Archive for the ‘French Letters Visits America’ category

How It All Began

March 23, 2018

I’m at the age now where I’m starting to lose people, and I’m taking it hard. I just got a message from a friend on the island, telling me that my old friend Sally had died. She was about 88 or so, and had been in really poor health lately, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. But still.

Sally and I were connected in the oddest and most profound of ways. When Shel and I were thinking of moving to the island, back in 2000, we stayed in a B&B while we were looking around. And that was Sally’s B&B, and her Alabama drawl led us to discover that Sally and Shel’s mother Margaret had known each other in Auburn, Alabama, long before Shel was born. That was mind-boggling to all of us, and caused Shel to say “I can’t go anywhere without my Mom finding out about it!”

And it happened that in that B&B was a newspaper article about a writer’s group on the island. As it turned out, the article was there because that was Sally’s writing group, and it would be meeting the very next day. I’d never written, but thought I might like to, and so she invited me to join them. I enjoyed that afternoon so much that I became a member of that group, and for years we wrote faithfully together once a week.

One thing that happened as a result is that I became a writer, bit by bit. I started in that group, then dared to write here, on French Letters, and then started writing for magazines. And now I have a job where my title is Writer in Residence, and I owe all that to Sally.

The other thing that happened is that as soon as I heard about Sally I immediately thought that I had to tell Shel, because he always remained  floored that Sally and Margaret had known each other, and because she was our first friend on the island. And I was thinking that Shel would have wanted to tell Margaret about Sally’s passing, because even though they’d lost touch, there was still that connection.

But then I realized that there is no one left to tell. That story was entirely about people who are now gone from this life, first Margaret, then Shel, and now Sally. Somehow I’m left being the keeper of the story, even though so much of it belonged to them.

So now I’m telling you about it, so that these stories do not fade away forever, and so that the memories springing from that momentous coincidence, what my own mother would have called a fortuitous concourse of circumstance, have a place to live on.

What kind of story is it where all the main characters die at the end? It’s the story of life.


Road Narrows, Road Widens

March 14, 2018


Crossing the back of beyond I passed a sign that said Road Narrows. I slowed down a bit, although the way was plenty wide enough for me. Then another sign, same warning. I slowed a little more. Tired of sharing the trip between Pasco and Walla Walla with other travelers, I had chosen a very small road, the back way into town, no one in sight for miles.

In fact I hadn’t been on this road for years, couldn’t even remember its name. I hoped that I would recognize it in passing, and I did. I remembered right away how delighted Shel and I had been to discover this little twist of pavement running through low, rolling wheat fields. How we wondered whether we’d really find our way.

In the ten or so years since that moment nothing and everything has changed. The road is still deserted, perhaps narrow for the tractors that must travel it more often than cars, no door to knock on if you need help, or companionship, or directions. I too still feel deserted, my life having narrowed so that there’s still room enough for the everyday, but not for the exalted. And although I’m often looking for a door to knock on, I generally keep on going, heading for home. And now I rely on GPS to find my way.

But last month a friend asked me what I was looking forward to, now that Spring is in sight. “Flowers,” I replied, but could think of nothing else. It took a couple of days for that to sink in, the knowledge that I had nothing in particular to look forward to, except another day on the planet, for which I am always grateful.

Suddenly it felt claustrophobic, to be living my life on such a confining track. My emotional GPS began to shriek, softly, telling me to stop choosing the narrow path, to stop slowing down when there’s really no need. Telling me that it’s time to start knocking on my own door.

For a whole host of reasons I’ve been neglecting this space. I’ve been working as a writer, and so free-time writing has felt redundant. And my life has felt unremarkable, just le train train, as you say in French, the daily thrum of chugging down the rails. Nothing much to say for myself. Feeling that maybe I’m old enough to just let myself get old. Stuff like that.

But now I’ve decided to widen my path. Because of course I’ll never be younger or stronger or braver than I am right now, and it would be a shame to waste all that. So I’m planning a big trip for myself, in just six months. I’ll be doing everything I can to get prepared for that, and part of it will be to hang out here on a regular basis, thinking out loud.

