Walking Man

For years Walking Man and I took the same road. He, on foot. Me, by car. In opposite directions. He, south. Me, north. Me, south. He, north. Mile after mile, day after day.

Always passing. Passing the vacant lots, the hookers, the bus stops, the broken glass, the gun shop, the organic co-op, the eCigarette store, the cross-fit and yoga studios, the mani/pedi salon, the school, the Dollar Store, the paint shop.

For years Walking Man and I took the same road in all its weather. Rain, sleet, snow, sun, dust, cloud, smog trapped over the six-lane road.

He, always, in brown pants with brown sweat jacket, hood pulled over his dreadlocks. His skin, hair, long matted beard the color of chocolate, the color of his clothes. Tall, handsome, some days a slight bounce in his step, others a steady grace. Always the same pace, always straight-backed, arms swinging by his sides.

Me, windshield wipers on or off, heat or AC blowing, windows cracked or not. Stalled in heavy traffic or gliding down the lanes on rare open days. Me, in clothes that shifted layers from day to day, season to season, choices dependent on what I observed from the comfort of my home in the mornings before I left.

After Christmas came and went this odd winter, Walking Man wore a new jacket. Brown and cream houndstooth, with fleece cuffs and collar. The fresh milky color of the fleece contrasting with the rich brown of the pattern. Chocolate brown, matching his hoodie and his pants, his skin and his hair.

Someone knew what color to get.

When the weather worsened, the new jacket was layered beneath the old. Cuffs and collar just visible. Graying.

For years Walking Man and I took the same road. He, on foot. Me, by car. He, silent. Me, singing along to the radio. One day Walking Man was talking to himself. Agitated, fists clenched. Something needed to be said. Something important. The next day silent again, back to his slow, steady pace.

I went away for a while and then I was sick for a while and stayed bundled up at home. When life resumed its normal pace, I took to the road again, day by day. It was a week before I realized it.

Walking Man was not on the road.

Another week, and another.

I asked a friend, the only one I knew who also measured her trips down the road by his presence, “Have you seen Walking Man lately?”

“No. Now that I think about it. It’s been weeks.”

“I’m worried,” I say. I have imagined terrible circumstances.

“I could contact homeless advocate I know,” says my friend. “Maybe he can tell us something.”

Maybe he could. But I think about many things. About freedom and privacy and well-meaning but clueless gestures. And I think about a new houndstooth jacket with fleece cuffs and collar.

I wondered then as I wonder each time I take the road again–

If a person is no longer there, no longer where we think he ought to be, does that mean he’s missing?

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Summer Afternoon: A Moment

I’m at the creek at the farm. I am ten or eleven years old, lying on my stomach on a big flat rock jutting into the low creek, the surface of its lazy trickle of water radiating the heat of summer. Dappled sunlight lights the creek bed lining the bottom of the narrow hollow I’d scrambled down hours before. It’s a while past noon now, and the shadows of the trees along the slopes are just beginning to stretch over me.

I’m looking in the water of a small pool set against the bank, deeper than most of the little water pockets created when the spring melt eroded the sides of the hills sloping above, but not by much. If I lie still I can see water bugs skating along the surface, crayfish scuttling along the bottom, maybe a salamander—black with red or yellow spots—if I pry a stick or stone from the mash of wet leaves and mud at the waterline. The cool water feels good on my hands as I lightly wave them on the surface. Dragonflies zip back and forth. It’s a sleepy time of day.

I don’t know how I do it—maybe I toss a stone in or poke the wrong part of the mud with a stick—but suddenly there is a startled water snake, a black slithering “S” winding its way across the pool. It stops under the hanging tree roots on the far side, turns its head, unhinges its jaws and opens its wide, white-cheeked mouth at me, curving fangs at the ready. It’s not a large snake. It’s not close enough to be dangerous, but this snake has had enough of my meddling. I have threatened it and I’m supposed to pay the price. Cottonmouth. Water Moccasin.

It’s a small one. I do not fear it. After all, I’ve read all the Little House on the Prairie books. I have one of them in the bag lying next to me on this warm rock in the sun.

This is what I have learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels. Nature is beautiful and dangerous and endlessly fascinating. When a girl is in nature, when she sets off to explore the wilderness—even in the relatively tame creek beds of southern Ohio—she must show the proper respect. It is up to the girl to get herself out of sticky situations when they arise.

