Readers write about Edge

The Snapshot

I still have a snapshot I took of my parents one late-summer afternoon when I was probably twelve or thirteen. We are at the coast, on some lookout high above the water. My mother leans against a fence, her face turned toward me; I have just called out to her. My father looks away through his own camera. My point-and-shoot, cheap film, and teenage bumbling rendered the scene in a gauzy afternoon haze, which is just how I remember late summer at the coast.

My mother does not lean forward over the fence. Her forearms rest on the rail, but her weight is back over her hips, a well-practiced act of bracing herself. When she stood too close to a ledge, especially something quite high, she felt an overwhelming urge to jump, a wild stirring to fling herself into space.

I must have learned this around the same time the picture was taken. I doubt very much that I would have been able to understand at a younger age that this impulse had nothing to do with dying. I have since met others who get the same feeling and I have experienced some of it myself. It is nothing like wanting to die. If anything, it is much more like wanting to live.

Several summers later, when I was eighteen, my mother was diagnosed with cancer in her lungs, liver, and brain. The tumors had been growing for at least a decade—even as I took that photograph. We were still trying to understand how, when, two months later, she slipped into a brief, restless catatonia and died.

This September will mark eighteen years since. On that anniversary, I will have lived longer without my mother than with her. I used to wonder how that day would feel. The remoteness of such a thing was then unimaginable, and is equally so now. But as it draws near, I think I feel some of that same wild stirring—like wanting to jump, and like wanting to live.



A Story People Tell

I was supposed to be the one with the words. The folklorist. The writer. The storyteller.

But after all those days and all those explanations, as we sat at her memorial service, I had to keep my mouth closed. Had to hold it in. No words.

She was only four.

And sitting there beside my own five-year-old, I knew I’d run out of things to say.

“We can’t explain it—”

“She’ll become something else—”

“We don’t understand—”

“She’ll go somewhere else—”

So many starts. So many ways to begin at the end of things. After so many words, I had nothing left.

So, when he asked, “What is heaven?” his Daddy answered: “Heaven is a story people tell.”

And that story helped him look over the edge. But instead of looking down deep, he looked up.



My Ecotone

“I gravitate to edges where trees meet grass.” I wrote those words at my first writing workshop. I went to that workshop because I wanted to step out of academic and technical writing into a more personal space. I wanted to put more of myself in my writing.

When the instructor asked us to write about our special place in the landscape, the roomful of writers paused. Then pens moved across pages. Ideas flowed. Time ticked on. There was no report to write, no preconceived idea of the outcome. I wrote about the delights of hiking out of a cool, shady forest into a bright, flower-filled meadow. I recalled camping in the open ponderosa pine country that separates mountain forests from high-desert grass and sagebrush. I noted the abundance of wildflowers and wildlife in these transitional spaces that biologists call ecotones. I wondered if my preference had been shaped by the evolution of humans on the savannas of Africa, where trees provided protection and grasslands, food.

It was a revelation to me that such potent ideas could appear without planning or forethought. In the world of writing that I knew, I gathered facts, data, and theories. I thought about how to organize the material, wrote an outline, and knew the main points to make. Writing was the act of clearly expressing ideas already thought out.

But in that workshop, writing became a process of discovering what I had to say. It became a place of learning more about myself. I had entered my own ecotone, a place straddling the organized way I had learned to write and a future that seemed more open and promising.

JUDY DAVIS, The Dalles

A Maddening Lack of Respect

In the 1970s, in northeastern Oregon, I was teetering on many edges—a failing farm, a shattered marriage, despair. Earning money while taking care of my young children was challenging. So I started a business with $100. I had taught craft classes in my home. A small, affordable shop was available in La Grande where I could give classes, while the sale of necessary supplies would grow my business.

As soon as the town’s bankers learned I had leased retail space, they sent me invitations to visit. Heartened, I applied for a small loan. A manager at the first bank invited me into his office, explained he needed my husband’s approval, wished me luck, and ushered me out. In the second bank, a male executive met me at the counter, asked about my husband, ignored me when I said it would be my business, told me an established retailer was considering adding hobby supplies, and dismissed me. While I understood the rejection, the lack of respect was maddening.

I drove 250 miles to Portland for wholesale craft supplies, a $100 bill tucked safely in my purse. Disappointed at how little my precious money purchased, I still followed my plan. Eventually, shelves were loaded and the break-even point was surpassed.

One day, in strolled a young suit-clad man accompanied by my adversary from the second bank. With no sign of recognition, the older man delivered his sales pitch, an obvious lesson for his trainee. I should have a credit card machine from their bank, he explained.

“If I were to get one, it wouldn’t be from your bank,” I said. “Why not?”

“Because when I came to borrow money, you didn’t even invite me to sit down.”

The men left. Later that afternoon, Mr. Banker returned. “We had a training today,” he said, “and I shared my experience with you. We received an in-depth lesson on how to treat women in business. I do apologize.”

I had been too isolated, too busy, and too unaware to even approach feminism. News blurbs on bra-burning and off-putting comments by men regarding who opens a door first had smoke-screened legitimate issues. That day, I understood. The issue was about respect, money, and position. I had made my first strike for equality.



A New, More Vital Life

Oregon was my comfort zone. I knew the trails, the plants, and how to survive its terrain from an early age. It was Mexico where I first encountered the unknown. I faced jaguars, bats, masks, curanderos, and conversations I could not understand. It required alertness.

Years later, I have landed in a permaculture pocket of international people in Mexico where conversations revolve around cisterns, solar panels, swales, manure, seeds, and rainfall, as living here is off­grid.

“Life is richest on the edge” is a basic permaculture principle. Where two living organisms meet, a new, more vital life occurs. Where two ecosystems or watersheds meet, life becomes richer. New life forms evolve at this place of converging. This core principle is behind many of the permaculture tasks as one tends the land.

