ADVENTURETIME

Hey, there you are. Come keep me company while I wait to leave for the airport. Tim’s flying in tonight, arriving after 10, so I need to do something while I’m waiting.

He’s coming for our joint birthday celebration, the midway point between my birthday (10/1) and his (10/30). We’ve been celebrating this way for as long as I can remember, doing the individual cake/cards on our individual days, but something together midway. We did a trip to St. Louis once, and a Broadway show in Chicago. When we have the means to do something, we do it.

Last week, I had a trailer hitch installed on my beloved Equinox, Vern.

Yeah, I named my car. It’s Vern L. Equinox. If you get the joke, we could be friends.

Today, I picked up the teardrop camper we’ll be towing this weekend, and, if all goes well, in the future. I keep saying this is our “compromise” camping trip, the one in which I get to sleep in the forest with Tim, and Tim gets to NOT sleep on the ground. But the more I look at this storm, and change out of rain-drenched clothes (three times today; my “waterproof” jacket has lost its “waterproof”), the more I realize this camper was an excellent idea.

But Tim’s the real birthday present. I reached a breaking point today, to my surprise. All was going really well (without a hitch, you might say, except…well, never mind) in my preparations; all the stuff is together and ready to put into the car, and I even made homemade marshmallows for s’mores. Never did this when the kids were around, but Tim and I like high-quality indulgences, the theory being that the more expensive or troublesome they are to acquire, the less willing we will be to *over* indulge.

Anyway. So I’m back from picking up the camper, and we live in a beautiful apartment complex built into the side of a small mountain. It’s a dogleg something something, I don’t know, I’m a flatlander. But it’s hilly. It’s kinda Portland’s schtick, to be hilly. And here I am, on a hill, unhooking the trailer, and it starts rolling backward down the hill.

I’m hanging on as tightly as I can, and I can keep it from going any farther, but now I’m stuck. Both hands are required to hold on to this thing, but if I could just reach over, I could hook it back up and figure out a different plan. But I can’t let go. I’m in full panic. Feet planted, squatting to pull the teardrop back up the hill, standing between the car and the trailer. Shit.

Shit.

I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on. Thank god I changed shoes, or I’d have no traction. My shoulders are starting to ache. I change positions.

And then I realize…I have no one to call. There is no person here I can call on the phone and ask to come and help me pull this thing to a safe place. Even if I could get my phone out…I literally have no one.

Tim’s my rock. He is always, *always* there. Always does what he promises, always there if I need him, always just a phone call away when I’m sad or lonely. He never leaves my side. My phone is my lifeline to Tim, to safety.

Today, for a few minutes, I realized that for right now, for the next few months, he’s not really by my side. Most of the time I manage really well on my own, but when there’s a 900-pount trailer dragging you down the side of a small mountain, I would have liked him here in body as well as spirit.

I eventually figured out how to manage the camper into a safe spot, letting gravity work *for* me and controlling the roll. Tim might have seen this solution sooner. Oh, who am I kidding; he would have handled the whole thing so I wouldn’t have to. He does that for all kinds of problems, like full garbage cans and spiders. I CAN handle them, but he never lets me.

I just want to bury my face in his neck and fall asleep. I just want him here. Physically. Not just for the trailer but for the reminder that I’m not alone when shit starts rolling downhill. It’s been a really good five months for me, very little downhill. I’m pretty grateful for that.

It won’t last forever, though. Eventually, something is gonna give way, some problem or issue or (god forbid) injury. I hope I can hang on until Tim returns for good in the spring.

Sure would be nice to be able to phone a friend, in the meantime.

Hey look, it’s almost time for me to leave. I’ll slowly take my aching, saved-a-camper-from-destruction body to the airport, where I’ll fall into Tim’s arms with joy and relief.

Tomorrow we’ll go to the Gorge and drive through Hood River and pick up several dozen pounds of apples and pears. Then we’ll sleep in the soft, damp forest and listen to the wind travel across our camper, warm and dry in our little camper.

Thanks for keeping me company. img_20161014_161401905_hdr

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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The Perfect Spot

My dog can’t find a place to pee.

It’s not for lack of trying, because he stops at every bush en route from the door up the sidewalk to the grassy hill across the parking lot, lifts his leg, decides this bush or blade of grass or discarded branch isn’t quite right, and moves along. I haven’t counted, but I suspect his attempted and unsuccessful pees count in the dozens each time we leave the house.

This is only an issue for me because we live in an apartment, and I can no longer just open the door and let him pee in the yard at his leisure. Maybe he used to take this much time finding the perfect spot when we lived in a house with the yard and I just never bothered to pay attention. I don’t know. But as an apartment dweller, I have a new perspective on my dog’s habits, and I find a lot of it puzzling.

