Goodbye, summer. Hello, fall.

OI george-lori

George and Lori take a break during a hike at Coho Preserve on Orcas Island.

We’ve been coming up to our Orcas Island cabin for 12 years running. Until now, I don’t think we’d ever been here during the change of seasons.

Well, now we can check that box.

Friday, September 22nd, was the fall equinox and it marked the end of a weeklong stay at our place above Eagle Lake. On this trip, our third this year, it was just Lori and me and our little whiskered rascal, Charlotte.

This summer was brutal, with way too many 100-degree days and then the devastating wildfires that torched the Columbia River Gorge and ruined the air quality for several days. I don’t think I’ve ever been more ready to greet autumn.

(Click on images to view captions.)

This was a quiet week, even by our usual standards. Thanks to a still-sore ankle I developed during a routine run around Mountain Lake on our last visit in June, we didn’t try to do too much that would further strain my Achilles tendon.

We confined ourselves to a couple of walks on the Lake Trail around Eagle Lake, took several short walks up the hill above our house, and made time for one lovely hike at a new spot — Coho Preserve, just above Buck Bay.

OI eagle lake

Eagle Lake: beautiful from any angle.

The San Juan County Land Bank negotiated the donation of 24 acres of private woodland that it’s turned into an easily accessed trail with a loop that takes you on shaded switchback trails past Cascade Creek and a series of mini-waterfalls. It’s really gorgeous. And although the trail might be a tad steep for some, my ankle didn’t bark at all during the ascent or descent.

We went into Eastsound just once for lunch, groceries and light shopping. The village has about 2,000 residents and it’s the island hub for commercial activities of all kinds. Lori made a dietary concession and we ate burgers at the Lower Tavern, one of my favorite spots on the island.

For once, we didn’t go to any bookstores. Fittingly, however, I finished a book that I had purchased here at least one summer, maybe two, earlier. It was “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” the last in the crime trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. Lori, meanwhile, read two collections of short stories — one by Portland author Kate Carroll de Gutes, the other by the acclaimed Irish writer Colum McCann.

We went out to dinner just once. We joined our friends, Carl and Juliana, at Rosario Resort for appetizers and wine. It was a fun evening catching up with each other while noshing on everything from lettuce wraps to cheese-and-charcuterie to salt-and-pepper sand shrimp.

Most of the time was spent here at the cabin. And, believe me, there’s nothing to complain about when you’re relaxing in a dozen different ways: Reading. Watching movies. Playing Scrabble. Building a woodstove fire to warm the house. Filling the bird feeders and watching the various species — juncos, towhees, sparrows, grosbeaks — come and dine.

We cooked our own meals — duck eggs for breakfast; fresh clams and oysters for dinner. We watched barge traffic on the water far below us, with Bellingham in the far distance. Mostly, we enjoyed the silence — the utter silence — that envelops this place. Nothing compares to pausing on a walk in the woods and hearing … absolutely nothing. Not even a bird.

Monday brings a return to work for both of us. Lori picks up where she left off with her personal training clients and group fitness class. I start a new Media Literacy class at Portland State after five weeks away from the classroom.

I know I’ve said many, many times but spending seven days here has been good for the heart, the soul and our relationship. Now if only we could stay for another week.

OI dawn at cabin

The view at dawn from our cabin.

Advertisements

New space, new author

kate carroll de gutes (2)

Kate Carroll de Gutes welcomes the crowd to her Sept. 14 book launch at the Fremont Theater.

Last Thursday was one of those nights that captures the essence of what it’s like to live in this city: a melding of books, bites, music and friends, all done without leaving our zip code.

Our friend Molly Holsapple invited Lori and me to join her and others at a book launch featuring local author Kate Carroll de Gutes at the Fremont Theater. And, oh, could we meet beforehand for drinks and a light dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street?

Well, sure.

I hadn’t heard of de Gutes and I didn’t even realize the Fremont Theater existed. Unbeknownst to me, it opened as part of a new building that went up about two years ago at the corner of Northeast Fremont Street and 24th Avenue, about a mile from our home,

Going to this free event would be a good way to get acquainted with both author and venue. Turns out both were eye-openers.

kate carroll de gutes

Kate Carroll de Gutes reads from “The Authenticity Experiment.”

Kate Carroll de Gutes is a Portland writer who was promoting a new book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” a collection of essays that began as a 30-day blogging challenge to be more honest about her life. Her first collection of essays, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” had won an Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction and a Literary Lambda Award for memoir/biography.

On Thursday, de Gutes was finishing a three-city tour of Bend, Seattle and Portland with a book reading that felt like we were in someone’s living room.

The Fremont Theater seats about 120 people in an intimate space with a small stage at one end and a bar at the other. The building has a 22-foot-tall ceiling and two levels. Little did I know this place has been hosting live music, theater and other events for some time.

