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bridge

I have wanted to write about the Stillaguamish River (known affectionately as the Stilly) and the towns of Oso and Darrington. I wanted to write about grief and hope, the power of small communities pulling together and the kindness of strangers. I wanted to write words of gratitude for the first responders and words of comfort to those personally affected. I wanted you to know this area as more than tons of debris and worn out searchers. And I wanted those words to matter.  But like the mud that slid down a mountain-side two weeks ago, words are slippery and elusive.  There are so many words, so much I could say that, like that clay, they have stuck themselves together; and impermeable barrier lodged in my throat and fingers. Tears, like the river making its way around the destruction, are the only thing that seem to continue unabated.  I wonder if I will ever stop crying.

I have had to stop watching the news, instead bathing myself and my house in instrumental music with titles like “Healing Earth” and “River of Dreams”.  It has been too much and I am lucky enough to choose to shut it out. Others can’t.

I want you to know this area – to know it the way my family and friends have.

I grew up just a few miles from Arlington, Wa, though I had a Marysville address. We lived about 30 miles west of Darrington and Granite Falls, the last two towns that  bordered the forest lands where I spent nearly every weekend of my childhood.  The towns are separated by the mountains  Whitechuck and Three Fingers and the Stillaguamish river that splits around them.The North Fork of the Stilly runs along Darrington, The South Fork along Granite Falls.

A rough road, The Mountain Loop Highway, connects the two towns to the boundaries of my hometown. The highway is only partially paved and a big section of it closes for the majority of the year due to snow. Some of my favorite hikes are off this highway: the trail to Mount Pilchuck (the first hike I did on my dad’s back when I was two years old), Lake 22, where I first snow-shoed and the spooky mining town of Monte Cristo where I rummaged through the ruins of mining operations as a kid. Monte ChristoBefore we were such a lawsuit hungry country and they were barred up, there used to be collapsed mining tunnels to explore with a flashlight, a good dose of bravery and a willingness to wedge yourself in tight spaces.  I have hiked  up the Big 4 trail and stood many times in the vast blue ice of the caves formed under avalanche debris (this is extremely dangerous and is now  closed off because of collapse -DON’T DO THIS!).  It was somewhere in this area that I wrote the first story I loved, about a leaf falling from a tree, as I lay in the back of a green station wagon.  My family spent hours sitting on the tailgate of that station wagon eating cheese, salami and crackers while admiring the view afforded by clear-cutting off of timber access roads. I lost my virginity on a logged out forest road along the highway and I took my children to picnic along the banks of the Stilly when I was healing from leaving an abusive marriage.  I love this highway and the places along it. It is my home.

darringtonThe town of Darrington is the kind of  small town where everyone knows each other. There are no strip malls (or weren’t the last time I was there!), but it has an amazing bakery with some of the best cinnamon rolls I have ever had. Darrington has hosted a well-known Bluegrass festival every summer for 38 years, bringing in people from around the world. It is a town filled with people who originally made a living off of destroying the trees and land I cherished – miners and timber people. I pass through when I am on my way to a trailhead.  We are a funny family, but I do consider us a family:  the love of the land, though varied in how it is shown, binds us together.

Oso is so small that if you don’t see the sign, you will probably pass on through without noticing.  It is a “census designated place” which sort of means they just needed to count the people as living somewhere. Oso businesses have Arlington addresses, kids go to Darrington schools.  The town officially only has just about 200 people. Imagine that 100 of them were involved the slide and its aftermath.

Oso

The road from Arlington to Darrington is populated by small dairy farms giving way to hillsides that have been cleared many times. The North Fork of the Stilly runs along Highway 530, sometimes in view, other times not, switching sides of the road under bridges that have seen the river get close many times.  The Stilly floods often, the communities that lay along it, used to its seasonal fluctuations. As the river threads its way past between the mountains, it becomes gentle and its wide banks and rocky beaches welcome salmon, picnickers and fisherman before it empties into the Puget Sound at Port Susan.

These towns are filled with good people who love the land and care for each other. They define the term “neighbor”.  We don’t always see eye to eye on politics or the environmental issues that surround us but we love where we live.  There is no reason to be in this area except for the love of it, as jobs are scarce or require a long (even longer now) commute to the city.

salmon

My dad is a fly fisherman and has run the Stilly many times in his drift or pontoon boats  Stillyand a few times  his river boat.  It was the following FB post from him that promoted me to finally write this – realizing that showing you why I love this place was the right direction to finally take:

“We have all seen some horrific pictures lately of a wonderful treasure. I thought I would share some pictures (I took) of why this river valley is so special to so many. Two (the bridge and the boat photo) were taken a few miles downstream from the slide, and the fish were just above the area impacted. Our fishing club (we passed the hat at a club meeting the other night and got over $2500 for our fellow member who lost his home and son) does semi-annual “cleanups” on the river, and Sue (my mom) and I are regular visitors up this valley. The slide is about 15 miles east of Arlington. This river WILL return…….but it might be a while. The power of Nature is amazing, and events like this not something those of us in the Northwest deal with very often. Our communities are rallying together and we continue to seek ways to assist. Our hearts go out to all who have been touched by this slide.”   

The Stilly is where my Dad took my son on his first real fishing trip, where 20 year old Erik caught the only salmon and smoked cigarettes in front of his grandpa. It is where kids jump off a bridge into a river that is so clear you can see the stones and fish at the bottom many feet below you. It is where you learn that you don’t need shoes, but you do need sunscreen when you float a river in an innertube with a cooler of beer trailing along behind you.

And so it is that I cry for this land and its people I know so well.  My dad’s flyfishing friend went to the grocery store and while he was gone, lost his house and his son.  Cabelas, were my dad works in the flyfishing department, raised $40k for the Red Cross Oso Relief fund and gathered blankets, jackets, waders and gloves and hand warmers. Most of searchers are wearing Cabelas waders and who knows how much other gear from his store.  We are all tied together.

