Crunching through saints and squirrels

With my father and brother coming to visit this week, I was able to buy my father a birthday present that would never survive a trip through the mail. Due to water rationing in San Jose, Dad’s planning to tear up his back lawn and put in gravel with some flowers and something in the middle. I thought, why not a statue?

Pottery World is an oddity between the smoke shop and the pet grooming place near NE 9th Street and 101 in Newport. They have all these statues in various states of disarray. Pieces of broken pottery litter the ground. I found a great Jesus with a missing foot. A sign in one area proclaimed: “Distressed, let’s make a deal.” Actually, everything’s a little distressed, having been out in the weather for God knows how long. There’s no logic to the prices. I paid $30 for a two-foot-tall St. Francis or St. Something, who weighs about 50 pounds. Other less impressive pieces cost nearly $200.

The sales staff is one blond boy about 11 years old, who comes up to people with the standard line: “If you’ve got any questions, just ask.” I think his mom works in the smoke shop across the street. When we bought “Stoney,” the dog I purchased as a memorial when our real dog Sadie died, he ran over there to get change. This time, I gave him $30 cash. “Do you want your dollar?” the kid asked. Of course I said no.

I saw a bench with a monkey head, cherubs and cats, bird baths, Chinese icons, squirrels and saints, Virgin Marys, sun faces, vases, chairs, everything made out of clay or formed concrete. My shoes crunched on broken pieces and cobwebs grabbed at my arms. I don’t know where this stuff comes from, but it seems to sit there until it gets sold or disintegrates.

I don’t have a receipt or anything. St. Whoever spent two days wrapped in a plaid blanket in the back of my car, looking like a dead guy. Now he’s hiding behind a box in the garage until Dad’s birthday comes—and until I figure out how to get the price off his head.

Torn between SJC and PDX

I’m sitting near gate C10 at San Jose International Airport, heading home after my aunt’s funeral. The weather is perfect outside, low 80s, warm but not hot. The hills are still green. After lunch, my father drove me through the cemetery, past Grandma’s house and through many places that evoke strong memories of my past life. Right now I want to stay in San Jose. I want to stop saying goodbye, knowing it will be months before I see any family. I want to be within 10 minutes of them all. I also want to enjoy the work possibilities here. De Anza College is taking teaching applications, and I want to apply.

Meanwhile, I am so Oregonian. I am dressed differently in my jeans, Hawaiian shirt and rugged shoes. I think differently, too, treasuring the simplicity of life in a small coastal town, loving my yard surrounded by trees, my dogs able to run and spread mud all over. I love that I meet someone I know every time I go out. Here, I keep seeing people I think I might know, but I can never be sure. It has been too long. I say “You look familiar,” and sometimes, like this morning when I met the mother of one of my school classmates walking down Fenley Avenue, I guess correctly. But usually I look twice and think, no, probably not.

I found a hat in the gift shop just like the one my dogs tattered. It says San Jose in blue letters on tan, blue, and maroon suede. I considered buying it, but then thought “You can’t go home again.” I know it’s a cliché, but I would add, “You can go home, but it will be different—and so will you.”

I’m part Californian, part Oregonian and will be forever changed no matter which way I fly.

Time to fly again and try not to cry as I watch the city fade away. I have avoided the big sob so far. As I told my cousins, see you online.
Caught between a big man and a crying baby, I stare out the window of the plane. Crowded houses, office buildings and freeways yield to the multicolored waters of Alviso Bay shining in the late-afternoon sun. Beyond that, I name the bridges over San Francisco Bay. The water gives way to brown hills, then snow-sprinkled hills, then the green hills of Oregon, and the multi-hued pastures of the Willamette Valley. Soon we are cruising over the Columbia River as we make our descent into Portland and bump down onto the runway. As I pick up my suitcase at baggage claim, it has all gone so quickly, I imagine I can still feel the warmth of my father’s hand on the handle. Within minutes, I’m in my car, speeding down the freeway as the sun sets on my right and my heart struggles to catch up.

Adeus, Aunt Edna

Tomorrow I’m flying to San Jose for my Aunt Edna’s funeral. My mother’s favorite aunt and the last of her generation, she made it to 100 years, plus 3 1/2 months and she was spunky to the end. I’ll miss her. When I think about her, I hear her voice. She always talked loud and fast with a hint of a Portuguese accent. You knew when Edna was in the building, and she never lacked for an opinion. She was also always fashionably dressed. In her later years, her hair turned the most beautiful white. Her eyes still sparkled and she had a wonderful smile.

Widowed for approximately 50 years, Edna never had any children. Neither did her sister Virginia, who is still going at 92 or 93. They lived in separate houses on the same street in San Jose. Nice houses with beautiful gardens. And they traveled all over the world together. There isn’t much of this planet that they missed. They weren’t all cushy cruises either; not that long ago, they took a freighter through the middle of Europe. Even when Edna started saying, “Oh, my traveling days are over,” we’d hear that she was going again. A stroke finally kept her home, but she lived a lot of years and used them well.