Because when I don’t, it’s often too quiet to hear myself think. And because it feels like staying on that narrow, too quiet path for much longer, I might forget how think at all, might forget how to look forward to whatever’s just down the road.

Unintended Consequences

September 13, 2017


Probably I’m anthropomorphising but I’ve been obsessed all summer with getting a kitten for Minou. He seems lonely and bored, and Toby only comes in to eat, say rude things to him, and leaves for his secret destination, wherever it is that he spends 99% of his non-eating time.

All summer I’ve searched for the perfect kitten and the perfect time to get one. Not before I went to France, not before I went to Bainbridge, not when I’d have house guests or a noisy party. Not while the local Humane Society was infested with ringworm. Finally, last weekend, I decided the time had come, before kitten season was over. I went and picked out what seemed to be the best available kitten, although I wasn’t in love with any of them.


She was a tiny thing, weighing only 2.2 pounds. She purred when I held her, and seemed sweet enough. And then I brought her home. She met Minou, who weighs in at a solid 13 pounds, and all hell broke loose. Minou behaved himself quite well, but the kitten screamed and shrieked at him. He went outside in self-defense, she settled down.

That night she slept by my pillow in the place that Minou usually occupies from around 5 a.m. until I get up. He jumped on the bed in the morning and I awoke to an unearthly scream. Partly that was me, because when I’m sound asleep and someone screams right in my ear, I’m inclined to join in the chorus. Minou jumped down and ran for the hills.

Later that morning I realized that he had a bleeding gash on his neck, my sweet Minou who never fights at all. I put the kitten back in her box and returned her to the Humane Society, not 24 hours after adopting her, without remorse. Minou acted traumatized for a couple of days, and I dabbed at his wound with antibiotic gel. Then this morning I saw that in scratching at it he had opened it up much more than the original gash, and it was actually pretty gory, Off to the vet he went.

He got stitches. He got a cone. I got a bill for $250, in addition to the $95 I had paid to adopt that kitten. But all of that is just an aside to how freaked out, like totally psycho-nutjob, he is now. The cone makes him crazy, makes him try to get it off by batting his head against the wall. They said to keep him inside, which means closing the cat door. Now he can’t get out, has to remember how to use a litter box, and Toby has no way to come in for food. The whole balance of life in our house is topsy-turvy.

And all as a result of the fact that I probably projected my own loneliness onto Minou. I’m desperately hoping that things will settle down. And that’s definitely the end of the add-a-kitten program for this year. Be careful what you wish for, someone wise said that.


Morning, Interrupted

August 21, 2017


This was the perfect day to take the morning off work, grab some geeky glasses and some nice food and wine, and hang out with friends in a sublime spot, gawking and wowing in a gaggle.

It is safe to say that we were all enthralled and astounded, although we all expected it to be a lot darker that it was at our big moment. What a potent sun we orbit, that shines so brightly even when it’s 97% blotted out. Incredible.

It was a very hot morning, so we were glad when it cooled perceptibly and a little evening-type breeze washed over us in the most welcome way. It got unearthly silent as a nearby combine and even road traffic shut down for the event. As it got dimmer and dimmer Skye the Weimaraner hadn’t gotten the memo and decided that she didn’t like it one bit, so she provided a mournful sound track of her own. We could have live-streamed the Kronos Quartet, who were playing a real-time musical interpretation of the eclipse, but we had Skye and that was all we needed.


Even though two of us look like we’re posing for a B movie poster about incipient alien landings and the other two look like they’re posing for a NASA recruitment ad, we were all well and truly impressed by our galaxy.

We watched the moon come and go, had some befuddled Google-assisted conversations about the moon’s rotational pattern which was so evident from our vantage point, gravity and tidal locking, and whether there is really a dark side of the moon (nope, but there is a side we never see). From time to time we’d pop in to the house like cuckoos in a clock, to watch as people cheered the NASA totality captures all over the country.

As a new day began the robins re-inhabited the lawn and a nearby rooster crowed as if two dawns in one day were a thing. We basked in all of this while sharing a lovely potluck brunch in comfy chairs on a deck above the vineyards and below the rim of the Blues. A perfect summer morning.


