Wherever You’re Going, I’m Going Your Way

The Theme of the 1997-1998 Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values was Water – Symbol and Substance of Life: Toward a New Environmental Ethic.

The seminar points out that human society has had a close relationship with water that permeated our myths, our religions, our folklore and, most important, our day-to-day survival. On a physiological level, we are water and we came from water. By this time, it claims, we should have a close, culture-wide common ethic in place as to how we respect and relate to our water supply. However, as far as I know, we don’t.

If there were tangible results from this seminar series, I am not aware of them. In the course of eons, as with many marriages, we took our ancient matrimony with water for granted. What is your relationship to water?

Water is always in motion; it’s always going somewhere. We may feel stagnant but water moves on reminding us that, whether we like it or not, we are always in motion as well. It can’t be contained but it can change form. It is impermanent. We may dam it up in the effort to hold onto it but it simply evaporates and goes elsewhere.

For most of us water is something that comes out of a spigot. It keeps us clean. It accepts our waste like the mother of a new born baby.

Somewhere in the last twenty to thirty years we learned water wasn’t as pure as it once was; it was damaged goods. We got a divorce by enclosing it in plastic bottles before we drank it. Many communities have been working for years to clean up their water supply, and yet, there is still a clear division between a river that was once polluted and one that was not.

I noticed last week that every picture on the wall of my living room has water as either a theme or a backdrop. I’d never noticed it before but from a print of the Manhattan Bridge over New York Harbor to Maxfield Parrish, water splashes my walls.

Here in Springfield, Oregon water is an active member of the community. I live seven blocks from the Willamette River and, after living in the desert for many years, I am treated to the feast of beautiful, wide water flowing beside me as I bike from Springfield to Eugene or walk my dog in Island Park. My relationship with this river is one of surprise and gratitude each time I see it.

For many years I lived in a part of Pennsylvania that rests in the valley of the impressive Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. My relationship to these rivers was strengthened when I moved to the Southwest and craved the sight and sound of water. While I was living in their cradle, I was not as in awe as I should have been. Deprivation taught me respect. That deprivation also taught me to appreciate my current river.

My sister and cousins and I are selling a piece of land that is directly on what is a genuinely pristine river. The Cowpasture, in southwestern Virginia, is one of the tributaries of the James River. It flows through the Alleghany highlands, crystal clear.  The Cowpasture has never been polluted.

Our piece of land is the only piece of land for sale on the Cowpasture. Most property is tied up in families that continue to pass it along generation to generation. This inclusion, though not advantageous to those who also want to be on the river, nonetheless speaks to a close relationship with, and respect for, a river that is protected by familial adhesion. In this case, the ethic is “we keep it in the family, close and cared for.”

The four of us inherited the property but no one lives close enough to keep it in the family. We are scattered nationwide and like owning a fine sparkling jewel that is just out of reach, as in a dream, there is nothing to do but let it go.

The real relationship we often have with water is beauty. Most natural sources of water are positioned within an exquisite setting that has the power to take our breath away.

Our little piece of land on our little pristine river is modest. But it still has the power to make us reverent. Our eyes glide over the smooth, clear water, pulled forward, into the distance and the future – what will it bring? Change, transition, passage of time, constant motion, growth, contrast, metamorphosis, beauty, life. And it will slip through our fingers and be gone.

The Cowpasture River

 * Photo taken by Peggy Doyle with Highlands Realty, Covington, VA

My Heart Would Never Stray One Dream Away

Old boyfriends. They pop up out of nowhere, yet are usually out of reach. We’re happy to find them because we always wondered if they were dead. They send a chill through us when they re-appear. This may be because of the shock at their dissipation or this may be because of nostalgia.

We don’t necessarily want to see them or even exchange more than a few words. They have a place in our past that is untouchable. They will always be that person and not the one of the present. Most times it’s best that way.

They will always be the one who thought we were beautiful and though there wasn’t much more connection than that, we wanted to be around cute guys who thought we were beautiful.

