Becoming a Westerner

A few years ago, when I first realized I had become a Westerner, I was driving east on the dirt section of Park County Road 5, with Colorado’s Weston Pass in my rear view and Pikes Peak a distant wedge of white in the blue sky. Spring grass outlined an oval pond, and an empty paddock leaned into a small hill. Lucinda Williams crooned through the car speaker: “Come out West and see, the best that it could be.” I joined my voice with her drawl, vowels lengthening like snakes uncurling in the sun: “I know you won’t stay permanently, but come out West and see.” I didn’t know anything about permanence when I was eighteen, but I came to Denver from Florida on a one-way airline ticket.

Born in the nation’s capital, I spent my first fourteen years in a near-suburb of DC. I listened to my mother speak her native Icelandic, a language I never learned, while navigating the mystifying terrain of race in 1970’s America. I was sometimes the white girl on the outside of the circle in a mostly black neighborhood, and I was also the child of an immigrant who saw Americans as others. She might say, conspiratorially, American girls are so skinny or Americans don’t care about fashion or Americans don’t even know where Iceland is. She probably didn’t say, You belong here or You will find your place one day. But my confusion about my identity is my own, a byproduct less of my background, perhaps, than of my anxious tendency to hold myself apart from people and from communities I love, then grieve my sense of wounded exclusion.

I’ve never been one thing all the way, not the white girl I look like, not the American I sound like, and not the sane woman I impersonate. Where are you from? people ask when I meet them. My answer depends on who’s asking.  I grew up in  DC but my mother was from Iceland, I tell someone with a foreign accent. I grew up in DC but went to high school in Florida, I tell black folks, in part to explain how my voice automatically slows in their presence, dropping from a northern white cadence to the softer, warmer tone I associate with America’s south. In grammar school, I was immersed in African American English. My mother’s immigration from Iceland–and our family’s move to the DC suburbs–coincided with a wave of the Great Migration north from Jim Crow south. As a child I spoke, as my Uncle George pointed out, with a “black accent.” It is a way of speaking that feels both more natural and less foreign than my mother’s native language.

Claiming a definite geographic home, though, has never felt natural. But thirty years after moving to Denver, on a strip of road as familiar to me as the back of my hand, I suddenly stopped feeling like a visitor to the American west. My life in Denver expanded from loneliness in my late teens to college and love, then to a joint mortgage and co-parenting. Twenty-one years ago, when I was pregnant with our third son, we watched in awe with my parents as the logs of our Fairplay cabin were lifted into place over a concrete foundation that had washed out the summer before. Home is in the memories I have here, and home is the peacefulness of the mountains that has slowly smoothed out the rough edges of my chronic unbelonging.

As Lucinda and I sang, It’s over, I know it, but I can’t let go, I turned right at Fairplay’s only stoplight, then parked under the rodeo logo of Prather’s Market. The building’s brown cinder block walls soaked up meager spring warmth as I squinted into the sunlight beaming down from Mount Democrat. It took a long time for me to learn the names of some of these  peaks: Sheep Mountain, Mount Sherman, alpine crests in the shape of praying hands.

When my shopping  was done, I set plastic grocery bags into the back of my red Subaru wagon, its doors scratched by mountain bikes and ski poles. My hair hung loose around my face, and the wind lifted my cotton scarf while I loaded the last of my provisions.

As I plunked a jug of drinking water behind my passenger’s seat, a blue convertible BMW purred up alongside me, the top thrown open to the warming day. A white guy in a baseball cap, wearing an expensive-looking casual shirt. Speaking with the authority of the Pope saying mass, he told me, I saw a sign about a barbecue as I drove into town. The man’s confident bearing belied his confusion about what to do, where to go next. Was he asking me for directions?

I don’t know anything about that barbecue, I told him. You might ask in Prather’s. I bet they know where it is. I nodded with my chin toward the door behind him. He glanced briefly at the entrance, then turned back to me, hesitant. Nah, I’ll just drive around some more. As he zoomed off in his shiny toy, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. I was amused by the almost endearing arrogance of the Beemer guy, but my glee had a different source. As I got back in my car, I said aloud, I do believe I was mistaken for a local. Smiling in the sun-warmed driver’s seat, I turned on Marvin Gaye and headed back home, not north to Denver, but south, home to our cabin.

