Sunday, October 28, 2012

Check Engine Light

I have several beginnings for a blog post in my head this week, and no middles or ends. Truth is, my engine isn’t functioning very well at the moment.

1. My check engine light came on Friday. Again. It’s probably nothing. Again. But I will have to get it checked out. Again. It is very likely that I have written about this before; but it seems one such reminder to check in with my engine is not sufficient. Either in my car or in my life. It all comes back to the spiral: we spiral in and out, it is the way of life. Significant moments and learnings and experiences return over and over, allowing us to harvest insight.

2. For the first time in at least 16 years, I did not plant pansies this fall. In North Carolina it wouldn’t be too late, perhaps. Well, maybe it is. But I don’t live in North Carolina anymore, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s too late here. The rains and the gray have begun; the warmth is done. Unlike North Carolina, once it’s gone here, it’s gone for the duration. There isn’t enough warmth to give pansies a chance to establish themselves before winter. And I don’t really care that I didn’t plant them. And maybe that is the real issue.

[For what it's worth, the folk lore about the width of the brown band on the wooly bear caterpillar, when you mix science with lore, is that if it says anything at all about the severity of winter, which it doesn't, it is more about the one past than the one coming.]

3. The rains and the gray skies seem to have settled in here in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe I will get tired of it; I am not going to claim that I won’t. To make such claims, too often means eating one’s words. However, I love the weather over the valley; and I have not longed for the 80 degree sun that North Carolinians were still enjoying earlier in the week. I really have not. I am, however, longing for a fire in the fireplace, a cat on the blanket over my lap, candles on the mantle, and birds at the feeder on the deck that I can watch from my spot on the sofa, maybe a pizza or a bowl of pasta or popcorn-for-dinner while watching a movie on TV. None of that is going to happen this winter. So what is going to happen? How do we breath life into what is in front of us, rather than dying inside for what is gone?
4. I got from yoga to South Sound shopping center without consulting Phoebe or getting lost, for the first time this week. I was tempted to make one or another of the same wrong turns I always make, but I didn't succumb. I forged on, trusting that the right road was going to come up eventually-and that when it did I would turn the right direction onto it.

And three notes about the mixture of spiraling into new life and regret for the one I left behind:

1. Tuesday’s local paper contained a story about being gay in Lewis County; or more specifically about R-74, the marriage equality referendum on the ballot. The first two columns were an interview with my sister. The facing page was an interview with my mother on the referendum and the similarities she sees to the discrimination she grew up with in the deep south, and included a picture of my mother and sister. A previous page included a guest commentary by me, tangentially on the same topic. The Staebler women are taking on the world, or at least the city. My father would have said that we are locally world famous. The best part was a guest commentary in the next issue, by a man with a transgender child. If the out and honest stories that we were a part of, helped him not be afraid to tell his story, I am especially gratified. How many others, whom we will never know about, found their way because of us?
2. I need to find a new coffee shop, and it pisses me off. I miss my Cafe Carolina. The guy who sleeps in a tent and lives the rest of the time at Santa Lucia, it seems, and who talks non-stop to people at other tables, picked me as his target today. Maybe because I was the only one in there. Just as I was about to either leave or be more forthright than simply ignoring him-which wasn’t working-someone else came in and sat down with me, at my table. I know I should be more open to the possibilities that come from unexpected encounters, but I really wasn’t in the mood. And I was trying to get started on this post; and the thought train screeched to a dead stop, just as the did the one on the tracks beyond the window. The problem is, the only other coffee shop in town is Starbucks, which is not an option.

3. My new grandson is being baptized today in North Carolina and I am not there. Emma and Wynne came to visit last night, and we are going to brunch with my sister and a birthday-celebrating friend this morning.

New life and new opportunities and missing the old one spiral together, passing each other as they burst out and close in.

