water heater, and a cupboard. It’s like standing in a closet with little room to turn around or bend down and put clothes in the dryer.

Outside we are backed up to a school playground, with children shrieking. I feel like I’m in a portable toilet at a parade or street fair or picnic, without the smell.

Fortunately, the machines work well and quickly.

There are no surfer posters. Maybe I should hang one? Would the other tenants like it?

The shack at Windansea
The shack at Windansea

There is a community bulletin board on which one tenant has reserved Thursday mornings for his laundry time. He’s also set up a schedule for taking the trash and recycle bins to the curb. He’s drawn a nice little illustration of all four apartments and a corresponding chart of showing which Sunday we each have to move the bins, and take them in on Monday morning.

Yes, if I’m going to be toiling in a shed/shack, then there should be be a picture of paradise inside.

The Laundry Room — Part 1

I just moved into a place with the strangest laundry room. While I gather my wits dealing with this weird, weird set-up, I am remembering happier laundry days and rooms.

Recently I shared a washer and dryer in the garage of my duplex. This was as close as it gets to having my own washer and dryer in my own home. Here was my car snuggled in close behind me and there were my shelves of paint cans and plastic storage bins.

I soon figured out that my neighbor LOVED to do laundry. What she was washing all the time I never figured out, but she had those machines chugging and clanking away three days a week – Saturday and Sunday and Wednesday, her mid-week day off. Luckily I work at home, so I was able to do my wash easily enough on any of the other days. During my eight years there, we had problems with men and family members, but never with laundry.

Laundry Room
Door on left with vent is laundry room.

Before that, I lived in a small complex of eight units near the beach. The washer and dryer were located in a small, very small, storage room at the back of the building with a door on the alley. It was funky, but for some reason, I enjoyed it. I found an early timeslot to slip into the little room. Not too difficult, since most of the tenants were young people often slept in.

This room inspired a poem, which appeared in “A Year in Ink, Vol. 1” published by San Diego Writers, Ink.

Not All Laundromats Are Sad

—Idea laundered from Stephen Dunn

Compared to the laundry room in my apartment building the neighborhood laundromat is shangri-la even though ours is covered with cracked posters of surfers on curling waves someone has put up to make it seem inviting so that when we’re stuffing smelly socks into the washer and pouring gooey blue soap over the top we can imagine ourselves at a beachside resort running through a few towels and a bikini easy to do here because we really are just a few hundred feet from the ocean and surfers often walk by in the sunshine as I’m digging out my quarters and pushing them in with a clunk and waiting for the rushing gushing sound of water that will soak away a week’s worth of sweat spills and grimy toil before the machine shudders to a stop and waits for my return holding its damp digested mass until I can pick it apart and throw it piece by piece into the dryer checking first to see if the previous user cleaned the lint screen which usually he or she has not but I really don’t mind because I enjoy plucking and rolling it off and even using it to wipe down the edges of the opening a blast furnace that will suck everything dry and then I enjoy the folding process the sense of completing something at least for another week easier than completing a poem and even though the little room is a sad neglected place compared to the one down on the corner which is clean and modern and bright and filled with beautiful people with beautiful bodies it suits me just fine with the tang of salt air and champion surfers for company.

Settling in with Ghosts

Settling in. Week number five now. It takes awhile to feel the spirit or spirits of a new place. At first, there is too much bumping into boxes, walls, door jams to hear the stories here being narrated by ghosts and choreographed by shadows.

I lie awake at night and listen to new noises. Which noises are normal and which are not? Gurgling of pipes, creaking, knocking, scratching of branches, flutter of wings against the window. During the day there are hummingbirds hovering over the purple-blue morning glories. Outside the window, the night sky is as inky dark as it gets and I cannot tell what is out there. Suddenly a light goes on. Is it an automatic light sensing an animal, or my neighbor lighting up his room or a car’s headlights from the street? Another neighbor takes a shower and the pipes shudder and shake the walls as he turns off the water.

Shadows on wall

My cats are restless. They rattle the blinds trying to see into the night, jump on and off my bed several times before finally settling in. Yes, settling in. It takes awhile.

I do not believe in ghosts or anything supernatural. Nevertheless, ghosts can exist in our imagination, especially when we move into new homes. They can be remnants of what we imagine happened here – or even what we know happened here. I happen to know that the last occupant lost her job and her dog. She also found a dead cat on this front lawn, which I saw too while out walking. Did her dreams of joy drift away and leave the ghosts of sadness?

Or the opposite. Did joyous people live here – circus performers, artists, singers, dancers, cooks? Their laughter and creativity remain.

Shadows on CurtainOr maybe my new house is purged of ghosts and I can bring my own. What is that dream taunting me outside the window after the sun goes down and before it comes up again? What is that shadow on the wall – branches and leaves reaching toward me with a warning, or an embrace?