I was reading in my room, sinking into what promised to be a complete Sunday-afternoon, sleepy, sloth-like sprawl. I’d never been good at switching gears quickly, and I wasn’t the most enthusiastic biker. But the prospect of getting my mom to myself if only I were up to biking in this fragrant autumn day was too good an opportunity to pass up.

We got our bikes out of the garage, checked the tires, and headed out. We lived in a residential neighborhood but quickly came to a stretch of forested land unbroken by houses on both sides of the road. Clouds – most of them white but some gray – scudded through the blue sky; sunshine poured through the spaces between them. 

We’d moved here from Massachusetts where our summer backpacking brought us into woods that shaped my idea of what a forest should look like. Through that lens, these New York neighborhood woods, while they qualified, seemed sparse by comparison. The trees were spread out and spindly-looking. Many of the species were familiar from my Massachusetts treks – the white pine, the sugar maple, the red oak – but most were unfamiliar, and, to my eye, inferior.

My mom and I biked along companionably in the brisk sunshine. The occasional car eased by at a Sunday afternoon pace. We’d hear it coming like a far-off breeze, getting closer and louder, then disappearing again. Now and then a song sparrow trilled. Our bike tires crunched and snapped on the gravelly shoulder. Stretches of forest rolled by.   

We took notice when a cloud passed in front of the sun and then lingered there. The sky darkened with rain clouds. We biked on, our eyes uneasily turned upward. A sudden burst of wind blew in a dense rain. Our clothes were meant for a sunny day. They’d be completely inadequate in the face of a downpour, yet that’s what was bearing down on us. We stopped biking, rested our bikes against a tree, and walked a few feet into the woods, hoping the tree cover would keep the worst of the rain off of us. The downpour swept through.

Despite my assessment of this forest as meager, once the rain passed, we discovered we were only slightly damp. It had kept the worst of the rain off of us. We resumed our bike ride.

Several yards down the road, the smell of grapes arrested us. The scent filled the air and brought us to a halt. Had we relied solely upon our eyes, we would have ridden right past the grapes. Instead, the downpour had drummed their scent into the air. Now, we laid our bicycles down, sniffed the air blindly, and waded into the autumn underbrush, following our noses. 

The rosy afternoon sun broke through the tree canopy like the climax of a cheesy movie where the rays point the way to God. A wild grape had climbed a thick-trunked tree, a type I didn’t recognize. Hundreds of clusters crammed with spherical dusky purple-ness hung from its branches. We plowed through fallen leaves to the base of the tree to see how many grapes we could reach. The answer was “enough”: enough to know we also wanted the ones we couldn’t reach. Sweet grapes burst through their skins in our mouths. We spit the seeds out onto the forest floor and stretched on tiptoes for more.   

When we’d eaten all we could reach, we fixed the area’s landmarks in our minds, hoping to recognize the place when we returned here in a while. We swung our legs over our bikes, and headed back home to get the car, some bags, a ladder, and as many willing grape pickers as we could persuade. 

On the bike ride back home, the forest gleamed and sparkled, transformed by the rain.

I learned how to drive on a 1973 VW Microbus with a manual transmission. My mother’s patience was a thing of legend so she took on the task of teaching me. For years already, whichever kid sat in the passenger seat was allowed to shift when she put in the clutch, so I had some experience there. 

Now, in addition to all the steering and signaling, I had to also get used to putting in the clutch whenever I braked so I wouldn’t kill the engine. For a while I avoided braking as much as possible, rolling through stop signs when no one was around to see. Because once I was stopped and needed to start again, it meant navigating the dance between clutch and gas pedal, letting out the former while pressing on the latter in hopes of having them catch at the right time for a smooth acceleration. A smooth acceleration was also a thing of legend. It didn’t help that while I was fussing with these two pedals I was unable to depress the brake to keep the car from rolling. On flat ground this wasn’t much of an issue. On hills it was another story.

For hills, my mother taught me – tried to teach me – how to use the handbrake to buy myself some time while attempting to move the car forward. The idea was to engage the handbrake while the clutch was in and, as you felt the accelerator more and more likely to take over, you eased off the handbrake. In this way, the brake kept the car secure during that vulnerable transition. I never got the hang of it and instead got good at being lightning fast at letting the clutch out and pushing down on the gas pedal.


I dated Mark casually off and on in high school. College and grad school took him out of state, but whenever he returned on a break, I’d plan to see him. Then, when I was 27, overnight he became interesting to me. We began writing letters to each other, and suddenly I saw behind the veil. Before our correspondence, I would have described him as intelligent, and self-contained to the point of aloofness. Now I was coming to know him as someone with not just an intelligent mind but a lively one too. Once, he wrote that while he dozed on the couch, he thought he heard his roommate shuffling cards, only to find out later the guy was loudly munching Captain Crunch cereal. 

I also came to know him as someone with feelings, and some of those feelings were for me. He said they were strong ones. So strong that, were he not bound to graduate school in Austin, he’d immediately return to Oregon to be with me.

I was 27 and had nothing going on more compelling than declarations of love.

“I want you to move here, but I feel I should warn you. If you came,” he wrote, “you’d be on your own a lot. I don’t really have friends. And I work every day.”

It was difficult to imagine myself into the world he described. How much could someone work, really? And surely no one has no friends. I moved to Austin.

It is possible for a person to work most waking hours. This single-mindedness can make friends feel unnecessary. I convinced Mark to return home each evening for dinner, but then he headed back to the University and his work.

I got a retail job, joined a women’s support group, and hunkered down in the Texas heat.

Months passed. I was unhappy. I loved him. I didn’t understand why, if he loved me, he couldn’t make more time for me.

Once, we drove from Austin to Portland to visit family. I had trouble getting enough sleep on the 45-hour drive. I would drive, and then Mark would drive. Along one stretch in Wyoming, I convinced myself while I drove that I could rest my eyes now and then.

During one tearful fight – Why wouldn’t he spend more time with me? Did he understand that my friends half-seriously thought I was making him up because they hadn’t met him yet? Why wouldn’t he come to therapy with me? – he said to me through clenched teeth, “I told you how it was; I was honest with you.”

For the three years we were together, often I’d dream I was in the microbus, stopped on a steep hill, a line of cars behind me. To the left, the land beside the road rose steeply upward. On the right, no guardrail, just a gentle grassy shoulder and a precipitous drop beyond that. I pulled on the handbrake but it was old or damaged somehow and kept slipping. I yanked on it harder, trying to release the clutch at just the right moment, to propel the car forward, but I couldn’t get it right. With each attempt, I moved, not forward, but backward. It was essential that I not hit the cars behind me. I turned the wheel and continued a slow slide toward the drop off.

