Thursday, April 21, 2022

Learning life lessons from nature

Photo by Susan Parrish/From the ranch on Wolf Creek Reservoir

You know that creepy feeling that you're being watched? You don't see anyone, but you sense someone staring at you?

That's how I felt as I stood outside on a remote ranch in eastern Oregon as I worked out with my weighted hula hoop. It's a great core workout. And it's fun.

All around me were miles of sagebrush-covered hills. In the distance, the Elkhorn Range was to the west, the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains to the east. The closest farmhouse was quite a spell down the gravel road. No other people were about. So why were the hairs on the back of my neck standing up?

"There's no one watching you," I told myself. And I kept hooping. 

But that creepy feeling persisted. There definitely was someone watching me! I scanned the landscape in front of me: Breathtaking natural beauty, but no one in sight. 

Someone must be standing behind me! I stopped hooping and spun around to catch the Peeping Tom.

It wasn't just one Peeping Tom--but four! Yes--four! 

Standing only thirty feet away from me were four mule deer. Four does staring at me, their large ears upright and at attention. They seemed to be entranced by my hula hoop action. Now that I'd stopped hooping, they stood motionless, their eyes fixed on me. Perhaps they were waiting to see if the hula hoop entertainment would continue. After a couple of minutes, my deer admirers wandered over the hill in search of breakfast. 
Mule deer in sagebrush and snow. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Photo in public domain. See license here.

On another morning shortly after that, I faced the glorious mountain view, stepped into my hoop, planted my feet shoulder-width apart, pulled the hoop to my waist, and gave it a spin. Then I gyrated my waist and hips to keep the hoop spinning. After a few seconds, I found my groove and no longer had to focus on keeping the hoop moving. My mind wandered.

A loud whinny interrupted my thoughts. I stopped hooping and spun around. 

One of the horses grazing in the upper pasture had spotted my spinning hula hoop. Galloping down the hilly pasture, she made a beeline for me and my fascinating hoop. She stopped abruptly at the fence that separated us. Then she stood watching me with her lovely horsey eyes. Transfixed, she stared at me. She stared at my hula hoop. (I believe that in her own horsey way, she was smiling.)

Photo by Susan Parrish/Heather and Ryleigh's horse,
Simply Red Robin, aka "Red" entranced by my hula hoop

I laughed and asked her, "Would you like to hula hoop, too?"

Then still facing the horse, I spun my hoop again. My horse admirer watched the spinning hoop for several minutes. Maybe she was imagining her own hula hooping fun. Ranch horses in eastern Oregon aren't accustomed to seeing rugged ranchers and mountain men hula hooping amongst the sagebrush.

After these two animal-hula hoop encounters, I realized that some animals seemed intrigued by watching my spinning hula hoop. 

"I must be some kind of animal whisperer," I told myself. "I entrance animals with my hula hoop."  

Fast forward three years. I'd moved back to the city, where I am blessed to live in a cozy home at the edge of the woods. I regularly encounter rabbits, raccoons, deer, coyotes and many kinds of birds. I hadn't hooped in a long time, but I was ready to start again. So one morning I stepped onto the front porch, where large evergreen trees only 20 feet away. 

Facing the trees, I spun my hoop around my waist started hooping. Almost immediately, small birds flew to a large evergreen nearby, landed in the tree and began chattering. More and more little birds flew to join them. Their chattering grew louder and more insistent.

I recalled my hula hooping attracting deer and a horse. Were birds also intrigued with the rotating hoop? I kept hooping to find out what would happen next.

Soon the smaller birds were joined by a bright blue Steller's jay who landed in the tree and began urgently calling "Wek! Wek! Wek!"

Steller's jay photo by Alan D. Wilson
Photo in public domain. See license here. 

The Steller's jay was joined by another jay. Then another. Soon many jays had gathered in the evergreen tree and were squawking loudly in accompaniment to the chorus of smaller birds.

"Wow!" I thought. "These birds are really curious about my hula hoop!"

I smiled and kept hooping.

