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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stories and the Story

This weekend I got to attend WOTS the Write on the Sound writers' conference in Edmonds. Something I love about conferences is the hashing apart and analysis of plot, structure and character. What is the conflict in the story you are writing? 

At one workshop I attended the presenter listed five basic possible conflicts found in literature -- man versus man, man versus society, man versus himself, man versus nature and man versus technology. 

At another workshop I attended a few years ago, these same conflicts showed up but that presenter also listed man versus God. But my favorite summary remains one I heard at that same conference: that all plots boil down to some variation of Girl Grows Up or Stranger Comes to Town. And when I stopped and analyzed my favorite books, I realized how true this was -- even if simplified. Scarlett O'Hara, Dorothy, Jane Eyre, Lucy Pevensie, Anne of Green Gables? Girl Grows Up. The Hobbit, Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice? Stranger Comes to Town. 

For years I've said that all stories are telling part of the One Story. So this weekend when I was thinking again about stories and the Girl Grows Up or Stranger Comes to Town model, I realized something. The history of the world - from creation to the fall and its aftermath - is the story of Girl Grows Up. Girl - creation - lost her innocence, became aware, got into a predicament. And the story from the coming of Jesus until now is Stranger Comes to Town. Jesus shows up on stage, completely unlike anyone we've ever met before and now all the rules are about to change...

In essence, Stranger Came to Town because Girl Grew Up. It is all One Story.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Daddy's Shoulders

Yesterday in front of the library, I slowed down for a young family crossing the street. A dad, a small child and a mama. The toddler boy was up on his father's shoulders and as they crossed the roadway, his daddy held onto the boys' legs and bounced him wildly. The little boy was squealing with delight even while holding onto his daddy's head for dear life, up and down, up and down -- his face displaying simultaneous joy and terror as they covered territory.

It occurred to me to wonder in how many of life circumstances do I look like that little boy. God has got a secure grip on me, and I know it. Sort of. I think. Up and down I go on the voyage of life; I'm terrified, I'm delighted. Do I look to God like that little boy looked to me? Don't I realize just how firmly He's holding us?

Most of all, that little boy looked very alive and very in the moment. I hope I look that alive, squealing with delight about what My Father has done. I suppose I need to cling to Him all the more, and enjoy the ride.

Friday, May 2, 2014

In Pursuit of Light Enough

In my second to last post, from only...say...six months ago. I wrote about stuff and the need to keep it light enough to travel. My mantra today is: Stay Light Enough to Travel and to Be a Blessing to Others. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Since that post a number of significant things have happened. My mama did die, just a few weeks after the last blog post. That merits a series of blog posts in itself, and I kept writing them in my head, but time to sit and write was fleeting. Maybe they will stay there and ferment for awhile and then appear.  My husband also got a job, which is rather life changing in a good kind of way -- Hooray income! And we also bought a new house and moved into it. With our stuff. And the stuff we shipped from Switzerland. And the stuff that waited patiently in our storage unit for three and a half years.  It was fun to open boxes not sure which group this stuff would be from, find homes for things and then to see our old stuff sitting right next to our new old stuff. I was quite pleased to see how well it all blended -- like maybe I have an intrinsic decorating style after all!

But still I thought often...Why did we keep all this stuff? For some things there's a good reason. I kept the crib my babies all slept in in hopes that one day I'll have a grandchild who can sleep in it and I can tell them stories of their mother or father. Other things I kept but in three years kids grow up. The toys that you play with when you are four aren't the same ones you play with when you are eight. Except for Duplos of course. We have a huuuuuge box full, and nothing one might say can convince the Papa that we shouldn't keep those for the grandchildren, too.  So I kept thinking, well, in this large house that God has given us for now, there's room enough to get it all out and see what we're dealing with and then we can sort and move along.

