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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Change of Perspective

North 30th Street in Tacoma, on a sunny spring day, feels like the world's longest playground slide. If not for realities like traffic and pedestrians I could lose myself in the panorama of sea, land, and sky, the fantasy of an open road and a fortunate failure of brakes. I can imagine the sensation of sliding downhill in a blur, yelling "Yahoo!" until I skidded right through Old Town and finally splashed into Commencement Bay. But if I had to walk up that hill it would look a lot different to me.

That view from the top, heading east, is part of my perspective. I know this city from familiar angles. I know its different neighborhoods, nice and not-so-nice, the downtown, the architecture, industrial areas, parks and pretty front yards. Seen from my usual routes it holds no surprises. I know it in all its grittiness and glory. Or at least I thought I did.

In the same self-confident way we believe we know our friends, our family and its history, what living in America is like, and what "normal" means. Our expectations when it comes to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness feel reasonable and deserved. But what is the real picture? It all depends on your vantage point.

Yesterday, while doing research for an article, I spoke to people from several local agencies that run or are involved with food banks. I learned two things. One is that everyday, all around me, other human beings including children and the elderly go hungry or face the risk of hunger. I also learned that there are caring people who wake up every morning determined to keep that from happening. But if our perspective comes from relative comfort and security problems, like hunger can be invisible to us.

Last Sunday I sailed aboard the tall ship ADVENTURESS on Commencement Bay. I'm not accustomed to looking at Tacoma from the water and it made me realize how much of what surrounds us we just don't see. The view of the city from that perspective charmed me in a new way. While driving the streets you don't appreciate how many old trees still grow in Tacoma, or how nineteenth century buildings and the graceful curve of a modern highway can be at peace with each other like different generations of a family around a dinner table. It all looked so different from the water side.

So do we really know our world, our neighbors, or our country? What do words like freedom, oppression, lucky, unlucky, young, old, rich, or poor really mean? It all depends on where you stand. Consider looking at things from a different perspective. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oh Brother, HOW old art thou?

Dear Big Brother David,

As I sit here writing I'm trying to figure out how you can possibly be turning seventy this week and how I will soon be fifty-six. Where did all those years go? What happened to that big lively family of seven kids in the old neighborhood at Center on our beloved Vashon Island?

I still remember climbing up in your lap and generally making a pest of myself. I remember when you seemed as tall as a giant, a lanky kid with a mop of dark hair and an infectious laugh and ready smile, while I toddled around with Fisher-Price pull toys. Just before my fourth birthday you graduated from high school and began to exist for me as a kind of mythical figure who left home and returned in a Coast Guard uniform, bearing gifts including a badly stretched sock full of pennies you'd saved. It might as well have been a pirates treasure chest. And I haven't forgotten the real grass skirts from some tropical isle. We little sisters spent hours hula dancing to the music of 45s on the old record player.

Remember the time you showed up in the driveway, unexpectedly, on a motorcycle... with a BEARD, of all things? THAT caused some excitement! Then you settled into marriage and raising your own kids and I didn't see you as often but always looked forward to the times I did. I appreciated you coming to my high school graduation and still have the necklace you gave me then.

These days when most families don't have seven kids spread out over twenty years little girls don't know what it is to have a big brother like you, a kind of a hero, a brother who became a science teacher, owned a real boa constrictor, had endless curiosity, collected interesting things and knew the names of all kinds of rocks and fossils. I wish we could have shared the same memories and laughs you have in common with your other siblings from those earlier days of our family's history. I came along late and things had changed. My childhood, mostly in the '60s, had a whole different flavor than yours. But you've always been special to me.

Now that we're both adults (and then some) I enjoy the real closeness we've found, the way we share news of our lives, joke around, and talk about "the Family" and all it's idiosyncrasies, the happy and sad times, the joys and aggravations of relationships. Maybe we never rode bikes together or teased each other in the back seat of the car, but you've still been, and always will be, one of my favorite people and connected to me in deep and enduring ways.

I love you David. When I walk down at Point Defiance here in Tacoma and see the ferry make its same old run over to the island, I'm often overwhelmed with emotions and memories of growing up there. You're always part of them. I hope this birthday is just one of many, many more to come and that life still holds wonderful adventures and surprises for you, better even than a sock full of pennies or a real grass skirt.

Happy Birthday,with love from your baby sister.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

All About Birds: an interactive website you'll love

Two weeks ago a migrating flock of swallows arrived in our neighborhood and from our high windows we watched them swirl and dart in circular flight above the street corner. I love birds. Who doesn't? It's May, the month when birds return to their northern homes and once again I delight in seeing and hearing them all around me.

But I wouldn't actually call myself a "birder,"
even though I've written several posts about birds and programs offered by Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. I don't go on birding field trips, keep a notebook, or even own a decent pair of binoculars, but like a lot of people I enjoy observing birds in my own backyard here in Tacoma or in places like Point Defiance Park. When I see a new visitor to our feeders at home I often get out my bird book for identification purposes.

