Trout Cleopatra

troutIt stares at me. Scales gleam like sunrise along its curving flank: gold mostly, but hints of lavender and rose. The fish appears to quiver as the candlelight flickers. At my right hand, a sharp, charcoal tail fans just over the rim of the white plate. At my left hand, the head with deep, cold blues, sharply indented with something that looks like a brow, something that must be gills. Its mouth turns down in bewilderment. The large, marbly eye is utterly alien.

I clutch my heavy linen napkin in my lap and stare back. Creamy butter flows like lava from a slit in the trout’s underside and soaks the pillow of rice. A feathery sprig of pine-green parsley curls over a thick lemon slice. I close my eyes and inhale: smoke, tang, Pacific.

I’m eleven. The fish is not alone in staring at me. Sitting elbow-to-elbow across the small table with their forks paused over whatever they’d ordered, are my parents.

“Well,look at that!” Daddy grins at me.

To my side, the penquinny waiter waits, quiet and posed, certain of the outcome. The awkward girl in the homemade sailer blouse will push her heavy black glasses up her stubby nose. Run long fingers through the pixie-cut honey hair. Recoil more and more. The plump farm couple dressed in their polyester Sunday best will admonish. Remind her of the expense. Finally relent. The waiter will then bring the child a hamburger.

To buy time, I re-arrange the heavy silverware, then sip my goblet of water. The damp ring it leaves on the white table cloth embarasses me. Why on earth have I ordered this? Maybe it was the menu’s poetry:

Fresh-caught rainbow trout,
stuffed with bay shrimp and capers,
baked in a light butter-lemon sauce,
and served on a bed of rice.

I hadn’t really eaten much fish, but this one was “rainbow.” And the adjective (and what an adjective!) followed the noun. Trout Cleopatra. Very European.

Maybe the long summer day had dazzled my wits. Ambling under Victoria’s lamposts, each bedecked with a basket overflowing with real flowers. Puzzling over the gentlemen pacing in the bowling green. The royalty in the wax museum. The acres of sunny garden. The ships edging into the harbor.

“Marla’s such a good traveler.” Mama meant I was patient on our long July car trips around the West. Uncomplaining about the entertainment Daddy chose – airshows, often. Dams. But this trip was transporting me – yesterday with my first plane ride, tomorrow with my first ferry to Washington to visit my brother, Gary. My familiar context had vanished: no Oldsmobile backseat, no cookie-cutter Best Western motels, no hamburgers “with mayonaise only, please” in roadside cafes.

The fish is still staring up at me, waiting, with all the others, for me to decide what to do about it. Perhaps in the next moment I’ll convert to vegetarianism and henceforth eat only canned peas and Wonder Bread. Perhaps I’ll admit defeat and order that hamburger. Or perhaps I’ll make the choice that, 47 years later, will mean I devour Lynn Rosetto Casper cookbooks, squander money on mise en place bowl sets from Sur La Table, and love nothing so much as dinner out, savoring something I’ve never eaten before.

But back to 1966. I push aside the parsley sprig and lift the lemon slice between my thumb and forefinger. I place it covering the trout’s sad, clouded eye. I smile at my parents and the condescending waiter and brandish my fork.

Reader, I ate it.


I Hate Writing Class

9:45. Rain again. (Time and weather) I pull to the empty curb on 42nd Street, in an eastside Portland neighborhood of cheerfully painted bungalows. (Location) Grabbing my bag, I slam the dirty navy Toyota car door shut, dodge around oily puddles in the potholed blacktop, and cross over to the cracked sidewalk. (Action, Marla, more action!) Hawthorne Blvd, a main arterial, is straight ahead, but traffic is still as sleepy as I am; there’s just an occasional hiss of tires on the wet pavement and the distant beeping of a delivery truck reversing. (Sound) I turn left and pass in front of some earnest storefronts: a pet health food store and another I forget – vegan shoe repair? (Make up plausible details if necessary) Where is that narrow green door squeezed between the shops like a long-suffering air passenger trapped in middle seat? (Metaphor, not too successful) Here. I turn the knob, pull the heavy door open, and climb the steep steps into “A Haven for Writers.” I always wondered what the apartments above stores on old streets look like, now I know: dark, cramped rooms, uneven wooden floors. (End scene)