Acopa 3 oz. Shot Glass / Espresso Glass - 12/Case

I was in a bar once in Santa Rosa, California, where I stayed at the rustic spa of my then-boyfriend’s aunt and uncle. It was the sort of place Annie Leibovitz went to to get away from it all. I know this because she was there, Annie Leibovitz, getting away from it all at the exact same time we were visiting.

The bar was in town, and we needed a bar because my boyfriend’s aunt needed a shot glass. Forthwith I will refer to his aunt as “Alice” because of her uncanny resemblance to my great-aunt Alice, down to her white-haired Julie Andrews haircut and upbeat, chirping voice. Aunt Alice swam laps every day of her adult life without fail, had never drunk alcohol of any kind, and became a Christian Science practitioner once she retired. Anyhow, there were no shot glasses to be found on the premises of the rustic spa so we piled into Alice’s pickup and drove to town. She needed a shot glass because someone had told her about a bar trick involving two shot glasses and an egg. She was determined to try it out.

Alice brought her own egg to the bar because none of us knew if a bar could be expected to have one; we thought not. We did feel certain a bar was the right place in which to find shot glasses. Alice wouldn’t tell us what the bar trick was until we got there, but it was the sort of trick you’d get people to bet on: “If I do this impossible thing, will you buy my next drink?” That sort of thing.

The bar’s interior was clean and light-colored, save for the bartop long, sleek, and dark. It had only just opened for the day and there were no customers. Some of the table chairs had yet to be turned upright onto the floor. 

Two men stood behind the bar. Alice said, “We’re not here to drink. There’s just a bar trick I want to try. Could I have two of the same kind of shot glass?”

The men looked both wry and skeptical. One flipped his bar towel over his shoulder and reached behind him. He set two shot glasses side by side in front of Alice. She climbed onto a barstool, so my then-boyfriend and I did the same. It was not my first time in a bar, but it was my first time sitting up at the bar on a barstool with shot glasses in front of me. 

“Then there’s this.” Alice reached into her purse and brought out the egg. She eyed the two-gallon container of pickled eggs halfway down the bar from us. “We didn’t expect you to have any,” she said. 

She placed the wider end of the egg in one of the shot glasses, then eyed the barkeep. “Will you give me a dollar if I can move this egg from that shot glass to this one?”

“Uh, no,” the guy said.

“Oh, I forgot!” Alice said. She began again. “Will you give me a dollar if I can move this egg from that shot glass to this one without touching it?”

The barkeep looked only moderately more interested. I, on the other hand, was rapt. He narrowed his eyes. “You mean without touching it with your hands. You’ll probably roll it across to the other glass with your nose or something.”

“No. Without touching it with any part of my body.”

He paused. “Without any part?”

She nodded. 

The barkeep punched a key on the till and the drawer shot open with a ding! He pulled out a one-dollar bill, tented it lengthwise, and held it out to Alice. Then he pulled it back. “And if you don’t do it?”

“Then I owe you a dollar, obviously,” Alice said. She reached out and snatched the bill from his hand and flattened it against the bar. “Okay, here goes. We’ll see if this works.”

Alice leaned above the egg, tightened her lips, and sent a sharp jet of air between the egg and the side of the shot glass. Nothing happened. She looked sideways at me. “Maybe I’m doing it wrong. This is what the book said to do.”

“What book?” my then-boyfriend asked.

“A book on bar tricks.” Alice leaned over again, positioned herself slightly more to the left of the egg, and blew once more. 

The egg jittered momentarily like a jumping bean, then leaped up out of the glass and tipped over into the shot glass beside it.

“Ha!” Alice straightened up and beamed at us all. 

“I’ve never seen that one,” the barkeep told his workmate.

Alice held the dollar out to him. “How many pickled eggs will this buy?” she asked. “I’ve worked up an appetite.”

The writer, Barry Lopez, died this past Christmas Day. He was 75 years old. I never met him myself, though when he wasn’t traveling he lived outside of Eugene, Oregon up the MacKenzie River a-ways. By all accounts, he could be a challenging guy, his love of our natural world and our systematic destruction of it rendering him judgmental and angry at times.

I first heard of Barry Lopez in May of 1977. At the beginning of that school year my family had moved to Albany, Oregon. It was a rough year for me, and in March, I moved in with some family friends to finish out my sophomore year in Southern California. While I was still in Albany, though, I got to know Kendra.

Kendra was a profoundly awkward and uncool classmate who loved to write, as I did. Shoulders stooped like many tall young women, she walked a gangly stride down the hallways, her school books pressed to her chest with her arms folded over them. Her nasally voice could be piercing. Her clothes were always nice, her hair cut in the latest fashion, but these things didn’t sit easily on her, her clothes somehow seeming as if they were meant for someone else, her trendy haircut never quite styled right. I suspected the hand of her mother, trying to make her as acceptable-looking as possible, a mission that was thwarted by Kendra herself.

Initially I’d hoped Kendra and I could be friends, but apparently a mutual love of books and writing coupled with our outcast status weren’t enough to forge something quite so close as friendship. Kendra could be abrupt sometimes – not unfriendly exactly, but not warm and inviting either. We might not have been friends, but we were friendly to each other after a fashion. We shared two classes: sophomore literature, and pre-journalism, which was required if you hoped to write for the school newspaper. Also in those classes was Curt.

Truth be told, I had a little crush on Curt. He was nice enough looking, tall, brown-haired and freckled with an abundance of confidence. His wise-cracking was frequently truly funny, and he aspired to be a good writer, too. But whatever luster he had was tarnished daily by his treatment of Kendra. He’d clearly decided to make her life hell, and he was good at it.

Having myself been on the receiving end of this kind of torment I understood that the worst suffering didn’t come necessarily from the words and actions themselves but from their relentlessness and incomprehensibility. You knew you’d done nothing to warrant this laserlike dismembering of your personhood, and still it came. Curt scrutinized Kendra’s every movement and utterance.

“Walk much, Wagner?”

“Who taught you to apply foundation, a bricklayer?”

Kendra would answer a question in class, or offer a comment, and Curt would scoff. He’d sneer her last name. He’d say, “No one wants to hear it, Wagner. That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

The literature and journalism teachers shut Curt down whenever they heard him, but of course he was stealthy as well. And he perplexed them. How could someone who gave insightful, emotional comments about To Kill a Mockingbird be such a bully?

