I. Aversion Therapy
I drive the Little Monkey from Seattle across Lake Washington to Bellevue for biweekly counseling, a drive I avoided for all of my previous 20 pre-motherhood years in Seattle. If a friend moved across the lake? Sayonara. I’d mail postcards. They might as well have moved to Tokyo for all they were likely to see me in their new neighborhood. Ballard to Bellevue consists of three freeway merges and, not long ago, a shift in consciousness akin to Appalachia to Manhattan. Others tackle this west-to-east journey daily to work at Microsoft or shop at the upscale Bellevue Mall, but while I managed to tolerate traveling from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans and back on the back of a too-small motorcycle, I eschewed this epic psychological journey. Not only was there the matter of traffic (I laugh now at my notions of “traffic” 25 years ago): there were the little matters that, in the not too distant past, one of the lake’s two bridges sank, and the other raised its drawspan while cars were still crossing.
As if the drive across the floating bridge isn’t traumatic enough, LM’s therapist practices what I call “aversion therapy.” He tells stories about the misdeeds his other young clients have been up to, which have led to the ruin and devastation of themselves and their families. One family could have put their kid through college on what they spent on court costs, all for naught: the stepdad then dumped the boy’s mom, and the stepdad lost custody of his own biological children. Because of this teenage boy, the family was fractured and bankrupt, utterly and totally. I pictured the boy and his mom in a basement studio apartment eating TV dinners. How could the mother go on with nurturing and unconditional love while eating her tiny compartment of apple pie after polishing off a spindly fried drumstick?
“What’s the point of the aversion therapy?” my hair stylist asked me after I described a session to her: the Little Monkey and I sitting on the couch, me with the box of tissue and considering my first stop at an establishment with a green cross sandwich board out front, and LM unphased, asking how old the boy is and what school he goes to, which the therapist declines to answer.
“I suppose to scare him straight.”
“Does it work?”
“It sure in hell works on me.”
Recently I came home from aversion therapy, in which the therapist warned me to keep a closer eye than ever on the Little Monkey, and I went to back to bed. Before lunch on a Friday. The Man I Married came in to find me prostrate and rigid, my eyes wide open as I stared at the ceiling. “What’s going on?” he asked me. He knows I’m no napper, one of my greatest personality deficits.
“Trapped.” The word came to me in neon letters as the representation of everything I’d been recently feeling. “I feel trapped.”
I’d been reading old Mary Stewart novels, including my silverfish-eaten, girlhood copy of 1962’s The Moonspinners (which I must have read in the late seventies or eighties). In these Gothic, romantic suspense stories written at the cusp of feminism, the veterinarian heroine drives a stick-shift up and down the Austrian Alps, never once stalling the car as she stumbles into adventure with gypsies and missing Lippizaner stallions. Or the fashion model heroine scales the peaks of the Isle of Skye while smoking and traipses across damp moors to escape a crazed killer who’s peeved about humankind’s rape of pristine mountains. Or the inadvertent heiress hangs out smoking, her back against the heat-soaked warmth of Hadrian’s wall, only to be mistaken for a stranger and catapulted into intrigue. Or a worker at the British Embassy in Greece takes a healthy swig of wine as she pursues a murderer.
I wanted to write a story set against the backdrop of Hadrian’s Wall! Or in the scotch distilleries and under the kilts (and maybe on the heather and hills) of Scotland! Or on the Lippizaners (they were here recently for a show…near Bellevue; I did not go)!
I wanted an adventure on my upcoming 50th birthday. Something memorable, like the Isle of Skye, or Hadrian’s Wall, or the Northern Lights. Cornwall, or at least Idaho.
I wanted my life’s adventures to inform my writing, for the two to be interchangeable (and a tax write-off). But my world continued to narrow, not expand. The Little Monkey’s supervision needs and my hip pain were sinking my bridges. The Man I Married and I had not had a real date in a year. Last summer we’d traveled to exciting Aberdeen (Washington, not Scotland).