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Dad’s last visit to the cabin, circa 2008, next to the husband and the windows they framed out together.

Wilma and Lupe

Sometimes it takes the loss of those who live close-by to really appreciate what great neighbors we have. Demographics have changed in my old Denver neighborhood since I moved here in 1989. Take Wilma and Lupe, for instance, who moved in next door about five years ago. They were colorful friends who loved to wake up early and roam in their garden, especially after a summer rain. They would pull at a weed or two, then yank up juicy earth worms. And devour them. 

Wilma and Lupe were chickens, good layers and sweet cluckers whom I came to love. I was chicken-sitting on the night an owl swooped into Wilma and Lupe’s narrow enclosure, and—not without a fight—took them up, one at a time, to another neighbor’s porch roof for a midnight snack. There was a lot to explain to the kids that morning, as that neighbor taped a net to a broom handle to pull down the feathered empties.
On the opposite side-yard, other neighbors also have a coop, with hens whose names I never learned– not after I’d let myself get so attached to Wilma and Lupe. I enjoyed their eggs that were so kindly passed to us, and the sounds the chickens made while laying. Imagine a dog yelp tethered to a crow caw, with a bit of a sigh at the finish. But those hens, too, met a violent end. Recently, a racoon broke into their coop and absconded with two of its three residents. That masked bandit enjoyed its meal on the transparent roof of our bike shed, where dark feathers and faint blood stains will remain for a while.
So, remember to count your blessings, neighbors! And you might also want to count your chickens. Stay safe out there, feathered and other friends.

May Stillness

It’s a three-season week in Denver—technically spring but with a recent day close to 80 degrees and snow in the forecast for tomorrow. Above my back-yard fence, recently unfurled aspen leaves touch each other in surprise, too soft to make a sound as the breeze floats their fresh green in slow cirlces. The fountain tinkles water into the bird bath, and a bee buzzes past—a cliché of this season I can’t resist. The goddess Nyx, regal in her shimmering black coat, steps dainty paws onto the mulch behind the blooming crab-apple. She eats a blade of grass then retreats to the shade of the house.

The sun over my left shoulder tosses shadows from my damp curls onto my notebook paper. If I look inside the dark loops scattered across the page, rather than at them, I see moon shapes and slices of pie. I tilt my head, and bright oblong footballs give way to a constellation of marbles, light circles planets plopped onto a newly discovered cosmos. Half a block away, a chainsaw jets raw noise into the stillness, and suddenly the magical universe of miniature shapes becomes just shadows on paper.

Dogs bark next door. My hand moves over the page, determined to find dreamy stillness again.

nyx

The hundred-year-old maple across 24th Avenue has only the faintest green on its twig tips. With age comes caution. The mass of its old trunk holds as much wood as five of these quaking aspens, with their heart shaped leaves. The sun heats my arms into beaches and sandbars. On goes the chainsaw, then off again. Vroom.  Quiet. VRROOM. Into one lull drops the click of a fence latch as another neighbor steps into her yard. A mourning dove coos, supplicant and charming.

The more I write, the more I appreciate the variety of stillness and interruption in all of my favorite places. Peaceful mountain meadows erupt into thunder claps, or into the  rattle of disturbed grasshoppers. The loud stare of a moose stops quiet thought faster than any city siren. She might as well be yelling as your eyes meet on the muddy road: I will bash you. Just give me an excuse.

City quiet, though, is especially rare, an almost inner hush as traffic sounds and background rumbles miraculously cease. The multitude of neighborhood children all sigh into contemplation at once, daydreaming in unison. An hour west, the mobbed spring ski hill also silences unexpectedly. As the crowd swishes down a popular run and the chairlift creaks overhead, I take one short turn toward that pair of pines, and a celestial mute button silences everything but pure light, inside and out. In high volume motion closer to home, as I cycle next to a tumbling creek, perfect silence descends, startling as the cry of a blue jay in this sunny back yard.

A squirrel clacks and squawks at me from the top of the magnolia. Its tail twitching over its head, it spends its outrage then offers a friendlier noise from low in its rodent throat, its contrite little heart telling a story all its own. The chatter of the world meets my determination to making something in stillness–despite or in harmony with this creative symphony of interruption.