And then we added Grandma's stuff. Brother and his wife had been keeping it for the time being, but now they are preparing for a remodel. And we have the space. Woe betide those who have the space! So we have lots of boxes of rather vague contents. Lots of old family photographs and yearbooks. Some lovely old books. Lots of not lovely books. Family heirlooms and knick-knacks. Business correspondence from my great grandfather, the patriarch who got his entire family to move out from Vermont and set them up homesteading out in the San Juan Islands.

Some of it is quite interesting, and I keep wondering if the germs for another novel are hidden there somewhere. I'm sure they are, but I also wonder, is that the novel I want to write? I'm not sure. Maybe I want to clear out this space in my storage room and in my head so I can finish and sell the novel I have written. Again, it's that feeling of gratitude just riding the edge of feeling bogged down by all the family history.

In one box, there were some letters and papers all neatly tied together with string and with a label in my Grandma Leda's handwriting:  "little red table." As they were letters addressed to her mother and given the date, I deduce that when her mother passed away, she tidied up and put those letters, neatly labeled into a box to sort later. Hmmm. As my husband said, "Well, now it's later." I can't help being a little miffed at the two generations before me who could have dealt with this sooner. It's not like I don't have more children than either of them did. What shall I do? I could just rewrap them up with another neatly written label, "From Grandma's Stuff -- to sort later -- like in 2050." But that just doesn't seem like the kindest thing to do if I love my children. And I do.

So slowly and surely I will try to work my way through. It's hard though. Some things are museum worthy. Many are not. How to tell the difference and how much time to spend on it.

But this afternoon I did manage to take four boxes to donation. Unless I'm mistaken, nothing museum-worthy there, but possibly real -ife-worthy to an intrepid thrift shopper. And that little accomplishment feels wonderful and makes me ready to sort some more.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Tree version 2013

I think maybe I need to take pictures with a better camera. 

Voila, the 2013 version of our Tree of Thankfulness! Isn't it getting fancy? Dear People, long gone are the days of the taped construction paper brown tree with wonky leaves of all sizes.

We almost didn't have a Tree of Thankfulness this year, tell the truth...I was tired. And didn't think I could muster the leaves. But this curly-cue tree was one of the few items of decor that somehow wasn't trapped at the back of the storage unit, and it was already on the apartment wall. Because I like trees. Especially curly-cue ones.

So the tree was already there. We just needed the leaves -- but as I say, I just wasn't sure that this year I could do all that tracing and cutting. Or at least the convincing of my minions to do it. And anyway, I thought, we we're not in our real house. Our apartment doesn't feel like home. One year without this tradition. Maybe it won't really matter.

But I realized that it does. It does really matter. And when you are in transition -- and transition is one thing we seem to be getting a lot of practice at -- little traditions can really matter. A little tradition can remind you that even though circumstances around you are in a whirlwind, you -- and your family -- are this kind of people, who do this kind of thing. And so our Tree of Thankfulness is a reminder that our family is the kind of people who write little things they are grateful for on leaves through the month of November to remind ourselves of all we've been given.

And in my opinion a tradition of thankfulness is an extremely important one! Studies have shown (now doesn't that sound official! -- don't ask me which ones) that people who are habitually thankful are generally happier. There is so much complaining all around everywhere. What if we were the people who could find something in every situation about which to be grateful? So the Tree of Thankfulness would have a 2013 incarnation.

But there was still the problem of the leaves. With six leaves per day times thirty days plus extras for guests and extra thankful people, that adds up to a lot of tracing and cutting! But inspiration. A leaf shaped punch! Why did it take me so long to figure that one out? It arrived like a flash and away we punched and thankful we were. These die-punched leaves aren't enormous, so we can't be super-duper thankful at a time, but we can always be thankful serially. And boy, doesn't it look together?

I took the picture earlier in the month -- don't worry, it's filled in quite a bit since. And at the end of Thanksgiving weekend we'll take the leaves off and read them one by one before throwing them into the fire. And on the foundation of gratitude we can begin Advent.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Light Enough to Travel

Over the past few weeks, we've been engaging in the bittersweet task of moving Grandma out of her apartment. Bitter because of the necessity for much sorting and in doing so, trying to reconcile with many of her decisions which while her own -- it was her life -- end up affecting me and everyone else around her. 