Recently though, my casual interest took a leap as dramatic as a fledgling's from the nest. It happened when I received an email from Pat Leonard at Cornell about the Lab of Ornithology's newly redone All About Birds website. Before I knew it I'd spent about an hour playing with and exploring all the interactive, multimedia features. Now I'm sharing this website with all of you because it's just TOO FUN to keep to myself.

Some of you reading this may already be expert birders but even beginners will gain confidence quickly if they take advantage of all the different aspects of this site. Among them, under the tab "Birding Basics" is a new video series called "Inside Birding" that teaches the four basic Keys to Better Bird Identification: Size and Shape, Color Pattern, Behavior, and Habitat. You'll feel like an expert in no time. But these videos are only four out of so many others I can begin to count them. Be sure to click on the "Living Bird" tab to watch birds in action in their natural surroundings and as you do you'll find an article, map of where they can be found, and plenty of other great features. Then there are the nest web cams. How exciting for kids or adults to see birds live in a nest box, flying in and out or caring for their young.

Have you ever heard a bird song and wondered which species it was? Now you can listen to to beautiful clear recordings of whistles, chirps, and twitters and haunting flute-like sounds and feel like you're out in nature.
The Bird Guide's list of 51 common species includes audio tracks too. Eventually all of the more than 500 species in the bird guide will be included in that feature.

Next time you do venture into the fields, forests, or even your own backyard be sure to take your camera. I found a helpful video on photographing birds that gives all kinds of great tips for good results. This site offers even more: articles, photos, maps, etc.

Obviously I'm pretty excited about this. In fact I'm going to quit writing now and say goodbye. I want to check back on that nest cam. I hope you'll take a look at all of these links and let me know if you enjoyed discovering this too. Thanks for reading and a huge "Thank You" to the wonderful people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Have fun.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rainy Morning Reverie

Something about rainy mornings makes me turn inward. Maybe our hearts and souls subconsciously react to rain in the same way we do when we choose to stay indoors, put on the tea kettle, stare out the window from our cozy nest of comfort. Sometimes the outside world isn’t as welcoming as the inner one, the one always there like an old photo album on the shelf, always nearby, quietly waiting a turn with our attention. It is a world without time, what essayist Scott Russell Sanders once called “the perennial present of memory.”

I’ve thought about memory this week while trying to help my thirteen-year-old great-niece Emma with a project for her U.S. History class. She needed information about our ancestors and their daunting journeys as immigrants and believers in “manifest destiny.” Somehow I have ended up the family historian, which is fine with me, but I don’t know everything. My mother and all but one of her siblings are gone now, taking their memories with them, whole lifetimes of memories, along with the bits like unraveled threads, of the memories of their parents and grandparents before them. I know some of those stories, but with each generation the threads show more wear and threaten to crumble into lint.

From here in Tacoma I called my mother’s first cousin, a woman in her eighties living clear across the country in Massachusetts. We hadn't talked in a few months. Like me, “Doris” is the historian for her own branch of the family. I could count on her to add another perspective to our story, a view from a different window. Things started out well, and then the truth began to seep into my awareness. Doris was a little confused. Doris and her precious, valuable, irreplaceable memories were starting to slip away from me.

Helping Emma makes me more aware of my responsibilities to myself, to her, and even to her unborn children. I want to keep those threads of memories going, spin new fiber into the twist of them, make them strong. I want her to know who she is and where she came from. Those are the family memories.

Then we have our own private ones and our own secrets. I’m in the process of transcribing my mother’s five year diary, 1933-1937, turning those five years of her life into a computer file we can all share. Last Monday was the fifteenth anniversary of her death. I looked at the entries on that day of May 4, 1936 and the day before. Two weeks away from her wedding day she writes “No one will ever know, not even Howard, how I felt the rest of the evening” and “I feel terrible today. I have cried so much . . . I’ve never been so disconsolate.” By the next day she seemed much better and her usual happy self after that.

As a writer I know each of us carries volumes of stories inside. I have mine and you have yours. If the past is indeed, perennially present, did whatever happened on May 3rd haunt my mother for the rest of her life? I will never know. In some ways I never knew the real “her” at all and she never knew me. I have come to realize the truth of this, that no matter how we share our love, our days, feelings, thoughts and joys, no one else can ever know us completely. We all have these secret places in the heart. A precious few others may share some of the same memories: a certain moment on a certain day, words spoken so heavy with meaning, a look, a touch, a mutual joy or grief.

I sit here with my tea growing cold and the rain still falling. Forgive me if I haven’t informed or entertained you today. It’s the fault of the rain and the way it makes me feel. It isn’t sadness, or regret, and I’m not at all depressed by it. In fact I greeted it as I opened the curtains, like an old, old friend come to visit, one as familiar as kin. No, I’m not unhappy, just spending a quiet, rainy morning in “the perennial present of memory.”