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. 


Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Clark-chime tower

The Clark College campus in Vancouver, Washington, features a chime tower — its bells hidden within an imposing red-brick fountain pen with a silver tip.

By Gosia Wozniacka

At the start of my Journalism 101 class, a student’s mother committed suicide. The news arrived via two brief emails — one from a counselor at the college where I was teaching, another from the student.

I was stunned, devastated, unsure how to respond. The act of self-destruction, a chasm, jettisoned into my novice classroom. How would this student get over losing a mother and study simultaneously? How should I help? Was I equipped to do this?

A greenhorn teacher, I had just three months of adjunct teaching experience under my belt. I had spent the past 15 years working as a full-time journalist, a staff reporter for The Oregonian and then The Associated Press. I had in the past taught high school students in classrooms and workshops, but teaching college called for a different level of expertise. I had wanted to try it for a long time, and when a part-time position opened up at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, I took it on.

Teaching college journalism, I thought, would consist of transmitting to students my real-life experience of a working journalist. I would inculcate in them the essentials of being a good listener and observer, asking open-ended questions, being skeptical, fact-checking and writing succinctly and with grace.

Yet I did not consider that these lessons would be just a scaffolding on which to thread a different kind of instruction; that the students would make me confront the tender flesh of being human and steer me to use my skills in ways I had not intended; that — though perhaps this is a truism, it’s one worth repeating — I would learn as much from them as they from me.

I liked to walk the college’s manicured, bird-filled campus. The cherry trees bloomed, weaving a carpet of pink under feet, and the chime tower — its bells hidden within an imposing red-brick fountain pen with a silver tip — punctuated the day.

I hurried with stacks of photocopies — “the art of interviewing”, “how to spot fake news”, etc. — to the basement classroom where I taught. As an adjunct, I didn’t have an office. I was paid only for the instructional hours, meaning that everything else I did was basically volunteering. And yet some of that unpaid time became most meaningful to me.

Clark-cherry blossoms

A familiar and favorite sight: blooming cherry trees on the Clark College campus.

After missing a single class for his mom’s funeral, my student returned. He was visibly distraught but determined to continue. We stayed after class and talked in the hallway. He didn’t look at my face but told me details about his mother’s death. I listened. I encouraged him, as I did in a previous email, to attend counseling, to seek out friends and family, to talk to me whenever he wanted.

We would work out a schedule for his late work. He could take time off as needed. I stumbled, wondering if I was saying the right things. I admired his tenacity, his desire —  bordering on desperation — to learn despite the circumstances. In the following weeks, he would sometimes stay after class and speak with me. At other times, he’d signal with his eyes, whisper an update (or not) and run for the door.

He wasn’t the only one who needed sympathetic ears. Several other students dealt with debilitating depression and other forms of mental illness.

One confessed he had recently changed medications and was struggling in his courses. He was easily distracted, he said, and his family life was in chaos — just like his writing, full of syntax and spelling errors. I often stayed after class to talk with him in the hallway. I shared contact information for the writing lab and the counseling center, and the link to a free online grammar spellchecker. I agreed to be his job reference. Though the news stories he wrote were tortuous to edit, he made a real effort and I appreciated it.

Another student had dropped out of high school and struggled with addiction, only to come back to college when he became a father. He said he had bigger dreams for his two-year-old daughter, whom he brought to class on several occasions when the babysitter fell through. She drew quietly while we discussed how to write a lead or structure a story. Her father, the student, asked a lot of questions. He planned to become a lawyer, and his work ethic, professional demeanor, and honesty were astounding.

I realized my students’ effort to connect, to show vulnerability, was the most important lesson I could learn and teach. Unscripted, raw conversations — moments no one paid me for, no one required of me, that had, on the surface, nothing to do with journalism – made this job relevant.

When a student confessed she had secured an important interview but was terrified to go through with it, we practiced. She was shy, a little socially awkward, she admitted, but I knew she had done impeccable research on her news story when she timidly slipped a list of detailed questions over my desk. Later, she told me she had nailed the interview.

On other days, daily life brought out the emotions. Another student who was a great writer once approached me before class. When I saw her ashen face, I led her into the hallway, where she immediately burst into tears. She explained her dog had just died and she needed to go home, but didn’t want to miss class. I gave her a hug, fetched her backpack, and told her that her absence would be excused.

I often shared with students something personal about myself: that despite being a successful reporter, I, too, was a rather shy and calm person. But this shyness didn’t prevent me from doing my work. It was, in fact, a weapon, a negative-turned-asset that helped with my reporting and writing.

I remembered what one student had written in her self-reflection, the first class assignment: “I am taking this journalism class to help me with my communication skills and social anxiety. I came from a poor home and neither of my parents went to college. I came to Clark to prove my worth and make a difference in my family…”

Only a handful of my students had said they wanted to become reporters — they aspired to be pilots, musicians, fiction writers, librarians, nurses, lawyers, business owners and teachers — but they all saw a benefit in learning about journalism. Some struggled financially, working full time to pay for college tuition and missing out on a social life.

