Category Archives: July 2012

Trying to Figure Out Grief

Grief confuses me. One year ago my father died and I understood why people say “stricken.” Although others in my life have died, this was the first time I had this overwhelming feeling of being cut down, as if a chasm had opened in my landscape. I wasn’t sure, but I thought this must be what people meant when they said “grief.” But grief is such a small word – surely this was nothing so small, so simple? Besides, my father had been ill and increasingly unhappy; he was 86 and ready to die and it would have been cruel to wish him to live any longer. So was this grief? Just that small word?

For weeks I wandered, drawn – over and over, especially around sunset – to the ocean’s edge, to what I later found the Irish call “a thin place.” I walked for hours, and wept. Surely this was grief. Yet all that time, as I walked, I had the most certain feeling that my father was with me closer – in a way – than he’d ever been in life. I had powerful connections with crows. Could I call this sense of his nearness, “grief,” when it felt so precious?

When his picture pops up on my computer’s screen saver these days, sometimes I cry, sometimes I catch my breath. And sometimes I’m filled with a peculiarly tender joy; I loved him. I love him still. I was so lucky to have him in my life for so long, to be able to reach such peace with him before he died. In the immediate aftermath of his dying, it was as if a button had been pressed and I could sense other layers to the world, a greater depth. My father died, and I became more alive. Is it okay to call that, grief?

As a writer – compulsive about writing about everything – I found it strange that until this moment, I haven’t written a word about his death except a single short poem about a crow. Is there too much grief sitting on my pen or is this a resting time, a time for retreat and thought? And is this not a good thing from time to time? Shall I thank grief?

Today I read an article on happiness by Natalie Goldberg where she told of a friend’s terrible loss of her young husband and the therapist saying, “Enjoy your grief. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.” Oddly, I understood that. So far, that’s really all I seem to understand. Grief is loss, yes, and sadness, yes, but also sweet and a whole new keen awareness. Grief is a contradiction to me and I am still confused. I keep wondering if that’s the only word. Is there a better?

Along the way, crows watch.
Crow has become a shadow companion

“shadow” in the good sense
that he’s always here –

colleague, escort, presence.
Guardian crow.

“Shadow” in the sense of

Kate B.


It Doesn’t ALWAYS Rain In Portland

And when it does, it’s not a deal breaker.

Every now and then, I have to trade the great Southwest for the Pacific Northwest, the wide open spaces for some urban pleasures, cholla cactus and juniper savannah for unending miles of deep, moist green. For that, Portland, Oregon is my city of choice. Its people are friendly and polite and Portland is wonderfully walkable, reminiscent of the San Francisco of bygone days. Did I say its residents are polite? That is an understatement! More than once I’ve been on the freeway in bumper-to-bumper, switched on my turn signal, and the driver in the next lane backed off to let me in.

In Portland, you don’t have to go far to experience the great out of doors. It is filled with parks, from Forest Park, the largest urban stretch of forest in the country, to the Japanese Garden.

For nightlife, Portland is fast becoming a mecca for jazz. From the outlying Hollywood District to the Pearl—once populated with warehouses, now filled with luxury condos, fine restaurants and night clubs—where to go and what to do is a dilemma only because of the abundant choices. As for the writer in me, not only has Oregon the highest population of readers per capita, but Portland boasts Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore on the planet.

Talk about abundant choices. One of Portland’s finer restaurants is named Veritable Quandary because that’s what choosing from its eclectic, largely continental menu becomes. Or try Henry’s Tavern, a restaurant for young and old with full bar and pool tables, as well as a menu ranging from comfort food like macaroni and cheese to pot roast, steak au poivre to Maryland style blue crab cakes. For fresher fare, there are several farmers’ markets with among other wonders—would you believe—fist-sized chanterelle mushrooms for between $6.99 and $8.99 a pound!

I’ll only briefly mention the Willamette and Columbia rivers that flow through it and contribute greatly to its character, but I suggest you set aside time for a boat ride down the Columbia River, second in volume only to the mighty Mississippi.


My Huckleberry Friend

My not quite two year old granddaughter just had her first overnight camping experience. She slept in a tent with her parents, and by their account, she had a wonderful time picking up sticks and pinecones, playing in water and watching wildlife.

It brought back memories of camping trips we took with our boys when they were young. I suspect these memories are closer to the surface because we just got rid of the thirty-five year old van we used for those trips. I remember carefully making lists, preparing the food, packing it all up in the van and taking off for a week. We could barely contain our excitement.

When you have three young children, camping is actually a lot of work. You live in a very primitive fashion, setting up your home, hauling water, building fires, and working had to get the meals together, then cleaning them up. Yet, there is all that fresh air, fishing, swimming, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors as your reward.