They will always be the dark sultry one who became a writer and the arrogant, scholarly one who became a banker. We haven’t read their books or opened an account but we reflect on how their youth bespoke their life.

There are the old boyfriends whose memories are heavy with the gunk of unforgivable bad behavior. The mean one we gave our power to or the sneaky one who made us grovel like an old blues song from the twenties. They took our stuff but taught us a hard earned lesson. We really don’t ever want to know of them again.

There are old boyfriends who became old husbands. When husbands go away it’s like taking a heavy plastic bag of old clothes, some unwashed, some in disrepair, some not even worn, to the Salvation Army and shoving it in the bin. The bag hits hard under the weight and we hear it thud. Someone else can wash them out, mend them and wear them now we’re done.

Some old boyfriends went away cloaked in a golden sunshine of great good feelings. We never find them again and always ask “I wonder where he is; I wonder what he’s doing?” But we’ll never find out. These are often the ones we wasted. They may have been the keepers but they came along when we couldn’t be bothered.

Most of the old boyfriends were placeholders for the one old boyfriend who slipped from us. His spot could never be filled for very long because he was the one. This old boyfriend gets old and gray and fat and red-faced and still we can only see the boy. Though he turned out to be someone else’s, he really belongs to us. He doesn’t know this and we don’t tell him.

He’s the one who showed up on our doorstep unannounced to take us with him while he played music all night with his friends. We drank and played and sang, completely in thrall. He brought us home in the morning, dropped us off and went away for a month or so.

When he showed up again, we had strong premonitions for days before, complete with visions, of how and when he would arrive. Sure enough, there he was, at the screen door, right on cue. We had to learn what our portion of him was.

It was time to leave and move forward. Maybe it would be all right; maybe time would cushion us. But as soon as the step was taken the frequency altered and we were no longer someone’s bittersweet old country song.

That Weirdo With Five Colours in Her Hair

I am reading Father Struck It Rich, the autobiography of Evalyn Walsh McLean, wife of Edward (Ned) Beale McLean, once the owner of the Washington Post. The McLeans were also the last owners of the Hope Diamond and their story promises to be wild and wooly for many reasons. Evalyn’s own words in the first chapter are “I Tell My Right Age”, done by stating her birth year – 1886, which, when the book was published in 1937, would have made her 51.

Evalyn begins that paragraph by describing her reaction to dying her dark brunette hair when the first white streaks of age began to show up. She called all her friends and announced she was becoming a blonde. Hair dye was very different in the 1930s. Attempting to fool time could produce results that might be frighteningly worse than the natural head of graying hair.

Not so now. Over the counter hair dye is more nuanced, easier and way better smelling than it used to be. The competition among brands means, like everything else in the modern world, the choices are overwhelming, but if you can’t find the color of your dreams in the hair products aisle of Walmart you just aren’t ready to take the plunge.

A woman could literally keep it up forever, though the packages explicitly say that after a certain point it won’t work anymore. Unless you have the means for monthly professional work, that’s the point where a long, public facing of reality begins, often starting with the “pixie”, a too precious term for the shearing that makes a woman look as if she just deserted from the military.

It’s called “transition”, but what are we transitioning? Is it our hair color or the loss of our protective shield. It’s really more of a blazing advertisement, a glaring bumper sticker, a complete exposure of all our past pretense being stripped away while boldly we step into the world, roots glistening, and declare “Yes, I really am this old.”

The emotional roller coaster associated with gray hair is getting a little good press just lately. There is some advocacy for making gray hair a fashion statement. One of the strongest lobbies for going gray comes from the Going Gray Looking Great website . Here one can get support while enduring the fearful “transition” and receive affirmation that we aren’t resigning ourselves to decrepitude. Rather we are exercising an option, making a choice and once again, challenging the system. These are the same strong woman words we have relied on for years.