Next, a crow landed in the tree and squawked, "Caw! Caw! Caw!" 
Northwestern crow photo by Alan Leggett
Photo in public domain. See license here.

Then about a dozen crows joined him in the tree. All joined their raspy voices to the avian choir. 

"Even the crows are curious about my hoop," I told myself.

But when the murder of crows lifted off and began circling the tree and making lots of noise, I realized this attention was not about my hula hoop. There was something else in that tree. Sliding my hoop to the ground, I walked toward the evergreen where dozens of agitated birds were squawking, chirping and flitting about. 

As I approached the base of the tree, an enormous owl that had been perching in the tree silently lifted off and flew away. The noisy crows chased it across the sky until it was out of sight.
Great Horned Owl photo by Jon Nelson
Photo in public domain. See license here.

Here's the lesson I learned: Sometimes what I'm doing might interest others. But most of the time, everyone else is so focused on their own issues--like an enormous predator hanging out in neighborhood and making them feel unsafe. They're so concerned about their own problems that they don't even see me or my magnificent hula hoop.

Going forward, I vowed three things: 

1. Be open to learning from nature and the natural world. I miss so many lessons because my eyes and heart aren't open to recognize them and receive them.

2. Recognize I'm not the center of the universe. My adventures with my hula hoop aren't that compelling to anyone but me and me alone. Everyone is focused on  their own issues. I'm going to pay better attention to other people and their issues.

3. I will keep doing my own thing and not worry about whether what I'm doing is interesting or sanctioned by others. You do you. I'll do me. And as for me, I'll keep on hooping and adventuring.

Photo by Susan Parrish/Heather's horses in the sage at the ranch

Susan Parrish hula hooping while giving a presentation
about learning new lessons in midlife

Tuesday, November 30, 2021


I have enough. I am enough.

Not so long ago, this wasn't true. 

When I first returned home from living an adventurous life in eastern Oregon, I was destitute in every way possible: financially, emotionally, spiritually. 

I was spent. Broken.

I realized I couldn't face another winter of living in a fifth wheel RV and rarely being warm enough. 

But it was more than lack of warmth that compelled me to return home. Despite the companionship of the Mountain Man, I was lonely. It was unrealistic and unhealthy for both of us that he be my only friend. 

Back home in the city, I'd had a fulfilling life brimming with community and connection: newspaper reporter, Mighty Woman dragon boat paddler, book group, friends to meet for walking, kayaking, coffee, dancing or other adventures. Before I moved 300 miles to join the Mountain Man, he'd warned me that living in a tiny, rural ranching area would be hard.

I balked. How hard could it be? I've always found community wherever I go.

Not this time. I failed to find community or connection. I was an outsider. A city gal. It seemed I always would be an outsider.

We lived on a ranch seven miles from a burg of 400 people. Amenities consisted of a K-12 school, a postage-stamp-sized post office, a convenience store, a cafe, and a card-lock gas station. We did our grocery shopping and other business in La Grande, 30 minutes north or Baker, 30 minutes south.

I tried to make friends. I tried to find community. But nothing I tried worked, so I stopped trying. I took long walks alone. I swam in Wolf Creek Reservoir alone. I went snowshoeing alone.

My isolation from community grew into loneliness; loneliness grew into discontentment. Then unhappiness. And my unhappiness rubbed off on the Mountain Man. Living away from my community in a 323-square-foot RV turned out to be more difficult than I'd fathomed. Despite our love for each other, it wasn't working.

We'd been happier when we lived apart and met for grand adventures: backpacking to camp among a herd of mountain goats, hiking, spelunking, kayaking, swing dancing, archery, fly fishing, skiing, playing music and singing together.

The day I moved away from him, the Mountain Man and I clung to each other and cried. 

Two years earlier, just before I left the city to begin my new life with him, my sisters had thrown me a going-away party. So many friends and family packed into a restaurant to send me off on my grand adventure.

In stark contrast, when I moved back to the city, I did it quietly. No fanfare. I didn't want to draw attention to myself or my failure. In my eyes, I had failed at sustaining a relationship. I had failed at being tough and resilient living in challenging circumstances. I thought other people would see my failure, too, and they'd reject me. So I didn't give them a chance.

