Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Walking To Fetch The Morning Paper

Dawn was at least an hour and a half away, the winter stars of the early morning barely visible through the fog that shrouded the hills, even hiding the nearby trees and houses. Only the dim lights of the early risers in their fog-shrouded shapes gave any hint that anyone else was here.
There was silence, except for the breeze that occasionally shook the last of the night’s raindrops from the trees, scattering wet across the lane, black on black, wisps of fog highlighted by the last of the quarter moon high in the southern sky.

In the distance, a dog barked, and, nearby, a bird glided from my side, then behind me, leaving me to only imagine that it may have been an owl, or a hawk on a predawn patrol. The only other sound my footsteps, rhythmically marching down the lane, headed home, knowing that the coffee was done now, ready to be poured into my waiting mug.

It would freeze soon, thinly coating my car’s windshield with opaque film, but now, dew rolled down the glass, the air thick with wetness from the night’s rain. This morning’s swirls of fog, even now hiding most of my path this morning, damping the noises of my walk, even the crow of the neighbor’s rooster, and the soft sounds of the sheep, readying themselves for another day of pasture life, and a bit of alfalfa.

At last, I opened the front door, warm air, the lights of the living room, and the aroma of fresh coffee drawing me in, my shoes tossed onto their shelf, the handle of the coffee pot fitting well in my cold hand, as I hear the sweet gurgles of hot coffee filling the hollow center of the mug, steam rising to fill my nostrils. Heat soon warms my hands, as I clutch the mug, and begin to open the morning paper.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Morning, 2008

The jagged bolt lights up the eastern sky, flashing white across the newly fallen snow and hail, highlighting the entire forest and its week-long accumulation of snow for a split second. The cats sleep soundly, oblivious to the light, until the long, heavy roll of thunder shakes the window, rumbling deep.
My fur creatures, huddled close to me this Christmas Eve night, now startled, cry out in fright, as the thunder rolls around the valley, pellets of hail still striking the roof, snare drums pounding after the bass drums of the thunder still echo against the hills.
The clock tells me it is now Christmas morning, and I am now wide awake, the yard once again white as these winter storms keep moving in, adding yet another foot to the mountain snows. Cats wanting yet another long pet, as they regroup around my legs, once again craving my warmth on this long winter night, hail now turning to sleet, the hills once again shrouded in icy veils, the lightning now moving east, the thunder now just an occasional growl of the winter bear. Soon, their soft purring subsides into noiseless sleep, as I pull the covers close around my neck.
Christmas morning starts slowly, with the special Christmas coffee brewing, stockings filled on the mantel with Santa’s gifts, and I trudge through the crusty frozen hail, seeking the newspaper and a quiet walk as the first dim light of dawn bravely outlines the whitened hills.
We share our stocking gifts and fine, rich coffee, savoring the lights on the tree, and this special quiet day. Everything is special this morning, including the fresh baked stollen, more Noel coffee, and the first light of the day, the deck’s layers of snow and hail backlighting the tree. Eagerly, the cats go out to explore this once-again whitened world, their paws making new trails across the white blankness of the snow.
Venturing out, we walk a mile down to the corner, looking with our camera eyes at the Japanese ink washes of fog against snowy hills, and the white and black tires marks on the road’s almost frozen surface. A great white heron flies low across the road, over a white pasture, to land beside a creek, some unknown treasure in its beak.
The beauty of a holly tree is garlanded with ivy, its berries highlighting the red clusters of the holly. The old medieval carol now sings in our heart, and a donkey, escaping from what must be a nearby manger, looks at us from his frozen pasture.
“Where is the babe in the manger?” we ask, but the donkey is silent, sworn to secrecy to us this Christmas morning.
A bit of sunshine peers through the clouds, and large drops of just melted snow glisten on bare branches, tiny buds, red and cold, promising spring several months away.
My wife picks some holly for the house, as I find an entire world of green beauty in the moss and lichen on top of an old cedar fence post, as more Japanese ink washes appear in the hills.
The road now almost bare from the night’s snow and hail, we slosh back to the house, but not too fast, as there is still some ice underneath the splashes of our boots. Tired now, we talk of having some Christmas tea, and I begin to savor the thought of a whistling kettle and the cinnamon smells of the tea, as a black cloud grows and moves above us, holding off on its load of “winter mix” until we barely make it inside.
Our wet boots and thick coats piled by the door, we begin to heat the kettle and I find our snowflake mugs, ready for the Christmas tea. Soon, the fresh cut holly brightens the room, as we sip our tea, and look out to yet another squall of snow and icy rain.
Christmas morning, a time when time nearly stands still, a place to quietly take in the wonder of the day, and the simple joys of the season.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Eve Eve Thoughts

It is the day before the day before Christmas, and all through the house, presents and wrapping paper are strewn about, kitchen dishes and baking pans unwashed, and a grocery list a half mile long is stuck to the frig. The tree is up, the wreath hangs neatly from the door, and we are nearly ready for Christmas, well, except for straightening up the mess.

