Who’s Calling Me from Prison?

Last month, I started getting messages on a phone number I rarely used. Same female voice, same words. It sounded like “f— you.” Could also have been “thank you” or “press 2.” All through the Christmas season, even though my outgoing message explained who I was (and wasn’t), they kept calling. The ringer on this phone, which was connected to my cell phone company and which I used only to make long distance calls, wasn’t loud enough to hear if I wasn’t in the same room. The reception was terrible out here in the woods, but I was stuck on a two-year plan that the company wouldn’t let me out of. Anyway, I kept getting those messages. Finally one day, I answered it in time to hear “This is the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. An Inmate is trying to reach you. Press 1 if you will accept the call.”

I didn’t know anybody in prison, didn’t even know where that particular prison was. If I could reach a human, I could explain that they had the wrong number. As I hesitated, the computer hung up on me. The next day, I got a different recording that asked me to punch in my authorization number, which I guess I would have had if I knew somebody inside. When I didn’t respond properly, the computer hung up again.

Another series of F.U. messages followed over the next week until on Christmas Eve I got a message with a name, Joshua D., and an 866 number. I wrote it down. They’d been preaching at church about mercy. Should I call Joshua to wish him a merry Christmas and tell him he’s calling the wrong number?

I didn’t call. The phone stopped ringing. No more F.U. messages. But I couldn’t throw away the note with Joshua’s number. I pictured a young guy in prison clothes, eyes filled with sadness and anger, nobody to talk to at Christmas. All I really knew about prisons was what I saw on the screen. Orange is the New Black. Chicago. That movie about the nun who opposed capital punishment. In those pictures, the criminals were always good people who got into trouble. Even the murderers and drug dealers loved their mothers and sisters, right?

I kept thinking about Joshua, wondering if he was waiting anxiously for a call from whoever I was supposed to be. I looked up Coffee Creek. It’s near Wilsonville, Oregon. Did you know you can Google prisoners online and get their vital statistics, charges and status? You can. After much clicking, I found a Joshua D., age 32. He was charged with possession of controlled substances. He had a shaved head and bags under his eyes. Status: released.

So, that’s that. If this had gone on longer, I might have called. The reporter in me would be too curious to let it go. But now we’ll never talk.

My two-year contract for the lousy landline finally ran out. Last week I disconnected that  phone and that number. But I keep thinking I hear it ring. I still want to know if she was really saying “f— you.”

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If I Wanted to Slide Down a Hill, I’d Buy a Toboggan

I prefer my ice cubed and floating in a drink, but that’s not what I see this Sunday morning. As music leader for the 8:30 Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, I need to leave the house by 7:30. I’m ready by 7:15, but it’s still dark. My indoor-outdoor thermometer tells me it’s 53 degrees inside and 30 degrees outside. This makes me nervous.

At 7:30, I see a glimmer of daylight. Time to go. I know this trip is going to be tricky when I set my foot on the sidewalk to walk to the garage, and it slides—the foot, not the garage, although in view of recent events, that could happen, too. I walk on the grass, say a prayer and back the car out at 1 mph. Okay . . . now down the road, make the turn, make the next turn. Whoa! The road to the highway slants downhill. Suddenly I’m flying. Press the brakes. Crunching sound, no stopping. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Here comes the highway. Can’t see whether anyone is coming, but I am. I can’t stop.

I spin out onto the road, chanting Oh God, oh God, oh God. Nobody else is fool enough to be there. I right myself and aim the car north toward Newport. Everywhere I look is a sheet of ice. Living here on the Oregon Coast, we get used to looking for patches of black ice. It’s all black ice. It’s a skating rink with not a Zamboni in sight. Just get me into town, Lord, just get me into town. Please don’t make the stoplight red, it’s green, whew, cross the bridge, now I’m in town, still icy, going slow, going very slow. Oh God, I have to stop and turn left into the church. Parking lot is sheer ice. I land in a spot next to Father Palmer’s car. Shut off the engine and send up a thank you prayer. My hands are shaking. My whole body is shaking as I hold onto the car and inch my way to the back door of the church.

The church is nearly empty. I’m surprised that I have three brave singers for the early Mass. All everybody is talking about is ice. I’m thinking I might stay in town until it thaws, whether that’s in a day or six months. Over coffee and donuts between Masses, I mention to the burly guy serving that I have chains in the car. Maybe I should put them on for the return trip. Won’t do any good, he says. I have four-wheel drive, I say. Useless with ice, he says.

