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I knew I was getting accustomed to life in the NW when I no longer found the freeways just stunningly beautiful.

You know you are beauty-starved when you drive down the Banfield, past Lloyd Centre, and just stare at those huge trees and think, “Don’t the people who live here realize how lucky they are?” When it started looking like a lot of asphalt and buildings, I knew I was adjusting.

I’ve already begun the transition back, though, and I find myself once again stunned by the trees and the clouds and the freeways lined with clusters of pink and red roses and the bridges swooping over the steel-blue river; just there for the commuters to stare at. Excess beauty, just spilled along the everyday roads, noticed only in passing by drivers who are focused on not spilling their coffee, on the radio news, on their ipods and their cell phones. I’m not being judgmental—half the time I’m reading, or editing a book for a friend, as we drive by all this incidental loveliness.

Today begins our last week here. It’ll be a busy week; lots of things left to do still, and people to see. We leave for California on Labour Day, and the kids and I fly out of Southern California on Sept. 7th.  It’s too early. I’m not ready to leave.

Two weeks before, at my best friend Heather’s wedding, we’d stood in front of a hot church, feet aching in pink satin pumps (what WAS she thinking?), sweat trickling down our backs. August 1990 was hot and sticky in Portland. But the morning of the 17th, we woke to cool grey skies and blessed relief.

I hadn’t seen Heather since her wedding, but we met at the hairdresser’s, where the whole wedding party had gathered to have hair and nails done. The hairdresser had provided the coffee, juice, muffins and bagels, fruit platter. Heather and I rushed off to the bathroom for her to give me a few bridal tips, in private.  

The weather was perfect; not raining, but comfortable. We rushed around doing last-minute things; checking on flowers, picking up groomsmen’s suits with one of our groomsmen, who had just ridden his motorcycle down from Alaska to be there; digging frantically through boxes to find out where the safe place was that I’d put our marriage license.

Growing up, I had always assumed I would get married someday, but wasn’t in a hurry. I was a little scared of the commitment. I knew this couldn’t be a decision I made lightly—I wanted my marriage to last for life. But in your early 20s, how can you know who you are, much less who you will be? How can you be sure? I agonized and agonized.Donn and I were young when we started dating. Too young, I felt. He was ready; I wasn’t. I put him off. I was so afraid. We dated for nearly 4 years, while I continued my studying and he began to focus on his photography.

Even on that cool August afternoon, I felt some stirrings of fear. It was too late to stop—all the workings of a wedding were in place. We’d sent invitations, received gifts, ordered flowers, a light buffet, reserved a cabin on the Oregon coast for our honeymoon. But how could I be sure? This was the biggest decision of my LIFE!!

That evening, we gathered at the church. At the proper moment, the huge doors in the back swung open and there I was, on the arm of my oldest brother. He walked me down the aisle to the strains of Handel’s “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.” (Not only is it great music, but it provides amusement and entertainment for your guests when they read the program.)  A Welsh friend and poet stood and recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet which begins, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” And I looked at Donn, and I knew. I wasn’t afraid anymore; just excited. We exchanged rings, recited the traditional vows. I knew my limitations as a writer, and I knew I could never write anything that perfect and meaningful, vows that would last a lifetime, like the old “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live.”

Outside, the clouds cleared to a vivid coral sunset. Inside, candles flickered as the ceremony finished and the celebration started. The Welsh friend and poet had not only recited beautifully, but she loaned me a ring (something borrowed and something blue, too) and made an incredible British wedding cake.  In my typical state of organization, I’d bought Donn’s wedding ring only 2 days before and hadn’t had time to get it sized, so when we got to the hotel we realized he’d lost it! We called my mother who called the church. Apparently the janitor had found it but hadn’t thought it was real—it was too funny, finding a real ring lost after a wedding.

And so began the adventure of a lifetime together. We haven’t made it a lifetime yet—only 16 years—but it’s a start. Of course, as with everyone, our life has included a lot of fun and laughter and plenty of pain, too; lots of sleepless nights and lazy mornings and jet lag and stressful decisions to be made and all the sorts of things of which life is made; everyday things like unwashed dishes and mountains of laundry and sending Donn out to the store 3 times because I’ve kept forgetting things for the dinner party. It’s not like our experience is unusual; except in the sense that Donn has an unusual way of looking at things that has made our life together so much fun.