Runoff creates a watershed environment, and the result is the rich purple blossoms of jacarandas; a swale holds water long enough to nourish a palo dulce tree. Life is richer where the Columbia and Willamette meet; where the valley floor meets the Cascades; where the Cascades meet the high desert. Life is richer at the edge of the Little Deschutes, and richer again where the Little Deschutes feeds into the Big Deschutes.

Far from the known comfort of Oregon, I must now interface with the properness of a British neighbor, the dry humor of a Canadian, the nuts-and-bolts approach of a New Englander, the triple-kiss greeting from my neighbor from southern France, and the incessant joy in everything my Mexican neighbors bring to each day.

I see life in Oregon with new vision, and the country I have known all my life through the eyes of those who have come from different trails and rivers. This edge, with its alertness, brings new life to me, and my world is richer by far for interfacing new trails, new plant life, new languages and cultures through a reawakened vision.



Under Attack

The fear comes from no specific place and for no specific reason. I may even be sleeping when my mind senses the chemical change occurring in my body—a change auguring a day of living on the edge of extinction with a wave of merciless terror that shouts over and over again, “You’re about to die soon. You’re about to die soon.”

But there is no soon, no time, no past or future, only a miserable present I live in from moment to miserable moment, longing for some kind of release. I just wait and survive so I can wait and survive once more, and once more, and ten times more. Let the fear pass through me, let me live through it, let me survive it just one more time, one more hour, one minute and, there, now—yes, now—maybe this will be the last one.

It isn’t. It is still morning, and the fear will continue all day, maybe into the night. Wave after wave of terror, heart palpitations, dissociation, fear, convinced I am dying. I’m on the edge of passing out of existence. By nightfall I am shattered, waiting for the clear, the all clear, the last wave. This one?

Now, please—yes, maybe—yes—yes—yes. My body tells me this is the last one, the last wave of terror. It’s over. I breathe normally.

But I know it will happen again, as it has happened ever since I was nine years old and the walls of my bedroom would begin to close on me, then recede. The glass of milk at breakfast seemed to be getting bigger, as if it were moving toward me. Everything else vanished from my vision. Nothing helped. I prayed. It did not help. Even God didn’t help.

I grew up wondering what was wrong with me or what I was doing wrong or eating wrong or praying wrong. I wondered for forty-five years, until a family doctor finally said, “It sounds like a panic attack to me. It won’t kill you.”

As I walked out of the doctor’s office into a soft rain, I wondered what the benefit is of being told it won’t kill me when I am certain that the next one will.


Stand and Fall

It wasn’t that late, even if the stars were to tell her anything of time, which they hadn’t, shot out into the black as they were.

The wide moon cast its light about the pier, the sea lions asleep on the scaffolds beneath.

She thought it was a good idea, like all the other good ideas she’d ever had, those strokes of risk in the company of those who were only there to impress: the night behind the wheel of her jeep with too many empty bottles in the back, reckless and toxic on remote roads that dropped off in cliffs; or the tabs of acid blotted on paper when she was too young, with little understanding of her choice, but knowing that she could wind her way through the county park watching children in paddle boats laugh across the duck pond; or later, a swim into the belly of the sea, floating a bit on her back, tossing kelp through her fingers while the tide carried her away—a romantic vision of the ocean that pulled her too far with only the glow and shine of the village drawing her back to shore. She could have floated off, never to return.

She scaled the railing of the historic pier, a stretch of lumber no wider than her foot, and walked, one foot, then the other, forward into the night, balancing on the palisade forty feet above the sea, thinking of nothing but the way the salt settled onto her cheeks and skin.

Maybe you shouldn’t do that, she heard. Come on down from there. She thought nothing of it, until she did. She peered at her friends under the moon and there, she reckoned with death, or it reckoned with her, then looked to the mighty ocean holding the world in place, her body still now, fixed and immobile, until she willed herself to jump and grip the splintered wood beneath her fingers, touch the pier’s earth, the collective hush of her friends slicing the night. She’d made her choice.

Perhaps it wasn’t choice at all. Providence, maybe, though she can’t think of that now, because the ocean waits for her still—the sea beside her, like a warning.



Driftwood Beach

On the short trail to the beach I see a flattened chocolate milk carton and remind myself to pick it up on the way back. We’ve come to watch the sun set. We search for a large log to sit on and find a perfect one with another log behind it for a backrest. I call this place Driftwood Beach. I’ve never seen another beach like it, covered in scattered stacks of wave-washed driftwood. Wood of all shapes and sizes, piled high to create hills.

My husband pulls from his pocket a pamphlet he had read earlier in the day. He wants to discuss it, but I strain to hear him as he reads aloud. Eventually we just sit, looking out over the froth. The sun slowly slides down. We can barely distinguish the globe-shaped blur in the hazy clouds. It is not a spectacular sunset, not even colorful.

Remembering the empty milk carton, I point to the driftwood and remark, “This beauty is God’s trash.” I consider all the rubble that will one day cover this beach—and far inland—when the earthquake and tsunami arrive. The human tragedy. Under this turquoise ocean lies a ferocious tectonic boundary. The edge of Oregon will unzip a cataclysm of fractured earth and rising sea. Who can be prepared? Camping gear, water, food, a stove, a radio, clothing, toilet paper, and a first aid kit wait in our car.

Back at the campground we bicker while setting up the tent. I arrange our sleeping bags. He builds a fire. We silently watch the flames. The driftwood burns without a sizzle or pop. Soon we clamber into the tent, undress, and snuggle into our separate sleeping bags. My husband rests his hand on my hip. We fall asleep at the edge of oblivion.



Oregon Humanities Magazine


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