I remain on my stone, staring, and the snake remains in the shelter of the bank, threatening, until we both get bored and move on to other things. No snake bites today.

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Foundation

When I was in college my parents sold the weekend property—“the farm”— they had bought when I was a child. The cabin and the forty acres it stood on were a giant playground on which I spent a great deal of my childhood. It was the perfect place for a kid with a large imagination, a peaceful place where every day irritants like sibling warfare and family squabbles never seemed to matter. Everyone loosened up a bit when we pulled into the long, overgrown driveway.

There was a place of mystery at the farm. A short distance from the cabin was a mound. It was a rather small, horseshoe-shaped mound, but to me as a child it was huge. I liked to think it was an ancient Indian mound even after my father explained that it was the foundation of the house that had once stood on the property. All evidence pointed that way, though I didn’t want it to. The mound was located next to the old iron hand pump where we still got our water, worn stone steps led from the pump into the mound—the root cellar—and we found several broken stoneware plates embedded into the soil.

The ruined foundation was beautiful to me. Grass grew over the two sides of the horseshoe, long and unmown. Trees shaded the curve where it bent in on itself. They were young trees, some walnut, mostly maple. Grapes grew at the base of the right side. On the left side was the green-painted pump and, at the end, a dead tree.

The dead tree was one of my favorite perches. Both the mound and its dead tree were on top of a hill, and I could stand on a broken-off branch at the base of the tree and lean against its decaying trunk and look out across the valley. I could see our land as it sloped down and out of sight into the creek bed and then rose up again on the other side as someone else’s property— it looked the same in reverse, the upward slope mirroring ours. The tiny white farmhouse at the top of that property was just visible from my tree.

I wondered if the farmer across the valley had known the people who had lived in the house on the mound. I wished to know their history. I made up stories about them.

The steps that led down to the center of the mound were well set. Only a few had cracks running across them. They were rough, hand hewn from the rock that covered the hills. Each stone was rectangular, wide, and thick. Even after such long exposure to the elements, the steps were even and steady. Other than the steps, the pump, the mound, and the occasional bits and pieces of crockery, there was not a trace left of the house that had once stood there.

As my brother, sister, and I grew older, the inevitable happened. The farm had lost its novelty. We became preoccupied with basketball games, dances, and our friends. Much to my father’s disappointment, the three of us joined our parents for trips to the farm with less and less often and, finally, not at all. The lives of each of us moved in new directions. My parents and I moved to a new city and my brother and sister went to college. The farm remained where it was, further distanced from us by geography. Reluctantly, my father sold it.

When I think back on that horseshoe-shaped mound—even at a remove of over 25 years—it is easy to imagine what happened to the people who once lived there. The children probably grew up and away from the farm. They followed paths they thought were better, destinations that held new mysteries, new experiences. They left the mossy steps, the broken dishes, the footprint of their house behind them, just as we left the farm behind us, too.

I miss the farm. I regret that I let the last few years of driving down the long gravel driveway go by without savoring them. It was a place that played an important part of who I was—of who I am even now—and I feel a bond with the unknown family who once inhabited the same patch of earth that we did.

I hope that their memories of the place were as fond as mine are, and I hope that any regrets they may have had were only those of leaving a place that was much loved.

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A note on the text: This essay is an odd collaboration between me and myself. In the spring of 1990, when I was a senior at Ohio University, I took a nature writing course with the poet John Haines, who was spending the year in Athens as a visiting professor. Springtime in SE Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalacian Mountains, is glorious, and it was the perfect time to take such a course. I wrote a version of this essay–then called “The Mound”–for that class. 

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on an idea that has its origins at the farm. I’d completely forgotten “The Mound.”  For whatever reason, I found myself rummaging through old boxes this week and there it was. A sheaf of papers from my nature writing class, typed out on my portable electric typewriter. This new version has been revised and edited by yours truly.

Funny how that happens.

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The Lamb

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, the saying goes.  This one started off no differently than in most years–a month in transition, weeks that feel as if the earth is holding its breath until spring decides if it will remain or go back into hiding. The weather is another matter, almost schizophrenic in its indecision. The first couple of weeks of March this year the Pacific Northwest got more than 18 inches of rain. We normally average seven.

In one window of time, a window that is still wide open, tragedy has struck all around. A vast mudslide buried a whole community, swallowing up houses, cars, people, everything in its path. A helicopter fell from a helipad onto traffic below. A father died, skiing an easy run on a blue bird day.

