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28 Degree Morning

Driving down Aurora Avenue after a cold morning fitness class. Toes and hands numb, I enjoy my heated car seat, the welcome warm air from the heater’s fans pointed right at me. I feel good as I thaw out, tapping my hands on the steering wheel. A loud song on the radio.

Singing along, I stop at a red light in front of The Purple Store, an example of ridiculous consumerism if ever there was one. I glance over, always surprised that it’s still open. And there he is, on this bright 28 degree morning.

Lying against the wall, two dirty foam mattresses keeping him off the ground, if not away from the cold air rising from the sidewalk. Blankets piled up over his sleeping bag, reaching to his chin. Awake in his hood, he stares miserably at the sky, Big Gulp cup by his side, an empty food container next to it. He looks eerily like my student, Billy.

Billy, the funny, friendly college kid with the look of an affectionate puppy. Billy, who with his mix of humor and seriousness, makes his classmates laugh. Billy who everyone likes.  Billy who, unlike many of his peers in class, spent his childhood playing baseball and hanging out with his friends instead of spending all his time under parental pressure to study. Billy worries about that sometimes. Does it mean he’s not sufficiently serious enough to tackle the future?

The young man lying on the sidewalk on Aurora, trying to keep warm on a 28 degree morning could be Billy’s twin brother. If this or that had been different, he could have been a Billy, himself, sitting in a college classroom instead of lying on the ground trying not to freeze. Making his classmates laugh instead of staring miserably at the sky.

The light turns green. I drive away.

Billy/not Billy remains.

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Names (redux)*

I come from a family in which the three women have two names and the two men each have a single, short name. (Insert the ubiquitous  “You must be Catholic” quip here.)

The double names of my mother and sister roll off the tongue; mine is full of consonants and seems to flummox most casual acquaintances on our first meeting. But I persist in claiming the whole thing because I am not a “Mary.”

“Do you go by Mary or by the whole thing?” people ask optimistically. This usually occurs in a doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room–bless them for even asking.

“The whole thing,” I reply. I can almost see the inward sigh under the professional exterior. If I like the person, I’ll add, “Or you can call me ‘MC’ if it’s easier.”

I’ll let you guess what ubiquitous quip often follows that.

 

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*I was inspired to write this after reading an essay called Names on the new blog The Five Hundreds.

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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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Dorothy and Oz*

This is an excerpt from my essay for OutdoorsNW Magazine for this week.  If you enjoy it, I hope you’ll click over to the website to read the whole essay.

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On a February morning in 2010 I was lying on my back in the snow feeling like Dorothy as I looked up at the faces of those gathered around me. They smiled encouragingly as it dawned on me…maybe my “agony of defeat” moment had been more than a typical wipeout. They were all there: the ski patrollers, my daughter and my husband, two neighbors, another friend, the kind man who had stopped and helped.

But the excruciating pain was gone, as was the shock of the fall, and I sat up.

“Oh, I don’t think I need that,” I said, looking at the patrollers’ sled. “I can make my way down.”

“Let’s just get you standing up,” one of them said. “Then we’ll see.”

They helped me to my feet and let go, but my leg just collapsed beneath me.

A friend gave me a knowing look.

“Don’t say it!” I said.

He didn’t have to.

The look said it all: blown knee, surgery, months of rehab.

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