One of the things I enjoyed most was the aspect of stripping down our lives to very basic needs. A nylon tent was our home, with air mattresses and sleeping bags spread across the floor. Like nomads, we could pack up every few days, (or even every day) and seek out new adventures.

Our favorite times were sitting around the campfire, toasting marshmallows, poking at the hot coals with a stick and telling stories. My boys loved the true life ghost stories I told about seeing strange things in my grandmother’s house. I will still swear today that old house was haunted. And it was these stories of the humpty-dumpty doll that came alive and danced on mybed and the Civil War era woman who slipped through my parent’s bedroom one night that they still remember.

We still sit outside on summer nights, but now it’s on our back porch with candles lit instead of around a campfire. Tonight we talked about some of our favorite camping trips. That special place on Orcas Island reserved only for tent campers. Osoyoos Lake, the Oregon coast, Kelowna in Canada and Eastern Washington were all on that list.

I have photos of these trips, but sometimes it’s more fun to simply talk about those vacations. We compare notes, try to recall the dates and correct each other until we’ve built a story. These are the tales I want to share to with my little Sophia. I want to sit around a campfire with her someday and tell her how her Dad made bows and arrows , stripped off many of his clothes and ran wild through the woods with his brothers.

My son Garth once described his childhood as, “a Huckleberry Finn experience”. And who wouldn’t want that for their children and grandchildren?

We’re after the same rainbow’s end
Waiting ’round the bend, my huckleberry friend, moon river and me.

Moon River – Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini


dum dum dum. . . And Nothing Happened

Voice Over: (Michael Palin) June the 4th, 1973, was much like any other summer’s day in Peterborough, and Ralph Melish, a file clerk at an insurance company, was on his way to work as usual when… (da dum!) Nothing happened! (dum dum da dum) Scarcely able to believe his eyes, Ralph Melish looked down. But one glance confirmed his suspicions. Behind a bush, on the side of the road, there was *no* severed arm. No dismembered trunk of a man in his late fifties. No head in a bag. Nothing.

Last weekend, I drove an hour and a half to meet with 2 women I had only ever met on the internet.

No, wait, that’s not exactly true. I had only corresponded with one of them. She had chatted with the third on the net and thought we had a lot in common and would all enjoy each other’s company.

So, there we were, on one level you could say we were three strangers agreeing to meet one another in a town none of us were completely familiar with, all of us an hour or more from home.

Risky behavior? The set up for a cheesy horror movie? The opening of a public service announcement for online safety?

Nope. None of the above.

What actually happened is the three of us spent the day chatting, laughing, walking, and lunching in lovely downtown Northampton, walking away with a new appreciation for our fellow writers and plans to meet up again.

It’s a new world we find ourselves in. Especially for those of us who didn’t grow up in the uber-connected world of social media. We’ve all heard the stories of on-line predators and even in the cartoons, we’re warned that ‘on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’

My experience has been of developing solid and lasting friendships through my online communities. Over the past few years, I have ended up meeting IRL (“in real life”) many of the poets and writers I have chatted, emailed, and participated in virtual groups with.

Not a single one of them turned out to be a zombie, an ax-murderer, or a dog.

So in no particular order, I want to give a shout out to some of my online-turned-meat-space friends:


While I am certain someone will have a story of an online relationship going tragically wrong, I maintain that it’s a lot less compelling to repeat a story where, like the Monty Python skit referenced in the epigraph, ‘and nothing happens.’ Which, I’m willing to bet, comprises the vast majority of these kind of interactions.

I’m also not advocating throwing common sense and basic safety out the window here. (Meet in a public place, let people in your life know where you’ll be, leave at any time you feel uncomfortable, etc.) But the reality is, especially in a community based on shared interests that you have some working relationship with (like on online critique group), your real life connections will mirror your virtual ones.

I know my community of writers would be a far poorer one without the friends I’ve made through my online writing groups.


The Power of the Journey

Remember when you were four or five and the last thing you wanted to do was to leave the world that you knew, the world where you knew every single blade of grass, every crack in the sidewalk, every knock on the door, and it was all so simple? So clear? So safe?

And remember when it was no longer any of those things?

I think we all go through phases—phases when the best thing in the world is the safe, the secure, the place where we know every person and every inch in it and phases when we want more than anything to run away to some place we’ve never been, to talk to people we’ve never seen, to immerse ourselves in the unknown.

For me, I’m far more likely to be in the second phase than the first. I moved away from home when I was sixteen and between that time and the time I turned thirty-two, I’d moved over thirty times. My desire to run has slowed down as I get older, as I acquire more things, but it’s still there. When I’m tired, unhappy, bored, I want to run away from home. I want to live somewhere I’ve never been, I want to meet people I don’t know, I want to walk down streets I’ve never seen. I want the challenge of moving, of learning to live in a new place.

