27 June 2011

The Blue Otter Pop of Happiness

It is hot, the sun intense, and the wind gusts from time to time. We are four families, camping for a weekend, something we haven’t done together since our days in college, more than two, ahem, decades prior. Now, though, there are spouses, and somehow eight children (eight!), aged thirteen to four, between us. Throughout the day, we migrate from campsite to campsite, looking for a shady space large enough to accommodate us all.

The kids flit in and out like butterflies while we adults talk, reminisce, become reacquainted, and laugh. The seven girls go on short hikes – mostly to the bathroom and back, it seems, or across the road to some granite boulders that are just challenging enough to be fun. Seth, the lone boy, rides his bike around the campground.

It’s surprising, really, how easily the conversations flow, how little some things have changed, and how certain things are still funny, even after all these years.

When Sojo, the youngest, commands our attention, the silence is reverent. She announces a joke: “How do you get a tissue to dance?”

“Put a little boogie in it!!”

Sojo is endearing, and probably because she is the youngest one present, we all focus on her. The girls want to play with her and help her meet the challenges posed by playing with kids twice or more her age. I look at Sojo and am astonished at how quickly time has passed since my daughters were her age. They’ve become so independent, sometimes in miniscule increments, sometimes by leaps. It’s easy to lose sight of how different things once were from a parenting standpoint: how my daughters seemed so independent at age four. I couldn’t fathom the level of responsibility then that they have grown to accept so readily now. I don’t really recall relinquishing most of that responsibility that they now shoulder, but somehow they have come so far.

The pack of girls runs off again, and the talk turns to work, travel, and recipes. Since I last saw Tara, Sojo’s mom, she’s lived on three different continents, working in International Schools with her husband, Dale. But somehow, those decades and oceans between us – between all of us – seem to fade to irrelevance. How is it that we might have reconnected and easily planned this outing without Facebook? Or without the Internet, for that matter? I’ve been able to see photos and read blogs of these friends and watch these families from afar, and it’s amazed me more than once that technology has the capacity allow these intimate, familial exchanges to take place, sometimes from half a world away.

I met Tara, Brian, and Jay my freshman year of college – and, let’s face it – there’s probably no other year of one’s adult life that can be so demanding, frightening, and freeing. My only responsibility was me. I was lucky to have connected with these good folk then, and grateful to have this opportunity to gather together now, even though focusing on the passage of so much time makes life appear more frenetic than it actually is.

Being outdoors allows the pace of life to slow. Most of what is extraneous is whittled away, and still we are left with much more than the basic comforts and company aplenty. And this is what I crave when I haven’t been outdoors for a while: a slower pace, easy conversation, watching the day progress with little attention to tasks besides meals, and enjoying simple pleasures with friends and family.

When the kids return again, their faces are flushed and an official Otter Pop time-out is declared. Each kid chooses a favorite color / flavor, and they dig in. Sojo’s face is the picture of bliss as she nibbles away. Sometimes happiness really can be found in something as simple as a blue Otter Pop.

And, I think, too, that this simplicity is what draws me toward the younger kids. At age four, life is pretty simple, things are quite absolute. As I grow older, I realize that less and less about life can be put into simple categories like black and white – the coincidence of what happens to our hair isn’t lost on me. Or maybe I’m just now finally able to grasp those delicate differences and nuances - because, yes, there are so many shades of grey. Would I go back if I could, to a time when I was only responsible for myself? Or to a time when my daughters were more dependent on me? Not a chance. But still, sometimes I yearn for those simple choices, like what color Otter Pop I prefer: I like the green ones.