Our class meets down a short hall to the left. It is barely large enough for the long, narrow, Formica table. I inhale, turn sideways, and apologize as I squeeze behind a student already seated at one of the mismatched plastic chairs. Other students are thunking down notebooks or laptops, ruffling stacks of stapled copy paper, clicking a pen open and shut, open and shut. They are cooler than I, with names like Solveig or Hempa (literary license), and I wonder if they had been Gertrude or Debbie until they imagined that name on a book cover. (Unnecessary exposition) They wear cotton shirts and jeans, ethnic-print scarves and knubby sweaters, hand-crafted jewelry. Though I wear the same stuff, it’s not the same; I look like my mother. Even those older than I have more trendy bifocal frames and, occasionally, a tatoo. One of the ten students is a retired guy in cords, Polartec vest, glasses perched on the end of his nose, Walt. We smile at each other and make small talk – “Yeah, more rain, eh?” – as the aroma of coffee drifts from the tiny kitchen behind a curtained archway. I pull out my new green spiral notebook and my favorite black fine point rollerball pen. (First level character development)

Our teacher, I’ll call her Monica, is tall, with dark hair that hangs, untidy but arty, from a wooden clip. She sits at the head of the table until it’s 9:02, when she unfolds from her low chair to stand by the white board with a red dry-erase marker. Her voice carries well to the far end of the room, and we crane our necks to look at the board as she diagrams the four parts of story structure again, and explains each one. Again.

“Just as a refresher,” she assures us. I write it down again, but I haven’t forgotten this. I’ve just kept reeling out “exquisite prose” (a student actually called it that, back in an earlier class meeting) as I wait for the muse to reveal what my story is actually about. “Artistry is just pretty words unless it drives your story forward.” I snap my eyes toward Monica – is she reading my mind? She is Buddhist. But she’s eye-contacting someone else. I look back down at the notes I’m taking. (Continuity of action)

Monica adjusts the clip in her hair and continues. “No one wants to read what you think, or how you feel about what you think about what happens; they want to experience what happens directly and make up their own minds!”

I put my pen down on the scratched table. I have nothing else to write. (Plot point #1).

After Monica finishes at the board, I’m not the first student she calls on to read. This makes me even more certain her remarks were just for me. After we agree Hempa has made excellent progress and Walt will surely host a book signing party very soon, we turn to my six, double-spaced pages that I loved three days ago. I had developed the metaphor (maybe even the meta-metaphor) of the raging Pacific storm outside to signify my own existential fathomlessness, contrasting it with a peaceful but contrived domestic scene indoors. My courageous choice of third person point-of-view further underscores my subjective experience of depersonalization. Remembering all this now, I decide Monica was not, after all, aiming today’s lecture specifically at me. I pick up my pen again, ready to furrow my brow at my colleagues’ suggestions, to nod receptively, (I know that’s an adverb), and to scribble notes on my recycled paper. They begin.

“I don’t know who is talking on page three. Who is ‘she’?”

(The writer doesn’t respond. Out loud, I mean. That’s the rules. But I say to myself: there is only one “she.”)

“Are we at the coast?”

(Perhaps you might read it again, more carefully.)

“If she’s turned away from the window now, where is her hand? She’s in danger of dislocating her shoulder.” Suppressed chuckles.

(Really, every single move?!)

“I love this description on page one! And page two, and the bottom of three.” Supportive nods and murmurs.

(I love Hempa.)

“I get the feeling she is having an affair.”

(She is not.)

“Perhaps Marla should just begin, instead, with page four, though the dialogue on five doesn’t work for me.”

(Perhaps Marla should try a knitting class.)

Class ends, a little late. It is almost 1:30. I am hungry. It is raining. I return to my car. I open the damn door. I sit behind the wheel. Turn key. Motor purrs. Pull away from curb. Oh, and set the GPS to “home” so I don’t get lost on the wrong side of the damn river.

