Saturday, May 26, 2018

253 cans: Digging deep to find gratitude

Some days the sun shines, wildflowers bloom and my life overflows with joy. Other days, rain pours from the sky and I find myself standing on a sticky cement floor waiting to redeem 253 empty beverage cans and bottles. Yes, I'm an advocate of recycling, but my passion is more personal. I needed change to tide me over until my next check from freelance writing arrives.

Today was one of those sticky-floor days.

This morning I loaded five enormous bags of aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles into my car and drove a 54-mile round trip to the closest town, La Grande, Oregon. On the back side of Safeway is a sheltered open-air space with a cement floor that's sticky with the dregs of soda cans. It's where people who are down on their luck stand in lines with shopping carts piled with enormous sacks of collected recyclables to get cold, hard cash to make it through another day.

Today I was one of those down-on-their-luck people.

Two grey-haired men fed cans and bottles into the reverse vending machines' gaping mouths. As each container slid down the gullet, another dime was added to the total value of the stash. The men's hands worked quickly, but both had shopping carts piled with empties to redeem.

As I waited for my turn, my hands rested on a shopping cart stacked with bags of empties I'd collected with the help of friends. A few months ago, I had lugged recyclables to this same spot, but as I’d stood waiting, I’d changed my mind. I had watched a man in ragged clothes unloading bags of empties from his derelict car. I weighed my life and his life. I have clean clothes. I have a warm, dry place to sleep. I have never gone hungry. I have family and friends who would not allow me to be homeless. I realized that despite my dwindling bank account, I was blessed in so many ways. 

This man needs the money more than I do, I had told myself. 

So I had given him my bags of cans and bottles.

"Are you sure?" he had asked me incredulously, as if I'd offered him a million dollars.

"Yes," I insisted.

But this time, my financial circumstances had eroded further. I would not be giving away my recyclables. Today I needed the cash. So I pushed my loaded shopping cart onto the sticky floor and waited my turn.

So this is what it's come to, I told myself.

Seven years ago, I had a full-time job as communications manager at a nonprofit organization. I owned my own home in a middle-class neighborhood. I had excellent health insurance as well as dental and vision insurance. I had my teeth cleaned twice a year. When my vision prescription changed, I purchased new glasses. Back then, in my old life, I did not consider a visit to the dentist or new glasses to be a luxury. Now I do.

Like many middle-aged, middle-class people, the recession knocked me on my behind. I lost my job and my house. I have not recovered financially. Truth be told, I may never recover. I am 58 years old. My working years are running out and I have been unable to get a living wage job. Despite reports that the economy is booming, my own personal economy has tanked. This is true for many people, just like me. And just like you. 

The statistics indicate I’m not alone. Years after the recession ended, “jobless older workers are the forgotten story of the economic recovery,” says a Reuters article. “U.S. employers are creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs every month, but millions of older workers who want a job cannot find work.”

Age discrimination is alive and well in the workplace, despite the fact that it’s been illegal since 1967 when the Age Discrimination in Employment Act became law. The news is even worse for women older than 55 who experience a higher jobless rate than men of the same age. One study found that when workers age 55 to 64 do find work again, 29 percent of them earn less than two-thirds of the median wage for other workers of the same age bracket.

Here’s the streamlined interpretation of these statistics: Being over 55 and unemployed sucks.

Through my financial difficulties, some well-meaning friends and family have said some thoughtless things to me:

  • If you're having a hard time financially, it must be your own fault. 
  • You've made bad choices.
  • I don't understand why you have moved so many times (Answer: Lack of money to pay rising rent costs.)
  • I don’t know who you are anymore. (Answer: Someone who is struggling just to keep her head above water.)
  • Just get a better job. (Answer: That’s easier said than done--especially when you're older than 50!)

Let me share this nugget of truth: Sometimes bad stuff happens to good people. And sometimes, one bad thing after another happens to good people. I refer to the last seven years as my own personal series of unfortunate events. It’s my new normal—and the new normal of many people just like me.

I am a good person. I work hard. I pay my bills on time. I believe in the golden rule and in being my sister's keeper. I am a straight-laced, law-abiding woman. I do not waste my money on cigarettes, beer, pot, illicit drugs or lottery tickets. However, I do admit to spending some money on Dove dark chocolates. I just unwrapped a Dove chocolate with this message: “Be fearlessly authentic.” I smoothed out that wrapper, folded it and tucked it into my wallet as a reminder of who I am. If nothing else, I am fearlessly authentic.

Here’s some of my authentic story: During most of last two years, I have been without health insurance because I couldn’t afford it. I was penalized on my taxes because I was uninsured. In order to avoid the tax penalty next year, I recently applied for Medicaid. That’s health insurance for poor people. Now I have the Oregon Health Plan. I have not used it, but if I do get sick or have an accident, I can seek medical care without financial ruin. I still do not have dental or vision insurance.

Here is more of my authenticity: I have not been to a doctor or the dentist in two years. My scratched eye glasses are six or seven years old. My car's windshield has an enormous crack that nearly covers the glass, but my insurance requires a $200 deductible for a new windshield. If you don't have $200, you can't somehow produce it from thin air. So my windshield remains cracked until my income improves.

Here's one more nugget of authenticity: I pick up filthy pennies from parking lots. 

