Gossips

“If I thought she’d get the story right, I would have told her everything.”

I found that line on a piece of paper in a random box I was cleaning out, and I’m not sure if I wrote it or someone else did. It resonates for me now, alongside the phrase “if they’ll talk with you about someone else’s business, they’ll talk about your business with someone else.”

These words are surfacing for me now, coincidentally, burbling to a central thought. My joy at finding women who show me the way forward is tempered by the realization that I’ve also found people showing me the way not to go. And I’m grateful for them too. As my sister says, everybody has a purpose, even if only to serve as a horrible example.

The lesson about gossips, about taking care with your choices, is easy to forget when you’ve spent years as an outsider, when you’re finally included in the circle, when you find yourself on the grown-up version of the prom committee. It’s easy to get caught up in the giggles and snark in the back of the room, laughter at the expense of another person.

But it won’t be long before that laughter is at your expense. It won’t be long before the prom committee aims its cruelty missile your direction, because it must always have a target or it won’t exist.

The realization that you’re the subject of insider discussion is unsettling. I spent years fighting the culture of gossip, which was easier to spot in cliquish suburban Chicago, where clique members wore the uniform of acceptable suburban hair color (honey blonde) and drove acceptable suburban vehicles (Lexus) and had acceptable family units (blond husband, two kids). It’s harder to spot in Portland, where people revel in their differences and celebrate being weird.

But it exists here too. No matter where it’s found, gossips show themselves. They’re easier to spot, if you remind yourself what to look for.

I needed a refresher on this lesson before it kicked my ass. I’m glad I found that piece of paper, and this poem, to remind me to take care in my associations.

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Emily Dickinson provided similar observations;

The Soul selects her own Society
Then–shuts the Door

 

I’m glad to remember these lessons before I need them, even in this place of wonder and acceptance. I’ve gotten better at seeing the signs now, avoiding entanglements with people who demonstrate with their actions that they should not be trusted. And that’s the hardest part, really; choosing not to trust someone, keeping them at bay, staying untangled.

The lure of acceptance is enticing to an introvert. But it is possible to consider carefully who to choose, which people to select for your own society without losing the joy of creating community. And in this, I’ve gained trustworthy friends too, people who have gently reminded me to look at the signals, who have shared their difficult paths and pointed out pitfalls before I went so far down a road that I couldn’t find my way back.

I have been lucky at last in learning this lesson the easy way. I’ll fly headlong into adventure on my own, take professional risks that lead me into unfamiliar territory, but I take longer now to gauge the depth and breadth of a person’s character, and trust my instincts when the warning lights flash.

This is another facet of the aging process for which I am so grateful; the wisdom of discernment.

 

 

Roots

Today, I found out that two people I have met since I moved to Portland are leaving; two unrelated people, from different corners of my life. One is leaving to retire at the coast, one is leaving to build a career in another city. Both are dear to me, each expressing a “native Portland” personality I have come to admire, a perspective I want to adopt and embody.

These departures come at an interesting moment in my life. I’ve been here three years, and have found a place where I feel–for the first time in my life–like I belong. I’m ready–also for the first time in my life–to put down roots; find a home in a neighborhood, actively participate in the community, create lasting connections. To this point, I’ve been floating along in the stream, waiting to see where it takes me, but now I’m ready to plant my feet. To that end, Tim and I will soon be starting the process of looking for a new home, a place to stay and build a sense of community, to invest in our neighbors and make our surroundings a better place. A home, an anchor, a bulwark against the vicissitudes of life.

This long-term outlook is new for me. I knew I wasn’t staying in Chicagoland. I know I’m staying here. Just the thought of losing Oregon leaves me bereft.

Our planning has taken some tangible steps; on September 1, our POD full of stuff will arrive outside my apartment, ready for me to crack it open (we’ve lost the key, so I will most likely have to get a bolt cutter to cut the lock) and take a look at my old life. It’s all there, stacked against the walls in carefully packed and neatly piled boxes. I have my trusty note cards, the key to the contents of each box, and I’ve been flipping through them to see what I’ll need to pull out soonest, what I can put into long-term storage until we find a house.

Just reading the cards has me tiptoeing through memories, foggy and incomplete, of places we lived, items we accumulated, reminders of people who touched our lives and moved on, people we walked away from moving out here. There are some boxes I won’t open for a while; old pictures will wait for a quiet winter month, when I have the emotional bandwidth to absorb all those memories. My winter clothes may have no purpose here, as it doesn’t get cold enough to wear long johns but once every couple of years.