As I drive, I ruminate about all the students’ feedback. Part of ruminating is turning left onto 39th Street right in front of an oncoming city bus. Another part is failing to notice a pedestrian stepping into the crosswalk at – oh, who cares what street it was? I take a deep breath and focus on the road ahead. The rain slacks off; I notice how it makes everything, well – wet, of course – but also…glowing. Really, my classmates didn’t say all those things like I remember them. Some, but more kindly than it sounds. And they were all confused. Not good.

But I made a reader think I might be having an affair!

(Story structure review: 1. Set up scene and characters; 2. A crisis occurs, antagonistic forces threaten her goal or dream; 3. She flails about, inadequate to the task; 4. Facing her demons, she is heroic. Wrap up.)

I pull the still-dirty Toyota into my garage and edge my way past the trash can and recycling bins into the house. Michael has soup on the stove, the rich scent of salmon hovers in the warm kitchen. He kisses me. (The rule – not to introduce a new character in Part 4 – is broken.)

“How was class?”

“Wonderful!” I reply, breathless. “I’m learning so much.”

5 Lessons from “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”

You are the music while the music lasts.  – T. S. Eliot

Lesson #1: Practice doesn’t make perfect.

They tell you it does, of course. So I worked very hard as a young piano student.  Every week or two I’d master some piece like “Swans on the Lake” and get a big red star and praise from my teacher, Mrs. Murrah.  If that sounds easy, I’ve misled you.


Mrs. Murrah was a middle-aged widow, expensively dressed with perfectly coordinated earbobs and brooches, her polished locks restrained by hairspray, her ten strong fingers bejeweled and manicured. I was eight, with knobby knees, deep-bitten nails,  curls escaping a lopsided pony tail, and an insatiable hunger for approval. My lessons at 7:30 on Wednesday mornings persisted for seven years.


In the backseat of the car each Wednesday, with music books spread open in my lap, I’d run my fingers through one last practice. Always arriving a little early I waited, perched on a velvet wing chair for my turn. The black piano loomed in front of  floor-length, gold brocade draperies across the room. I feared I had not practiced enough to be very perfect.

That little girl reappeared last fall when I decided to take lessons again, 42 years after leaving Mrs. Murrah’s quiet parlor for good. Grateful for her remarkable respect for music, for the instrument, for the capacities of small and earnest children, I also reminded myself what I’d finally learned in the decades since: it’s good enough to just get a little bit better, a little bit at a time.

Lesson #2: “One-two-three-four! One-two-three-four!”  – Count von Count of Sesame Street

Anytime you feel unsteady  – coping with 16th notes in a sonatina, birthing a baby, disagreeing with a crazy boss – counting out loud helps.


Lesson #3: “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes. –Thelonious Monk

That’s true: all the notes on my piano are right and beautiful. I watch the keys and hammers and strings, amazed at how tones and harmonies emerge. Though I admire the instrument endlessly – Hey!  – Can it play itself?! Furthermore, in spite of being so utterly dependent on me, my piano holds no grudges and rewards me all out of proportion to my ability.Classy!


And all I have to do, according to Bach himself, is “hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.” I play like I cook – relying on instructions others have written down. If they don’t help me play palatably, I figure it’s not my fault. (I’m talkin’ to you, George Winston.) But occasionally – like in that exquisite final run in Chopin’s C# Minor Waltz – I can serve up a small, savory portion. Then I feel like the Korean student who confided to my daughter, “I am very genius!”


Lesson #4:      “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”  – Baba Ram Dass

Enough said.


Lesson #5: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” – William Congreve

Eventually, Mrs. Murrah knew me pretty well. She assigned me pieces with names like “Hungarian Rhapsody” and “Hopak.” These solos tapped a savagery I’d not yet discovered in my flat and anxious breast.  When I played a tarantella in a recital an entire roomful of adults was obliged to listen to all the passions I could not yet express in words.


