Swimming Out of the Pandemic Bubble for Thanksgiving

I push my card key into the slot and open the door. I inhale the scent of chlorine, feel the humid air on my skin. I bend down to feel the water in the pool. Warm. There is no one else here. I strip down to my bathing suit and ease in. Oh! I love being in the water. If I could live my whole life in water, I would. I love swimming, even though I’m not very good at it. After two years, do I remember how? 

I do. I go through my routine of breast strokes, back strokes and front crawl. I feel the chlorinated water pushing against my hands, feel the buoyancy of my feet on the concrete bottom. I lean back and float, giving control of every inch of my body to the water. It’s the only place I ever let go. I hope no one passes by and thinks I’m dead.

I’m writing this on Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend. I have been overeating for days and wasn’t following my diet or my exercise resolutions before that. My old Walmart bathing suit is stretched out. I look like a turquoise walrus. My muscles remind me that I haven’t done these moves in a long time. My spine whispers, “You’ll be seeing the chiropractor this week.” But those are just body parts. My spirit is soothed and renewed.

I have had many firsts over the last nine days. My first trip outside Lincoln County, Oregon since Covid started. My first salad bar. My first elevator rides. I refuse to ride a boat, plane or train, but my car trip has placed me in contact with many people, mostly strangers, lined up at rest stop bathrooms, side-by-side tables at restaurants, in line at Target and other stores, and at the breakfast buffets in the motels where I have stayed. Is it safe? I don’t know. I have had three vaccine shots, the regular first two and a booster, but there’s a new variant floating around. 

I hadn’t seen most of my family in two years. The young great-nieces, nephews and cousins have grown from babies to little people with big personalities. They call me Aunt Sue or get confused and call me Grammy. They don’t remember me from before. But it is so exciting to get to know them now. 

The adults have changed, too. My brother has a full white beard now; he was clean-shaven when I saw him last. Some are heavier or thinner or look older. Some have changed jobs and residences. It was so good to see them, hug them, and talk, talk, talk, not over Zoom or Messenger or some other electronic program but sitting in the same room, hugging a child or a dog or drinking tea and eating pumpkin bread. 

I got to see my friend who moved to Livermore and be her “sis” again. Such a gift. 

I went home to San Jose and neighboring Santa Clara. I saw buildings that weren’t there before. I saw the monstrosity the new owners of my childhood home built in its place. I visited the cemetery where there are more names now on the wall where my parents’ ashes rest and around the loved ones whose bodies went into the ground. I was able to see and touch their gravestones and sit with them for a while. 

As always, getting away from home and the usual routine sparks new ideas and new resolutions. I’m going to lose weight, renovate my house, and get a grip on my schedule. I’m going to go back to the gym, do yoga, and swim at the rec center. I’m going to start calling my family and friends more often. But I can see it will take me a whole day just to go through my mail and figure out how much I spent on this trip. I’ll need to restock the refrigerator, wash my clothes and deal with all those work chores I put off because I was “out of town.” 

I’m writing this in my last motel of the trip, the Holiday Inn in Yreka. Nice hotel, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. Nothing else here but a truck stop where I got takeout Chinese food. The whole trip, I had hoped to swim. But the other pools were all outdoors, and it was too cold. When I saw this indoor pool, I knew I had to use it. 

Traffic has been thick the whole trip. I think a lot of people left home this holiday for the first time since COVID started. Will there be a new surge of people getting sick? It seems likely. So many people together, so many without masks. The pandemic is not over. We’re all tired of it. Mask-wearing is slipping. But we can never be sure we’re safe. I even wondered if somehow the virus could be in the water in that pool. It doesn’t seem logical, but I wondered.

It will be a long time before I can return to my home state, but I will treasure the memories and photos and the feel of that warm water against my body as I made my cumbersome way back and forth, the nearsighted, half deaf turquoise walrus full of Chinese food from the truck stop across the road.  

How did you spend Thanksgiving? Did you venture out of your COVID bubble? Tell us about it in the comments. 

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Celebrating Twenty Years in Paradise

Annie at South Beach 22315C

We are gathered here today to ponder me being in Oregon for 20 years.

On July 26, 1996, Fred and I left our home in San Jose, California to start a new life in Oregon. He drove a Ryder rental truck, and I followed in the Honda with the dog, my guitars and my Chatty Cathy doll in the back seat. We had no idea what we were getting into.

I had never lived more than an hour away from my family. I had never lived in a small town. I had never lived where it rains 80 inches a year. If we had not moved, I would never have known that the whole world is not like San Jose. Attention suburbanites: There’s a whole other world out there.

For years, we had vacationed on the Oregon Coast and batted around the idea of moving here. After Fred retired from the city and his youngest son graduated from high school, it seemed like we were free to go.

It happened so quickly we didn’t have time for second thoughts until it was too late. Our house sold in five days. We’d expected it to take months. Suddenly we were quitting our jobs, packing and saying goodbye. If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn’t. Certainly if I had known everything that would happen—my mother’s death, Fred’s long illness and death, me ending up alone—I would have stayed on Safari Drive amid the smog, gangs and traffic roaring right behind us on Santa Teresa Boulevard.

