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Monthly Archives: February 2013

An odd thing happened to me yesterday.  I’d been biking, and for some now-forgotten reason, I’d gotten off my bike and was walking the last few blocks to work.  A woman caught my attention.  She strongly reminded me of a colleague of mine, only it was as if this colleague had encountered such a sharp curve in the road of her life that she had slipped.  This woman’s hair was mashed on one side.  She wore a loose, stained dress and slippers.  She shuffled.  Then I literally shifted my gaze, and there was a man who strongly reminded me of a client of mine – only as if my client now found himself living under an overpass.

I see down-and-out (what a benign phrase) people every day out in the world.  But something about seeing these folks, who called others to mind, reminded me of the knife’s edge of fortune.  I had a teacher in graduate school who asked us on the first day of class: “What do you think the difference is between you and your clients?”  Her answer: Suffering.  For those who find themselves walking through our ordered worlds with their torn slips hanging below the hems of their dresses, and who mutter to themselves without benefit of a cell phone as camouflage, their pain has so overwhelmed their system that they aren’t interested in or capable of putting on the dog for the rest of us.

My long-ago teacher then said, “Imagine for a moment everyone you love.  Then imagine them all wiped out in some catastrophe.  How do you think your mind would respond to pain of that magnitude?”  Her point was that, given enough pain, we might also find ourselves looking fairly mentally ill.  That’s what struck me about yesterday: since these two strangers put me in mind of people I know and care about, I was reminded that, under certain circumstances, any of us could end up like these folks.

A writing teacher of mine is a homeless activist here in Portland.  She once asked students in a writing class to think about what would happen if we lost our homes.  All of us named people we knew who would take us in and help us.  “So, imagine,” she said, “that all these people we see on the streets have gone through their list, like your list, and for various reasons, there is now no one to help them.”

I am thinking of how close any of us is to that slide into destitution.  I am also thinking of how we are all a balm to each other against that happening.

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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 twenty-plus years earlier.  He was completely bald on top and had tufts of white hair that stood out above his ears.  He wore wire-rimmed glasses, 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.  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.  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 me.

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 John  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.  Why else would he introduce these people in this manner?

Was there some way I could beat a hasty retreat?  It seemed impossible since I had 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.