For her part, Kendra tried not to take Curt’s comments lying down. As the end of the first semester drew near, she flared up at him more and more often: “Stop interrupting me, Curt. I’m not finished.” Or the less erudite but equally admirable, “SHUT UP!” I admired her courage.

When I left West Albany High School in March, I asked Kendra if she’d like to write letters to each other and she agreed. I’d hoped the distance might create an opportunity for us to open up to each other more, but her letters remained superficial, detailing classes she was taking, activities she’d participated in. I answered dutifully; it had been my idea, after all.

In early May, I received a letter from Kendra that shimmered.

She wrote to tell me about the artist in residence who’d come to the school the two previous weeks. He was a young writer, no more than 30, and if you were a student in one of the advanced writing classes, you were allowed time each day to meet with him in small groups to talk about your writing. As a member of the newspaper staff, she qualified. Cruelly, she was put in the same small group as Curt. Every day, she marshaled her courage to share her work so as not to waste this precious opportunity with the writer. Every day, Curt ridiculed and snorted at her work – until eventually he was silenced by the writer’s withering stares and his wondering aloud if Curt was serious about writing?

On the last day with the writer, at the end of the last seminar, he asked Kendra to stay behind.

I picture Kendra, standing in front of him, her books clutched against her chest, her shoulders rounded. It must have been a thrill to be asked to stay behind; she must have been grateful that this charmed life she’d been living for the past two weeks would last a few moments more.

She’d gotten used to the gentle, thoughtful cadence of his speech. “You’re good,” he said. “Keep writing, tell your stories. And jokers like that – ” he jerked his head toward the door Curt had recently exited through – “I know it doesn’t help to say ignore him, but I want you to know it gets better, so just keep writing.” Barry Lopez held out his hand for her to shake. “Thanks for being here these last two weeks.”

* * *

Since his death, Barry Lopez has been celebrated and remembered for his commitment to the natural world and for his gorgeous, deep writing. I’ll remember him for that, too, but I am most grateful to him for this moment, for helping my friend to change her story about herself. It would have been so easy for him to see her as a floundering pariah. He could have chosen not to truly see her. But he made the tenderhearted, generous choice, and I believe it gave her a powerful talisman, something she could take out and touch whenever she needed reminding that she was worth seeing, worth reading, worth knowing.

Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. – Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez Episode - The Archive Project Podcast - Literary Arts

Years ago, a friend of mine moved to Guangzhou China to teach. In one of my (embarrassingly rare) emails to her, I told her I’d taken my son to the Air Museum that weekend. This was how we referred to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, which we occasionally visited to marvel over the Spruce Goose and various examples of aviation virtuosity. My friend, struggling under the worst air quality she’d ever experienced, didn’t know the reference and wrote back grimly, “We should have an air museum here in GZ to remind people what the air used to be like.”

This past week, when my small family fled Portland for Astoria, the air quality at its highest had been in the low 500’s. As we drove out of town Tuesday, it was in the mid-300’s – likely higher even than Guangzhou in 2011.

Gallery | The Astoria Column | Northern Oregon Coast

The Astoria Column sits atop Coxcomb Hill, one of the highest spots in Astoria. It tells the story of Astoria’s founding by whites, and from this vantage point, Astoria and surrounding areas – Youngs River Bay, the Astoria Bridge, and Washington State across the Columbia River – are all visible on a clear day. Garth, Luken, and I drove up to the Column on Wednesday.

It was not clear enough to see Washington, but while we tromped around, we discovered a trail that plunged into dense forest, presumably leading to a trailhead at some significantly lower point. We decided to do some research and, if we could learn where the trailhead was, we’d return with Kami the following day to hike the trail.

Years ago, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a book I loved called The Beginning Place. One day, the main character, in frustration and despair, runs aimlessly, trying to somehow escape his dead-end life. He ends up in a forest. He hasn’t realized he lives so close to a forest, and he’s deeply affected when he crosses into it; it feels so different from his uninspiring, urban home that he feels he’s almost crossed a threshold into a completely other land.

Le Guin wrote beautifully about this threshold, about the moment of stepping into a space palpably different, the air fresh and vibrant. This is what I felt Thursday, stepping onto the Cathedral Tree Trail.

It was like crossing into another world. Astoria’s air, while better than Portland’s, was still smoky, still requiring that I increase my intake of asthma medication fourfold. But the air on this trail was transformed. It was rich in oxygen. Even as hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land around the state burned, these “lungs of the Earth” continued to take in smoke and carbon dioxide and transmute it, exhaling oxygen.

For two miles, we hiked. A white and black caterpillar crossed our path and we watched it for a time. A smaller trail off to the side beckoned, and we waded through salal above our heads. Countless banana slugs, a small snake, many scuttling black carapaced beetles, made up the fauna amidst the essential flora.  

Our future is secured by our noticing only this: in the presence of tress, we can breathe.

“And there I found [in myself] what appalled me; a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” – C.S. Lewis

As a junior in high school, I moved to a small, Oregon logging community. Right before Thanksgiving, I stumbled upon community service that a new friend of mine, J, was involved in. Student volunteers put boxes together with turkeys, potatoes, etc. for families in town who might otherwise not have a Thanksgiving dinner. At least two people were needed to make the deliveries because the boxes were heavy, and since I also had access to a car, I told J I’d help her deliver a few of the boxes.

Order Your Gourmet Thanksgiving Dinner Today | Blog | Gelson's

I was unprepared for the poverty I encountered. We visited a couple places where small children peered from behind the legs of grateful, beaten-down adults. The houses were little more than shacks. The wintertime rain had already been falling unceasingly for weeks, and I could imagine what it might be like to live through a cold, wet, dark, dreary winter in each home.

The house I remember the most vividly looked as if the rain had saturated it over the course of its lifetime, so soggy did it appear with its patched roof and swollen-looking siding. When we got out of the car, a smell hit our senses though we were easily still 15 yards from the house. The smell, it turned out, came from their source of heat – could it have been a kerosene heater? – which we saw when the front door opened. It was massive, placed smack in the middle of the front room. It poured out heat and a stench I wanted to flee from.

The person who opened the door said, “Hi,” to J. He knew her, and she knew him, from school. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might encounter someone I went to school with. I didn’t know him, I was still new to the school, but he and J said a few awkward words and we passed the box to him.