I loved my newspaper job and our house. I loved the music groups I belonged to and the church where I played guitar every Sunday. I had finished my term as president at California Writers and had just been elected vice president of the Santa Clara County chapter of the National League of American Pen Women. Life was pretty good. But the money we made at our various jobs wasn’t enough and the Oregon coast called to us. Up here, we could live by the beach in a more affordable house. I could write and play music. Fred could volunteer at the aquarium. As for the rain, we’d buy raincoats.

So, 20 years. Nearly one-third of my life. If we divide it up, the first third was growing up, the second being a young professional, and the third starting over in Oregon.

Let me toss out a few more numbers:

We lived in Lincoln City one year, Newport one year, and South Beach 18 years. I have been walking dogs along Thiel Creek for 18 years. Six days a week, 1.5 miles a day, times 18 years=2,496 walks and 3,744 miles or all the way across the U.S. and partway back. Add the miles we walked in Newport and Lincoln City, and we’re at least back to Utah.

I have made approximately 50 trips back to San Jose, mostly by car. At 1,400 miles a trip, say 45 trips, that’s 63,000 miles and about 90 overnight stays at the Best Western Miner’s Inn in Yreka, California. I should get a gold plaque or something.

I was 44 when we arrived. Fred was 59, younger than I am now. Later this year, I have to sign up for Medicare. What???

Oregon has given me a lot. Six published books. My MFA degree in creative writing. Twenty years as a church musician. I get to spend my days writing and playing music, which has always been my dream. I have a house with a large, private yard only a block and a half from the Pacific Ocean. I can go to the beach or walk in the woods whenever I want. The air is clean, the traffic is minimal, and the temperature rarely gets over 70 degrees. Of course, we don’t have a shopping mall, serious medical issues require a trip to Corvallis or Portland, and full-time jobs are hard to find, but there’s online shopping, I don’t mind a trip to the valley, and I don’t need a full-time job. I’m already working full-time at work that I love. In other words, we got what we came for.

A week ago Sunday, I attended a concert at Newport’s Performing Arts Center. Walking through the lobby, I kept running into friends from music, writing and church. Lots of smiles, lots of hugs. We knew just about everybody on stage as well as in the seats. I have spent many hours in that auditorium, in the audience and on the stage. I felt this huge sense of belonging as my friend Pat and I settled into our seats. I would not get that kind of feeling in San Jose in a massive venue where everyone was strangers.

Fred and I lived together here for almost 13 years. He spent two years in nursing homes and died five years ago. He absolutely loved Oregon, never had a moment of regret. Over the years, we have lost many family members, including my mother, both of Fred’s parents, Aunt Edna, cousin Jerry, cousin Candi, cousin Dale, Cousin Irene, Uncle Bob, and more. We have also welcomed Candace, Courtney, Riley, Peyton, Keira, Clarabelinda, Kai and Kaleo, Eddie and Wyatt, and more. The cycle of life includes our four-legged loved ones. We lost our dog Sadie in 2007. We gained Chico and Annie in 2009, then I lost Chico in 2010.

My dad, now 94, has survived heart surgery, a broken wrist and a broken hip. My biggest regret of this Oregon journey is not being close to him all the time instead of just a few days or weeks when I visit. When he complains about crime, traffic and heat in San Jose, I encourage him to join me up here, but he is firmly rooted in the city where he was born.

Over the years, I have thought about going home. I miss my family. I get tired of the endless cold, gray winter days. Why am I in this big house alone now that Fred is gone? Most widows seem to move close to their families, usually their children.

But I stay. Why? The opportunities for connections with writers and musicians are huge here. I am allowed to play, sing and lead the choir every week at church even though I have no music degree and I am not a concert pianist. Yes, there are more opportunities in big cities, but you’re one of a crowd.

I might have better luck finding a new man (do I want one?) somewhere else, but when I sit writing on my deck with the dog sleeping at my side, warm sun on my face and a light breeze tousling my hair, I don’t want to leave. It’s peaceful here.

Lots of other people have moved to the Oregon coast since Fred and I came. I’m an old-timer now. California retirees are still falling in love with the place and moving in. But we are unlikely to see our population grow to the point that it’s a problem. Our weather is too challenging, and there’s no easy way to get to the rest of the world–tough roads, minimal bus service, no plane or train service. Also, jobs and housing are scarce. Good. Keeps the riff-raff out.

I like this place where I know lots of people, where the rain has dirt to sink into, where strangers wave at me and Annie as they drive by in their pickup trucks, where I hear the ocean at night instead of freeway noise and sirens, where I can slip away to the beach in five minutes if I feel like it or doze on my loveseat with the dog sleeping beside me. Driving over the Yaquina Bridge into Newport, I look down at the blue waters of the bay, the white boats bobbing there, and the green hills around it and am still awed by how beautiful it is.

On our anniversaries, Fred and I used to ask each other if we were willing to stay together another year. We’d click our wine glasses and pledge not just a year, but forever. It’s time to ask myself that about Oregon and this house. I can’t pledge forever or even a year. Things happen. But for now, I’m staying. It’s home.

***

You can read the story of our journey to Oregon and what followed in my book Shoes Full of Sand. Follow this blog to continue the story.

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