I didn't climb back onto the dragon boat with my former team, the Mighty Women. I didn't call my friend, Brenda, and ask her to go contra dancing as we had before. I didn't seek out old friends to karaoke at The Alibi or to take a belly dancing lesson with me. 

Instead, I quietly spent time with my family and a handful of close friends. But the rest of the world I kept at arm's length.

Who would want to spend time with me? I asked myself. I'm a failure.

My defeatist attitude thwarted my ability to find a job, which perpetuated my feelings of unworthiness. I applied for many jobs and had first interviews and second interviews, but no job offers came. 

Even after moving back home and changing my life again, I was floundering.

One morning I was out of coffee. I needed five dollars to buy a package of coffee to get me through the week, but my checking account was bare. 

First, I burst into tears. (I really needed coffee!)

Then I put on my big girl panties to find a solution. I dumped the contents of my wallet on the floor, stacked the coins and began counting. Not enough. How demoralizing to be so broke!

Then I remembered a jar of change I'd found during my move. I dumped the jar onto the floor and began counting the change. 

It was enough! A small success.

Eventually, I found some freelancing gigs: writing grants for a food pantry, writing stories for a magazine and the newspaper where I'd been a reporter. It wasn't enough income to live on. After taking inventory of what skills I could monetize, I started a decluttering business. Kind friends paid me to declutter their homes. That helped.

I lived frugally, squeezing every molecule of toothpaste from the tube before I tossed it. I signed up for Medicaid health insurance. I picked up free food from my local Buy Nothing group. 

My Subaru's tires kept losing air, so I stopped by Les Schwab to fill them. The attendant who helped me showed me that they were bare. No traction left. 

"You shouldn't drive on those tires. It's dangerous."

I called a few tire shops and was shocked by the price tag: $500! Where would I get $500?

So I didn't do anything about it. One morning after arriving at a friends' house for a decluttering job, one tire was completely flat and it had a gaping hole. Before I did any decluttering, my friend wrote me a check for $500 so I could buy tires. I paid her back by decluttering her house over several months. 

In gratitude and humiliation, (and more tears) I received her offer of help--and the help of many others. My dear friends, Kathleen and Michael rent me their lovely mother-in-law suite for a very, very reasonable rate. My  family gave me Arco gas cards or cash for Christmas and my birthday--and sometimes just because. 

About a year after returning home, I continued applying for jobs without success. Then an acquaintance offered me a part-time temporary job at the local community college. Over time, I was given more hours. 

Recently I celebrated my two-year anniversary working part time for the college. For the past six months, a steady stream of freelance writing projects have come my way--unsolicited. Opportunity after opportunity has dropped into my lap. 

What a difference this work has made in my life! I've paid off my credit card and have kept the balance at zero. I've raised my credit score to "excellent." My checking account has a cushion and I'm building up my savings account. I'm contributing a significant amount of my salary into a retirement account. 

I still squeeze every molecule of toothpaste from the tube, but here's how far I've come: I bought two extra tubes of toothpaste when they were on sale.

Like many people, I've faced challenges and hard times. I am certain I will face challenges again. But three years after returning home, I finally can say: I have enough. I am enough.

My successes and my attitude of gratitude have given me confidence again. At last I climbed back onto the dragon boat with my Mighty Women teammates. Gripping my paddle, I reached forward, plunged my paddle into the Willamette River, and pulled the heavy water behind me. Our boat lifted up and glided through the water. I smiled.

The Mighty Woman is back!

Finishing an amazing paddle before a midsummer sunset.
I'd just surprised a heron, who flew over me, squawking.
As the setting sun glinted off the floating homes,
I gasped at this magical moment on the river.
The Mighty Woman is back, baby! 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Packrat under the kitchen sink!


The mouse trap under the kitchen sink had caught a mouse. But when the Mountain Man opened the cabinet door and peered underneath the sink, he said: "Not a mouse. We caught a pack rat."

"No," I replied. "You're joking."