I often cringe at the term “celebration of life,” especially when the person died too young or suffered too long. But I think this truly will be a celebration, and I am selfishly looking forward to seeing my family again all gathered in one place.

I could live without the whole business at the airports, the shuttles, security, luggage check and retrieval, etc., but I have a whole lot of hugs waiting for me down south. Plus it’s warm as opposed to the clouds and cold hugging the Oregon Coast. I might not even need my raincoat. Imagine that.

Yes, that’s my dog

One thing about having a fence-jumping dog is that you get to meet the neighbors. Chico tends to go through the bushes to the large property behind us. The other day, I met Sande. Today I met her husband Jim. Their names are on the sign at the coffee kiosk up the highway. Something about congratulations on 49 years. Must be marriage; they’re too old to be 49 years old. They’re nice people, and they get a lot of traffic from people buying coffee and baked goods.

I also met their golden retriever-yellow lab puppy, who’s probably about eight months old. She is so soft and sweet I was ready to trade Jumping Black Flash for her. But no, Jim came out and called her home. Eventually, I retrieved my guy, panting, drooling and pulling at the leash.

Turns out Chico has been doing more visiting than I thought. Pat across the street is used to my dogs showing up in his workshop. He’ll chuckle and say, “Oh, your pups came over for a visit.” But I didn’t realize Chico was also visiting the family at the end of the block. “Oh, he’s always over here,” the woman told me today. I thought surely she meant a different dog. “Black dog with a purple collar?” “That’s him.” In fact, she helped me catch him today when he finally grew weary enough to slow down. I clipped the short leash on him and dragged him home, back to his sister, who can’t jump the fence. He drank about a gallon of water and collapsed on the floor. We might say he has had his walk for the day.

One might ask why the dog is still jumping the fence when I spent a fortune having a taller enclosure built and just last weekend had concrete laid down so it wouldn’t be so muddy. Well, once in a while I like to let the dogs stretch their legs in the bigger yard. They mostly run in circles, chasing each other, playing hide-and-attack, sniffing the grass and enjoying the scenery. But all I have to do is turn my back for one minute, and there’s Chico on the wrong side of the fence.

We couldn’t let this happen if we still lived in suburbia. I used to chase old Sadie down Safari Drive, and it was dangerous. Too many cars, too many people, too many loose dogs with attitude. Once she got out on the highway and froze in fear, while cars dodged around her. But here in the coastal forest, where only four families live full-time on our street and everybody loves dogs, it’s pretty safe. I just get a little extra exercise and a chance to talk to the neighbors. Good old Chico.

Working and running in the rain

It’s another rainy day on the Oregon Coast. We have had so many wet, cold, gray days that some of us can’t help fantasizing about driving south until we hit sunshine and warmth. The weather reports from back home in California taunt us with temperatures in the 70s and a big “S” for sun. My computer says it’s 39 degrees here right now at nearly 9:30 a.m.

But Oregonians are tough. They know that if they don’t work in the rain, nothing will get ever get done. As I type, the concrete guys are back. A couple days ago, these bold gentlemen in their slickers dug out the mud and scraps of lawn in the shady side of the new dog enclosure to prepare for the concrete. Now they’re laying strips of metal within the wooden forms and getting ready to pour, even though it’s raining sideways. If the rain continues, the slab will be stippled with raindrops. It seems appropriate.

I’m tempted to run out and write something in the wet concrete as soon as they leave. Meanwhile the dogs and I keep looking out the windows, the same mixture of eagerness, curiosity and anxiety on our faces.

Being unable to let the dogs into their enclosure the last two days has been a challenge. Chico jumped the old fence twice yesterday. On the next block, I met a neighbor named Sandy. “You’re the writer, aren’t you?” she asked as Chico zoomed past me and out of sight. “Yes,” I said and resumed the chase. Lord, that dog loves to run. He darted in and out of the driveways somewhat in the direction I was going. We arrived home at the same time. As I opened the door, he skidded over the step and across the carpet, his tongue hanging out like a foot-long piece of baloney. Whew!

Now it’s concrete

I’m going to be calling Chico and Annie the million-dollar mutts pretty soon. I just met with a concrete contractor to cover up the mud in their newly fenced dog yard with $2,000 worth of concrete. I must be crazy. Mud-crazy. The dogs have dug out all those holes I filled a couple weeks ago, and they’ve made several more. The grass is trashed. When I open the door, they cover my clothes with mud. It’s so thick on the laundry room floor I could fingerpaint in it. Outside, the mud sucks at my feet as I pick up the poop and claim the fence stakes Annie has pulled out, approximately 30 of them. The dogs and I have tracked black footprints all over the kitchen linoleum and the den and living room rugs. Sometimes I can catch the dogs and wipe all eight feet before they get in, but they’re quick, and once the floors are muddy, I just give up until bedtime when I mop the kitchen again.