Will I learn to listen to the noise and the quiet? I crave motion and distraction as much quiet contemplation. I fall in love with the messy world all over again in the spring, my attention leap-frogging to the next season. It’s easy to be infatuated with summer when it’s not here yet, roasting both city and forest. It’s easy to be happy now, as a white butterfly slips through the holly-spikes of the mahonia bush laden with blooms. I marvel at the tender clematis vine threading itself into the air above the fecund earth. Yesterday’s heat has singed the late tulip petals and sent the hyacinth into retreat, but I’m in love, falling into spring with all of the irrational anti-gravity of romantic bliss.

A baby cries across the fence, his first warm season begun. In my house, the husband clatters a baking sheet into a drawer, jarring yet more sound to me through the open window. Voices take up conversation in the front yard. I crank open the green umbrella for shade, but keep the right half of my body in the white-hot light.

To the Lighthouse

Weeks of insomnia at the beginning of this year found me re-reading Virginia Woolf in the electric glow of an e-book, hands under the covers for warmth. Lily Briscoe painted and watched children play; Mrs. Ramsay loved and died; and, while time worked its way through an old house, I longed, too, for a radiant vision. In my notebook appeared the phrases: One mustn’t, and One wonders. Semi-colons swarmed like ants in every sentence I wrote.

Like Virginia Woolf, I make my way to the Lighthouse, but I go by foot or bicycle, my face turned not to the the rocky shore of the Hebrides, but to the sprawling space of Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop.  Housed in a Victorian mansion near the corner of Colfax and Race, this four-story warren of offices and classrooms is truly a beacon, a source of creative challenge and collegial connection.

Workshop classes are a cornerstone of teaching at the Lighthouse–your writing is critiqued by a group while you sit quietly, receiving feedback and possibly trying not to cry. In my first workshop, an essay I had worked on for months and revised at least ten times received a full round of honest feedback. My teacher, the talented writer John Cotter, asked the group: What happens in this essay? Is there a conflict? Do we have any idea of the setting?  The story I wrote didn’t answer any of these questions very well. My early bloom of overconfidence landed in a cold-water bath of humility. Refreshing, as my dad would say. Invigorating.

LH entry 1Last fall, I started making the short trek three days a week for a  “Getting it Done” pomodoro class in the Lighthouse attic. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and the moniker for a time management system originally developed on a tomato-shaped timer. Twenty-five-minute work segments alternate with short breaks and add up to four hours of productivity–it’s harder to distract oneself with nonsense in a room full of (seemingly) focused people. I committed to twelve hours per week of butt-in-chair writing time, and sure enough, things got done. At first, in the former ballroom turned writer’s aerie, I quailed with insecurity sharing space with “real” writers—cracker-jack memoirists, a superstar humor writer, and a sci-fi smarty-pants.

Just making my way to the the Lighthouse, teachers appeared out of nowhere. One October morning as I pedaled to pomodoro class, a woman stepped off the curb to cross Race Street. Pausing to let me pass, she tucked her hands into the pockets of her red jacket. My morning greeting received a smile and a warning: Watch out for those idiots today!  So much for taking myself too seriously. Refreshing!

On a recent morning, snow fell in huge flakes, quieting the city and sparkling my neighborhood as I made my way to the Lighthouse, walking in a car rut to keep snow from snow ghost Steamboattumbling into my boots. Two bundled men chatted as they shoveled their next-door walkways. One leaned his forearm on his shovel and looked up into the swirling white. What a beautiful snow! he said.

His neighbor responded, It sure is. But, Buddy, I’ve already shoveled this once today!  Soon, a figure in a hooded parka walked toward me, treading the same tire-compressed snow-path. As we approached each other, I saw his coffee skin and arrestingly beautiful brown-gold eyes.  Good morning! I said as I adjusted the weight of my back pack on my shoulders. He bent his elbow and pointed at me. For a moment, I thought I would be scolded. Instead, his face sparked into a snow-day grin as he announced: If we meet again like this, it’s Destiny!