So, given my time-challenged way of going through life, it’s not surprising that I’m 2 days late in posting this. But it doesn’t matter. We meant that “for better for worse” and while we’ve had plenty of each, I’m still certain. I haven’t changed my mind since Wyn Morgan recited that sonnet. I still know.

There used to be a bookstore in downtown Portland called the Catbird Seat Bookstore. I have no idea if they still exist but in a different location or if they’re gone entirely, but I remember their slogan—Books for the Omnivorous Reader. I still love that. It describes me so well. Veronica tagged me for this literary meme, in which I get to talk about books I’ve loved and books I’ve hated. The thing I really like about this meme is that it doesn’t ask for favorites—I am physically incapable of choosing just one book out of many.  

1. One book that changed your life: Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies. It’s the 2nd part of his Salterton trilogy. All 3 are good, all 3 are snide and funny, but Leaven of Malice is my favorite of the 3 (see? I can occasionally do favorites). It helped me see my mother and certain of her friends in a different, more caustic light, and also helped me take my stand for independence. My mother was a travel agent when it came to guilt trips, and I found this book gave me a certain freedom, if that makes sense.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Oh that’s easy—if I like a book, I always re-read it. I can’t understand people who read a book once and then pass it on. That’s the one thing I don’t like about libraries—I want to OWN the books! I just re-read Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gropnik. It’s a wonderful book, especially if you’ve lived in France. It’s basically a series of essays (most of which were originally published in the New Yorker) describing his life in Paris with his wife and small boy. He’s an excellent writer, and the book will make you laugh out loud.

3. One book you would want on a desert island: I always assume I can have the Bible along for free, so I pick The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I figure this would give me a chance to memorize some of those great speeches (like “the quality of mercy is not strained” one, or the one where Henry V insults the French) and sonnets, and you can read and re-read those plays and continue to find new things—nuances and funny twists of thought.

4. One book that made you laugh: I still remember laughing till I cried the first time I read P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves (I think this is the right one.) when I was in high school. When Gussy gets drunk and makes that speech at the prize-giving…I can still giggle thinking about it. Now I’ve got to go get another copy of that book—I used to read my brother’s copies of Wodehouse, and I never really got my own.

5. One book that made you cry: Garden of Dreams, by Leslie Gould. (Disclaimer: she is a real-life friend.) This book is about friends, and one of them dies, and it is very sad, even though you sort of know from the beginning that she will die.  
6. One book that you wish had been written: I loved Veronica’s choice: The Private Diary of Elizabeth Tudor. There is so much speculation about her private life and thought processes; it would be fun to find out if all those rumours were true 🙂

7. One book that you wish had never been written: A Time to Kill, by John Grisham. I only read the first part, about the murder of that little girl, but it was so horrible that I couldn’t get it out of my head! AUGH! (Disclaimer: I read a stack of John Grisham books during my first 2 years overseas. I was desperate–there was nothing else to read. I realize that those of you who like popular fiction can now despise me as a snob, and those of you who hate it can now despise me as a sell-out! For those of you who have never sullied your hands with such a brainless book; they’re not bad. Grisham writes a good story. They’re not full of description, or characters so carefully drawn you feel you’d recognize them if you met them on the street, but they’re a fun way to pass an evening, especially when it’s 110 and sticky and you’re out of water again.)

8. The book that you are currently reading: Let’s make that books. I am currently reading, in between talking, Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, The Kite Runner, and Me Talk Pretty One Day. The first is this wild memoir of an English girl growing up in Africa and dealing with dysfunctional-but-loving family, sorrow, racism, etc; it’s funny and thought-provoking and a great read! Get it now! The Kite Runner is shocking, and I’m not even half-way through, but it’s well-written and good. Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of essays. I’ve only read the first one, but it was pretty funny. I keep these books in the car, and read them while Donn drives me to whosever house we’re going to that evening, where we’ll hang out and talk and talk. On the way home, I read them in snatches, by the light of the ever-moving street lamps, and if we have to stop by a store I happily sit out in the car and read while Donn runs in. My mother always said I’d ruin my eyes if I read after dark. Guess I’d better keep reading while I can!