In fact, the evening began with a short set performed by local folk musicians Steve Einhorn and Kate Power, a married couple who are also former owners of Artichoke Music in Southeast Portland. The duo set a warm, welcoming tone with four songs featuring vocals, acoustic guitars and Steve’s ukelele.

kate power-steve einhorn (2)

Kate Power and Steve Einhorn performed four songs as a warm-up for the book reading.

de Gutes was charming and relaxed, with a large number of friends in the audience. Hip from head to toe, came out in a bow tie and polka dot shirt, Levi’s and a pair of black Converse. Her essays were beautifully written — concise, compelling, humorous, sad and, above all, authentic — in tackling topics of death, friendship, family and grief. Within a single year, she said, her mother, best friend and editor-mentor all died. Blogging was a way to cope.

“I kept writing because it kept me sane,” she said.

We bought the new book and Kate signed it. Lori’s already read it and pronounced it a winner. I’m still pounding through a 500-pages-plus novel but plan to dive into Kate’s book next.

lori and kate

Kate Carroll de Gutes signs her new book for a new fan, Lori.

Thanks all around …

— To Molly for introducing us to a new author here in our city.

— To Broadway Books, our neighborhood independent bookstore, for supporting writers like this one and promoting literacy in our city.

— To Kate Carroll de Gutes, for doing what nonfiction writers do best — reveal something of themselves in order to address common themes that bring us together as human beings.

 

My other job

pwa door

Behind this door in a modest school building office, five staff members, including myself, work for the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance.

A year ago at this time, I felt like a first-grader walking into a new job at the Portland Workforce Alliance, an education nonprofit in east Portland.

This week, I felt like a second-grader returning to that job. (Well, maybe a better comparison might be a high school freshman becoming a sophomore.)

What’s the difference?

Last fall, everything was new. With a year of experience under my belt, everything is a lot more familiar — the work, the people, the acronyms, and the physical surroundings. I’ll get to each of those in more detail, but first a few words about the organization.

Portland Workforce Alliance is a small but muscular nonprofit, leveraging modest financial resources and a ton of volunteer energy to make a big impact in the lives of countless teenagers in the Portland metro area. Founded in 2005, PWA has a well-defined mission of connecting young people to great jobs.

With literally a handful of employees, it builds relationships with local employers and educators to serve up a steady diet of career-related learning experiences that introduce area high school students to jobs and careers that might have eluded them otherwise. The school year calendar is loaded with career days, field trips, job shadows, internships, mock interviews, classroom visits — and the NW Youth Careers Expo, a signature event that brings 150-plus employers and 6,000 students together for a day of career exploration at the Oregon Convention Center.

CHECK OUT A ONE-MINUTE VIDEO OF THE 2017 EXPO

PWA does all of this Career Technical Education work as a complement to our public schools. The organization has contracts with three metro-area school districts — Portland Public Schools, Parkrose and North Clackamas — that provide most of its revenue, and relies on grants and donations for the rest.

It’s an organization I’m proud to work for. As a first-generation college student coming from a blue-collar household, education is at the top of my list of professional and personal interests. With the encouragement of my parents and the help of a high school journalism adviser who recognized my potential, I was able to recognize my passion early on and get on the path that would lead to a satisfying career that spanned 40 years in various newsrooms.

Now, I’m a former journalist teaching at the college level and helping young adults acquire internships. That work fills up my weekday mornings. Fortunately, I’m able to devote three to four afternoons to part-time work at PWA. This other job does my heart good knowing I’m part of a team working to help students get started on pathways to rewarding careers in technology, architecture, health care, skilled trades and construction, and other well-paying occupations.

That feel-good energy is reinforced knowing that PWA puts extra effort into outreach at highly-diverse, high-poverty high schools where students often come from homes where no one has attended college. I know what it’s like to navigate the college application process on your own. I also know it doesn’t have to be that way. So anything my peers and I can do to demystify the process and help students explore where their interests might take them is something we embrace. Their success is our success.

***

Much of the appeal of my job lies in whom I work with.

Kevin Jeans Gail, a former neighbor, is the founding executive director of PWA. It’s his vision, energy, networking and optimism that drives the agenda and tone of what we do and how we do it. Kevin is an amazing bridge builder who brings schools and businesses together for the sake of a stronger future workforce.

pwa-breakfast-2017-kevin-gail-speaking-with-students

Executive Director Kevin Jeans Gail introduces student panelists at the 2017 PWA Breakfast held in advance of the Expo.

Susan Nielsen, my former co-worker at The Oregonian, is the program and communications director. She works tirelessly with principals, teachers and career coordinators to determine student interests and then works tirelessly with Portland-area employers to schedule an array of career days, classroom visits and other activities to meet those interests. She also oversees our communications, ranging from the web site to social media to newsletters. Susan does it all with good humor and a second-to-none work ethic.

