One of my favorite meals to make is potato leek soup with jalapeno biscuits.  It’s been awhile since the weather and my schedule cooperated for this endeavor, but this Thursday, I had the time and the day was chilly, so…  While I was rolling out the biscuits, I happened to also be listening to Adele 21.  I don’t know which it was – the Adele, or the rolling pin – but I thought about Simone, my niece, who died two years ago last month.

Simone loved to sing, and she loved to bake. Five years ago, when she lived with us for a time, she baked a rhubarb pie and spent some time on the crust, adding a heart detail on the top of it.  A couple months ago, I thought about that pie and said to Kami, hadn’t that been wonderful, and rhubarb pie was my favorite – and Kami said, “Mom, she made that pie for you.”

I am pierced by this memory. It is one of the harshest thing I know, the way we humans sometimes completely miss each other, and how sometimes we don’t get to come back and try again. I carry that now, and it fuels my efforts; I try not to miss the signals of those who are still here. I fail at that more than I’d like. Perhaps that’s what regret is for: to use our sorrows about the past to shine more awareness on what we still have a chance to love today.

When I was ten and living in Massachusetts, my paternal grandfather sent me a small instamatic camera through the mail from Oregon.  As I recall, this gift came out of the blue, possibly not even connected to a birthday or Christmas, which was highly unusual.  In 1972, you paid for film development and didn’t find out till afterwards if the photos were any good, so I tried to make every photo count.

I didn’t have a knack for photography, but over the course of the rest of his life, my grandpa gave me two, maybe three, more cameras. It never occurred to me to wonder why I got the old camera when he upgraded, and this is still a little mysterious to me. Did he give similar things to his other grandchildren? Did he think I’d be good at it? I don’t know the answers.

At the beginning of this month, a neighbor told me about a photographer who’d invited people to take a photo a day for the month. I was intrigued, and also a little intimidated. Then I remembered the nature photography class Luken had take as a nine-year-old. I asked if he’d come into the yard with me for a lesson. In ten minutes, I feel like he made me a better photographer than I’d managed to become through trial and error. The results are below. See if you can tell which was about the lesson on contrast, which about angle or perspective.

There was something so sweet about finding myself with my son in the yard taking pictures; it’s something my grandfather started almost 45 years ago, and I might finally be getting the hang of it.

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A couple days ago, Garth and I were returning home from 6 a.m. yoga.  There’s a methadone clinic between the yoga studio and our house, and it’s always busy first thing in the morning.  This morning, as we passed by, my eye was caught by a flash of bright pink.  Walking along, holding her dad’s hand as they left the clinic, was a small girl of no more than three years old.  Her blond hair was tangled and mashed on one side from sleep; she wore her pink sleeper and held a doll close to her chest.

My first thought was one of sadness.  Here was a little girl (my narrative went) dragged from her bed on a cold, dark morning so her former heroin addict dad could get his methadone.

Then I saw myself: a middle class woman of comfortable means driving home from a yoga class before the start of work, pronouncing on a scene I knew nothing about.

What if I had it all wrong and my narrative didn’t describe her experience at all?  What if methadone has given her daddy back to her? What if this is the first time in her life that he has held her hand and it makes her feel loved? What if the people at the clinic fuss over her and she adores the ritual of entering the warm building with its wafting smell of coffee and its smiling adults – smiling at her because they are uplifted by her fresh presence?

I want all children to grow up safe and warm and unscathed by things like drugs and early-morning awakenings, but I also want to remember that a life which appears, to me, to be devoid of these things may still be a life that is loved by the person living it.

The summer when I turned 15, my family moved from outside NYC to Albany, Oregon.  We went from an east coast life where we were less than an hour away from “culture” and where we partook of symphonies, theater and dance performances a few times every year.  During that hey-day, I saw the Martha Graham company and the Pilobolus Dance Company; we saw The Wiz on Broadway (thanks, Tom and Kathy), the Boston Pops and the NY Philharmonic.

In Albany, our fortunes crashed a bit.  Albany, Oregon is almost as different from Yorktown Heights, NY as Kenya would have been, only it was less interesting to me than Kenya.  Where NY had felt expansive – an environment well-matched to my emerging adolescent sensibilities – Albany felt closed and constricted.  That first term of my sophomore year felt like an endless slog.

Then right around the winter holidays, miraculously, my mom scored tickets to see Linn-Benton Community College’s production of Godspell.  She got three tickets, one each for my sisters and me.  I’d seen the television production of this play in my 8th grade class in NY.  Sitting in the small, modern theater the night of the performance, I was someone who hadn’t known she was thirsty until she was offered a drink.

The cast danced and sang through the first act and I was entranced.  At intermission, joyful rock music played and the cast invited the audience up on stage to dance.  The guy playing Judas beckoned to me and that was all I needed.  Up on stage I hopped and we started to dance.  He asked what I thought, and I said, “It was great.  You guys are great.”  “Where’re you from?” he asked.  “New York,” I said.  “In fact, I saw Godspell when I lived there.”  “On Broadway?” he asked breathlessly.

How could I turn this guy’s enthusiasm aside?  “As a matter of fact, yes,”  I said.  “And you are way better.”  “Really?  Wow, thanks.”

Fast forward a couple years.  It’s my senior year in high school in Sweet Home, Oregon.  My friends, the Steiners (Jacquie, Julie and Mike), start telling me about a cousin of theirs who’s an actor.  He’s gone to NY to try and make it.  His aspirations had been encouraged two years earlier when a member of the audience during a performance of Godspell told him she thought his performance was Broadway-ready.

I really hope he’s glad he followed his dream.