9. One book that you have been meaning to read: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

10. Books you don’t enjoy: Romance in general, Christian romance in particular. I mean romance in the modern sense of the word; for example, I liked A. S. Byatt’s Possession a lot, even though it was subtitled “a romance” because Byatt meant romance in the more traditional sense of the word. But I hate romance as a genre. (aside from my non-literary mother, who saw the cover: “(sniff) Elizabeth, I wish you wouldn’t waste your time with that sort of book.” I found this hysterical, as I tend towards much more literary books than my mother does)

11. Book you remember as a real page-turner: White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I read it pool-side in Senegal on our vacation last year.

12. Non-fiction books you have enjoyed: I enjoy travel essays—maybe because I want to write them. I also like biographies. I like the series “Best American Essays of Whatever Year” (also Best Travel Essays) because they are collections of articles from all the magazines you can’t get in Mauritania—Atlantic, New Yorker, Smithsonian, etc. I have a couple of these and enjoy them.

13. Children’s books your family has loved: The Tale of Despereaux; Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, including the Hobbit. Many more.  
I tag WackyMommy and PortlanderinLA—two women I went to university with. You’re it!

I talk a lot. I always have. On my school reports in grade school, I used to get comments like “Student has a good attitude overall but needs to learn to not talk in class” or “Student tends to interrupt frequently” or “Student cannot sit next to friends.” My parents would sigh and scold, but I just couldn’t stop.

But even for me, I am talking a lot. This is what I do on my Summer Vacation in the States: I talk to people.

When you work overseas, but have lots of friends back home, these friends want to see you. You want to see them. So you go for coffee. Quite frankly, there’s nothing like a mid-afternoon double cappuccino (dry, for here) to really loosen up my tongue—not to mention how great it is to chatter away in English, not have to search for words in another language, worry about grammar or conjugation. So I talk. And talk. And talk.

I search back to those childhood lectures for a semblance of politeness, and say to my friends, “But enough about me!” No, they say, not enough. We want more. Tell us details; about your so-called friend who murdered his wife, about the locust plague, about your students, about hiking in a canyon with baboons and about the cave paintings. Tell us more about the crocodile you saw, just a few feet away, spotted by your son. We want to hear about that ancient culture; we want to know what it’s like to live in an Arab country when you’re American, given the current world climate. Give us your opinion on the situation in Lebanon, and explain the difference between Hamas and Hizbollah. You have Palestinian and Lebanese and Iraqi friends; tell us about them. And I do. I talk and talk.                                 

We go for dinner at people’s houses and talk. We show pictures, give away odd trinkets hand-made in the desert, over-eat, and talk. (We’re on the gain-10-pounds-in-10-weeks fattening program! It’s lots of fun.) We hang out after church and talk. We talk on the phone, we meet for pizza (Vincente’s on 20th and Hawthorne is the best in town), we talk. Fortunately, this is something I can handle.

And in between, we sleep. We keep Heather and Paul up late, talking, and then they have to get up for work, with kids, etc., but we don’t. We lie in the cool dark of the basement and sleep in at least until the girls (in the bedroom above us) start clumping across the wood floors. Then we stagger blearily up the stairs to the bathroom and smell the fresh-brewed coffee, feel the cool Northwest morning air coming in through the open windows, look out at the green trees in the yard. Some quiet time and 2 cups of coffee later, I’m ready to start talking again.

It’s a great summer.

This is day one of my new life as mother of 9. (Ha, Mary, got you beat for once!) So far, so good. It’s our friends’ anniversary, and they have gone away for a much-needed break. That’s ok—I can handle it. I’m bringing out my inner earth-mother. No make-up and a long tie-dye skirt. Deep cleansing breaths. Extra coffee. Unfortunately it hasn’t extended to me making whole-grain pancakes and my own yogurt for everybody or anything extreme like that.

I’m drawing on my heritage. After all, my paternal grandmother raised 9 kids on her own in the Depression in the middle of
Kansas, for goodness’ sake! I have this in my blood! (Deep breath)

To begin with, all was calm. I fed everybody and the kitchen looked a bit overwhelming, but it really didn’t take long to clean up. Most of the kids are older, with 7 of them ranging in age from nearly-14 to 8, so there are really only 2 that need a lot of attention.

After lunch I had a relaxing lull. I started this entry, let the 4 year-old play Freddie Fish on their computer. I gave the baby her bath and put her in a fun little outfit. Kicking back, being cool, you know me. All was calm. All was bright.

