Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

eight plagues not counting the election

A few days ago, walking home with a fresh loaf of bread under my arm, I came to a halt. Ahead of me on the sidewalk was an eight-foot, black-hooded figure stood with a scythe. It was leaning over the sidewalk, blade spanning the walkway like a banner. Okay, it's October. Halloween is quickly approaching. But I stopped. I let a woman walking her dog pass me. I helpfully pointed out the danger ahead, but she merely grunted, her nose buried in her phone. She didn't so much as look up from her screen as she walked past under Death's scythe. I reluctantly followed her. What I wanted to do was cross the street and avoid the ominous figure entirely. But that was silly, I reasoned, so I walked up and took a long look: I noticed the roughly cut black burlap gown, the wires holding the scythe in place, the string that lashed the figure to the fence. It's not that I suspected it might truly be the grim reaper, it's just that it doesn't seem like a good time in my life to take death lightly.

A few months before my father's death, life put on a Serious Face. I'm naturally prone to seriousness, so it doesn't take much. However, 2016 has given us: job restructuring, my son's testing for a learning disability, my dad's death, the sale of the businesses, my brother's state of mind after the sale of the business, Charles' new (and stressful) job, unexpected & chronic health problems, and of course the horrible horrible election. And, not to be forgotten, my mother-in-law moved near us in the spring. Charles vigorously dubs it "The Year of Challenges."

I feel less vigorous. I've started reading Rilke and Mary Oliver religiously, and am rereading the Diaries of Etty Hillesum. I started journaling again and begun listening to interviews with poets and philosophers via the On Being podcast. And I walk and walk and walk. I follow a daily loop along Crystal Springs, spying herons and kingfishers, flickers and barn swallows, red winged blackbirds and bushtits. I lean longingly over the creek hoping to spot the silver splash of salmon heading upstream to spawn. I talk to my friends while walking. Jenny called as I walked in a torrential downpour earlier this week, and listened (again) my litany of woe. "What number plague is this?" she asked laughingly, "There are usually seven." Well, I think we are at eight—and that's not counting the election. I think by the eighth plague you can start to expect that things to change for the better. Already I feel a resilience in my bones that wasn't there six months ago.

As I'm walking, this line from Rilke comes to me: Now you must go out into your heart / as onto a vast plain. Rilke is a heady draught from which you can only take a few sips at a time. Because, to use his own words, "Everything must be lived" (and living more than a few lines of Rilke at a time can be overwhelming!).

But out onto the plain I go: quiet and full, empty and expectant.

Next week Jenny flies in from Kona, and while she's here there is my Father's memorial service, followed immediately by Halloween. A joyful macabre mess awaiting me. Downstairs, in their beds, my children are singing one of my Father's favorite hymns, "Come Thou Fount." I am teaching it to them so they can sing it at my Dad's memorial. First my daughter's voice drops off in sleep, then my son's. The house is locked, and I have a cup of tea next to me. Whatever may come next, I still inhabit this snug little world of clean laundry and messy desks, steaming coffee and wet elm leaves, piles of library books and muddy boots, half-sewn dresses and half-knit mittens, bikes, tears, bird books, old computers, laughter, silence, kisses.

Friday, September 09, 2016

forty days

Begin with this. Forty busy days, days that seem to hold whole different days inside of them, days that are more or less negotiations with myself about how much I can get done. After the children are in bed I climb the stairs to my office to continue work, my mind awash with pieces of seemingly disparate puzzles. I feel like a cup full to the brim, but someone is continuing to pour.

My sister is sifting through the accumulations of my father's life: drawers of string and tape and glue, treasured cuts of exotic wood waiting for a purpose, colored glass, old books with torn cloth and broken bindings, and far far too many small pewter vases. He collected: plastic bags and garden tools, wool and cotton cloth for weaving, seeds, staplers, rocks, dried flowers, pencils, pads of paper with sad little sayings written on them, marbles, meat grinders, dental tools and surgical clamps, peppercorns, coffee pots, jars of honey, bars of soap, corn husks, magnifying glasses, plaid flannel shirts. My father prized that which could be put to use. He gravitated toward items that would be useful for homesteading in the 1800s, or if the electricity went out for a good while. I imagine he saw each busted garden tool restored, the rusted head rubbed shiny with steel wool, then carefully refastened to a newly turned and oiled shaft. As he stashed away plastic bags I suspect he imagined them reused until they turned brittle and torn, then twisted and woven into bath mats.