Okay. Shoot. A person can’t even walk home because the sidewalks are, to use a popular local saying, “slippery as snot.”

Meanwhile, choir members for the 10:30 Mass are texting en masse. Not coming, too much ice. I prepare to do a solo act. But two singers do come, two good ones, both from my neighborhood. The roads are slightly better, and the sand trucks have been around.

I keep asking the usher if he’ll go defrost the parking lot. Not his job. But it turns out there are bags of sand in the gift shop. Somebody pours the sand around. So far, no broken hips.

The Mass is good, the music is good, but all I can think about is the ice. How will I get home? How will I get up that hill I slid down? Oh God, my cell phone is now saying we’re going to have sleet. It’s snowing in Portland. Wasn’t it enough punishment to have 26 inches of rain in December, almost an inch a day? God have mercy. I’m from California.

On the way home, the roads are not so shiny. Plus there’s a layer of sand. But it’s only up to 32 degrees, and something wet is falling on my window. All I can think is get home and stay there. Defrost the dog, eat lunch, build a fire and hibernate until spring.

For the last two days, when Annie and I walked our wilderness trail, the ground was oddly crunchy. Ice crystals everywhere. The dirt caved underfoot. All the puddles left over from the rain had frozen. I touched one to see how solid it was. Annie jumped on it with both feet. It cracked into shards, like broken glass. I’ll bet it’s still there, but the puppy and I are not hiking today. We’re staying in and drinking something with ice cubes, which is how ice should be formed at all times. Note that as I slid past Hoover’s Bar at 7:44 a.m., I saw several cars in the parking lot, no doubt locals getting ice in its proper form.

A day later, the ice is gone, and the temperature is up to 39 degrees when I get up. Hallelujah. Unfortunately, other parts of Oregon are still iced in. Oregon weather is always interesting.

God be with you, whatever weather you’re having where you live. Do you have weather stories to share? Feel free to add them in the comments.

 

We pause between holiday church music marathons

Whoever decided to put Christmas on a Friday was not thinking about church musicians who would be thrust into a marathon that would leave them with shredded voices, weary fingers, and monotonous Christmas carols playing endlessly in their heads. Four days in a row of church music! This week we get to repeat the exercise with Masses for New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Saturday vigil and then Sunday. If this doesn’t get us into heaven, nothing will.

Unfortunately, we have a memorial service this Wednesday right in the middle of it all. Tom Taylor, a longtime choir member and wonderful human being, died suddenly last Monday of a stroke. He and his wife Sally were getting ready to head to Washington to spend Christmas with their children. She went out for a little while, came back and found him on the floor. We will miss Tom terribly, and we hurt for Sally. It’s definitely a lesson that we never know when God will call “Time!” and all the earthly stuff we put ourselves into a dither about won’t matter.

I won’t be at the service. I’m having an endoscopy, a procedure in which the doctor sends a little camera down my throat into my guts to see what’s going on in there. I’m thinking he’ll find a pile of musical notes, with the edges of all those sharp notes poking my stomach.

Meanwhile, back in California, my family saw the advantage of having a judge living in the house. On Christmas Day, my brother the judge performed a marriage ceremony for his son and his fiancée right there in the living room. Total surprise to most of the family. Congratulations, William and Courtney.

Christmas wasn’t so happy for some families living at the north end of our little town of Newport. With the ground saturated by record-setting rainfall (25 inches so far just in December), portions of two houses slid into the ravine behind them, and several others may slide off, too. The residents of the damaged and endangered homes were evacuated with no chance to grab anything or make any plans. Luckily, no one was hurt. These houses are across the street from a friend’s house. I saw them on Christmas Day. Wow. Again, you never know when everything will change in an instant.

All those Masses were exhausting. So many songs, with a varying cast of singers who may or may not have known the songs when they arrived. Sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, chanting, praying, communions, collections. Red and green clothing everywhere. Between Masses, gifts, wrapping paper, ribbons, cookies, chocolate truffles, bourbon balls, singing the same songs again and again, hearing them on the radio, on the TV, in the stores. Christmas trees, Christmas lights, elves on shelves, lines at the gift exchange counter.

Then bam, it’s over and we’re back to walking the dog in the rain and hoping the money lasts until the end of the year—which is this week! For some, the events of the last two weeks have changed their lives forever. For most of us, we’ll be trying to shake “Jingle Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” until Valentine’s Day and trying to get back on our diets to lose the extra pounds we’ve gained.

One more good thing happened recently. A new book called Biting the Bullet: Essays on the Courage of Women came out on Dec. 19. It includes an essay of mine titled “Tubes.” You might want to buy a copy.