I watched the news with horror the night of the slide, only to see my spiritual teacher’s friend and teacher, Robin Youngblood on the news. She had been rescued from the mud with a friend who was visiting her from the Netherlands.  Her only remaining possession was a painting.  I had been planning to take classes from her and help her build a retreat center on her land this summer. She lost everything, her house turned to matchsticks.  She rode the slide out on a dryer, her friend on a dishwasher.  The land her house was on does not even exist anymore though she was across the river and up the bank from the mountainside that let loose.  She never suspected she would be at risk. Below is a picture of her friend Jetty while she was waiting to be rescued.  It was taken by a neighbor. Both women are fine though Robin has lost everything she ever owned.

slide

 

There is nothing more I can say – these pictures tell you everything I want you to know. This is my love story to the land.

Except there is this: please donate.  These families lost everything and it will not be covered by insurance.  They don’t even have land to rebuild on.  Please give generously.  And this, summer, consider spending time in this part of the world and you will come to understand and love it as I do.

POSTSCRIPT ADDED 04/05/2014

This was my father’s (Bob Banks) FB post today.  Please click the link at the end of the post and go to “blog” to see day by day photos of the river not seen in the media.

“Today I attended a grave side service for one of the slide victims. About 50 (9 from our fishing club) of us gathered in the gentle rain for our friend Reed’s son. it was REALLY well done, and included 3 representatives from FEMA and a representative from the Governor’s office who spoke very warmly about the event and the Miller family. Normally, I am not a big fan of the government processes, but this was very well done and much appreciated by all. Reed has been treated very well, and is doing well……..once again the community has stepped way up. I Visited with Mr. Gregory Minaker (another fishing friend) who lives about 1000 yards downstream, and he said it sounded like a few jets at very low altitude. He has a marvelous blog atwww.stillaguamishsteelhead.com and many incredible photos that most do not get access to.”

The families still need your support:

 American Red Cross Oso Relief, Cascade Valley Hospital Relief Fund, OSO Strong t-shirt

shirt

ral·ly

verb

1.a :  a mustering of scattered forces to renew an effort

  b :  a summoning up of strength or courage after weakness or dejection

  c :  a renewed offensive

My twenty-one year old son Eric called late one night, convinced he was a failure at pretty much every aspect of life – particularly the ones that revolved around making adult choices and dealing with the fall-out afterwards.

“Look,” I said. “I am not going to kid you, and maybe I should say something more positive than this to cheer you up – but life can be pretty fucked up.  Shit is going to happen. Mistakes are inevitable.  And it seems like, for you and I, shit happens more often than not.  But, here is the thing: all that really matters is how you come back from it. The important thing is what you do next. Life is all about the rally.”

That conversation stayed with me for months, turning itself in my mind like a stone in a river. My answer shows  that I have never been happy with the limiting definition as being either a “glass half empty/glass half full”  kind of person.  I am a “glass has tipped over, now what?” person.

This past month I attended a ski industry demo weekend that culminated in an evening of shot-ski Fireball rounds and waking the next day to 17” of fresh, light powder. “Waking” is a term to be used loosely after a night that had gone a little too well for me. I could barely haul myself into the backseat of the Subaru for the trip up the mountain where I stayed wrapped around an empty red solo cup in case I threw up. It wasn’t pretty. But I rallied.  Setting my goals low (ie: do NOT puke off the chairlift), I skied off by myself, and enjoyed face-shots of pure pow, the particular silence of falling snow and the joy of only doing what I wanted, when I wanted. It was one of my best ski days ever, despite the stomach ache.

Later, I found out some friends had not only missed the untracked snow of the morning, but had bailed early on an afternoon of blue-bird skies because of the same brown-bottle flu. I was puzzled. If they had said they were struggling, I would have shared the Pepto Bismol that my boyfriend had so generously bought me. Even with a self-inflicted sickness , I didn’t understand how could you give up so easily on such a marvelous day at an event that only comes once a year. I had certainly made mistakes that resulted in feeling less than ideal, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me from getting what I wanted out of my day. A day that hadn’t gone as planned; it had, in fact, gone even better.

Much of life my life has been one good idea after another turning out to be a hot-mess. Instead of utilizing my intelligence, I have often excelled in establishing my stupidity. And too many choices made with good intentions snowballed into regrettable mistakes through no fault of my own. I used to punish myself endlessly, wallowing in the “bad” moment as if reminding myself of my shortcomings was going to make things better. But as the saying goes, there are plenty of other people to tell you that you are an idiot, so don’t do it to yourself.

Over time, I learned to let the bad moment or bad choice go, leaving room for what was going to happen next.  A terrifying thought if you believe you are not worthy of good things or that you may puke in front of a bunch of people. But really, when we take conscious action with our best intentions, the odds are just as good that it may be fine as that the world will end. The mistake only matters if we let it keep us from living fully – if we let it define our day, our week, our career, our attitude. We learn nothing from perfection.  Life is all about the do-overs and the recycle bin, our successes and joys clearly built on the heels of devastating decisions.

But there is one more definition of “rally” applies here for my son and my friends….

ral·ly

noun

2a:  a mass meeting intended to arouse group enthusiasm

Eric called a couple of days ago to confess that he’d been having difficulties again.  But after two weeks of floundering anxiety (and ignoring my voicemail and texts), he reached past the terror of failure and embraced into the possibility of success. He stopped being immobilized by the slowly tightening noose of bad past decisions and focused instead of what he wanted next.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were having trouble?” I asked.

“I needed to do it by myself, Mom. I needed to know I could get it together on my own. Things are great now.” His voice was full of optimism.