Yesterday and last night, part of the Arctic front that’s been moving through the upper States arrived in Portland.  It made for a restless night.  People had set out their garbage cans and recycling bins next to the street for trash pick-up this morning.  The wind was so strong, it picked up the occasional recycling bin and sent it crashing down the street like the noisiest ever tumbleweed.  The wind shifted here and there, and from some angles it thrummed through the house with a sound like  distant helicopter rotors.  It brought with it a freeze, or at least a near-freeze.  This morning has dawned impossibly bright.  The ground crunched a little as I walked through the yard to the garage.  The maple, oak and aspen trees in our yard shimmer with fall colors and the air feels freshly scrubbed.  I have always been in love with November.

Simone Carolyn Shel Upshaw, July 09, 1995 – Oct. 05, 2013. Simone Upshaw, 18, best known for her amazing unique cupcakes, quick wit and penchant for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, died Saturday of untreatable sarcoma. Simone graduated from Pacific Crest Community School where she excelled in theater, writing, art and cupcakes. She had planned an ambitious year at Portland Community College that included first-year Japanese, one of the many steps she’d taken to fulfill her dream of traveling to Japan this spring. As a native Southeast P-towner, Simone was known by neighbors and local shop-keepers as sophisticated (they didn’t know about the My Little Pony obsession), sweet and very polite. But, behind the well-insulated doors at The School of Rock, she belted out Stevie Wonder or Christina Aguilera with a gusto that belied her composed demeanor. Simone’s complexity cannot be fully described in these few simple paragraphs. The kitchen is full of giant tubs of unsalted butter, enormous bins of granulated sugar, every imaginable cake tin and unanswered requests for vegan unicorn cupcakes. The saddest thing is not remembering what she accomplished or how many lives she touched in those few 18 years, but to imagine, given who we knew her to be, what greatness, what beauty, what love has been left undone.

One of these days I’ll actually write something of my own.  In the meantime, I heard the most inspiring Radio Lab show yesterday – in particular, about the amazing strength shown by California Congresswoman Barbara Lee a few days after 9/11 to vote her conscience.  I so admire anyone whose behavior challenges me to be the best person I can be.


I felt a little like Odysseus the other day.  I was near the river in one of the more industrial-feeling parts of Portland.  Blocks earlier, I’d bought a banana and eaten it.  Now only  the peel was left.  I said to myself, I will walk with this banana peel until I see somewhere to throw it away.

Not unlike for Odysseus with his oar, it was quite a journey.  I did not meet sirens or the cyclops but I did walk by hipsters drinking beer in the blasting sun at one of our warehouse turned brew pubs.  I also passed a tall skeletal elderly woman with fly-away dandelion fluff hair, black bangles on one arm and an aquamarine-colored tattoo of a VW bug on the other.

I walked 15 blocks before I encountered a trash can.  As Odysseus said when his journey finally ended, Whew!

Last week in Orion magazine, one of my favorite essayists, Anthony Doerr wrote the below.  Enjoy.

“What are miracles? Miracles are avocados in winter and starling swarms and the handwriting of children. They’re bridges that let trucks carrying toilet paper for thousands zip across uncrossable rivers and books that contain the voices of the dead.

“Once, my scientist brother showed me a housefly under an electron microscope. Savannahs of small hairs grew out of the fly’s nose. Rows of perfect domes arced over each compound eye. There was as much intricacy in a barb on one of the fly’s legs as there is in a Shakespearean sonnet.

“The towels in my hotel room are deeply, amazingly white. The lotion smells like paradise.

“We sit for a minute on the bed, my caveman and I, dusk on Miracle Day, the lamps off, and watch the Seattle skyline bloom out of the fog. Gulls cry invisibly. Out there, beyond my windows, people are eating ground-up cows from Argentina. They’re reading Whitman:Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs! They’re building towers of glass, dreaming of mackerel, studying gridlock, falling in love. Above us, above the mist, 50 sextillion Earth-like planets swing around 50 sextillion Sun-like suns. Galaxies fly away from us. Mica glitters on a trillion rocks.

“My telephone rings, and I study it for a moment before answering. It’s as much curse as marvel: a wafer of glass and plastic that embodies rare mineral mining, carbon emissions, slave labor. And yet, when I answer, my sons want to show me, in real-time, the snow falling in our backyard five hundred miles away.

“They hold the phone out into the darkness. I can just make out clumps of flakes falling on the foothills. Everything, if you study it closely enough, is a miracle.”

Here’s the link if you want to read the whole thing.

A couple weeks ago, I went to my favorite used clothing store hoping to find a tunic-lengthed shirt to go with a skirt I have.  I found a simple black, scoop-necked, empire-waisted number and loved how it fit.  It wasn’t until I got it home that I looked at the tag and saw if was the brand called Motherhood.

In other words, the shirt that fit my specifications was made for pregnant women.

Did this make me cry?  Au contraire!  It opened doors, because now I had a heretofore unrealized resource for comfortable clothing that fits my body.  Praise be.

This, then, is my Mother’s Day offering.  Making babies changes our bodies in a way that keeps on giving.  And how could it be otherwise?  Portland dads often mark the transition to fatherhood with tattoos of their kids’ names and birth dates.  Mothers are marked already.

When I bend to touch my toes, and then tuck in my chin and look back up at my belly button, the folds and puckering of my skin can look almost like a thick-skinned tropical flower, my belly button the center, my thick, stretched belly skin fanning out like petals.

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The illusion works better if I squint, but I like thinking of my round, sagging belly as a flower my children left behind to remind me they were there.  As if I could ever forget!

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