I thought I felt the daylight staying around just a bit longer last night, now that the Solstice has passed, and the calendar says that the longest night is over again, for yet another year. The snow has melted in my yard, but still piling up in the nearby hills.

This December’s weather disaster hasn’t been the double typhoons of last year, but, instead, feet of snow piling up in the mountains, closing the highways, with the added spice of a bit of freezing rain. We had snow on the ground for five days, and enough to pile up on the lawn and create magical shapes in our flower beds and on the branches of the trees. It is hard to imagine that I mowed the lawn ten days ago, as the early December warmth had spurred on the grass for one final burst before the end of the year. As the snow melts, clumps of sodden green grass clippings cling to my shoes.

A deputy Sheriff shared his photographic efforts yesterday, a picture of the Coast Range summit looking like the top of the Cascades, and a highway littered with hundreds of fallen alders, their spotted trunks mixed in with icy crystallized branches and limbs -- silver toy jacks strewn on the sidewalk.

This weather has brought so many gifts in this season of giving. My almost ten year old neighbor came over Sunday afternoon, drenched by a shower of thick, almost snowy rain, hauling his guitar and asking me if I could play with him. We spent the next hour strumming Christmas songs, and he now knows a new guitar chord, for a total of 2 ½ .

Last night, my coffee buddies and our families gathered for a pot luck dinner, a session of Mah Jong, and a session of playing and singing all the songs in my Christmas guitar book. The neophytes for Mah Jong were led through the game by those of us experienced in this game of tiles and mysterious symbols, including the Red Dragon and the valued Flower tiles, and such exotic terms as the Dragon Wall and being able to shout out Pong or Kong, and doubling one’s points.

Miracles occurred there, as I watched one friend’s wife, home temporarily for a visit, her schizophrenia now subsiding, as she eagerly participated in the Mah Jong game, watching her grin as she won. Their daughter, a sullen fifteen, brightened up the room as she eagerly picked up her flute and led the rest of us, four guitars strong, through all the Christmas carols. And, when we were done, she picked up her saxophone and played a few solos. Her dad and mom looked on in stunned delight, wondering who she was becoming, and watching this flower blossom for their Christmas.

Yesterday, a recovering addict came to court to pay her fine, and I decided to forgive the fine, on the condition she pay that forward, and tears came to all of our eyes, as we all noted the gift of recovery that has been given to all of us.

I had breakfast with two young men, one finished with high school and the other a few credits shy. They, like so many of the young men I see in this town, are lost, adrift, no gleam in their eye with dreams for the future, and willing to settle for the minimum wage job at McDonald’s, or the exhausting toil of work in the woods, this winter when the loggers and the mills are idle for all of January.

We talked of their future, and the power of education, and the many gifts and achievements that some classes can make in a life. I shared my story, drawing on the evangelism of my parents, my aunt, my grandmothers, and Karen’s Aunt Benny. All my mentors were there, too. They didn’t drink any coffee with me, but I felt their nudges on my shoulder, their smiles as I made my pitch. Sensing these sleepy-eyed boys’ hunger for at least some direction in their life, I drove my points home, in between mouthfuls of eggs and hash browns, telling these fragile youths that I believed in them and that I cared for their well being and their future.

They seemed amazed that any one would care about their lives, but they grabbed onto my words nonetheless, needing some meaning and some concern in their lives. Fertile ground, indeed, for my seeds I had brought with me to plant at the breakfast table. And, I remembered that similar seeds were planted in my own garden, again and again, at breakfast tables many years ago.

The thermometer says its cold outside, as does the thin layer of ice on my car’s windshield. Our cats have cut short their morning outing, and instead nap on my desk as I write, content to catch up on their sleep. It is a time of quiet outside, a time of rest, the red twigs of the dogwood just now catching the first light of the dawn. Spring is a long way off, I feel, but so many seeds are ready to sprout, in the fertile soil we have all prepared.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Diane Barnes -- In Memory

In Memory of Diane Barnes (1951-2008)

Today, we gather here to share our grief, to mourn, and yet, to also celebrate the life of our dear friend, Diane.