I was proud that he pushed through his uncertainty to get what he needed. “I understand. But next time, tell me. Even if you have to say you don’t want help, tell me what is going on. Let me support you just by sending extra good vibes your way.”

No matter your mistakes or your choices, you never have to be alone. Get over your embarrassment and ask for support from you “enthusiastic group”. Let us rally on your behalf. Pepto Bismol and a sympathetic ear go a long way in calming stomachs and fears.

RoseQuartz

Rose Quartz surfaces spontaneously in my yard. Recently, I got out of the car  and a piece arrived at my feet, just as I was to take a step. Another day, a lightening-bolt shaped sliver of pale pink stone caught the light and I slipped it into my pocket just as I said “I love you” to my Mom on the phone. Once, while working on a particularly challenging piece of writing , I looked up to see a large chunk had mysteriously appeared in the middle of my back porch. The various sizes and shades of pink stone unearth at odd moments, as if pushed suddenly from the ground by forces that needed me to hear a message, delivered with solidity.

Rose Quartz is the “love stone”. According to my favorite  guide to stone meanings, Love is in the Earth,  Rose Quartz “emits a calming, cooling energy which can work … to gently remove negativity  and reinstate the loving gentle forces of self-love. It provides the message that there is no need for haste in any situation, bringing calmness and clarity to the emotions and restoring the mind to harmony after chaotic or crisis situations”.  While I am never sure how much  I believe about stone-magic, it never hurts to stay open to possibility.  And I cannot ignore the very real fact that Rose Quartz regularly appears in my life where it was not before.

Five years ago today, my boyfriend Neil  became the owner of our home. We received the keys at midnight February 12 and spent the next several hours drinking champagne and demolishing walls.  Or rather, he did.  I was sleeping on the living room floor, exhausted from number thirty-four of the thirty-five radiation treatments I was set to complete the next day.  Neil had decided to buy a house while he was sitting in a lounge chair my hospital room after my cancer surgery.  Exactly two years after we started “officially seeing each other”, we closed on a visually uninspiring rambler  three days before Neil’s 39th birthday, two days before Valentines Day and one day before I was done with cancer for good . 

It seemed a dramatic leap of faith to buy a house and move in together just as I finished up cancer treatment. Neil would deny that  it was like that  – he would say that he’d been looking for years, which was also true, though the timing seems rather suspect to me. Either way, our house has always been a place full of love and hope, and surprising, hidden beauty. Besides a seemingly endless vein Rose Quartz, it came with  thirty-four rose bushes – another ridiculously abundant symbol of love and life. We remodeled immediately after moving in. Every inch of wiring, plumbing, roofing, flooring and every wall and counter was worked on with the unexpectedly generous help of family and friends,  surrounding us in happy memories. We’ve re-planted the original gardens and added trees, digging ourselves deeply into the fabric of our little quarter acre. The past few years seen much laughter, dinner parties, drinking and joy and have been the have been the happiest years of my life.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like much of a unique love story, nothing worthy of a whole blog post. But it was the constant presence of Rose Quartz,  which is good for healing emotional and physical “wounds”, that made me think to write. Its surprising abundance in our yard and our surprising (to me) happiness here, seemed linked. I entered this relationship coming from years of bad situations that made me believe that perhaps I was not meant to be with someone. As an adult I had never lived in one place for more than a year, while Neil is a home-body. We are the proof that opposites attract. And though we have been happy, our relationship has  still been full of the kind of difficulties that, even one at a time, break people apart. We were so newly together when I was diagnosed with cancer that I was certain Neil would leave. I wasn’t even sure I long I would be here. But, here I am, still waking up saying YES to Neil and to life. 

Rose Quartz has pushed into our daily awareness with an abundance that borders on ridiculous. QuanYinWhether I believe in stone-magic or not, the piles around the yard and in the house have made me pay attention to the symbology of this physical reminder of love. The stones are a message to be kind to myself. To have compassion for my faults and those of others. To be generous in my loving, and to do it will full-bodied presence. To notice small things, appreciate simplicity and know that nothing is worth more than this moment. The many, many times I pick up a stone that has randomly appeared or Neil digs a hole in the yard to find a shovel full of pale pink, remind me that love is not an elusive emotion I must quest for. When I forget, something surprising will show up to remind me that it is under my feet, supporting me all along.

So, as I celebrate all the fabulousness in my life and my many anniversaries this month, I do so with my pockets full of pink rocks. Instead of red hearts and flowers for Valentines Day, maybe you should find a piece of Rose Quartz to hand to someone you care about. I have plenty in my yard to share.

Love Is. We sometimes just need to look down to be reminded.

FB2

The high temperature for the day had been below zero when my twenty-four year old daughter wrote the above Facebook post.  She was in Chicago on a New Years vacation layover before returning to her college town in Illinois to finish her last semester of a graduate degree that she is about to leave incomplete.  The idea that my daughter is in an MFA program – much less that she may abandon it because it isn’t the right fit – is something that never fails to amaze me. Given the circumstances of her young life, I would never have thought it possible.  But, one never knows what life has in store.

Megan is a grad student who also works fulltime as an intern, receiving as payment a tuition waiver and a small stipend to cover her rent and bills.  She doesn’t earn much, but she is frugal. On her way home from visiting Seattle for the holidays, she had enough money for a stay in a hostel in Chicago for a few days to visit museums and art galleries. She and a friend were returning from the  natural history museum  when Megan saw an elderly woman and a small boy in the doorway of a Panera trying to warm up in the heat that escaped as customers entered and exited.

Megan is a city kid and panhandlers are nothing new to her. Like any of us, she generally pays them no mind, and had probably passed several on her outing that day. She is generous to those she loves, but she will stab  you in the back of the hand with a fork if you try to take food off her plate because she remembers not having enough to eat. She also remembers the worries that a small child absorbs through the skin of their poverty-stricken parents, and seeing the small boy, the same age she was when our situation was so dire, made her stop.