Can’t argue with that, I replied. Count me in! He continued north, and I kept smiling as I trudged the final block to the Lighthouse. The parking lot was empty except for six smooth inches of snow on the ground. Only one set of foot prints led to the unlocked front door. I stepped into the tiled foyer, where a wooden balustrade wound its way up a green-carpeted staircase, and elaborate crown molding adorned the ceiling.  I shook blobs of snow off my jacket and stomped slush off of my boots. Then I headed up to the attic and got to work.

 

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.”

Night Heron

                       Come down now

as my hand slips from the dial,
                 tired again of looking
for the sound of another way

         to say everything.

Come down now with your diction
                and your dictionary.

Come down, Uncle, come down
        and help me rise.

I have forgot my wings.

--Jake Adam York, from “Letter Already Broadcast into Space”

 

The more I write, the more I wish Jake York were still here. Jake died six years ago this December, felled by a stroke during a holiday party. He was 40, a phenomenal teacher, and a gifted poet.

About a decade before he died, the husband and I sat with Jake in our back yard as late summer dusk fell around our shoulders. While we talked about Jake’s new apartment and his fall classes, a large bird flew overhead. Its white wings darkened to gray at their tips, and its head and beak were inked in black.  What kind of bird is that? Jake asked.

It’s a night heron, I answered. They nest in City Park, just a few blocks away. Night herons are larger and more serious looking than seagulls, and, to my eye, they have some of the ferocity of a bald eagle. But their flight is unique–stillness in motion, a seamless defiance of night herongravity. Determined.

Jake loved jazz, and he loved barbecue. Once, after a brief conversation about music, he stopped by our house with a compact disc of “A Love Supreme,” along with a carefully typed document entitled “How to Listen to John Coltrane”.  Jake savored every meal we shared with him and was horrified by the husband’s rushed gustatory habits. He once offered an admonishment in his baritone drawl, almost preacher-like:  Brad, I do believe you don’t know how to pleasure yourself with food. In this week of feasting gratitude, read Jake’s beautiful poem, Grace, here, “because meals are memorials that teach us how to move.” And his poem, Abide, here, because we can never know how long love’s light has traveled to reach us.

Jake’s poem Letter Already Broadcast into Space, printed on one of his memorial fliers, is tucked in the back of my notebook. I keep a stanza from a Kahil Gibran poem in the same notebook. It asks:

What is it to work with love?

It is to change all things with a breath of your own spirit

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you

and watching.

God Bless You, Lester Bagus, Jr.!

Just when I start to lose my optimism about our democracy, a miracle happens.

I spent a full morning at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, puzzling over the past and editing the post I had planned for tomorrow. As I ride my bike to the gym, fuzzy-brained and tired, I see signs exhorting me to vote. And I hear myself think with a sigh, Not this again. It all feels like too much right now, like too hard a push for good things to happen this mid-term election.

I lock my bike and step into the Carla Madison Recreation Center, a colorful four-story building erected less than a year ago at the bustling corner of Colfax and Josephine. Behind me, a man enters the building and approaches the desk. He’s holding a small plastic bag carefully in his left hand. He wears a cap embroidered with insignia, and a gold cross shines around his neck.

Where did you say that thing is? he asks the young woman behind the desk.

See those orange pillars there? she replies. Just behind them and then to the left. She points through the glass doors. He looks perplexed, and I see that his plastic bag contains a ballot.

I’ll show you where it is, I offer. I just dropped mine off yesterday.

He smiles at me, broad relief in his brown face. His voice holds some southern gravel as he thanks me. Oh, I almost asked you outside. You look like you work here. We step back into the November sunshine and walk together between orange pillars and toward the drop-box, a squat white rectangle not easy to see. You know, he tells me, I never voted before. This is my first time.

ballot boxI stop walking and erupt: God bless you! I see his face shining, full as a Thanksgiving platter. I can’t believe I get to be here with you casting your first ballot! I say.

God bless you, too. I’m glad you’re here with me. You know, I volunteered for Vietnam when I was sixteen years old, and this is my first time voting.

My skin tingles as I watch him drop his signed ballot in the slot. As his envelop lands on top of others, my temptation to cynicism falls away.

We look at each other and grin. I’m sixty-seven years old, and I’m finally voting! He gives me a big hug. I breathe in the scent of his aftershave, and I soak up the warmth of his satisfaction and of his hope.

Before we say goodbye, he introduces himself to me and shakes my hand. Thank you, Lester Bagus, Jr.