21 June 2011

Night Hawks

Soon after night creeps over the desert,
the Big Dipper shines through strategically placed holes
in the huge black canvas that replaced the blue Sonoran sky

We sit by the pool,
the palms, lit from below,
draw thousands of insects,
flying high above us,
who lure dozens of night hawks
gliding in overlapping spirals

The white bands on their underwings
shine like reflective tape
and we watch,
as they flit and circle, soundless,
through the desert air,
just slightly cooler
than the temperature of our skin

Again and again the night hawks
choreographed orbits
tethered to celestial bodies
that are invisible to the naked eye

07 June 2011

D-Day + 55 years (Normandy: June 6, 1999)

We approach the beaches from the south
in what was Nazi-occupied territory,
a lumbering tour bus filled with teenagers,
most on their first European tour.
As we draw closer, each successive village bears
more American flags in the windows that line the streets,
some with messages of gratitude like
merci and thanks you, America.
I chaperone these newly-graduated, newly-minted adults,
which mostly means that I tell them they need
to go to bed or what time they need to wake up and be ready to roll
or I threaten that if they stay out too late or break the rules
by drinking in a French bar, I might have to call
their parents, who await their return with anxious hands and hearts.

That was before we stopped near the beaches
nicknamed Juno and Omaha in American lore,
near the sprawling cemeteries on the bluffs,
the cold wind off the Channel whipping our skin,
making our eyes tear up,
buffeting our jackets as we peered out to the north
from the sidewalk café where we sipped rich chocolat chaud.

That was before an ancient man in an old Canadian military uniform
pointed at the choppy sea and the scuttling clouds and said to us,
or to no one in particular, that day was just like this, cold and grey.
And we shivered, grateful to him and the others
– for their courage, yes,
but also because we weren’t in that water,
loaded with gear and guns,
dodging German bullets and mortars, and
trying (not) to envision those
aspects of war that old soldiers never mention.

That was before an old American man boarded our bus to share
his testimony: I was here, he said, voice shaking.
I was here, and I saw things no one should ever see.
I don’t know
, he started, and stopped, looking at each of us,
why I lived and why my buddies didn’t. He paused again,
his intense eyes becoming shiny,
then, they were good men.
He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his nose
and the bus was brimming
with our soft weeping and sorrow, and
we tried to reconcile the textbook image of hero with this
very real man who stood before us, gripping the back of the bus seat
to steady himself: I was here, he said again, and now he looked at
the boys on the bus, and I was your age.

He turned, and his middle-aged son, camera strapped to chest,
appeared to help his father down the steps
as we called out inadequate thank yous.
Somehow, I think he meant to tell us other things,
what it was like that day and what he did in the war -
until he saw these boys on the bus.
Even fifty-five years can’t bury some things.

That was before I was a mother, before I could plumb
the dark depths of love and fear those boys’ mothers
must have reckoned from the other side of the Atlantic,
without benefit of a phone call from a chaperone,
on their sons’ first European tour.

05 June 2011

Defensible Space

As the weed eater sputtered to quiet, Elise turned back to look at what she’d accomplished. Her arms were still shaking, from the vibrations of the weed eater as well as the exertion of the yard work. At the fire safety meeting last night in the elementary school cafeteria, the forest ranger had harped on the importance of defensible space. It saddened Elise to cut down the grasses she loved, especially the side oats grama grass, but she also knew that her cabin’s location on the border of the national forest was risky until the summer rains came again, probably two months from now.

The wet winter had encouraged a seemingly disproportionate crop of native grasses; plants her neighbor Dave called weeds. But Elise loved them all, even the ones that deposited sticky seeds she’d have to pull off of her socks one by one with a pair of tweezers. Looking west to the forest, a shiver went down her spine. So many dead trees, juniper and ponderosa. Last summer they’d appeared flaming orange, still clinging hopelessly to their dead needles. But now they all stood grey and lifeless, ominous in their fuel potential. Satisfied with her progress for the day, Elise hauled the weed eater back to the shed. Tomorrow she’d prune some of the low branches out of the junipers on her property. She cringed at the thought that she might need Dave’s help. He’d offer to chop the trees into firewood for her, oblivious or not caring that they were habitat for countless species of birds and insects.

