Years ago, while cruising through a yard sale, I picked up an old ledger book from the Westchester Fire Insurance Company of New York. A large, thin, hardbound ledger, black with a red spine, eleven inches wide by fifteen-and-a-half inches tall. It was probably from the early 1900s, used by insurance agents to track insurers and their policies, all entries written by hand. There was only one entry in it when I bought it for fifty cents; the rest of the pages were blank. After years of treasuring its antiquity but making no entries of my own, I tore the one used page out and decided to start tracking all my moves before my memory lost track. I sat down and recorded all the moves I remembered, over one hundred, starting in 1966, the year I left my parents' home.
One hundred moves, and not one of them associated with the military, a job, or being on the run. In the beginning it was youthful wanderlust and exploration, then relationships and social upheaval—a.k.a. “the sixties”—bad landlords, worse tenants and neighbors, or just being unable, as a single parent, to bear the rent and high heating bills. Once, my oldest son and I landed in a decent house that could hold us indefinitely. After three months I was drawn to cardboard boxes and their qualities. I wanted to gather them, touch them, fill their emptiness with our lives. When I realized what was going on, I gave the boxes away. We stayed in that house for two years, then moved to Hawaii.
Now the kids are grown, the grandkids are teenagers, and I've downsized so much there's no room for overnight guests in this 450-square-foot, stand-alone, one-bedroom cottage in a semirural area. Two years ago a friend chided me for daydreaming aloud about moving again. “You move away, but you always come back,” she said. “Why don't you just call this home?”
As soon as she said that I felt roots shoot out of my feet and sink into the ground. I was so astounded I couldn't move. I've been here three years now and am getting lazy; I don't want to move.
What have I learned through all these moves? Adaptability, being and living in the now, and that there is glory in both staying and moving, but it is much easier and cheaper to stay and wander.
PAM J. COOPER, Ashland
Out of the Nest
I am writing this from the back of a fifteen-foot U-Haul. A breeze tickles my face in the autumn heat. It is the last time I will lay eyes on the clamshell complex where we've lived for sixteen years.
Or shall I say Michael has lived. I haven't stepped inside the apartment for eight months. To do so would risk my life.
“This is a drop-everything-and-go situation,” my endocrinologist said last February. I was to depart for my mother's the following week—for six months.
Left behind with Michael were our surrogate children—once-abandoned cats Snoopy and Charlie, plus Franny and Zooey, orphaned starlings we'd adopted nine years earlier.
It was last October when I first developed symptoms: shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing. My doctors paid little heed. So did I, until it grew worse.
Soon, breathing was excruciating. I took shallow butterfly breaths to lessen the pain. Paralyzing fatigue set in.
My endocrinologist suspected chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which made little sense given that I've never smoked. I began scouring descriptions of lung conditions.
Nothing fit until I found hypersensitivity pneumonitis, specifically bird fancier's lung. Relief and terror flooded in.
If left unchecked, hypersensitivity pneumonitis progresses to pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal condition in which scarring causes respiratory failure within three to five years.
Fortunately, the disease is reversible—if caught early. But the solution is drastic. We would have to move.
I had developed a potentially fatal sensitivity to starlings. I could no longer touch or even be near them. The book I'd been writing on the parenting lessons of raising pet starlings would have a new ending.
Within weeks of relocating, my symptoms lessened. Breaths no longer felt like sandpaper grating my lungs. I had stepped from a precipice moments before plummeting.
Today, we are moving the last of our belongings into our first house. The kitties and birdies have already joined us, the latter living in an elaborate outdoor aviary Michael constructed.
While I cannot hold my babies, I watch them on a video monitor, speaking soothingly on the two-way speaker.
From rescue feedings to teenage angst to nighttime vigils during illness, in caring for these birds I've experienced emotions ranging from epiphanic gratitude to shattering anxiety. I've felt pride in watching Franny and Zooey take their first tentative steps toward flight. Today, I learned the most painful lesson: letting go.
MELISSA L. MICHAELS, Ashland/Medford
The hardest steps I ever took were on an afternoon in early September as I walked away from my son's grave for the first time. The cemetery smelled of juniper and baked dirt and the heat rose up from our ankles.
