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Thirty eight years ago, my husband was called up by the United States Forest Service. He was an experience wildland firefighter and had worked for Oregon State Forestry for several years, starting during his high school years. He was an employee (currently laid off) of a local logging company. We needed the money. The Santa Anas were blowing.

From Wikipedia:

“The Santa Ana winds are strong, extremely dry downslope winds that originate inland and affect coastal Southern California and northern Baja California. They originate from cool, dry high-pressure air masses in the Great Basin.

Santa Ana winds are known for the hot, dry weather that they bring in autumn (often the hottest of the year), but they can also arise at other times of the year. They often bring the lowest relative humidities of the year to coastal Southern California. These low humidities, combined with the warm, compressionally-heated air mass, plus high wind speeds, create critical fire weather conditions. Also sometimes called “devil winds” in conjunction with Northern California’s diablo wind,[1][2] the Santa Anas are infamous for fanning regional wildfires.”

There were wildfires in Los Angeles in the autumn of 1980. Homes were built into the brush. There were no natural fire-lines. The hills were mountain mahogany, a plant that is pitch-filled and hot burning. There was poison oak, the smoke of which could poison lungs. The drought that has extended into 2018 had just begun.

Fire fighting is a scary and dangerous line of work. Fires can turn. Fires create their own weather and winds.  Fires jump boundaries.

One of my earliest memories as a child is of my mother sitting in the kitchen nook of a Forest Service house we lived in. She had the walkie-talkie turned on and was listening to the chatter about some fire my father was on. He was the Ranger, not the firefighter. She was clinging to the hope that he would walk away from the fire and return to us. I don’t remember whether she saw me or not, or whether she comforted me or not. I only remember the connection to her as she prayed Dad would come home.

1980. November. I wanted to have updates. I wanted to know he was OK. He was struggling with mountain mahogany and poison oak going up in flames. Men beside him failed when they inhaled the smoke from poison oak. He cursed the houses built into the brush.

I ate dinner with my father-in-law and my sister-in-law at some restaurant. He ate turkey sandwiches on the fireline.

1995. My mother died. My father, a veteran of 30+ years with the Forest Service, and my brother, took me on a ride up into the alpine levels of the Sierra Nevadas. We were struck by the California laws that didn’t allow home owners to cut trees or create a space where fire could be stopped. No: trees had to be left were they were. My father shook his head and predicted catastrophic results for this “environmental” strategy. He shook his head at the lack of salvage logging.

Agencies that fight fire are dependent on money from the Feds based on the previous fire year. If the year was light, the funds are light. A heavy year: more funds.

A fire fighter’s nightmare is having Federal funds cut off in the middle of a bad fire year. The safety of these fighters is on the line. My father. My husband. A friend who still fights fire. I get that people think there needs to be responsibility regarding how forests are managed out West. Sadly, they are from people who have no connection to the West or to firefighters.

I could give you a list of books to read. I could ask you to think about “what if my <insert relationship> was fighting fire, Or running from fire. Goddamit people. Animals. Livestock. Homes. People. #fuckpolitics

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Yeah, I was all gung ho for the challenge this year, but as November 1st came and passed, I realized that there is no way I am going to attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days this year. Nope, not happening.

I retire in less than 8 weeks. There’s still a lot to do to prepare for this momentous occasion, like applying for insurance on the open market between the first of November and the 15th of December. Oy vey.

Our daughter and son-in-love are coming to visit for two weeks. They come with four small human beings aged 5-10. I have to work during those weeks (except for one weekend and the four-day holiday). No way am I devoting time to writing when I could be spending it warping young minds! Maybe I will convince the grands to let me read A Series of Unfortunate Events to them!

I’m working through my 2014 novel, editing and so on. I have years worth of NaNoWriMo novels to sift through, edit, and revise. I don’t need yet another one on my plate.

That pretty much sums up November 2018.

How’s that for a catchy title?

It all started when a friend who lives in EnZed sent me an idea for Hallowe’en decorating – before I even had the decorations pulled out. It was of a pumpkin black cat lantern (you can see it here). Cute, but it involves real pumpkins and carving them. The pumpkins aren’t so bad, but I knew I was not going to want  to carve them or paint them, so I thought I’d just bypass all that.

Ha.

I bought a package of balloons and pulled out my trust bottle of fabric starch and the roll of black crepe paper. I’ve had both the starch and the crepe paper for about the same amount of time, which could be 20 or 30 years. The starch never gets old, amazingly.

 

I learned how to do this poor man’s papier maché when I was in the 5th grade. You cut the crepe paper into workable strips, wet it with the starch, and attach it to the balloon. Add layers, let dry, pop the balloon when dry & you have a form.

I’ve never tried to be so exacting with the cut out, however. But I drew my pattern on the balloons with a marker and set to work.