But that pod represents all of the detritus of my life in one 10 X 20 spot, and having it in Portland will be the penultimate step to severing ties with Illinois. My piano is the last piece left in Chicago, and that will necessarily wait until we’re rooted. But the pod carries the breadth of my memories, and those of my children, and the whole of my marriage and our life as parents. It’s all there, in a box, traveling across the country on a semi-truck, coming to the place where I have become the person I want to be. What will my memories tell me about who I used to be?

And what of those memories will I want to keep?

My friends are moving on to the next stage of their lives. I will miss them here in Portland, where they had become guiding stars in the kindly Portland constellation that welcomed me to their number. I met one of them a month after landing here, and started working with him almost immediately. It will be so strange to have him gone. I expected him to be around here forever.

So in the next few weeks, Portland will become *my* place; all of me will be here. Having my “stuff” may erase that last sliver of feeling like I’m on extended vacation, like I’m just visiting and will “go home” soon. It’s a faint sensation, just a glimmer of thought, engendered in part by the wonder and awe I still feel when I wake up and smell the pine forest, or drive to Sauvie’s Island, or spend a few hours on the coast and sleep in my own bed on the same day. This feels like a vacation spot in many ways, except that in recent months, my career has taken a foothold here as well. My “visitor” feeling has gone, and I’m finally ready to settle down.

The next few months will be an unraveling of the boxing-up of my life that I did back in 2013, a reversal of the collapsing process. I’m looking forward to this step with longing.

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Six Degrees

I had a dream last night about an old friend of mine, Krista. I was helping her with a move, stationed at the new house to help unpack while others went to bring another load from the old place. While I was wandering among the boxes stacked in the garage, a family of about 10 wandered into the stacks, picking up items and asking how much they cost. They thought it was a yard sale. As I was trying to keep them from walking off with Krista’s family heirlooms, Krista appeared, and in her typical fashion, welcomed the family as if they were old friends. She was open to their suggestions of purchasing some of her things, even showing them hidden items they might like. Then she started playing the violin for them. Or viola, I guess, since that’s what she used to play.

I watched her being her kind, generous self with these complete strangers and marveled at how the Dream Krista was exactly like the Real Krista.

I’ve known Krista since I was in junior high, when she was Krista Norris. She was, by her own account, initially friendly to me because I was new to the school, having moved over from the Catholic school to start seventh grade. Krista knew and was known by everyone, but not in a “Queen Bee” way, just in her own way of being kind to people. Everyone knew and loved Krista. So she saw this shy kid feeling out of place and befriended me, and her friendship allowed me to ease into life in public school. We remained friends through high school, where I was often simply known as Krista’s nameless best friend; as a really shy person, that was okay with me.

In junior-high ritualistic fashion, I attended many sleepovers at her house, and she at mine occasionally. Her house was my preference, though, with her parents as welcoming and kind as she was. Mrs. Norris, a true southern belle, gave me the only nickname that has ever stuck (Megery), and listened with an attentive and non-judgmental ear. Mr. Norris had a warmth and humor that set in my head the way I wanted dads to be. I’m sure there were things about their family I didn’t know, as there are with every family, but in my childhood memory, the Norrises were my model.

I can hear Krista’s voice now, warning me not to put people on a pedestal. I know, I know…

What Krista’s family showed me was a different way for families to be. My family, vexed as it was by mental illness and isolation, often functioned poorly, badly regulated emotions swinging us from drama to drama. My brothers were often physically violent with each other, sometimes with me and my sister, and I crept into my shell of books and music and nature. My parents did the best they could with what they had, but life in my house wasn’t peaceful or loving. Certainly not supportive. In Krista’s family, I had the chance of feeling like I was part of a healthy group of people who loved each other.

Being at Krista’s house on the weekend meant witnessing the constant flow of people visiting the house. The family ran a funeral home right in the heart of town, and while that’s not the kind of business that encourages repeat customers, this family seemed to know everyone in town–but not in the snooty “WE know EVERYONE, darling” way. They knew people who had lived in the homeless shelter two doors down, and those who had complex medical issues, and mentally challenged people, and yes, some people in local politics, but that was never how they knew them. They were involved in church and volunteer work, and if a call came in that someone needed help, they jumped into action, connecting people in need with people who could help. Devout Christians, they lived what Christianity preaches: kindness, service, acceptance, love.

Krista was my first non-Catholic friend, and I was so sad that she was going to go to hell for being a Methodist. But it was in getting to know her family better that I started realizing that non-Catholics weren’t doomed, that people of other faiths could be good, and that the whole basis for my religious teaching (Catholic=GOOD&Heaven Bound, all others=EVIL) was flawed.

As an adult, I now realize how lucky I was to have had contact with Krista’s family. They showed me what it means to be loving, open, to share what you have even if it isn’t a lot, to accept people for who they are and not because they match your lifestyle or way of thinking. They weren’t afraid to talk about different philosophies, to argue religion, but stood their ground firmly, as people rooted in their faith tend to do.

