June 30, 2017, almost three and a half years ago, was the day of my first blog. I had come up to Portland by plane, then the Red Line train to get to downtown, where I had lunch and met an itinerant poet named Shannon. Then I took a bus to Auntie Katie’s house. The next day I picked up the keys to our first apartment here in Portland. I signed papers, measured the new place, and flew back to Salinas.
That day was a good omen of my life in the city so far. I have pushed myself to walk further, get around on public transit, explore further afield, chat with all sorts of folks, and spend more time on my own.
I have written about dinners out, concerts, zoos, and parks here in Portland;
vacations to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.;
trips back to Salinas to see you and your family and friends;
and some less-fun trips to hospitals and doctor’s offices.
And lately, I’ve written about coping with NOT being able to do those things.
Writing this blog, now 900 essays long, is part of the coping. Writing how I feel makes it real and solid and more manageable.
Many years ago, I did some writing and research for The First Mayor’s House in Salinas. I wrote, and Auntie Bridgett Spicer illustrated, a little book called “Miss Harvey Remembers … Getting to Salinas”.
It was fun to learn about Isaac J. Harvey and his family, who moved to Salinas before it was even a city. They built a house, a store, and became part of the group that incorporated and laid out the city, way back in 1868. Isaac’s oldest daughter, Saphronia, left town so she could go to college and get her teaching license, just to open up the first school in this new town.
Over the years, I worked with David Baker, Mary Randall, and MaryJane Choate to create lessons and tours for local school kids so they could understand their town’s history. It was so much fun!
When we moved to Portland, I thought I was all done with that. But, like so many times before, I was wrong.
With all the schools going on-line because of Covid-19, The First Mayor’s House is making virtual tours and on-line lessons to take the place of actual walk-throughs of the House. It makes me sad that kids won’t get to pump the water and use the scrub board, roll a hoop or touch and feel the plants.
But, it turns out, I get to play! When MaryJane asked if I could read the story on camera, for kids to watch in their on-line classes. it seemed easy. Reading stories out loud was my favorite part of my thirty years of teaching. Piece of cake.
Wrong again. I had to find the story, which has been tucked away for years. In re-reading it, I discovered a factual error and had to figure out how to correct it. I had to find a ‘set’ (a bookcase in my bedroom) and a ‘camera crew’ (Auntie Bridgett) to make it look good.
And I had to use my teacher voice, which I have been running from for two years now. It was all harder than I thought.
But eventually we got a rough draft video done. I am still figuring out how to send to Salinas so they can include it in their collection. Or maybe, the internet being what it is, I don’t even send it, but just post it. Who knows? We are learning as we go along.
There is an expression,”It’s a sign of the times.” This usually means something is a clear, visual example of what is happening. Today I decided to share some of my signs of different times with you.
When I first started traveling to Europe, I was struck by signs and posters that would not have existed in the U.S.
This 300 year old sign for Jesus Lane is on the campus of Jesus College at Cambridge University in England. In our country, religion has become so politicized and I doubt this sign would survive vandalism.
On the other side of the coin, this poster for theater tickets would probably be considered too weird for the American market. It’s ironic that in a country that touts Free Speech there is such a “you can’t say/show/ wear that” reaction.
This street construction warning sign makes me laugh, because of its original nickname in England, “Man wrestling with umbrella.” Also, if you look closely at the smaller sign, horrible things are happening.
Other signs make me smile because of where they are. Seeing this wonderful sign showing an entrance to the Paris metro would mean I am in that magical city.
And not far from that sign is this one, for the narrowest street still existing in the ancient part of Paris. The name means “The Street of the Cat Who Fishes.”
Back in California, this sign touches my heart and feeds all my senses. Crows and cypress trees grow in my happy place at Asilomar, and looking at this parking sign, I can smell the fog and feel the sand between my toes. Oh, and taste the good food at The Fishwife, just up the hill a bit.
And in my new home, there are signs, too. This one, at The Enchanted Forest south of Portland, is greatly improved by Jasper showing his high score on the “Return to Mordor” ride.
And these signs at a protest for the Trump administration’s policy of separating and imprisoning immigrant families touched my heart and let me know I was in good company.