I’ve done that a lot.

But it’s much more difficult at this stage of my life to run away, so I do something I’ve done for years—I run away in my head. A character in one of my books goes all the way in her dreaming; she accumulates clothes and books and money and hides it under her floorboards.

I’ve never gone this far in my planning, even in my head, but many times over the years I’ve traveled to faraway places, walked away many times. And each time I’ve done it, I’ve learned something. What I’ve mostly learned is that there’s power in a journey that isn’t taken, power in the planning of a life you’ll never live, power in choosing the unknown—even if you do it only in your head.

And I guess that’s why I became a writer, and how odd is it after all the years I’ve been a writer, that it’s only through writing this blog that I’ve finally figured out what drew me to writing.

It’s so I can walk away from the life I’m living and journey into the unknown.



Today is Friday the 13th and, to the superstitious, a very inauspicious day.

According to Merriam-Webster, a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation”. Humans seem to love superstitions as they abound across the world. Practically every culture has a set of superstitious whether they be jumping over a bonfire to ensure fertility or wearing an amulet to ward off evil spirits or knocking on wood to avoid tempting fate.

Most superstitions seem to revolve around luck, either averting bad luck or enhancing good luck. A European tradition of saying “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” immediately upon awakening on the morning of the first day of the month is said to ensure good luck for the entire month while breaking a mirror is said to confer seven years worth of bad luck on the breaker.

Some superstitions seem to have a partial basis in reality – at one time, glass was expensive so breaking a mirror meant a loss of money. The same with spilling salt. As for walking under ladders, anyone who walks underneath a ladder is susceptible to having things dropped on their head from a clumsy person at the top of the ladder.

Depending on location and culture, some things have different superstitious significance. Take the black cat for instance. In Irish and Scottish folklore, black cats are symbols of good luck, but it’s believed that Christianity twisted that belief into the reverse meaning – a black cat crossing a person’s path is an omen of misfortune. That belief came about largely because cats, especially black ones, were thought to be witches’ familiars.

Over the centuries, we’ve taken away the mystique of some superstitions and turned them into simple traditions or even just children’s rhymes. Look at wedding veils, at one time, Roman women believed that hiding their faces would protect them from evil spirits.

There’s also the children’s rhyme:
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told,
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss
Ten for a bird
You must not miss.

which is derived from a superstition relating to the consequences of seeing certain numbers of magpies. And the infamous game of jumping over cracks because if you step on one you’ll break your mother’s back.

So, tell me, what are your favorite superstitions? And do you have any superstitions of your own?


Pin me to Pinterest—For Now

I opened an account with Pinterest—a site that advertises itself as an online pinboard that helps organize and share things I love.

Do I like it? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. As with most social networks, there’s a balance between whether it’s helpful or just a time waster. In the back of my mind, I think it might increase exposure for my writing and books, but I don’t know just yet, as I’ve been on it for less than a month.

As music inspires me to write, beautiful pictures also inspire me, and that was the initial draw to Pinterest. It’s akin to flipping through a stack of magazines I enjoy – only I don’t have to pay a subscription.

So far, I have twelve boards, ranging from my favorite poisons to New York scenes to art I love. You need to request an invitation to join, which I thought was a strange formality, though it didn’t take long to get signed up after being accepted.

As I don’t really enjoy writing about myself, I find “telling” my story through pictures easier. Perhaps you might too.

Here’s my link if  you’re interested to see my boards.

So…are you on Pinterest and do you find it helpful?


Unburned Community

We often long for community, creating it out of thin air if it seems lacking in real life. I’ve spent a great deal of my life being outside of it – first when I grew up in a small town, but not really. Growing up 20 miles outside of a small town means I didn’t have neighbors (though there were the kids from the dairy farm down the road) in the traditional sense. I had friends in school but there weren’t a lot of after-school play dates or sleepovers. Those things had to be carefully planned out and organized.

So most of my life I’ve managed to live just on the edge of community. Feeling like I’ve never quite fit in, never quite knew my neighbors, was never quite there.

Almost a year ago, we bought a house in a quiet little place in Colorado Springs just south of Garden of the Gods. There is joy here. There is beauty. There is silence. And there is community.

The events of the past two weeks, when a wildfire sparked in one of my favorite running spots, was driven by scorching temperatures and fierce winds, came sweeping down on the homes of my friends and fellow neighbors just a few miles to the north of us has shown me community.

Homes and lives were lost – a heartbreaking swath of black and gray now blankets the mountainside. Homes and lives were spared thanks to the dedication of some of the bravest people I will never meet. Firefighters from all over came to Colorado to help: Washington State, Oregon, Montana, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Nevada. The Hot Shots from California came, chasing down the fire as though, in the words of a Colorado Springs Fire Department official, “they wanted the fire to be afraid of them.”