There are many ways to exhibit youth and vitality – great health, strength, brains, rock and roll, and strong life spirit are only a few. For so long we’ve worn our rock and roll on our heads because our hair, as well as our skin, gravity, eyesight and teeth didn’t listen to the same song.

These are times when women are finally able to be active in so many important ways in many different places with many different people. Hand in hand with that accomplishment goes the self-consciousness of second-guessing the impression we will make.

Nancy Pelosi, wrangling a Congress primarily made up of men, has certainly not faced “transition.” Hillary Clinton sometimes looks as if hair is the least of her concerns, so she may cross over soon. And little old me?  I am going back to university – the domain of youth.

There can be ageism and separation from culture in the going-back-to-school world of a mature adult. An instructor said to me once, in a graduate directing class, as I was moving furniture to set up a scene, “Don’t move that stuff; we have all these kids here to do it.” I know his intention was good, but I’m strong, I lift weights and it would never occur to me that I couldn’t move the furniture.

It was announced out loud, which further set me apart in the class. And, by the way, my hair was fully dyed then. This means hair color isn’t the armor against prejudice that we thought it was, right?

I have not served the master of L’Oreal for four months. So there. I’ve said it. I live in a new place where virtually no one knows me. I take this as a retreat of sorts – hair detox, so to speak. And I refuse to get a military pixie cut.

Time is passing and classes will begin. I will be faced with the ultimate dilemma: To Blend or Not To Blend. Right now I look like a calico cat. There is a lot of white, some gray, some dyed, some real, some not real. Mee-ow.

Stealing A View From The Bridge

As John Lennon wrote “when I was younger, so much younger than today”, I had a sleek, shiny Motobecane Super Mirage. It was silvery blue, had ten speeds and little narrow tires. It was light as air and I could carry it easily up stairs if needed.

My bike was my primary form of transportation. I cut quite a figure riding it all over Chapel Hill, NC and surrounding area. Then, in 1977, I went to New York. My ex husband took the bike. It was retrieved the summer I went back to North Carolina to do theatre and sold when I returned to NYC that fall.

I did a little riding in NYC on borrowed bikes. Biking in NYC is like being the target in a video game. Traffic, cabs in particular, car doors that open suddenly in front of you and unpredictable pedestrians were only a few of the highlights of city biking then.  Nonetheless, biking anywhere always has that poetic element of stolen freedom that makes it one of the most pleasant ways to go-go-go. I became separated from biking when I left New York and have never pursued it since.

Now I live in an area of Oregon where biking and public transportation – buses – are promoted. In Eugene, where the University of Oregon is, one is hard pressed to find much in the way of parking in the city. The traffic in Eugene seems to be primarily arterial – many streets are one way and the traffic flows constantly only stopping for the many lights. 

I live in Springfield that is connected to Eugene by a series of bike paths intertwining along the Willamette River. The head of the graduate theatre department where I will be pursuing my PhD has encouraged everyone to get a bike. So I did.

My new bike is certainly not a Super Mirage. For one thing, it is a girl’s bike.  It is made for comfort and, as it was explained to me, to cover more distance per revolution of my busily peddling legs. It has 21 speeds, to which I laughed, and it has handlebars in a way more upright position because now I have some carpal tunnel that kicks in when I bike in a purely plank position for more than ten minutes at a time. Nevertheless, as soon as I embarked on my first exploration of the river bike path I felt that old exhilaration of stolen freedom.

I have always been a relaxed biker. I tend to mosey along blissing out over the river flowing beside me, especially after living in an area of the country where all the rivers are dry beds. Speeding past me are bikers who obviously have some place to go. For them the bike path is a road leading to work, school, an important appointment and they didn’t set their alarm clocks in time to watch the river flow. I think to myself that I will be one of them when school starts and wonder if I’ll find my biking as pleasant as it is now.