Elise had lived in the cabin for more than ten years, since she retired after thirty years teaching fifth grade, and divorced Charlie. It had once been only a summer getaway, but during the divorce she’d talked Charlie into keeping the house in Mesa so that she could take the cabin in the mountains. She knew that Charlie still wondered sometimes why they’d divorced. They talked on the phone at least a few times a month, and he’d often come up once or twice in the summer for a weekend. It was nice; they were comfortable together. But she’d just needed a change, and so they’d split officially, while still sometimes sharing a bed, and supporting one another through the trials of aging parents.

Charlie would be up this weekend, for Fourth of July. And she’d promised him her famous barbecue chicken. Elise cleaned up and got ready for a trip into the grocery store. She made a mental list of what she’d need: a whole chicken, brown sugar, French bread, green beans, tonic water, lime. Probably a new bottle of gin and some of that extra sharp cheddar that Charlie liked so much.

It wasn’t until she turned onto Valley Road, on the way home from the grocery, that Elise noticed the plume of smoke. It wasn’t yet a huge trail through the otherwise blue sky, but it was definitely smoke. She pulled over and called the forest service office from her cell phone, relieved that she’d programmed it into her phone during the fire safety meeting last night.

“Yeah, we know about it,” the gruff voice answered. “Haven’t got a crew out there yet, but we’re working on it. It’s already been called in. Someone’s campfire got away from them and they called us.”

Idiot! Campfires had been banned in the forest now for three weeks! And yet there was always someone who thought they were above the regulations. Damn. She pulled back onto the road, noticing the plume’s width had already doubled. Arriving at home, gravel from her driveway spraying behind her truck as she slammed to a stop, Elise realized the fire was due west of her cabin. The afternoon winds were picking up, whispering potency into the fire.

Elise ran inside, up the stairs and onto the small deck overlooking the forest. The smoke now seemed to take up most of the western horizon, and she could smell it. Running inside, she knew she would need to evacuate. She grabbed the box she’d packed last night after the fire meeting, filled with a change of clothes, her jewelry box and some framed photos off the walls. She took it outside and put it in the back of the truck, vowing not to look at the smoke plume until she was ready to leave.

Running back to the house, she grabbed the cooler and took it to the truck, filling it with the groceries that were still in the bed of the truck. And again, racing back inside she grabbed another box, not sure what to fill it with, but compelled to try to save what she could. Her eyes darted from object to object. How could she determine what was worth trying to save and what would have to be left to chance? The books – there were so many! Charlie had given her so many books, for birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmases, sometimes for no reason at all. Some were first editions; others were signed by the author. But they were heavy, and, she supposed, ultimately replaceable. Her grandmother’s silver candlesticks stood sentry on the small mantle. Grabbing those, she looked on the other side of the room. She seized the photo album from the coffee table. Her cardboard box still had a good deal of empty space, but as she whirled around the room, she couldn’t decide what to choose.

Forcing herself to stop her chaotic frenzy, she set down the box, closed her eyes, and took three deep breaths. Her eyes opened, and were trained on the bookcase. She opened the glass doors and grabbed the first edition of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Charlie had given her that one Valentine’s Day, exactly one month after they first met.

Praying that the box contained enough memory, she took one more tour about the small cabin. Grabbing her toothbrush and a few other toiletries, she approached the door. She was about to turn around to say goodbye, but stopped herself.

“Damn it, Elise, it’s not going to burn. Be positive!” She was surprised at the anger in her voice.

She opened the door, and stood there gaping at the scene in front of her. Flakes of ash were falling all around her, and the sun burned orange and huge behind the barrier of smoke. Her eyes burned, and she coughed at the acrid smoke. Running to her truck, she threw the box in the cab of the truck, noticing the layer of ash that covered everything, including the windshield. Frantic, she sprayed the windshield and started up the wipers. But it only made a mucky mess, and seemed to attract more flakes of ash. Holding back tears, she paused before pulling away from the cabin, the windshield wipers pathetic in their frenzy.