He motioned for me to peek. Yes indeed. A pack rat about half the size of our cats looked at me with annoyance. 
Here's the pack rat we caught underneath our kitchen sink. I moved to the dishwashing liquid to the countertop. No need to accidentally grab a pack rat when I'm washing dishes.

Then he pulled the trap with him as he escaped into the bowels of the camper, where we couldn't reach him. Eventually, we caught him in a live trap. I snapped his photo as evidence of yet another critter that's invaded our tiny home-camper.

Was finding a pack rat under our kitchen sink more alarming than finding a snake curled up on my pillow? No, it actually wasn't. The snake-on-the-pillow incident was more than a year ago. I've moved on. 

Since then, we've been invaded by frogs, mice, yellow jackets, tiny spiders, stink bugs and flies. Lots of flies. 

I'm a tough Mountain Woman now, and I'm less flappable than I was when I first moved to wild Eastern Oregon nearly two years ago. When a dozen tiny spiders descended from the shower ceiling while I was washing my hair, I squished spiders with one hand while I shampooed my hair with the other. 

The other night when yet another frog had hopped out of the living room vent and started making his way toward me, I calmly caught him and released him outside.

Last night we were listening to a Maisy Dobbs mystery audiobook, when the quiet of the night was interrupted by the insistent whinny of the horses. 

"What would make the horses spook like that?" I asked the Mountain Man.

"Maybe a cougar."

I armed myself with my dragon walking stick and a flashlight. The Mountain Man grabbed his gun. We stepped outside into the black night and walked toward the fenceline where we thought we'd heard the horses. But the horses weren't there. They'd likely galloped up the hill. 

We peered into the night. But we didn't see any movement. No cougar jumped out at us. We headed back toward the house. I was in the lead. And I was surprisingly not afraid. 

I wanted to check whether either the horses or a cougar were just behind our house. So I walked quickly, shining the flashlight through the tall grass and sagebrush. But I didn't see anything.

The Mountain Man noticed my fearlessness: "Wow. You're not afraid."

I turned toward him and replied: "I'm not the same woman who moved here two years ago. I've had a snake on my pillow and a pack rat under the kitchen sink."

He nodded.

We walked back to the house and I smiled. I am braver than I was two years ago. But I'm also grateful we didn't run into a cougar in the blackness of night.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Savor the sunrises and sunsets

Savor the sunrises and sunsets, for these small, simple moments are the essence of our lives.

Image may contain: sky, tree, grass, plant, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: sky, mountain, outdoor and nature
View from our sunset walk in wild Eastern Oregon

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How to Overcome Hard Stuff: Keep Paddling

One of my first dragon boat races with the Mighty Women.

Nine years ago, I was a sad woman who was approaching 50 and feeling worn out and used up. I wondered whether I’d ever be happy again. I didn’t dare dream of leading an adventurous, joyful life.

Six years ago, when I was unemployed and broke, I became a Mighty Woman paddling a dragon boat with bold, gutsy women who are unafraid to challenge themselves physically. They welcomed me onto their dragon boat and encouraged me to keep paddling. Becoming a Mighty Woman changed my attitude, my body and the trajectory of my life.

Today, I’m a Mighty Mountain Woman living in a 323-square-foot tiny home-camper with the Mountain Man and two ferel cats in wild Eastern Oregon. Ten years ago, I never dreamed this would be my life. How could I have dreamed up a life this unconventional? This weird, wild and wonderful?

Has this transformation been an easy one? Definitely not! Overcoming life’s obstacles requires persistence, resilience and boldness to keep paddling forward, even when you can’t see a clear path through the obstacles blocking your path toward your goal.

If you're like any other human being, you'll encounter challenges, difficulties and setbacks your entire life. It's best to not freak out about the hard times. Accept the challenges--and then learn how to overcome them. 

Here's my advice to overcoming life's hard stuff: Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. Keep looking for ways through the debris that’s blocking your path. If the first way doesn't work, try another way. So keep paddling. You’ll eventually make it to a calm pool where you can breathe again.

Mighty Women: Paddles up! Take it away!

The Mighty Women paddling in lane one of a dragon boat race.

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.