Day 2: Coffee Division

Okay, anyone who knows my routine has probably already figured out that I’m starting off this January project by visiting my regular coffee haunts. (Any day now, I’ll branch out. Stay tuned.) It just so happens that today, being the last day of vacation, is an odd day, and I’m not yet into my January schedule. I’ve just ventured out into a chilly-damp afternoon, on foot, to the closest good coffee to my house, Coffee Division. Coffee Division has been open for about a year, but this sunny corner has housed a cafe of some kind since about 2002. The current incarnation is my favorite. It’s light and air, lots of sun when the sun makes an appearance at all, and there is lots of room for people to spread out and do their work, which seems to be what most people come here for.

I wonder how many people are in here living out a New Year’s resolution. Perhaps the person who ordered a decaf latte did so for the first time in a long time. Perhaps the guy sketching is starting his new graphic novel. Perhaps the woman teaching herself Photoshop is launching a new business. Perhaps the guy in the corner with the noise-canceling headphones is determined to finish his book this year no matter what. Perhaps the woman with the pretty braids sewing beads on to a velvet bag is determined to do a little bit of creative work every day. Maybe the trying-not-to-be-so-sullen young woman with an eccentric old lady has resolved to be nicer to her grandmother and take her out for hot chocolate regularly.

I spent the weekend with some of my very best friends and our loud, happy crew of teenagers. Over dinner someone asked what we were going to do this year to make the world a better place. I think we all felt we could do more, or weren’t where we wanted to be on the saving-the-world spectrum, but as I reflect on what people said, I think we’re doing pretty well. One person is about to publish a book on cancer treatment, and hopes it will help people. Another is expanding her efforts to educate her community about climate change. Another is putting in the effort to employ a valuable but challenging staff-person who would probably not be able to find another job. A couple who are in business together talked about looking forward to the day when they can invest some of their time and their business profits into Habitat for Humanity. One person joked about not killing his kid this year. But my favorite thing was this:

“How ’bout we all just keep doing what we’re doing: being good parents, caring for our kids and others’ kids, and doing our work?”

I’ve been reading a lot of about New Year’s resolutions these past few days. My favorites involve just the right balance of creativity and realism, hope and experience. Examples? Check out The Instant Librarian or Let’s Talk About Writing.

And my resolutions? For me they are like Christmas cards: some years I write them, some years I don’t….Some years I make New Year’s resolutions and keep them, other years I make them and break them as quickly as I can, and other years I refuse to even consider the subject. This year I’ve enjoyed using this season as an opportunity to commit to a couple of important personal practices, such as taking vitamins, growing my hair, spending more time with friends, and a couple of goals, such as getting my writing life a little more organized.

Rattlesnakes: a story and a question

On a recent family camping trip my fourteen-year-old reverted to an endearing habit I associate with a much younger age, of saying “tell me a story” at odd and inopportune times, often begging at a time when he’s supposed to be focused on a task like folding up his bed or helping with dinner. One of these times I promised, using delayed-gratification techniques I also associate with a younger child: “I’ve got a great rattlesnake story which I’ll tell you when you’ve finished doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

So here’s the short version of the story:

Some years after my one and only live encounter with a rattlesnake, I was camping along the Deschutes River in the high desert of Oregon with my husband and some friends. One of our friends was so scared of snakes in the area, she refused to leave our campsite. She and her partner and my husband were happy to sit around the picnic table reading, painting, and talking. I was eager for a walk, and so set out along the rocky sagebrush trail along the river. “Watch out for snakes!” were my husband’s parting words. Thanks a lot.

As I walked along, I thought about how terrified I’d always been of snakes. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother, who didn’t have indoor plumbing until she came to America at the age of twenty-five, about snakes in outhouses. When I slept in a strange bed, it was always snakes I feared coming out from underneath to bite me in the ankles or worse. When I was eight, a common garter snake sighted from twenty feet away made me run so far and fast I thought my heart would stop. I wasn’t scared of snakes in books, movies, pet stores, or zoos; it was the idea of snakes in the wild that got to me.

So as I walked along the Deschutes that day, I could feel my heart pounding with each beat the temptation to turn back to the campsite. What am I doing? I wondered. Why am I out here all alone? I began to wonder what it would be like not to be afraid any more. I knew what rattlesnakes looked like and I knew how to avoid them. I taught myself, there on that trail, to keep my eyes sweeping from right to left about four or five feet ahead of time, covering a swath three or four feet wide on either side. (Later, when my son was about six, I explained this technique to him, calling it “snake eyes.”) I managed to enjoy the hike while keeping my eyes open for snakes. I’ve never been afraid of snakes since, and the experience has been a parable for me of dealing with certain kinds of fear.