I decided to condition myself. On each trip I added something, some weight, a ‘thing’ – a backpack, then a backpack with a large full water bottle in it, a jacket, then the backpack with the chain (which weighs as much as a small child), the water bottle, the jacket, a snack, my keys, my glasses and my camera. Still the trip is pleasant. To make sure I make my biking as unpleasant as possible, the next thing I will add is a couple of books. I’m thinking, to make it significant, I should choose the Brockett.

History of the Theatre, by Oscar Brockett and Franklin Hildy, is the text for many a theatre history course. The year I received my Brockett, the ninth hardback edition, measuring 8 1/2 x 11″ and almost 700 small print pages, it was accompanied by the Wadsworth Anthology of Drama, over 1700 packed pages. It would be a serious commitment to add the Brockett to my backpack, but to add the Wadsworth with it could catapult my pleasant ride into a workout worthy of biking Death Valley.

Am I ready to plunge from the poetic bliss of stolen freedom to the mule train drudge of a daily commute?  Likely this time will come whether I heft Brockett and Wadsworth or not. It rains quite a bit in Oregon, but my July here has been rain free. There will be coldish weather, though now the cool temperatures are shockingly welcome ones. Sheer repetition will eventually take a good deal of the glow off.

Should I plug in the Puritan work ethic now and prepare myself for the hum drummery ahead? Is it necessary to take the positives and immediately load them down with several layers of heavy negative shellac simply as a reminder that the dull day may come? Why is it that as soon as we recognize and appreciate the good stuff we literally seem to start imagining the bad stuff?

I think I’m going to rely on one of my favorite life philosophies:  “Let’s don’t and say we did.”  Brockett and Wadsworth will remain housebound. We all need our summertime and what is stolen freedom if we can’t bike away with it while we have the chance? 

The Willamette River from the Autzen Bike Bridge

All I Am Is Just A House Dog; Just A House Dog, Nothing More

A Rare Moment - Spanky and Pepper

When I reflect on my life, particularly in light of all the places I’ve lived, I have to admit that many of the decisions I’ve made were arrived at as being in the best interest of my dog. I am someone who now recognizes people I see out in the world and then, before I greet them, realize that they simply resemble someone I knew somewhere else. The first time this happened it started me pondering my absence of roots in the world. Then I go home, a place I like to be, and there is Spanky.

Spanky has been Spanky for all the years. He looks the same; he behaves the same; he is my shadow. As we’ve moved from place to place I always thought, “How would Spanky get along here?” “What would our daily walks be like?” “Is there at least a window he can look out to see his world?” “What is here that would interest him? Squirrels?” Squirrels are very high on the interest list. Other dog friends? It’s always nice when that happens. Grass is a plus; sidewalks and peace. He prefers it when all is at peace.

Several moves back we went to Brooklyn. There were many things to consider when looking for a place to live, cost being the most important. In the end I chose a huge apartment building where hundreds of people resided like an ant hill, in a fourth floor walk up that sat right next to the Q train tracks. But for all the concessions – the stairs, the noise and my neighbor, Jacqui, who enjoyed her toxic cocktails and had screaming fights with her ex husband in the hall wielding a knife, I’d taken the apartment because of Spanky.

Our building was a block’s walk from a neighborhood that is one of the most attractive in Brooklyn. Extremely large, sumptuous houses with pristine lawns and gardens, built in the early part of the twentieth century line several streets of Ditmas Park. As Spanky and I walked there wasn’t a week went by that a film crew wasn’t situated somewhere in the picturesque neighborhood. The area was featured in a movie that came out that year, The Squid and the Whale. When I first looked at the apartment I knew this was Spanky’s ‘hood.

Fast-forwarding to the present, my cottage here in Oregon is in a quiet older neighborhood and has a lovely fenced back yard. This would be a wonderful place for Spanky to relax in the plum perfect Oregon summer. Sitting outside listening to the birds and watching the squirrels hop along the fence seemed ideal for my mature gentleman.

But Spanky has never had a place to lounge outside. He prefers to have a lie down on the bed. No sooner does he relieve himself in the yard that he isn’t back inside, unless coerced by one of the twisted sisters, Cinnamon and Pepper. Spanky is a house dog. It has always been thus.