Kristen Kohashi, our lone millennial, is the program manager. She is a graphic designer whose multiple talents in photography, typography and layout result in attractive and easy-to-digest fliers, brochures, posters and pamphlets. She’s our one-person IT department. In addition, she works with Kevin in managing every aspect of our related nonprofit ACE Mentor Program of Oregon, which offers intensive after-school training to students interested in Architecture, Construction Management and Engineering. Last spring, ACE awarded $75,000 in college scholarships to 16 Portland-area seniors.

Sherri Nee, also a former journalist, is the program development manager. Hired just this fall, she is the “new kid” this year. She works with Susan on the front lines with students and teachers in developing career-learning experiences that range from the construction trades to nursing to advertising and much, much more. Sherri brings previous experience with two student-focused nonprofits she helped start.

I’m the communications coordinator, primarily working with Susan on grant writing, web content and miscellaneous projects involving data collection and analysis.

READ THE STAFF BIOS

Though we have clearly defined roles, some tasks call for all hands on deck. This is most evident in the months of work leading up to the Expo, but pitching in also can take the form of assembling file folder materials or setting up a room for a meeting of the board of directors.

Speaking of which, we’re fortunate to work with a diverse group of about 30 business and education leaders who volunteer their time to support the work we do and help us recruit new companies and individuals to the cause.

READ ABOUT THE PWA BOARD 

I pinched myself last year when things fell into place at work. After I left The Oregonian at the end of 2015, I had nine months to relax and recharge. When I went back to work, I found myself starting fresh with adjunct teaching gigs at two local universities and this, the perfect part-time job — all of it revolving around the education of college and high school students.

One week into my second year on the job at PWA, things are looking mighty fine.

In Latvia, one family’s story of war, loss and survival 

inara-sign

Inara Verzemnieks signs a copy of her book following her reading at Powell’s Books.

If you’re like most Americans, you need a map to remind yourself where the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are. These three countries, lying south of Finland and abutting the western border of Russia, were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until declaring their independence in 1991.

If you’re like me, you are unfamiliar with the history, geography and culture of Latvia, a country about one-fourth the size of Oregon and with half as many people — 2 million vs. the 4 million living in this state.

But if you’re me, then you count yourself lucky for two reasons: One, for having met a talented journalist whose upbringing in Washington state by Latvian refugees served as a singular reminder of that country’s presence. Two, for having seen that young woman evolve from the earliest stages of a reporting career to a nonfiction writing professor and author of a book about one family’s tale of loss and survival during World War II and their reconnection after the war.

That writer is Inara Verzemnieks. The book is titled “Among The Living and The Dead.” And that family is hers.

amongthelivinganddeadReleased this summer, the book is a profound memoir that is at once eye-opening, soul-searing, sad and uplifting. It is the story of Inara’s grandmother, and her great-aunt, Ausma, born 14 years apart in Latvia and how their family was ripped apart during the Second World War.

Livija fled Latvia with a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son (Inara’s father) to escape the bombs and general mayhem caused by Russian troops in their zeal to drive out the German forces that had earlier invaded the tiny country. Ausma was sent away to Siberia along with her parents and disabled older brother. The two sisters would not see each other again for more than 50 years.

It is a compelling work of literature, blending historical events and geopolitical drama with family stories, Latvian folk tales, and the retelling of wartime memories that left me in awe of the human will to survive in the face of daunting physical and emotional challenges.

In short, it’s everything I hoped for — and, frankly, have come to expect — from my talented friend.

***

Twenty years ago, Inara Verzemnieks joined The Oregonian as a police reporter in one of the newspaper’s suburban bureaus. She had graduated from the University of Washington in 1996 and excelled as a summer intern on the features desk at The Washington Post.

I was The Oregonian’s recruitment director when we hired Inara late that year, and then became the bureau chief in the office where Inara launched her full-time career. I had the pleasure of editing this precocious young woman whose passion for storytelling was matched with a fierce intellect and an ability to connect unseen dots.

In short order, she moved to the downtown office, became an arts writer, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2007. After 13 years at The Oregonian, she applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was accepted and now teaches in the same graduate writing program whose faculty and graduates include Raymond Carver,  John Cheever, Ann Patchett, Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson. (In fact, her prose reminds me very much of Robinson in tone and precision.)

When Inara visited Portland in late July to read from her book, more than 100 former colleagues and subjects of her stories in Portland crowded into the room at Powell’s Books.

(Click on images to view captions.)

She told us she’d been collecting stories about her family for years, growing up in Tacoma with her refugee grandparents and occasionally visiting her Latvian relatives, but the book began in earnest in 2010.