There is a lump in my throat that doesn't go away. It is a reminder, but of what I am not sure. I went to the doctor, she glanced down my throat and assured me I didn't have strep.

Forty days, and then some. Wednesday night we held a panikhida, a short and beautiful rite of remembrance, to mark forty days since my father's passing. I said a silent prayer asking him to forgive me for having a service for him in the Orthodox Church. My father was a man of religious conviction and theological intransigence. I'm not sure he believed I was truly a Christian once I joined the Orthodox Church. To his mind the Orthodox Church was some lesser and more antiquated version of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman church he regarded with grave suspicion. But pray for him we Orthodox did anyway, "with the saints give rest / to the soul of thy servant / where sickness and sorrow are no more / neither sighing but life everlasting."

My eight year old son said afterwards that it was a wonderful service. He wondered if we could also have a panikhida for his beta fish, Thunder, who also recently died. Thunder lies in a decorated box in the freezer alongside his favorite rocks, awaiting burial. "So many people are dying lately," my son said, "Grandpa, Thunder..."

I have not gone back to my father's house since the night he died. I can see the things all piled up there without going over to see them with my eyes. I remember the way he treasured it all. When I was twenty and moving out, I took a stapler from my parents home. Years later, when I'd moved the stapler with me to New York, my father found it in my apartment while visiting me there. He took the stapler with him back to Oregon. Apparently he'd been missing that particular stapler all the eight years it had been in my possession. My sister reports there are any number of similar staplers at the house and I can have one if I want. But honestly, I do not want a stapler.

Nor do I want piles of yarn or small pads of paper or pewter vases. I might be tempted by scissors, or local honey, but I don't need more of anything. Not really.

What I need is time. What I need is time stretched out and softly unfolding in front of me. Time unhindered by crisis or heartbreak or urgent business, just the business of walking and cooking and laundry and applying band-aids and bactine. Time just circling around the weeks like water, like leaves spiraling yellow to the ground.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Rilke on the last day of the beach holiday

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees' blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

Book of Hours, II 1

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

of kindness, and cabbages, and the death of my father

Today marks one week since my father died.

It's not easy to write about my father. At least, it is not easy to write about my father in the manner people expect you to write about a father after he has passed. We did not have an easy relationship. He wasn't really such a good father.

The morning after my father died I walked seven miles before lunch. I crossed the railroad tracks to the spacious tree-lined neighborhood just east of my home, where the houses seem to preside rather than populate the streets. I usually walk in my own well-ordered neighborhood: small Craftsman homes, rope swings dangling over sidewalks, roadside vegetable gardens, beehives, bikes heaped on porches. But that morning I wanted to wander without knowing exactly where I was, so I crossed over tracks and past the golf course. The roads, no longer gridded, meandered as if they'd lost all track of time. The houses, too, were dreamlike—facades like elegant faces with half-lidded eyes, enormous shrubs like well-coiffed hair. The only people visible were landscapers armed with blowers and wackers.

I walked. Sometimes I cried. I didn't greet anyone because there was no one to greet.

When I was a child many people told me I was like my father. As I grew up this seemed to me more a burden than a boon. My father was not a happy man, and his bleak outlook on life seemed to drain joy and spontaneity from any endeavor. I did my best to not be like him, and yet many of my personality traits flowed directly from him anyway. The list of interests we shared is endless: photography, rock collecting, birding, weaving, botany, theology, paper-making, recycling, to name a few. Even making soup—the one kind of cooking I do without consulting a recipe, and by far my only polished skill in the kitchen—was one of his best as well.

Today my best friend sent me a poem. I texted her, this is the best poem ever! She replied it was written for you! But it could as well been written for my father.

T H E   A R T   O F   D I S A P P E A R I N G
by Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

*  *  *  *  *

I am that grocery store cabbage, ducking down the aisle to avoid neighbors. And it's safe to say that my Dad was that cabbage too. He didn't go to parties. He didn't like restaurants where the tables were close together. He was a quiet, private person; more comfortable alone than in a room of people. I am the same way: I endure parties, taking long breaks to walk outside. I have spent many a party reading in the car (I rarely feel this is a poor choice).