We don’t live in a world where a dog patrols his territory door to door anymore. If they do they’re picked up by the authorities, stolen or hit by a car. Dogs left in yards all day are considered nuisances with their barking and their anger at being left in a yard all day.

Ostensibly all dogs like us better and prefer to be near us more than hanging out in a yard, unless they’ve been raised on a farm. Someday Spanky and I may evolve to a more open farm type of setting, but I bet he will want to be in the house and at peace even then. My shadow stays closer with every move and each passing year.

We still have our leisurely twice a day walks where he enjoys leaving a reminder of his omniscience on everything he can hit. There is plenty of grass and a multitude of very smart alecky squirrels. But when all is said and done, Spanky prefers the soft mattress and his dreams of finally chasing down one of those smart aleck stinkers. As with humans, his dreams are as alive and pleasant as reality and remain something to aspire to.

Depending Upon The Kindness Of Genes

In his typically hip way of being in the world, the Dalai Lama is on Facebook. His posts are always about compassion towards all sentient beings and altruism. Altruism to the Dalai Lama is blind – it’s done unconsciously with no thought of personal gain, though we know there is personal gain in our own sense of well being.

I recently began a rather rambling book The Price of Altruism, by Oren Harman. The book centers around a fellow named George Price, who no one ever heard of, but who was a chemist, among other things, and primarily a genius level, if somewhat fanatic, thinker. Price was always looking for that one idea that would set him apart though he had a penchant for dropping his projects before they were fully realized. Nonetheless, the point of the book is Price’s eventual quest to discover the origins of human kindness.

I haven’t reached the point in the book where his focus on altruism commences. This is because Mr. Harman loads the book with back history of the well-populated scientific path to discover why creatures are altruistic. Apparently this search was motivated by Darwin’s Origin of Species and its subsequent “survival of the fittest” doctrine. Darwin himself spent time attempting to discover why, if the rule was the strongest survive and multiply, there were members of species that displayed some sort of altruism towards the group, for instance, a warning cry of danger that put the crier in a weakened and vulnerable position. Why would a creature sacrifice itself for the greater good if its individual goal was survival?

One theory was that altruistic creatures attract other altruistic creatures and therefore produce altruistic offspring. In other words, as genetics developed, it was thought there could be a gene for altruism.

But this isn’t what the Dalai Lama is hoping for. He’s working to see that those of us who did not come from altruistic origins and therefore did not have the gene passed down to us will change, or adapt, if you will, like other creatures adapt to their environment and change the characteristics of the species.

A gene for altruism would let me, and others who did not spring from altruistic parentage, off the hook. Yet, it also could put a greater burden on us to adapt to something that doesn’t come naturally, like asking someone who doesn’t have the genetic make up to be a great athlete to suddenly compete on an Olympic level.

And how much is enough?  Is my making the trip to the Good Will drop off to give them a bag of clothes enough altruism to cause adaptation? Or did I need to stop yesterday, when I saw a woman sitting in a clump of overgrown vines, a bottle in her hand and looking very out of place, and ask her if she was all right? I didn’t do that; I walked on by with my dog on the leash. I had no money, no cell phone, nothing with me but Spanky and a plastic bag of poop, something I do for the greater good – pick up his poop.

I didn’t think about it much afterward. The woman looked as if this is what she did so I left her there to do it. But there is a thought in Buddhism to take care when you turn away the beggar on the road for he might be Buddha. Did I pass Buddha by yesterday? Ummm, I don’t think so. The bottle was a dead giveaway.

Still she was a teacher. She taught me to take a look at my lack of kindness genes. And though I did not stop for her I am taking things to Good Will and I do pick up Spanky’s poop. Small steps. We do what we can.