My mother is dying. After breaking her hip this summer, her health went into rapid free fall. We realized quickly there was no way she'd live on her own again. So she has stayed the past few months in the lovely facility where she was for rehab after her surgery. Because of her increasing decline and frailty hospice care was recommended several weeks ago. The hospice nurses are great and caring and helpful and the social worker was very kind and listening on the day all the tears I'd been holding in since our arrival back in the States started leaking out. And turning into a dam break and ensuing flood. 

For the present mom is declining stably. That is my term, and I'm not sure quite what that means. Just that after weeks of leaving the care facility wondering if she'd be there the next day, the descent has leveled out a bit, and I find myself wondering if she won't outlast us all. 

So with Grandma settled into her care facility we knew the time was coming to move her things out of her apartment. And in all the hardness, here is the sweet part of the bittersweet: after countless times of moving free-spirited Grandma around, this is the last time. We won't be sorting this stuff again. 

Anyway, Brother and I decided early in the month to give notice for her apartment. Somehow I wasn't sure that was what my Life Change Stress Level Processors most needed, but let's just deal and get it over with we said. Okay. The kids are into the rythym of the schoolyear, I thought. I'm not in a permanent house yet. Okay. We can do this. Yeah. Okay. By faith, We Can Do This.

So we did. 

We didn't try to keep it a secret from our mom, but with her state of confusion, depending on the day it wasn't clear how much she understood. She just asked sweetly once if we would be really good about labeling everything. Yes, okay. Sure.

Other times, when she asked what I'd been doing that morning, I just couldn't bring myself to say, "Well, I've been throwing all your old magazines and newspaper clippings into the recycle bin, actually."

Because, you see, my mother was a pack rat, a clutterer, a hoarder. Not quite ready to go on Oprah but almost. Mom always said it was because she was raised during the Depression when everything was scarce and you never knew when you might just need that random little empty plastic bottle. It sounded reasonable for years until I'd met lots of other people who'd lived through the Depression and didn't need to save every piece of string or the twist ties from loaves of bread. And then she inherited all the family stuff her mother had saved before her. And that my mom couldn’t bear to part with it. Some wonderful things and a lot of it just junk.

I've heard it said that people who hoard things are unconsciously trying to make up for a lack of real relationships in their lives. That is a whole other topic but it does make one ponder.  What are people trying to keep when they keep too much stuff? Is it procrastination? Lack of organization? Or is there something else going on? When does a family item become an historical artifact? And just because two previous generations kept it, does that mean I have to?

The trouble is, I have the same underlying keeping-things gene going on.

My grandmother (on the right) with her older sister.  Grandma, why did you keep so much stuff??

But I draw the line some places. In my mom’s stuff, I found two copies of my great grandmother’s will. I believe she died when my mother was a girl, so….that puts us in the 1940s or early 50s. Odds are good that any questions of inheritance have been cleared up by now—since two other generations have also come and nearly gone. Why are we keeping this??

But now of course, it’s old. And kind of cool. And I am tempted just to put it back in the box…

But my kids look at me with a kind of wildness behind their eyes: NO, Mama! We ain’t dealing with all that later on! Do NOT pass it on to us!

So…(sigh)… the buck will stop here.

I think my mom kept a lot of this stuff because her mother – who was the family historian – kept it. Not necessarily because mom really liked it or used it. Oh my, no. Most of it just stayed in boxes or Rubbermaid tubs. (My mind has begun working on a short story about some ancestral tea cups…) And I think my mother always thought she was going to do something big and wonderful with it all. But she never did, because it wasn’t her dream. It was her mother’s. And too much of that hanging on to family stuff just because it is family stuff can make you feel obliged to live in that other person’s life and not live your own.

And now it’s my turn to make decisions about it all. 