Help In The Night

August 12, 2017


Last night, the eve of my birthday, managed to be one of the most desperate nights of my life. To set the stage, I’m spending the week in a sweet little vacation rental on one of the more remote parts of the island, with water on both sides of the house.

Because the Perseid showers are always my birthday gift from the universe, I went out on the back deck about 10:00 to look for meteors. Because it had gotten a bit chilly, I closed the door behind me. Because I’m an idiot I didn’t see that although I had unlocked one lock to get out, there was another, waiting to ambush me. Twenty minutes later, no meteors. Also, I’m locked out on a deck that’s right over the water. All of the windows are locked, and my phone, keys, wallet, and glasses are inside the house.

No point in screaming for help, as there’s no one home in the houses on either side of mine. I remembered that there was a little door from the deck to the parking area. It was jammed and only opened about 12 inches, but I knew it was either jump in and swim, or squeeze through that door, even though I was mortally afraid of being stuck in there all night, or possibly for the rest of my life. I ooched and scooched my not-at-all-small way through, bending the wooden gate as much as I could, and finally as I popped out the other side the door came free of whatever had been blocking it.

So then there I was, in the pitch dark, with no neighbors home. I stumbled up the road toward a house that had lights on in the upstairs bedrooms and rang their bell. A silver-haired woman who looked to be in her late 60s came hesitantly to the door, wearing a housecoat and slippers. I pleaded for help. I must have looked either so honest or so distraught that her sense of danger was overcome, and she let me in. I think her name is Reenie, although I wouldn’t swear to that.

She and I proceeded to try to find the number of the rental’s owner, who lives in California. Apparently it’s unlisted. I called 911, and the nice policeman gave me some numbers of locksmiths, who don’t answer their phones at night.  Reenie called AAA, just in case. No luck. I called my former neighbor Denys, who lives about four miles up the road, is 84 years old, and goes to bed early after a few Manhattans. He still has an old-school voice answering machine and I yelled into it “help, Denys, wake up, help” about a dozen times, but no luck. Reenie kept urging me to break a window, but I told her I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Totally freaked out doesn’t begin to describe how I felt, and it was now after 11:00. No keys, no phone, no glasses, no wallet. At least I was fully dressed and had shoes on.

Intrepidly, Reenie grabbed a flashlight and a huge hammer and went out, still in her pink-flowered housecoat, to break into a stranger’s house. In the event she had to hammer like a lumberjack because the door turned out to have double-paned safety glass, made to entirely resist break-ins. She did succeed, finally, we exchanged heartfelt hugs, and I was home.

I had hoped to get the glass replaced today without any need to confess to the owner what an idiot I was, but no, there’s no glass place anywhere around that works on the weekend. Meanwhile, poor Denys got up this morning, saw his answering machine light flashing, heard my cries for help, and arrived, pale-faced and grim, at my door.

Because he was a builder and contractor all his life, he set about removing all the shattered glass and trim pieces, and closing up the opening temporarily. First thing Monday morning I’ll show up at the glass shop and hand over my credit card. But before then I have to call the owner, which, I can assure you, I absolutely do not want to do. I’m always a model guest, taking care of things as if they were my own. It’s almost more than I can bear to admit to being an idiot.

And now I’ve told the whole world. And also, it’s my birthday. Reenie and Denys, you’re my best gifts ever.

Smoke And Sand

August 8, 2017


I wept all the way from Walla Walla to Vantage. Not because I was sad to leave my new home for the old one, but because the land was awash in smoke. My eyes streamed, my nose stuffed, and cars appeared like shape-shifters, making me blink furiously and wonder whether I needed new glasses. When I climbed up to the high desert around Ellensburg the smoke lifted off the roadway, but the mountains were still a blur. Through it all I kept the vision of the island clear in my mind, and hoped against hope that the skies would clear.


Seattle greeted me, wearing a gauzy grey little wrap. I could see the island across the sound, but dimly.


If you were reading French Letters last year, you might recognize this view. You might remember it with a blue sky, blue water, as I do, not floating disembodied on the page as it is here. This is the back yard of the sweet vacation house I’m renting for the second time, a place that feels oddly like home, whatever the palette.