Their whole yard won’t be concrete. They’ll still have a patch of grass and dirt, but they’ll have 12 feet of concrete in the area where the sun never hits. It’s the north side of the house and that section never dries out. In fact, I need to power-wash the mold and dirt off the walls. Welcome to Oregon.

The concrete’s coming next week. Meanwhile I bought some stepping stones at Wal-Mart so I had a dry place to walk. The dogs are using them, too. They’re not dumb, those canines. I think when they see their new yard, they’ll stretch out on the concrete, thinking, Ah, no mud.

Jetty meditation

Yesterday I parked at the edge of Newport’s south jetty, my getaway place, opened the car windows, removed my shoes and socks and stretched out in the front seat of my Honda Element. It was one of those days when I needed to get away from everything and do some hard thinking. My husband’s Alzheimer’s and his move last month to a care home, possibly forever, has turned my life upside down and I’m still trying to figure how to deal with everything that has suddenly changed.

Back in San Jose, I used to drive to the Alviso district. Once a bustling port for ships moving freight from the South Bay to San Francisco, it had turned into a stinking mudhole. Sulfur rankled the air, sea grass grew up through the muddy water, and broken beer bottles littered the parking lot. With its falling-down shacks too near the landfill, Alviso had a bad reputation. But in a big city, it was hard to get away from the crowds and find a bit of ocean to stare at.

Newport’s south jetty is not like that. The beauty there between the Yaquina Bridge and the ocean simply dissolves stress. I stare out at the water and watch cormorants and rhinoceros auklets dive and splash. A sea lion pops up, ducks back under, then comes up yards closer. Gulls glide overhead and squirrels skitter over the rocks of the jetty. On a warm day, I would sit on one of those rocks with my notebook, but most days aren’t that warm.

A sailboat floats near the north side of the jetty as a turquoise-blue fishing boat motors under the bridge, heading seaward. Between the two columns of rocks, the water is smooth, but it gets choppy where boats climb the invisible barrier between bay and ocean. Riding it in the Discovery Tour Boat a few years ago, we slapped that water hard as spray drenched anyone daring to stand near the front. Fishermen have died in this transition area, and tourists have been washed off the wet rocks during high tide.

But where I sit in my car, it’s safe. As I stretch out my body, the knots in my mind untie. Sometimes I write poetry, sometimes I play my harmonica, sometimes I weep, sometimes I just sit and look. Meditation comes in many forms. Last week it was shoveling dirt; this week it’s staring at the jetty until the chatter in my mind stops and I finally pay attention.

Shoveling dirt

Guess I’ll lie on the floor awhile.

I have just finished shoveling 16 fence holes worth of dirt into the holes the dogs have dug. After about the fourth one, you start to sweat, your back starts to ache and then it begins to spasm. You guzzle cold water but never need to go to the bathroom. About the 10th hole, you realize the reason the wheelbarrow pushes so hard is that it has a flat tire—and you have no idea how to fix it. You daydream about a handsome man dropping by and insisting that you hand him the shovel, but no one comes.

You shovel and you shovel and you shovel. You take breaks, sip water, lie on the deck trying to straighten out your back. You put on your dead mother’s hat to protect your already sunburned face. You shovel until the dirt is spread everywhere. You learn that mud is heavier than dry dirt but stays on the shovel better. By the the last pile of dirt, you have fallen into a rhythm. Fill the shovel, walk it over, dump it. Stop thinking, feel the rhythm. It must be how men who do this all day keep at it. Their muscles develop as mine have not. I will be very sore tomorrow.

It’s late, you hurt, but it’s done. You know the dogs will scatter some of the dirt around again, but you hope enough is left that when the fence people come tomorrow, they’ll see it and say, “Wow, you did all that by yourself?”

I probably should have called someone to help, but it’s done now. I go out to the far end of the yard, remove my mud-caked snow boots, my woolly gray socks and Mom’s hat, and stretch out under the Sitka spruce. I feel the grass and pine needles tickling my back through my tee shirt. Looking straight up through the branches at the blue sky, I can see red blossoms where the sun hits. I admire the rough bark of this tree, so old, so strong, a wonderful home for birds and squirrels. I remember lying on the grass at my childhood home on Fenley Avenue and think this is now as much my home as that is. I have earned possession of it by my hard work.

The wind chimes tinkle in E minor. A squirrel chirps. A hummingbird buzzes by. A Monarch butterfly glides past. They don’t care if there are holes in the lawn, but I am proud of my work. I hope the rain and seed will bring out the grass and make it lush again.

