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.
I was a teacher for thirty years. It was my job, my passion, my hobby. It became who I was.
Teachers talk about their “Teacher voice”. This is loud (but not yelling) way that teachers get thirty kids to listen to them. It can be stern, or disapproving. It is usually just matter-of- fact. But it is never FUN. It is never meant to make folks feel at ease or get them to laugh. It is an information delivery system.
Mine was good, too. I speak fluent Teacher.
Writers also talk about their Voice. It is their point of view, their style, their way of choosing words to make readers feel a certain way. It needs to be easy to read, entertaining, quirky. FUN.
Unfortunately for me, my Teacher voice seems to be getting in the way of my Writer voice. After months of studious revision, I still write with a very strong Teacher accent.
On the way to the Japanese Garden yesterday, Jasper asked me to remind him about Sacajawea, whose statue we passed. “But don’t say it like a teacher,” he said.
First, I determined not to be offended. This is a perfect “out of the mouths of babes” moment. I needed to learn from it.
Then I saw that if I couldn’t use my Teacher voice, I needed to use another voice, any other voice. You can’t speak without a Voice! So I borrowed a New York/ New Jersey gangster voice, jiggling my shoulders like James Cagney to help it along.
“Okay, see, there’s this President, see, Thomas Jefferson. Nice guy, writes well, even doh he owns slaves. He sends these two guys, Lewis and Clark, haulin’ clear across the country. Go! He says. These poor slobs had No Idea where they were going!” I went on to tell a shortened version of the story, just enough to make Jasper laugh and let him remember what he knew about Sacajawea.
Ironically, the main character of my story is a little girl who has become mute due to trauma. She has literally lost her voice.
How can I find my own voice to tell this story? How could I possibly write my story, in someone else’s voice?
I am thinking about starting a new story. The one I have been working on, about Clara getting ready to be in the 1903 parade, is being edited and, therefore, out of my hands for now.
But they say that you get better at writing by writing…. so I will keep writing on a different story, using a side character from the first story as the main character. Her name is Abigail Lott and, at the time I am writing about, she is 21 years old.
I think better when I walk, and always love talking my ideas over with Grandpa Nelson. He asks good questions and makes me think. Of course he does! The same things that make him a good ‘idea guy’ are the reasons I have loved him for so long.
So we walked… about five miles in all, down to the river, across the Willamette River on the Morrison Bridge, and north about three blocks to the Pine Street Market, a big old building now being used as offices above and a luncheon/ mall below. There are sausage sandwiches, stuffed pork buns, pizza, ramen, and ice cream. We’ve eaten there before, and we both love Bless Your Heart Burger best.
Our walk was mostly grey. Fall has moved past the warm asnd sunny part into the drizzly, rain-ish part. All the colors come from the leaves that are still changing color and drifting like bright snow.
By the Portland Saturday Market near the river, we saw this art installation, a tribute to the city’s firefighters, called “Ascension”. I must have walked right past it many times, but never noticed it! Silly Grandma Judy.
As we crossed back over the river, we got a panorama of the city, and it looked like a Dutch painting , as though it were painted by the Master of Browns (this was the nickname Vincent Van Gogh gave his uncle, a professional artist).
One our way back, we saw this message spelled out with Post it Notes in a shop window.
It is a quote from a young New Zealand woman making a speech in their hall of government. In just two words, she managed to say, “Look, I know you older folks had good intentions. I know you are used to being the center of the Universe, but you’ve kind of screwed the world up and if you could just step aside, we’ll have a go at it now, okay?” And I’m okay with that!
I started writing this blog as a way to stay in touch with you and my friends in Salinas after I moved up to Portland. I thought I would write a little, get bored, and quit….like I usually do.
But Portland is such an interesting place that I keep finding things to write about. Today, as a matter of fact, is my 300th post. Three hundred adventures. Three hundred stories.
Portland is a big city, and has big city problems, like anywhere. The housing costs are high and homeless people struggle to get by. Trash and noise can be a nuisance. And if you are driving, there will eventually be traffic that frustrates you.
But there are also kind people and missions that help the homeless folks. Groups adopt neighborhoods to pick up trash. And transit is good enough that if you don’t want to drive, you don’t have to.