And this is the front yard, peculiarly pale, mysteriously bleached. I should add that the two bodies of water are not more than 100 feet apart where this house sits, on a sand spit that we had all better hurry up and appreciate before it goes under water as the sea level rises inexorably.


When I arrived the table was set for four, although I imagine that my guests and I will always dine outdoors, smoke be damned.


In French you’d call this a house les pieds dans l’eau, with its feet in the water, and that seems apt, as I stretch out after my long drive with my feet over the scummy backwash of the ebbing tide on the lagoon side of the house.


Night begins to fall, almost imperceptibly, the grey deepening, a few lights coming on. Still I don’t go inside. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve actually been cool while out of doors, and it feels fantastic, even though it means having smoke instead of sweat clinging to my hair.


A smoky moon rises. This day is done.

Where Wheat Is King

August 4, 2017


Yesterday I went on a hot and hazy journey. You might have heard that we’re having a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures hovering around 100°, and that we’re being smoked out by the fires in British Columbia. It’s not as bad here as it is in the Bainbridge Island area, where a friend told me today that he couldn’t see across Puget Sound for the smoke. But it’s hazy and greyish and the sky has an unhealthy gauziness to it. Plus it’s icky sticky hot. Staying indoors with the air conditioning cranked seems the prudent thing to do.

Nonetheless, yesterday I went on a 200 mile drive through it all.


It was such a still day that even the windmills were powerless to churn up the cough-inducing mix of smoke and dust from the last of the wheat harvest. The wheat is mostly in, but the last harvesters are toiling away, and the trucks hauling the wheat down to the Seattle Grain Terminal are plying the roads. It’s the kind of drive where all you see is wheat, interspersed with scrubby range land, and punctuated by startlingly few homes. A lot of the way I had the road absolutely to myself, and I admit that I reveled in it.

When I drive like that I don’t have the radio on, no CD, just the whoosh of the car in space. Sometimes I sing to myself, sometimes I don’t. It’s a time for freedom, for just keeping my eyes and ears open and being glad to be on the planet another day.

I was going to Clarkston, WA, for my work.  The work part was good. Very good, even. But the town was discouraging, at least to an outsider. I asked one of the guys I was interviewing where the pretty part of town was, and he allowed as how there really wasn’t any. It’s a town of about 7,000, plopped down in what we’d call the middle of nowhere. In French you’d say it’s at the fin fond of Washington, which means more or less the furthest depths, and to my ear captures the situation better. It’s a town that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, which makes it sound pretty.


I took this picture at a tiny park in town, and for once the picture looks a lot better than real life, hence the power of Instagram (I imagine). This looks bucolic, but in reality it’s kind of tucked behind an industrial area, an afterthought. Clarkston also just a bridge away from Lewiston, ID, which is the most inland seaport in the U.S. Amazingly, it’s located 465 river miles inland from the Pacific, separated by eight locks and dams. Tens of millions of tons of wheat pass through this port, on their way west, quite a bit of it headed for Asia. That makes it sound imposing.


But in reality, it looks like this. A small and dusty town perched on the edge, one where you can still get burgers and shakes delivered right to your parked car. There’s a lot to be said for that, and there are things you could say against it as well. I could say that nearly all of the students attending the community college there qualify for financial aid. I could say it’s a place where two years of community college studies will get you a job at less than $20 an hour, whereas if you took that welding degree and hopped a plane to Texas you’d likely start out at $80,000 a year. It’s a town where a hot and dusty traveler might not get offered a cup of coffee. That’s how on the edge it is.

Of course, I was only there for three and a half hours, so what do I know? Four hours on the road, less than that to try to capture the feeling of the place, the dreams of the teachers and students of that college. To understand why they are there, of all places on the planet, other than an accident of birth. Why do people stay there, in a town that wheat built? What did I miss, in my laughably short time there?

Well, I can say that I didn’t see anyone kiss, although they must. I didn’t see anyone vote, but it’s Trump country so that’s probably just as well. I didn’t see the town’s beating heart, and so I’ll go back. I’ll keep looking, but I’ll be prepared to be disappointed. I didn’t see a single sign advertising gluten-free anything.