I didn’t become a musician, though, but mostly a word person, trying all my life in one way or another to spell out the syntax of grace and awe and compassion. This confounds me endlessly; it’s like trying to seal the banquet of Heaven into Tupperware. Still, the writer Kim Stafford told our class recently that once we have a writing practice, the Universe will give us assignments, and I’m still eager to be an attentive student.

I know my limits better now, and realize that words will ultimately fail me. I practice letting them go from time to time, soaking up scent of rain, the texture of air, trying simply to taste and see. Music now helps me leave behind the inadequate chatter, to breathe in just one moment  – and then the next one. Be. Hear. Now. Enough.

photo by E. Eskridge

photo by E. Eskridge

That’s it, from now on I’m not looking forward to anything…
Oh my  god! Tomorrow there’s a two-for-one sale on piano benches.
I can’t wait, ooh, ooh, ooh!
– Homer Simpson


I’ll Be Home for Christmas

photo (5)

Home is where my habits have a habitat. –Fiona Apple

For nearly three years people have been asking us: “Do you like Oregon? Are you settled in yet? Does it feel like home?” Our answer, “Yes, of course!” is almost not a lie, finally. We have a familiar grocery store & a handful of favorite restaurants; I rely less & less now on my GPS to find them. Michael keeps a toothbrush permanently packed; I sit down to write most mornings by about 9 o’clock. Summer means meals on the patio & gardening; winter nights are for reading by the fire. I’m practicing piano daily again like when I was 12. Our routines are a kind of home-making.


Home, (noun): the place or region where a thing is native, indigenous, or most common. – Oxford English Dictionary

farm 2

We meet people here whose ancestors came on the Oregon Trail to homestead. By contrast, Michael & I are recent imports, non-native but, at this stage of our lives, non-invasive species. I’ve been thinking about my Oklahoma roots this year as Mama & I completed our book, Egg Cups & Oil Wells: My Oklahoma Life (Commercial break: you can buy it on Amazon!) Along with Mama’s stories about growing up in the 1920s & ‘30s, farming, Phillips 66, & photography, I added chapters about the Indian nations, Great Depression, WW II, women working. Writing the book, I missed the red dirt of my grandparents’ farm, the wide horizon, the cousins that grew up knowing each other years before I was born.

Michael was born in Tulsa, but he pronounces “La Guardia” & “diarrhea” just like his mother did, a native of Queens. Though we haven’t lived in Oklahoma for 25 years, we now feel closer to high school & college friends than we have for years. We were blessed this year with visits from many of them: Judy, Carol & Stephen, Evie & Walter, Jan & Curt, & from seminary days – Faith. (When are you coming to see us?)

Home is where we tie one end of the thread of life. – Martin Buxbaum

Michael & I visited Minnesota this last May, our first time back together since leaving in February, 2010. We enjoyed re-connecting with so many people: meeting my “birthday lunch ladies” at Frost’s patio, breakfast with our former next-door neighbors, a reunion of the ol’ martini group, joining Jess & friends on a pedal pub to celebrate her 30th birthday, dinners with friends & family out west in Waconia & Minnetonka. I went to the end-of-school picnic at St. Kate’s & had a hundred 2-minute conversations. We attended St. Christopher’s on Sunday, then met Rae & Jess for a Mothers’ Day picnic. Driving up & down Grand Avenue in St. Paul feels familiar in a way no Portland street does yet.

Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there. -Aleksander Hemon


When we say “Oregon is feeling more like home,” it implies, doesn’t it, that the idea is mostly an ideal? In some ways it’s an abstraction or fantasy assembled over the years, representing no actual, historic location but memories gleaned willy-nilly on our rambles. Michael & I might get homesick for mistletoe, Madeleine Island, scissor-tail flycatchers, lilacs, Chicago hotdogs, corn fields, Burl Ives’ Irish ballads, Baptist hymns, Magic Pan crepes – all these conjure up nostalgia, but no one address.

