He’s long and lean with sinewy muscles that contract and ripple as he runs his abbreviated routes. Golden hair with swirls of black accents give him an exotic look. When he arrives the place becomes electric with happy, anxious energy. He’s greeted with a boisterous “Neil!”, much like the portly accountant Norm was whenever he planted himself in his regular spot at the far corner of the bar in the television show “Cheers”. He excites the crowd as he prances in, towering over all of them and grinning big under a nose that can’t help but lead the way. He’s Neil the brindle Greyhound, one of about 40 dogs that spend their weekdays at Virginia Woof Dog Daycare while their people toil away in the city. Continue reading
“I found these on the sidewalk” he said through alcohol saturated breath as he proudly showed off the cellophane wrapped bundle of carnations with their tips glowing hues of red and yellow. “Nice” I replied, hoping that would be the end of it and went back to frying my brain with social media. He wasn’t done. “They’re usually $8.99 at 7-Eleven” he continued. “Do you think she’ll like them?” I barely heard him ask the question and I didn’t answer it, but something compelled me to put away the iphone and give him my attention. I never learned his name, but within just 15 minutes as we swayed, squeaked, and pinged through the many stops leading to mine along the #12 route, I connected with him more than I could have possibly imagined.
I agreed with him when he stated how cold it was and that he should probably get a new pair of gloves. He had lost his at some point, most likely at a friend’s place, but he wasn’t sure. I celebrated with him when he told me that had won $614 playing Keno. I commiserated with him when he taught me that “anything over $600 requires that you find a way to Salem in order to claim it”. I laughed with him when he told me that the lottery officials took his photo, complete with a desert oasis backdrop, for their “winner’s circle” marketing campaign and it was now posted in the bar where he had won. “You wouldn’t believe how many people hit me up for money after that! It was gone fast.” I smiled with him as he reminisced about how he and the love of his life had run off to Las Vegas to get hitched and then enjoyed “a great life together” living in SW Portland. I said “I’m so sorry” when he shared that his wife, who had been an emergency room nurse, died at the age of 49 due to complications from the diabetes she had suffered since childhood. I touched his arm and said “it’s ok” as he apologized profusely for his tears. I just listened as he told me he had fallen into a battle with alcohol and then homelessness after her death.
When my stop came, I stood, put my hand on his shoulder and said “Take it easy”. He grabbed my hand and replied “God bless you. Thank you for listening to me”. As the bus pulled away and I made my way up the street, I started to cry. I cried for him, his wife, and because of what I wish I would have said “Yeah, I think she’ll like them”.
He referred to her as his wife this morning while on the phone confirming her appointment with the doctor. My throat involuntarily convulsed and my head swirled with the beginnings and endings of various stories. Are they really married? My aunt told me that she thought they had wed on one of the many cruises they take into foreign waters. Does that count? Are they really married or was it just one of the “purely for entertainment purposes only” excursions made readily available on those massive floating over indulgence factories?
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I plan to ask him if it is true, that is if I ever get a moment alone with him. Why don’t I just ask in front of her? Continue reading
I got my “0-100mph” tendencies from my mom. I’m positive about that. When you find something you love to do, you do the shit out of it. That’s all. It doesn’t matter if anyone else likes to do it or if the end result is only beautiful to you. (Well, actually it does a tiny amount, but you don’t let on that you care and you just keep doing it.) Of course, softball is the most obvious example in my life of my doing something single mindedly for hours, days and years. I also had bouts of passion…err obsession…with bowling, juicing, photography, veganism, gardening, body building and classic car restoration just to name a few of the runners-up, but nothing could hold a candle to the dedication I gave to softball. Mom’s softball was crochet. She would sit for hours on end twisting and turning that hook over and under string with no need to even look at her work. She could crochet while watching television, while acting as the navigator on family road trips, while cheering through every sports season and while carrying on a conversation with the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder. There really seemed to be nothing out of her reach when it came to projects either. Pot holders, blankets, bucket hats bedazzled with the aluminum can logos of Pepsi or Coors, ordinary dish towels converted to dish towels that could be buttoned onto the refrigerator handle, vests and ponchos my sister and I begrudgingly wore to grade school, they were all in her repertoire and collection. Our house was her gallery of knotted string. Our bodies her mobile canvas. But the project that reminds me most about mom’s love of crochet and that compels me to write about it on Christmas day, are the ornaments.
She kept things simple so she could knock out massive quantities of those little wreaths and stockings. Solid Red or green for the wreaths with just a splash of sequin bling in the opposite color and the stockings woven with blended yarn that made its way along the color spectrum from white to either dark green or red. When she finally completed the last stitch, there were enough to cover every linear inch of the moulding that framed the ceilings in the living room, family room and hallways, and to adorn every branch of our 6 foot Christmas tree. Mom’s art was the focal point of our holiday decorating for as long as I can remember. Even today, her handmade ornaments live on, traveling safely in boxes and bins to whatever destinations my sister and I call home and making an appearance every Christmas, reminding us that Mom is still with us.