We are in shock at the suddenness of her death, and, in my sadness, I realize that part of my grief lies in my anger at this taking away from us, this inability to say our good byes, to tell Diane thank you for what she accomplished in her life, what it meant to each of us to count her as a friend.
But, then, that is the nature of our fragile and unpredictable lives. We do not know when we, too, shall leave this Earth, and we do not always accomplish everything that we feel needs to be done. And, that is unsettling and unnerving, and flies in the face of our desires to be put things in order, and to make sense out of much of the chaos and randomness that is life.
And, at this time of Christmas, of merry making and happy events, Death is an unwelcome presence. Grieving and facing Death is not on anyone’s Christmas list, especially this year, as we face the many great uncertainties of our economic crisis, and the realization that yet another year has almost past, and we remain a nation at war.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

~ The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. ~

And, that is how Diane lived.

You rarely saw Diane’s name in the newspaper, and she was never a person to seek the limelight, or bring attention to herself. She never sought power or fame, and lived quietly, focused on her desire to help others, to truly make a difference.

Diane spent her time with the least fortunate among us. Every day, she dove into the enormous pit of poverty, hunger, sickness, and desperation that is the world of those among us who have no shelter, no food, and who have become lost in the “system” of our society, and who have exhausted all of their resources.

She spent her time with the desperate, the lonely, the sick, and the dying.

Like many of you in this room, I came to rely upon Diane to find a solution, a helping hand, when there was no alternative, when a person’s life literally hung in the balance, and it seemed as if all the doors were closed, slammed shut by the quirks and impersonal bureaucracy of our health care industry and our ever-shrinking social services.

And, because of Diane, people found health care, they found a place to live, they were fed, they were clothed, they found her warm hand of friendship.

And, most of all, they found compassion and they found respect. They found their dignity.

We all have our stories. We all have our tales of Diane’s miracle making. We all treasured the power of Diane’s Rolodex, crammed full of phone numbers and agencies and compassionate people who were able to make the exceptions to the rules, who were able to add yet another person to a waiting list, or to squeeze in yet another person on a doctor’s or a counselor’s already busy calendar.

Yet, most of all, we knew that when Diane sat down with a person, she put all of her energy into listening to their needs, hearing their story, and making things right.

If there was a solution that seemed impossible to obtain, Diane would be everyone’s choice for that job. And, eventually, she would solve the problem, untie the Gordian Knot, and achieve some justice in this world.

Just last week, I heard yet another Diane the Miracle Worker story. I’ve been dealing with a man for the last four or five months. He’s mentally ill, he’s angry, he’s lonely, and his life is one disaster after another.

I’ve dealt with his legal cases, and ended up evicting him from his single wide trailer. I’ve dealt with his brushes with the law, with his anger, his desperation. He moved into his car, and camped in the brush on Hobsonville Point during most of November, surviving the storms and freezing temperatures with only his dog to keep him warm. And, even then, the police nearly took away his dog when it tried to defend him on a cold, windy night.

Our jail is our emergency mental health clinic, and so he, like so many others, are taken to jail for petty crimes, because there is no other solution. Like the Christmas Story, there was no room at the inn for this man in need of shelter, in need of dignity.

And, of course, Diane became involved. And, today, this man is not in jail any longer. He’s reunited with his dog, and he’s found a place to stay. And, he’s getting the medical care he needs, and food in his belly. A few days ago, a deputy sheriff stopped by his new home, to check on him, and give him a new sleeping bag.

Yesterday, he stopped to tell me that his girlfriend is finally in rehab, and this will be the first Christmas in twenty years that she will be clean and sober. And, I think, in many ways, that is yet another example of Diane’s making of yet another miracle.

This is only one story. And, this story has been repeated time and again. And, it’s just another day in the life of Diane, as she quietly went about her task of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick.

Buddha said,

~ Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.--

Today, we live in a community that is renewed, and the lives of the most unfortunate among us have been changed, all because of the kind heart of a great soul, a woman we are all proud and humbled to call our friend.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