Maybe that’s all family really is: a group of people that miss the same imaginary place. – Zach Braff


“Making yourself at home” is mixing up a Jello salad of unlikely ingredients, old & new. The horizon I’ve always loved I view now from a favorite spot overlooking the ocean. The frogs croaking, reminding me of summer nights back on the farm, are Pacific Treefrogs. Easter morning this year found me in a cathedral pew with 3 Bartos & 3 Martins, then Linnea & Laurel hunted eggs in our backyard, by the California lilac and under the many laurel bushes. My friend Gretchen & I are going to an art fair & making struffoli for the second year in a row.

Frying struffoli

He said it was better to belong where you don’t belong than not to belong where you used to belong, remembering when you used to belong there. Terry Pratchett

Becoming familiar, also, is the lovely drive along the fjord called Hood Canal to my mother’s apartment in Sequim, Washington. She’s almost 93, & is healthy & happy living in a retirement center. If they gave a “Good Attitude” award, she’d win it, hands down! Of her eleven great-grandchildren, all but two live in Washington, as do her three grandsons. Nothing about moving to Oregon has matched the joy of seeing my mother so often.

Home is Where Your Mom Is – embroidered pillow in a mail-order catalogue

Mama will be here for Christmas in a couple weeks, & I catch myself saying our daughters will soon “be home” for Christmas, too. Rae continues to work as an information architect at Olson, a large advertising agency. Jess has completed her first year managing a The Tea Source retail store & handling the importer’s mail order communications. Their real homes are in apartments they moved to this fall, in Minneapolis now after years of living in St. Paul. And, of course, in Hastings & St. Louis & Bartlesville & Oklahoma City & Chicago before that! If “home” is where you lived as a child, they’d agree with Thomas Wolfe: “You can’t go home again.”
But maybe we don’t need to worry about that.

I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe. – Maya Angelou

So home, really, is something more developmental than situational. We accrue attachments throughout life, en-souling, if you will, chicken & dumpling dinners along with walks in coastal redwoods, or snuggling under Grandma’s quilts as well as fostering the giant “Mama Jade” plant. Loving them for the long-haul & – like nomads, pioneers, & maybe even homeless folks -unpacking our treasures & trials in the safe shelters we find along the way. These are the real presents we unwrap on Christmas morning & ponder in our hearts, like Mary. Then we load up the donkey for Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth… But as we leave places we can’t return to & wake up where we never imagined, we are, blessedly, led by dreams to discover where it is we really live & move & have our being.


Life takes us to unexpected places… love brings us home. – Unknown

Wishing you a Merry Christmas & a Happy 2013!

Where the Sidewalk Ends: To My Daughters

Braided into my post is  a poem
Linda Pashtan

“To a Daughter Leaving Home” 

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle,


I remember my first glimpse of real mothering. The sidewalk stretched, solid and clear, between where I stood and the back tire of your pink bike, but whatever was unfolding in front of those tasseled handlebars only you could see.

…loping along
beside you

as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,

I am proud that you have horizon-colored eyes, impetuous legs, fey and gypsy hearts. I’m even glad you suffered sudden-onset deafness whenever I shouted directions and warnings at your back. But did you at least catch wind of my gasps of delight? Though everything was always happening for the very first time, I relied on my to-do list:

1. Exercise their muscles

2. Nourish their spirits

3. Buy them bikes

4. Take off training wheels

5. Squint at horizon

6. Negotiate boundaries

7. Stock up on bandaids

8. Re-negotiate boundaries

9. Gasp in delight

…my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,

I’m pausing here, though, catching my breath. Not gasping in delight so much as inhaling through labor pains. Nursing a steady ache of what –  grief, panic, impotence? I probe this raw spot, try to stretch it out, but with my next move the stitch in my side pulls again. I tried years ago, talking to my brother, to massage it away:


 It’s just that I can’t imagine her life ahead, but I guess I’m not supposed to.”

He disagreed.
“Seems to me that’s what a parent does.”

…I kept waiting for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,

Should “Imagine it” have been on my to-do list? Where, exactly ?