“Because I’m interested in people’s stories, I became a storykeeper,” she told us. “It took a while for me to put myself inside those stories. It took a long time to see what part of that story was mine.”

“Taking time allowed me to discover who I was,” she added. “I was trying to do the journalist’s dodge (of writing about others rather than one’s self). I realized I couldn’t tell a story without telling my grandmother’s story…or my own story.”

***

inara-scarf

Inara with a precious keepsake, the scarf that belonged to her grandmother Livija.

It is in the telling of these individual stories — of Livija’s survival of years as a refugee, of Ausma’s endurance during unimaginably harsh conditions in Siberia, and of Inara’s epiphanies in researching her family’s past — that one is able to better grasp the horrors of war and its effects on innocent civilians. Knowing what they have survived makes it all the more remarkable to appreciate their efforts to reconnect as siblings, husbands and wives, parents and children and to share those stories with grandchildren like Inara.

The book serves as a microcosm in so many respects.

  • It lays out a condensed history of the Latvian people and the culture they have proudly maintained through the centuries in a place a 13th-century pope called “the edge of the known world.”
  • It captures a snapshot of the country’s military history during the Second World War, a sad chronology of events that includes the mass deportation of men, women and children to Siberia; the murders of 70,000 Jewish Latvians by German troops and fellow Latvians; the panicked flight of Latvians escaping their homeland at the end of the war for the West.
  • It conveys, with tenderness and admiration, the resilience that enabled so many exiles to overcome the psychological and physical hardships of Siberia’s unforgiving landscape and to piece their lives together again back in Latvia.

I could quote from any chapter in the book to give a sense of the elegant writing. This paragraph, in particular, touched my heart. It is one where Inara is pointing to a portrait of her great-aunt Ausma and her brother in Siberia, posing with another couple in a room with rough white walls — the women looking off to the left, the men looking directly into the lens.

Later, in the state archives in Riga, I will find hundreds of photographs like the one Ausma showed me of the white-walled room in Siberia, the same composition, but different faces, the work of enterprising itinerant photographers who roamed the region’s remote settlements, proposing to snap the portraits of the exiles who lived there in exchange for whatever they could offer in return. Scavenged berries. Socks. Sewing needles fashioned from fish bones.

“For the exiles, it was worth the sacrifice of their most precious commodities. Portraits offered proof of life. They resurrected the banished, restored them to sight, so that it was a possible to imagine they existed once more in the world of the living. In some of the portraits, I notice the women are wearing a similar dress. It takes me a while to realize that it probably is the same dress, passed from one exile to another so that each might feel she looks her best for the photographer.

The book is getting great reviews, including this one from The Washington Post.

I’m so happy for Inara. I’m also indebted to her as one reader who’s now better informed about Latvia and enriched by her storykeeper talents.

42 big ones

1977_Lori-George

Lori and George in 1977.

Exactly 20 months after our first date and little more than a year after graduating together from San Jose State, Lori and I got married 42 years ago today.

September 6, 1975, was a typical late-summer day in San Jose, California. Hot and dry with a view of browned-out hills. We were 22 years old when we exchanged vows.

These photos, taken two years later, show just how beautiful my young bride was at that age — and how damn lucky I was (and am) to marry her.

1977_Lori-Gayle

Lori and Gayle, a former college roommate, on a day hike in 1977.

I’ve done the math, so trust me when I say these 42 years mean we’ve now been together for 2,184 weeks and 15,330 days. Add in 11 leap years and you get a total of 15,341 days.

That translates to 368,184 hours and 22,091,040 minutes and 1,325,460,400 seconds (1.3 billion seconds).

Silly? Yes, of course.

The most important numbers? We have raised three wonderful children. And after all that time together, each of us is committed to one love, one partner, one marriage.

 

1977_Lori-George (2)

Lori and her first husband, Tony Orlando (kidding!), against the backdrop of Central Oregon. We were living in Bend then.

For what it’s worth, most Americans marry once and stick to it.

According to 2010 census statistics, more than half of the nation’s married couples have been together at least 15 years. About a third have marked their 25th anniversaries, and 6 percent have been married more than 50 years. (Source: The Washington Post)

Photographs: Brian McCay

 

 

Thinking about labor and Labor Day

03lyons-master768

Illustration: Daniel Savage for The New York Times

It’s mid-afternoon on Labor Day 2017 and my mind is filled with mostly disconnected thoughts about this federal holiday.

Government offices, schools and banks are closed, and so are many businesses. But many retailers, restaurants and service-oriented businesses — I’m thinking gas stations and mini-marts — are open on this first Monday in September as if it were any other day.

Is it really a holiday if so many Americans are working? Am I helping or hurting those who have to work today by patronizing their businesses?