It was all about anticipation. First, the calendar kept speaking. You are 55. Past the time for your first colonoscopy. Then, my doctor. It’s time. Your insurance covers it. It’s time.
Well, no one in my family had colon cancer. Well, at least no one that I knew about. And, perhaps some of the family had it, but I never found out.
One of my mentors died from colon cancer. Untested and undetected, until it was too late. He died too young.
Several of my friends have done their colonoscopy. I even picked up one of my friends from the hospital after his. And, he was fine, and said it wasn’t much of a deal. Except for the prep work.
A few months ago, one of my staff members had a real scare. A fast growing tumor, and her doc thought it might be cancer. So, she had the exploratory surgery, and it was benign. In our discussions on her pending time off from work, she simply announced she was going to schedule my colonoscopy. It was a done deal. My wife was thrilled. She had had her colonoscopy a few years ago, and was relieved with its positive results, and the fact that she, too, was proactive about her health.
OK, OK, I get it. I went to my appointment with Dr. Colonoscopy. I’ve known him casually for years. A nice guy. Other folks in the community said he does a good job with this stuff. So, we chatted, mostly about my medical history, my dad’s fatal heart attack, my mother’s leukemia, my diet, and some of the social problems we both see in the community.
I left his office with the instructions, the surgery date, and my “prep list”. I dutifully marked all the dates on the calendar on our refrigerator, and tried to ignore the march of time. All too soon, it was the day to stop taking baby aspirin, so that my blood would clot well if the doc removed any polyps while he was looking around inside of me.
My wife stocked up on jello, and, a day before the start of my serious preparation, I went to the store to buy my very own bottles of some odd stuff called “magnesium citrate”. Oh, the label said, new and improved. Now, lemony and sparkling. Comments from my wife and my friends were to the contrary.
I also bought some Ensure, a kind of “complete meal supplement” in liquid form. I could drink some of that for the next two days, along with coffee, thank God, tea, bullion, and, the ever popular clear jello.
When I got home, my wife had a big bowl of jello already cooling in the refrigerator, and I opened my first bottle of the “lemony” magnesium citrate. I mixed it with cranberry juice, thinking that would kill the taste, but the baking soda-ish, bitter tang of the stuff overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the cranberry. I added a bunch of ice, and nearly chugged the stuff, before I could think to gag. Yuck.