Suddenly, the baby had a diaper that needed changing and was screaming, the 4 year-old had just wet himself, leaving a puddle on the (padded) dining room chair that was dripping onto the floor, the dryer buzzer was buzzing and buzzing, the 10 year-old had just gotten hit in the face with a ball and had a fat lip, the phone was ringing, and it just didn’t feel quite so in control. I changed, mopped, bathed, answered, turned off, cleaned up, and in general rushed around for a while. Now things are calm again. Everybody is playing Pirates of the Caribbean (who in this version have a four-year-old tiger), which involves a lot of dress-up and make-up.

Only a day and a half to go 🙂

Be right back—I have to go see who is screaming and why.

Disclaimer: If there are weird line breaks in here, it’s because wordpress isn’t letting me edit stuff! I don’t mean them personally (I’m sure they’re very nice people). But for some reason, my laptop adds in weird line spaces (not to mention taking out paragraph breaks) and at first I could edit it but now I can’t. Why? It’s one of life’s mysteries. Be content; you can’t know everything.

Yesterday, I met Wackymommy ( Why, WordPress, oh why won’t you let me do the link correctly?) and she bought me lunch. (She’s so nice) I had a truly wonderful spinach salad with spicy walnuts and pink grapefruit on it. I’m not sure you care, but believe me, this is not something available at Mauritanian restaurants. It also had bacon and red onions. Yum. And Stumptown coffee to follow—this means nothing to you non-Portlanders out there, I realize, but trust me—it’s good coffee.

WackyMommy is a friend of mine from college. We met at the offices of the Vanguard student newspaper at Portland State University many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away. She looks terrific—younger than I do, even though she is actually older. Guess there are advantages to keeping your face out of the Saharan sun. It was great to see her and catch up on all the things we don’t put on our blogs.

Last week, we had dinner with another old college friend—this one from a smaller one called Multnomah. It was fun catching up with our lives, comparing notes, seeing kids. He’s writing books now, which is exactly what we both wanted to do way back when.

And, we are actually staying with my oldest friend (as in length of time, not age, yadda yadda). Heather and I met as college freshmen. We were both 17 (we both have fall birthdays), both energetic and talkative. We used to stay up all night just talking. Now, of course, as responsible mothers, we…um…still stay up talking, not to mention when we take our cups of coffee and go up in their treehouse to hide from all the children, so we can talk in peace. They have a great treehouse. But we don’t laugh hysterically and uncontrollably for hours anymore…at least, not often. Now we watch our daughters, ages 10 and 9, giggle and giggle and giggle. They, like us, are best friends.

This is an awesome family. We are all crammed into their house—which is literally bulging out the sides, with 13 of us in here, but they are gracious hosts. I thanked them by backing into their gate and taking out a section of their fence, but even then they didn’t get mad or kick us out.

My husband is having a lot of fun with this. “We’re leaving, whether the gate is open or not!” he announces. Or, “She had a hard time cramming 5 ½ feet of car into 16 feet of gate.” At least we’re all laughing about it.

I was thinking about the funny way life turns out. Take Heather and I. If you’d said to us back when we were 18 or so, “One of you will have 6 children and the other 3” it would have been a no-brainer—I would have assumed I’d be the one with the large family. I grew up almost as an only child—my brothers are so much older than I am. I longed for siblings, and I thought I’d like to have a large family. I worked at a daycare as one of my many and varied college jobs, and I was more likely than Heather to offer babysitting services.

But by the time I was in my 20s, I had noticed something about myself—I liked children, and then they went home. That was how I wanted it. I like quiet. I need time to myself. Ok, I don’t get a lot of it with 3 kids so close in age, but we also all like quiet time reading, or the kids often play upstairs in their rooms while I write on the computer.

Heather, on the other hand, wasn’t especially fond of children. But I watch her now, calmly dealing with her 6, and I’m amazed. She’s fantastic at motherhood. I love her children, and I’m so glad that my kids have them as friends.

Or, if you’d said, you with your strange future knowledge back in the 80s, “Which of you will work overseas in a hot country?” our answer would have been immediate and unequivocal—Heather. She liked sun; I never complained on grey, cloudy days. I was interested in other cultures, and have always followed international news to one extent or another, but Heather actually planned to work overseas. But somehow, we switched; she once went to Papua New Guinea for 6 weeks and hated it, while I have been a global nomad for 5 years and have no intention of stopping now.

So life is weird. But we knew that. We’re not making any future predictions, but we are pretty sure of one thing—our friendship can (and has) survive anything!

August 2006

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A Perfect Post – January 2007

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