True confession: One of the first things I did this morning was to call a credit card company about a billing question. I did so, half hoping that I’d get a recording that told me they were closed and I’d need to contact them the next day.

Didn’t happen. The customer service rep I spoke to handled my issue promptly and efficiently. When I told him I was sorry he had to work today, he thanked me but brushed it off as no big deal and assured me he was receiving holiday pay.

luisa-anderson

When I met Luisa Anderson, a University of Oregon journalism graduate and television news producer, for coffee, we were lucky to grab a table on this holiday morning.

Later in the morning, I visited a neighborhood coffee shop to meet with a young journalist and found the place at near capacity. Afterward, I dropped in at a grocery store to pick up a couple of non-essential items. If today was a holiday, you couldn’t tell at either place.

And, of course, that leads into how we got here.

***

According to Newsweek: Workers in New York City celebrated the first Labor Day on September 5, 1882, with a parade organized by trade unions. But while the first rally was held in New York, Oregon was the first state to institute Labor Day as a holiday, passing legislation to that effect in 1887. [I didn’t know that.]

Over the following seven years, some 30 states made it a holiday. In 1894, the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to approve Labor Day as a national holiday, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.

Bloody clashes continued, however. During the last two decades of the 1800s, workers carried out some 37,000 strikes in the United States; and between 1870 and 1914, up to 800 American workers were killed during strikes, according to The Washington Post.

In time, the violence subsided and we became accustomed to employers giving this day off to workers to be with their families. But union membership has plummeted in recent decades and workers seemingly have it harder than ever in today’s gig economy.

Except in the public sector, pensions seem to be a thing of the past. A growing number of states have recently raised the minimum wage but the federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 — the rate set in 2009. Older workers continue to work beyond normal retirement age while younger workers try to create decent income from multiple part-time jobs with no benefits.

***

So where are we headed?

Judging by a handful of perspectives, I think things are only going to get worse for the American worker — in terms of pay, taxes, workplace expectations and the effects of disruptive technology.

— For all his campaign bluster about helping bring back blue-collar jobs, President Trump has shown no interest in raising the minimum wage and has appointed numerous anti-union officials to administration posts, says Steven Greenhouse, a former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times.

03greenhouse-master768

Illustration: Heads of State

— Trump’s tax-cut plan aims to steeply cut tax rates for businesses and wealthy individuals at the expense of working men and women, The New York Times said in an editorial. An analysis of Trump’s proposals by a nonpartisan tax policy center shows that the proposed tax cuts would raise after-tax income for the top 1 percent of taxpayers by more than 11 percent and by just 1.3 percent for taxpayers in the middle, the Times said.

— In Silicon Valley, rank-and-file workers — not just start-up founders — are buying into the “madness” of extreme workaholism as a lifestyle choice, according to an op-ed by Dan Lyons, an author and Fortune columnist on technology issues.

A century ago, factory workers were forming unions and going on strike to demand better conditions and a limit on hours. Today, Silicon Valley employees celebrate their own exploitation. “9 to 5 is for the weak” says a popular T-shirt.

— Lastly, an essay in Medium with the provocative headline “The Last Auto Mechanic” makes the case that within 15 years virtually all vehicular traffic in the U.S. will be by self-driving electric vehicles and examines what that means for industries and workers now dependent on the traditional internal combustible engine.

The short answer: millions of jobs lost.

If this Price is right — Tom Price, renewable energy entrepreneur, is the Medium author — we could see car dealers, gas station owners, auto parts suppliers become obsolete and other motorist-dependent sectors such as motels and restaurants hemorrhage jobs.

America’s transportation economy and landscape is about to be utterly transformed into a world beyond driving. Or drivers. Or even car mechanics. 

Kind of a scary future, isn’t it?

 

 

8 for the 8th

During the past month, I pushed everything to the side — gladly — to make room for Voices of August, the annual wordfest that features one guest blog post each day for 31 days.

With a new month already begun, I’m giving myself permission to look back at a few things of note. More precisely, eight things during the eighth month of the year. No surprise that they would touch on a few favorites: baseball, beer and the beach, live music, movies, education and exercise. In chronological order…

(Click on images to view captions.)

1. Liz Longley at DougFir Lounge.

Third time seeing this indie artist in Portland — and she gets better every time.

2. Escape to the Oregon Coast.

While Portland and the Willamette Valley endured triple-digit heat, Lori and I and Charlotte visited our friends Steve and Kelly Kern at their home in Manzanita.

3. School’s out. Taught two summer session classes, back-to-back, at Portland State.

4. Brewskis. Found my way to The Wayfinder, an awesome brewpub in inner Southeast Portland, with the help of a friend who works in the area.

george-david

Sampling one of more than a dozen beers on tap with David Quisenberry.