 

I used red and white crepe paper for the places where there would be “gaps” – where the pumpkin would be cut out. Then I added several layers of the crape paper in all the spaces that would not have and cut outs. This is a messy procedure and I had to lay out a plastic cover underneath the dripping balloons.

After a coupl of days drying, I finally figures out how to do the black around the cut outs.

 

I used tracing paper to sketch out what was to be cut out, then I cut a template that I used on flat tissue paper. Tissue paper is pretty much the same consistency as crepe paper, just not crepe-y. I held the black template to the balloon and used a paint brush to dab on the starch until the entire section was covered.

It came out reasonably well. I gave up on two layers as it was just too much of a hassle (what was that about not wanting to scoop out a pumpkin and paint it?). I spent a couple more days using short strips of crepe paper to get an even texture and color. Eventually, I decided the bottom was ready for me to pop the balloon and get on with body building.

 

The cat has to be able to stand flat, and the head needs to sit on the shoulders, so I cut out the top & bottom of the form (bad move). I cut the ears out of the bottom or the top (that’s those triangle things).

Attaching the head was not so easy. The form wanted to fold in with the wet layers of crepe paper. The head didn’t want to hold still while I tried to carefully glue the crepe paper on with starch. I did manage to attach the ears to the head and I repaired the bottom form by setting it over a bowl to dry out (again).

Tonight, it dawned on me to use hot glue to attach the head. I have black ribbon that is an inch wide, and by running hot glue over the back diagonally, I was able to glue the top and bottom of the form together! I even ran hot glue around the base to give it a little more firmness.

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He’s certainly got attitude, even though he’s much too fragile to set out on the porch this tomorrow (the rain will melt him).

My last steps were to pop the balloon in the head and cut a small hole in the back so I could insert a little battery powered tea light into the head. Should go without saying that I set the cat over another battery powered tea light.

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Sadly, there’s no way to preserve and store this creation, so I will be tossing it into the trash on All Saint’s Day.

Next year, I think I’ll just buck up and buy the pumpkins. I have the paint, after all.

 

I left church and organized religion sometime around 2005. I was just done. I loved my friends, loved church, hated “the ministry”. I was never called to “the ministry”, but I volunteered for a couple decades. My husband and I partnered in several things: running an outdoor ministry and ushering. It was a chance to be together after his odd work hours, and to take ownership of our faith.

I’m not going to hash out our decisions to leave. It’s counter-productive to list the sins of the church and the sins of leadership. You have to forgive and move on, and while you never forget, you should never dredge it all back up and enumerate the many things that went wrong. My husband left first, and I tried to stay on for another two years. It didn’t work. There are many reasons, but the final straw was being treated as if I were a newcomer to the church and a single woman. I left the church, a bitter taste in my throat and a promise that it would only be “a sabbatical”.

I have kept in touch with my friends from church. Once or twice a year, a small group of us that date back to “the cult” days get together for lunch and catching up. We laugh, pray, and watch our babies grow and have their own children. We joke about “the cult” – a brief stint for me, but a longer stint for some of them: we are all survivors of Wayman Mitchell and his Christian Fellowship Ministries. I’ll just let you research that on your own. It wasn’t God. I occasionally visited the church until about 2014 when I ceased to go entirely.

Back in May, my sweet friend asked me to go to a Mother’s Day luncheon at one of the splinter churches that came out of or former congregation. Happens that one of my dearest friends (and her husband) had taken up the reins of ministry at this new splinter church, and I hadn’t seen or talked to her in a few years. I agreed, but I made no commitment beyond that brief hour of hugging and meeting her grandson.

A couple weeks ago, the same sweet friend asked me if I’d like to go to a women’s retreat and room with her & one other friend. I usually say “no”, but I had just decided to retire at the end of the year (yay, me!) and I thought, “why not?”

It was a wonderful evening and day of ministry. There were a couple speakers who related more to the younger women, but two that resonated with me, in my current spiritual state. The weather was beautiful. I was among people who hold my very basic faith (albeit we might disagree politically, and I was grateful that no-one brought up those political differences the entire time).

The theme was seasons of life. The first speaker was a scientist who talked about how we can change our way of thinking, using scientific facts (I love this kind of stuff – science!). The next two were aimed at young women and mothers. My dearest friend spoke of seasons of life.

I am in the winter of my life, physically. I will be 62 on Friday of this week. Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead. November 2.

I am not in the winter of my life, spiritually. I died in my thirties. Those two decades  (30s & 40s) were some of the worst years of my life. I turned 50 and felt so free from death and the stark contrasts of winter. I felt like I entered into a Springtime of life. I had a time of blooming and warmth.

I feel like I am entering my summer as I turn 62. My body is failing me, but my mind, my spirit, my soul are alive and blooming. I see things from a different perspective. I am tolerant of other faiths. I am open and embracing of other walks of life. I have so much to accomplish before my final waltz down the aisle to meet Death.