“I don’t need a hand out,” the old woman said. She offered Megan  her wedding ring in exchange for a phone card and a taxi ride to the shelter where they had a bed. She was having trouble breathing, as the cold was aggravating whatever respiratory complaint she suffered from. She was moving very slowly – certainly not fast enough to keep her and the boy warm as they made their way to a shelter many blocks away.

“There was just something about her, Mom” Megan would later say to me.  “I knew I needed to help her.”  And so my daughter walked across the street to the store and bought a phone card, stopped at the Dairy Queen for  warm food and hired a taxi with instructions to take the woman and the child to the shelter.  She refused the woman’s offer of her ring as payment, instead requesting that someday, in some way, she pay the favor forward.

And then Megan returned to her hostel with her rather astounded friend and posted the above, very understated, Facebook post.

She may have saved the life of that woman and child that night.

I am a terribly proud Mama and have already posted about this on my Facebook.  But I wanted a wider audience to see this story and be reminded of how simple it is to make a difference for someone by choosing generosity over suspicion.

Cynics will say that the woman and her family made their choices, that she should get a job, maybe even that she was lying and the kid was a prop and that my daughter was duped.  All of that  is possible. But the fact is  this:  it was below zero and no one, no matter their situation, should be out in that.  My daughter was on vacation from her masters degree program – something she knew was so far away from this woman’s situation as to make it seem like they live in different worlds. As an educated white girl, Megan enjoys privilege and a bright future though technically her income places her below federal poverty level. She has never forgotten that twenty years ago, when I was close to her age now, I fed her and her brother from the food bank and didn’t know how to pay for heat. Though I had a job and we had a roof over our head, I didn’t know how we would make it through each day. Had my parents not lent a hand, we would have been on the streets. Not once, but twice.

It is easy to sit in judgement of others, to overlay our beliefs about how the world works  onto their reality.We hold tightly to what we think  is ours, because we worked for it we believe we deserve it more than someone else.  As if they have not worked. Or suffered. As if they had the same set of choices as us, or as the person next to them. Instead, the reality is we are separated from one another only by a matter of degrees.  As the saying goes; there, but for  the grace of god, go I. 

We are a nation  built on corporate greed disguised as equal opportunity, a fact that has become more and more clear as pensions, social security, food and unemployment assistance are reduced daily despite the increase in the paychecks of the top 1%. The idea that those who work hard get ahead has become a myth for youth who do not believe they will own homes or work for  a loyal employer like generations before. The world is a harsher, more isolated place than it once was. And yet, while we know this, we still argue about the validity of programs that will make sure that all Americans will have equal access to health care because we are afraid someone will take what see as ours.

What would happen if we  realized that we are fortunate to have had the opportunities we have had  and willingly lent a hand to lift up someone else who has not had the same successes? What if  we allowed ourselves, just for a moment,  to truly experience a less fortunate person’s pain, despair, shame without judgement? What if we  stopped seeing our way of life as a right  and instead understood our days as filled with privilege?  It can be as simple as rejoicing that someone who couldn’t previously afford a doctor can go now instead of complaining that you have to pay a few dollars more.  

It seemed like every week  during the holidays there was a story in the news of wait staff receiving extraordinary tips, Christmas shopping layaways paid for by strangers, hotel bills for families mysteriously being taken care of.  They were miraculous stories of generosity that I don’t want to see end. Lets continue this trend….lets ease the load on another person, make their day brighter, show them they are not alone in their struggles, not so we can be seen as good people, but because it is the right thing to do.

I challenge you all to use Megan as an inspiration this year, to step outside of your comfort zone and set aside your judgements to give someone less fortunate a reason to hope.  The person in front of you could be your child, your parent or your friend given another set of circumstances.  It doesn’t take much. I’d even love for you to share your stories here.

If a twenty-something with no money can “afford” compassion, so can you.

And to my darling Megan….if you were not already my heroine, you would be now.

path

The trail lies sandwiched between a real estate office and a police station. The hurry of the day departs as I step out of my shoes onto pavement radiating with heat. Barefooted, I can feel the contours of the earth and the connection between us. Each footstep is placed with intention, each movement releasing a crusted layer of daily-grind resistance. Moments before there was only exhaustion, now eager anticipation resides.

This is where I breathe.

Just past the rush of an air conditioner unit, I turn a corner and leave the bustle of the shopping center behind. Shade cools the ground under my feet. The loudest sounds are the wind rustling through the cascara leaves and the petulant caw of a young crow. The air is thick and damp with the sun-warmed sweetness of blackberry and alder. My lungs fill for the first time in what feels like days. I feel my shoulders drop, and I’m surprised to find how tightly I’ve been holding them.

This is where I slow down.

There is a blue mark on the pavement under an ancient tree, its original meaning long forgotten. Now it marks the gateway, hidden unless you know where to look. No one witnesses me stepping lightly from the man-made trail into the wild. I pretend the narrow path disguised by nettle and fern is my secret place, though the occasional heavy footprints left by man and dog prove me wrong. I step lightly from a rotting log to the soft stream bank and enter the flow. The balls of my feet tingle in the cool water.  A deep sigh escapes my lips.

This is where I am made aware.

Patches of sand weave between the speckled stones of the stream bed. Each step in the clear water is a meditation in presence and attention. If I hurry, the smooth tumbled rocks push painfully against my tender arches. If a misplaced footfall stirs the silty bottom, I must wait for it to settle before continuing. Patience is rewarded. Damselflies skip along the water’s surface. Salmon fry dart around my toes. Sunlight illuminates the copper-colored back of a lamprey, long and slender as a pencil. It slithers away from my shadow, mouth groping for its next stone anchor. A crawdad, as big as my hand, moves ponderously through the shadows. The journey to my pebbled beach is much longer than the ten footsteps the stream measures across.