How did this guy get himself to school every day when this place was his launching pad? How did his clothes not reek? They probably did. H’d never bring friends over after school; he likely tried to not be home himself as much as possible. I wanted to say to him, “I don’t know you. I’ll forget your face so when we have a class together, it’ll be like starting fresh.” I didn’t say that, of course; I just wanted to get out of there.

I did not for a minute wonder if these families deserved this food. They were clearly quite poor, which made them deserving enough.

This was my first brush with what I think of as rural poverty. My next close encounter occurred ten years later when I taught high school on the Oregon coast for a school district so small it served five separate towns. And even so, only 156 students attended the whole high school. A handful of my students wore the same clothes every day; at least one student didn’t have reliable access to a way to bathe. Probably more of them than I knew lived like my former classmate.

Tillamook County High School Young

Four years after that, I attended my first semester of social work school where I was re-introduced to urban poverty – but that’s a different story. My social policy class was taught by the man who wrote the policy book used by social work schools around the country. We began by charting the course of how American social policy got to where it was in 1991. This meant starting with the British workhouses circa 1576, one of the earliest examples of systematic punishment of people whose primary offense was being poor. Our professor knew by studying another country and an era centuries ago we’d. better understand the attitudes and experiences that shaped the first wave of people who immigrated to America. Because attitudes toward the poor came with them; those attitudes created the waters our American ancestors swam in, and it informed their policy decisions. These eventually trickled down to us.

The importance of recognizing the waters we swim in – the cultural beliefs that influence us – has been brought home to me particularly these past few years as I’ve looked more closely at the history of race in America. I’ve found it both sobering, and strangely grounding, to have someone say, “We’ve grown up in a racist society, so we are all (regardless of our race) racist.” How could we expect to emerge from a biased upbringing (and all of our upbringings were biased, though we often like to call our biases beliefs) without bias? That would be like growing up in the South and not believing in hospitality.

Southern Hospitality Wall Decor: Removable Wall Decals

Which is all to say that my reasoning mind understands that someone who’s poor deserves to not starve, deserves to have dignity, deserves to not be consumed with wondering if they’ll starve tomorrow, if they’ll be safe. And yet…

Garth and I currently find ourselves helping to provide food to other Portlanders. One of our tenants works for an organization that for years has received food donations for a range of its clients. The recent shelter-in-place order in Oregon has resulted in some of the other agencies that used donated food closing temporarily, and many of his organization’s clients aren’t coming around as much. This has resulted in an excess of donated food with no identified recipients for it. Thursday, we set our picnic table up where our driveway meets the sidewalk and put out donated food: pizza dough, clamshell containers of green beans, melons, and pineapples; bags of Brussels sprouts, spinach, carrots, celery, arugula; salsa and peanut sauce. All from places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

Circle With Lots Of Food Items Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty ...

The whole reason I was doing this was because I understood how the measures our state was taking in order to slow the spread of this virus had created massive food insecurity in my city. As I set the food out on the table, people began to wander over, keeping a six-foot distance. Unquestionably, many people had already been living on the edge, one paycheck away from disaster. Now they were unable to work because their jobs ended in favor of enforced social distancing, leaving them without an income, but with families that still needed food and shelter.

And yet, while one part of me told each person to take what they needed – knowing that only they could know what they needed -, and explained where the food came from, and said, “You’re welcome-” another part of me was thinking things like, “You’re wearing nice clothes; do you truly need this food?” and “Do you really need that many bags of green beans?”

I’m not happy to share these thoughts with you. I wish I hadn’t thought them.

But why would I expect not to think them, growing up as I have in a culture that to this day debates whether or not poor people deserve to be helped? On a personal level, too, I’m trying to dismantle the idea that it’s desirable to be thought of as Good, and that Good means you have only Good Thoughts. Thankfully, Mahzarin Banaji’s 20 years researching implicit bias have made one thing amply clear: none of us has only Good Thoughts.

Mahzarin Banaji and the Implicit Revolution – Association for ...

When asked how she navigates her own implicit bias, Dr. Banaji said that first, she assumes she has bias; secondly, she tries to know as deeply as she can what those biases are, in order to, thirdly, correct for them where she can. For example, if she knows she’s biased in favor of tipping male waiters more generously than female waiters because she assumes males need the tip money more than females, she can plan, instead, to tip according to a fixed percentage every time rather than going with her (biased) gut. (Note: this is my example, not Dr. Banaji’s.)

I do long for the clarity of my 16-year-old self. She had swum for fewer decades than my 58-year-old self in the cultural waters that teem with judgment and mistrust about poor people. What a relief it would be to live in a less nuanced mind again. She knew without reservation that no one should have to live like that, that everyone was as deserving of eating well as she was, and that their humanity wasn’t in question.

But while my 16-year-old self might have felt fiercely about the situation and the people involved, she also wanted to run away. She was overwhelmed by a system she couldn’t even begin to address in the ways she wanted to. This 58-year-old, though, she has more to offer at a time like this. Maybe part of the offering includes an undercurrent of wretched stereotypes and suspicions, but there is also self-awareness that allows me to act in the ways I mean to. I mean to do Good Things in the world, even though they aren’t always informed by exclusively Good Thoughts. That 16-year-old is still in me, and there are times she points me in the right direction. I can follow her lead, dragging my muddled self along with me, still able to navigate the situation until I’ve (sometimes) done some good.

Sunshine Week: A look ahead


[Note: this story does not end badly for the dog. Not to worry.]

There’s a man we have known for over three years. He is 50 and lives on the street. When we have jobs that need doing, we offer them to him if they’re in his wheelhouse.  We feed him when we see him. He is disorganized and enthusiastic, at his core a kind soul.

Two weeks ago, he encountered another street person with a dog. The dog was sweet-natured and cute, but this other person said he couldn’t take care of it any longer. It was too hard to care for a dog while having to take care of oneself on the streets of Portland. This other person planned to take the dog to the animal shelter.

Shih Tzu

Our friend hated the idea of this dog going to the shelter, which he imagined was as a good as a death sentence. He offered to take the dog himself. He’d grown up with dogs and had never thought he might be able to have one given his circumstances.

For a few days, our friend was over the moon, enamored with his dog. Then, as more and more of the places where he returned cans for money closed  – those sites understandably trying to “flatten the curve” by reducing the human gathering that occurs at canning sites, but also making tough lives significantly tougher – he discovered that having to travel to the edges of Portland to find a place to return his cans was so much more challenging with a dog.