A few weeks ago, when my father was still able to carry on a conversation, he said something along the line of It's not easy, but that's just how it is. Life is hard. And I cringed. As a child, it was oppressive for me to hear this message over and over. Life is unfair. Life is hard. People are ungodly. People will disappoint you. I countered my Dad that day, even though I'd sort of given up on countering him at this point. My life hasn't been all that hard, I said. And it is true, all the doom and gloom I'd expected after my childhood never panned out. In fact, the opposite happened. There was so much light and beauty everywhere, people wanting me to do well. Helping me. Light pouring in every window, slipping through every chink in the wall. Some people were bad eggs, yes, and bad things happened: disappointments, heartbreaks, mistakes. But overall, the good seemed so much more substantial; the beauty so much more compelling. And somewhere along the line I found that the darkness bending around the corner was more a challenge to be met than a condition to endure.

In the last days of my Dad's life we read to him from the Chronicles of Narnia. He'd read those books to us so many times as children, and we knew he loved them. It seemed fitting to read them back to him now. And yet I puzzle over my Dad's love C. S. Lewis' imaginary Narnia—where no matter how bad things seemed there was a griddle on the stove with bacon cooking and buttered bread, where light and solemnity and joy were abundant—with his own darkly suspicious outlook. It seems to me that Lewis' fantasy world was not made up of inaccessible things: friendship, food, valor, beauty, kindness, and honor are available to almost anyone. (Well, of course I'd also like a crimson cloak, a healing cordial, and a friendship with a courtly talking mouse).

Which brings me to this: while I inherited many traits from my father, depression was not one of them. Once I was able to reject the murky worldview of my childhood, things got a whole lot better. Although I may want to hide from people in grocery stores, it's not because they are—or I am— rotten or evil. It's because I'm an introvert and find small talk exhausting. So many of the things my father seemed unable to appreciate and value in himself, I find also in myself. And yet, here's the rub: they are a source of joy and pride to me. Solace, enjoyment, meaning, hope, mastery, connection, and even professional fulfillment spring from these same traits and interests I share with my father. I protect these things in myself, finding ways to be that let them shine most fully.

That day after my Dad died, while I wandered along sloping lawns and under old maples, I opened the On Being podcast on my phone. A new podcast popped up, a conversation with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Nye is one of my favorite poets, and has been posted on my blog many times before. But that day she talked about a poem of hers with which I wasn't familiar: Kindness. As I walked and held the loss of my father—a loss more keen for the sad brokenness of what wasn't—her words on loss, on sorrow, and on kindness walked with me. Her voice creating a path through the sadness, like light streaming through the leaves overhead, and kindness walking beside me.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

ten thousand steps

out walking, Crystal Springs, © 2016, Amber Schley Iragui

I don't write about exercise. It seems like an inconsequential and even impolite subject, something that should stay just between you and your running shoes. That is to say, the miles you ran yesterday? It seems embarrassing to publish those on Facebook. But since I don't exercise much, I'm rarely tempted to overshare. I error in another direction: I don't think about exercise much at all. And when I do, it is in an avoidant, fear-centered way—like I ought to be doing it, and perhaps liking it, and I'll start tomorrow.

But indulge me in this subject for a moment. I have been thinking about it lately, and the trajectory seems to be veering away from my old worn habits of hate.

First off, whether or not I admit it, I primarily view exercise as a means to losing weight. And, then, since I also think that the whole pursuit of losing weight is silly and overemphasized, I never truly commit to any exercise regime. I am not saying that good health is not a proper goal; it is an excellent goal. But it is no longer compelling enough to induce any suffering in the department of get-up-in-the-dark, put-on-exercise-gear, go-out-in-the-cold category.

Nor am I athletic. I cannot think of one sport I enjoy watching, much less actually playing. All the sports I was forced to endure as a child—volleyball for instance—were entirely comprised of dread and longing: dreading the ball would come anywhere near me and longing for the game to be over. Compared to team sports, jogging is fun. At least there is nobody counting on your participation.

The only physical activity I've ever looked forward to, and continued despite the feeling that I might just collapse, was dancing. And then I'm talking dancing to eurotrash at the Bulgarian Bar on the Lower East Side—drunks in suits, international students, Parisian tourists, an entourage of Indians who liked to dance with a chair. And it required no special gear, just something cute with flats.