I finally stand and walk barefoot across the lawn. The grass feels good on my feet, cool, soft, sap-full. I feel the warm wood of the deck, the cold roughness of the sidewalk, the colder smoothness of the concrete laundry room floor and then the nubbiness of the carpet that massages my toes.

Finally, after so much winter, I am warm.

A quiet meditation

March 12, 2009: I skipped yoga class today. Sorry, Yogini Sue. When it was time to go, I was sitting in the sun playing my newly tuned piano, free of the dogs for once because they’re in the kennel while the concrete around the new fence posts hardens. I decided it was more important to sit in the sun, to hear those sweet notes, to eat leftover crab pizza now when I’m hungry, to read in the sun and drink my iced tea the way I used to do before the dogs came, to study those steel fence posts that mark the boundaries of my new dogs’ new home.

I need a day for healing. Yesterday was very difficult. Our visit to my husband’s neurologist in Corvallis brought many tears. Fred wants to come home, but the doctor confirmed that he needs to stay in the care home. I can’t give him the care he needs. The man I used to know is gone, robbed of himself by Alzheimer’s Disease, but I still feel his pain as well as my own loss.

I’m looking forward to shoveling the dirt unearthed by the posts, flattening out the holes my dogs have dug, smoothing out my yard. It’s a day to savor, a quiet meditation. This is what I need to do today, play the piano, letting the music fill my soul with sweet sounds, let the sun dry my tears and warm my heart, let the good physical labor test my muscles and make me stronger despite my recent birthday.

Today is a day to look around, eyes washed clean by so many tears and see beauty, not struggle. It’s a day to feel the sun, smell the roses, hear the music, watch the robins, let the dirt scatter over my boots, feel the rough edges of the shovel against my hands.

I have done all I can for my husband and my dogs. It’s time for me.

I will do yoga again soon. Today I will do this instead. Namaste.

It’s a good day to be a dog

It’s one of those days when I wake up and I cannot see a single reason to launch myself out of bed. I think about the difficulties of keeping my leaping dogs from jumping the fence. I remember that my husband, who has Alzheimer’s Disease and doesn’t live here anymore, didn’t know my name yesterday. I think about my birthday coming up next week and how no one will be around but the dogs. The bed is warm, there’s no reason to get up early, so I think I’ll stay there. But I know that the longer I lounge, the less time I will have to get anything done, plus the dogs are hungry and I need to use the toilet, so eventually I do get up. I shower, eat breakfast and dress in yesterday’s clothes.

The sun is out. After breakfast, I join the dogs, Annie and Chico, on the deck. In my jeans, tee shirt and two layers of sweatshirts, I’m almost warm. I decide to be like the dogs today, with no agenda, just living in the moment.

We live a half mile south of the Newport airport. Most of the small planes and helicopters that take off from there buzz over the house and are gone, leaving no trace. As I gaze at the scattered clouds, I notice a plane rising straight up, leaving a contrail that starts back behind the eastern trees and goes all the way across the sky like a white rainbow. I watch it go through the wispy clouds, disappear in the thicker clouds and come out the other side, finally ending somewhere behind the western tree line.

Over time, the contrail moves with the earth and slides southward, its edges going in and out of the thunder clouds that have trapped the sun so well that I can comfortably stare straight at it. It looks like a full moon. Nearby I see a patch of colors, not a rainbow, but a rain-patch of pink, blue and yellow.

A few minutes later, the plane gone and the rain-patch faded away, I stare at the holes in the grass and wonder what to fill them with. I look at the sticks on the other side of the fence. This time of year the berry bushes, tall as the gutter on the roof, look like something I ought to cut down, but in a month they’ll be green, covered with leaves and flowers, followed by bright orange salmonberries. The robins will grab the berries and carry them to their nests. The bare alders will fluff out as if clothed in tiered Mexican skirts with flowers in their hair.

The official first day of spring is only two weeks away, although those of us who live on the Oregon coast know that it will probably continue to rain through June. A wet Fourth of July is not uncommon. Still, the flowers and the sun bring comfort and the promise of our delicious Indian summer when I can spend my days on the deck and watch my hands, face and neck turn brown.

The contrail has fluffed out now, like it’s crocheted, and it’s moving slightly, going more and more to the side.

The hot tub is the main dry place to sit right now. Annie is here with her head in my lap, and Chico, after a sloppy face kiss, is walking across, making it feel like a rocking deck. Will these plywood boards hold our combined 350 pounds? We’ll see. Crashing into the chilly water below would be a shock.

Now the contrail looks like the vertebrae on a spine being pushed into the gray-black cloud from both directions. In a minute, the left side is gone, the right looking like a frayed piece of wool. The light has dimmed. A cool breeze rattles the wind chimes. Rain is coming. It’s time to go be a dog in the house.