5. The Bodacious Bakers. More live music, featuring siblings we’ve known since their pre-K days.

clara-marshall baker

Clara Baker performs an original composition with brother Marshall during a show at the Alberta Street Pub on Aug. 10.

6. At the movies. Went to the Living Room Theater in downtown Portland to see “Detroit,” a film based on a police raid at a motel that occurred during the 1967 riots. Very well done and very hard to watch, given the white cops-on-black civilians violence that was fueled by blatant racism. Watch the trailer here.

7. At the ballpark. Caught a Thursday night ballgame between the Hillsboro Hops and the Boise Hawks. Well played game that included a late home run to seal a 7-1 win for the home team in this Northwest League contest.

8. Exercise! My morning routine pretty much fell apart at the beginning of the year, when I was scrambling to keep up with three college classes and a part-time job at a nonprofit. Things got so bad I logged fewer than 10 exercise days a month for five consecutive months. July brought 18. August 21!

 

george-knee

So then I ruined my momentum by falling off my bike on a neighborhood ride. Lesson learned? Never use your front brake only when riding with one hand.

Voices of August 2017: Your favorites?

vote

Another year, another month’s worth of essays from guest bloggers.

And this year’s submissions just may have made Voices of August 2017 the best one yet.

Thank you, friends and family from all over the United States, for contributing your time and energy, your thoughts and ideas to this annual project. As I look back at VOA 7.0, I am again impressed by the breadth of experiences and emotions you shared with me, with each other and with everyone else in the VOA community.

The joy of delving into each day’s post is not unlike celebrating Christmas in August, with a gift-wrapped package of words and images to start off every morning — or, depending on your routine, to finish the day.

Either way, it’s time to take the next step. Whether you were a writer or a reader, you’re invited to vote for your favorites. Just three. Your deadline: Saturday, Sept. 9.

Here are the rules:

  • Who can vote. As with previous years, anyone who has written a guest blog (this year or previously) or who is simply a regular reader of VOA can vote for three favorite pieces. You decide if you’ve read enough of this month’s contributions to cast a ballot.
  • Criteria. There are none other than your own. What grabbed your attention? What resonated with you? What made you laugh or cry? What challenged your assumptions? What made you see things differently?
  • How to vote. Take some time to review the month’s posts here at the VOA 7.0 index page and then send the titles of your three favorites to me at ghfunq@msn.com. (Please do NOT list your favorites on Facebook.)
  • Deadline: 11:59 p.m., Saturday.

As you revisit this year’s contributions, please take the opportunity to leave a comment on one or more posts. Be generous with your feedback, both on Facebook and especially on the posts themselves. Writers love feedback.

Let the voting begin!

Image:  FrontPageAfrica

VOA 7.0 index page

MT window

The written word can provide a window into the writer’s soul.

An archive of who wrote what during this month of guest blog posts for 2017 Voices of August:

Aug. 1: Rachel Lippolis | What you won’t remember

Aug. 2: David Quisenberry | The accidental manager

Aug. 3: Lynn St. Georges | Yes, this dog

Aug. 4: Eric Wilcox | Risky business: Getting involved

Aug. 5: Jennifer Brennock | Bad news

Aug. 6: Michael Granberry | My Watergate summer

Aug. 7: Lillian Mongeau | Waiting

Aug. 8: Al Rodriguez | Swimming with sharks

Aug. 9: Alana Cox | Not always right, but always sure

Aug. 10: John Knapp | The odometer

Aug. 11: Michelle Love | The Cross of Malta

Aug. 12: Midori Mori | What it means to have Pride

Aug. 13: Aki Mori | My beautiful child, Midori

Aug. 14: Tammy Ellingson | Baby, you can drive my car!

Aug. 15: Michael Arrieta-Walden | Making a better life for all of us

Aug. 16: Cynthia Carmina Gomez | Donde come uno, comen dos. Two can eat from the same dish

Aug. 17: Tim Akimoff |Three hours in Utqiaġvik

Aug. 18: Molly Holsapple | Life is not a science experiment

Aug. 19: Elizabeth Hovde | Luigi is mine

Aug. 20: Gil Rubio | Aspire to inspire

Aug. 21: Nike Bentley | Finding Abby

Aug. 22: Maisha Maurant | Olivia Newton-John and the test of a friendship

Aug. 23: Jacob Quinn Sanders |A writer writes. Always.