I had a very good time, and I am still processing everything (an Introvert and HSP thing). I opened up to strangers. I felt accepted, but I am still wary. I hugged and teased a young woman who I half-raised when she was a toddler. I feel like God is bringing me full circle, but I can’t say if that means going back to church or now. I do know it means all id forgiven between good friends. I know I have been prayed over and loved, as I have prayed over and loved others.

1929

I love you, my friends. I may always be the odd one out – the one who celebrates Hallowe’en, does cosplay, and votes Independent – but I love you. (I’m the dork in glasses and dark hair in the middle.)

I have a group of friends who do genealogy for their families: we refer to the activity, and one particular genealogy site, as “The Vortex”. Once you start, you are inexorably sucked into the web of surnames, birthdates, marriages, deaths, wars, deeds done, and – especially for those of us in the New World – the mystery of our mixed DNA.

I mean, is there really a Cherokee Princess hidden in the 1800’s marriage records? Perhaps we’re Jewish? Was a slave hidden somewhere in our checkered past? Maybe, like the famed Alex Haley, we just want to know how we got here: what slavers, what tribes, what horrors?

I inherited a lot of previously researched material, hand-written or typed and carbon copied (yes, with real carbon paper). Old correspondence. Pages of family history that reads a lot like the book of Genesis: “so-and-so begat and he begat and he married her and they begat…” Cousins. Direct lines. Dates. Some word-of-mouth stories. Legends.

I tried to do a family tree when I was in the 6th or 7th grade, possibly the 8th grade. We came on the Mayflower, there was Native American blood (possibly a Canadian tribe), we fought in the American Revolution, John Brown of Harper’s Ferry was a distant cousin (but close enough to be uncomfortable), we possibly helped on the Underground Railroad, and the Scots side of the family was a latecomer (18060’s)to the USA.

Going through family names and working my way back through the reams of documents and the leaves of hints on Ancestry.com (being careful to weed out those that don’t match – you do have to watch those hints like a hawk!), I could find no Native American. I found English, Dutch, Irish, Scots. Ysseltyns, Van Ysseltyns, Van Esseltyns, and Van der somebody all down one line. Only Melrose (Scots) and Cusick (Irish) for the two heritages I was told my DNA consisted the most of (the most vociferous and latest additions to the family tree). I learned bits of Irish Gaelic from my father, bastardized by his distance from those who actually spoke the tongue. My mother recalled nothing of the Scots, but carried the surname for which we are proud: Melrose.

I can’t even find a tartan for Melrose, which was apparently a lowland Scots name as the Melrose Abbey (wherein Robert the Bruce’s heart is entombed. Think Braveheart).

Truth be told, I haven’t tried to cross The Pond to trace the family line when so much of my heritage is here in the Continental USA. And before I go any further, I am not a Nationalist. My people came here as immigrants, escaping religious persecution, and they established colonies. They married, had children, fought in the American Revolution (on the winning side), pushed westward to Illinois, and fought on the Yankee side of the American Civil War. Only one ancestor – to my present knowledge – participated in any war against Native Americans, and he fought in the Black Hawk War of 1832. He received a land plot for which I hold the original deed, signed by President James Buchanan.

All that aside, I took a DNA test to see where I came from. There’s no Native American. That bit about some Canadian Indian beauty just slipped right through the cracks. No color of any, truth be told: I’m strictly Northern European, English, Irish, Scandinavian.

Specifically: 92% England, Wales, Northwestern Europe. Most of that DNA is Wales & England. 3% Ireland & Scotland. 3% Germanic Europe (probably all those Dutch surnames). 2% Norway.

England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland – those are all countries that were invaded by the Normans (France, more or less) and the Vikings (the Danish, although one could speculate Norwegians as well, since Viking was not a nationality). Just within England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, there was a lot of raiding, raping, pillaging, and – well, there you are.

I’m just freaking pasty white. My ancestry is as old as this country has been a nation, yet I am still a newcomer here. We pushed as far as the Midwest, not migrating any further until the early 1900’s. We arrived on the Mayflower (and before that infamous ship), settled across Connecticut, migrated into Illinois.

I am so sorry I started looking into this family tree stuff again, because I am suddenly finding more “leaves” sprouting on the limbs. The Vortex is sucking me in. I want to trace every family line back as far as I can get before I pay for the International version and start looking overseas. It’s addicting. A little research and you feel the blood of all those women who came before you flowing through your veins.

If you don’t, you’re not truly doing the research. Those women – and men – birthed who you are.

(Sorry, not editing, so this is probably a bit rambling. Sue me.)

One of my favorite flower beds is right out the back door. It’s a little triangle that is always full of something growing from May through October. This year, I tried to snap a photo diary of the corner garden.