What are your signs of the times? What visuals make you smile, or travel to another time or place?
Now that you are almost seven, you can read real words all by yourself. Yesterday I wrote you some stories that are based on our time together…. cooking, building a playhouse, and going on an adventure with the stone Panther at Hartnell College. I hope you like them.
In my bigger story, the story I have been working on for more than two years now, I have been frustrated. I was having doubts. It felt like it had gotten too big, too complicated, that I had tried to show too much about Portland in 1903.
I set it aside and started a lighter version, one that leaves out the broader context of the city, its history, and its people. It was just about a little girl. But I don’t like it. So I am walking it back.
Do all writers go through this? Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed, but never done anything with, because when I get to this point, I give up and put the story in a box. It’s too hard. It feels pointless. I should do something else with my time. The self-doubt and backtracking are exhausting.
For support, I went back and read Anne Lamott’s essays on the difficulty of writing, of pulling her novel apart and laying it on the floor, bit by bit, and re-organizing it to make it better. Yes, this is something writers DO. Maybe this is what writing IS, after all.
I am feeling better! Yesterday evening I walked around the block, did laundry, and even took the trash out. I will live!
Feeling so good, I will spend today making soup for Auntie Bridgett (who isn’t well yet), walking to do some errands and working on the story. But this morning, I was wondering what I was doing two years ago today. Do you remember?
I was packing up to come down to Salinas, to live with you for my last few months of teaching. That was the strangest thing…. leaving my home here in Portland to live in your home there, going back to a job I’d done for almost thirty years… Getting to see you every afternoon but having to work every day… such an odd combination of new and old, normal and weird.
And now I am retired, not getting up at six o’clock to teach until three and work until four; snacking when I want, reading what I want, walking where I want. I feel very spoiled.
And, except for missing my adventures with you, I’m okay with that.
Grandpa Nelson and I lived in Salinas for thirty-five years, raising your Momma Katie and Uncle David, running businesses and teaching school. We got to know a lot of people.
Of course, for me, most of the people were kids, who have now grown up and moved away. On the other end of life, many of our oldest friends have passed away.
I did have an emotional visit my old school, University Park, but I didn’t take any pictures while I was there. It seemed wrong to interrupt powerful feelings with “smile for the camera” nonsense.
But we did get to take Pat Van Noy out to lunch at Stonies Taphouse and Bistro, and who should we run into but Jim Riley and his pal Liz! Jim has lived in the area for all of his long life, and has been Mayor of Spreckels for many years.
He ran Rollick’s Coffee and he and Auntie Bridgett’s stufftie, Harold, were great friends.
We stopped in at the new bookshop on South Main Street, called Downtown Books and Sound. It is an expansion of the old shop, Destination Salinas, just across the street. Well organized, bright and beautiful, it is filled with wonderful books and even shelves from our beloved Logos books, which recently closed in Santa Cruz.
Both shops are run by Trish Triumpho Sullivan and her husband Dan Beck. Trish is a mover and shaker in downtown politics and business, and Dan is a talented musician.
Now that we are back home in Portland, we are back into chilly Autumn, and it feels good. As much as I love our old friends in Salinas, I am glad for our new adventure in the big city.
It is always fun seeing what Liza is up to. Like you and many of your friends, she enjoys Pokemon cartoons and toys, likes to wear unicorn clothes and fairy wings, and she even enjoys going on walking and bussing adventures with me.
And, like you guys, she makes up her own games. When our friend Alicia Justice gave her a “surprise ball” filled with small toys, she used them to create a game. The New Year’s noisemaker became the hockey stick with which she knocked small flies and butterflies through a ‘goal’ made of candle holders.
She likes (and is good at!) making pancakes.
She found a project for a bird feeder in Highlights Magazine, involving pine cones, peanut butter and oatmeal. That worked out nicely.
She also likes to make words, though she needs a little help. We played with my Bananagrams game, making words about family and geometry.
Since she has just started reading, Mr. Steinbeck’s quotes on rocks around Salinas are fair game. This one, at Central Park, says, “I’ve seen a look in dog’s eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that dogs think humans are nuts.” It took two times through until she realized it was funny, but then she laughed and laughed. “Dogs think humans are nuts!” she kept chuckling to herself.