From the start, imagination guided me to teach you balance. Further along, I imagined myself into empathy: how you felt when you flew or fell, how much I didn’t understand, how much you’d want to know. Later, I imagined the limits of the equipment  (pink would wear out by age ten, I predicted), along with the limits of protection, judgment, remaining daylight.

…while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,

Or was it the final task?

9. Gasp in delight
10. Imagine the odds

…pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,

No, instead of a separate item, “Imagine” was the name of the list itself, a map for our family’s journey among wide expanses and delicate vulnerabilities. Always we could discover another book to open, recipe to relish, sketchbook full of blank possibilities. We held our breath that neglected routine maintenance wouldn’t pull us up short. We moved from state to state, house to house, just the four of us gearing each other up for a new adventure. And only each other to help imagine, once again, how to arrange what we unpacked around the empty spaces of what we’d left behind.

…the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

That’s what I still do, and maybe this autumn, hauling around your taped and labeled cardboard boxes, you’re doing it, too. Like me, you gather the bits and pieces and pedal your selves into a future. Sometimes awkwardly and slowly, sometimes at breakneck speed, your own forward momentum reveals your prospects.

But, from my perspective, you’re always just this side of a vanishing point.


I thought of Noah and the Ark and I thought, it has come again. 
-Charles Bukowski


Forecast: “Sunny, Sunny, Partly Cloudy, Rain, Rain, Rain…” We had no doubt which exact day autumn arrived in Portland this year. After fifteen dry weeks, the earth suddenly tilted, the jet stream sagged, and rain arrived like elderly auntie returning home after her summer cruise. We kiss her mossy hair, lug her drippy bags down the hall, thinking “How we’ve missed her; how right it feels to have her back again!” But as she settles into our favorite chair and begins her familiar, monotonous chatter, we sigh, knowing she will overstay her welcome once again.

Rain usually makes me feel mellow.
Curl up in the corner time, slow down, 
smell the furniture.
Today it just makes me feel wet.
-Jeff Melvoin

Vocabularies expand in this humidity: “showers” are different than “rain”; “scattered” isn’t “intermittent.” “Hail” is quite deeply misunderstood here. Fog, surprisingly, can be “freezing,” or “upscale.” “Mists” and “clouds” need modifiers. Late afternoon “sunshowers” mean a crop of rainbows; “sunbreaks” lure locals outdoors for a quick walk. And why had I never known about “virga” – the rain that doesn’t reach the ground because precipitation and evaporation have meshed so elegantly?

Siberians have their vodka and suicide rates; Caribbeans their sunny music and devil-may-care dispositions. Wouldn’t our long rainy seasons have a profound effect on the Pacific Northwestern personality? What’s the effect on our minds of living in an “insanely green” place, as poet William Stafford described Oregon? Of confronting the schizophrenia that winter appears greener than summer?  After leaves have turned and fallen, moss furs the bare crotches of trees, neon algae drips like phlegm off rocks, something moldy slimes our brick patio and asphalt driveway. My favorite greens are in the lichens – clever plants who are really fungi and algae combined, with such lassitudinous names:

usnea longissima  is Methuselah’s Beard lichen; there’s evernia prunastri  (oakmoss), parmelia sulcata (hammered shield), and the enchanting cladonia chlorophasea, or mealy pixie-cup. I can’t resist gathering it all, stuffing it in my pockets, strewing it about the house and garden.

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience?
-Mary Oliver

What  temperament steeps in our dark, wet season? Does the incessant and slow trickle of drops through the world’s tallest trees explain Oregonians’ reputation for being laid-back? Is there a meteorological  base behind the Keep Portland Weird bumper stickers? And whatever should we make of the locally-produced TV show “Grimm”?!

By contrast, the Midwest is surely shaped  by the drama of its storms. One of my earliest memories is a late summer afternoon in Oklahoma. Mama sat on the floor just inside our front door and pulled me, maybe three years old, into her arms. Only the screen door separated us from a purple-green monster thunderheading across our pasture. The barbed wire fence is blown taut, the prairie grasses laid prostrate, the lone tree gestures tempestuously. A wall of cloud slings lightning and ice pellets, booming and cracking, threatening to spin out a deadly, twisty tail.