This is where I am still.

The minutes stretch into hours that seem like seconds. The days pass, the calendar marked by new blossoms and ripening berries. It is only here in the dappled sunlight that I am fully at peace, the grating urgency of my city life soothed. A yellow warbler and his mate glow brightly against tree-bark-brown before disappearing into the green. A mallard rounds a bend in the stream, watching me for long moments before continuing on her way. Her encouraging quack! reveals four ducklings trailing behind her. The sun flashes against her indigo wing patches as she leads them bouncing downstream over tiny riffles. The salmon fry have grown strong enough to leap out of the water, and I applaud their efforts wildly. A dragonfly perches on my toe. A beetle helps itself to my fruit salad.

This is where I am alive.

I leave and return and leave again. Summer passes, fall settles in. The sun dips below the tree-line leaving my beach shadowed. I bundle against the chill and wade across a stream transformed. The normally cheery water now runs high, its mirrored surface an inky reflection of the surrounding late-autumn gloom. Most of the birds are gone. The salmon fry are gone too, having floated away to new homes near the river. I dreamt of seeing the glossy backs of grown salmon lifting above the waterline, pushing towards spawning grounds upstream. But I have missed them. I give in to the current of the season and drift off too.

This is where I find peace.

With the shift in weather, I retreat to the mountains, miles from roads now instead of footsteps beyond the door of my workplace. Dreary lowland rain transforms into a thick blanket of snow that drapes the landscape, smoothing the jagged edges of granite and those of my soul. Cascara grows abundant here too, its twigs snapping whip-like as I push past them. But at this altitude, Cottonwood and Alder have given way to Doug Fir and Hemlock, their branches bowing under the weight of snow. I fill my pockets with their perfect tiny pinecones, inhaling the warm smell of pitch and clean chill of ice. Material worries lift from my thoughts in a cloud of warm breath. Snowflakes gather on my eyelashes, their touch gentle on my cheeks grown rosy with cold. The gravely cry of a grey jay breaks the silence, and suddenly I’m aware of the faint sound of a stream, hidden and waiting for spring.

This is where I am home.

                Just about at the exact time of my five-year cancerversary my boob broke.  

I woke up in a hotel room to caustic slime oozing out of an inch long fissure in my silicone prosthesis, gooping  up the inside of my sleep bra and burning my skin.  I should have paid attention when I got up to pee the night. Some part of me knew that sleeping on my stomach while wearing my prosthesis in a loose sleeping bra wasn’t a good idea.  But I was in a hotel—a Euro-style hotel specifically, with several rooms sharing a bathroom.  Which meant that when (not if) I had to pee I had to go across the hall.  Being relatively well-endowed on my good side, there was no way I was going to go into a hotel hallway lopsided.  So, I wore my prosthesis to bed.  Besides, if there was a fire in the night and I had to leave the hotel in a hurry, I didn’t want to be rummaging around in a smoke-filled room for my boob.  Evacuating without it would be out of the question.  God knows I wouldn’t want to be rescued missing critical parts—firefighters are cute!

I was on a low-budget trip, visiting my son, Eric, who was away at college. He was about to arrive for breakfast, so I wrapped the leaking boob in a bandana, shoved it back into my bra and went to ask the desk clerk for some duct tape.  Back upstairs, I patched the hole and when Eric arrived we laughed at my utilitarian practicality. But it wasn’t really funny. Nothing makes a woman feel attractive like a fake boob patched with duct tape.  Or more worried about money than knowing you just sprung an unexpected $300 leak while on vacation.

After my son headed off to classes for the day, I headed to Nordstrom’s. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Nordstrom’s stores are everywhere and they do an excellent job of fitting women with tricky issues—like a missing boob. They take insurance for the prosthetic and even “pocket” the bras for free, meaning someone hand-sews a pouch for my prosthesis to slide into so it doesn’t escape out the neck of my shirt when I bend over.  (Which has happened–do you want a description of the sound of silicone hitting a wood floor in a silent room?  I will write you another story later.)  Combining this with generally excellent and helpful (if somewhat snobbish) clerks, and Nordstrom’s is well deserving of its reputation for customer service

Despite how helpful the salespeople may be, I HATE going into the lingerie department of any store. It is torture to be surrounded by an entire roomful of feminine items that I can no longer wear. I used to love pretty lingerie—when my mom and daughter went to Paris I asked them to bring me some back. But nothing looks right on me anymore, all of it punctuating what I no longer have by the emphasis on what I still do.  The lingerie department reopens a wound of loss that never really heals all the way, despite all I have done to accept that femininity and beauty do not lie in the physical.  I especially hate having to ask a perky twenty-something for help with something that is so far beyond her comprehension.  When I ask for something pretty, she’ll pick things that don’t work with a prosthetic, prolonging the process and deepening my depression.  If I just ask for something that works with the prosthetic, out comes the uber-functional grandma-gear that makes me feel old and frumpy.  The process reduces me to tears immediately.  The only thing that saves me is watching for the quick flash of shock when they see the big-ass dragon tattoo that covers my scars.

Angry that this was how I have to spend time on my vacation, I was feisty when I walked into the Portland store.  I didn’t want to be doing this in a strange city, I needed it to be done fast, and I knew I wasn’t going to like any part of it.  As expected, when I explained I needed help with a prosthesis, the Nordstromy-looking young woman at the counter asked me to wait for the “fit specialist”.  But the woman who approached me was decidedly un-Nordstrom-ish.  In fact, she looked quite nearly hipster-ish, maybe even hipster mom-ish. At the very least she looked like someone I could talk to, someone closer to my clan than not; she seemed genuine and earthy instead of the painted-veneer type I was used to.  Of course she could help me.  Of course we would be quick. After all who wants to do deal with this on their vacation?  Indeed.