The end.

That’s not a rattlesnake story! That’s a facing-your-fears story. I want my money back.

So spake my teenager. I’m not sure what the difference is, I replied.

A rattlesnake story would actually have a rattlesnake in it.

Okay, I get it. Sorry. To me it’s a still a good story.

That’s ’cause it’s you.

So here’s the question:

Do you have a rattlesnake story? Or a facing-your-fears story? Let’s hear it.

“But mom! What’s JESUS!?”

Twelve years ago I enrolled my son into a lovely, if somewhat precious, alternative preschool in Southeast Portland. Twelve children and two wonderful teachers gathered some combination of two or three days each week from nine to noon to play outside (rain or shine), make art, make friends, play trains, eat snacks, and generally be about the business of transitioning from toddlerhood to kindergarten.

As the fall unfolded, the rains began, and we all looked toward the darker season, I learned that, as for the rest of us, December was going to be a busy month for preschoolers. They were promised a different special guest every week, giving presentations on Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the winter solstice. I decided it might be fun for the kids to learn about Advent, the Christian tradition’s four-week countdown to Christmas. I would show them the Advent wreath, teach them how to make a simple one using greens from the school’s huge backyard, and talk about lighting the candles one by one as we wait for Jesus to be born, the same way many of the kids had waited for their baby brother or sister to be born.

Some humorous conversation ensued, in which the more experienced teacher had to interject the assurance that Jesus was not actually going to come to anyone’s house on Christmas Eve, at which point some of the kids began to focus on Santa, who most certainly was coming on Christmas Eve.

My three-year-old then made piped up to ask: “But mom: what’s Jesus?” I could’ve been mortified that the son of a church lady and aspiring clergy mom didn’t know who Jesus was, but really I thought it was hilarious. And a good question. How would you answer it?

What's your image of Jesus?

Quick: what’s the first image that comes into your mind when you hear the “J-word”? Chances are it’s the “Breck Jesus.” Jesus with the long blond hair, looking off into another world. For me, it’s different every day. Some days it’s the Che Guevara Jesus (bottom left in the picture). Some days it’s the National Geographic Jesus. Lots of times, the image of Jesus I most readily imagine is the icon from true old-time religion, called “Christ Pantocrator.”

Christ Pantocrator

Most of the people I know who are put off by Jesus don’t really know about the upstart guy that I try to follow, who was all about sharing food with friends and strangers, preaching about economic justice, and making food, health care, and hope available to everyone, regardless of their gender, socio-economic status, age, moral fiber, nationality, or religion. That’s what I think Jesus is.

And – bonus fun fact – there are tons of great stories about Jesus and food. What’s not to like?

Delirious with anticipation

In 1996 I visited the Oregon College of Art & Craft gallery because Shu-Ju Wang, a woman I’d worked with briefly, back when she was a software engineer and I was a technical writer, was having her first solo exhibit of drawings and mixed media work. My husband and I were anticipating the birth of our soon-to-be-son, and were in that strange, antsy, nesting-and-yet-not-nesting place that only someone who has been a prospective adoptive parent can understand. Going to Shu-Ju’s opening was a necessary distraction more than anything else. I don’t remember the actual work on display, except that it was eclectic and varied, something I always like. What I remember is that when I saw this print I knew I had to have it, before I even saw its apt title: Delirious with Anticipation. I may have asked someone at the gallery to set it aside for me before I even finished looking at the rest of the show.

I always say I can’t even draw a straight line on the computer, at which point my long-suffering artist friends remind me that making art has nothing to do with straight lines. There are lots of wildly creative people in my family and circle of friends, and I never count myself among them. Instead, the creative impulse grabs me from the outside and says: you, too, get to have this beautiful thing, this [fill-in-the-blank] with enough beauty and creativity inside of it to go around. Gorgeous wool from Uruguay, some magical-feeling notebook paper, a jar of glass beads from the neighborhood consignment shop, an amazing purse made by Judee Moonbeam, Shu-Ju’s print.

What about you? What beautiful thing has leapt onto your wall or into your life, unexpected and unbidden?