But who was I kidding? Austria was definitely more of a hassle to get to than the other side of a local lake, whose museum and arboretum I’d never been to. The Isle of Skye would take planes, trains, and ferries, at the very least, and managing these by myself on a solo adventure, on second blush, sounded more exhausting than invigorating. And the Aurora Borealis, number one on my bucket list? That would entail being awake in the middle of the night with a freezing tush. Let me get back to you on that one. And I can’t even face my automatic car on Denny Way, much less a manual transmission in the Alps.
III. Backyard Adventure
Mary Stewart’s settings might be exotic to me, but she was writing about her own European backyard. Her women’s adventure novels are richly laced with beautiful, sometimes page-long descriptions of the natural landscape. The Moonspinners begins:
It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that startled me.
I’m pretty sure an egret is white, but I’d probably call it a stork if I saw one. And I wouldn’t know a lemon grove unless fully ripe fruit loaded the trees, ready to garnish my French 75.
I couldn’t describe the natural landscape of Greece or Cornwall or Scotland any better than I could my own Pacific Northwest. I could manage a few identifications: evergreen, eagle, Mount Rainier.
I didn’t know my own backyard like Mary Stewart had known hers. A random page from Thornyhold:
At its center stood a well, knee-deep in bushes of lavender and sage and lad’s-love. The broken paving that made a ten-foot ring around it was almost hidden by creeping plants, some of them, in that sheltered spot, still flowering, campanula and wild thyme and the rose-purple of sedum, with saxifrage and wild strawberry and late gentians; the plants of garden and woodland at home together.
Naturally on first read I read gentians as genitals.
I couldn’t tell the difference between garden and woodland plants, much less name them.
In Hawaii, I could name many of the plants, because most have easily identifiable flowers all year long: plumeria, hibiscus, ginger, gardenia, orchid, bougainvillea. There there’s the obvious pineapple and coconut. Pretty hard to go wrong.
But here? How is one to tell one perennially green plant from another? Or one small brown bird from another? I could not reliably identify cedar nor sparrow.
Well, then, I would learn.
I could feed my soul and writing without even crossing the lake. I could open my world yet stay put, with my own quilt and pillow every night. Instead of planning to embark on a lonely 50th birthday trip by myself this fall, I could explore my immediate world with my son, and it could feed my relationship with him, too. I signed up for a series of guided plant and bird walks at local parks. I took a sabbatical from writing groups, writing classes, and writing events…but not from writing itself.
The first nature walk poured rain. Despite the urge to cancel and curl up indoors with a Mary Stewart novel and a cup of tea, I did not. I found a waterproof notebook on my shelf. I have not one, but two, waterproof notebooks, theoretically to use for brilliant thoughts in the shower: They had remained blank. Perhaps they were waiting for this day. I went on that miserable mid-April walk wearing my hooded winter coat during the solid two-hour downpour, jotting dry notes that were nonetheless illegible from my shivering. Yet I returned from that awful walk not wretched, but ecstatic. Okay, I was a little wretched and a lot wet. The sky itself had cracked open, yes, but so had my mind. I learned that when bears emerge from hibernation, they eat skunk cabbage to blow out the anal plug that’s kept everything in over the long winter (go ahead and admit that you’ve wondered about the logistics of hibernation). Huge skunk cabbage plants perfumed our walk with their residual stink. It’s also called Swamp Lantern; the guided walk lit me up with inspiration and cleared out months of mental gunk.
The next weekend I took a guided night-walk with the Little Monkey. By chance, the walk was timed with the release of 20,000 salmon fry, their silver scales flashing in the twilight as they cascaded downstream and out to the Sound, one of the most wondrous things I’ve ever seen—not two miles from the place I’ve lived for 26 years. It turned out some of those fingerlings had been raised at LM’s own school.