Some were high school students — Clark College has a special program for those who want to get an early start on post-secondary education. Others hailed from very small towns — Vancouver, Washington represented a big city move for them. They were the first in their family to attend college, or one of ten or seven siblings. A few came to the U.S. from another country or had immigrant parents.

Though both of my parents were well educated (they were the first generation to attend college in their families), we were immigrants to this country. I had learned English as a teenager and knew about not fitting in. So while I felt happy when my outspoken students engaged in smart rhetoric, it was a million bucks day when a more reserved student volunteered an answer or when a working student or student with significant life problems continued showing up.

I asked them — no matter their challenges — to go a little beyond their comfort zones. But also to use their own personalities, interests and even challenges in the act of journalism.

I tried to treat them as reporters capable of doing real, impactful work. And though giving them feedback on multiple story drafts was extremely time-consuming, as was the copy editing, seeing their stories edited and published was rewarding.

Except sometimes it wasn’t.

When I failed my first student, I wrote him an email, profusely apologizing and explaining I was left with no other choice. He was one of my best writers but did not turn in the final project, a feature story.

To my dismay, there would be others. Some stopped showing up mid-way through the term. Others never finished reporting or writing their news stories. A few attended every single class but didn’t do any work. They didn’t respond to emails. I spent days wondering why they didn’t show up or submit an assignment — or why they had shown up but submitted nothing. Those whom I failed didn’t lack talent — they just stopped communicating about whatever it was that stopped them from completing their class work.

These disappearing acts were hard to accept. But a former professor and journalist helped me see them differently. It’s OK to fail, he told me; we all must learn how to do it. Sometimes, he explained, students needed to screw up. They needed to just sit through the class, even if they didn’t pass it. Some would take the class again and do well, others wouldn’t. Or they’d realize they needed extra help or a different approach to college.

Gosia Wozniacka

Gosia Wozniacka

Teaching, then, wasn’t so much about transferring knowledge as about helping students see their own selves and figure out how they functioned. It was about nudging them to become comfortable in a complicated world, even if that world wouldn’t include journalism.

On my last day of classes, I meandered into the campus green. Groups of students milled around the red-brick chime tower — I now knew some of them. I felt a sadness about the finish line, despite being utterly exhausted. As a part-time adjunct professor with two classes to teach, I had worked longer hours than I had for most of my journalism career.

I often stayed up past midnight preparing lesson plans and grading student stories. Yet, despite the negligible pay, the lack of health insurance and unemployment benefits, the experience was worth it. I’m thankful to my students for being open with me and for sharing their vulnerabilities. It was the most important lesson they could teach me about being a teacher.

Photographs: Gosia Wozniacka


Gosia Wozniacka is a freelance journalist and photographer. She was previously a staff reporter for The Associated Press and The Oregonian. Gosia was born in Poland and often travels to her native country. She taught journalism and digital reporting at Clark College from January to June 2017.


Twitter: @GosiaWozniacka

Editor’s note: I’ve known Gosia for about 10 years, dating back to when she was a student at UC Berkeley’s graduate journalism school. This piece tells you all you need to know about the personal qualities and reporting and writing skills that prompted me to recruit Gosia to The Oregonian. In the past year, we’ve met from time to time to share our teaching experiences and strategies. Who would have guessed we’d wind up teaching a few miles apart in the same city? She at Clark College and me at WSU Vancouver.

Tomorrow: Mary Pimentel, Monster

All you need is

Love word cloud illustrationBy Brian McCay

I need to be up front with you. I’m going to talk about Love. So please be prepared, forewarned, open to it, skeptical or just stop reading now. It isn’t about Love in the traditional sense. As a scientist, I consider this article of a spiritual nature, since I cannot prove any of it. It would be like proving there is gravity or proving you Love someone. Good luck. Feel free to walk away believing I am full of beans. It’s all good. We are in this thing called life on Earth together no matter our beliefs.

We all know the state of the planet these days. Best I can sum it up is there is no normal. That ship has sailed. Never before seen behaviors from all corners of the globe causes a real sense of uncertainty for many of us. Polarizing perspectives are now the norm. News is a lot of things, but objective and fair is a foreign concept for many.  Intolerance, anger and even hatred are no longer in the closet. Where are we heading?  What awaits each of us awaits all of us.  How do we react to all this? Where do we turn for comfort?

Religious leaders continue to offer faith and comfort. “Resist” is a popular movement to display one’s displeasure with our current political direction. Others welcome this political direction as returning to the normal of many years ago. No matter your perspective, those of like mind sick together, further widening the schisms among us.

Many join causes that they are passionate about to ensure they can hold on to something that makes sense to them. Others give generously to organizations they feel need protecting from the onslaught of indifference. And then there are the plethora of individuals and organizations that continue to care for our home, Mother Earth. Each in our own way continues to search for comfort at some visceral level that will help us cope with our personal loss of “normal.”

Enter Love, the universal expression that, in my experience, defines who we really are what we are truly made of and ultimately, is all there is.