All around me were reminders of how the forces of nature could alter everything: Newberry Volcano lies twenty miles south of Bend and is directly responsible for the creation of Pilot Butte, a constant presence in my life back then, one that I sometimes imagined looked like the backside of a sleepy brontosaurus. Closer to the cemetery, the elevated peaks of the Three Sisters aren't the gentle fairy tale their name suggests, but the result of plates shifting deep in the earth. One plate shifted under another and this process, called subduction, led to the formation of the trio. This is where the plates, layers of crust, crashed into each other in a fiery show, perhaps tens of thousands of years ago. Subduction zones are places where great trauma lies.
And here I was, all these years later, in the shadows of these mountains, loss everywhere.
Later that day, back at our apartment, we walked into a life that the three of us didn't fit into anymore. For more than a year we went through the motions. We worked, we took family vacations to the coast and to Southern Oregon, and we tried to dodge the grief that followed us. Then one day our four-year-old daughter started a conversation that shook me.
“Mom, we used to be so happy, huh?”
“And then Dylan died and now we're all so sad.”
Six words leapt at me.
“When will we be happy again?”
We moved back to Ashland, where bright red flags lined Main Street and the lush foothills around us offered a sense of peace. I didn't know it then, but we were charting our own map, however imperfect. Healing crept up on us, not all at once, but in tiny flashes of kindness. Two more daughters were born and grew.
Above us, the moon kept rising and lighting up the darkness. Seventeen years passed.
And I learned that the sorrow that most folks want to flee helps you see things more clearly and feel things more deeply. Perhaps, in its wake, it will leave a baffling richness as the map leads you along.
VANESSA HOUK, Ashland
Sunday mornings in Portland I go to church. Dance church. A church where there aren't any hymnals, pews, prayers to recite. A church where, at first glance, outsiders would believe we are all looney tunes. Upon arriving, I see a few little munchkins running around with oversize neon headphones on to protect their little ears from the DJ'ed music set that will soon fill two hundred people with rhythmic bliss. No choreography, no mirrors. There are flowers, candles, pillow puddles, beautiful fabrics. Stretching, rolling, some kind of contact improv—men in tights, kilts, capes. I spot a ribbon dancer and a huge altar in alignment with the morning's intention.
As a survivor of trauma, this space has become my sanctuary. My lifeline. My container in which I can move once again after years of chronic freezing and dissociating. A trapped animal released back into the wild with new wings. Here I experience freedom in my body: delight, anger, ecstasy—baptism, even—without exchanging a single word with anyone. We, the self-anointed dancers, put our spirits into motion and receive one another. Our very own living holy Eucharist.
The music awakens the holy spirit within me and dances me through throngs of people. I am an antelope cut loose, checking out the creatures of Noah's Ark. Loving it. Patterns, bodies in motion, all shapes, colors, rhythms. Each stunning in their authentic movement. I see people falling in love with each other from a distance, I see a girl rocking four different Hula-Hoops at once, I see little girls dressed like Thumbelina holding their mothers' hands, “practicing dancing.”
This is the church of Miriam, the biblical tambourine rocker, alive and well thousands of years later. I move here, and I am reunited with my self, my best self, my most curious, mischievous, sassy, vulnerable, receptive, badass self. Sanctified. My inner child, the child forgotten, invited back in the room to whip her hair back and forth. I throw my head back in delight and laugh until I start to cry. Does it sound like hysteria? Maybe it is, but it is the truest form of worship I know. And, luckily, there are two hundred more like me who hear the music.
EMILY I. BEDAL, Portland
My dad was a post-war upwardly mobile engineer. That translated into at least one move per year until I was eight and another address for high school. I moved every year in college, one year twice. I moved three times during my first stint in Boston; in Florida I managed to stay in one apartment for the whole two years. Then it was back to Boston, where I lived in five different homes in five years.
We've now hopscotched around the West for the last thirty-plus years. California, Santa Fe, two years back East, then back to New Mexico in two different cities, three different homes. Our page in the family address book illustrates what could be diagnosed as a terminal case of “it must be more exciting just over the hill.” From Albuquerque, we moved to our present home in Port Orford, my thirtieth.
Moving has always been exciting, cathartic, freeing. Each time we've given away books by the boxful, emptied junk drawers, finally donated no-longer-worn clothes, dumped broken dishware. We've thrown out accumulated magazines and emptied bursting file cabinets, ditching papers we'd held onto for the IRS audit that's never happened. In each new house, we've vowed not to get bogged down again with stuff, not to fill every drawer and closet. It's never worked.
We vowed Port Orford would be our final “clean slate.” Our last home. Just to underscore how settled we planned to be, we unpacked. Everything. Even the heirloom china, which had never before left its boxes. We were here to stay.