A phone call to my doctor for a prescription was the next step.  “Hello, I am a patient of Dr. Scarr,” (I kid you not, that is his name) “I had an accident while on vacation and my prosthesis broke.  I need a prescription written and faxed for a new one right away.”  I waited on hold while a nurse was summoned.

It was a dude.

“Um, I understand you need a prescription from Dr. Scarr?  Your, um, your prosthesis broke?”  He really did say um. He sounded like he was 20.  I wonder how many women called for a new boob.  I explain the situation.  I also wanted a prescription for bras while we were at it. The damage done by surgery left me in constant pain and unable to wear the same bra more than one day in a row because of how they rubbed. That means a variety of choices in my drawer and most of mine are getting shabby. Shabby bras for a lingerie lover do nothing for self-esteem. I figured since we were already in this thick, we may as well do the whole nasty deed.

He cleared her throat. “A bra?”

“No, BraS. Plural.  They are covered as well.  Durable medical equipment.  I don’t know how many I am going to get and insurance covers $30 of every bra I buy.  So, no limit on the number”.  When you have only one boob, lingerie is now durable medical equipment . It really reinforces how sexy life is post-cancer.

He cleared his throat again.  Maybe he had a cold.  “Okay. Bras.  And a prosthesis.”  He squeaked, “And who do these prescriptions go to?” Geez, I wouldn’t have wanted to tell him I had an itch someplace embarrassing.

“Nordstrom’s” And then the inevitable surprised response.  But the prescription was faxed and that was all that mattered.  I rejoined fit specialist Dianne.

Dianne pulled one reasonably priced and not terribly ugly functional bra off the rack and we headed to the dressing room.  It was perfect, and this time I cried because it was so easy. Diane wasn’t cut from a Nordstrom’s salesperson mold, she understood completely and even rushed having the bra pocketed (for free) so I could have everything later that afternoon.   It was the best customer service I have ever had.

But, easy as it was, I was exhausted and a bit despondent when I left.  Depending on the day, it can be devastating just to face a mirror, and being surrounded by all those silky see-through chemises and lacy things that proudly push up the girls always sends me over the edge a bit.  Once a well built 32 DD, now only the left remains. The other side of me is flat as a teenage boy’s chest, skin pulled tight over scar tissue covered by a dragon tattoo from armpit to a hip left more ample by treatment and rushed menopause.  Bad-ass as the tattoo may make me seem, I still long for the full breasted sexiness I once flaunted.  I am filled with loss once again and gratefully skitter away to lick my wounds in a coffee shop.

My ever-generous and extraordinarily compassionate son went with me to pick up my items later that day. He stood calmly by my side as we waited in the middle of my pink frilled lacy nightmare world once more, joking with me about glow in the dark underwear and bra cups large enough to hold a watermelon. His presence has been a critical part of my healing. He took care of me when my boyfriend could not and has always been willing to talk about issues that far exceed the norm for mother and son discussions. I was grateful for his support, even though I knew the duct-taped boob would later make the rounds with his roommates as yet another “My mom is so awesome that she….” story.

The nice thing about our current health care is that laws have been passed so all insurance has to cover breast prosthetics.  However, most, like mine, make “durable medical equipment” – like boobs and bras – fall under the deductible, even though it is not possible to live comfortably without either.   Most insurance now is so expensive that people like me have high deductibles in order to be able to afford basic coverage.  While I didn’t have to pay cash out-of-pocket for my $400 purchase, I did have to give them a credit card number to charge the deductible to when insurance finishes up, one to five months in the future.  With deep resignation, I gave Dianne a card number that will either fail to go through, or will thoroughly disrupt my ability to buy groceries or gas. What was I supposed to do?  It wasn’t something I could plan for, or make do without and I needed a boob now.

The plan was to ask for a single purchase credit line increase on the card for an emergency.  They used to do this for people for things like broken cars or emergency travel.  Apparently not anymore.  Or maybe it was just my circumstance. Have you ever had to call your credit card company begging them to increase your limit by $500 for a one time emergency purchase from Nordstrom’s?  I will warn you—they laugh.  And they don’t raise your limit.

Insurance needs to change how it handles prosthetics and deductibles.  Women should not have to go without a breast due to insurance squabbles. No one should go without a wheelchair, nebulizer, or a prosthetic anything, or make do with something broken or inadequate just because their insurance deductible hasn’t been met.  We have already fought for our lives. We shouldn’t have to keep being reminded of our losses.

Today, I am officially “cured” of cancer.  They say that when you have made it past the five-year mark of a cancer diagnosis without a re-occurrence, then you are cured.  But cancer is never really over.  I still have to cope with the emotional challenges of being handicapped in a very breast-oriented world.  I still deal with the very real physical repercussions of treatment from a disease that’s only cure was to chop off a body part and then nuke my chest with enough radiation that it may likely cause another cancer somewhere else.  I still have “phantom limb” sensations, no immune system and constant pain. Cured, I will always worry about every ache and pain and question whether I will survive until I am old.  My friend Caryn says that her children get scared every time she has so much as a cold.  Once you have had cancer, there is never a day for the rest of your life that you are not a survivor. For most of us, not a day goes by that we are not in some way impacted by the disease.  Cure does not mean we get to forget it and move on.

So here is to five years.  A little celebration and a new boob for me to mark the occasion.  In the next five years I hope that mirrors and lingerie departments begin to feel like the illusions they are. Globally, I wish for a little less pink and more down-to-earth action. Let’s not only find a way to prevent this disease but humane ways to treat it and the people affected by it. Survival goes on forever. Please continue to support survivors and their emotional and physical needs.  Five is a number.  It is a nice one.  But it is not a cure.

(If you want to contribute to the breast-cause, there is a link at the top of the page to make a donation! I promise to shake my boobies—the one that shakes at least—in your direction in gratitude. )

Caryn and Me, 4 and 5 years cancer free respectively.Caryn and Me, 4 and 5 years cancer free respectively.