It’s not as if I’m lazy and do not want to work. I have been looking for a living wage job since 2011 when I was laid off in the aftermath of the recession. After I was laid off, I was unemployed for about four months. It was the first time in my life I applied for unemployment. After applying for many jobs, I was hired to write in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. I am grateful to the metro editor who gave me a chance to prove myself. That was a life-changing opportunity for me. It taught me to be a better, faster writer. I learned how to really listen to people and to pay attention to the details so I can write the best story possible. But my salary was a 37 percent cut in pay from my job at the nonprofit. It paid the bills in my new, streamlined life. But just barely.

After four-and-a-half years at the newspaper, I still was not earning a living wage. Housing costs had skyrocketed. At first, I rented a one-bedroom apartment, but when my car needed an expensive repair, I saved money for the repair by living in a backyard shed/artist’s studio with no heat, running water or toilet for three months. It was by the grace of my retired minister and his wife that I finally found a real home while I worked as a newspaper reporter. They opened their home to me and rented me their mother-in-law suite below market rate.

Even though I enjoyed writing in a newsroom and I won a regional journalism award, I was not getting ahead financially. In fact, I was getting further behind. Almost two years ago I had an opportunity to start a new chapter in wild Eastern Oregon with the Mountain Man. So I’m freelance writing and living a good life in a tiny home-camper with the man I love. I am forever applying for yet another prospective job that would pay a living wage, offer health insurance, dental, vision and retirement. But that job offer hasn’t materialized yet.

Since being laid off seven years ago, I have applied for dozens and dozens of jobs for which I was well qualified. In total, I’ve spent weeks completing myriad requirements for online job applications: employment history, education, references, answering essay questions and attaching resumes, cover letters, college transcripts and samples of my writing and editing. I link to my online portfolio of my published writing. Some employers give applicants writing assignments and projects, which take additional hours to complete.

Of those dozens and dozens of jobs I’ve applied for, I’ve had maybe twenty interviews. I’ve been interviewed via phone and Skype. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to be interviewed in person. I have been interviewed by a panels of up to 23 people asking me questions. I have participated in group interviews in which all the candidates sit or stand before the person or large group of people conducting the interview. In some interviews, I have been two to three decades older than the people interviewing me. In those instances, I already know I don’t have the job. People don’t tend to hire workers as old as their mother.

Two weeks ago, I drove a 700-mile round trip to be interviewed for a very good job for which I was well qualified. When I applied for this job, I’d sought advice from former co-workers and completely revamped my resume. One friend with experience hiring people listened while I practiced answering potential interview questions. On the day of the interview I even wore Spanx to smooth out my midsection after consuming too many Dove chocolates. And I wore a new dress—the first dress I’d bought new (not from Goodwill) in several years. I looked good--for a 58-year-old woman! I really wanted the job. It was an arduous, three-hour interview process and a timed writing test. During the panel interview in which seven people asked me questions for an hour, I discovered I was one of only two finalists. My hopes soared. I had a 50 percent chance of getting this job. The professional communications position paid an excellent wage—twice as much money as I’ve ever made, and four times as much as I made last year.

Maybe this is it, I dared to tell myself. Maybe I will finally be okay financially. Maybe I’ll be able to breathe again.

But after I’d driven the long miles home, unpacked my suitcase and swore an oath that I’d never again wear Spanx, I got a phone call from the human resources director. I didn’t get the job. They chose the other candidate, who was a local person.

My hopes were dashed. And I worried about how I’d pay my car payment next month. For a few minutes, I allowed myself the luxury to cry in frustration. Then I put on my big girl panties and faced the fact: I needed cash. Soon. I did a very hard thing and called my mother to ask to borrow money. Then I pitched a story idea to a trade magazine and started looking at new job postings. Next I loaded the cans and bottles into my car and drove to town to get some cash.

In the past few years, I’ve developed a practice of writing three good things in my gratitude journal each day. But recently, life has thrown so many obstacles in my way that it’s been more challenging to keep a joyful attitude. On days like this, I have to dig deep to find gratitude buried under worry and even panic. How do I push myself to keep moving forward without allowing life to overwhelm me? Some days I can’t even open my purple gratitude journal. I can’t think of a single thing I am grateful for. I imagine you sometimes have these kinds of days, too.

But after I stood on the sticky floor and deposited 253 cans and bottles one at a time into the recycling machine, I came home with $25.30 in my wallet. That helped relieve some of the stress that has crept into my life and attempted to rob me of my joy. Here is what I wrote in my gratitude journal today:

  • I am grateful that a year ago, Oregon's bottle deposit increased from a nickel to a dime per container. That means I collect a dime for every container I return.
  • I am grateful for the little bit of freelance work I have coming in. (But I need the strength to tirelessly pitch my story ideas and hope I’ll soon be getting more work.)
  • I am grateful that I found two good potential jobs. I’ll apply right away.
  • I am grateful that on this rainy, stormy day, I have a warm, dry bed, enough food to eat, the love of the Mountain Man as well as many family members and friends.
  • I am grateful that I’ve written 25 chapters of my memoir. Only eight chapters to go!
  • I am grateful that I have enough. May I never forget the countless people who do not.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Strong women hold me up

Circa 1912: My maternal grandmother, Lydia Blomgren Smith (front, center) with her sisters Judith, Anna and Amy. The family emigrated from Sweden to Montana in 1906.
Last week I took my young adult daughter to an event called ROAR: Fierce Female Storytelling so that she could hear women tell true stories about overcoming obstacles and hardship. Hearing brave women telling their stories inspired both my daughter and me. And it reminded me to not give up. No matter what.

 Sometimes in life we slam against hard times that threaten to steal our confidence and our joy. We wonder whether we can keep going. Have you been there? I certainly have.