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
it’s a hard rain gonna fall.
-Bob Dylan

Around the same age, I remember curling up on Mama’s lap on Sunday mornings during the long, windy sermons. I startled awake repeatedly as the preacher blasted prophecy and cracked his Bible on the massive pulpit. Surely it’s not far-fetched to link hail and damnation? In both memories, Mama is patting my shoulder, murmuring calm words since I was unaccustomed to commotion. Temperamental people found our family atmosphere mushy; their edginess rubbed us raw. On another afternoon my mother hauled a hefty neighbor-boy, Tommy Stritzke, out our front door to have his tantrum, banished, in the dirt. Temperance of many kinds was expected indoors.

Aristotle first labeled the earth’s “temperate zones” those latitudes with climates balanced for livability. Folks from Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Oregon doubt the other two states are livable due to their extremes of hot, cold, wet, and dry. These conditions correspond to the four humours that Hippocrates used as a foundation for his medical theory. Galen then devised corresponding categories of personality temperament: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.

Extremes of wet and cold result in phlegmatic personalities –  quiet, relaxed, sluggish. And Oregonians have many role models for sluggish.

The notion of temperament has gone out of scientific fashion, but variations permeate our language. The root is Old French, tempre, to bring something to its proper condition by mingling it in correct proportions with something else. I temper teapots and beaten eggs before adding hot liquids. It’s the term for mixing water into clay or mortar. I’m learning a piano piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, an instrument attuned, brought into harmony. But there’s also hard reality in the term: steel is heated red-hot and plunged into cold water; this tempering process develops qualities of strength, elasticity, and resilience.

I have always motivated and defined myself by intemperate passions, even though they are quiet ones. Moving to this new country, I’ve found the currency exchanges for passions confusing: how many commitments to liberal arts education can I trade in for one grand scheme to finish a novel? What is the alloy of social work and moss gardening? How to keep a focus on social justice from dissolving into artistic reverie?

I welcome the return of rain more calmly this year. Maybe I’m grasping how to steel myself into flexibility and resilience. Learning finally to combine identities into a new lichen-like self, seamless and goodly-proportioned. These processes creep forward, slow as Methuselah, but they seem less daunting in this autumn’s patient rain.

…you never heard so deep a sound,
moss on rock, and years. You turn your head-
that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone.
The whole wide world pours down.
-William Stafford

For the birds


Swift things are beautiful…
-Elizabeth Coatsworth

A couple hundred small birds poured down our chimney September 9th. We freaked! Assuring ourselves, first, that the dampers were closed and our living room was not turning into a Hitchcock film, we googled quickly – “Birds in chimney?!”

One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
-John Updike

They were Vaux’s swifts, “tiny cigars with wings” that migrate up and down the coast, summering in the Pacific Northwest and wintering in Central America.

They began roosting in chimneys when hollow, old-growth trees became rare. Swifts lack a back talon and can’t perch on tree limbs, so they cling to rough vertical surfaces. At Portland’s Chapman School, locals gather on the lawn on each September evening, cheering when the tornado of wings spirals down the smokestack. This community and others along the migration route have raised funds to install alternative heating systems and leave the old chimneys for the birds.

…Once a population of swifts locates an appropriate chimney, 
they are likely to return year after year. 
Groups of roosting swifts can range in size from just a few individuals 
to as many as 35,000 in some larger smokestacks.
-Audubon Society of Portland

The birds would likely stay two or three weeks before moving on. How many nights had we already missed? How many did we have left with them? We arranged both patio furniture and daily schedules to highlight this thirty-minute show. Sitting quietly, with our necks craned toward the sky, we drank both wine and evening ephemera: a hummingbird in the verbena, a vee of geese with molten-gold bellies lit by the setting sun. Bailey, the dog, took the new routine in stride,  jumping onto my lap as the air cooled.