Aug. 24: Patricia Conover | Water music

Aug. 25: Sharon Tjaden-Glass | Being creative — while being a parent

Aug. 26: Lakshmi Jagannathan | Willow Tree Talk

Aug. 27:  Emily Zell | Organizing my way back into life

Aug. 28: Andrea Cano | When four corners are really five

Aug. 29: Brian McCay | All you need is

Aug. 30: Gosia Wozniacka|Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Aug. 31: Mary Pimentel | Monster

Photograph: George Rede 

 

Monster

MP mary summer

“I have ultimately taught myself that life truly begins when you let go of the past, and live in the moment.” — Mary Pimentel

By Mary Pimentel 

My mother inspected my sleeping father and 3-year-old me and decided that we weren’t enough. She vanished in the night in search of the ultimate high that would never satisfy her yet always keep her coming back for more. My mother became friends with this monster, drugs. Very quickly she then worshipped the monster and allowed for it to have command over her entire existence. The monster that dripped into her veins became the cloaked figure that would not only destroy her but inevitably everyone that ever cared for her. Five children she birthed into the world, and all five she damaged.

When I woke up the morning after she left, I didn’t know the massive part of me that longs for a mother’s touch was just forming, that it was only the beginning. I didn’t know that 12 years later I would cry myself to sleep as I read books about drug addictions, trying to understand how something that could be bought off of the streets was more important than me. Years from that moment I would understand my mother’s reason for departing and hate her for it no matter how close we would become. Her leaving me helped mold a sensitive yet strong personality. Mentally, I have lived and learned plenty on my own, more than I would have liked to.

For the rest of my life, my mother deserting me will constantly rest in the back of my mind day after day. It will always affect certain decisions I make and emotions I feel, but learning to appreciate the ones around me rather than longing for the ones that have gone has made all the difference. I have ultimately taught myself that life truly begins when you let go of the past, and live in the moment.

***

My mom and dad weren’t together for very long, and truthfully I don’t think I was meant to happen. Since her leaving, I have often attempted to put the pieces together. Why did she disappear? Was there another man? Where did she go to first? Wasn’t I enough?

Over the years my dad’s lips have been bolted shut over the idea of the monster that stole my mother away. I do not blame or condemn him for this, for I know the pain he endured after her vanishing. He was catapulted into depression and had his heart broken, left with a daughter whose features resemble the very woman he now hated. Everything I know is due to my own investigation through other family members or asking my mother herself. But who knows if what she has told me is true, for I know the monster is always lurking.

MP mary collage

Over the years, Mary’s mom has mailed packages containing letters, cards, photos, drawings and books, even some dealing with Hepatitis C and drug addiction.

All of my younger years lost from a mother’s love and affection took a toll before my pre-teen and early teenage years. She teased me with a half-truth about her addiction. So I tried to help my mom get better, and I thought that she was trying to help herself get better too. However, I learned that it isn’t my monster to fight, and he was smirking in the shadows every time I came to her aid.  The monster now laughs at how I once believed I was special enough to ruin his bond with my mother. The words I say are trash to the lines he whispers into her mind at night.

In my well-being and self-esteem, my soul, there has been a heavy hole dug. It is dreary, filled with lost hope and love. In there lie the few memories that I like to believe were spent with my genuine mother, no monster present. No part of me is willing to patch the hollow inside of me, nor will I act as if it does not exist. At 18 years of age I simply acknowledge and accept what has happened to me, and understand that it does not define me as a person. I am much more than a girl whose mother left her behind for a drug. And this discovery is only a chapter of my life so far.

***

The view from my upstairs bedroom window overlooking the roof and darkly painted night sky flows into mind. It is the view I encountered almost every night as I asked the moon the lingering and still unanswered question, “Will she ever come back?” In reality, I am now well aware that whether or not my mother decides to pop into my life is simply due to how heavily she allows the monster to influence her thoughts. It has nothing to do with how much I miss her.

As a child, she visited me sporadically. These are the memories in which I feel as though the monster wasn’t there. I watched her circle into the cul-de-sac on her cherry red motorcycle, and then together we rode letting the wind tickle our faces. We pulled leaves off of trees and colored the textures and shapes into scrapbooks. She is an artist. We also carefully walked along the edge of sidewalks with our arms spread out wide as we tried not to fall into the street, then called the hot lava.

Years later on a Mother’s Day, she startled me with a letter explaining that she wanted to kill herself. At the tender age of 13, I realized how deep in despair she had fallen, and for that moment we traded the roles of mother and daughter. That was the beginning of the wall that I started to build between us, and on that day I began to distance myself from her no matter how much it hurt.

(Click on images to view captions.)

A wall wasn’t started because of selfishness or fear, it was built because after so much effort of trying to help my mother get better, I realized that there wasn’t anything I could do or say that would work. In the end, I realized it was her willpower that needed to step up and confront the monster. I was continuously being lied to about her sobriety. I experienced mental breakdowns — hers and mine — that I wish I could forget. There were times where I was her favorite and times that I wasn’t. Our relationship never truly felt like mother and daughter, it felt more as if I was a friend that tried to help her become clean and someone she had fun with sometimes.