Like many folks, I've endured some hard times. I've lost a job, a house, and even family. Somewhere along the way, I also lost my courage. At age 53 when I was low on money and had to choose between paying rent or getting my car repaired, I lived for three months in an artist's studio/shed without heat, running water or plumbing. It wasn't easy, but I did it because I had to. I didn't have a choice.

In the past seven years since my divorce and job layoff, a shortage of funds caused me to involuntarily downsize to cheaper digs. I moved seven times in five years. My housing footprint dwindled from a 2,400 square feet house in the city to a 323-square-foot camper in the foothills of the Elkhorn Range in Eastern Oregon. Sometimes, that hasn't been easy. In the heat of summer, I found a sleeping snake curled up on my pillow. On a sub-zero winter morning, it was so cold inside our camper-tiny house that my clothes froze to the closet. Yep. Sometimes, life is hard.

Even so, the hard stuff I've pushed through is nothing compared to what my maternal ancestors endured. I am upheld by a long line of strong, gutsy women who inhabit my family tree. When I've doubted whether I could handle another hardship or obstacle, these women stand behind me--reaching across decades and even centuries--offering me strength to continue paddling through turbulent water threatening to capsize my canoe.

Meet my maternal great-grandmother, Edla Christina Rasback Blomgren

My great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, on the family's Montana farm. She raised 10 children plus many grandchildren.
I never met my maternal great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, but the few photographs I’ve seen of her paint a picture of a tough, no-nonsense farm woman unafraid of hard work, and able to handle any hardship life dealt her. Although she was a caregiver surrounded by children throughout her life, those who knew her did not describe her as affectionate. In one black-and-white photo, a white-haired Edla is sitting on the porch of an unpainted farmhouse. She’s holding two babies in her arms, and six other children stand around her. No one is smiling. One little girl is bawling.

Edla didn't have an easy life. She was not Sven Blomgren’s first choice for a wife. He was engaged to her older sister, Charlotta, but she died of tuberculosis in May 1885. Seven months later, he married Edla, who was 19. Over the years, the couple had ten children. Sven scraped together money to buy a small farm, but it was a meager existence for the growing family. Like many who sought to escape widespread unemployment, poverty, and famine, the Blomgrens dreamed of a better life in America.

By the time the family emigrated from Hedemora, Sweden to the Helena, Montana area, in 1906, the children ranged in age from 2 to 20. Sven and the five older children arrived first. The family’s passage was paid by Edla’s sister and brother-in-law who had emigrated earlier and owned a ranch in Montana. Sven and the older boys worked on the ranch to repay their debt. The older girls worked as seamstresses and household maids for large ranches.

A few months later, Edla, 40, crossed the Atlantic on the steamship C.F. Tietgen with their five younger children: Anna, 10; Stoney, 8; Gunnar, 6; Lydia (my grandmother), 3 and Samuel Finn, 2. Was she exhausted from caring for her children in crowded steerage accommodations when their ship reached New York? To my knowledge, neither Edla nor any of the children spoke English. I don't know how they made their way from Ellis Island and boarded a train to Montana without knowing any English.

I’m certain Edla was used to making do with what little they had. Imagine cooking for 12 people on a wood stove, and on that same wood stove heating water for dishes, laundry, and Saturday-night baths. Edla and the children likely hauled water from a well. The bathroom was an outhouse. Were Montana winters harsher than Swedish winters? Did Sven and Edla find happiness in America?

They endured the heartache of burying three children in Montana. David, 21, drowned in the Missouri River while working on the crew building Hauser Dam in 1909. Their youngest child, Samuel, who had a weak constitution, died at age 10 from an unidentified ailment in 1915.

My maternal great-grandmother, Edla Blomgren, who raised 10 children and then raised several of her grandchildren on a Montana farm with no electricity or running water--just a wood cookstove and a water pump.
After raising her own children, Edla was called on to raise her grandchildren when her daughter-in-law, Kerstin, died in 1922. Edla was still mothering those grandchildren when her daughter, Judith died, leaving behind a brood of seven children. Judith’s children were divided among relatives, and Edla gathered the two youngest under her wing. Now 59 years old, she was mothering two families of grandchildren. She'd been raising children for 40 years. No wonder she looks tired in that photo! Who wouldn't be? Imagine her fortitude to keep going after so much hardship and heartache.

My maternal grandmother, Lydia Fredricka M. Blomgren Smith
My maternal grandmother, Lydia Blomgren Smith, with her brother, Sam, on the family's Montana ranch, about 1914..
Edla's youngest daughter was my maternal grandmother, Lydia Fredricka Blomgren, born on December 20, 1902 in Hedemora, Vastmanland, Sweden. Lydia was the ninth of ten children.
Grandma's family were farm folk who worked hard for every nickel. I'm certain Grandma spent much of her childhood helping her mother with cooking, cleaning, and farm chores. At age 19, Lydia married my grandpa, Michael Smith.

In stark contrast to Grandma's down-to-earth farmers, Grandpa's family was a well-heeled, educated family from Vermont. His father was a physician, and his grandfather, a diplomat assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. I am intrigued and inspired by my grandfather's three aunts who defied convention and society by remaining unmarried and insisting on living life in their own terms. Unfortunately, I cannot find any  photographs of my great-great aunts. Here is the little I know:
  • The middle sister, Helen Louise Willoughby Smith (1862-1932) became a physician in the 1880s, when it would have been very difficult for a woman to do so. I believe she received her medical training in England or possibly Scotland. She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
  • The youngest sister, Clara Amanda Smith (1874-1907) was an artist who worked in Italy and died in Davos Platz, Davos Graubunden, Switzerland at age 32. 
  •  The oldest sister, Catherine Hermione Smith (1858-1900) was called "Hermy."I know nothing else about her, but knowing that she was among such independent-thinking sisters, she must have been like minded in her pursuits.