I didn’t end up being the same kind of people Krista’s family was. I hewed to the Christian path for many years, but my life took me and my beliefs in another direction. But I tried like hell to do what Krista’s mom did for me: be kind, loving, open, and accepting for my kids and their friends, no matter who they were. I’ve tried to be just as charitable and giving as I saw them being, and to step into service when I have had the chance.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized the effect Krista’s family had on me, and on the adult I have become. I am so grateful to have been allowed to get to know them, these truly good people, and to learn from them how to be an adult and how to be a parent. My children were lucky too, in that they got to know the Norrises in their childhoods, and knew these kind people as de facto grandparents. There is so much love that stems from Mr. and Mrs. Norris, and they shared it with my children. And I am so grateful.

Krista has created a life that looks similar to her parents. Her husband and she are constantly surrounded by their kids and their kids’ friends, and are involved in the community in a small business right in the center of their town. They are purveyors of coffee, kind of the opposite of funeral homes, but they serve with such love and commitment that they touch everyone around with the same kind of light and joy.

We joke that the world is connected not through six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but six degrees of Mrs. Norris, which can also be applied to Krista (Norris) Andersen. Everyone seems to know them, and everyone who knows them loves them. And with good reason. They willingly share their love with the world.

I don’t know why that dream happened to me last night, but I am so glad to be reminded of this family that touched me in ways they probably don’t even know. And I’m glad that now I have the chance to tell them. Thank you, Norris family, for showing me how to live a life of love.

A rose for Mrs. Norris

A rose for Mrs. Norris

All the Old Familiar Places

As I finished vacuuming our tiny apartment, backing into the room where the vacuum is parked, I admired the pleasing lines in the carpet. I remembered the story my farmer friend told me about when she was much younger and garnered great pleasure from vacuuming herself out onto the deck, where she would sit and listen to opera booming from the stereo inside.

Every time I vacuum I think of that story and smile.

Being so far away from the people who comprise most of my memory’s videotape, the stories that connect me to the people I’ve known, is strange. My brain tends to retain happy memories, sweet attachments to people who added a brick or several to my edifice.

Most of these recollections are task specific, triggers from my hands that run up to a tender spot in my brain where one of you has left an indentation. WorryStone

My sister, for example, comes to mind whenever I’m making the bed. I don’t play “pillow sandwich” anymore, but I do think about it. Every day.

My oldest friend Krista makes an appearance whenever I make pancakes. It was at her house after sleepovers that I learned the art of watching for the right amount and quality of bubbles along the edge to ascertain just the right time to flip it.

And when I squeegee the shower stall, I remember Krista’s mom, who (still) calls me Megery and insisted on this practice after each of us showered. In my house, such a thing was unheard of; showers were supposed to be wet, that’s how they were designed. When I was in charge of cleaning my own house, I realized just how intelligent it is to have each person wipe down the shower after use.

The smell of fresh laundry always makes me think of my friend Kelly, the first person I knew who used laundry softener. Yes, I lived under a rock.

Not all of the recollections are cleaning related, I promise.

The director of the School of Music changed the way I write the number “2”. He couldn’t read my numbers, and I was so chagrined that I corrected the problem immediately. Thank you, Dr. Weiss, for improving my legibility.

I learned the critical skill of preparing envelopes for stuffing from Lena. I don’t stuff envelopes very often, but when I do, I think of her.

Gillian taught me to appreciate green beans cooked with onions, something I enjoy particularly every summer, with fresh-picked green beans.

From Kathy, I learned to shorten the length of thread I use in hand sewing, to reduce the chance of tangles. I sew quite a bit these days, and use this handy tip a lot. And think of Kathy.

Adriana comes to mind whenever I hear the word “focus”, and whenever I have to plant my feet and advocate for positive changes at work.

Aaron helped me relax about contentious work situations, with his oft repeated and deeply held belief that “it’s just a job.”

As I learn new tasks, I add a new cast of characters to my memory’s news reel. But that doesn’t stop the old ones from playing. It’s a pretty crowded place inside my brain.

Each of these remembered moments is a portal into bigger memories. Sometimes I choose to wander around those mental halls for a while, but most of the time I don’t. I just recognize they’re still there, a nod to a former time in my life, and I move along with my day.

To be sure, these moments are not the *only* times I think of people who are dear to me, they’re just the predictable times. How could I attach just one memory to a friend who was by my side every day for seven years?

But when I say “I was thinking of you”, I mean it. For a second or for a prolonged rumination period, I keep these flashbacks close, comfort objects to remind me of where I’ve been. Of who I’ve been. I’m a different “who” now, but you’re all part of it.

Thinking of you,

Meg