I hope your holidays have been happy and full of blessings, and that 2016 is a fantastic year for all of us. Feel free to share your holiday experiences in the comments.

Native American party shows true meaning of generosity

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In this season when people seemed to be obsessed with gifts and kids are encouraged to makes lists for Santa Claus demanding all the things they want, an event last weekend showed me the joy of giving and receiving in a whole other way.

The occasion was my friend and fellow author Dorothy Black Crow Mack’s 80th birthday party. She had what she called a peschelt, more commonly known to us white folk as a potlatch. Instead of receiving lots of gifts, the honoree gives gifts to her guests.

We gathered at the Newport Visual Arts Center. As I walked in, I saw Dorothy in a black sweater with a big red sun in the middle, a long black skirt and bright red socks. A red bandanna barely held back her waist-long hair. The guests, a mix of Native American friends, poets, artists, quilters, and family from all over Oregon and across the country, stood in line to hug Dorothy.

Chairs were arranged in a circle around the room. Framed William Stafford poems sat on the edges of the windows, which overlooked Nye Beach. The ocean was wild and frothy from recent storms.

Stretched across the room were blankets covered with brightly colored scarves, tablecloths, pillows, and more blankets. White candles flickered in the middle. Clearly Dorothy had been doing a lot of sewing.

Tables were laden with all kinds of food, including fry bread, dips, salmon, beef, salads, desserts, rice, puff pastry and more.

Spiritual leader Johnny Moses blessed the food and burst into song. Others joined him. They banged drums and rang bells. This first of many songs was repetitive and easy to catch the melody if not the words. It went on a while, sometimes very soft, sometimes surprisingly loud, with a hypnotic feeling. A woman across from me raised her hands up like they do in some Christian churches and rocked, eyes closed as she sang.

After we ate, the giveaway began. Dorothy and chosen people distributed the gifts to everyone. You could not refuse. Soon we were all sitting with stacks of pillows, tablecloths, scarves, oranges and chocolates.

When they got down to the blankets, Dorothy picked up one end of the first one and mutual friend Teresa Wisner picked up the other. Several people fell in line behind them. They paraded around the room three times before wrapping the blanket around a chosen person. Music played the whole time, the drums, the chanting, the bells. After each awarding of a blanket, the men roared in a low voice, and the women answered in a high yipping call. They did this many times, I’d guess 10, until the blankets were gone. I received the final blanket, gray, brown, and white striped. I felt honored with a connection that needed more than words to express.

Several people were chosen as “witnesses.” A $20 bill was pinned to their shirts. They got up and talked about Dorothy. Meanwhile, Dorothy held a basket. We all lined up and circled the room to drop money in the basket for Dorothy. I wish I had known to bring more cash.

It was a reverent, loving occasion that made my Mass at Sacred Heart afterward feel flat and mechanical. People sit in their pews and do nothing. At the peschelt, everyone was singing, dancing, and giving. No one was allowed to just watch. No one demanded what they wanted. They accepted what they were given with gratitude.

I never felt so white. Back in San Jose, I went to a lot of Mexican and Portuguese fiestas, but that was a whole different thing. I’m beginning to realize that my heritage may be Latina and Iberian, but I was raised fully in the Anglo culture. It takes more than knowing a few words of the language.

It occurred to me that I was descended from the people who took the Native Americans’ lands and lives. Yet here I was sitting with a pile of gifts on my lap. So much love.

Dorothy is a gringa by birth, but she married a Lakota medicine man and lived on a reservation for many years. She adopted the culture as her own. As a sister writer, she has been my teacher and critique partner for a long time. Her novel The Handless Maiden: A Lakota Mystery came out this year. It is so good, and there are more books to come. People like Dorothy are a gift to us all.

I feel like I already had my Christmas.

Dear readers, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a new year full of blessings. As always, I welcome your comments.

 

 

Outside, wind and rain, but inside, it’s Christmas!

IMG_20151207_101213973[1]Wind and rain have been slamming against my bedroom window all night. In the thin gray light of morning, I rise with trepidation to see what has happened outside. The trees are rocking dangerously, the wind chimes clanging an alarm. Branches litter the lawn. The area around my garden shed is underwater, and I know the inside is soaked again. My garbage and compost carts lie on their backs, smacked down by the sound wind. There is no sign of the robins, jays, juncos and other birds that usually feed in my yard as gusts upwards of 60 mph roar like airplanes taking off.