Grandpa had turned his back on his family's money, education, and privilege and headed West for adventure. I don't know how or where my grandparents met. Perhaps they met while Grandpa was working on Henry Sieben's vast sheep ranch in Wolf Creek, north of Helena, Montana. Perhaps Grandma was cleaning house or cooking for Sieben's ranch hands. Perhaps they met at a dance in Wolf Creek or Helena. I wish I'd bothered to ask Grandma their story before she died. Is their story lost forever?

My grandma, Lydia Blomgren Smith, a young wife and mother,
with her two oldest children, early 1920s in Montana.

Mike and Lydia built a log cabin along the Little Prickly Pear Creek. They set about raising sheep, a garden, and eventually, their 11 children. By the time my mom was born in 1934, the Depression had settled over the country like a shroud. However, they were self-sufficient people of the land who chose to live without electricity, running water, and central heat. They fed their large family from their garden and with wild game. Perhaps they kept chickens for a Sunday dinner of chicken and dumplings. Even into the 1950s, my grandparents chose to live simply on the land without modern conveniences. I don't think my grandparents considered their lifestyle a hardship, but an adventure. But even so, looking back across the decades, it certainly doesn't look easy. 
My mother, Joyce Adela Smith Parrish Peterson

Mom, Joyce Adela Smith, Grass Valley, Calif., 1941.
My mother vehemently denies being brave or strong, but she is one of the bravest, strongest women I've ever met. She is the eighth of eleven children, and was the first to graduate high school. Mom is resourceful and hard working, but she also loves to have fun. She took my three siblings and me camping, swimming, and ice skating. Mom was unflappable and encouraged my siblings and me in our antics. We often put on plays, backyard carnivals or made big projects and messes. And extra kids--cousins and friends--always were welcome in our home and on our adventures.

Lydia's 41 grandchildren 

About a third of the 41 first cousins at a family reunion at a family reunion at the farm in 1963. I am in the front row, second to the left, wearing the light pink short set. I'm standing next to my cousin, Dave Smith, who is sporting super-cool sunglasses. Notice that many of my female cousins are wearing dresses, but Mom let me wear shorts so I could run and play.

I am one of 41 of Lydia's grandchildren. That's cousins galore for all kinds of adventures we dreamed up. My enormous family sometimes gathered at my grandparents' log cabin. Grandma was not a hugging, affectionate grandmother who called anyone "sweetie." She always spoke frankly, and she didn’t care whether her words left a mark--even on her beloved grandchildren. Her terms of endearment were "I'm going to cut off your arm and beat you with a bloody stump!" or "I'll beat you to death with the stove poker!" We knew she was kidding--but still, she wasn't your typical hugging grandmother who showers grandchildren with praises.

Perhaps Grandma Lydia's demeanor was the result of being raised by the stern Edla, growing up in a family of 10 children and raising 11 children of her own. However, I saw a gentler side of Grandma when I was 16 and our extended family built her a log house across the garden from our farmhouse. I'd visit her after school, and she had buttermilk cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven and a cold glass of milk waiting for me. She taught me to play gin rummy and we talked about the books we were reading. My favorite conversations were when she talked about the old days. I wished I'd recorded her voice telling those stories! I wish I'd written down her stories. Why didn't I pay more attention?

Now as grey hairs are sprouting on my head, I think about these strong women who reach across the decades  in my family tree. If they had an opportunity, I'm certain they would join me on a dragon boat. In low moments when I'm feeling defeated and alone or up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I imagine these women sitting with me in a dragon boat, paddling together, pulling the heavy water with their strong arms and determined spirits. Even in the rain, we could propel the boat forward because we are strong women who do not give up easily. Or at all. Knowing that they endured hardship encourages me to keep going.

When a particularly aggressive wave threatens our boat, we turn the bow toward the wake, and then we paddle harder. We pull the boat through the water. And we're laughing.

Paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Snake on my pillow

I found a snake on my pillow! (This is not my photo, but is a stock photo.
My reaction was not to take a photo of the snake. Rather, I screamed.)
There’s nothing like finding a snake on your pillow to put your trials and tribulations into perspective.

Recently I walked into the bedroom and I spied a snake curled up on my pillow. Thankfully, we do not have rattlesnakes here, so I knew it wasn’t a poisonous snake. It wasn’t a large snake, but it wasn’t a baby snake either. It was a non-poisonous, medium-sized snake. Still, it was a snake. And it seemed to be sleeping on my pillow. So I did what any brave Mountain Woman paddling her own canoe would do: I screamed. Then I quickly exited the bedroom and called the Mountain Man.

“I’ll be right there,” he promised over the phone.

I waited for him outside. When the Mountain Man searched the bedroom and our whole tiny home/camper, he could find no trace of the snake. No doubt my scream had awakened the snake and scared him off. However, the Mountain Man found a frog, which had climbed up the wall above the bed as high as he could. Perhaps the snake had been stalking the frog, and the frog was retreating from the snake. The Mountain Man released the frog outside and then drove away to go back to work. I was not too keen on going back inside, but I did because I had work to do.