Except it seems we're going to have to move again, but not for the exciting futures we'd always envisioned before. Now we need doctors and hospitals and a nearby airport for family visits and emergencies. Our narrative arc is on the other side of adventure. Now we need a place to feel safe, secure.
So the sorting and throwing out is about to begin yet again. There are closets and drawers that need to be emptied, dried-up paint cans to dispose of, and, of course, books—boatloads of books—to give away. This move, exciting? No way. The very thought of it exhausts me.
Still, those other feelings: cathartic, freeing, new? Just maybe.
ANN EUSTON, Port Orford
Listen to Your Body
I recently turned sixty-two, my mother's age when she died of heart disease. Mom was a hoot, a pistol with an acerbic wit and spot-on timing. Though she was confined to a hospital bed the last time I saw her, she was still funny as hell. I inherited a modicum of her sense of humor along with similar cardiovascular issues. I don't smoke cigarettes, let alone have my mother's two-packs-a-day habit, but aching joints, diminished strength, and a faltering stamina inhabited my body awhile back.
Those maladies weren't the result of chronic disease. More like lack of exercise. At some point in the past decade or so, I developed an aversion to any fitness routine. That choice has taken a toll on my body. So, last January, I began attending the “Stretch and Movement” class at Portland's Northeast Community Center.
Lynn Boatsman, an instructor with the center for the past thirty-six years, teaches the dance-infused workout three days a week. Ballet, its grace and adherence to balance, is at the core of each class. She dispenses praise as we practice basic foot positions and perform dégagés, pliés, retirés, and other movements, and she encourages each of us to breathe and listen to our bodies.
Lynn is ninety-one, but was considerably younger—fifty-five—when she began studying ballet seriously. By then, her versatility as an actress, singer, dancer, and comedian had been evident in community theater productions in the Bay Area, Bend, and Portland. Although not invincible—her right hip was replaced a few years ago and one knee now causes her fits—she continues to lead a full life. She can still stand and press her palms flat to the floor despite relying on a walking stick. Artificial right hip notwithstanding, she manages to lift each leg and stretch at the barre.
A role model for aging with presence and dignity, Lynn maintains her considerable charm and elegance and purposely keeps her body and mind active. Like my mother, she is also a hoot and a pistol. Her tenacity has inspired me to accept what my body can do today and to ask a little bit more of it tomorrow.
Lynn tells us that our class is her reason for getting up in the morning. And by some measure, it's become mine as well.
LAVONNE GRIFFIN-VALADE, Portland
Over the Hill
In my mid-twenties, I moved eleven times in three years. I worked spring through fall as a natural history guide in Alaska, but the rest of each year, I wasn't sure where I lived. I could fit everything I owned into the back of my Toyota pickup, so I simply moved around. A lot. With each new temporary house or tent or cabin, I barely unpacked clothes out of my duffel bag. Moving was nothing.
At the tail end of those years, I met the person who would become my life partner, another seasonal worker. We would move from Alaska to the lower forty-eight every fall. We lived one magical off-season on a houseboat on the Oregon coast, where the moon painted yellow streaks over Tillamook Bay and the ocean hushed us to sleep. Alaska had taught me I loved wide-open spaces. What could be wider than the Pacific? After one more season of guiding, I came back to the coast and decided to stay.
I volunteered my way into one steady job and eventually landed another at the local college. After a few more seasons, my partner came to stay, too. I sold the trusty old Toyota and we bought another together. He built a business, I worked my two jobs, and we both made friends and worked on causes near to our hearts. Then we married, bought a house, and had a child. We'd officially settled down.
The economic hardships of rural living, however, are real; job opportunities decline and can no longer support the life we've built. The accumulation of years no longer fits into the bed of a pickup truck. Last year, my partner took a job “over the hill,” as we say at the coast, and we lived as a split family. The split was taxing, though, so we decided to make the move to the city. We left the first community of our adult lives, the first into which we'd interwoven ourselves. The only community our daughter has even known. Friends asked me not to go. Coworkers wrote me a goodbye poem. My heart still aches for the smell of the ocean. I miss the sounds of waves and crickets. Tears fill my eyes at the memory of that moon over Tillamook Bay. Twenty-plus years later, moving isn't nothing—it's everything.
NANCY SLAVIN, Portland
TagsArt and Music, Death and Dying, Family, Health, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Place, Home
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