I know, without a doubt, that I owe these men and women my home. In the early days of the fire they protected the Garden that stands between the fire and my home, and on the 26th of June they stood again between it and the fire that had surged out of Queen’s Canyon and burned buildings not two and a half miles north of my house.

Colorado Springs can be a divisive place. We have polar opposites from the political spectrum at work here. We’re stubborn, sharp-tongued, Westerners out here and if we don’t like the look of you we’ll be sure to let you know.

But we take care of our own, and we know – somehow – when it’s important to lay aside all our differences and come together. I’ve hear people all over the country comment with awe on how swiftly Colorado Springs gathered to help those affected by the fire. It’s something we did without any thought at all. Even in the midst of economic hardship we have people volunteering their time, people donating items and money, people standing ceaselessly on the corners day in and day out to cheer on the firefighters during the twice daily shift changes without fail – even in the pouring (and long-awaited) rain.

This is community. This is Colorado Springs and I am grateful to have the chance to be a part of it.


Hedda Contemplates Life, Death and Beauty

Six straight days of rain, an inherently dark nature and the anticipated arrival of a first grandchild has got me thinking about my mortality and how I’d like to get a few things off my chest before I shuffle….you know. More accurately there are things I’d like to share – low-wattage things, a few observations, maybe a nod to an old friend or two. I have no illusions about making a difference in the world, nothing like leaving a legacy – I resist putting in the requisite quotation marks here, but they are inferred – but there are things I believe we all experience and are touched by and would comment on but don’t, perhaps because they never quite gel and our observations become, at best, non sequiturs, at worst cringe-worthy, as in, oh dear, have you noticed how dotty and sentimental old what’s-it is getting? Dotty I may be, yet if you’re still reading I think I might be speaking some weird truth and you’re curious. So. Let us proceed.

Recently I was flooded with unexpected tenderness when, at a dinner party, one of the guests confided he’d once slept with a famous Canadian politician. I was mildly surprised by the revelation; the guest barely knew me and the politician, though long gone is far from forgotten. I was equally mildly surprised at how little it mattered to me. The teller of this tale and I are advanced enough in years that what would have once been scandalous and salacious was now a topic as charged as, say, where to find a really good risotto. Still, I felt compelled to ask what seemed de rigeur: “how was he?” And the teller, suddenly gracious or modest answered “I don’t really remember. It’s the intimacy I remember.” And that’s what I found touching. Whether this dinner guest was having me on isn’t the point; it’s that he produced what could have been a hot gossip item and then wrapped it in affection, compassion. It was a story about love, having loved and been loved. And I felt included in all that.

When our cultural icons die, we sometimes feel a loss as profound as if we knew these people personally. I remember exactly where I was when Marilyn Monroe died. And yes, I realize this dates me terribly, yet Monroe was not of my time; she was an icon and I was a child. Even a child in those days knew of her existence; our culture was obsessed with her. That day in August I was staying at the lakeside cottage of a friend and her grandmother. We were playing, diving from the dock when my friend’s grandmother called us in. She made us tea and solemnly announced Marilyn’s passing. Although neither of us was particularly saddened, my friend and I knew this was an auspicious passing, and we were invited to mourn in our way, with her grandmother. The summer ended then, for me. Something monumental had happened, something I didn’t completely understand but grasped at a cellular level as very significant. It remains in my memory as the moment I left childhood and entered adolescence. Do we all carry these snapshots that mark a “Before” and “After”?

Before some of my revered personages died I didn’t think often of friends I had when I was in my teens. But more recent passings find me wanting to write to people I haven’t thought about or been in touch with for many years. What is it that tugs our hearts this way? I don’t think it’s simple nostalgia for a time past; adolescence wasn’t a whole lot of fun as I recall. I think it’s something more elusive than that, something having to do with the shared idea that anything seemed possible, or maybe just imaginable. The summers were long. The popsicles melted in our hands. We played pool in the afternoons and pool-hopped in the late humid nights. We smoked and posed and imagined ourselves grown, but never truly pictured ourselves within a context where we were really adults. There’s less artifice to our laughter now, and it’s deeper than it was then. Perhaps that’s it. The laughter now is hard won, and as such is sweeter, richer.

And those long ago friends? May they be safe, well and happy. May they regret nothing, or at least may they regret little. And to keep a sparkle in their eyes and their laughter deep, may they embody that time when we were tender and guileless. And may I end this odd outpouring with this: In the 18th century the preeminent Japanese scholar Motooni Norigaga formulated the essential concept of MONO NO AWARE which characterized beauty as the transience of all things. According to Mono No Aware true beauty is found in that which does not last and includes the gentle sadness felt as it fades. (my italics). Following that logic one can conclude that many things – most things – are truly beautiful, even you and me.

Have a great summer!