Ten days ago, he asked if he could tie his dog up in our yard for awhile each day while he returned cans. This was pre-shelter-in-place Portland, so sometimes we were home when he dropped his dog off, sometimes not. He set up a cozy little bed for the dog under our picnic table. The dog wore a harness, and our friend tied the other end of the leash to the leg of the picnic table to keep the dog from running out of the yard.

Last week, during the handful of days when the dog was in our yard for several hours each day, social distancing arrived in earnest. Portland’s weather was gorgeous so we were all outside when we could be. We spoke to our neighbors from six feet away.

This past Friday ended such a weird week. Garth eventually worked from home exclusively. I saw some clients in person, most over video or phones calls, and the on-going uncertainty fried me a bit. By the end of the week, I felt exhausted. After dinner, Garth and I and our two kids piled onto the couch to watch a show.

Over time, a sound reached my awareness – a small sound, kind of like a squeaky wheel. At first I thought it was in the show, but at some point it was clearly out of sync and we turned off the sound. Nothing. We turned it on again and eventually the sound resumed. I asked Garth to go see if our friend had gotten his dog from our yard yet. Garth headed out, and we waited, and waited. By now it was about 9:15 pm. I finally poked my head outside and there was Garth, the dog in his arms. “It’s tangled in its leash,” he said. “I detached the leash from the table, but I can’t really see well enough to get it loose.”

Image result for tangled knots

I’m something of a getting-knots-undone wizard so Garth brought the dog up to the porch. It wasn’t just the leash that was tangled around the dog – it was quite a bit of thin twine as well. And it had wrapped really tight. My daughter came to the door. “Would you bring some scissors?” I asked her. We had to cut all the string and leash rope off, carefully, the dog distressed, me trying not to accidentally snip dog rather than twine. We sat on the porch with the dog. His back legs didn’t seem to be working right, and he was terribly agitated. His head swung back and forth and his breath came in little bursts.

Garth, Kami and I sat with the dog, discussing our options. He was usually so mellow. Was this agitation a sign of its understandable upset over its legs not working, or was it something bigger, more systemic? Then one leg seemed to return in functionality and we figured the legs had gone to sleep from the circulation being cut off by the twine. But the other leg didn’t seem to be bouncing back, and the agitation persisted. With his third leg back on-line, he turned around and around like a dog settling for sleep, only he never settled. I smelled an abundance of flea powder, and even outside on the porch, my asthma started rattling in my lungs.

What to do? We decided to call Dove Lewis, our local awesome animal emergency clinic. Was this the right thing? It wasn’t our dog; what if we made a decision for treatment that our friend wouldn’t have made? But our friend wasn’t here. We aren’t pet owners and somehow we couldn’t tell if we were making a good decision. (Maybe the jangling week of encroaching covid-19 had something to do with our diminished capacity?)

We decided to call our neighbor, L, whose dog, Rudy, is a family favorite and who we saw as our Expert of All Things Canine. In short order she brought dog food, and Rudy’s carrier, and after talking with the folks at Dove Lewis, Garth and the kids piled into the car with the dog; the dog, still with a non-operational fourth leg, still anxious.  I stayed behind in case the owner showed up.

It was 10:00 pm. A text came in just after my family left with the dog. It was L, asking us to keep her posted on the dog’s condition, and to let her know if she could be of any more help. Someone outside of our household knew what was happening and wanted to be of help. This fact was more reassuring than I can describe.

After responding to L’s text, I noticed one I’d missed from earlier in the evening. It was from one of our newer neighbors, R. She’d sent it right around the time Garth had gone out to check on the dog. It read: “Do you hear a puppy? I can’t tell where it’s coming from.” I answered her text, and back and forth, the story came out. R wrote: “I know you and Kami are allergic, please let us know if we can house the pup until the owner returns.”

Garth, Kami, and I had talked about this while we’d perched on the porch, waiting for L: could we consider keeping the dog overnight if Dove Lewis released it? It would mean a night and morning of inhalers for me and my daughter. I felt twitchy about anything having to do with our lungs: there was a lung-eating virus out there. Surely we should protect our lungs where we could?

Once again, R’s text reminded me we didn’t have to navigate this alone. Knowing this was – everything.

Then the text from Garth saying Dove Lewis wasn’t super-concerned but would keep the dog overnight; my family coming home; the call the next morning from Dove Lewis saying the dog was fine; filing a report that would put the dog into the hopper for possible adoption (no-kill shelters in Portland, thank you very much); our friend showing up much later that afternoon with a cane and ankle wrap, describing how he’d stepped wrong disembarking from the bus, had to visit the emergency room, worried for his dog, sad and also relieved to hear it would be okay and someone would soon have it who could care for it better.

If I were maintaining a laser-sharp focus on the personal essay challenge I set for myself at the beginning of the year, I’d have already tried to finesse some way to link conditions during the pandemic with this story. But my focus these days is unreliable. Instead, I will simply state the obvious: because we felt vulnerable with the situation we were presented with, we reached out; and in reaching out, we realized we weren’t alone. There would be help.


*Gate A-4  by Naomi Shihab Nye (thanks for the poem, Pete and Polly)

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning

my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

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[Reposting this oldie for reasons that will become obvious.]

My last two years of high school, I lived in Sweet Home, Oregon, a small logging and mill town.  One highlight of my junior year was taking a creative writing class from William Johnson – a teacher so old he’d taught my dad decades earlier.  He was completely bald on top with tufts of white hair that stood out above his ears.  He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and button-down shirts and slacks when he taught.

Mr. Johnson was a great fan of my writing, and the warmth of his support continued after I graduated.  We corresponded erratically during my undergraduate years and for awhile afterwards, too.  Then one weekend in February, I was scheduled to meet my parents in Sweet Home to visit my grandmother.  I thought it would be a good chance to see Mr. Johnson, too.

I phoned to see if he and I could meet for an hour or so while I was in town.  “Sarah and I are having some people for lunch on Saturday.  You should come for lunch, too.”  He wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and that Saturday I left my grandmother’s home in plenty of time to drive to Foster, the adjacent town where he lived.

To get to Foster, one drives down the Santiam Highway and crosses a bridge by the reservoir.  What Mr. Johnson had neglected to tell me was that this Saturday, the reservoir hosted a four-wheel-drive mud race.  This is pretty much what it sounds like.  On the edge of the reservoir, contestants brought their four-wheel-drive vehicles and raced each other through a muddy course along its edge.