I don’t know why it’s different but it is. When I step over the threshhold of the facility that stores the frail old woman I visit, I’m surrounded by heat. Sometimes the thermostat reads upwards of 80 degrees, but it feels perfectly fine. Never too hot. 80 degree air in my own home feels almost oppressive. Like at any moment I’ll be driven to insanity if I don’t shed everything I’m wearing and dive in an icy pool. Maybe it’s a different heat made specially for the achy bones and muscles of those whose days are numbered. It’s “a dry heat” sort of nonsense perhaps. I don’t know why it’s different but it is. I don’t feel compelled to pull at the collar of my shirt and blow cool air down the neck hole like I would at home. I don’t feel the urge to race over to the thermostat and press the down button like a maniac until the humming stops, letting me know that soon the hot breath of the furnace will cease pushing its way up through the floor registers and pinning me in every corner of the house. When I’m in her small room and we’re chatting away, I just feel cozy. Like I want a warm cup of tea to wrap my hands around and a fleece blanket to drape over my lap like she does. I don’t know why it’s different but it is.
“The bus is almost here. Everyone get ready!” The excitement has been building all day. For weeks and months really. As we line up along that gravel road each year, often covered head to toe in rain gear or sometimes praising El Nino for a welcome break in the weather,we are thankful either way. Ancient and massive Douglas firs, salty air, a roaring ocean and kind hearted people surround us,providing the backdrop for the magic that is about to happen. “Here comes the bus!”. And then it’s here and there she is.
Since 1990, Camp Victory, which is sustained solely by private donations and an all volunteer staff, has served girls and young women aged 5-18 who are survivors of sexual abuse. In 2013 a much needed camp for boys was also launched. The campers come primarily from either Grays Harbor or Pacific counties in coastal Washington state. Many, in addition to the abuse they’ve suffered, come from homes, foster or family of origin, that are deeply impoverished. Camp is likely the place that will provide the shoes and jacket to keep them warm and dry over the cold, damp Pacific Northwest winter. It’s also the place where they’ll make the memories they can hold on to the rest of the year and call on to occupy their minds when the painful ones try to take up residence.
So tiny. She can’t be more than 7 can she? Her frail shoulders are covered only by wisps of tangled hair and her footwear belongs to another season,providing information to those outside about where to start. We don’t know the specifics of how she got here. That is her story to tell or not tell. As she readies herself to descend the stairs of the bus, her sad, lonely eyes dart sharply left and right, surveying the crowd of cheering strangers. She takes some comfort in the fact that she’s made a friend or two during the journey and even smiles slightly, remembering that they will be here with her. They’re all soldiers, in an army they didn’t join and in a war they didn’t start, having endured more pain during their short time on earth than most could possibly imagine. As they step off the bus they are greeted with a hero’s welcome from the band of volunteers, known as Mama Lions, who give their time and hearts to make this weekend miraculous. They’ll eat as much as they need and want. They’ll play until cheeks are rosy and faces ache from smiling. They’ll sing songs of healing and dance dances of peace. They’ll sleep deeply, possibly for the first time all year, feeling safe and protected. Most importantly, they’ll hear over and over again, “It’s not your fault” and “You are not defined by what happened to you”. They have arrived at Camp Victory, leaving their daily battlefield behind even if only for 3 precious days.
Over the long weekend, the campers enjoy all of the age-old activities that anyone who attended a summer camp during their childhood can probably still recall. They create tie dye masterpieces, weave bracelets from string, build the perfect smore, deliver award-winning performances in team skits, imagine themselves the savior of their district as they load an arrow into their bow, and they sing “repeat after me” songs around the campfire until their voices are raspy. All of those things would be more than enough if this weren’t Camp Victory.
The red one with a rose etching and pink cord. That’s the one she wants and she digs through the wicker basket to get it. She lets the small glass heart dangle, feeling its full weight and letting it linger briefly before she hangs it on the tree, hoping that the Mama Lion who is her big buddy all weekend got a good look at it. She returns to her spot on the floor, sitting on crossed legs and watching intently as the tree blossoms with the colorful offerings of every camper. Then she sees the ribbons. Red ribbons and white ribbons beginning to fill in the bare space between the hearts and grasped in the fingertips of the Mama Lions who are lining up for a turn at the tree. She remembers the ribbons now. Every adult at camp adds a white ribbon to the tree and those that are survivors, like her, can add a red one too. Anytime she sees the tree over the weekend, after undoubtedly making sure her red heart with the rose etching is still just where she left it, she’ll think about those ribbons. And, when her big buddy gives her that heart on Sunday, just shortly before she must board the bus for home, she’ll be taking with her more than just a piece of colored glass. She’ll wear that heart for the days and weeks to come, holding on to the memory that she is not alone.
For the women that started Camp Victory all those years ago and for the women and men that carry it forward year after year, this is more than volunteering. This is life changing, heart nourishing, necessary work that burrows deeply into the soul and doesn’t let go. Bearing witness as the light returns to defeated eyes and as fear gives way to confidence is what drives them. It’s what keeps them coming back. It’s what keeps them holding on. Holding on to hope that enough funds will be collected so that camp and other services, like free counseling for any child that wants it, will continue. Hope that they’ve done enough digging through systems and communities to reach as many children as possible. Hope that someday Camp Victory won’t be needed.
To learn more about this amazing organization and how you can help please follow the link: