Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Prose Writer Attempts Poetry

A few weeks ago I was part of a William Stafford anniversary reading at Linfield College. Here I am reading some excellent poetry by William Stafford, followed by my own attempt at free verse.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

In Memory

Today marks five years since my mother-in-law’s passing.

A few nights ago, I dreamed she was still living. No hospital bed, no morphine or catheter bag. Unbeknownst to me, Jeanne had gotten her own place and wasn’t using a walker or wearing oxygen. Here I’d published a book about my mother-in-law’s decline and her dying, but somehow I’d been wrong; Jeanne had gotten better. I felt a little embarrassed—but even in the dream my book sales were holding steady, and Jeanne’s feelings weren’t hurt.

I’ve dreamed this dream more than once, though this is the first time since the release of The Fifth Season. During the long month of hospice care in our home—“long” only because the hospice doctor thought Jeanne would live just a week or ten days—my mother-in-law asked, “Do they know for sure I’m dying?” and “Why is this taking so long?”

We had a nurse visiting every day and a full-time rotation of paid caregivers to assist. I dosed morphine around the clock to prevent a pain crisis—the pain my stoic mother-in-law had rated a 9 before hospice brought in the morphine—and yet I wondered myself what would happen if we stopped dosing her, if she might just wake up out of the morphine haze and use the bathroom on her own, eat a good breakfast, take a walk in the autumn sunshine.

Then I watched the nurse tenderly changing the dressings on Jeanne’s bedsores. I saw the catheter bag full of blood and remembered how relieved Jeanne had been to say yes to gentle hospice care after months of crying out when the nurses couldn’t find a vein for a blood draw and cringing as the blood pressure cuff inflated. “Oh, it hurts so,” Jeanne whispered the very last time her blood pressure was taken.

All I’d known was life, and now I was learning how death comes. With or without morphine, Jeanne’s body was all used up. “Treatment” had become torture. We had finally come to understand what the doctors hadn’t been willing to tell us—that Jeanne was at the end of her life, and that the painful treatments were doing nothing. We hadn’t known the right questions to ask, and Jeanne endured a lot of pain and discouragement submitting to the medical establishment’s fight for immortality. When she made the decision to receive hospice care at home, Jeanne was visibly relieved. “I am ready,” she said.

Today I mopped my floors and thought of Jeanne. I boiled pasta and whisked flour into milk and assembled a macaroni and cheese casserole for tomorrow night—for Sunday night. Jeanne died on a Sunday five years ago. It was early morning and the household was quiet when Jeanne took that deep, final breath, when she exhaled, and let go. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Last Sunday night Todd and I gathered with friends from our Presbyterian church to celebrate the Protestant Reformation. I served myself from the potluck of Swiss steak and chicken, fondue, and a punchbowl of iced Swiss rum (all in honor of Zwingli), and I sat next to my friend Marj.

“I brought a DVD of the 1971 Billy Graham Crusade,” she said conspiratorially. “A fan sent it to me.”

“No way,” I said. “You opened for Billy Graham?”

Marj nodded modestly.

You see, Marj cut her first album in 1971, at seventeen. She was something of a star in the Jesus People movement

“When you watch the video—when you see that girl, do you remember being in her skin?” I asked. “Do you feel like she’s still there inside you, like you’re the same person?”

“I do,” Marj said. “And I want to tell her not to act so silly, that she’s singing a little flat.”

After dinner we watched the video, and I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen, from the girl singing to me and to her grown self standing beside me.

“My mom sewed that dress,” grown Marj whispered as teen Marj smiled a small smile and strummed while the breeze lifted her long hair.

I almost felt the breeze, felt the dreams and questions running under and through the lyrics. She’d found Jesus, found peace while trouble surged around and through her generation. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and I reached my arm around Marj as she watched herself.

Even now I cannot put words on what I felt.

As the DVD was pulled from the player and our friends applauded, Todd said to me, “That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” And at the end of the evening, as we walked out to our car, Todd asked, “Why was it so moving to see young Marj sing?”

“It’s like time travel.” I said. “Or magic.”

We were, for a few moments, back in Oakland in 1971, when a girl with her whole life ahead of her stood with a guitar slung over her body, eyes down, long hair lifted by the breeze, singing to a future she couldn’t see. Marj would become moderately famous, would cut several albums, but, as one fan puts it, “she was a great talent that was never really discovered.”

Marj toured and sang in the U.S. and Europe. She married at 34, started a family right away and had four children by forty. Now her grown kids—musicians, all of them—perform at coffeehouses, at pubs, at festivals. Last summer I sat in the back row at an outdoor concert while Marj’s kids performed. Marj sat a row ahead of me, tapping a foot and nodding, smiling her small smile, hair lifting in the breeze.

I am always watching. I see the people in this town, my friends and acquaintances. I’m moved by their lives, by their dreams and disappointments, by what I know and what I don’t. This is community—not just knowing one another, but watching the years pass and superimposing the past on the present. When we’ve known each other long and longer, there is an element of time travel—of transcendence to our relationships.

It is 1971. The girl on the cusp of her fame, her life, sings to me. I hear her voice on the ocean breeze of my own Southern California home. I am seven years old and I have no idea who Billy Graham is or that a girl old enough to be my babysitter will one day open her heart to me and become my friend.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Launch Party

The launch party for The Fifth Season was great fun. My only regret of the evening is that I was so engaged in conversations that I didn't get a chance to really listen to the live music by my favorite local singer, Marj Snyder Hegeman. 

Marj's songs complement the content of the book, and she included lots of spirituals and folk songs expressing a sense of longing for release from a season of suffering. Although I wasn't able to listen attentively to Marj the night of the launch, I know what she sang because two weeks ago we sat together over coffee and Marj went through her set list with me, singing a line or two from each song, low and sweet under the ambient noise of the coffeehouse, while I felt my heart grow more and more full. Marj's voice is wonderfully earthy and somehow honest. She offers her heart in every note. 

My best friend of thirty years catered a gorgeous (and delicious) spread for the launch party. Laurie unexpectedly lost her eldest brother less than a year ago, just months after Laurie moved in with her mother in anticipation of becoming a caregiver as the years go on. Hardship surrounds my dear friend on all sides, and yet she reaches out to embrace those around her as one who knows the deepest suffering and who is not afraid of what lies ahead.

In fact, all my guests carried suffering under their smiles and laughter. A friend whose husband is going through cancer treatment handed me a gorgeous orchid to brighten my signing table. Another friend, betrayed by her husband and now trudging the path through divorce and single parenting, offered a hug and sincere congratulations. We are learning together how to embrace all of life—including death—and how to best rejoice in the good and do battle with injustice and bear up under the suffering that permeates this bruised and broken yet beautiful world. 

What a privilege it was to gather with my community last Saturday night, to celebrate together the publication of a book that chronicles the most difficult seasons of decline and end-of-life decisions. In every season there is pain and there is delight. Among friends, sorrow and joy clasp hands, and together we hold one another steady. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Three Cartons of Books

Oh, such a lovely, busy September. I've been practicing my rusty, clutzy Arabic with a new Saudi student in my beginner-level ESL class, which is great fun (and also quite humbling). Oh, yes, and my new book! The Fifth Season came back from the printer about ten days later than expected. With my vast experience now as an author of two books, I know that things don't always go as planned and that delays are to be expected. I was so grateful to my publisher for overnighting the single advance copy I received two weeks ago -- and grateful to the marketing department for urging me to schedule my launch party a good month after the book was supposed to be ready!

My fourteen-year-old daughter Jessica was just nine when her grandmother died. Jessica grew from a child to a young woman during the years that The Fifth Season grew from journal entries and disparate essays into a memoir. When the single advance copy of the book arrived, she asked to be first to read it. Her older sisters were shocked. "You mean you never snuck into Mom's study and read the chapters she had tacked to the walls?" Jessica never had. She hadn't even read the advance review copy that's been lying around since the beginning of summer. "I wanted to wait until it was a real book," she said.

"Well, Jessa, I sure hope you don't have any objections," I said and handed her the copy.

Jessica read the book over the course of a few days and then asked me to somehow mark this very first copy of the book which she was the very first person to read. She asked if the copy could be hers, and of course I said yes. The rest of the copies would arrive any day now.

September rained itself out and we turned the corner into rainy October. Still no books.

Strangely, I haven't been anxious. My first speaking event isn't until October 10, and Third Street Books in McMinnville is handling the book sales that evening -- I'm happily out of the retail loop. The launch party is still two weeks off. The books are on the way. Plenty of time!

Then, late this morning, I had an email from Sylla, the owner of Third Street Books. She was a little worried that her copies wouldn't arrive by next week. No problem, I emailed her back. I have three cartons en route and I'll bring a carton next Thursday night just in case yours haven't arrived yet.

Around noon my sister-in-law from Indiana texted me to let me know her copy of The Fifth Season, ordered from Amazon.com, had come in today's mail. Woo hoo! The books will be in readers' hands now -- and in my own soon enough.

A couple of hours later I picked the girls up from school and arrived home to the happy sight of three sealed cartons on the front porch. The girls and I moved the boxes inside, but didn't open them. I had a quick errand to run. And groceries to buy. An hour later I knelt with my kitchen shears and opened the first box.

Not my books. The cartons are labeled quite clearly on the side. A history professor in Houston must have had a similar surprise on his front porch. I just hope he opens the cartons before his next lecture and book signing.

I'll call the distributer tomorrow and see how to proceed with returning these cartons and getting my own books here next week. I'm not anxious (yet). There's still plenty of time, right?

If you're in the area, please join me for the launch party October 19, 7:00 p.m. at the Chehalem Cultural Center (enter from the rear). We will definitely have cake and live music and hot cider and cheese and crackers. I hope we'll also have books!

Friday, September 20, 2013

At Long Last

Today was the last day of the third week of classes. I'm carrying nearly a full teaching load this semester but still managing to be out of my office and into the car by 3:00 p.m. each day to pick my kids up from school. When I pulled into the driveway this afternoon I spied a FedEx package on the porch. Todd often receives desk copies of textbooks at home, so I was pleasantly surprised to see my own name on the label—but I couldn't remember what I'd ordered. 

Well, by now you've guessed the punch line. I have a book! Just one copy, overnighted to me by my wonderful publisher so I can have and hold and take pictures and then hold the thing some more. I'm sure there will be a much larger box on my porch next week.

I like thinking of boxes of The Fifth Season on their way to Chicago Distribution Center, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. From distributors to booksellers and then to yo