Outside, it’s a black and white movie, everything in shades of gray. Inside, it’s a riot of Christmas color. After being forced kicking and screaming into Christmas music at my Friday jam (where I was the only one expecting to sing “regular” songs), I plunged into Christmas on Saturday, decorating the whole house and even starting my shopping. I got out my cards. Haven’t written any yet, but at least they’re out, right? Does anybody else do Christmas cards anymore?

IMG_20151207_101308126[1]This is the first year it didn’t hurt to decorate the Christmas tree. My late husband was such a Christmas lover. He couldn’t wait to go chop down a tree and decorate it while playing his massive collection of Christmas music. We’d always attend the Oregon Coast Aquarium Christmas festivities, walking through the spectacular light display, talking to the otters, the jellies, and the puffins. We’d sing and sing and sing.

Once Fred was gone, I didn’t enjoy Christmas anymore. I still won’t go to the aquarium this time of year without him, but on this seventh holiday season since he went to the nursing home and subsequently passed away, I’m reclaiming the holiday for myself. On Saturday, with a break between rainstorms and scheduled activities, I hung colored lights inside and out, set up my fake trees, and played the music loud. Now there’s a Santa on my office window sill, bright red against the rain-spotted window and the grayness outside. Garlands hang off the china cabinet. Santa swings in the doorway. It’s Christmas!

For a small, rural community, Lincoln County is incredibly busy during the holidays. I could not attend everything that was happening: bazaars here, there and everywhere, the lighted boat parade, breakfast with Santa, the Seal Rock holiday greens sale, Toledo’s Hometown Holidays, and so much more. But I did get to the Sacred Heart advent potluck and the Central Coast Chorale’s Christmas concert. I Christmased up the family site at the local cemetery, and I took myself shopping on the Newport Bayfront.

We locals often forget to visit the sites all the tourists see, but winter is perfect because it is not crowded. So what if light rain patters on my hair and trickles down my neck? Umbrella? Too windy. Hoodie? Can’t see. It’s okay. We’re Oregonians. I got more than half my Christmas shopping done in the friendly shops, exchanged grunts with the sea lions hunkered on the docks across from the Undersea Gardens, and avoided shopping malls and big box stores.

As I passed the Bay Haven bar, I peeked in the window where the the Sunday afternoon jam session was happening. Decidedly not Christmas music, but it sounded good. A nice-looking man with wild gray hair walked up and looked in.

“Good music,” he said.

“Yes, it’s the Sunday afternoon jam.”

“Ah,” he said. “I brought peanut butter.”

It took me a minute. Then I laughed. Peanut butter and jelly. I get it. “But you need bread,” I countered.

“Think they’d let me play?” he asked. He didn’t seem to be packing an instrument.

“Sure,” I said, tempted to go in and sit in the back corner where the sign on the door said it was warm. A little cocktail, a little music . . . but it was getting dark and I had presents to wrap.

He went in, and I headed on my way, swinging my shopping bag and humming a little “Jingle Bell Rock.”

This Monday morning when I realize I haven’t done any of my weekend chores because I was having so much fun with Christmas, it’s 9:15 now, but it’s still dark, wet and windy outside. Inside, it’s Christmas. Merry, merry to one and all.

There is No Bear There

black_bear_mammal_221850I was walking the dog recently when a car pulled up beside us. Luckily Annie was neither pooping nor jumping up on the car. The young woman driver rolled down her window. “I wanted to warn you that we’ve got a bear around here.”

Oh.

She went on to tell me how something had been knocking over trash at the end of the street that crosses mine. The homeowner set up a camera one night and sure enough, there was a black bear.

A couple weeks ago, a friend who lives up Thiel Creek Road emailed me a video he had taken of a black bear eating apples off his trees. As he watched, it stood up on its back legs. It was TALL.

This weekend, my across-the-street neighbor hailed me over to tell me a bear had knocked over his garbage can. His wife had been cleaning out old spices and the bear was intrigued by the interesting smells. He didn’t touch my garbage. Apparently he prefers curry and oregano to grapefruit rinds and apple cores.

In my 17 years living here in the coastal forest, I have heard a lot about bears, but I have actually seen one only once. It crossed Thiel Creek Road in front of my car one afternoon. Since then, no bear. I have seen footprints, berry-laden droppings and flattened bushes where a bear might have slept, but no bears. So far.

Bears are definitely around. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says we have 25,000 to 30,000 black bears, the largest extant carnivores in Oregon. Despite their name, they aren’t always black. They can also be brown, blond or cinnamon. For food, they prefer berries, fruit, grasses and plants, but they will also eat small mammals, insects and amphibians. And they’ll adapt to human food if it’s offered.

