19 April 2009

poem or prose?

The annual Estacada Area Arts Commission Writers Night was once again an enjoyable event. Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred are two of my most favorite people who are coincidentally writers - and poets. I was a bit late (as usual) and missed some of the first readings by poet Melanie Green. Stevan read "Conflations of a Hard Headed Yankee." Joanna read a selection of her poems - a debut reading for her as she has only read her prose before. Steve Denniston read his story "Duck Fishing in Dufur." The readings were entertaining, truthful, and beautiful with language. I was reminded how grateful I am for the community of writers - and listeners.

Stevan relayed a story about the difference between poets and prose writers (inspired by a poem from Melanie about bats). Here's the short version:

A woman came into a group of poets and prose writers and said, "I just saw some bats at my house."

The poets said, "What did they look like?"

The prose writers said, "What happened?"

It provoked conversation. What's the difference? Does use of language determine form? What if prose engages poetic language? Does it matter? Why write at all?

Author Jeremy Adam Smith says that writing offers a different way to work through problems, a persuasive perspective, or a larger connection. Or maybe writers just like to read.

A poet near and dear to me says he writes to give voice to those feelings for which there are no single words. Poetry allows him the room to touch those deepest emotions. It is personal for him and needs only a private audience.

Raymond Carver said writers write to save lives (looking for the reference - I think it is from his introduction to Best American Short Stories).

Quantum mechanics proposes that perception is integral to the existence of the universe. (Read The Biocentric Universe in this month's Discover magazine). In a quantum nutshell: we observe so the universe exists.

Do the observations of our world in all our most human moments serve to do more than just record us?

A western tanager outside the kitchen window.

A fishhook in a drunken man's lip.

A spilled bottle of screws on a widower's workbench.


Carver also wrote that the life we save is our own.


08 March 2009


I have seen some wondrous things in this life. The sharp white peak of Mt. Fuji. Tokyo Bay from high inside the red girders of Tokyo Tower. Hiroshima. Taiwanese rice paddies. California redwoods you can drive through. The black depths of Carlsbad Caverns. The Columbia River where it meets the sea. The red-mud Missouri river. Under a microscope: giardia (little men in hats), staphylococcus (clumps of grapes), and syphilis (spiraling corkscrews). The Tower of London. Brick Lane. The high arches of Winchester Cathedral. The Great Star of Africa. A white chalk horse on the cliffs near the Salisbury plains. Stonehenge. A real Monet (Chicago). A real Van Gogh (London). Lightning over the peaks of Mount Moran from the far side of Leigh Lake. Babies born. Solar eclipse. A hunting hawk strike. Breaching whales. Endless stars.

I have my father to thank for believing that his children were better off for seeing the world rather than sitting in a classroom every day. I thank my husband for continuing the adventure with me. But for the grandeur, I can only thank the universe itself.

In 1977, I turned 12 and my family hiked out of Driggs, Idaho, through Devil's Staircase up to Alaska Basin and then to the top of Hurricane Pass that looks over at the backside of the Grand Tetons. Our guide was an older gentleman named Fred Miller. Fred was born with two club feet. His mother was told he would never walk. According to Fred, she didn't accept the diagnosis and worked his feet straight every day until he walked. Fred hiked with two walking sticks, swinging one or the other forward with each step.

It was a 2- or 3-day hike, and we all carried packs - everything in and out. Fred could out-pace us all. And while I don't remember the details, I recall that he told us stories and named the trees, flowers, rocks and streams all along the way. He showed us watermelon snow, elephant heads, and purple iris. He memorialized the troop of girls who died around a great tree at the crest of a ridge, killed by the lightning strike that burned through the tree roots to reach them where they lay in the grass away from the tree.

Then one night after camp had been set up against the big, round boulders and dinner was done, Fred Miller sang. He sang with the red flicker of campfire on his face, the sharp white of stars overhead, and the black shape of the mountains all around.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

He sang in joy. In worship of his God. In humility. In awe.

Even though I was young, pre-pubescent, struggling to understand without an understanding, I was moved to tears. His awe gifted me with something precious, something I have never forgotten.

Something I felt again this past week.