Within a few minutes, I could hear a few rumbles from my stomach and deep in my gut.
“Working already,” I thought. But, then, all seemed well, and I began to anticipate my delicious dinner of Ensure, jello, and ice water, followed by the second “cocktail” of the day.
As my wife tried to hide her dinner from me, I could still detect she was eating some really good looking left overs from the night before, my “last supper”, a baked potato, and some great looking baked apple dessert. My jello and ice water were OK, but the chocolately Ensure was less that Godiva like, and certainly not Hershey’s.
In the midst of it all came my first of many trips to the bathroom. My thoughtful wife had piled up eight rolls of toilet paper on the bathroom counter, causing me to laugh heartily, which also helped move things along. I brought a book with me to read there, but I found that the frequent visits were, well, quick and busy, and one has no time to become enraptured by any book.
I was begging to wise up a bit, and my last cocktail of the day was mixed with orange juice (no pulp, per the doc’s orders), and that was a bit better. My anesthesiologist compared the gunk to “the bad side of a daiquiri”, and that was the best description I could think of. Still, the stuff went down pretty good, and then “out” pretty good later on.
I slept pretty well, but with one ear open to any rumblings, and there were a few quick trips to the bathroom during the night. My wife had teased me about needing a spare set of sheets to hold in reserve in case I had an “accident”, but I think I disappointed her and managed to not make a mess out of anything outside of my throne.
The next morning, at least I could start the day with coffee. Orange juice, a small bowl of jello, and, this time, the vanilla flavored Ensure. That was the saving grace, as the vanilla stuff was much more palatable than the fake chocolate stuff, or maybe my taste buds were dying off. Hard to tell, as the cocktail was still the “back side of a daiquiri”.
As I read the doc’s “prep” instructions again, I realized that Day Two involved twice as many cocktails as Day One. And, so there was more orange juice and the ‘delightful lemony flavors ‘ of the magnesium citrate. Interesting they aren’t required to sell it with a huge warning label “This junk causes massive and prolonged diarrhea”. Or, at least label it as a “weapon of mass explosion”.
I did get an idea for my Christmas list, the one where coal is the main item of giving. But, even my enemies don’t deserve that, do they? I vacillated, but it was a healthy fantasy.
This increased use of this devious weapon soon had me believing I was completely emptied out by noon, but either I’m a guy who is really full of it, or Mother Nature just stores a lot of “fiber” in one’s intestines, and doesn’t want to give it up without a real struggle.
My kidneys were working well, too, as all of the soda and, well, it must be wood ashes, in the gunk made me pretty thirsty, so there was no problem keeping hydrated between my trips to the bathroom.
I found myself not feeling like I was starving to death, either. All that liquid kept my stomach feeling not terribly deprived, and the carbs in the vanilla Ensure and the jello kept my energy up. I was able to do some reading, some writing, and able to watch a few movies as well. No long walks or even a trip to town, though. The calls of nature were sudden and urgent, and the toilet paper roll became “my friend”. Yet, contrary to my wife’s devious planning, I didn’t need the entire eight rolls of TP, but, then, I was glad she had laid in a good supply. It was, well, comforting.
Towards the end of the day, I was amazed to see that I was losing a lot of green and blue. Maybe I was really a Vulcan, because I know that Mr. Spock had green blood. But, alas, I realized I wasn’t a spaceman, and instead, my little old gall bladder was feeling lonesome and apparently hadn’t gotten the message along the line that all the rest of my system was taking a vacation. Still, the colors were a shock, and my two pages of “Prep Digest” didn’t alert me to this phenomenon.
At seven that night, I had the last cocktail, and nearly danced a jig in the kitchen as I threw away the last empty bottle of the horrible magnesium citrate. Now, I worried if I would really be empty of everything before Dr. Colonoscopy and his crew got to take a real close look at me.
Prep Digest contained the bold type warning that I could not have any liquids after midnight, so, of course, when I went to bed, I had dreams of crawling across the desert, craving water, or standing under a waterfall, with cool, refreshing water pouring over my head.
Food fantasies began to creep into my brain, as I wanted something crunchy, chewy, and even creamy. Maybe on the way back from the hospital, I’d stop off at my favorite greasy spoon diner, for an extra large platter of biscuits and gravy, blackened sausages, and greasy, crunchy hash browns. Or, a giant salad for lunch. The list kept growing.
The next morning, I awoke to the thought of no coffee, no orange juice, not even a tempting, cool, somewhat creamy bottle of vanilla Ensure. No coffee and a colonoscopy didn’t sound like a good morning to me. Yet, the end was in sight, and I had gone this far.
I showered, paying close attention to my nether regions, as I didn’t’ want to offend the hospital folks. But then, they were getting up this morning knowing that they were going to explore the butts of a number of folks. At least I’d be unconscious for that experience, and I didn’t have that chore on my job description.
My wife dropped me off at the hospital. “Have a good time, dear,” she joked, as she left to go to her workout at the gym, and, I speculated, probably a huge breakfast with platters of rich, chewy comfort food. I’m sure she disappointed me, and stuck to her fitness regimen, and not even a stop at Starbucks for a mocha.
The prep nurse was a delight, and we ended up talking about Weight Watchers and portion control. She was all bubbly, remarking that I must be feeling pretty good, as I was “all cleaned out”. Well, in a way. At least, I was done with the cocktail drill, and was only a few hours away from real coffee and real food.
She poked me a good one with the needle for the IV, and gave up, letting the anesthesiologist take a “stab”. He had the wonderful idea of deadening the area first, before he poked me, and for that, he wins the blue ribbon of the day. He joked with me about his colonoscopy experience, and kept shaking my hand every time he came in to check on me or give me something in the IV. Maybe he wasn’t sure if I had brought my switchblade with me, lying in wait for the team with the giant black snake, or whatever they were going to try to slide up me.
Soon, I was rolled over on my side, a nice fluffy pillow under my head, and the last thing I remember was the anesthesiologist saying he was going to give me a “little hors d’oeuvre”. What, food? Yeah, food. But, no sensation of sizzling steaks, or juicy hamburgers, or apple pie with ice cream touched my lips, and I slipped away before I could even send in my order.
The next thing I knew, I was in the next room, with the nurse saying I was all done. As soon as I could pass a little gas, I could go home. Well, she’s talking to a real expert in that department, and it was not very long before I did not disappoint her.
“Oh, I see you’re ready now to go home. I’ll call your wife,” she said. I was still pretty groggy, so I didn’t notice if she turned green or gagged as she fled the room, but then, I was proud of what I can do so well, every day.
My results were good. No polyps to see, and thus, no lab results to await. Still, I keep looking in the mail for my very own DVD. Christmas is coming, you know, I have to shop for a few more gifts for my friends. I know they want to get to know me a whole lot better.
My wife had wanted the nurse to call her on her cell phone. I imagined she was at Starbucks, quaffing her third mocha, or chomping down an apple fritter, or even scarfing down one of those greasy spoon diner breakfasts I like, but she doesn’t, just to spite me. She claimed she had finished her workout and was buying vegetables at the store, when she got the call. I’ll never know the truth. I swear I smelled biscuits and gravy on her when she showed up.
Soon, I was home, filling my cup with coffee. Alas, the anesthetic had turned my tastebuds around, and it tasted like mud. Still, there was caffeine and that was important. I soon was stirring up a big breakfast for myself, and even poured a big glass of orange juice. Alas, we were out of magnesium citrate, so I had to drink it plain.