Yesterday, I got in the elevator at the medical center behind a woman in a wheelchair, her leg bandaged from a recent amputation, her head shaved, likely because of an aggressive treatment. She made light conversation with the security guard who had wheeled her in. They chatted about flowers, warm air, the welcome sun. Part of her story is plain to see. Her tone of voice, her brightness keeps the rest hidden.

On two separate occasions recently I have seen women I know from a distance. Too far to greet them, but close enough to see that they, too, have shorn heads. Both beautiful; both stylish; both could easily carry the look. Hopeful, I asked a friend if the woman we saw at the same moment had shaved her head by choice. If anyone has the guts to do it, I thought, she does. “No,” said my friend. “It was not a choice.”

March wasn’t always a complicated month. I mostly considered it forgettable—one of those parts of the year that seem to slip by almost without notice. No real holidays, no big national events. Just a spell of time between the dark days of winter and the glory of the “real” spring months of warmth and life.

Then, years ago, a nephew was born. It became his birthday month. Eventually, after another stretch of years, my daughter was born. It was her month, too. Only two years passed before a family tragedy struck–sudden, inexplicable.

March became something different after that. A lopsided month that has a significance it doesn’t deserve; this previously nothing month. The joy of the two birthdays is now always weighed down by poignancy, even though we work hard to lighten the load.

Today, a long-awaited breakfast with friends I don’t see often enough. We greeted one another with laughter and hugs. And then we somberly recounted our connections among the newly dead, the recently hurt and ill. We live in a large city, but two of us know the family of the skier who died. One of us knows a man who lost three family members in the mudslide. Another knows relatives of the man seriously injured when the helicopter fell. All of us know one of the two women with shorn hair.

We stayed there a while, in the place where collective sadness helps rather than hurts, but then we started in on our brimming plates of warm food. We shifted the weight of our hearts and our conversation so we could talk of kids and school; of spring, blooms, and sunlight; of life eventually coming back and drying out the saturated earth. Because that’s what it does. Regardless of circumstances, regardless of the times it weighs us down, life just keeps on coming back.

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*Letting Them Run

Appropriately enough, my last ski blog for OutdoorsNW this season was posted on the first day of spring. *Here is an excerpt. If you like it, I hope you’ll head over the the OutdoorsNW blog to read the whole essay and to see pictures from Mt. Bachelor in Oregon State, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever skied.

Letting them Run

“’Your skis want to run,’ said Michael as I sat in the snow digging my ski free so I could stand up again. “’You’re holding them back.’

Our group had crossed a difficult ridgeline on the backside of the summit on Mt. Bachelor. Storms had scoured the surface, leaving sharp spikes of hoar frost in their wake. Like a receding high tide leaves ridges in the sand of a beach, the winds had left lines of rock-hard ice sticking up in thin strips across the face of the mountain. They looked fragile and beautiful in the sunlight, but they were unbreakable and caught our edges and tripped us up as we crossed.”

Click here to read the whole essay.

Now onto the spring ski season and ideas for new essays that may not (or may) have anything to do with nature or skiing or mountains. Oh who am I kidding? Never say never and all that.

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Three Excerpts

I’ve been a little behind with posting excerpts from my ski blog over at OutdoorsNW Magazine. Here are some tidbits from my last three essays, click on the links for the complete texts. Enjoy!

From The Poles You Save May Be Your Own:

“’Hey, wait a second and I can help you,’ I said.

But, she took a step – whoosh – and was gone, rocketing down the slope upside-down and on her back. She eventually came to a stop, halfway down, a ski and two poles marking her crooked descent. The other ski was almost out of sight. The girl sat up as I made my way down, gathering her gear along the way.

By the time we got to the bottom, the instructor had made it over to meet us.

‘Thank you so much! Whoever you are!’ he said, smiling.

I’ll admit it. There was a split second there, the slightest moment, when I felt a little like a superhero – the mysterious stranger appearing in the nick of time to rescue the innocent bystander from imminent peril.”

From Vittels

“I could have made a New Year’s resolution that we’d become the family that packs cut-up fruit, artisanal sandwiches on home-baked bread and tubs brimming with quinoa salad for lunch on the weekend, but the truth of our ski food lies in two realms: the easy and the practical.

What will get us out the door in the shortest time possible? What is transportable? And, most importantly, what will we actually eat on a day in the mountains? (Historical note: not fruit and not salads.)”