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It was an alarmingly popular event, and when nearly an hour passed and I’d crept only a few yards toward the bridge to cross the reservoir, I turned back.  Nearly in tears, I found a pay phone and told Mr. Johnson I couldn’t make it.  He sounded impatient with me.  “Just go around the other way,” he chided.

When I finally wound my parents’ car up the twisty roads overlooking the reservoir, I found myself on a little knoll at a charming, rough-hewn cabin.  Mr. Johnson came out to greet me and gave me a big hug – the first in our history together.  “Come meet the rest,” he said, and flung his arm wide toward the front door.  Inside, his wife Sarah (“Second cousin to Katherine Anne Porter, you know”) sat at a round dining table with three other couples in their 50’s and 60’s.

Mr. Johnson said, “Katrina, I’d like you to meet Jim Mason; he’s a lover. And his wife Karen, she’s a lover, too.”  He went around the table this way, introducing everyone as a lover.  I felt paralyzed and off-balance.  Clearly I’d stumbled into some swinging, orgiastic small-town scene with my former grandfatherly English teacher at the center.

Was there some way I could beat a hasty retreat?  It seemed impossible since I’d exercised such tenacity to get there in the first place.  I clenched my jaw, already in a cold sweat and bracing for an excruciatingly uncomfortable lunch.

Then I realized it was Valentine’s Day.

The potato leek soup was delicious.

A piece of advice: should you embark on a two-day backpacking trip in your late 20’s with your then-boyfriend, and out of a misguided desire to be efficient, he convinces you to take only trail mix to eat – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks: trail mix – make sure to bring extra water. Failing this, expect to not poop for the entire trip. Also, as a result of this experience, you may develop an aversion to trail mix.


The majority of the family backpacking trips of my youth occurred in New England. My father’s deep love of leaving town and getting into the forest initiated these excursions, but I believe all of us came to love the way that trees and natural waterways soothed us to our depths. Making such a journey with four small children was a tall order. In exchange for the extra effort involved to take such trips – my mom was already working her ass off at home – my parents negotiated that my dad would be in charge of planning, packing, and cooking. And so summer after summer, between Memorial and Labor Days, we set forth – to the Catskills, to the White Mountains, to the Adirondacks – my dad’s pack piled higher than the top of his head and my mom’s not much shorter. 

As one of the children, I only had the vaguest notion of where we were going, or where we were once we got there. That was up to the adults. My job was to endure a long car ride and be lured up the trail by artfully meted-out cheese and chocolate. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in where we were; it’s that directions would have been meaningless to me. I barely knew the towns adjacent to my hometown, let alone the direction to take to get to them. Up to a certain age, this is the norm. To children, the world is vast, and unknowable in that vastness. Directions became more relevant once I learned to drive. So, I looked out car windows, then at countless pine-tree-lined trails, and at the end of each day, I’d feast on one of my dad’s hot dinners, miraculously assembled from camping food.

You could say I was primed to associate backpacking with certain things being expected of me – packing what I needed, carrying my pack, putting one foot in front of the other – and not certain other things – planning the trip, looking at maps, thinking deeply about meals. So when Mark proposed that on our trip to Oregon we do some backpacking, I was prepared to show up in certain ways and not in others. As fate would have it, he saw no reason to involve me in aspects of the planning, and neither did I.

Which is why, in a cheaper-by-the-dozen-like efficiency move, we ended up with the aforementioned excess of trail mix and dearth of anything else.

Lest I come across as a complete pushover, I want to be clear that I did express my desire for more varied food. I knew what it was like to walk all day, pitch a tent while tired and hungry, and be rewarded with a warm, tasty dinner. I also knew what it was like to emerge from a toasty warm sleeping bag into a chill morning and be able to warm up with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of hot cocoa.

Hearing my request, Mark thought a moment, then said, “Well, but then, we’d have to bring a camp stove. And extra water. And plan meals, and shop for them. Let’s just bring trail mix.”

I wasn’t surprised. This was the guy whose favorite meal to make for himself was Kraft mac-and-cheese with added canned tuna and frozen peas and corn. He eschewed the milk and butter that the box generally recommends you add. Let that sink in. Pasta, corn, peas, tuna, all in a dusting of dehydrated cheese powder. This was not a man who was seduced by food except as fuel for the furnace.

So I did say what I wanted. I understood that the best way to get my needs met was to say what they were and ask that they be considered. What I was unprepared for was what to do if the other person wasn’t swayed by hearing my needs. If I made my gambit and it was rebuffed – well, those were the only cards I had to play. Hence, trail mix.

In the developmental model of couples therapy (of which I am a student), the above, so-called strategy I used arises from a state known as symbiosis. Symbiosis describes a couple that is so uncomfortable with conflict that one or both people frequently squash their own needs in order to keep the peace. So if, for example, you’d like food that’s quite different from what your boyfriend wants, in the symbiotic phase you have a limited tolerance for being of two minds about food and will eventually abandon your culinary desires in favor of getting back on the same page. Except this sort of “being on the same page” is a fiction. Mark and I weren’t on the same page; my acquiescing simply buried the fact that we were on different pages.

All couples go through the symbiotic phase at the start, that heady, falling-in-love stage where we seem perfect for each other. Many of us have trouble shifting out of this phase even when we start to feel the ways we differ from each other. This difficulty might stem from watching parents who handled their conflicts this way. For women, female socialization, which often emphasizes accommodation and not rocking the boat, can also contribute to this difficulty. Wherever it originates, one thing always follows on its heels: resentment. 

At the beginning of the hike – before the two days’ worth of trail mix had built up, so to speak – I didn’t yet feel especially resentful. We took the obligatory photos at the trailhead looking clean and energetic, and then we set out. We were hiking to the base of Mt. Jefferson, a hike I’d done with my family a couple times as an older teenager. Both times we’d gone with other families whose children were much younger, and I remembered the hike as one that basically took all day. I hadn’t factored in the fact that two 20-somethings could hike much faster than families comprised several small children. The hike in took almost half the time we’d allowed for.

We tromped around the soggy meadows at the base of the mountain, looking for a place to pitch our tent – which is when the mosquitoes first made their appearance. We stopped walking long enough to scope out a potential tent site, and apparently the word went out among the biting insects. Where previously we’d only seen the occasional mosquito on the trail, suddenly we were discovered, two warm-blooded creatures standing still long enough to be sucked on. The piercing blue sky was quickly obscured by the curtain of mosquitoes that came to feast on us.