With my human-level sense of smell, I will never be able to enjoy the ability to detect the nuances of odor he does, so I’m sure much of it will remain a mystery. But I can’t logic my way through what could possibly place one spot for peeing on higher than another. And the distractions! The moment a leaf lifts on the tree, or a person walks into the parking lot, or a car passes on a neighboring street, this dog is off task, nose in the air, trying to scent the disturbance in the Pee Force.

This dog, who keeps his snowy fur beautifully clean with no assistance from us, also hates to get his feet wet. If it has rained in the last few days, he resists walking on the grass, and hops off the moment his pads get damp. Living in Portland is especially hard for this poor pup. His prissy behavior decreases the possible locations for pee, unless I drag him by the leash up the slope to where he previously found the perfect spot, in the hopes that his moisture aversion will prevent him from loitering. It never does, since he overcomes this hesitation the moment he takes two steps up the hill. After that, he’s in for the long haul, sniffing every leaf, lifting a leg, changing his mind. On and on.

And even worse is the pooping. This dog will wander all over hell’s half acre looking for The Spot, which invariably comes back to the same spot he passed up four times. I have taken the tack of wandering to a level spot in the grass, standing in one spot, letting him wander in circles around me at the length of his leash. He makes it about three times around before he decides to drop a load.

We call this “Loops and Poops,” and it works like a charm. It seems that he is conned by this habit into thinking he’s searched more of the grounds for the perfect spot than he has. In these moments, I suspect he’s not quite as smart as other dogs. He’s rather easily conned.

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Not a Saint Bernard. No, really. 

I wonder sometimes if this looking for the perfect place isn’t something we’re all doing, on some level. Looking for the perfect place to start. Getting distracted by a ripple in the air, something setting us off course, and then, if we’re lucky or smart or determined, we go back to seeking. Has someone done this particular thing before? In this particular place? Am I going to be thrown off balance by trying to do this thing *right* here? What if the moment isn’t exactly right? What if a better place comes along in a few days…maybe I should have waited?

What I know for sure is that I need to start taking some waterproof reading material along when I take the dog out, to stop me thinking deep thoughts about dog poop.

Healthy Choice

Someone I love very much is going through a mental health crisis. I won’t name him, or tell you her gender, or in any way identify this person, because it’s not my place to tell that story. As she starts moving out of the center of chaos and toward stability, I’ve been thinking a lot about the task of making one’s self healthy, and about the many choices we have in front of us for putting together a life that works for us.

Since moving here, Tim and I have made a lot of changes to how we live. In addition to the major change from living in the Midwest, we’ve added things to our routines that help us maintain day-to-day stability, and removed some things that were dragging on our tenuous balance. Some of the things we have selected fall into the category of “self care”, healthy rituals or activities we do to nurture our bodies and minds.

We’d never even *heard* of self care until we moved out here, and now it’s one of our guiding principles. In addition to regulating our bedtimes and diets and our regular snuggle time (“Monkey Love“), we each have an assortment of things we do to take care of ourselves.

Tim took a six week course on meditating last winter, and now he meditates regularly, every day if he can manage it. Playing the guitar is another choice he’s made for himself, an activity that helps him focus his mind for an allotted time, and something that soothes his heart. It makes him lighter, gives him some minutes of peace.

I find that being outside soothes me, and exercise. I discovered yoga this summer, and have found a regular class that gives me those same minutes of peace that Tim has in playing guitar. Writing is another self-care activity for me, both in these blogs and in the fiction I write.

Our visit to the Cougar Hot Springs last weekend was another joint effort at self care. For the time it took us to drive into the mountains, pay our five bucks to the forest ranger, and slip into the heated pools on the side of the mountain, we were out of our lives and into another world. Being surrounded by icy trees, submerged in water coming from deep in the ground was a profoundly quieting experience for both of us. Even Tim, a former hockey player who has long preferred his water frozen, found the same peaceful reverence that I did. We will definitely be doing this again.

My mother called these things “re-creating”, or putting yourself back together after the world has taken you apart.

It didn’t occur to me, though, until I started pondering the life of the person who is in crisis, that the biggest decision I made for my own mental health was moving out of the Chicago suburbs and into Oregon. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to live somewhere beautiful, to see something beautiful in nature every day. I didn’t know at the time how much the environment I was living in had corroded me, but I’ve been working to repair a lot of damage; from dealing with extreme weather conditions, and being surrounded by concrete every moment, from keeping my adventurous, free-thinking identity hidden in the conformity of suburbia, and from being in close proximity to family that was the source of so much rejection and heartache.

Being in Oregon has been healthy for Tim and me. Having distance from the combined ugliness of our families has bonded us in a completely new way. Living in this place that is dominated by nature has opened something in me, something untainted by painful history or societal expectations. I have found a place where I can simply be.

While my loved one weighs out his options for her future, I will support and encourage him to seek out the things she will put on her self-care list. What is it that makes you calm? What fills you with moments of happiness? What soothes you when you’re sad?