Until that moment, my current tiny home/living wild challenges had been finding a single green frog on the floor on my side of the bed almost every day. I know it’s irrational, but I am freaked out by frogs in the bedroom. I am fine with seeing frogs in nature. Frogs belong in nature. They do not belong in a bedroom. But almost every day, I found another frog. Many days, I found him facing the mirrored closet doors. Perhaps he was a vain frog who was bewitched by his own reflection. We put the frog out. I use the word “we” loosely. I opened the door while The Mountain Man put the frog out. And then the next day, the frog would return to face the mirror. Sometimes before we could catch the frog, he hopped underneath the built-in bedframe and disappeared. Were frogs and snakes living underneath our bed?

When the plague of frogs began, I remember saying, “At least it wasn’t a snake.” Now that which I’d voiced had come true. When I found the snake on my pillow, I told the Mountain Man: “At least it wasn’t a rattlesnake.”

“Don’t say that!” he said.

The same day that I found the snake on the bed, the Mountain Man searched the bedding to ensure the snake hadn’t taken refuge there. He hadn’t. Then we took the bed frame apart to peer under the bed. No snake. But there was another frog. The Mountain Man put him outside.

The night of the snake I was a little nervous about climbing into bed. Was the snake still slithering around our bedroom looking for frogs? What if he crawled up onto the bed and tried to share my pillow with me? I removed the snake-contaminated pillowcase, threw it into the hamper, and slid a clean pillowcase over my memory foam pillow. I was not about to get rid of my comfortable, expensive pillow. I am too thrifty to toss out a pillow just because a snake slept there. Besides, buying a new pillow meant a very long drive into town. Somehow, I fell asleep and miraculously, I did not dream of snakes.

It has been more than a month, and we have not seen the snake again. We also are not sure how the critters are entering the bedroom, but the Mountain Man has crawled around the underbelly of the camper to plug holes a critter might crawl through.

Since the snake incident, we began hearing mice in the bedroom running in the ceiling right over our heads. If the snake experience hadn’t preceded the mouse invasion, I would have freaked out. Instead, I bought eight easy-to-set mousetraps. So far, we have caught nine mice. I have learned how to identify whether scat was deposited by a mouse or a frog. (Here’s an interesting fact: Frog poop is much larger than mouse poop.) The Mountain Man sets and empties the traps. I vacuum up the mouse poop and the frog poop. We keep the kitchen clean and store our food in the pantry in mouse-proof containers.

Is the snake still slithering around our home looking for frogs? It’s more likely that he made his way back outside. Just last night we found a frog on the bedroom floor. It had deposited a big frog-poo on the floor right next to the closet mirror. I picked up the poo with some toilet paper and flushed it. No big deal.

I have learned that life goes smoother if you follow the adage “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” With the perspective of experience, almost everything becomes small stuff. A few months ago, tiny spiders dropped from the ceiling every time I showered. Thankfully, I am not afraid of spiders and they weren’t black widows or brown recluse spiders. We don’t have tarantulas here either. I learned to calmly squish the tiny spiders with one hand while shampooing my hair with the other. We also survived living in a camper during the coldest, hardest winter in two decades. It was so cold inside our home that our clothing froze to the closet wall. 

But hey—that’s life when you’re living wild. The extreme cold and the invasion of mice, frogs, wasps, flies, spiders, stink bugs and even a snake is just part of our wild, adventurous life in Northeastern Oregon. Overcoming hard stuff makes me stronger. 

The hard stuff is tempered by the really good stuff. Last Saturday, as we paddled kayaks along the reservoir below our house, we watched two ospreys soaring above the river while looking for dinner. The next day, we hiked into an alpine lake, and the Mountain Man taught me the basics of fly-fishing. As I stood barefoot on the spongey bank and practiced casting my line, I reveled in the trout swimming near my fly, the glorious show of wildflowers, and snow still clinging to the high peaks above the lake.

Some days you might find a snake curled on your pillow. But other days, you get to hike into an alpine lake with your best friend. I even caught my first fish.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What would you do if you weren't afraid?

"What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

In January, I wrote that question on a Post-it note and attached it to my computer at work. Then I attached a second note above our kitchen sink so I'd read it while I was washing dishes or making a meal. So every day, I pondered the question:

"What would I do if I weren't afraid?"

Sometimes we allow fear to cripple us. Eight years ago, fear not only was preventing me from moving forward, but it also was overwhelming me so that I couldn't think lucid, rational thoughts. I was so gripped with fear--mind, body, and spirit--that I was unable to even make an action plan to move beyond my fear.

Then, while my feet were still cemented to the ground in fear, life took over and blasted me free to think, to act, to move forward again.

So many things--good and bad--happened to me in those eight years. My stable life was yanked from underneath my feet and I fell on my rear. Hard. But looking back, even the very hard things like the loss of my marriage, my job, my home, my financial security--were catalyts for me changing from the inside out. For letting go of fear.

In survival mode, I improvised a new life at age 52. Seeking an affordable, safe home, I moved five times in three years, including living in an artist's backyard studio with no heat, water, or toilet. I started a new career as a newspaper reporter.

Facing my fears, I sought adventure by trying new experiences I'd once feared. I joined a women's dragon boat team, the Mighty Women. I tried belly dancing, zip lining, archery, swing dancing, backpacking, kayaking, spelunking, skiing--and the scariest of all--online dating. I fell in love with the Mountain Man. Four years later, I moved to the mountains of Eastern Oregon to start a new life with the man in love--in 323 square feet with a breathtaking view of two mountain ranges.

I reveled in my new life in Eastern Oregon. But even though I'd changed almost everything about my life, I still clung to the notion of a secure job. Health insurance. Paid vacation. Stability.