About 6:45 we’d see a handful of the swifts flying erratically overhead, then scarfing off toward the river or up the hill, then back. Gradually, more and more birds joined in loopy figure eights skimming over our fringe of firs and cedars. Light faded. Abruptly, they tightened into a perfect circle whirling just over our roof. How could such a graceful gesture not seem like some kind of blessing?

And there they go, tiny rosettes of energy,
as though nothing in this world was frightening–
as though the only thing that mattered was to praise the world sufficiently.
-Mary Oliver 

The circle of swifts accelerated, focusing on the chimney top. Then a handful would begin fluttering over the opening and descend, drawing the group behind them like smoke reversing its course. We could hear their wings brushing against each other. Inside, my head bent into the fireplace, I could just hear a soft windiness, like blowing over a bottle rim, as the swifts pieced together a feathery mosaic, just on the other side of this wall.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,

went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air – 
and there, night came in.
-Pablo Neruda

We became, I suppose, a bit…over-involved. We resorted to ill-founded hypotheses, shameless anthropomorphizing, and plain ol’ wishful thinking. We’d bat at bugs just in case the swifts’ pickings were slim. We worried how temperature and cloudiness affected them. We tried to guess at their decision-making processes. Numbers varied over the nights, but how to estimate them? Birds per square yard of sky? Birds per second entering the chimney?

The swifts spiraled down quickly at first, but not all descended together. Those remaining flew off to regroup, but each successive try seemed trickier. Did they rely on physics – the downward rush of wings creating a vacuum that weakened as the group grew smaller? The last remnant would sometimes fly off and not return, where did they go? We read swifts slept in flight, but, really, was that such a good idea? We couldn’t go inside if that last, lone bird was still diving tiredly at the chimney top. Was he young and inexperienced, with the avian equivalent of a drivers’ permit? Or a grandma-bird with a long lifetime of bashing her brains against brick?

Often, when the swifts were beginning to gather, a bigger bird would fly by. A crow? The swifts would scatter a bit, losing form and rhythm, but sometimes gang up to chase the bigger bird away. A week ago, a bird we knew wasn’t a crow landed right on the chimney edge, not so big, but buff and beaky. Can a bird drool? Michael raised his hands to clap loudly and scare it away, but I restrained him. A quick ethical debate highlighting our ignorance of small raptor economies ensued. We decided, narrowly, against intervention.

I prefer to think of it as the Prime Suggestion.
-Captain James T. Kirk

The perched bird lunged for a mouthful of swift and flew away; the same scenario repeated itself a few minutes later.

        Sharp-shinned hawk dinner menu:
             A duo of migrating fowl,
fresly-caught and
served sushi-style, stuffed  with in-season insects

The next night, September 23, we were on the road, taking Mama back to Washington. Then, Monday evening I went to a writing group and Michael lost track of the time. The third night, September 25, we went out to the patio early, but not a single swift ever appeared.

I just now checked the Portland Audubon website. The last count posted is September 23, when 4,900 swifts went down Chapman’s smokestack. Rio Lindo School near Sonoma, California reports 2,600 swifts, one merlin, and one peregrine on September 26thLA Observed posted on that same day:

The migrating Vaux’s Swifts have returned, 
as they have each fall for the past few years, 
to the unused chimney of the old Chester Williams Building 
at 5th and Broadway. 
…”If you think you’ve seen everything in downtown Los Angeles, 
you’ve never seen anything like this…”

Fall has always been my favorite season, all bittersweet. The fading end of something bloomy and sunny I might not have savored enough. Returning to familiar red brick schoolhouses. Gaining new heights to better glimpse that elusive continent called Adulthood that’s just barely visible in the morning fog.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul.
-Emily Dickinson

Autumn questions are about how to seek warmth and safety in numbers, weigh relative risks, calculate the threat of killing frosts. We wing it, mostly, as we navigate our oxymoronic atmosphere  that’s equal parts danger and opportunity. Be careful out there.

There once was a man in Nebraska
Who called all the critics to task-a:
“To consider the birds
Beyond tropes and mere words–
For themselves– is that too much to ask-a?”
-Tom Gannon

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