IMG_20151116_104703800So many people I know post their workout stats, both as a way to stay accountable to their own well being and as an encouragement to others to keep  or start making healthy choices for our bodies. I’ve decided that I’m going to post my mental health self-care “workouts” here. It will, I hope, have the same effect; it will keep me accountable for my own well being, and, I hope, encourage other people to consider starting their own self-care routines. Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked, but only physical workouts are applauded publicly, while mental-health workouts are still considered unnecessary unless you’re in crisis.

But just like you can prevent heart attacks with regular exercise, you can prevent a mental health crisis with regular self care.

So tell me: what are you doing to take care of yourself today?

Bloom

Driving around town this morning, I was struck with a thought I’ve never had before: I love my life.

One of my favorite bosses once said to me “bloom where you’re planted.” She was hoping to encourage me to see the positive aspects of my life, to recognize that I didn’t have to have a perfect structure in order to survive. But it’s always bothered me, the idea that chance should wholly dictate who we become. To follow the plant analogy, there are plants that can adapt to any environment, but there are plenty that have very specific needs in order to thrive. The sequoia comes to mind; I can’t send sequoia seeds to my sister in Illinois and expect that she can grow this incredible tree in her backyard. It needs a certain constant temperature range, a certain amount of moisture in the air, and a specific kind of footing into which it can take root. Sequoias

Then there are plants that *can* survive in a variety of environments, but an optimal setting allows them to reach their full potential. Far more than “blooming”, they can become something spectacular.

All my adult life, I’ve struggled to find a place for myself in the world. When I lived in southern Illinois,  I hoped to make a home for my kids and myself in the university environment, where I enjoyed a fair amount of cultural activities and employment opportunities, but felt the impact of the transient population inherent in higher education. It’s hard to form lasting bonds with peers when people come in for a year or two and then move on to the next step in their education or career. I was guilty of the same behavior, moving around campus for promotions three times in one year, and eventually leaving the university altogether.

Moving to Chicagoland brought more economic and social stability, but the people in my peer group — and that particular time in my life, when I was in the midst of heavy-duty parenting — were not supportive or conducive to my creative side. I was a good mom, very stable and involved, but I wasn’t the best *me*. I could provide structure to those around me, but I couldn’t even start looking for my own potential. That wasn’t part of the deal, and I accepted that.

When I left Chicagoland, my father said “you can move, but you won’t leave behind your problems.” What he — and all the other naysayers — didn’t realize was that I wasn’t trying to leave behind my problems. I was trying to find the best place for *me* to live, the place in which my distinct personality and tendencies could breathe freely, where there was space and energy for me to explore the parameters of who I wanted to be. It is a mistake to assume that once you have become an adult — or once you have children, which happened for me before I was really an adult — you stop growing and becoming. I knew I wasn’t finished yet, and that the pain I felt at not belonging anywhere was telling me something.

And I was right.

Once I had a sense of the kind of things I wanted in my life, seeking the right place to be became much easier. I take credit for knowing myself well enough to understand that I had to be near natural beauty every day, that I needed trees and dirt and the view of mountains. And despite its reputation as the whitest city in the U.S., I am surrounded by diversity on a scale that makes my hometown look like a white supremacists’ meeting.

Think about *that* for a moment.

But I’ve always been much more comfortable in a diverse crowd than I ever was in St. Charles.

The city of Portland, and in a broader sense, the whole state of Oregon, has given me a healthy planting bed into which I have sunk my roots. Part of my freedom comes from being finished with the heavy-duty parenting, but that’s not all of it. If I were simply an empty-nester back in Illinois, I would be miserable: what would I have to explore? How far could I push my own limits in a society that allows little deviation from what they consider normal? Where would I go to escape the unmitigated pressure of beigeness?

In Oregon, I have my necessary wilderness. In Portland, I have the necessary diversity of personage, of activities, of interests and enthusiasm for the un-normal. There is no need for me to be like anyone else. I mean, there are hipsters here, whose dour demeanor trends toward their own conformity. I blame their unhappiness on hunger; in order to fit into those skinny jeans that tuck so neatly into their Han Solo boots, and wear those baggy baggy shirts that look like they were made for Hagrid, they aren’t allowed to eat much, so they’re terribly hungry.

But at my age, it’s totally okay — even encouraged — for me to avoid becoming a hipster. They can have their baggy baggy shirts and sad expressions: I choose to frolic among the forest creatures, celebrating the trees and ferns, then spend my days at the beehives of artistic activity where I work.

There is space for me here. For all of me, not just the parts that are palatable to other people. I’m able to reach into myself and discover long-lost loves like singing in the choir, or undiscovered loves like dangling my feet in a mountain brook or kayaking in one of the many rivers. No longer bound by a society tied up in appearances or expectations, I am free to reach out my tendrils in all directions, to do and be the many parts of who I am. Where I was once confined to a small planting box, held tight on all sides by a barricade, I am now free to grow naturally, the way I was intended to grow.

With the right mixture of sunlight and nutrients, who knows what I will grow up to be?