My husband took me to Hawaii, the place of his mother's birth. He grew up with her stories and more than a little bit of the local language. As a young man, he returned to the island to work on a construction project with his father, both of them carpenters, and lived in Hilo with his mother's people. So it was a return for him. A new experience for me.

Hawaii, the Big Island, is active with volcanic eruptions. We visited the Volcano House at Kilauea, saw the billowing white steam from the rift in the giant caldera, a volcanic haze spreading west across the island, punctuated by sharp, white bursts of steam vents and smaller eruptions. The larger driving/hiking loop was closed due to high levels of poisonous gases in the air. Several days later when we drove over the volcano and west to Punalu'u and Honaunau, we could smell the pungent sulphur even with all the car windows closed.

Late one afternoon, my husband drove us south from Hilo, down Hwy 130 through Pahoa towards the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Drove until the highway was stopped by an old lava flow that had taken everything around it - the highway, homes, outbuildings, forest. A one-lane makeshift road took us up and over the massive flow, and we followed it to another short stretch of paved road. Then over another flow, another narrow one-lane, and reached another abrupt end. This time, truly an end to the road.

A tower of steam rose up beyond the expanse of old lava. We had seen it from miles away, that place where the molten lava meets the sea.

We hiked then, followed a series of yellow paint stripes across the old lava flow, the hardened cake-batter ripples of pahoehoe and the crunchy sponge-like a'a. For all the people who had walked this way, there was no visible path worn into the rocks, only the yellow tags of paint to indicate we were going the right way. It was like walking on the surface of another planet, surreal and unfamiliar.

The sun set behind a haze of sulphur and volcanic matter, and the moon overhead was a thin crescent, Venus bright beneath it.

More than a mile away, the pillar of steam was immense, lit from below by the flux and flow of molten lava. As the night darkened, the reds, oranges, yellows and blues deepened. The flow pulsed and growled like a living organism, spit and surged, and sometimes flung brilliant flares up and over the edge of the old flow like primal fireworks.

Awe is inadequate a word for what rises up in your chest as you stand on a mound of hardened lava and watch the earth birth new land. Awe and immense joy for this world in which we live. For its beauty. For its astounding cycles of life, healing and regeneration. For the immense power greater than us all that pulses beneath our feet and lifts in the air we breathe.

To that which is greater than us all, I give thanks. I give honor. I gift my awe to the very universe I celebrate.

Aloha and mahalo nui loa.

* A special thanks to the following photographers:

Ryan Backman for his beautiful photo of Hurricane Pass;
and Ben Levy for his amazing photo of Alaska Basin.

The rest of the photos are my own.

12 January 2009

flooding memories

There is flooding north and south of us, the Chehalis river over I-5, the Lewis in Woodland, Salmon and Johnson creeks both out of their banks. And the rain continues.

June 1976, my dad and I were at the church for some kind of event when he got a message that the Teton Dam had broken and flooded our new home in Rexburg, Idaho. My dad and I flew from Los Angeles to Idaho Falls in a single engine plane with one of my dad's pilot friends who sweet-talked air-traffic control into letting us land at the Idaho Falls airport and then through all the barricades into the flood zone. The images of the destruction remain clear: the scoured cement foundation of our house, all structure completely gone; green strawberry plants in a muddy border around the space that once was a porch and garden shed; the swollen bodies of cows rolled up against collapsed fence lines; deep swirls of black mud crossing and re-crossing the roads; small airplanes caught in trees and tipped up against the skewed shapes of buildings, miles away from the airport.

February 1996, the Columbia River bore ice and then melted into brown water the color of a cappuccino. At its peak, the Willamette breached the sea-wall to flood into downtown Portland. I was working for a band back then, Stain, and we had played a gig in Vancouver the Thursday night that the rivers crested. In the early morning hours after packing up our gear, we took a detour on our way home, parked at the end of the closed I-5 and walked up and over the Morrison Bridge. Trees the size of train-cars were stacked up against each other on the south footings of the bridge, their yellow insides bare and splintered. The water was red and brown and foam. But mostly I remember the sound of it, the deep roar of something primal. The sound of water moving the earth.

Perhaps it is the same sound that whispers in the rain outside my window tonight. The barest hint of inherent power. Evidence of that which is greater than us all in a single raindrop.

I remain awed and grateful.