From What Kind of Parents Let Their Kids…?

“Years ago I stood on a slope in utter disbelief as my 4-year-old, so tiny she had to be picked up and put on the seat by a lifty, sat alone on the lift chair, legs straight, skis just barely clearing the edge of the seat. Right above my head she went, a tiny fluff of down perched high above the snow. I’d been spying on her class from behind a rise, and she had no idea that my heart was pounding in my throat as I realized she could fall off that thing.

What was I doing, allowing this to happen? What if she was terrified all alone up there? What if the worst happened? What kind of parent lets her little kid ride up a lift by herself?”

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A Detour Into Pop Culture

I watched about 30-40 minutes of this year’s Grammy Awards, long enough to see Keith Urban’s performance with Gary Clark, Jr. (and then I lived through some performances I quickly forgot).  I watched Paul McCartney and the former members of Nirvana win the award for Best Rock Song, which they all claimed to have just thrown together in a two-hour jam session. When I listened to Gary Clark, Jr’s album the next day, I wondered if the McCartney/Nirvana folks won more by nostalgia than because they truly had the best song. I know how I would have voted.

In the days that followed there was a lot of talk about Macklemore winning the best new artist award, among others, and Kendrick Lamar, who many thought should have won the best new artist award instead. I don’t care that much about who won what, really, but there was an internet firestorm about whether Macklemore somehow robbed Kendrick Lamar of a well-deserved shot at a Grammy.

One article in particular, Brittney Cooper’s essay in Salon “Macklemore’s Useless Apology: Grammys and the Myth of Meritocracy”, took me back to many a conversation I had as a college student about racism, white privilege, patriarchy, ideology, and all the –isms that go along with those concepts. One conversation in particular came flooding back to me.

When I was a graduate student in English in the early 90s, my favorite writers were black American novelists, particularly Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. I wanted to specialize in African-American Literature. The obvious question weighed on my mind: What right did I, a middleclass white woman, have to research and teach African-American literature?

One day I had the immense pleasure to drive the distinguished professor Nellie Y. McKay to the airport after she gave the keynote speech at a literary festival on campus. What better person to ask? She was a pioneer in African-American and women’s literary studies. She was trapped in my car; we were taking a detour because I had taken a wrong turn. I nervously broached the subject. Did I have any right to pursue this?

“Of course you do!” She said. But she warned me. I’d have to be excellent. I’d have to know my stuff. I’d have to study the writers and all their works inside and out. I’d be challenged, especially by black students, who would ask how I dared to teach them about their experiences. “Tell them honestly,” she said. “That you cannot and will not try to teach them about their experience as black people. You will teach them about literature that happens to be written by black people.”

And she went on to say that if we were all limited to teach only that with which we had direct experience, then she as a woman, as a black person, would never be able to teach works by her favorite authors: Melville, Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, Cather, Welty, O’Connor, and so on.

I thought of that conversation after I read the Brittney Cooper’s article and saw some of the responses to it. Yes, there’s a very long history in our country of black artists being bilked of monetary and personal artistic rewards for their hard work. Yes, sometimes we think there’s an imbalance in who gets the accolades (remember Kanye West’s reaction to Tayor Swift’s win at the VMAs?). There is a long and convoluted history of artistic influence that is enmeshed in our diverse and complex culture—often at the expense of artists of color. Though its origins are very troubling, this artistic influence—from the blues, from gospel, from jazz, from oral traditions–is incredibly rich and is so tightly enmeshed in the fabric of our country now, that we couldn’t untangle it even if we wanted to.

But I think Macklemore is being scapegoated a bit here in this current debate. He wrote and produced an album that has enormous appeal across demographics  and that sold millions and millions of copies. He didn’t vote for himself—others nominated him and gave him the wins. He tried to do the right thing by reaching out to Lamar and it backfired in the court of internet opinion, but if he’d stayed silent…?

My daughter’s 8th grade language arts class has been discussing this issue of white privilege (some would say Macklemore won solely because of this) vs. artistic integrity (some would say Lamar lost, but still has this) this week—at this point she’s ready to get back to Shakespeare. Her description of the kids’ discussion reminded me of how easy it is sometimes to believe that there are clear cut answers to the questions of race and culture and merit in this country. Should Macklemore’s hip hop be discounted because he’s white? Should Lamar’s hip hop be considered better because he’s black?

I think Nellie McKay would take a thoughtful pause before answering those questions.

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