I missed April – when the grape hyacinth and the tiny wild violets are the only color in this little corner.

May

May is peony time.

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The Dragon Lily (dracunculus vulgaris) ends May and starts June with its stench – and striking beauty.

June

Even though the Dragon Lily is in full bloom, the corner seems a sea of green as the peonies fade, the milkweed and the asters push upward.

July

July. The peonies and dragon lilies fade as the milkweed blooms, fragrant and alluring. The corner goes from one aroma (dead meat) to another (sweet milkweed) in a matter of weeks.

August

August. The asters bloom when the milkweed fades – red and tall in the back, purple and lodged in a crack in the sidewalk. (The yellow mum was a potted plant.) You can see the faded glory of the Dragon Lilies, seed heads brilliant red, and the peony leaves turning brown. Seed pods are forming on the milkweed plants now.

Sept

And just like that the sun is low in the sky and September is leaching the color from the milkweed plants.

Oct

It is late October now. The rains have held off. The leaves have fallen from most of the milkweed. The asters cling to a little bit of green, but their blooms are all but faded now.

Soon, it will be an empty space of grown, brown and sad, all the stalks cut back before the new growth begins again in April. The rains will come, the days grow dark and – for me – depressing. But the cycle will resume in four short months.

The grape hyacinth, the violets, and the peonies came with the house and this little corner. I pulled back a blanket of creeping myrtle (aka periwinkle or variegated vinca minor) to bare the ground. We planted the Dragon Lilies, babies from a single corm we stole from a rental many moons ago and have carried around with us for 30 years. (Want some? We’ll gladly ship – up to zone 8.) I planted the little purple aster from a plant a dear friend gave me some 25 years ago. It’s been divided and planted elsewhere, but this little bit insists on pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk right at the apex of the flower bed. The tall red aster surprised me that first autumn in the house – an added bonus of the many flowers already here and hidden by neglect.

The milkweed, now – that was a project. I tried two or three times over the years to grow it by seed. I gave up four or five years ago, but one fine day three years ago, a small plant survived long enough for me to identify that it was, indeed, showy milkweed. Last year, more came up and they flowered for the first time. This year, they tripled in number. They are truly one of my finer moments in gardening, even if they are now rather prolific.

 

 

And I have not raised my hand once to type out the tales of my days.

There were birds. Dozens of birds. The Bewick’s Wrens built their nest in the garage and fled as soon as the babies fledged. The Spotted Towhees taught their fledgling to bathe in one of our three bird baths. The Dark-eyed Juncos fooled us with fledglings that looked more sparrow than junco. The Bushtits took communal baths. Black-capped Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Band-tailed Pigeons, Sharp-shinned Hawk,. Rufous Hummingbird challenged all other hummingbirds and sometimes the bigger birds. Anna’s Hummingbirds came and chirped in our faces.No dogs to chase them. No resident cat. The birds moved in and became our pets for a season.

I dug in the earth, turning over earthworms and pulling out ribbons of grass roots to make room for more flower beds. The flower beds bloomed and fed the birds, bees, and wasps. The flowers faded and turned to seed, continuing to feed the birds. Soon, the milkweed pods will burst open and the yard will be littered with fluff. I’ll save it for the nesting birds next Spring.

I spent time sitting with my husband, shushing his political rants and encouraging his dreams. We drank too much beer. We made new friends. We had a couple hellacious rows. We rekindled our love, the love that covers a multitude of sins – and, as it were, disagreements of political nature.

We mourned the loss of our youngest daughter as she chose to remove herself from our lives. It may – or may not be – permanent. She wasn’t ready to commit to either possibility, only that for now, for herself, she must separate herself from her past, which includes all of her blood family. We wish her well, but we will always mourn her.

In August, I had an epiphany: I could do this retirement thing at the age of 62. I am finally at an age where money will come in – slight, but enough to subsidize my dream of writing and painting. I applied for my Social Security Benefits, told my boss, and contacted Human Resources. Now, I am counting the days. December 28th, 2018.

The coldness is creeping in. The days are still bright with sunshine, but the edge of winter will come with clouds and rain, rain and clouds. My prayer book is brimming with the heartbreak and needs of my friends. My dreams are restless and thematic, always returning to sharing a bedroom with my messy little sister and trying to decide what items to pack to move. Often, there is a dog in the dream, or a loving cat. Once, I screamed in my dream, venting my frustration at all things emotional: it wasn’t a real scream, not the kind that wakes you up. It was all inside my head, exploding.

I have stared at the screen of my computer, wanting to write. I have stared at the blank page, wanting to draw. Nothing came. I rolled with the punch, not wanting to fight the cosmos. Who has the energy? I asked.

Tonight, I am standing up and punching the cosmos in the eye. I can do this thing!