Stormy weather writing

It has been a while since I have written here, which is by no means indicative of how much writing I have done. After graduating from my MFA program in July, my life became a whirlwind of submissions to agents, literary journals and contests. Just like what was happening in my late summer garden, it was a time to harvest the results of my hard work.  Or, that is what my overly optimistic self thought.  To be sure, there is interest in my manuscript and many things are still floating around in the ethereal world of Submittable. But summer has suddenly given way to fall. The rains have come, the sky is grey and my energy wanes. The obvious rewards and encouragement of both my fecund garden and writing program are behind me and I feel adrift. Amidst the doubting voices in my head and the hungry need of my wallet, I am learning the discipline of writing.  The keep-doing-it-even-when-you-dont-see-any-obvious-results work. The get-your-ass out-of-bed-no-matter-how-dark-it-is requirement. For work it is – not in terms of how hard it is, but because it is what feeds me (albeit only creatively right now).  It needs to be done with the regularity of brushing my teeth or slogging off to my retail job. Even when the external rewards are few, the inner peace of knowing I am doing what I am supposed to do for some small part of every day is enough to get me through the lulls.

Fall is my favorite season – a time of renewal, an introspective going within and time of preparation. Even though this summer I wanted nothing more than what every other Creative Writing MFA grad wants (a six-figure publishing deal along with my diploma), I am taking using this fall season to deepen my craft and my commitment to it. To dive deeply into it with dedication that far exceeds the previous requirements of grad school deadlines. My obligation is now only to myself – a much harder commitment than any external deadline I have had. Some days are an absolute a slog through the mental mud and the real and literary skies are often leaden black. But there are those crisp autumn days when I kick over a pile of dead leaves to reveal an entire colony of life below. That is when I remember that it is not all gloom and doom and if I keep scratching just below the surface, I will find unceasing richness that is waiting for the right timing.  The same rules apply to writing as to gardening – fall is the time to prepare the soil and maintain faith. Faith is everything, and much happens below the surface. And so, coffee in hand, I do the work of writing and gardening and continuing to believe…..

photorope

sub·mis·sion  (sb-mshn)
n.1. a.The act of submitting to the power of another:

        b.The state of having submitted. See Synonyms at surrender.
    2. The state of being submissive or compliant; meekness.
    3. a. The act of submitting something for consideration.

         b. Something so submitted
 
     The word “submission” doesn’t roll off my tongue easily.  When I see it on the page, my heart lurches – a sudden spastic clench of unease. It is a hard word for me to type – I misspell it, as if my body is still putting up resistance to a word wrapped in a history not yet eclipsed by my new reality. And though I have personal reasons to shy at this word, many writers I know are equally repelled by the idea of submitting, as if they too are afraid they will be overpowered or lose their power.
     Submission is an everyday part of writing. You write something, you send it off – submitting your work to a journal, a conference, a contest, or an agent is what you are expected to do. It isn’t easy.  Even for the experienced, there is a near-electric charge that goes with pushing “send” .  A sudden drop of the stomach follows the  fluttering envelope  into the dark void of the mailbox. It is terrifying and exciting all at once to know that now your words have a life of their own. As writers, we have to let go, release of control and have faith in the future of our work. We must believe we are more than our worst days – we must submit and trust the process of being a writer.
     Truth be told, there was a time in my life when submission was another thing altogether. Back then, I was giving up – capitulating,  giving in to an opponent.  Refusing to fight any longer because I felt overpowered by life, circumstances and a person with motivations that were unclear to  me at the time.  I allowed someone else to make decisions for me, to be responsible, to cause harm or reward as they saw fit. It is this that makes the word so difficult – cloaking it in memories of weakness, lost worth and fear. At the time, I would have argued that I had no other choice – much in the same way I would say I have no other choice than to write. But, giving up to someone is not the same as giving in to your destiny. Then, I was no longer a willing or active participant . I let go because I couldn’t see what I had to hold on to. Now, I am certain of myself and my words and giving in to my writing is always an act of freedom and power.
      Being in the “zone” of the  creative process is  a spiritual experience. and the act of writing is one of submission  to it. I let go to the story that runs through me, allowing the words that patter around in my brain like the rain here in Seattle  to have power.  It takes trust . I never kid myself that the initial earlier stages of writing are something I control.  I am very much the puppet of an unseen puppeteer; I am compliant and willing to give into the the creative well that lives within me. “Meekness” might not ever be a word used in reference to me, but perhaps humility is better – I acknowledge and accept the magic that is the writing process.  There is plenty of time down the road that writing becomes grunt work, academic effort and skill that is all about what I do, but in the beginning, I simply…submit.
     This isn’t to say this is a comfortable process. Reading my own writing  is often torturous, full of self-flagellation and berating myself over what the hell I was thinking when I wrote that sentence?! Why would I want anyone else to see my juvenile attempts at creativity?  I am not alone – all of us  fight with ourselves over whether is is all a waste of time, or wondering if people only pretend to like it. Writers seem to go through a regular cycle of knowing we are complete idiots  who should wear a bag over their head when in public in case someone remembers that awful thing that got published years ago.  Some of us never let others see our work, worrying that we are deluding ourselves that our words are worth taking up space in the world. We all go through periods of guarding our work fiercely, alternating hope and satisfaction with a dismissive  shrug.  But others refuse to submit to anything other than fear.
     As a writer, submitting feeds the well of inspiration and creativity and personal success.  All artists are better people for releasing ourselves to  the flow of creativity and the world needs better people.The dancer Martha Graham once had an amazing thing to say about our creative selves: 

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is   only one of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

      Taking our writing out into the world- submitting it - is part of acknowledging the power of those finally well-wrangled words. Submitting is the end result of the collaboration of the mystical aspects of the writing process and  skill. There is nothing meek in this –  it is an action full of power and intention. We must reclaim the word that can also denote weakness, knowing that in trusting that our creative selves can only grown stronger and more nourished. And it is not only us  writers who are better for taking this risk  - the world needs our voices,  Through sharing our stories, we create possibility, change, compassion and understanding to say nothing of humor, adventure and love in a day-to-day world that often seems to be lacking color.   