Annie and I are always looking out for bears, as well as the cougars said to be in the area. I sing to let the bears know I’m there. If either one of us gets spooked, we abort our walk and go home.We stay out of the wilderness near dawn or dusk. Black bears are said to be naturally shy, but some have gotten used to finding food in people’s yards and gotten kind of pushy about it. Over the years, they have come after people and their animals. One even broke into a kitchen east of Yachats, a little south of here. So we’re not taking any chances.

Here at the house, a combination of chain link fence, barking dogs, and nothing worth eating keeps most furry animals out. We do have birds, newts, salamanders, garter snakes, mice and the occasional black rat. Moles have been actively tunneling under my lawn. But no bears. Maybe I need to put out better garbage.

Maybe not.

Halloween photo sparks memories

Halloween at TimberwoodA few days ago, Facebook showed me a photo from 2010 of me and my late husband Fred at a Halloween party at the Timberwood Court memory care facility where he lived most of the last two years of his life. He looks disoriented. I look weary, and my glasses are askew. I wore an orange hoodie, the same one I wore this Halloween, and I can see orange and black decorations in the background. I remember bowls of candy,  somebody’s kids in costumes, and “The Monster Mash” playing in the background. The merriment was forced. Most of the residents had no clue what was happening.

After we said goodbye, I drove home through Corvallis. The trees were so brilliant with fall colors that I had to stop and take pictures. I walked the promenade along the Willamette River among kids in costume, couples strolling, and bicyclists speeding by. Mostly I stared at the river. It was always difficult to come out into the world after a visit to Fred, especially on holidays, which he used to enjoy so much. I didn’t know this would be his last Halloween, but I did know Halloweens were not the same anymore.

My mind goes back to 1997. Halloween occurred just a few days after Fred’s father died suddenly of a stroke. Perhaps it was unseemly, but we decided to go ahead with Halloween at Fred’s mother’s house in Newport. Fred’s brother and his wife were there, and we brought our dog Sadie. Mom Lick had a cold and stayed in the back room while we “kids” took turns handing out candy. In that neighborhood behind the Fred Meyer store, folks block off the streets every year and hundreds of trick-or-treaters come seeking candy. That year, they came in such a steady stream that we never really got to close the door. One of us had to hold the dog to keep her from bolting outside while the other tossed mini tootsie rolls in their bags or plastic pumpkins. It was cold and windy, but it was fun. Fred talked to all the kids, praising their costumes. Friends who knew my father-in-law had just died seemed surprised to find us doing the Halloween thing, but Mom insisted. She hung up her spooky stuffed monkeys in the window, set out her pumpkins, and we did Halloween as usual. We continued the tradition for another four years, until she too passed away.

It was a nice change from Halloween here in the woods where it’s so dark and spooky nobody ever comes trick-or-treating. I hang up orange lights, light a candle in a pumpkin and buy candy just in case, but always wind up eating it myself. I just finished last year’s bag of little Hershey bars. Now I have Tootsie Pops. You know what? They still taste great, especially when you get to the chocolate in the middle.

Our weather usually changes to winter in October. This Halloween, just before dark, it started raining like a hurricane, coming down so hard it looked like the ocean was coming to get us. I imagined the scene at many homes where the kids were set on going out and the parents were just as set on staying dry. Downtown was set up for the usual Deco District festivities where merchants hand out candy, but I didn’t see a single kid there. In Mom’s old neighborhood, over a hundred souls braved the storm. You’ve got to be tough growing up on the Oregon coast.

Growing up in San Jose, my brother and I did the typical Halloween thing. I remember smelly plastic masks, scratchy store-bought costumes and embarrassing homemade ones. I remember going door to door with our Halloween bags while Mom or Dad watched from the sidewalk, making sure we said “thank you” at every stop. As we collected Three Musketeers bars, Life-Savers, suckers, candy corn and other wonders, we never worried about the weather or had to cover our costumes with raincoats, gloves and hats. We also never worried about running into bears or cougars in the dark. Different worlds.

This Halloween, I sang at the 5:30 Mass, ate a late dinner and watched three episodes of “Gilmore Girls” on DVD. In the glow of my orange Halloween lights, Annie snored in the big chair and I contentedly sucked on a chocolate Tootsie Pop.

I hope your Halloween was good. Now it’s time to brace ourselves. It’s standard time, and winter is here. Will it be a trick or a treat? Wait and see.