Rhythm and Fade: A Night Walk in Cork, Ireland

By Neva Knott

The Ovens Bar in Cork on a Tuesday in July. Older couples, men and women who looked like they’d worked a day in their lives, sat side by side in booths, facing into the room, backs at the wall. Each he, a full pint of dark beer, each she, a half. The booths were red and the walls dark and trimmed with heavy wood. Eyes followed us as we entered. Low words marked our presence, foreigners in a common place at day’s end.

The nine of us took a table and struck up little conversations in clusters of twos and threes. The World Cup was on the screen. Two happy Irish men tuned, violin and banjo, and made ready to play music. A third man, younger, muscular, jovial, carefully unpacked his tap dancing shoes.

My eyes on it all–the projected energy of the game, the enthusiasm of the band, the constant smile of the dancing man, the contemplation of the drinking couples, the random conversations of my company, the movement at the bar. Unwilling to drink more and unable to sit still any longer, I knew I had to take my leave.

How to explain I had to go, to walk? Not wanting to appear rude or disinterested, but as I watched the soccer players run and watched the dancer click and step, I couldn’t keep my place on that barstool. It was late evening, the best time to walk. I told my friends good-bye and left the bar.

Outside, the city was aswarm. The sky was still blue. As I walked it began to pale to grey, but a brightness remained behind buildings, and the sun still projected light above the church-tops and shop roofs. I walked along Oliver Plunkett Street to the rhythm of footsteps, the beat of young couples going to the pub, of overly made-up girls going for a drink, of tourists seeking entertainment, of shop workers going home. Buildings and shapes and languages.

Two blocks up, a man with a red electric guitar. He was an aging rock star, dressed in hippy-style motley, a man whose musical generation was fading in the same way the light dropped behind the buildings. His guitar shone, the sound amplified down the side-alley and along Plunkett Street, and his voice–mellow and strong, clear and convicted, gave to the fading light the words of a ballad, “Stairway to Heaven.”

The notes from the red guitar, the familiarity of the song, and the walking beat blended into me. I wondered, what, for me, glitters with gold?

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The rhythm of the city’s dusk carried me past the closed shops, past the pubs with the noise of the World Cup spilling out of each doorway, across the bus mall, and onto Washington Avenue. Half a mile down, the avenue began to parallel the River Lee. I could see the day’s end reflected on the cool glass of the water.

The street was quieter now, though still populated. Shapes and textures of the city took my eye–the glass-scapes of modern hotels layered upon stone-built old churches. The Records and Relics shop with its mannequins in a shoot ’em up western motif. The quick-mart, still open for snacks and liquor, the forgotten milk, cigarettes, a sandwich. Row houses with iron gates, mild-mannered graffiti on cement garden walls, the flora of the college grounds. The ever-present, soft-flowing River Lee.

I felt alive and part of it all; I was walking.

 

 

 

The Frogs’ Melodies Tonight

By Neva Knott

Full moon. That majestic golden orb shines through the still-bare boughs of the maple tree just at the edge of my yard. This morning, even, while I was walking the dog at dawn, I saw it in the sky, too full yet to move on to the other side of the world. Since, it has made its rotation, and brightens my night.

My dog Josh is on the deck, listening to the frog orchestra that began a week or two ago. The field below our house floods in the spring rain, bringing these amphibians that, night after star-bright night, vocalize their passionate search for a mate and signal the change in temperature as the world shifts toward spring.

Each spring evening I’ve heard the frog-song, I’ve thought of my father, of a particular memory of him. When I was a very little girl, three or four, we lived on the shores of Chambers Lake, on the other side of town. Across the lake, coyotes roamed along the railroad tracks. They howled, and on those nights, my father would awaken me, wrap me in a blanket, and carry me to the porch to listen, to nature, to the universe. This memory has become emblematic of the legacy my father left me. He died when I was fifteen, but before passing, instilled in me a deep understanding of the connection between humans and the natural world.

In the 1970s my father worked as a zoologist for the United Nations in Bangkok, Thailand, where I attended seventh grade at the International School. He gave a lecture to my class, “Man and the Natural Environment.” I have his notes, dated September 17, 1973, in front of me this evening:

The natural environment surrounds us with geography–mountain vistas, high plateaus, low hills used for farming, river valley deltas made into rice paddies, the land itself. The natural environment includes seasons and sunlight and the rainy season and typhoons and all of it culminates in soil quality.

Humans need the soil to grow food. Without good soil, there is no rice, no fruit. Work animals–yak, buffalo, horse, and elephant–live off the land, too.

Humans influence the natural environment. We make our mark by building houses, planting crops, keeping livestock, and using resources to make clothes, travel, and build cities.

Humans need nature, the good environment–clean air, clean water, green scenery, and wildlife. The bad environment is dirty air, dirty water, no green, no wildlife but rats. The bad environment is caused by too many people, ignorance, and the desire for wealth now.

The warning bells are loss of wildlife, loss of green across the landscape.

His endnote reads, “If they can’t live–can man????” On this part of the note page, it is clear my dad pressed his pencil hard into the paper.

As I read these notes I realize my dad’s schema of “Man and the Natural Environment” is the same as the ecologists’ schema today. If they can’t live–can man???? is the still the biggest environmental question.

These are the notes of the man who instilled in me my love of nature. Even though the last decade of my life has been rife with crises, I live as a dreamer who walks often along the river, listening to the muted splash and caress of water on rocks. I listen to the softly ensconced echo of the world’s sounds as the trees pull sound down and drop it into the river’s flow. I take these walks with Josh, who also lives to walk along streams, to find himself tangled in long grass along the banks, and then goes splashing with a distinct surge into the river’s tumult and flow.

Nature allows me to I survive.

I return my father’s notes to his desk. The moon illuminates my thoughts and I realize the frogs’ melodies tonight are the beating of my father’s heart as he held me close, listening to the coyotes.

Chanting E ala e

By Neva Knott

Jim’s rustling in the kitchen and the smell of coffee awakens me. It’s four in the morning. I stay nestled in my blanket on the couch, listening to him find pans to make breakfast, listening to his wife Gail turn on the water for a shower. The lapping sound of the ceiling fan reminds me I’m in the tropics, not at home in rainy winter Washington. I stretch my arm over the couch. Jim puts a cup of coffee in my hand and says good morning. “I’m up, really,” I reply. I’m usually the sleepy head of the bunch, but today we need to get a move on, so I get up, dress quickly, organize a bag for the day, and step out onto the lanai, into the still darkness. Our rental is a cabin is in Haiku, a residential area just off the North shore. Each Hawaiian island has a wet side and a dry side–Haiku is on the wet side, the jungle-y part of the island. No street lights, curvy roads through gulches and eucalyptus. The air smells clean yet musty, as it always does after a night of rain in the islands. I swing for a while in the hanging porch chair, taking in the warmth of the coffee, the dampness of the air and the silence.

Twenty minutes later, we pile into the rental Jeep. Our destination is Haleakala, the “house of the sun,” Maui’s volcano ten thousand feet above sea level. We’re going up to watch the sunrise, so pitch black is what we want right now, the darkness is why we’re up so early. It’ll take us about an hour to drive to up. Though I lived on Maui for a year a decade ago, and though I drive up to Haleakala National Park every few visits, I’ve never been up for sunrise. Haleakala is, in Hawaiian culture and oral history, a sacred place, a place of ancient ritual. In the words of Mark Twain, who visited the islands in 1866, Haleakala is a place of “healing solitudes.”

This trip to Maui is my way of saying thank you to Jim and Gail for helping me remodel my mom’s house after she passed away two years ago, my way of saying thank you for the support, the sweat equity, for feeding me and for letting me sleep on their couch for a long stretch while mom was in the hospital. This trip is also a celebration of our reunion. We went to high school together, but lost touch after adult life took over. Jim and Gail have only been to Maui once before, and they had the bad tourist experience. The whole plan for our trip is for them to see this beautiful island through my eyes.

We make our way out of Haiku and to the main roads. I direct Jim the back way through the still-sleeping town of Makawao and onto the rodeo road that connects to Haleakala Highway. Then it’s up and up, via an s-curved, two-lane road. We drive, mostly in silence. Jim has said he wants to see the sun “boil out of the ocean on one side of the island, and sink back into it on the other.” Jim’s request reminds me of the myth of how Maui stole the sun. Legend tells that Haleakala Crater is where the demigod Maui captured the sun in order to convince it to take longer crossing the sky each day, so that his mother’s bark cloth could dry fully. Maui held the sun captive in the crater for several days. Finally, the sun granted Maui’s wish, so he let it return to the sky. Since, the island has enjoyed full days of sunshine and warmth.

The sky is lightening as we snake up the last few miles. I glance between the dashboard clock, the sky’s edge I can see along the volcano’s slope, and gauge the distance to the top. We make it to the parking lot just as the whole sky is turning from gunmetal to coral. Jim parks the Jeep and we jump out. As we start walking to the viewpoint along rim of the crater, we hear voices. Gail asks, “What’s that noise?” It’s rhythmic and soft, low in tone. “Chanting the sunrise,” I tell her, though in my mind, I worry that I can’t remember the words. I give a quick explanation of the Hawaiian ceremony of chanting the sunrise as a prayer, and as a way to begin each day with purpose. We make our way to the guardrail along the rim, arriving just as the sun peeks through the cloud layer and burst into layers of crimson-orange brilliance, filling the sky. For that moment, nothing else existes, nothing except the sun rising out of the ocean, coming through the clouds, lighting the sky, signaling the beginning of that new day.

The sun shifts higher and higher, causing the colors in the crater to change. The cinder rock hills come out of shadow and take on their daylight hue of deep rusted burgundy, the sharp edges of grey cliffs come into relief so that the stone’s edges are delineated, the vegetation is now bright green. The angle of the sun in relation to the volcano’s peak reminds me of the first time I saw Haleakala come out of shadow. That morning, I was looking toward Maui from Kaho’olawe, the island eight miles off Maui’s South shore.

Kaho’olawe was used as a bombing practice target by the US military, for fifty years. In the early 2000’s, ownership of it reverted to the Hawaiian government. Because of all the bombing, the island is uninhabitable. The water lens is cracked, and most of the vegetation is dead. Kaho’olawe, like Haleakala, is sacred ground, a place of tradition and ritual. The Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, a non-profit activist group interested in rebuilding a cultural connection to the island, sponsors work party excursions. While living on Maui and paddling on the Hawaiian Canoe Club outrigger team, I was invited to join one such trip. I went with my friends Niccole and Wendy, as chaperones of the teen members of our club. Before we were allowed to set foot on Kaho’olawe, we had to learn a series of rituals and chants. This morning, I’m reminded of the pre-dawn cleansing swim and sunrise chant for Haleakala, E ala e. As I stand next to Gail and watch the sun take over the sky, I think back, try to remember, and slowly, the words come out of the cadence of the chant I hear along the rim today.

As I listen, my mind drifts back a decade, across eight miles of ocean, to Kaho’olawe, to another pre-dawn awakening. In memory, I hear the group leader blow the conch shell, or pu, signaling it’s time for the day to begin. I rustle in my sleeping bag, and I reach for my flashlight but decide to leave it off–illumination will only upset the calm of the darkness, and will make it harder to see once I’m outside. I wake my tent-mate, Wendy, telling her I’m going to get Niccole and we’ll wait for her before we head to the beach. The last blows of the pu drift into the still-night darkness as I unzip the tent flap and step into the cool Hawaiian morning.

Rising before dawn is traditional cultural protocol. After the pu sounds, we are to make our way to the water, strip, submerge and cleanse ourselves of anything left from the day before or that crept into our consciousness during the night. The ocean will sweep away negativity, worry, guilt, exhaustion, anger, or distraction that will keep us from living this day fully. Wendy, Niccole, and I are alone at our scrap of beach, just yards from our tents. The water is shallow–ankle-deep, and the bottom rocky. We wade out as far as feels safe, knowing that darkness is not shark-safe, then kneel, dunk, and splash in the salty water. This ritual makes sense to me. I think to myself, “How can I awaken with such focused intention every morning?” The earth-based, cycle-of-life Hawaiian style of spirituality resonates in me.

After our dip, the three of us gather at the fire the kuas, or group leaders, have built. The sky is lightening, but is still some version of a blue-black-grey. After all of the group have made their way from tent to ocean to fire and are warmed and dry, we make our way up a shoreline ridgeline to watch the sun come over Haleakala, for the day to begin with purpose, as we chant our prayer for its climb from ocean to sky:

E ala e Ka la i kahikina (Awaken, arise)

I ka moana (The sun in the east)

Ka moana hohonu (From the ocean)

Pi’i ka lewa (Climbing to heavean)

Ka lewa nu’u (The heaven highest)

I kahikina (In the east)

Aia ka la. (There is the sun)

E ala e (Awaken!)

Just as these words weave into my memory, the Park ranger’s voice changes from the soft lilt of Hawaiian words to a tone of admonishment. His voice pulls me back to the present. I look at Gail and laugh, “And that’s the park ranger yelling at people not to crush the plants.” Haleakala is home to an amazing diversity of rare species, one of which is my favorite, the ahinahina, better known as the Haleakala Silversword.

As we turn away from the guardrail, the wind picks up and cold air hits us, and I realize I’ve forgotten to tell my friends it can be close to freezing up here. I have on yoga pants and a sweater, but am still cold. Gail is in shorts and a t-shirt. Jim runs back to the Jeep for our beach towels–Gail and I wrap ourselves in the hibiscus-print terry cloth, she in blue and me in red. As we walk back toward the Jeep, I suggest we drive the last half mile up, to the observation spot on the very top, to see the Silverswords.

The Haleakala Silversword grows only here, in these volcanic soils, on this volcano, on this island. The bottom of the plant is round and covered in silver-green spikey leaves that grow in a whorl. The flower stalk shoots up from the middle of this ball and grows to five feet. The Silversword lives fifty to ninety years, flowers only once in its life, then dies. The charismatic nature of this plant comes through in its bloom–the petals are a deep maroon and the hundreds of flowers on each plant burst open at once, engorging the stalk with life. The expansive grandeur of the bloom seems to represent the spirit of the volcano itself, seems to symbolize the sunrise, seems to elucidate the cycles of life in the islands.

Early visitors to the Park often picked the Silversword as a memento of having made it to the top of Haleakala. Local lore explains that it was the thing to do…not really a custom, but something like tossing a coin in a fountain for good luck…to roll the ball-shaped part of the plant into the crater, for sport. I have to admit, it does look a bit like a spikey bowling ball. And, before Haleakala was a National Park, the volcano’s slopes were used as rangeland. In addition to the picking and the rolling, grazing goats and cattle caused the plant almost went extinct. By the 1920s, there were just over a fourteen hundred plants left. Since the 1970s, Park rangers have re-established the plant’s population. Now, about fifty thousand Silverswords grow across this gritty cinder rock landscape.

As a photographer, I’m drawn to the Silversword’s Dr. Suess-world shape, prodigious bloom-stalk, and textures. But now we’re shivering. My hands are too cold to take more photos. Regretfully, the three of us pile into the Jeep and head down the s-curved, two-lane road. It was too dark to see much detail in the landscape on the drive up. What’s beautiful about the drive down is that the landscape changes again and again as we wend from the barren wind-eroded zone of the summit and through the trees along the slopes. Plants change, rock formations change, hill slope changes. Jack London called the landscape of Haleakala, “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.” Both the North shore and the South shore are visible. I look across the water at Kaho’olawe, and smile.

As we descend, we watch the Maui awaken. It’s not quite 9 AM when we roll into Makawao Town, so early we have to wait for the coffee shop to open. Once inside, with warm cups in our hands, and almost unspokenly–in that way between friends of a long time–we decide we’ll go up again tomorrow.

Sugar Beach

By Neva Knott

I balance on smooth black lava boulders at the shoreline of Sugar Beach. I make my way just past the soft waves that undulate and dissipate. Ten yards out, the ocean meets the lava. There’s no surf, but enough water is hitting the rocks that they are slippery. I stop before I get to those covered in algae. I hold three flowers: a yellow ilima, a purple bougainvillea, and a red epidendrum. Behind me, my friend Gail picks her path so she can stand beside me, an orange bougainvillea in her hand.

Throwing flowers in the ocean is my Maui ritual. My partner, Adam, is buried in these waters. Each time I visit, I pick three flowers, of no special variety—I let them reveal themselves—one for Adam’s past, one for his present, and one for his future. This morning, I found the three in my hand while driving along the beach access road.

Adam and I had lived on Maui for a year in 2002. This island is a place to which people come and from which people go, and we were no different than others who’d left the mainland for Paradise. Work pulled me back to Portland, Oregon. Adam lingered on Maui for a few months, reluctant to leave. He made it back to Portland the summer of 2004, at the last possible moment to serve as his best friend’s best man. That fall, we decided I’d finish the school year and then we’d move back to Maui, for good. But Adam died in a car crash in January 2005. Our dream of the island life died with him.

***

This trip, I’ve come to Maui with my high school best friends, Jim and Gail. I moved to Portland a year after graduation. We kept in touch the first few years, until mortgages, professional obligations and adult life what-not allowed the 100 miles between our cities to stretch into twenty years gone by. We reunited at the fiftieth birthday party of a mutual friend. Recently, I moved from Portland to Olympia to remodel the house I inherited from my mom. Jim and Gail let me sleep on their couch, fed me, and volunteered themselves as my work crew. As we pulled carpet, tiled bathrooms, and painted wall, the gaps between the years filled. In appreciation for their help with the remodel, I hosted our trip to Maui.

Our third night here, we stood in the kitchen of our little ohana—a word that literally means family, but loosely translates as mother-in-law cottage and is the common description of small rental properties. Gail filled my wine glass and asked me about Adam’s accident. I’d forgotten she and Jim didn’t know the details. I sipped my wine and let the words roll out, giving the short version of the horror, but giving enough detail that my friends finally understood the magnitude. I’d explained my flower ritual to them while we were planning the trip. When I was done recounting the wreck and the days in the hospital, Gail said, “I want to throw a flower, and I want to say some words.” Later that evening, Jim sat on the couch and put his arm around me. He just kept talking, about anything and nothing, just like we did when we were teenagers, when we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around because we didn’t want to go home, until all the world’s problems were solved.

***

The spring after the wreck, Adam’s family and our group of Portland friends flew with me to Maui to put his ashes in the ocean. Friends who live on-island joined us. The dive shop Adam had taken scuba lessons through volunteered a boat and captain. I bought everyone flower leis. Niccole, a Maui friend, consulted a Hawaiian kumu, or priest, and prepared special leis for Adam’s younger brother, Wes, and me. She’d also learned the Hawaiian way to throw remains into the sea.

We launched with no destination in mind. As we moved away from shore and into the deep water, a pod of dolphins appeared. They escorted us to a popular dive spot near sacred native land. As the dolphins turned to leave, the captain cut the motor. Niccole explained what Wes and I were to do. The tradition is to throw a handful of ashes into the water, and then to dive in for one last swim with the deceased. Wes and I were to stay submerged until our ti leaf leis floated over our heads.

My hands shook, I fumbled, I began to sweat as I untied the bag of ashes. Finally, I submerged my hand into the container and pulled out a substance that felt reassuringly similar to sand. I threw my handful of what used to be Adam’s body into the water and dove in. The others followed suite. I lingered in the water and an ancient green turtle joined me. I felt Adam’s presence. The turtle looked at me, nodded, and submerged. I swam back to the boat. After our swim, from the boat deck, I watched garlands of white plumeria and those of green ti leaves slide along the swell of the water and float away.

***

This morning, Gail and I threw our flowers. I gave the yellow conical ilima to Adam’s past, the perfect funnel shape a reminder of his passage. I let the purple bougainvillea—the fullest bloom and softest of the bunch—signify his present. The epidendrum—a waxy, firm, sturdy burst of red and gold—will serve as the beacon for his future. They left my hand, one at a time, offered up with a silent prayer. The ilima was nudged by the waves and lodged between rocks. The epidendrum floated out along the point of the lava flow toward open ocean. The bougainvillea floated back and forth between rock and shore. Gail threw in her orange bunch. It landed next to my purple clump and undulated with the waves.

Jim and Gail and I walked along the tide pools and collected shells. Then I took my one last swim, again. While in the water, I overheard two women talking, their voices floating across the surface of the water, propelled by the soft Hawaiian lilt of pidgin, “When I was a little girl, my grampa tell me, you feel bad, you go to the ocean. It fix everything.”

My Mother’s Hydrangea is a Nostalgia I Cannot Cultivate

By Neva Knott

Not much has made me feel alive lately. The recession knocked me hard, in a way I didn’t think it would. You see, I’ve been working since I was 14, have always had a least one job, often times two–teaching during the year and bartending in the summer. Unwittingly, on the day I was laid off in 2009, one of my students said he felt badly for me, to which I–this is the unwitting part–said, “It’s okay; I bounce pretty well.

I used to, to bounce. On Wednesday I’d decide to change my life a little, try something different, move here or there, and by Thursday it was done.

I could write out the particulars of what followed for you, dear reader, but I won’t. I’ll spare you, because really, another person’s drama is really their own ordeal. I’ll spare you the details of the horrible abusive boss at the bartending job, of the round two break-up with an ex (but I will tell you, that adage that giving someone a second chance to love you is like giving him a loaded gun to shoot you with). I’ll spare you the details of moving to a town I left at 18, vowing never to return because it makes me feel like a huge fish in a small, stagnant, boring fishbowl.

I will give you the scene of how now came to be, though. Rock bottom looked like this:

I was sitting on the couch in my apartment in Portland on a Monday night in May. With the loser ex, wondering yet again why I hadn’t kicked him out yet–which was a sure signed I’d lost my bounce. It was about 10 PM. That day, I’d taken my dog to the vet to generate his pre-quarantine blood work so we could move back to Maui at the end of the summer, when I was done with graduate school. Jason and I were watching TV, probably an episode of Burn Notice. The lights were off, the dog at my feet, and my cell phone rang. The screen announced the caller, Uncle Dick. Without answering, I knew. My uncle works early so turns in for the night around 8 PM. The only reason he’d be calling me at 10 PM was because mom was–well, I knew it was bad.

She’d fallen and her legs wouldn’t work to draw her back up, to standing, sitting on the floor, or onto the couch. Thankfully, she’d had the phone on the couch with her. My cousin had had a baby that past Friday, and mom was anticipating updates. So she called her brother, Uncle Dick, who called the medics–they beat him to the house. He took care of the rush of the emergency, and told me not to come until morning.

I got to Olympia–two hours north of Portland–the next morning, damned early and low on sleep. My aunt drove in from the coast. We met at Starbucks, bolstered ourselves the best we could, and headed to the hospital.

Long story short, my mom had lung cancer, and it had metastasized to her brain. The scan later that day showed she had 26 small tumors in her head. Five weeks. She lived five weeks, and it was my job–with the help of my sister, aunt and uncles–to commandeer her care. And then to execute her estate. The days and weeks were a constant swirl of conversations with rushed doctors in white coats or with touchy-feely grief support personnel.

That first night, the one I’d been on the couch watching Burn Notice, letting my mind float between my plan of returning to Maui and the nagging question of why I was putting up with Jason, the medics had told Uncle Dick that, given the conditions mom was living in, she most likely would not be allowed to return home. Harsh news, but, what I’d suspected, maybe even feared.

Let me pause here to explain that my mom and I were not a good match. I don’t know if it’s harder to watch your mom die when you are close to her, or to watch your mom die when you tried and tried and couldn’t save her from herself, nor could you have a regular mom and daughter relationship with her. It’s been two years, and I still don’t know the answer to that question.

My aunt–her name is Darlene and she’s my mom’s sister–went to the hospital, saw mom, helped her talk to the doctors, and asked our own probing questions. Mom had to go for more tests or scans or some sort of prodding, so we left for a bit to get some lunch. And to swing by the house. By now we’d talked to Uncle Dick and had heard his horrific description. I had sneaked mom’s keys out of her purse so we could let ourselves in.

Oh my god. After my step-dad died in 2000, mom had taken the “fuck it, it’s my house” attitude and had started smoking inside. Shortly after, she had stopped letting family come over. I think the last time I was in the house was 2003, and it was so smoke-filled I had to wait outside, for fear of a migraine. Because of that memory, I stepped into this hellish version of mom’s previously beautifully kempt house with a cloth over my nose.

Oh my god. She hadn’t dusted forever. The nicotine had mingled with regular house particulate matter and had formed inches thick dreadlocks that dropped from bookshelves, lampshades, figurines. The kitchen counter was piled with peanut packets and cookie wrappers. The area she nested in–previously the family room–was scattered with clothes and papers. She’d taken to using a dinner plate as an ashtray. It was full, and small trash bags–the kitchen size–of cigarette butts sat on the kitchen counter.

Oh my god.

My sister arrived from eastern Washington the next day. She came directly to the hospital, and then went to the house. In her nervousness, she began to clean. Later, she sent me a text with a picture of a microwave and a couch–I was confused, was she shopping? No, she’d gotten through layers of the mess at mom’s.

I have to let you in on the secret–we’d sworn to mom that no one would go to the house. She even made me take her credit card and buy her the hospital necessaries–robe, slippers, face lotion. It was our big scam. By day we’d sit in the hospital room with mom, and at night we’d clean.

Flash forward. We got the house pretty well cleaned but then had no idea what to do with it. I didn’t think anyone would buy it with the smelly carpet from 1984. Even the kitchen cabinets were saturated with nicotine.

I’ll shorten the story here–I moved in. I’d didn’t go to Maui, I didn’t dump Jason until during the move, when he decided to sit in a bar and ignore his phone for two hours while I packed and cleaned. That was 2012 and I’ve been working on this house since. Most days I want to light a match and drive away.

As my work year ended, I proclaimed this the summer of the yard. I traveled a bit first, to Cork, Ireland and then to Boston. I got home, slept off my too-early departure, and dug in.

Literally. And that’s how I began to feel my vitality flow back in.

When I started, the front lawn was really just scratching dead stuff mixed with dandelions. Planting beds encircled it, and were full of overgrown heather and rhododendrons–the state flower, but are better in the forest than a yard. There were some tough old azaleas, too, and one huge pink-flowering cherry tree. And hydrangea everywhere, under the windows.

My mother’s hydrangea is a nostalgia I cannot cultivate. I want the modern yard–low maintenance, water efficient. I’m more of the grown food, not lawns mentality.

So I dug in. I called an arborist to have the cherry cut out. I hacked and pulled until all the heather and azaleas and rhododendrons were gone. I spent two days rototilling and then called the yard guy to clear, haul, level and lay sod. Not much different than after Adam died, not much different than how I dealt with that upset. I realized that I was stuck in my own metaphor, this perpetual trauma cycle. Here’s the thing about trauma–normal falls away because the traumatized person (me) is always dealing with a crisis, with some big event and the little stuff, like pulling weeds, is shoved aside until the crisis is averted. Then, there’s a huge pile of daily living to catch up on.

All I really want to do is grow vegetables. So, I used the yard project as a way to begin to normalize. And that’s the story I really want to tell here…

***

Food security is a level of self-sufficiency I’ve aspired to even before it was a thing. One morning over coffee this summer in Boston, I thumbed through a high-end cooking magazine. One article was full of pictures of pretty girls, clean girls, in fun dresses and cowboy boots, each holding a basket of the bounty of their labors. I looked at the friend I was visiting and said, “The articles made growing your own food all about the dresses and boots…that’s not really what it takes.” Bryan replied, with a hump of a laugh, “I know.”

The day I began rototilling, I wore ripped, paint-stained Levi’s and my graduate school logo t-shirt. After about an hour, I had sweat in my hair and down my face. Rototilling is dusty work. I spat. After the first pass across the front yard, I looked as if I’d never seen the inside of an Aveda salon. Next task was to rake up the old grass and dandelions, really, it was dandelions with some grass mixed in, and dispose of them. I hadn’t really planned that part of the job. So, I raked all the debris into piles, then put three or four piles per load into the wheelbarrow and walked down around the corner to the place between our houses and the schoolyard where everyone dumps lawn clippings. It took ten trips, and then my old front yard was a semi-circle of mounds.

Then I realized I didn’t have the tools to level and grade the front yard or to roll out the sod–which has to be done quickly so that it doesn’t dry out. So I called a guy. Two days later, I had a level green and grassy front yard. And a row under the living room windows for my own kind of flowers, and a row between the grass and sidewalk for trees. The side yard was down to bare soil. My plan was to make it raised vegetable beds.

Each day, I’d complete a piece of the schematic I’d drawn. The logic of the work kept my mind soothed and engaged, vibrant even. The physicality of it allowed my body to let go of strains and tightness. Together, the planning, thinking, mind-work, and movement of the execution made me feel vital. For the first time since I’d moved to Olympia two years ago when this whole mess fell into my circle of responsibility, I felt like I was living my life. Each night, I’d shower and the dirt would run off my skin. My hair was matted and held together by sweat and dust. I had blisters. And I was connected to the earth and my own sense of being.

A month later, the yard was filled with blueberry bushes, herbs, flowers, a copse of new birch trees, two paper-bark maples and a bit of shrubbery. I put in river rock for edges and flag stones as a path to the back yard. I have garden space enough to grow a bounty, enough to share, to freeze or to can. When that work is done, I’ll put on a fancy dress and my cowboy boots. Until then, I’ll dig and plant and spit, and sweat and feel alive.

First Friends

By Neva Knott

The moving truck was loaded. We all paused and looked in. Four lives organized, boxed, and packed for the move across country. I took pictures, and then just stood there, in disbelief that this day had really come. Other friends came and went to say goodbye. The next morning, Bryan and his friend would drive off, taking the Fisher family’s possessions on the road–destination Boston. Theresa and the kids would spend the night at her brother’s and fly out the next day.

Around nine that morning, I was back over there, to spend the morning with Theresa and the kids–Aidan and Cora. We were going for donuts and a walk, and I was going to help T. clean any last nooks or crannies of the house that now stood so empty.

We all stood around, trying to drag down time. Finally, Bryan said, “Let’s go.” Aidan grabbed on and hugged his dad in that fierce way of a six-year-old, in that way that makes the world stop, in that way of never wanting to let go. I could see Bryan’s back, and Aidan’s small face nestled into his dad’s shoulder. Cora was sitting in the bean bag, playing Angry Birds on her mom’s iPad. At two, this was all too much for her, so she was controlling the small universe on the screen, flinging bird after bird into a pole. Her language came in the form of a little girl grunt of irritation. No words. She’d hugged her dad, too, and was now back at her game.

After the truck pulled away, T and I put shoes on the kids and walked up the couple of blocks to Alberta Street, one of Portland’s neighborhood hubs. That’s where the donut shop was. Cora, usually on the look-out for food, was disinterested. Aidan got his pick of the store, and came out with a bag of four donuts, and ate them all, one by one, patiently. Theresa and I sat and drank coffee and talked of nothing much at all. In my head though, the conversation was unending and loud. They’re moving, my mind yelled over and over.

The clock ticked away our last minutes together. Finally it was unavoidable–we walked back to the house, and I helped T check drawers and closets, decide what to do with the remnants of cleaning supplies. Then, there was no way left to hold on to time. I knew I had to go. I told Cora good-bye; she was back at the Birds, and just mumbled in reply. I picked up Aidan and gave him a hug, trying not to let him see that I was crying, and told him he was still my favorite little boy. He’s not much of a talker. He looked at me and smiled, gave me a fierce hug, and sat down in the porch swing. I hugged T, something she and I rarely do, and exchanged all the usual pleasantries–have a good trip, call when you get there, I can’t believe you’re really going, it will all work out, I’ll come visit.

Then, she said, “There are all kinds of things I want to tell you, but I just can’t say them.” I choked back my tears again and said, “I know.”

But what she did manage to get out was this, “You were my first friend here, you know.”

I hadn’t know, or realized. When I met Theresa she lived across the river in Vancouver, with a room-mate. We met as new teachers at a local high school. At the end of that school year, Theresa’s father helped her buy a house in Portland. She and I had been spending time together, going to street fairs and poetry readings, hiking on weekends. I began inviting her to barbeques and Sunday dinners. Eventually, she met Bryan, who lived with my boyfriend, Adam.

Bryan, Adam, and a couple other guys moved to Portland together from Indiana. Bryan and Adam had been friends since first grade. Adam’s death was such a loss for Bryan, and Theresa, too. After, we held each other together by having dinner, watching The Sopranos on Friday nights, going to breakfast on Sundays. They, too, threw handfuls of Adam’s ashes into the ocean. His accident was on a Sunday, and we’d had plans for dinner, the four of us, on Monday–they were going to tell us Theresa was pregnant.

As Jack Johnson sings, One life goes out, one comes in.

After Theresa and Bryan got married, and Aidan was on the way, they moved to the house we’d packed up and cleaned yesterday. I’d help paint the walls, shop for curtains, and had since spent countless evenings around their table for dinner. Now they were moving to Boston, to be closer to family. And soon I was moving to Olympia, to execute my mom’s estate.

I drove home, Theresa’s words loud in my mind.

Every Step A Prayer

By Neva Knott

My mom has cancer, and she’s going down fast. You’d think I’d be used to death by now. My dad died when I was 15. All of my grandparents are gone. My partner, Adam, died suddenly in a car crash seven years ago. I’ve lost a few friends along the way to drugs–not so uncommon, given my generation. Still, my heart breaks as I look at my mom in her hospital bed.

The first fissure is for my mom. She said to me the other day, “I didn’t want this to happen.” I don’t even know what she meant. We all die, some time–as my dad explained to me when I first encountered a death in the family, my great-grandmother Blanche, “everything dies, even the oldest trees have to die.” I’m sure it was not the issue of death to which my mom was alluding.

My mom, in her grace, has a huge heart and is generous. She can also be difficult, and I have struggled my whole life to find an inroad with her, having often been slapped down in childhood by her harsh words, her inability to understand me. Yet, she has triumphed over more than one woman should have to–divorce, the loss of two husbands to death, rape, abuse, addiction. At times, these last few days, she has even seemed incredibly strong to me. This is why my heart breaks for her. I think by “like this” she meant she doesn’t want to die having so many regrets, having such a burden on her soul. She attunes to beauty, and I think this is how she would prefer to die.

The second crack is for my family. Both sides, the paternal Knott and maternal Cooper, have fallen apart. There is no center, just memories of a time before. The time when dad was alive, when Grandma and Grandpa were still here. When holidays mattered, when we marked each other’s birthdays with cake and pictures and laughter. My mom values family so much, but the dirty little secret is that she drove a lot of us apart with her drinking, her high drama, and her vicious tongue. I should have known how to fix all of this, but I didn’t, I don’t.

And then there is the crevice within myself. I have never had an easy time with my mom. She has never had an easy time with me. We are completely different people, except for our love of beauty and family, books and travel. We are the kind of different so that we rub against each other until raw. Even so, I would have done anything for her these last few years as she lived alone, unable to keep up her house, cloistering herself in the darkness. At least now I have the chance. I have the next few weeks to be a daughter to my mom. Gone are the hopes of the mother-daughter teas, of the long heart-to-heart talks, of having her guide me when I’m lost. But at least I can hold her hand, give her a warm washcloth for her face, bring her myself as many days as she has left–as we have left.

It has been said in my family–and maybe in yours–that we’re great with weddings and funerals. Everyone drops everything and shows up, somewhat remorseful that it’s been so long. In the past few days I’ve reconnected with everyone I love, and it makes me sad. I want them to be part of my life, not just my disasters or at obligatory major life events. From all this I’m learning lessons–of what I have inside me to pull people together. Of what I am willing to set aside to be present for my family. Of what I need to feel connected, whole, and grounded.

Today, I came to the realization that in death, sometimes, come the lessons we cannot learn in life.

II.

Just a few days after we moved mom into the nursing home, I had the nurses dress her so that my aunt Darlene and I could take her outside for a stroll in her wheelchair. We walked the grounds, each of us commenting on the flora along the way. Mom had a memory of she and dad walking with me as a very little girl along the adjacent road–the nursing home is very close to the house my parents build as newlyweds.

As we walked, I paused in my mind to consider my mom sitting there, in a wheelchair. Dressed in striped grey jersey pants and a zip-front cotton top—matching, of course—and her new head turban. She’d grumbled today that when I’m not there the nurses just throw any old thing on her, “They just don’t know how to put together an outfit,” she’d said. There she sat, no longer the Olympia High School Homecoming Queen, but definitely lookin’ as good as good gets with brain cancer.

Darlene and I wheeled mom back to her room and stepped out to the corridor to let the nurses get her back in bed. Mom’s cousin Marvis was coming our way—the family resemblance undeniable. I hadn’t seen her for years, and every time I do see her, I attach the memory of her mother pinching my cheeks a little too much at church. Marvis is a sweet woman. She and mom, the parallel daughters of Elmer and Hazel (my grandparents) and Alfred and Hazel (grandpa’s brother and his wife). Two Montana farm boys, two Hazels, and the little girls Lenice and Marvis, starting a new life mid-Depression. Coming to Olympia to set down roots and raise families. Today, it’s clear that mom’s and Marvis’s lives are much like the Robert Frost poem, “two roads that diverged in a yellow wood.”

I talked with Marvis for a long time, sitting on a bench in the hallway. She didn’t pinch my cheek, but she did hold my hand for awhile, as if I was still small. At first the talk was, expectedly, about mom’s condition. Then it turned to what was in Marvis’s heart. There lay a sad tale of how hard she had tried to befriend my mom in recent years and mom had both acted badly and shunned her cousin’s attempts. As Marvis told her story, I began to see in front of me the cousin of my mom. A woman who has stayed true to her Lutheran upbringing; a woman who has had the usual struggles of life but who has borne them gracefully because of her faith and belief in family; a woman who sets her day to give to others; a woman who is the center and centrifugal force within her family; a woman who has cast a wide net of caring and compassion.

My mom says she talks to God every day, but sometime in the recent past when I suggested she go to church, replied sharply, “NO!” I encouraged her, at both the hospital and here at the nursing home, to meet with the chaplain. Again, “NO!” She says family matters, but has let all her ties to siblings, her nephews, any extended family, fall away. She’s a woman who sets her day on misery and holding on to the past and the pains it inflicted cruelly upon her. She is a lonely woman, isolated, alone. She, too, has cast a wide net—a net woven tight around herself by pushing all of us away so that she could stay in the dark with her ghosts.

When I saw this comparison in my mind, I immediately thought of Frost’s poem. Marvis took the more traveled path–the traditional Lutheran life, and my mom chose the road less taken. She did not intend for it to lead her to misery, but somehow, by setting aside her beacons along the way, it did. As Frost says, “way leads to way.”

I inherited, from both my parents, a love of the path less traveled. As I write this, I am coming to realize that it is not the path so much, but how it affects the traveler. It takes work in this modern world to stay true. I’m sorry for my mom, really.

III.

From her hospital bed, mom forbade us entry to her house, but we disobeyed–all of us, me, my sister and her husband, her sons, my aunt and uncles. On breaks from sitting by her bed, we snuck in and cleaned.

The outside didn’t look so bad, presentable, even, except for the bed-sheet that’s served as a living room curtain for a few years now. The inside was horrific. I don’t know what was more horrifying–the filth or that mom had sunk so low. She was always house-proud. I have childhood memories of her oiling the furniture every Saturday while my sister and I napped. Her house was once the place of family gatherings. Now…now is a time when a writer makes a choice–write the raw truth, or keep the secret so you don’t embarrass anyone. I can’t bring words to the page to describe what I saw the first day my aunt Darlene and I walked into the house. But I will explain that mom had been smoking, heavily chain smoking, in the house since my stepdad died twelve years ago. I will explain that she had not cleaned house in probably that long. I will tell you that, after walking through the wreckage, I gagged and then cried. My aunt and I left the house and drove to the closest bar, shaking, and had a drink before we returned to the hospital. So, as soon as my sister arrived from the other side of the state, we took shifts dealing with the whole 1800-square-foot mess.

She’d lived there since 1984, and it was chock-full of stuff. Beautiful, ornate, hand-crafted furniture from our travels throughout Asia and the Pacific in the early 70s. The daily living kind of stuff like sheets, and camping gear, and toys, books, and left over pieces of no longer complete sets of dishes.

The first weekend, members from both sides of my family were here–from my mom’s side, and from my dad’s. The men took out some overgrown trees, my older sister culled through professional paperwork of our father’s and sorted books into piles. My younger nephew pressure-washed the deck, while my sister, Rachel, and I went room by room, pulling stuff to donate to our aunt Mary’s rummage sale for an animal rescue.

As we worked, someone would come across an item that prompted a giggle, or a memory, or some other sort of shout-out. I found, while pulling fake flowers out of a basket, the last remaining green and white noodle bowl, and it prompted a round of story-telling with Rachel and our nephew Andy about the hot sauce eating contests the three of us used to hold. We’d each have a noodle bowl full of ramen and, dash by dash, try to out last the other two in increasing spiciness. Fishing rods reminded me of how Andy and I, when we were any age under 6, would try anything on a hook to fish from our dock at the Chambers lake house–raisins, cheese. We figured if we liked it, the fish might, too. One of the big treasures excavated for the day was the manuscript of the story of the county in Iowa where our grandmother Neva grew up– prairie living in the mid-1880s. The loudest laugh came from the finding of peg-legged, acid-washed, elastic waist pants and matching jacket in mom’s closet. And then there was the noodle strainer that I couldn’t let go to rummage, since it is the object by which I learned the word “colander,” and with which I learned how to make mac and cheese from my Dad. As I pulled it out of the box, the image came to me of my mom veiled in steam as she poured spaghetti from the boiling pot into it. That strainer is coming home with me.

After a couple of hours, I remarked, “This is about the point that, when I’m here alone, I cry, and then I get mad, and then I get sad, and then just keep working.” Rachel said, “I know.”

It seems, on the surface, such an onerous and dreadful task to clean out a dying person’s home. Especially in this case, when our mother insisted on her isolation. When there are so many good memories, but they seem so distant, so in the past. But also I’ve come to feel that this is an act of honor. Of honoring the life my grandparents lived (some of the stuff is theirs), of the blending of Coopers and Knotts, of the life my dad so diligently built for us, of the life lived in that house, of the two families my mom and step-dad brought together, of the blending of generations.

I don’t know where I learned of this concept, but I attribute it to Tibetian Buddhism, and I think I might have gotten it from watching Seven Years in Tibet. No matter, it worked for what was on my mind as I dug through the rubble at mom’s: that every step is a prayer.

I was brought to tears on occasion because I couldn’t do this for my mom while she lived here, but by doing it now, I know that caring for her precious artifacts is, in a way, sending out a prayer on her behalf.

IV.

After mom died, I moved into the house, to manage the estate and the remodel. I’ve been doing a lot of digging lately, in drawers and boxes and files. She’d not sorted much of my dad’s stuff, so even his check registers from the 1970s were still here. She sorted even less of what my step-dad left behind. She did tell me, while in the hospital, I’d find his guns, and I did—between the mattress and box springs of the no longer used king sized bed in the master bedroom. There they lay, unloaded, like steely metaphors for that marriage gone so wrong.

My parents planned a good life for us. The evidence in is the big drawer of dad’s desk. A folder for each category of his accomplishments that, one after another, lead him to jobs abroad, or overseas. First to Micronesia and then to Bangkok. We traveled frequently and to many places in between. While recently digging in that drawer, the magical drawer that can bring me close again to my dad who has been dead for 35 years, I found that he’d had even the next adventure planned at the time of his death. It seems he’d been investigating Costa Rica, even down to the detail of school choices for my sister and me. I don’t know what stage of planning, or dreaming, or spit-balling it was in, but the brochures are still alive in a manila folder, all these years gone.

I remember listening, long after I was supposed to be asleep, to my parents planning the house they’d build, using my painted wooden blocks to map it out on the dinette table. I know my mom was ruined by those plans, the ones that never came to fruition, because I watched her rot in her memories that were more alive to her than her own daughters living out their own dreams, or at least trying to.

All of this digging and sorting has been painful, but poignant, too. I found love letters my dad wrote to her. He was 44, mid-career and newly, painfully, divorced. I know that divorce was bad because my older half sisters, his daughters from that marriage, described it in vivid detail. Dad met my mom at work–he was the Land Chief for Washington State Department of Game and she was a phone operator there. Mom was 24, the beauty, the belle. Wrapped in with the letters from him, I found just two letters from her. Dad’s spoke more to his loneliness when she was away, and hers more to the future. It saddens me to think of my dad in some crummy little duplex, writing away his loneliness like that. I only knew him as larger than life.

I liked my step-dad. He shined some hope on the whole dreary situation that was our life after dad died. He was always up for fun, and really cared about my sister and me, though we were young adults when he came along. He made it bearable to be around mom again. He was a really different man than my father, something my mother never stopped running him down for.

I spent hours one day going through a huge pile of photos of my step-dad’s that had been left to accumulate in a chair. As I flipped through each packet, I saw the years move forward, and saw the evidence of all of that hope for a re-built family, and then saw all of it fade away. It was as if a line had been drawn in the sand. On one side of the line was an active, playing at happy family, boyfriends becoming husbands, grandkids coming along. Then nothing.

Adolescence Turns Fifty

By Neva Knott

My high school boyfriend turned fifty Saturday. His wife threw a party for him at Dirty Dave’s the pizza parlor in Olympia that we’ve all frequented for forty years or more. It was a surprise party, and I offered to jump out of a cake. I got off work too late to make that debut, but made the party. It was a bit of a homecoming.

When I walked into that room, I felt like I should know everyone there, but no one looked familiar. The birthday boy, Dave, was buried in the crowd around him. I found Tammy, his wife. We hugged and I admitted to her I didn’t recognize anyone. She put her arm around my shoulder so that she could steer me, “There’re Helen, and Charlie. There’s Eric…” As Tammy continued to navigate my gaze, a smile, a laugh, or a voice granted familiarity, and I saw my adolescence come alive.

Party talk covered the usual reunion topics: families and kids and parents, jobs, and how much time had passed. The time at the restaurant ended, so the core group of us gathered at Dave and Tammy’s.

Gail, Helen, and I poured glasses of wine and got down to the deeper conversations. Where shall I begin, and what shall I leave for last? This is the question Odysseus asks of his listeners once back under his own roof, and truly was the question for all of us on Saturday. Tammy brought out the pack of pictures my sister had sent–from Terry’s birthday, his twenty-first, the first year we lived in Portland. As we passed the snapshots around the table, we all marveled at our youth, our big hair, and short shorts.

Jim joined our conversation, and we began to talk about how we’d all met each other. I met Dave when we had lockers next to each other in ninth grade, and he’d walk by and sing my name. He wore a big puffy coat, so for a long while I knew him as the boy in the blue puffy coat.

I met Jim on the school bus the same year. We lived out in the sticks. After we returned from living abroad, my parents built their dream house on Nisqually bluff. The bluff is really the edge of Olympia on the way north to Tacoma and Seattle. Then, in the late 1970s, the area was sparsely developed, most of it forested land owned by the railroad. My first day riding the bus from the new house, he walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Jim.” Later, when he learned to drive, I’d let the school bus pass and sit on the rock at the entrance to our neighborhood until Jim came by and stopped to give me a ride to school. We were pretty much inseparable. He was the brother I’d always wanted and we pretty much, as he’ll tell you, “grew each other up.” Neither one of us–for me, at least after my dad died–wanted to be home much, so we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around for hours, talking.

Gail came to our high school a year later from the “other” middle school. Summers, she and I spent countless summer days biking to Long Lake, stopping at 7-11 for ice cream sandwiches. As we got older, we became shopping buddies. Then, Jim fell in love with “that little red-headed girl,” as he’d call her, so our fates were sealed as friends forever.

Tammy and Helen were friends with our little sisters, Gail’s and mine, Charlie and Rachel.

Many of us in our group are, as Thomas in the film Smoke Signals calls himself and his friend, “children of ash, children of flame.” Many of us had absent parents or, at least, parents who though we could manage on our own. My mom was lost in a bottle after my dad’s death, Jim’s dad was starting a new life that didn’t so much include his seven kids, Terry’s mom and dad were young and trusted us, Eric’s parents never seemed to have an opinion, Dave’s mom didn’t say much as long as he did chores and was home on time. Gail and Charlie’s parents just plain said “no” often, in protection of their daughters. It was the late 70s, and we kept out of trouble for the most part, so our parents thought we were ok. We were gifted a Trojan Horse called freedom, and we outsmarted most of the dangers found within.

We managed our adolescence by bonding together into an inseparable force that was our group. We drank too much cheap beer, had far too many keggers, and passed far too many joints. Some of us started driving too young—as soon as one of us had a license and a car, it was fair game for all–and the boys always drove too fast. But we were always smart about it, even if it meant sleeping in cars or camping at the party site down some logging road, or by knowing whose house it was safe to hang out at or go home to. We also helped solve each other’s dilemmas and helped each other navigate teen life: the crushes, the break-ups, school, jobs, cars, budding ambitions, dreams of the future. Maybe we were a little wild–crazy kids–but we all grew up ok, and are nice people.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” The attitude and beat of that song always reminds me of our high school days. We were so close, and just as the characters in the song, we were laughing and a running hey, hey, skipping and a jumping, in the misty morning fog. We were finding our way, some of us out of broken homes, some of us out of a high school existence we loathed, some of us just looking ahead as adolescence prompts one to do. This line from the song struck me today: so hard to find my way, now that I’m all on my own, I saw you just the other day…cast my memory back there, Lord, sometime I’m overcome thinking ’bout…

Arnold Joseph, the father in Smoke Signals, who caused all of the heartache and distance says, at the beginning of the film, “I didn’t mean to.” He had set Thomas’s parents’ house on fire, an event that ripped apart family and community. Until the end of the film, only the viewer knows Arnold had set the fire–the other characters only know he caught the child of ash, the child of flame, Thomas, when he was thrown from the burning building. I am no fire starter, but I feel I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to move so far away from this group of friends. I’m the one who moved away, and I’ve always felt guilty about the distance created when I did.

Jim and I kind of talked about time and distance at Dave’s party. Jim explained that his son is having a hard time moving into the career he wants in the Coast Guard because he doesn’t want to go far away. I gestured around the room and said, “Look at his examples—except for me and Terry, everybody stayed here.” And, most of them have the jobs or some version thereof that they got after graduation.

Hometown.

Just about then, Dave interjected that I was the brave one. He said it in a complimentary fashion. As I thought about it on my drive back to Portland, I decided it isn’t true. Bravery is the lie I’ve been living for so long, the lie that may be the reason I don’t visit Olympia often, the lie that allowed me to grow apart from my high school friends. I didn’t mean to. I just followed Terry to Portland because that was the plan, and after all, we’d been saving for that plan, a quarter a day, since we were thirteen. My own personal Trojan Horse, I guess.

So I’m not the brave one, but because of all the disasters in my life, I’ve had to be brave. At this point, to quote my favorite Cowboy Junkies song, I’d trade it all for a cup of coffee and a wedding ring.

Nostalgia. Friendship. The bond we all have is special. Even though I’ve felt far away for so long, because of Dave’s party on Saturday, I know that I don’t have to ask Odysseus’s question. I know my story begins with the people at Dave’s party, and it will end with them. And just as Thomas learns in Smoke Signals, I know that some bonds are unbreakable, no matter how the sorrows of life entwine. Saturday, the boy in the blue puffy coat turned fifty, and I found my way home, my own heroic feat.

Writing, and Then There is Writing…

By Neva Knott

I think writers work from events, from the literal to the metaphorical, weaving between the two to build a story that, hopefully, will touch the heart or mind of another. I believe everyone has a voice that matters, that counts. As I so boldly put it as I introduced myself to the others in my teaching program at Lewis and Clark, “I want to empower my students through their writing.” And, I believe story is an inescapable, inextricable part of the human experience–it is the expression of human nature. These are the beliefs I work from to teach literature and writing. These are the beliefs built into me as a writer.

Friday and Saturday last, I went to two literary events, readings.

Friday was the Write Around Portland anthology release at a church downtown.

Brightly lit vestibule. People from all fringes of life. A program started by a student-teaching friend of mine, Ben, who, early on, realized he didn’t want to be a part of the school system. He stepped out of Lewis and Clark to build a writing workshop program for street kids. His program now serves all kinds of societal underdogs–he runs workshops in jails, recovery centers, burn centers, low-income housing. I sat in the audience and listened to readers read, and thought about a woman I’d published once in Plazm. I was dead-set on her story, “The Peppermint Poisoned Air,” making it into the issue. She was fresh from a mental hospital and I loved her words. Come to find out, she was one of Ben’s first workshop participants and has continued to work in his program. As I said my hello to Ben, he introduced me to Laura–it was her. She recognized me and thanked me for publishing her work. I replied that her story is one I remember today, and is one of the Plazm pieces closest to me heart.

Next, I ran into a teaching mentor, Bruce, who championed my earliest efforts to get kids to write, think, read. He championed me in my career as a teacher. He had now become the student, taking part in one of Ben’s workshops, and he said it opened up a new part of his life.

At the end of the reading, I bought my copy of the anthology and went home, thinking about the then part of my life, so long ago, the shiny newness of teaching, coming off the high of making Plazm successful, a time in my life before all the shit.

The next day, I read the anthology cover to cover.

Saturday was The Frozen Moment book launch at The Woods, a converted funeral home, now a performance space. A couple of people I knew from the Plazm days were reading. I had a hard time walking in to this one. It was where we took Adam for cremation. Last time I was in that building, a different part of it, thank God, I stood in a room of casket samples, taking a call from a police officer, awaiting Adam’s also shell-shocked dad and brother as they made the arrangements. I won’t lie–it was damned hard to walk into that event. I mustered whatever I mustered, and made it in.

The second reader’s story was about her lover dying in a car wreck, about trying to make sense of how it happened, how it must have been for him. I was that girl, just six years ago. The next reader’s story was about arriving at a hospital to witness someone he’d last seen alive on all the tubes and machines, awaiting organ harvest. Yep, that girl, too. One story was about a guy making out with a nun, one was about a girl’s bracelets she’d grown too big to get off her arm, used as a metaphor for her dysfunctional family, and so on.

But you know what? I sat there and experienced all the emotions of all the stories, I loved all the words, so beautiful and carefully chosen to describe the moments that had changed each person’s life, and was glad for being there. Writing is life.

In any good story, and in some bad ones, realizations come through, as do emotions–the stuff of meaning. So those are the events I’m working from to shape this piece, because it won’t shut up in my head. I didn’t sit there and relive the trauma of losing Adam, the sorrow, the regret, any of that. I sat at both readings and felt the power of writing and somehow was reminded how writing as always been part of my experience. Carlos Fuentes says writers write to live another day. True that.

Then’s there’s the figurative. There’s some very obvious symbolism here–the first event in a church, an event that correlates with the beginning of me life as a teacher. The second event in a converted funeral home, an event that correlates with the end of a whole segment of my life. Bright light at the church, darkness at The Woods.

A very clichéd metaphor, universal at it’s very core, keeps coming to mind as I think about these events. It’s the dark forest, the one we often can’t see for the trees, the one entered by Hansel and Gretel that long ago day. I walked into that place just after my teaching career began. So much went wrong in my personal life and family. I felt like I’d thrown away everything I’d worked hard for, but I walked on. Somehow, I’ve finally come out the other end. What I realized this past weekend is that the markers I left were much more permanent that bread crumbs. I’ll keep writing, to live another day, and another.

The Long Bus Ride Home from War

By Neva Knott

It’s Tuesday, July 5. I’m bartending at The White Eagle Saloon, a small music venue in Portland, with an 11-room hotel on the top floor. The bar is pretty empty. Everyone has the holiday hangover, I guess. My first customers were a nice couple who’d just checked in to the hotel. Just down from Seattle, it’s fun to get away. As I’m chatting it up with them, I see a woman take a stool at the end of the bar, backlit by the heavy afternoon sun glare from the front windows.

I get over there, and immediately can tell something is off. She orders a drink, seems really confused, but not in a drunken sort of way. She’s sort of slurring, and wants a double. I’m sure she isn’t drunk, just agitated. I pour her double vodka and hand it to her. She seems to need to explain, so opens with, “I was visiting my daughter, but she made me leave early.” I tell her I’m sorry, stand there for a minute so she feels like we’ve connected.

I move off to cruise the patio, to see who’s out there, what’s up. Two of my Monday regulars are in their usual spot, having missed yesterday for the holiday. They come in and drink cheap beer and smoke and talk. Today’s topic is cars. I love to get them laughing, so I ask if they have all their fingers after lighting fireworks on the Fourth. They giggle and show me their hands.

Next table is a group of three who come in every once in awhile, though it seems more often lately. These folks typify the usual non-descript backdrop of business at any Mcmenamins pub. They work day jobs, they come in for a quick few beers and a snack with the people they like at work, usually to talk about work, and share a few cursory personal details. They don’t really expect much from us. Happy hour drinks and cheap tater tots. In and out. Their transactions here are pretty much what I imagine their days to be like. In box full, outbox full. I like to open them up. I’m not saying I want to get to know them personally, their nitty-gritty and all, but I do want them to know I see them as people. As regulars. As part of my day. A couple of days ago I had really bad allergies and kept messing up little things on their order. I apologized, and told them I was blaming the pollen. So today I opened with, “I took Zyrtec today. I think I’ll be a much better waitress for you all…” They laughed, a little chip in the ice.

So this is pretty much it the first couple of hours—I have my two talking and smoking guys on the patio, my work-talk threesome has left for home, another regular has come in with three friends, and they are on the patio, drinking iced tea. A couple of guys come in for a quick after work meeting, drink Old Fashions. As I pour their last round, one orders two dinners to go.

The vodka woman has moved outside and is sitting at a front table, nervously smoking. I understand her emotional state now, and can see it in each jagged move she makes. Each time I’ve come behind the bar to mix a drink, she’s blurted out a detail. Her daughter is in the rehab program across the street. She herself is in what she termed a bad relationship, and today her boyfriend decided to hit her in the face instead of her stomach. She is upset because she took her daughter roses, but made her daughter cry. I stayed with her as she talked and finally asked her if she had resources to get herself some help. She’s staying with her son and her mother, alternately. She’s looking for work. She graduated from Apollo College, but really wants to be a bartender, but doesn’t know how to mix drinks. I tell her you learn as you go. She thanks me for the drink, tells me it helped, uses the bathroom, and leaves. At least I think she leaves, until I realize a long while later she’s out front, shaking and smoking.

Janine, the other bartender for the night, comes in. We do a few things to get ready for the night, and chat. Still not much going on. A new group arrives, a mix of men and women. The guys are the sort of amblers who just can’t make eye contact or listen to an answer to one of their own questions long enough for you to find out what kind of beer to pour for them. Talking over each other, competing for Janine’s attention, ordering then walking off. The woman was one of those super-annoying people who want the whole menu narrated to her and then still can’t decide, so she ends the conversation with, “I think I’ll just go sit down–will you come wait on us?” Later, we find out they are a Toastmasters group—you know, the public speaking club. The irony is not lost.

The band arrives, creating a little flurry of activity, though it is still slow. We stock liquor, and decide it’s slow enough Janine should go home.

Into this mix walks a man looking for a hotel room. I’m coming out of the kitchen from putting my dirty dishes to soak. I look toward the front door and see this guy with a camouflage hat come in, dragging a huge rolling suitcase. He sees me, immediately drops the suitcase half in the doorway, and comes over, saying, “You got rooms here?” I can feel his exhaustion and general wariness, but he’s also gentle and polite. There is something in this combination that alerts me to deal with this guy slowly and calmly and to give him reassurance. We walk over to the hotel computer, and I tell him what we have available. He blurts out, “I’ll take it. I’m on the Greyhound, and I’ve been all across the country, but they don’t let you sleep in the bus station here. Strangest thing; I’ve slept in bus stations everywhere else.” As he’s talking, I’m making the reservation. He seems a little worried. He keeps alternating in his expressions, but now he’s alternating from worried to smiling. I see he has no teeth. His shirt is frayed, but he’s clean-shaven. I give him his keys and welcome him, let him know we have music starting soon if he wants to come back down and relax.

About half an hour later, I walk onto the patio and see him sitting there. I take his order and bring him a Bud. I ask him if he got settled in all right, and he says yes, that he likes it here, that it feels good to relax. I walk on by, and he actually leaves his seat and follows me out to the trash pit. He comes back to the whole can’t sleep in the bus station thing. I tell him the area of the bus station has been bad for years because of drugs, and that he’s safer here. I ask him where he’s traveling from. We walk out of the trash pit. As he gets back to his table, he tells me he left Afghanistan, went to Iraq, then to Germany, to Florida, and then on the bus to Portland. In the early morning, he’s going on to Seattle, to the VA hospital there. I get a shiver of sadness as he tells me all of this, even though he’s smiling. I guess this is how our government shuttles around veterans these days. He says it’s good to be home. I thank him, for fighting. Actually, I’m not really sure what I thank him for—fighting, or trying, or enduring. I ask him if he’d like another beer, and I buy it for him. He stays awhile, then thanks me and goes upstairs.

The band is about ready to play. This new guy headed for the bar is a piece of work. He’s all tatted up, I mean really tatted up, even for Portland—got the words on the knuckles and all that. He has a pristine white fashion-brand ball cap on, cocked just so to one. He has big, chunky black hipster eye glasses, and, of course, a goatee. He sort of acknowledges me when I greet him, but mostly keeps talking really jumpy and to no one, and saying not much. He looks around the room constantly. Finally he asks, “Isn’t there a band here tonight?” It’s early, and anyone who comes out regularly would know that the opening band is most likely just going to start. Plus, the stage is full of equipment. And, the lead guy from the band is sitting at the bar, about two stools down. So I know this guy isn’t a friend. He’s here to write a review, but he won’t tell me the name of the publication, which is just bad manners in terms of Portland creative culture. He slams a couple more drinks, stays for part of the band’s first set, does the bro hand shake and leaves. Scott, my favorite regular, who is seated at the bar, laughs at him, and I do, too.

Now that the sun is down, I’ve got the fire is burning outside on the patio, and I chat with the people sitting around the pit. They are talking about cocaine. Then about art. The woman tells me about a great resort in Colorado that has continuously burning fireplaces in all the rooms in the winter. I tell her I’d like to go there, tell her I’d like to teach writing workshops at places like that. She gives me a warning look and explains it’s expensive, says, “But you could work there—they always need people to serve.” I ponder her perspective–the usual assumption that bartenders lack other skills–as I throw another log on the flame.

The night ambles on, as a slow Tuesday with good music on a summer’s evening can do. I start my closing tasks. The band is done playing, and they all leave to drink wine at Scott’s. Two of the guys from the Widmer Brew Pub, just across the street, come in and are soon wrapped into a heated, friendly debate about who’s the better tennis player.

My last customers of the evening are two hotel guests, here on a guy trip. One of them is moving across the country tomorrow, so this is their last hurrah. I pour them a shots of good whiskey and listen to them find a way to say goodbye.