And you know what? I want to honor those who have gone before me and have made the effort to preserve these things and the family history with them. I write this sitting at my grandmother’s writing desk, probably built around the 1890s, and it's a sweet thing to imagine her sitting here writing her letters to my mother (which I've also found.)

But you know what else? I want to live my own life.

A little family history can give you ground to stand on. A little more can tell you something about who you are. And too much can feel like being buried alive.

I want to live my own life. And I want my kids to live their own lives. And that means parting with some things in order to make room for others. 

Several years ago, a friend sang while packing to move, “Gotta keep it light enough to travel.” When we packed up our house three years ago before our Swiss adventure, that refrain kept running through my head. I can’t say I’ve always lived it – we shipped back a container load of an Awful Lot of Stuff. But the refrain is back now.

The Now is a new adventure. For the sake of everyone, gonna try to keep it light enough to travel.

I am worried that this post might sound angry or bitter or something. It's really not. And maybe if you've haven't sorted mom's newspaper clippings yourself, it just can't be understood. But here is the real point of the matter: 

We gave the keys to mom’s apartment back on Monday.  Three days early. I’m grateful that now I get to spend less time with her stuff and more time with her. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Salmon Migration

Last week Zarli and I visited the Salmon Hatchery in Issaquah and were treated with seeing the first returns of this year's Chinook Salmon run. In the video you can see them jumping, but less well visible are the dozens of fish just hanging out in the water below the falls gathering strength for their turn.

We were a little discouraged at the lack of progress for these particular salmon until we got to join a tour and learn about how the hatchery manages the runs in order to promote the best possible conditions for spawning. It's better in the long haul for the salmon to remain in the well oxygenated creek jumping vainly than to go up the hatchery ladder too soon and hang out too long in the less oxygenated tank. It was very interesting and exciting to get splashed by strong salmon hopping up the ladder.

But being around creatures that struggle so hard to go upstream just to spawn and die makes one philosophical, if one is of a philosophical bent, and it made me think of a poem I wrote a few years ago.


Falling and golden, the leaves and the light
As streaming below, silver streaks, bright.
The flick of a fin on a red taillight
And we swerve to join the flow.

Upstream with the crowd up 405
We’re worn and weary but still alive
Called by instinct, driven by drive
To pass on what we know.

We swam in the deep, in the blue, crazy sea
Gorging ourselves on modernity
When somewhere inside us rang mystery
and we knew it was time to go.

We each find the road that smells of our birth
Of the very first time we swam on earth
Aching to know in the end it was worth
This arduous journey home.

At night in our houses, we lie in the sand
Dreaming of everything else we had planned
And dying beginning to understand
The delicate seeds we sow.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Lilies and Windows

Spring was late but it has now finally arrived. The Lily-of-the-Valley flowers - the muguets - are finally showing out of the ground and their tiny bells are turning white. On May Day, when people were out on the French roadsides selling a meagre bouquet for 3 euros, they were like premature babes, snatched from their beds before their time. I was tempted to stop and buy some just for the love of the traditional, but looking at them I knew that they would have no perfume, which is the whole point behind Lilies-of-the-Valley. So I didn't stop. But today, when I went to get the mail, I stooped down to the one that's finally gotten brave enough to bloom despite the chilly weather and was rewarded with the faintest hint of that delicious odor of spring. I was tempted to pick it and bring it inside, my own bouquet, ten days late and 3 euros cheaper, but it seemed kind of unfair. So it's still blooming out there, and I'll stoop to sniff again when I get the mail tomorrow.

In other news, today we visited the town of Besancon, which has a lovely old town built on an oxbow of the Doubs river, which reportedly was first scoped out as a good spot by Julius Caesar way back when. Then Louis XIV had a massive fort built there to protect the city. The fort now holds a bunch of museums and a small zoo with monkeys galore. The girls visited the museums and the boys and their parents visited the animals. Then on the way back down we saw this:

Maybe someday, in my dreamland, I will build a house and it will have a window like this one.