And that is what has been swirling in my head as I try to come up with a topic for this post. At the bottom of it all, is the sure knowledge that my check engine light is on. And I really don’t know, yet, where to take it for repairs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Leaving the Garden

When Adam and Eve left the garden, story began. When they walked away from the safety of their own small world, they opened themselves to exposure to other ways of experiencing and thinking. Their story became mingled with others’ stories that were different from their own. There was no going back; no putting the story back in the box.

And so it goes still. With the invention of boats and planes and spaceships, telegraphs and telephones and the internet; the stories of one people meet the stories of another and converge into a collective story. Try as we might, they cannot again be separated.

Another 50th anniversary of an opening of story this month: the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was ten years old, living in this same house I am again living in. Then as now, the vine maple leaves were turning red and gold; the sun rose behind the mountain over the fog-filled valley; fir needles, cherry and big leaf maple leaves covered the driveway. What I remember about the days and months following the disclosure of those thirteen days would almost fill a matchbox. “Duck and cover” drills, as if getting under a desk would protect one from nuclear fallout. The information that people were putting bomb shelters in their homes with supplies to last a few weeks, as if one would want to outlive the world. But I knew nothing of that ridiculousness then. We were doing what we could as the story exploded to include new stories that we couldn't understand.

If the Crisis was discussed in my family or in my fifth grade classroom (both of which I doubt), I do not remember. Such things were not talked about with children, perhaps appropriately. There
is an instinct to let children stay in the garden of innocence as long as possible. I wonder if my parents talked about it to each other, or if they wanted to stay in the garden, too. Afterall, they had already lived through the depression and a world war. Didn’t they deserve time in the garden of denial in the safety of their small town, cocooned with their children in their home on the side of a hill overlooking a bucolic valley?

But whatever the personal stories, the world left the garden again when the story of how close we came to ending the narrative came to light. I think it may be true that we have not really been able to return to that particular illusion of safety since.

It is so hard to leave the garden we know. I understood that the Lenten rose in my North Carolina garden would bloom around Easter and the blooms would hang beneath the leaves, changing colors all summer, and new growth would come from the ground in the fall. I knew the winter jasmine would bloom bright yellow in the dead of otherwise colorless winter. I knew the gardenia would perfume the air when it got hot. Then I planted a banana tree. I had no idea how that would change the garden. I had no clue yet how to take care of it. Each plant I added to the garden, changed its story; changed my story. And, yes, it made care of the garden more complex. And the complexity made it more beautiful.

We are just sixteen days from a historic vote in the state of Washington. The 42nd state is poised to become the first state in the union to provide, by popular vote, all people the opportunity to marry. Nothing really will change, in practice, for LGBT couples- Washington already has a comprehensive domestic partnership law. What will be different is that one more stand for equality will be made. And the story will move on toward the day when no one thinks about discriminating against a portion of the population.

And there is resistance. It is the narrative of our society through the decades. Women fight for equality, and men resist leaving the garden. Blacks fight for equality, and whites resist leaving the garden. People who are gay fight for equality, and people who are straight resist leaving the garden. We want to keep the story simple, familiar, and understandable. And so, like duck and cover, we fight back with ridiculousness; because it is all we have in the face of inevitable change.

Stories, like that my 96-year-old mother told a reporter this week about how discrimination is wrong and that everyone should be able to marry the one they love, won't change minds. Not immediately. But when we articulate our experience, and when it is written down for others to read, it becomes story. And it joins with our neighbor's story. And our collective story transforms the world. When we leave our small garden to join another's exodus from their small garden, we plant a bigger garden-one that holds us all.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

They Will Know Us by Our Stories

One of my favorite National Public Radio shows is “This American Life.” It is storycatching, pure and simple. Yesterday, in the car, I came in in the middle of a story: an elderly woman relating time spent in a Louisiana neighborhood some years ago, in which her and her husband’s neighbors were a gay couple. They were, she said, the best of neighbors in a bigoted neighborhood. They were kind and helpful and reliably dependable whenever anyone needed anything. It was just who they were, and the fact of their sexual preferences became unimportant. She doubts that even today a black family would be accepted into that neighborhood, but gay people are welcomed wholeheartedly. She caught that story of an ordinary neighborhood in a place in time, carried it into the future, and told it back out.

Storytelling, the human experience passed down from family to family, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor. It transforms us. “My story is myself; and I am my story. This is all you will know of me; it is all I will know of you. This is all that will survive us: the stories of who we are, the ways that people speak our names and remember something we did, an event we lived through, a clever story we were known for, or hopefully, some wisdom. They are mostly gone now-grandparents, aunts and uncles-and you and I will soon be gone, too. What is left of their lives, and what will be left our ours, is story” (Christina Baldwin: Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story).

What, you may ask, does storytelling have to do with the garden, and thereby this blog about the garden? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. I knew when I left my soil and plants garden in North Carolina and moved across the country, following the highways and byways through the taller-than-an-elephant’s-eye cornfields and across the windblown plains and sagebrush deserts and over the soaring mountain ranges, I was going in search of a different garden to live in. I have told you the story of that other garden, now listen as I catch a new story.

Storycatching and storytelling. My aching desire to write more story fluctuates between hopelessness and hot burn. New gardens take time to come to fruition. There are false starts and discouragements; and there are triumphs, however small. There are times that I feel I am delusional to think I can write anything; and times that I kick ass-if only in my own mind. 

I asked my mother this week if she knew where her name came from. “Yes,” she said. “There was a socialite in my [Tennessee birth] town name Stella Jo, I expect it was spelled like that. My mother liked the name.” She said the socialite was in the newspaper a lot, or maybe she said she probably was. I wouldn’t have thought her mother read a newspaper, but our stories include a lot of could haves and guesses to fill in blanks; and that is okay. It’s her story and who am I to question or correct. (Now that I have written that, I may get more story, though!)

“My father wrote it on the birth certificate as ‘Stella Joe,’ with an “e” on the end. In school, there was also a Stella Mae, and we were both called Stella. So I changed my name to one word, Stellajoe, so there would be no mistake. Later, when asked what my middle name was and when I replied that I didn’t have one, I was told that everyone has a middle name. When I married I began to use my maiden name initial in my signature.” Perhaps I knew and had forgotten that my mother’s first name does not match her birth certificate. We forget a lot of stories.

This is part of my mother’s story. And of mine and my sisters’. And now I have written it down in the garden.

I went on a cemetery tour on a rainy yesterday. It was not my beloved historic Oakwood in Raleigh for sure. But all cemeteries are filled with stories. Some are widely known, most are not. The docent passed along some of the known stories. Like the Martin family: lumber mill owners and the area’s largest employer. Until the mill burned down and caused a personal and local economic collapse. Frank and Mellie Martin (family of one of the victims of the Centralia Wobbly massacre-her relative’s grave visited by President Warren G. Harding as he passed through Centralia) died within three months of each other in the early 1940s. Their story links the stories of two families. And storytellers pass it on. Two fir trees, planted next to their graves, have grown side-by-side to great height, telling the Martin's story of love for trees and each other. My friend Phillip is restoring their home, lost to them after the mill fire, and telling about them; and so their story continues.

“Story shifts us into connection when only moments earlier we felt isolated” (C. Baldwin).

I admit to a semi-love of FaceBook. FaceBook has been vilified by many; even by those who use it. But each time a friend, or even a stranger, posts something on their wall or responds to another’s post, it is storytelling. Like hieroglyphics scratched into cave walls, it tells us in millions and millions of snippets who we are. Each time someone reads it, it is storycatching.

I have kept a journal off and on from my first pink diary with its tiny lock and key, to the volumes one upon another written weekly for the last dozen years and a few from years before, to the past two and a half years of this blog. I have often asked myself why, and the answer is to know myself, and to leave my story behind when I am gone. Like Christina Baldwin, maybe paying attention to myself is my job, telling my story is mine to claim, and maybe my life will be different if I do. I no longer ask that question.

(This photograph tells one of our family stories; let me know if you want to hear it.)

And so, an invitation:

Write something. Write something now. Or tomorrow. But soon. Just a sentence. Look out the window; what do you see? Do you see the utility line? or the pigeon sitting on it? or the red-leafed tree hanging over it? or the pair of Reeboks flung over it? or the clematis vine climbing the guy wire? What you see tells something about you. When you write it down or tell it to someone, you share your story, with yourself and maybe with others. Send me a sentence (, or leave it in a comment on this post. I want to know you. As I want you to know me.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Possibilities, No Promises

“There is a possibility-but no promises-of rain in the Pacific Northwest in about a week; breaking the about-three-month drought that has cursed or blessed us, depending on your point of view.” I hear this on the local public radio station Saturday morning as I head down the hill to Santa Lucia, past red and gold leaves and frost-covered roofs sparkling in the sunlight. The natives-at least the ones who are not dependent on rain for crops-are, I expect, happy to squeeze out every sunny day they can get; having lived through the longest rainy-season on record. (I made that last bit up, based on anecdotal evidence: my sister’s rantings.) I, on the other hand, moved here at the beginning of the drought from a state where it doesn’t rain nearly enough to suit my PNW blood (though it did this summer-after I left).

A friend emailed me this week to say it was snowing in her native Minnesota. She is currently living in North Carolina and that weather happening made her long for home. I have been enjoying the lung-cleansing crisp clear mornings here-and the afternoon warmth. The frosty roofs make me smile with anticipation of a possible real winter. I hope, after a snowless last winter in NC, there is white stuff here this year. But not yet!

This week’s presidential debate is disappointing, or encouraging, depending on your point of view. The subsequent jobs report is hopeful, or twisted lies, depending on your point of view. Marriage is sacred, or a mockery, depending on who it is doing the marrying, and who is doing the opining. Is there anything at all that everyone agrees on? I must say, I hope not. That sounds kind of scary to me. At the risk of turning this post into a sermon, even more frightening is the political climate that has been happening in this country and around the world in recent years. The polarization into one’s own viewpoint to the exclusion of being able to see any shred of truth in anyone else’s way of seeing the world has probably been at the root of every war-in groups as small as family to as large as countries-since the beginning of time. The current time is no exception; we are at war within this country.

Kate Maloy (A Stone Bridge North, 2002), a Quaker, says, “I believe every religion has a piece of truth, as every human being does, even if it is difficult for outsiders, or even insiders, to discern. Troubles arise when we mistake our own small piece as the whole and regard the truth in others’ possession as upstart lies. ...When God fragmented oneness into the multifarious universe, She gave both Herself and us, out of boundless, risky, heartbreaking love, the only possible route to knowledge and understanding: comparison, diversity, opposition, contrast. ...Creation is fragmentation, first. To make anything-a house, a quilt, an omelet-we first have to break, cut, tear, collect the pieces or ingredients. Perhaps our job on earth is to find as many scraps of original truth as we can and fit them together again.”

The garden is created from the tearing apart of the seed pods and the scattering of its potential onto other pieces of earth. Birds and bees and butterflies remove truth from one flower and plant it in another, propagating the species and giving birth to beautiful new ideas. In the spring, the soil is tilled and torn, and the garden is augmented, not destroyed, by the introduction of fresh rich soil from other sources.

As I explore my universe this autumn, at Mt. Rainier and around my home in the woods, I cannot help but notice that it is not the red leaves that makes the landscape beautiful; it is the red, orange, yellow, and green living side-by-side that makes the world sing.

There are no promises in this life. No promise of good health, permanent relationships, financial wealth, fulfilling jobs, high-yield gardens, “enough” rain or sun or snow. But when we open ourselves to the idea of some bit of truth in every individual, political party, religion, and even climate, we open our lives to possibility. When rain and sun come together, there is a rainbow. A rainbow containing every color in the world.