“Let’s get the tent up and get inside,” Mark said. We were fairly proficient and got the tent up quickly so we could scramble inside. For a time, we hunted the mosquitoes who’d made it inside with us. Then we looked at each other. It was 5 pm. We’d have full sun for at least two more hours, and partial sun for two more.  We’d brought no books. There was nothing to do, no food to prepare.

We passed the bag of trail mix back and forth and stared at the slowly diminishing day while the mosquitoes whined and plastered themselves against the outside of the tent.

We spent a miserable night, mostly not sleeping. Outwardly, we were in this together. Inwardly, I blamed Mark: for the trail mix, for the mosquitoes, for the slowly seeping damp beneath our tent, for my bad night’s sleep, for the mosquito bites on my ass from having to pee in the middle of the night.

The sky brightened early. Following a terse exchange, we decided to eat “breakfast” once we were hiking. We packed up our damp tent and sleeping bags, hoisted our packs, and set off toward the ridge to the north. It was supposed to hook up with a trail that offered an alternate route back to the car. We could see the ridge from far off, and we wended our way toward it.

The view from the ridge was spectacular. Standing in one spot I could see Mt. Hood to the north; a 180-degree turn revealed one of the Three Sisters to the south. Their snowy peaks sparkled in the early sunshine. Up out of the mosquito-breeding bogs and above the tree line I thought maybe the effort had been worth it after all.

Mark had, in fact, brought a map, so when we hit the first unexpected fork in the trail, I looked over his shoulder to offer my opinion about which direction we should take. But nature refuses to stand still. It is always shifting and overlapping. Trails become obscured, or somehow don’t look the way you expect, given the map. Were we where we were supposed to be? Was this the trail that eventually curved back to where our car was, or was it the one that would spit us out miles from the right trailhead? I weighed in, no better informed than my partner.

“If we’re on the right trail,” I said, “it looks like we should come to a gentle right and then a sharp left soon.” Did we encounter such a configuration? It was hard to say. That right and then left that we took looked different to me than on the map, but maybe that’s how it appeared to the mapmaker. The emotional high I’d felt on the ridge was a distant memory. In its place, demoralization settled, aided by insufficient sleep and too much trail mix. I had no idea if we were on the right trail, and I didn’t know how to get more sure. In time, we’d reach a road and only then would we know for certain. It was possible that what we’d know at that point was that we’d taken the wrong trail.

We remained slightly above the tree line for a time, descending gently until the trail dropped precipitously. In just a few strides, we were down in the forest, surrounded by 150-foot Doug firs. No need to wonder any longer if we were on the right trail because this was the trail we were on. It was ours now, wherever it might lead. 

Time is relative, as we know. Our perception of time is quite vulnerable to believing ourselves to be lost, for example. Being lost, multiplied by countless steps, equals time moving at a snail’s pace; those countless steps took us further and further from an easy view of the sky. Though beyond the trees it was a clear, sunny day, in the forest it might as well have been dusk. Branches and boughs, hungry for light, filled every conceivable gap.

I can’t believe this, I thought. How hard is it to know where you’re going? It’s not rocket science, planning a backpacking trip. My dad did it all the time. My back hurt, my legs hurt. A bubble of panic lodged behind my sternum. I imagined myself fragmenting into a screaming, hysterical mess. I would have been one of those pioneer women who completely lost her shit crossing the country in a covered wagon. These woods went on and on and on. And back then, they went on and on a thousand times over. She would have wondered if the forest would ever yield to some other terrain. Would she ever see the sky again? In all directions, there was nothing but dense, towering Douglas firs, broken only by the trail.

Instead of decompensating, I had to put one foot in front of the other without cheese or chocolate to motivate me. I had to find my motivation within the fact that the forest would be a supremely inconvenient place to have a nervous breakdown. Curses on Mark’s head accompanied every step for a time. Then at some point my aching knees and oozing heels – did I mention the blisters? – demanded all of my attention and I dropped the silent litany of Mark’s offenses.

Eventually, the forest spat us out a mere 20 feet from our car. The familiar normalcy of it almost made me weep. We drove the three hours back to our digs in complete silence.


We’re used to thinking of the word symbiosis as relating to infant development. In the earliest days and weeks of infancy, the infant is not only completely dependent upon its caregiver but in fact, as a result of this close bond, experiences the caregiver as an extension of themselves rather than as a separate being. Only as their brains and bodies develop do they come to understand that, in addition to there being a “me,” there’s also a “you.” They don’t have to think about emerging from symbiosis into the next stage; it’s a natural process that simply happens as the brain and body continue to grow.

Unlike childhood, in order to grow out of symbiosis in our adult relationships, we can’t rely on aging to bring automatic growth and development. We have to deliberately reach for that growth. We can have all the trappings of adulthood – a job, a long-term relationship, maybe a house, or a retirement plan – and still be stuck in symbiosis. To remain stuck there is not only painful but stagnating. 

To remain stuck also robs us of enjoying the benefits of the next stage of development: differentiation. How might a little differentiation have transformed this backpacking trip? Mark and I would have valued each of our positions equally. If neither of us could genuinely be won over to the other’s side, I might eventually have said, “I know that having a variety of hot food will enhance my experience of this trip so I’ll pack the camp stove and the extra water and the food I’ve shopped for in my backpack.” I would have realized that, since this was my desire, it was reasonable for me to decide how to fulfill that desire. I wouldn’t have thought it was Mark’s job to make my agenda happen when his differed. 

With a little differentiation, we also would have understood the importance of both of us being responsible for knowing where we were going and how to get there. Of course, the “maps” that might teach us how to get where we’re going in our relationships are even more mysterious than backpacking maps can be. Maybe that’s why I do the work I do, trying to become more familiar with the terrain, looking for the landmarks that will keep us on the right trail and prevent us from getting lost. Mark and I did get lost; thus, ex-boyfriend. But maybe getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. Maybe it’s what helps us to get better at reading maps so that the next time – perhaps – we don’t get quite as lost.


“Don’t believe everything you think.”

This is one of my favorite bumper stickers, in part because it encapsulates what I’ve come to understand about our minds. Namely, that they are often untrustworthy. To wit, memory can change under the influence of others; we can believe we’re being objective when in fact we’re behaving from a place of beliefs and opinions; and if there are things we think, or behavior we engage in, that our brain doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of us, it will conveniently “forget” those thoughts and behaviors in order to maintain its preferred self-perception.

For nearly a hundred years, schools of psychology have explored the idea that much of our motivations, beliefs, and fears lie outside our conscious mind. In fact, neuroscience has recently confirmed that most of us operate from a place of 95% unconsciousness. Or, as one of my favorite psychologists, Polly Young-Eisendrath, puts it, “A little island of consciousness tries to justify what we do after we’ve done it.”