P.S. After taking the bag of clothes to Good Will I asked them if they would send someone to pick up the parts of my cool canopy bed that won’t fit in the bedroom of my new home because the ceilings are too low. The Good Will representative told me that he did not know of any charitable organization in town that would pick up something without being paid. Come on, altruistic people; work with me here….

The Wand’rin’ Experiment

When I went to see the film of Paint Your Wagon, in a time long gone by, the song I most identified with was “sung” by Lee Marvin near the end of the movie – “Wand’rin’ Star.” The film deviated drastically from the original stage version. The stage show involved an interracial relationship; the film made an attempt to switch gender roles and present a woman, who was once wife number two in a Mormon household, as desiring polygamy herself with Clint Eastwood and Mr. Marvin. Because Lee Marvin was a compelling film presence with a body of work behind him his voice was fully accepted for what it was. Add to that a soaring male choir and majestic scenery and the film had its own particular charm.

It’s now well known that Lee Marvin was a rabble rousing alcoholic, but we sure did love him. He wasn’t purty; he wasn’t cute – the young lanky Clint Eastwood fulfilled that role – but he was lovable. Even if the woman was Jean Seberg, you understood why she wanted him too.

The song hit a vibration in me that spoke to the romantic nature of a vagabond life. At that time young people were hitchhiking all over the country, running away from the influences of home, many sent to exotic strange places because of war. We still lived in a world that made it possible to pick up stakes and take off.

Not so much anymore, though I keep wand’rin’, most recently to Oregon, further west and further away from the connections of family. I recently was ecstatic to find my birth certificate so I could prove to Oregon that I’d actually been born. I’ve given my Social Security number to utilities to prove I’m worthy to have lights, water and garbage pick up. The Patriot Act has set up all sorts of hurdles to jump before a life can be sculpted until the next wand’rin’ comes up.

I’ve wandered so much that people are suspicious. They don’t trust someone who was born under a wand’rin’ star. Finding a new place to live was a challenge because of all the rules, regulations and financial requirements. We’re in a recession, the country is out of work but where do they live when they’re required to bring home three times the amount of rent each month and have a solid work and rental history? Every place has its own application. You need to have contact information for landlords at least five years in the past. I came across one that asked if I owned a vacuum cleaner (I do) and if so what brand is it (Hoover). All the rigmarole weighs a wanderer down.

I visited Eugene, Oregon to find my new home. Eugene looks on its counter culture quaintly as a feature of the city. These wanderers came to Eugene forty or so years ago. Now a good many of them are on the streets, sleeping in parks and under the bridges leading to the highway. There are new, younger wanderers who have joined them. I stopped, talked briefly to one – dreadlocked and accompanied by two sleepy dogs – and gave him a dollar. He looked healthy, if a little dirty, and was a prime target for the usual “just go get a job, buddy.” Ah, but we’re in a recession.

Could this child be a wand’rin’ experiment gone awry? He may have once set off with the same sense of romance I had about being free and unattached, but found himself in a place that, even if he wanted to, wouldn’t let him put a roof over his head. With two animals he nailed the homeless coffin shut. Eugene, OR, for all its liberality, has a low to nil view of pets in rentals. The proprietor of a shop I visited, who primarily made little glass pipes and elaborate large glass bongs, said “it’s because forty years ago every hippie in the country came here and their dogs destroyed the place.” Well, okay, but that was a few decades back, wasn’t it?  My young wanderer, and his two dogs, is someone who needs some serious compassion and assistance but most of us just can’t bear to look at him. How easy it is to sink in the societal strata to the sidewalk because your official papers aren’t in order.

During the Great Depression there were a great many people on the move, on the roads, riding the trains, catching work where they could. Those still in their homes gave out odd jobs and possibly a hot meal to these wanderers.

We are now far removed from that openhearted way of looking at people. What once seemed romantic is what it always was – being unsettled and restless. The song implies there is an initial wound (“only people make you cry”) that draws the wand’rin’ star near. And when you listen to Lee Marvin sing about it, he doesn’t sound very happy, does he?