But her most complex, repeated game is the one we play at the Steinbeck Center. It spans three rooms, three books, and gets better every time we play it. She opens the curtains at the labor camp in the Grapes of Wrath room, and talks with the children there. “Would you like to come to my party?” she asks.
Then we go to the room set up with the Pipe House from Sweet Thursday and pretend to decorate. The most fun is in the Sea of Cortez room, where we get in the small boat and set off, catching fish for the party! Tuna, sharks, and sardines are all fair game, and brought into that small boat. It gets a little harrowing.
On this visit, one of the skeletons set up for Dia de los Muertos sat in the Pipe House, beside a small brazier. Liza improvised by cooking the make believe fish over the fire. The game ends when all the children come, we eat and play, and they go home to be with their families.
I love playing games with Liza, letting her make the rules and figure things out. I think it makes us both smarter.
While we were in Salinas last week, Grandpa Nelson and I got the chance to take Cousin Liza to our old synagogue, Temple Beth El. It turns out that it was the anniversary, or Yarzeit, of your Great Grandma Mona’s death, twenty eight years ago.
We were members there for nearly twenty years, and Grandpa Nelson was President for many of those. I helped run the Kosher Luncheon and the Rummage Sale. We attended funerals, weddings, and were involved in loud arguments and tearful reunions. There are lots of feelings tied up in that building.
Our friend Rick invited us to Friday night services. Rick taught me Hebrew years ago and still teaches the Bar Mitzah and Bat Mitzvah kids. He also helps run fund raisers and maintain the building.
We got there early so I could show Liza around. We saw the playground and classrooms, then the sanctuary. The new Ark that surrounds the Torahs is big and beautiful. Liza met Joloo, a boy about her age who was there with his Grandma Jeannie. They played foosball and dashed around until services started.
There were only about a dozen folks at services, because the community is shrinking as older folks pass away and young ones move away. The kids sat in the front row, and Cantor Margaret Bruner, seeing her unexpected young audience, included the kids in undressing and handling the Torah.
Rick helped out by reading a story about Beresheet, the beginning of the Torah, which is called Genesis in English. The story was illustrated using words for water and earth in Hebrew letters.
Cousin Liza, who knows English, Spanish and Russian, asked “What kind of language is that?”. Rick answered perfectly, saying, “It’s a language you don’t know yet,” and then translated the Hebrew into Russian. Her eyes got very big and she listened more carefully after that. I think she was impressed.
Both Liza and Joloo were very good during the rest of the service, standing, sitting, following along as best they could. They even helped put the Torah away.
After services, there was wine and bread and cookies, and then the kids played while the grownups talked. The whole evening had an odd time-travel quality, because it felt a lot like when we would take your Momma Katie and Uncle David to services.
I went home and had so much to be thankful for. Exhausted but happy, which seemed to be the theme of this trip south.
Once I was back home in Portland, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. I was here for good and wanted to get to know every inch of the city.
In June we went across the river to the place where the high class dead people end up, the Riverview Cemetery. Yes, one of our founding fathers’ was Henry Failing. But he made it look good.
In July, Grandpa Nelson and I rode our bicycles eight miles around Portland in the Sunday Parkways event. Streets closed to traffic, signs to keep us from getting lost and wonderful sunshine made it a glorious day.
In August, I came back down to Salinas to visit you for your Daddy’s birthday. We had a nice dinner and I gave you a pretty head wreath from the Belmont Street Fair.
September brought Auntie Bridgett’s Birthday, with brunch at The Cricket Cafe, shopping downtown, and dinner at Kenny and Zuke’s. Here she is with the critters by the Pioneer Courthouse.
In October we said goodbye to Barbara Kadden, celebrated Halloween, and did some thinking about life and death.
November saw me in San Diego to visit family, then back up in Portland to go on adventures with Jasper and Kestrel.
December is just coming to a close, and I am still figuring out what comes next. But I’m not worried. With my lovely people to love, possibilities to ponder and trees to walk under, life is sweet.