Hold On… and Let Go

weather screen shotRain is in the forecast today and for every day but three of the next eleven. Such predictions aren’t all that unusual at this time of year where I live in the upper left corner of the United States. But twenty-two years ago at this time, I lived a bit east of here on the Stehekin River in Washington’s North Cascades, where most of the winter precipitation is in the form of snow. As I write in my new memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, the Stehekin River was a powerful teacher for me during the two years my husband Jerry, our children Rachel and Matt, and I lived on its banks, along with eighty other people who treasure—and respect—the beauty and the power of the valley.

That year, 1995, snow came to the valley floor in early November, followed by warmer temperatures and then days and days of heavy rain. Rocks and boulders in the summer-dried riverbed disappeared as the river swelled. What had been a tranquil trickle of flowing water just days before was now a roar we could hear whenever we opened the house door. As we prepared for Thanksgiving, we kept close watch on the river inching up its banks.

River flood1Now, the river that usually serenaded me with its quiet, soothing flow, echoed the sounds of tumbling boulders and the splash of hundred-foot tall cedars and pines, their roots torn from the banks by the pressure of the current. Late one afternoon midweek, the river exploded over the bank at the end of Company Creek Road, and gushed through the foundation of the Avery cabin just beyond our house.

As full-sized cedars rumbled past, I wondered how one of my favorite trees was faring. Early in our relocation to Stehekin, I spotted it just beyond Harlequin Bridge and called it my “lean into it” tree. The cedar stretched its lower third over the riverbank before curving the rest of its height gracefully up toward the sky. Five roots, as thick as a grown man’s thighs, sprawled from the tree’s stringy-barked trunk and clawed into the soil. Half-a-dozen branches reached out across the river as if in a tug-of-war with the roots to keep the cedar upright and anchored. Could it survive the thrashing water now gnawing at the banks of the Stehekin?

“Hey guys,” Rachel said as we sat down to dinner, “it’s stopped raining.”

“Yay,” cheered Matt.

“I wouldn’t get too excited yet,” Jerry said. “The river is so full we’ll need lots of days without rain to make a difference.”

That wouldn’t happen for a while, as the rain returned during the night.

The next morning, Jerry, the kids and I ventured out in the gray, walking down Company Creek Road to see the effects of the night’s deluge. After about half a mile, we could go no further. Water had burst over the embankment.

I shuffled back a few feet from the raw river edge, keeping my eyes on the new arm of the Stehekin surging down the middle of Company Creek Road. The same road that wound from our house for four miles beside the Stehekin, then across Harlequin Bridge to connect us to the five miles of paved road leading to the ferry landing, the head of Lake Chelan, and the rest of the world. Now, this link had been split by a torrent of mud-brown, churning water, so deep I couldn’t see the rock roadbed that surely lay underneath. Cut off from friends, neighbors, the school, mail, and groceries, I huddled with Jerry and the kids, all of us staring at the galloping currents.

The power of this force humbled me. How many times had that river flooded, reminding the residents of its valley we had intruded on its home?  We might think we know best where roads should go or houses should be built, but the river follows its own wisdom, has its own idea about its course, and thus ours. I had come to Stehekin to wrestle with both my need for control as well as the ways I’d disengaged from the world to protect myself from urban overload and work stress. The flood’s fury reconnected me to the earth. The water frothing between the banks carried the rains, the melted snows, the ancient glacial melt that forced the Stehekin to escape its borders and eat away at the bend in the road. Now a big chunk of road joined this flow of history, mingled with old and new waters, mixed with boulders and pines that rushed down the swollen river, to the head of the lake, bound to get to Chelan, the Columbia, and the sea before I would. While the Stehekin raged a record 19,000 cubic square feet of water every minute, there was nothing for us to do but wait, stranded at our end of Company Creek Road.

Along with the boulders and trees, the river washed away power poles and lines, leaving us without electricity during the flood’s climax. Fortunately, we had heeded the wisdom of our neighbors and filled our bathtub with water in anticipation of the loss of our electric pump for the well. We had plenty of firewood for the barrel stove that warmed the house. A full tank of propane fueled our cooking stove to heat the food we kept cold in an ice chest on the front porch. Our days were filled with basic survival chores as well as monitoring the river’s course, so it didn’t matter that the sun disappeared around four in the afternoon. After dinner preparation, cleanup, and a little reading by the light of candles and kerosene lamps, we were all ready for sleep.

Three days after the road disappeared, the water receded enough for a neighbor to drive his bulldozer into the woods beyond the washout to punch out a temporary road between the trees. Now crews could get in to replace the missing power poles and string new lines to restore electricity. Life began to return to normal.