And I cannot go any further down this road without a word about gear. Pretty much everyday of my adult life I have worn a cotton dress (or tunic or skirt), with a cardigan, and boots. In the summer with sandals. That is pretty much all I want to wear. It's comfortable, flattering, and goes well with my scarves and earrings. If I have to put on other kinds of things, like logoed tees in blocked colors, or ubiquitous black yoga pants, I feel done. Like my life is pretty much over. I might as well pierce my eyebrow and streak my hair green and buy some ugly Louis Vuitton purses.

So, well, exercise is not very me.

So when I saw online link to a New Yorker article with the byline "an essay on becoming a writer and a runner at the same time" I would have hardly paid it attention.  Except that it was written by Haruki Murakami, a writer I discovered last year and have a crush on. And surprisingly (or not, considering my crush) Murakami's perspective on running struck a chord. This bit particularly:
"...I don’t think there’s much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have will power. I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like."
Of course every good article about exercise will tell you somewhat the same thing, find some activity you like to do and then do that. Except I tried and never found anything I liked to do (besides dancing at the Bulgarian Bar, inconveniently located 3,000 miles away). So I'd go back to my typical pattern of joining a gym, working out primarily on the elliptical machine, hating the florescent lights and tv screens, deciding instead to run outside, realizing it's too cold to go running outside, recalling my hatred of workout gear, giving up.

But after reading Murakami's article it did strike me that there is one thing I do like doing that is some kind of exercise. And that's walking. Particularly walking with a camera, or walking to do an errand, or walking to get a coffee or see a view. However, if I attempt to walk for exercise—if I go out in sporty gear and try to keep up a brisk pace—the activity will go the way of all my attempts to exercise: I'll get bored and realize I'm wearing spandexy clothing in public. But if I go out walking in what I'm already wearing, and if I carry a camera, and if I don't indulge in silly self-talk like no stopping! or keep up the pace!, suddenly things change. I keep walking, I go farther, I forget this is a chore and I enjoy myself.

Around the time I read the Murakami article, I also read somewhere that 10,000 steps a day is a healthy daily amount. I opened the little health app on my iphone (I'd been avoiding it because I suspected it was designed to induce exercise-guilt), and found that I was walking far less than 10,000 steps a day. But at the same time I noticed that during our weeks in Italy—where we walked often but hardly enough to feel I'd exerted myself—I walked far more than 10,000 steps a day. And, trust me, I was not dressed in any special walking gear in Italy.

A month ago I began my non-serious, camera-in-hand, dress-and-boot clad walking. While it takes a little planning to get 10,000 steps into my day, it is not by any means difficult. Walking suits me, and I live in a neighborhood suited to walking (for example, the grocery store is a little over a half mile away).

It is silly that it has taken me so long to realize this. But I am happy. Happy walking around my neighborhood, keeping an eye on the birds and bums in the park, photographing plastic fairies stuck in tree trunks.

P.S. This article was supposed to be about uniqueness. I tried at first to play up the uniqueness of how long it's taken to realize that I wasn't going to start Exercising, but then realized that my situation is probably not that unique. However, to find what suits you and to run with it, to accept yourself as you are and do the best with that, is to take hold of one's true uniqueness—in the sense of one's true humanity. Uniqueness plus humility. I like that.

{ and for a more on-topic post,  here's Julia's blog }

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

winter, photos

looking off the front porch, © 2015 Amber Schley Iragui

Winter in Portland is mild. Snow is unusual, and lasts a few hours or maybe a day. It usually changes to rain, freezes again, coats trees and walkways in ice—and the city literally shuts down. Mostly though, winter here is wet. It is damp and cold and dark and rainy. But it is not bitter. It is the end of January and already daffodils are sending up green shoots, the crocuses are blooming. I have the window in my office open a crack and I hear the crows making plans outside.

At this cheerless time of year, an hour of sunlight is like gold. Yesterday afternoon it was sunny for a bit, and joggers appeared in running shorts. A boy walked down the road in bare feet. A quarter of an hour later it was dark again and raining.

after morning drop-off, © 2015 Amber Schley Iragui

walking to the grocery, © 2016 Amber Schley Iragui

puddles, © 2016 Amber Schley Iragui

ice storm, © 2015 Amber Schley Iragui

{More winter photos over at Day's Dearest Wish and Eine Hand voller Stunden}