For example, if I like to think of myself as a nice person, but then I cut someone off in traffic, my mind will find all sorts of explanations for why I did that, but none of those explanations are likely to include the idea that sometimes I’m not nice. Our brain likes to believe what it believes, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

At the dinner table the other day, my kids and husband were talking about the challenges of speaking directly to someone you’re in conflict with. Unbidden, a memory surfaced. One I haven’t thought about in 30 years.


Early on in my relationship with Mark, his grandmother died. His mom asked Mark and his two siblings to come help her and their grandfather to pack up the house in preparation for selling it. Mark and I lived in Texas at the time, so in the spring of 1989, we made the 33-hour drive to Albany, Oregon to help out. I’d only met Mark’s family a couple times; I still felt insecure around them and eager to please. I looked forward to helping clean and sort and pack boxes – things I was quite good at, and things that would enable me to lean on a shared activity while being around people I didn’t know very well.

Mark’s grandfather lived on a few, thickly-forested acres in north Albany in an old farmhouse. It was a beautiful patch of land, if a bit dark, even at high noon. A stack of broken-down packing boxes leaned against the side of the front porch when we pulled up. Inside were Mark’s grandfather, mother, older sister, Jennifer, and younger brother, Floyd. No actual packing had started. People walked around aimlessly, seeming uncertain where to start. I found their disorganization and lack of efficiency wearing.

“Where should we begin?” Jennifer asked, standing in the middle of the living room and looking about. She grabbed a stack of photo albums. “What about these?” She opened one. “Oh, wow. Mark, remember this?” She sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her.

Mark sat and leaned toward the open pages and laughed at what he saw. “We’ve got to get Floyd in on this! Hey, Floyd!” He hollered for their brother. Floyd appeared in the doorway. “You’ve got to check this out, man.” Floyd sat on Jennifer’s other side and peered at the book. At intervals, Jennifer slowly turned a page and it would start again: “Do you remember that? Can you believe we were ever so little?”

I stood near them for 10, 20, 30 minutes as they strolled – inched – down memory lane with each other. Eventually their mother called from another room, “Is there any more packing tape?” Her three offspring lifted their heads, initially disoriented to be torn from their reminiscences.

Jennifer said, “I ran out of it, too, Mom.”

“I’ll go get more!” I volunteered. “Maybe the corner store has some?” Turning onto their grandfather’s road from Highway 20, there’d been a small convenience store west of the intersection.

Mark frowned. “Do you think they’ll have any?” he asked me.

“If not I’ll find somewhere else.”

“Maybe the office store across the river?” Jennifer suggested.

I grabbed my purse. “Sure. If the convenience store doesn’t have it.”

Mark began to look more energized with the sort of energy that might motivate him to accompany me, or might decide that my errand wasn’t actually a good idea after all. “‘Bye!” I said, and was out the door and into my car before anyone could think to stop me.

I was seething. I drove too fast down the country lane muttering, “Rude. Thoughtless. Uncaring. Exclusive.”

As I approached where the road intersected Highway 20, the tree cover gave way to a sparkling, blue-sky day. The corner store was to my right. Straight ahead was a green highway sign. Above an arrow pointing west it read: “Corvallis 10 miles.”  That’s what I needed to do: I needed to go to Corvallis. Screw packing tape; screw Mark; screw his rude family.

I turned the car toward Corvallis in a burst of gravel, feeling at once free and triumphant. Ha! They’d tried to make me feel small and unwelcome. Well, I’d show them, I’d step right out of the cone of shame they’d constructed for me and be my own club of one.

On a sunny, late spring day, the drive between Albany and Corvallis is one of the finest Oregon has to offer. The highway is lined on the river side with incense cedar and grand fir trees. To the right, farms and fields show the tender green of early growth and the occasional Oregon white oak to complete the pastoral scene. My spirits lifted to the point of giddiness. Somewhere along the way, I decided I couldn’t possibly go to Corvallis without getting lunch at Nearly Normal’s. Even better! I’d escaped the crushing experience of being ignored and now, as if that weren’t enough, I was going to get to eat my favorite barbequed tempeh burger. Life was good.

No one had a cell phone in 1989. I briefly considered finding a pay phone before remembering that I didn’t know Mark’s grandfather’s phone number or last name. So, off the hook.

As expected, my barbequed tempeh burger was delicious. As I finished it and wiped my greasy fingers, I felt perhaps I’d been gone long enough. I paid my bill and walked to the packaging and mail store down the block for packing tape.

Mark was on the porch sorting the flattened boxes when I drove up. He straightened and waited for me to turn off the engine and get out of the car. After driving in the sunshine, the yard felt cold and oppressive.

“Hi!” I said cheerfully. I held up the packing tape. “Got it!”

His expression was quizzical, and something else. Maybe annoyed. “Where were you?”

I shrugged. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find packing tape.”


My family shrieked over this story. “Mom,” my daughter said. “Passive-aggressive much?”

“You think that was passive-aggressive?” I asked innocently. Telling the story, I felt effervescent, free. How had it slept in my Unconscious all this time, only to emerge whole at this precise moment?

Polly Young-Eisendrath might suggest that at the time this incident was happening, the story I told myself about it was one I liked: I’d been snubbed and took back my power. But not long after it happened, some part of my psyche knew the narrative was more complicated and less flattering than I’d first devised. But I wasn’t quite ready for this truer story, which featured me as not a hero, but as a scalawag. And so my mind did what minds do so well. It swept that story under the rug of my Unconscious.

Why did it emerge when it did? Things often skulk around in our Unconscious because our mind can’t tolerate anything that contradicts our self-perception. It can’t tolerate it because we experience this contradiction as shame: “It’s bad to be passive-aggressive. So if I’m featured in a story where I’m being passive-aggressive, I myself am, therefore, bad.” Most of us do anything we can to avoid feeling shame.

But something wonderful has happened with age. That story popped into my mind recently not just because it was relevant to our dinnertime conversation, but also because I can now accept that sometimes I’m passive-aggressive. And I can acknowledge the truth of this inside of a compassionate and full view of everything that I am. This updated, richer notion of what it means to be a human being enables me, instead of shying away from my flaws, to say instead, “Of course I’m passive-aggressive sometimes, I’m a human being. I’ll do my best to improve in this area, but there’s no need for me to rake myself over the coals for being imperfect; that just goes with the territory.”