     So please….submit….create….share.  I can’t wait to read you!
Here are some of the recent places I am submitting to:

The following is my Goddard MFA graduate reading given July 2013 in Port Townsend, Wa.

This is an excerpt from my memoir These Are Not Secrets, the story of a young poverty-stricken mother who makes a reckless and horrific bargain with a dangerous man to gain security for her children.  How she survives and is eventually able to leave Him is woven together with an introspective look at the far-reaching consequences of childhood abuse, the failure of the American Dream and what it means to be a mother.

Mom-Tattoo, Artist:Donovan Lynn

This is an excerpt from my second book in progress. A version was published on the contributor blog of Minerva Rising in conjunction with their theme of “Mother”.  Please visit Minerva Rising and support women’s literary voices.

***

I managed a ski shop awhile back. It was a fun, laid back, bro-talking industry – for a guy. But for a woman, it was an often sexist fight for recognition that wasn’t based on how tight my clothes were. Our mostly male customers seemed surprised I was knowledgeable about the product, or else they overlooked me completely, searching for a guy to help them. But I was used to it and I was tough; the “customer is always right” rule didn’t apply in a sport that could easily result in broken bones.

My son Eric was in charge of our rental shop. He moved away from home early and dropped out of high school.  I worried about him. He was a gentle, artsy kid with a physical disability that left him limping and unable to ski anymore. I gave him a job so I could watch over him and because he was a hard worker who was hard to rile. The busy rental shop was a good place for him.

No one would have known he wasn’t just another one of the shop boys – except that he refused to call me anything but Mom. He said I’d earned it and he wasn’t giving it up, even at work.  It wasn’t long before all the boys switched to calling me Mom. It was a title that carried more authority with them than “boss”, and they treated me with the respect and love the title merited.

Real skiing ends in the Pacific Northwest around the end of March, and we closed up shop in early May. Summers were spent tuning gear and calling customers who were a month or more late returning their rentals.  One sunny June day I looked up from counting a large pile of ski boots to see an SUV worth more than double my yearly income pulling into the lot. The driver didn’t seem to notice the large “closed for the season” sign in the front window. From the angry slam of the car door, I was guessing this guy had just gotten my third phone message saying I was charging in full instead of the $25 late fee if I didn’t get the equipment that day.

Fumbling with an armload of skis, the man reached for the locked door, cursing as he pulled at the handle to no avail. Eric was already limping slowly to the door . He unlocked it with a smile that dissolved as soon as the man barked, “Why are you closed? I need to return my kid’s gear!”

The guy sounded like someone who was going to need the Manager, but I generally let the boys figure out how to deal with cranky customers as far as they could. They needed to gain confidence that they could handle aggressive people politely, and Eric was one of the best at it. Trying to placate the guy with cool bro’ ski shop attitude, Eric ignored the anger and replied in an easy tone, “Hey man! Bring your stuff in – we close up for the summer so we can tune for next year.  You are lucky you caught us!” Despite Eric’s obvious limp, the man shoved his awkward load into Eric’s arms and turned to leave.

Eric’s voice remained cheerful, though strained, over the mess of poles stabbing at the air and the catawampus skis spilling from his hands.

“Okay, hang on. Let me get your paperwork and we can take care of the late fees at the register…”His voice trailed off as the man spun around, red-faced. Tearing off his sunglasses and throwing his keys on the floor, he leaned in, “I am not paying a goddamn late fee!”

Eric was silent as he shuffled to the counter and set the gear on the floor. The tightly clenched muscles in his jaw betrayed his annoyance as he searched through the paperwork slowly. This wasn’t a new scenario, and when he replied, his voice had lost its friendly banter. He placed the paperwork before the man. “Sir, you have signed this form in three places stating that you understood when the items were due AND that there would be a $25 late fee assessed after a two-week grace period.  We sent you an email and called twice. We have your credit card number on file and can charge the fee to that. But, it can easily be waived if you prepay for next year.” Eric smiled without warmth, bracing himself against the counter for what experience had proved would come next.

The man reached across the counter, crumpled the paperwork and threw it at my son.  I jumped up, ready to intervene, but Eric’s eyes hadn’t yet flicked towards me asking for help.

The man shouted,“I ain’t payin’ no goddamn late fee! You can stick your paperwork up your ass! Who do you think you are you little shit, tellin’ me what I have to do? If you charge me, you are gonna hear from my lawyer!  Where’s your manager?  I want to talk to the goddamn manager!” He slammed his fist on the counter.

I was steps behind him. Angry customers were one thing, but abusing any of my staff was completely unacceptable. Eric’s eyes caught mine over the man’s shoulders, and he smiled.

Eric looked the man in the eye while he said, “MOM, this man asked to see you.”

At the word “Mom”, the man’s back when rigid. He turned around slowly to face me – a small, young-looking  woman with her arms crossed against her chest.  “Is there a problem, Sir?”  I drawled coolly, knowing the man’s bluster was gone now that he was worried he’d pissed off some kid’s mother.

Sure enough, he wiped the spittle off his lips and picked his keys up off ground. “Sorry ma’am. I guess you have a card on file?  I’ll be going now.”  He skittered out the door, throwing himself into the safety of his SUV and drove off.

Being “Manager” is one thing, but nothing beats the power of Mom.

(Taken from Minerva Rising Contributor’s blog: “Not Just a Title” by Robyn Lynn)

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