When we received permission to drive across the temporary road, my family and I enthusiastically piled into our 1973 Suburban. Jerry drove slower than usual down the narrow, winding road, not knowing what hazards from the river’s rampage might stop us. Its surge had created gullies, cleaned out fall debris, and scattered firewood, toys, barrels, shovels, rakes, and ladders far from their homes.

River flood2We had heard that the approaches to Harlequin Bridge had taken a beating. I held my breath as we neared the bend just before it. The sky was blue, but the coffee and cream-colored river bubbling past like soup at a hard boil still taunted both sides of the road and the bridge’s underside. My eyes focused to the left, just beyond the bridge’s span, to the bank across from us. Still “leanin’ into it,” my cedar clung to the river’s edge, reaching toward the sun while remaining firmly rooted in the rock and soil of home. I let out my breath and leaned a bit more into life’s requirement to both hold on and let go.

 

 

*Afterthought #69 – Reblog: Quaker Indian Boarding Schools

Writing companion and fellow Quaker,  Gretchen Wing,  posted an essay earlier this week that needs to be read widely. I’m re-posting it here as we end a month filled with so many revelations about oppressive (and illegal) actions and mis-use of power. The history Gretchen writes of describes Quakers’ complicity in suppressing Native American culture and wisdom through the creation of Quaker Indian Boarding Schools.

I join Gretchen and Quaker teacher Paula Palmer (who recently wrote an article in Friends Journal on this issue) in asking myself the questions being asked by Native organizations:  “Who are Friends today? Knowing what we know now, will Quakers join us in honest dialogue? Will they acknowledge the harm that was done? Will they seek ways to contribute toward healing processes that are desperately needed in Native communities?”

*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers.

 

Facing History and Ourselves, Quaker Style: Indian Boarding Schools are Our Shame, Too

by Gretchen Wing

Facing History and Ourselves is the title of a book and a mini-course in Holocaust Education. I took the course and used the book myself in my high school teaching. But what about that uniquely American, slo-mo Holocaust, the attempted eradication of Native culture? In grad school I learned about the Indian boarding schools of […]

via Facing History and Ourselves, Quaker Style: Indian Boarding Schools Are Our Shame Too — Wing’s World

Just My Type

Surely the sun shone bright that July day in 1973 when I achieved my goal of typing 50 words per minute with no mistakes. Even if it was raining, I’m certain the sun would have split apart thunderclouds to send a beam of light through the panes of glass in Mr. McGeorge’s classroom.

It had been my mom’s idea for me to take the typing class during summer vacation between my junior and senior years of high school. A small-town newspaper editor, she probably reasoned it would be a useful skill to have, “Because you never know when you might need it.” I was pretty certain I’d never “need” to know stenography (the other summer class Mr. McGeorge taught), but I could accept that typing might come in handy when I went to college to study English.

Hunched over a black  Royal typewriter, pounding its QWERTY keys into the touch memory of my fingertips, I willed my fingers to move faster through drills, repeatedly typing simple sentences. Mr. McGeorge, always in black trousers, a crisp, short-sleeved shirt, and a plain, black tie, strode among our desks. I’m sure he carried a stopwatch, too, for all of the exercises were timed as I attempted to increase my speed while decreasing my errors.

The stakes were high. A few rows of sleek, red, self-correcting IBM Selectrics waited to reward my achievement. I dreamed of the day I’d type quickly enough to graduate to the light gray keyboard that propelled a silver ball of letters across the page. I’d no longer have to lift my right hand off the keys at the end of a line to press a silver arm that sent the carriage back to the left margin; with just a slight stretch of my right pinky, the RETURN button sent the ball of type back to start a new line. Best of all was the X key that magically eliminated miss-typed letters so I could replace them with the correct ones.

Nearly forty-five years later, I don’t worry so much about the speed of my typing. My lightweight, silver laptop automatically corrects many of my typos, or at least signals their presence with a squiggly, red line. I can highlight words, sentences, and entire paragraphs, then move them to another spot in the document—or to the “trash.” Now, I can’t imagine writing a 60,000-word manuscript on the Royal, but I’m glad it’s still around. Like many writers today, I’m infatuated with any kind of manual typewriter.

During a recent wait in the San Francisco airport, I discovered an exhibit celebrating the typewriter as “…one of the great inventions of the modern world…” easing and speeding communication on paper when typewriters appeared in the late 1800s. The exhibit caught the attention of other passengers, too, as a dozen or more paused, like me, in front of the display, jockeying rolling suitcases (some likely holding laptops and e-readers) and snapping photos with smart phones.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know if the exhibit is still there, but if it is, it’s the perfect advertisement for a book released earlier this month, Uncommon Type – Some Stories by Tom Hanks. According to New York Times reporter Concepción de León, “The collection of 17 stories all include, in one way or another, typewriters, which are Mr. Hanks’s passion.”