And the benefits of this lovely city are enormous. Art. Music. Parks. Art and music in parks! Food and drink and coffee and pastries.
And the reason I can enjoy all of this is because I am not working. Working, besides being…well, work, takes up an enormous amount of time. Days and days of NOT getting to walk at random and stop when you feel like it. Evenings of being so tired you can’t even think of an adventure.
Being at liberty is such a joy and privilege that sometimes I feel like I’m cheating.
But maybe if I share it with you I can share some of the joy, and feel less selfish.
As you know, I have been working on my children’s history story about Portland for a little over a year now. For the first six months I read about Portland history so I know how it became a city and what sort of interesting things happened here. The Oregon Historical Society and Belmont Library became my favorite hangouts.
I chose to put my story in the spring of 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt came through Portland on a country-wide tour. There was a parade, a ceremony in what is now Washington Park, and a banquet. It was a very big deal and I think it would make a good backdrop for a mystery story. But as I told you, I don’t know much about mysteries.
So, I studied that, too. For a few weeks, I read Nancy Drew books and articles about mystery story plots, character development, and clues.
But as a teacher, I never really understand something until I need to teach it. So I pretended I was teaching someone about how to make a mystery story. I cut shapes out of paper to show everything that happened in the story: action, characters, description, distractions.
I practiced using these pieces to map out the first eight chapters of The Bungalow Mystery, #3 of the Nancy Drew books. I could see when action happened, when characters were introduced, how the chapters alternated between action and description, and how each chapter ended in a new mystery or dangerous situation.
This took some of the mystery out of writing my mystery! I am now working on my own story, using these paper pieces to make the characters move to solve the riddles of the story and come to a happy ending. If I don’t like the way it is going, I just move the pieces around! I feel organized, less confused, but flexible enough to create and re-create the story until it is right.
Of course, once I have this visual outline done, I still have to write the actual words….but that’s the fun part! I am happy to have found a way of working that works for me.
Today I am thinking of a lot of things. My old friends and colleagues at University Park are starting a new school year, and I am thinking about how excited and stressed out they are at the job ahead of them. Teaching, like so much in life, is a long process.
I am also dealing with a process. After researching Portland history for more than a year, I am realizing I STILL don’t know enough to write the history story I want to write. I know the history, but the story is not working.
Fortunately, I have good people in my life to help. Auntie Bridgett and I talk about history, truth, and accuracy, so I can understand how I feel about writing a make believe story inside an historic story as a way to make the history easier to understand. It is a tricky needle to thread.
I have Grandpa Nelson, who reads more than I do, giving me new ways to think about the plot of the story. One day he suggested making my story into a mystery! That sounded interesting, because there is a bit of a mystery in it already. Then I realized I haven’t read enough mysteries to know how to write one. How do I add clues in an interesting way? How do I write a believable young detective for 1903?
Like Hermione Granger, when in doubt, I head for the library. Nancy Drew, here I come! I checked out three of the hundreds of Nancy Drew books, and am taking notes, just as though I were in a class. I am learning the basics of character, clues, plot twists, and making a story interesting and detailed without drowning in description.
But in the midst of all this learning, I was beginning to get discouraged. Maybe I can’t write the story. Maybe I’m not smart enough, or creative enough. Maybe I am fooling myself.
Then my dear sister-in-law Christy sent me a book called The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie. Feeling pretty unproductive anyway, I sat down and read it. This delightful book is written from the point of view of a stray cat who gets adopted by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama in India. In the stories of the cat’s life, the writer teaches Buddhist precepts in down to earth ways. We see that putting others first is a true cause of happiness and that patience with one’s own failings is necessary. I finished the book and felt rejuvenated.
I had been getting in my own way. First, I stopped trying to write for a few days to sew and cook and do things for the people in my life. Having success, even in making cookies, while focusing on others instead of myself, was a wonderful feeling. I took Auntie Bridgett to a new place for lunch, the Im Jai Thai, on Belmont, and got healthy, delicious food for the body and soul.
I may not be good or smart enough to write the story YET, but I can be, and I will be.
It’s a process. And in the meantime, I will read, take notes, and make clothes for a recently homeless doll.