The following weekend, together we watched in wonder as a Rufous hummingbird blared his secret red feathers. I thought it was a trick of reflected sunshine, but, no, the Rufous flares his brilliant burgundy coat in the hummingbird version of flipping the middle finger. LM and I stood together on the shore of a pond, long after the rest of the bird walkers had departed, and watched him through our binoculars, saying, “Whoa! Wow! Look at that! Did you see that?” like it was a Fourth of July display. Or the Aurora Borealis. To think, that’s been going on all around me and I haven’t noticed.
Together we watched a pair of Goldfinches flitting and flirting; I hadn’t known they’re our state bird. I witnessed a Belted Kingfisher diving headfirst into Puget Sound and breaking the surface again carrying a fish, like me in a bag of Cheetos. We watched an osprey seize a fish from a lake mid-flight, and a Great Blue Heron snacking on fish at the shoreline. A Stellar’s Jay tore at the bark of a cherry tree to get at a bug. A bird of some type chased a bug of some type and caught it mid-air, right before our eyes; we exclaimed as if we had front row seats for the Blue Angels. A Violet-green Swallow audibly ripped a hunk from an exploded cattail and carried if off for nest-building.
I’ve learned other things. For one, I’m terrible, truly terrible, at bird and plant identification. I can now identify a Western Redcedar (one word, this editor learned), and that’s pretty much it, but it’s a 100% gain. The birds are worse. They will not. Stay. Still.
For another, you can tell when a sitting bird’s about to fly off because it poops. Lightening the load, indeed.
And black-capped chickadees are not unlike the human male: Their brains shrink in the spring during mating season, but, unlike the squirrel, they can remember where they cached most of their food in the fall.
And crows know all about the current human problem of adult kids returning to the nest; young adult crows do this all the time, but their Boomerang Kids help around the house. Crows also care for their elderly and hold funerals.
And a Western Redcedar is not really a cedar, and a Douglas Fir is not really a fir. Is there any wonder that, as a literal person, I’m no good at this?
For another, birders are the kindest group of people I have ever met. Cheerful at godawful early hours of the morning, prepared, punctual, helpful, eager to impart knowledge—obviously no one was up late at a bar the night before. Also humble and cooperative as they all work together to identify a bird, saying, “You are probably right on that one, it must be a flycatcher,” while the other responds, “No, I bet you are right and it’s a vireo.”
“Where?” I say. “Where? Where?” and they all whirl and point like a choreographed disco dance. I came back from my first bird walk proclaiming that if I am ever unfortunate enough to be widowed, I will next take up with a birder. I called my single girlfriends and told them to start going on bird walks, but they weren’t keen on getting up that early. The early bird gets the wyrm, indeed.
As I embarked on this backyard journey, a dire new study was released about global warming. The disasters will be upon us much sooner than expected. There’s perhaps nothing greater I can teach my son than an appreciation for the natural world and cultivate an interest in helping to preserve it.
I was fortunate enough to be offered a four-night writing retreat a mere couple of hours away at a cabin in the woods, where I identified busy busy American Robins, who hunted for worms even in a downpour. One of these new little friends flung himself into the window, startled by a cawing crow, with an alarming WHUMP, right out of a Wile E. Coyote scene. I went out to find him but couldn’t under the lady ferns and sword ferns, and I was bereft; it was such a wallop that I couldn’t believe he survived. Yet at least I could tell the ferns apart.
I took a drive around nearby Harstine Island, which I’d never heard of, though it’s the third largest island in the South Sound. I scrambled up a little incline to peek into the first cabin built on the island by early settlers. The marina store owner had pointed out the path for me, saying the island’s first white baby was born in the cabin. Her son had dismantled and then rebuilt the cabin on this current spot as his Eagle Scout project in the late eighties; it would have been destroyed in its previous location had Brady not saved it.
As I set my foot on the rickety ladder steps and poked my head up into the loft, not knowing what I’d find, I knew that I could not be any happier on the Isle of Skye than I was right here.
Unless a guy in a kilt were going up the ladder ahead of me.