There’s a good deal of buzz about the actor’s book. Evidently, Hanks is as good on the keyboard as in film.

“It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it.”    ~Steve Martin

“Reading Tom Hanks’s Uncommon Type is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actress of our time.”    ~ Ann Patchett

I haven’t yet read Uncommon Type, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping at least one of Hanks’s stories includes my personal favorite. As a Chicago transplant, it’s just my type.

What’s your favorite type?

 

Sick of the News and Wondering – Why Write?

This morning after I turned the key in the ignition to drive to the gym, I flicked on the radio. It’s programmed for NPR, and as I heard, “Here are the day’s headlines,” I switched to the classical music station. I knew my heart would be pounding soon enough in my circuit class; I didn’t need the morning report to raise my blood pressure.

I’ve been feeling this way a lot lately. Distressed by accounts of wildfires, hurricanes, mass shootings, sexual assault and harassment, earthquakes, dismantling of our health care system, and environmental protections erased, I’ve had to limit my intake of current events. And that distresses me, too, because denial or ignoring does nothing to ease the suffering of our world.

I’m not alone. In the last week, two women I admire have responded to these troubles, each in her own way.

Eileen-Valley-Green-e1504621326715I’ve written previously about Eileen Flanagan, and I found her course, We Were Made for This Moment, extremely helpful in the early months of 2017. A couple of days ago, an email from Eileen asked, “Sick of the news?” Some intense, exciting work had kept her away from media, and when she tuned in again, she writes, “…I went on a CNN binge. It was the spiritual equivalent of chowing down pork rinds and jellybeans right after your yoga retreat.” The news literally made her sick, disturbing her eating and sleeping. Eventually, though, she realized “…it wasn’t just the stories themselves that were depressing; it was the way they were presented, with no role for me to play but voyeur. It confirmed my intention to keep my focus on things people like you and I can actually do to create the world we want to see.”

One of the ways Eileen shifts her perspective is through teaching, so she’s offering a new, four-week, on-line course, How to Build a Nonviolent Direct Action Campaign. It begins October 23, and there’s still time to register. Like her earlier courses, I suspect this one will help participants build their capacity to make change.

In “We Were Made for This Moment,” Eileen discussed a variety of activist roles (helper, organizer, advocate, rebel) and helped me gain some insight into the actions I feel I’m best equipped for and that give me joy. She cautioned that no one can do all the roles, and that if a role doesn’t feed you, burnout is likely.

Hiking Naked Final CoverWriting is both my creative outlet and my way to advocate for change. But as I’ve turned much of my energy to promoting my new book, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ve wondered what good it’s doing in the face of the tragedies throughout the world.

Carol-768x1024Another friend, Carol Sexton, reminded me I’m not the only artist raising this question. Her blog post a couple of weeks ago, “Why I Make Art,” wrestled with, “What is the point of this art that I am making?  I see news of police brutality, racial injustice, political corruption, the failure of our current health system, or natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, and I am sitting at home making a drawing of lace. I have to wonder whether there is something more I could/should be doing as an artist to address the needs of a hurting world.”

lace

Carol explored her role as an artist further.

“There are artists who focus their art around issues of social justice, and I admire and respect what they do, but that is also not who I am as an artist. I paint images of plants. I draw mandala designs. I carve figures in stone. I am attracted to things that I find beautiful and I want to share them in some way. But how can I justify being an artist when there are so many other worthy causes that need support?”

While acknowledging the privilege of choosing to make art, Carol lists clearly why she continues it. By changing the words “make art” to “write,” the points work for me, too.

  • I continue to make art write because it is what I do, and who I am.
  • I make art write because it is a gift that I have been given, and it would seem wrong not to exercise that gift.
  • I make art write because it satisfies my soul and gives me pleasure on a daily basis.
  • I make art write because part of my livelihood depends on it. In a lifestyle where there is no regular paycheck, every little bit of freelance income counts. And before getting income from art, one must take the time to produce art.
  • I make art write because it brings enjoyment to others.
  • I make art write because in a world full of ugliness and hatred and injustice, there is also much beauty to be shared and celebrated.
  • I make art write not as a direct response to important issues, nor as an escape from thinking or caring about them. I make art write because it is what I do best, and I want to offer my best to the world.

Most days, I trust that if I listen to the voice within, I’ll be led to actions that contribute to the world we want to see. But when I doubt, wisdom from people like Eileen and Carol sustains and inspires me. My hope is that my writing does the same for others.

Whatever your work is, how do you view it in the midst of today’s tribulations?