Our separation didn’t happen all at once, however, It was a slow and agonizing process. It was hard for me to let go. In November 2015, she was blocked from any type of communication with me. Occasionally she sent a letter in the mail; I was still too tender to respond. I had heard it all before. “I will get better. We will get better. I miss you. You are my favorite.” It was a cry for help that I had to ignore at the time. I had to heal and rebuild strength in order to let her back into my life. I had to fully accept who she was and the battles she had.

Now, we are strangers, yet connected by something that is unable to be seen. She is no longer blocked, but I see her once or twice a year. The difference in our relationship now compared to my pre-teen and early teenage years is night and day, but it is better this way. I’m not the only one to admit that she is reflected within my mannerisms and appearance, and it weakens me still. The furrow of my brow or the pouting of my lips is enough to make my father tell me “Don’t make that face, you look like your mother.” Right now my mother is miles away, hopefully growing, as I sit here, hopefully growing.

***

For a long time, my mother’s absence made me feel that a part of my life was missing. I couldn’t glance at a mother and daughter in a supermarket without my eyes watering. I couldn’t hear words of encouragement from any older woman in my life without imagining the words coming from my mother instead. A day did not go by where I wouldn’t hold a photo of us, or a letter from her, and weep myself asleep. Tracy Chapman’s “The Promise” and Hoobastank’s “The Reason” are songs she dedicated to me, and they are still to this day my ways of talking to her and connecting to her, even though they sadden me greatly.

For a long time, I couldn’t think of her without being thrown into heartache and tears. Talking to a therapist helped immensely. It was soothing to have someone let me explain my brokenness without being judged. She made me understand that my mother’s departure does not mean that I am not special, that I am not unworthy of love. It is a problem of hers and only hers. If it is too painful for me to speak to her while she is unsober, that is okay. And if it is too painful for me to speak to her while she is sober, that is also okay.

I owe my strength to handling this better to my therapist. I have learned that communication during grief is the key to recovery. I still think about my mother every day, and I always will. I will continue to experience things in life where I ask myself, “Would this be easier if I had a mom to talk to?” This sensation of loneliness has made me strong.

One day when I have children, I will aspire to be the mother I wish I could have had. I will never leave them questioning my return, and I will shower them with affection so that they will never struggle to remember what my presence feels like.

Today I am strong with an open and forgiving heart. Every day I live with my mother’s lips, freckles, passion for writing, thrill for running, creativity, impatience, and free spirit. I’m sure there are more traits handed down from her. I live my life with pride and appreciation knowing I share so many qualities with such a beautiful human being yet with sorrow knowing that something evil took away the chance of having a mom to braid my hair and wipe the tears from my first heartbreak. I love her immensely still, and no matter the negative, I am living.

***

MP mary grandparents

Mary with her grandparents, Raymond and Debbie, after the Miss Newman Pageant in September 2016,

My mother fell into the world of drug abuse before she became a teenager. At an age when a girl should be playing with dolls and playing tag at school, she lived a life of abandonment, sexual abuse, and then later drug abuse. The monster that shot into her system told her that the despairing childhood she lived didn’t exist. Soon she met my father and had me, but the monster continued to remind her of the freedom that eluded her. So she left.

Several times throughout my life I have tried to reconnect us. It was hard, but I now accept that my mother is a drug addict and will recover when she understands that she has power over the monster. All it takes is for her to stand tall and admit she needs help.

Mom left me as a toddler and teased her affection to me throughout my entire life. I hope one day – drug-free — she can watch me graduate from college and walk down the wedding aisle. I hate the aftermath of what her leaving has caused for me, but I am appreciative because it has made me treasure a parent’s love more than anything and realize its effect on a child. I can’t thank my father, stepmom, and grandparents enough for their support and the life they have provided for me.

All in all, drugs are destructive and evil. They steal the souls of human beings and replace them with heartless thoughts and manipulative actions. Drugs are the monster that have taken over my mother and resulted in me once feeling abandoned and worthless… Overcoming this monstrosity has been a curse and a blessing.

*** 

Mary Pimentel is 18 years old, living with her father and stepmother, often visiting her grandparents. She represents her small town in central California as the reigning Miss Newman — and was voted Miss Congeniality by her peers. This September she will begin college at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with an interest in Writing and Literature. She also aspires to move to New York one day to continue her writing and possibly attend graduate school there. It is a dream of hers to spoil her parents and grandparents as a show of gratitude, knowing she was raised with such a loving and supportive family.  

Editor’s note: Mary is the granddaughter of my second cousin, Debbie Pimentel, whose grandfather, Pedro, was a brother of my grandfather, Luciano. (Debbie’s mom, Julia, therefore was a first cousin to my late father, Catarino.) I’ve been hearing nothing but great things about Mary from her grandma. Working with her to edit this piece — an essay she initially wrote for a high school class — gave me plenty of reasons to understand why.