Good jobs are scarce in Eastern Oregon, but I got a full-time job at a social services agency managing a program to help pay heating bills of low-income folks in four counties. I also managed a federal VA program to help homeless veterans. The job paid $ .07 more per hour than I made as a newspaper reporter, but with Oregon income tax, my take-home pay was less. I had health insurance again, but it had a $2,500 deductible. My insurance would kick in only if I had another catastrophic accident like my infamous breaking-both-wrists ATV ride.

Although there was some satisfaction in helping people in need, my job was an incredibly poor fit for my skill set. I am not a social worker. I am not a budget guru who can decipher spreadsheets. I didn't have the right tools to do the job. I am a writer, a story teller. My supervisor and executive director were pleased with my work, but deep inside, I was extremely unhappy. Unfulfilled. My spirit shriveled a little bit more every day.

Each day, I looked at the Post-it note and pondered the question: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

The fearlessness of friends and family propelled me forward.

* My high school friend, Kim Hogan, and his wife, Cindy, left steady jobs in the public school system to teach at a school in Qatar. They have seen camel races and gone camping in the desert. On their weekends and school breaks, they seek adventure all over the world: Germany, France, China, Greece. Fearless adventurers they are!

* My friend, Ruth Friebos was afflicted by a life-threatening, mysterious illness that eventually led doctors to save her life by amputating her leg above the knee. Despite so many setbacks, this active woman and skilled photographer continues to see life through the lens of hope and joy, rather than fear.

* My daughter, Katie, has been barraged by a series of very hard things--but has faced fear and not crumbled under the pressure. She's a survivor, that daughter of mine!

As I pondered what I would do if I weren't afraid, I came up with a list.

  • If I weren't afraid, I would go skiing again. I hadn't gone since I'd broken both wrists. I was afraid I'd crash on the hill and the titanium plates holding my shattered wrist bones together would poke out of my skin. So, calling up every ounce of bravery I could, I went skiing. I fell--a lot, but I wasn't hurt. I checked skiing off my fear list.
  • If I weren't afraid, I would make my living as a freelance writer. I started calling and emailing newspapers, magazines, and local agencies. Immediately, I began getting writing projects. I took a deep breath and quit my job. Now I'm freelancing full time--and loving it. 
  • The next biggie on my "fear" list is to finish writing my memoir, "Paddling Her Own Canoe." I've written about a third of the 33 chapters. Now, with discipline and more creativity flowing through me, I will finish writing my book and publish it.

As I write this blog in our tiny home with magnificent views of two mountain ranges, bluejays and doves serenade me.

Fear is behind me. Adventure and joyful living lie ahead.

So here's a question for you: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

Monday, March 20, 2017

Not my best ski day: Careening down a mountain headfirst, on my back

Some days, the snow is powder, the sky is blue, and the skiing is fine.

But that doesn't describe my latest adventure in skiing.

The powder snow had melted, and then turned to ice. It was raining shards of ice that pelted my face and obstructed my vision.

Skiing on sheer ice is difficult for an experienced skier. For a novice like me, it's a death wish. How do you control your turns and your speed when skiing on a sheet of ice? Very carefully.

One minute I was skiing and in control. But the next, I was careening down the hill on my back--headfirst--so I couldn't see where I was going. Apparently, I also was screaming.

I couldn't get my legs out in front of me to stop. As I slid down the mountain upside down, I prayed I wouldn't slide right off the edge into nothingness. Or hit a tree. Or another skier.

I didn't.

Eventually, I stopped. Amazingly, I still had both skis and poles--not to mention my limbs. No damage to the wrists either.

Shaken, I popped off one ski, and pulled myself back up. Am I crazy for trying to learn to ski at age 57--so soon after breaking both wrists? Many normal women my age are content with keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground.

Maybe I should take up knitting or scrapbooking like a normal woman? But I've never been normal.

A few minutes later, after giving myself a quick pep talk, I was skiing on sheer ice again. As I made my way clumsily down the mountain, I fell several more times. None were as spectacular as my earlier agony-of-defeat head-first death plunge.

When I finally made it to the bottom of the hill, my heart rejoiced. Even though I'd been shaken and scared by the fall, I'd pulled myself together to finish the run.

The next day, I awoke in a body that felt beat up. Large, purple bruises emerged on my right leg.

Some days are golden, with fluffy, powdery snow and blue skies. Other days, we're careening down the mountain on our backs--headfirst--with no view of the danger in front of us.

Just another day in this adventurous life.

Monday, March 6, 2017

For the first time since my ATV accident, I went skiing

Today for the first time since my horrible ATV accident, I got back on alpine skis. And much to my mother’s relief as well as my own, I didn’t break any bones. 

It’s been two years since I last skied. I was a beginner who had just taken my first solo ski runs—and my first solo chair lift rides. When I first started skiing at age 54, the chair lift was the most traumatizing part of skiing (due to an unfortunate chair lift episode when I was 19). The Mountain Man had assured me that skiers do not fall off the chair lift. But trust me, if anyone could fall off the chair lift, it would be me. The klutz.

My saving grace is that I’m an adventurous klutz. So even though I had been terrified of falling off the chair lift, I wanted to learn to ski. So I forced myself to sit down on that chair lift seat and ride it to the top of the mountain. It wasn’t technically good skiing or confident skiing. I fell multiple times. And I was so slow that when I watched a video of one of my runs that first year, I seemed to be skiing in slow motion as other skiers flew past me. Despite my lack of speed, it was fun.

Then the fun ended 18 months ago when I crashed a four-wheeler while crossing a bridge. Despite the fact that people had crossed that bridge on ATVs for decades, I was the first person to ever crash on that bridge. But leave it to me, on my maiden voyage driving an ATV, to crash spectacularly on that bridge. I crushed both wrists. Now I have titanium plates holding my wrists together. I’m the Bionic Woman. Well, maybe the Klutzy Bionic Woman.

After my accident, my orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist sidelined me for an entire ski season while I continued healing and regaining my fine motor skills. My surgeon said I could eventually return to skiing and other adventurous pursuits. He said my titanium wrists would be fine—as long as I didn’t take another forceful fall rivaling my spectacular somersault over the ATV handlebars.

Still, I was nervous about skiing. Last night when I laid out my ski clothes and gear, I worried that I might get hurt. I imagine myself falling so hard that the titanium plates would poke out of my skin.

I awoke in the middle of the night and my mind started playing the “what if” game. What if my wrists weren’t capable of holding myself up on the handle tow? What if my now-arthritic left wrist and thumb couldn’t hold the ski pole firmly? What if I fell off the chair lift? What if I fell on the mountain and wasn’t strong enough to get back up again?

But here’s the question that was at the forefront of my mind: What if my accident had so paralyzed me that I’d lost sight of the adventurous woman who had given me so much confidence and transformed me in midlife? I didn’t want my fear to paralyze me.

Sometimes, when I begin to doubt myself, my old, bitter soccer mom persona pays a visit just to taunt me and throw doubt on my self-confidence. Last night, uninvited, she threw open my door and made me question myself, my abilities, and my existence. In her sarcastic voice she asked: “What makes you think you can ski again? You broke your body. You are 57 years old. Maybe it’s time to take up knitting from a rocking chair. What makes you think you can do this?”

Wow. That woman loves stealing my joy. 

But I won’t let her do it anymore. I’ve learned to shush her quickly and put her in her place—far away from my Adventure Woman ears. Now I am the Dragon Diva. The Woman with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, I also happened to have a klutzy, horrific accident that crushed both wrists and sidelined me for many months. But now I have two titanium wrists. They are strong. And so am I.

I thumbed my nose at Soccer Mom and told myself: “You can do this. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

Then I climbed back into bed and slept soundly.

Thankfully, the Mountain Man is not only a ski instructor, but a calm man who inspires calmness and confidence in me. First, he gave me a quick beginner’s lesson to remind me of the basics: turning, controlling my speed, stopping. Then we skied down a small hill and headed for the handle tow to take a couple of turns on the bunny hill. Would my once-broken wrists be strong enough to hold myself up? Would I fall? Would I get hurt again?

But here’s a fact: My wrists are titanium. They were strong enough to hold myself up on the handle tow. We made two runs down the bunny hill. My body and my mind remembered how to ski. The Mountain Man asked if I wanted to make another bunny hill run.

“No. Let’s get on the chair lift and go skiing up on top!” I said.

So we did. The chair lift wasn’t as scary as it had been before. On my first run, I fell once, almost right after we started down the hill. But it wasn’t a spectacular fall. I wasn’t hurt. No broken bones. I didn’t have titanium poking out of my skin.

But I did need to take control of my self-talk. Although skiing is very physical, it’s also a mental sport. You must believe that you can maneuver your way down the mountain—or you won’t be able to do it. Sprawled on my back in the snow, I tried to get up by pushing myself up with my ski poles, but my arms didn’t have the strength to do it. So with my ski pole, I released my right ski and stood up, and snapped my ski back into the binding.

“You can do this,” I told myself. “You’re the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Dragon Diva.”

Then I skied down the mountain—and I didn’t fall again. I had fun. Although my 57-year-old body is exhausted and my legs feel as wobbly as Jell-o, I am glowing. I conquered my fear, and I experienced joy at 8,000 feet. 

Confident that I will return to the ski hill next weekend and the weekend after that and the weekend after that, I bought a season pass that’s good for the rest of this ski season and all of next ski season.

Dragon Diva has returned! 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Tiny living secrets

Here's my cozy writing/reading/daydreaming spot: our little couch topped
 with a beautiful quilt made by my dear friend, Kathleen Brown.
Out this window is an amazing view of the Elkhorn Mountains and the lake.
Sitting on the diminutive couch in our tiny living room, my stocking feet are curled against an electric heater. My fingers, also seeking warmth, are wrapped around my coffee mug. I’m wearing three layers of clothing, including an old cashmere sweater and a thick flannel shirt lined with fleece. We've had weeks of sub-freezing weather, and even sub-zero weather. After six months of living tiny in the Eastern Oregon high desert, my body is still adjusting to the colder temperatures.

Four years ago, after some unsuccessful and mostly depressing attempts at online dating, I’d sworn off men and any hope of a romantic relationship. Instead, I concentrated on becoming an adventurous, joyful woman. But then—so very unexpectedly—I fell in love with an adventure-seeking Mountain Man who lived 300 miles away. Tired of cultivating our long-distance relationship, we decided to bridge the gap between us.

At the end of last summer, I left my newspaper reporter job and my old life in the city. Now I’m settling into my new life: living large in 323 square feet in the foothills of the Elkhorn Mountains in Eastern Oregon with the Mountain Man. 

Living in a small space fits who we are now. Both of us have owned houses requiring hefty mortgage payments and endless maintenance and yard work. We are both at the point in our lives that we don’t want to be tied down by possessions or lengthy to-do lists. We’ve decided to live simply while enjoying a bountiful life rich in experiences rather than material things.

We’re well on our way to succeeding. In the six months I’ve lived here, we’ve soaked in a hot springs, performed as the musical entertainment at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, hiked in the Elkhorn Mountains, had a picnic while perched on a log on the banks of an alpine lake and then did some fly fishing, paddled kayaks, danced to live music at Ten Depot in La Grande, dined at the Barley Browne’s in Baker City, visited the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker, and much more.

We’ve also spent a lot of time editing possessions and determining what's essential and what isn't. What do we really need for our comfort in our tiny space? As I write, my laptop rests on the tiny red table I found at an estate sale more than a decade ago. It takes up little floor space, but is useful for holding a laptop computer, a cup of coffee or a bowl of popcorn. In my old apartment, I had an antique desk for my laptop, but truthfully, I usually write curled up on the couch. So the little worn table with chipped red paint fits perfectly into our tiny space.

Tiny home tip: Use floor space sparingly. Use tiny furniture with multiple uses.

Here are some tiny kitchen tips we've gleaned after living tiny for six months. 

Tiny home tip: Size--and numbers--matter. Four mugs. When you live tiny, you must scrutinize every item you bring into the house and justify it taking up precious space. We have space for four mugs. When I painted this lace-covered leaf mug at a fun ceramic shop in Gig Harbor recently, I had to give the boot to my cracked Star Trek Jean-Luc Picard mug. But I couldn't completely give up Jean-Luc. He's in storage.
If you had cupboard space for only four mugs, which mugs would you choose?
Tiny home tip: Use smaller dessert plates rather than larger dinner plates. We use my dessert-size English Spode plates as dinner plates. They fit in the narrow cupboard better and it's harder to overeat. The larger dinner plates didn’t fit in the cupboard, so we are storing them.

Tiny home tip: Use vertical space to double the number of spices in the spice rack. We could fit only nine spice bottles in our tiny home’s built-in spice rack, so the Mountain Man took the built-in spice rack to his wood shop and built a second tier, essentially doubling the number of spices it holds without increasing its footprint on the counter. It allows us to keep our essential, every-day spices at hand. The rest we store in a box in an overhead cabinet in our living/dining/kitchen.
The Mountain Man took the spice rack to the wood shop
and doubled the vertical space.  Notice my kitchen towel
embellished by friend Rhona. Even in a tiny space, display
favorite, beautiful, useful things.
Tiny home tip: Edit your appliances to the essential. We use our hotpot daily to make coffee and tea. It's the only appliance that gets real estate on the tiny kitchen counter. I donated my bread machine and toaster and am storing our crock pot and blender. But lately, I’ve been hankering for one of my childhood comfort foods: cinnamon toast. Do I find a tiny toaster or toaster oven? If so, where would we store it when we aren't using it? Or do I forgo toast altogether?

Essential appliances:our hot pot plus microwave, propane range
and  oven and refrigerator. I can live without a dishwasher, but
I can't live without my morning coffee.

Tiny home tip: Tuck the cutting board away when not in use. To eliminate counter top clutter, the Mountain Man built a holder for our cutting board. When we aren’t using our 12 x 12 cutting board, it’s neatly tucked below a kitchen cabinet.

Tiny home tip: Hang the broom on the wall. We have no broom closet, so the Mountain Man built a wooden holder to hang a broom high on the wall near the ceiling. It’s out of the way, but easy to reach.

Tiny home tip:  Place the dish drainer over one side of the double sink. And wash dishes as you get them dirty. Even if you're just eating a bowl of cereal and drinking a cup of coffee, wash up after yourself. Keep your tiny counters uncluttered and ready to use. We have no dishwasher, but I don't mind hand-washing dishes.
Our tiny kitchen has a double sink. We found a stainless steel
dish drainer that fits perfectly in one sink. 
 Tiny home tip: Keep clutter off kitchen counters so you have space for cooking and meal prep--even  if it's just making a simple peanut butter sandwich. 
A bigger view of our tiny kitchen. 
 Tiny home tip: Unbreakable dishes that stack are practical and help stretch your cupboard space further.
Vintage and practical: our 1950s Italian Bascal aluminum cups and
tiny bowls stack neatly in the cupboard and take up a tiny footprint
 in our tiny kitchen.  I snagged them at an estate sale years ago.
Tiny home tip: Keep your silverware drawer neat by keeping only six knives, forks and spoons. Even though tiny home drawers are--well--tiny--measure them to find silverware trays to organize your drawers. Our trays are individual plastic trays that snap together. My standard silverware tray was much too large for our new drawers.
A bare bones silverware drawer: six forks, knives and spoons. 
Tiny home tip: Extend vertical space in cupboards with rubber-coated stackable shelving.
Two narrow shelves hold most of our dishes, including
our Spode plates and Fiestaware bowls.
Tiny home tip: Consider it a treasure hunt. Find tiny items that also are beautiful and inspiring. While browsing in Bella Main Street Market, a fantastic kitchen shop in downtown Baker City, I found these lovely little bowls hand painted in Tunisia. They were on sale, and I got three for $6. These stackable bowls are perfect for sauces, yogurt, applesauce or tomato soup.They're not dishwasher safe. No problem. No dishwasher.

Tiny home tip: Where possible, incorporate whimsy--and your personality--in practical tools.
R2-D2 egg timer at the ready in an old enamel bowl above the sink.
The droid egg timer was a gift from the Mountain Man,
I also display a Millennium Falcon serving platter.