The secret is that this great source of Love cannot be found searching outwardly. It lies within each of us. This may seem trite, but it is so. To what extent do any of us reach inside of ourselves and find that omnipresent power of Love to give us comfort? Probably not much, if ever, since we’re not encouraged to do so.

love silhouette

Love defines who we really are and what we are truly made of. (Photo credit: The Odyssey Online)

At this moment, wouldn’t compassion be a beautiful expression of Love to show to any and all other human beings, especially those of a different mindset? “What! How do you expect me to Love these clowns who believe what they believe. They make my reality a nightmare!? I’d rather erase them all and return sanity to my existence.” I get it, but as a TV personality used to say “How’s that working out for you?” The intent here is not to judge or preach, but to be compassionate with the challenges we all face these days. This is all to say that perhaps our starting point for expressing Love is the challenge. We simply have not been made aware of how to tap into this omnipresent universal power.

Expressing Love to those we truly Love is difficult enough for many of us. Expressing Love for those who have diametrically opposed values seems like a bridge too far. Perhaps there is a starting point for expressing Love for a human being that once experienced, would allow our expression of Love for all others as well.

Where is this starting point? Got a mirror handy? It is the Love we have for ourselves. Wait, wait, wait! Before you roll your eyes and hit delete, hear me out.


brian mccay

Brian McCay

What follows are a couple of “exercises” suggested by others that really have made all difference for me and those close to me. It is my honor to share them with you. I hope they bring you some inner peace as we spin round and round on this beautiful planet.

There is a simple private way to validate the thesis that we must start by Loving ourselves. In private, stand in front of a mirror, look deeply into your eyes and say out loud “I Love You!” I suggest you do it every day and pay attention to what is going on inside of you.

Awakening the power of Love within you is no small feat. However, there is no greater reward. You have to trust yourself on this one. Give it a shot and see what happens. Over time you will find your experience of the world changing for the better. That sounds like a sweet outcome, does it not? What do you have to lose?

Speaking from personal experience, I had lots of tears and deep-rooted emotions rising up resulting in interesting physical manifestations. This was followed by a sense of relief and elation in the realization that I had experienced the stuff each of us is truly made of: Love in all of its magnificent manifestations. Practice it every day until you know you really don’t need to. Know that you are magnificent and perfect in every way. Love yourself.

Here is another Love-focused practice you can use throughout the day. This exercise is aimed at helping you see the magnificence in everyone. In turn, it brings you unbelievable peace.

Think of something that makes you smile. A joke, a story or a photo and when you get that smile on your face, move your attention away from that beautiful mind of yours down to your Loving heart. Now envision perceiving all around you from your heart center, keeping that smile on your face.

How does that feel? And no, you cannot hold this perspective, but you can practice going there anytime you like. Putting an image of what makes you smile on your smartphone and looking at it often (you can even set an alarm) is a great way to remind yourself to get heart centered. I hope you find this a fun and eye-opening exercise.

Loving one’s self first is paramount. You cannot skip this potentially most difficult first step.  Moving on to practicing heart centering will seem pretty easy compared to loving yourself, trust me. A sense of centering and calm will envelop you. Without you saying or doing anything, others will be influenced by your very presence. The Love emanating from within each of us is infectious. Start with yourself.

Be kind to yourself. Know you are Love manifest. Change the consciousness of the world by starting with you and then infecting others without even trying. Enjoy it All. John Lennon had it right.


Brian McCay, Ph D. lives in Bedford, Massachusetts, with his wife Gayle. They have two daughters and two granddaughters. Brian’s hobbies include wine, food, and writing. Spirituality is his passion.

Editor’s note: Back in the day when Brian and I both had a lot more hair, we had the good fortune to meet, date and eventually marry women who were college roommates. All four of us were attending San Jose State University in the mid-’70s. He married Gayle. I married Lori. Forty-plus years later, all of us are still together.


Gayle and Brian, visiting Oregon in 1977.

Tomorrow: Gosia Wozniacka, Notes from a greenhorn teacher

When four corners are really five

Woodburn book cover

Portland’s Woodlawn neighborhood has transformed from a small autonomous city at the end of the streetcar line to a large, firmly middle-class district of mostly midsized post–World War II homes and a few notable Victorian gingerbread-trimmed houses— former farmhouses that once sat on muddy streets. — Anjala Ehelebe

By Andrea Cano

It’s been about 15 years ago since I stumbled upon this neighborhood with my friend, Susan, who was guiding me with her real estate acumen to my first home ever.  I ended up buying a four-bedroom, two-bath on Winona Street, catty corner from Woodlawn Park.

[OK, I had to stop here and look up the origins of catty or kitty corner.  According to the on-line Grammarist – Middle English catre-corner, literally meaning four-cornered … meaning positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection. Sounds French to me. I’ll come back to this later in this story.]

My neighbor, Ms. Ruby, who survived the Vanport flood, lived in the big multilevel yellow house on the corner.  She greeted me my first week with a plate of freshly baked cookies. I would meet her just a few months before her husband passed away, leaving her the widowed matriarch of a large African-American family. Over the years, she would show me pictures of her now grown children and grandchildren, the trips to Hawaii, graduations, and marriages.  She would tell me about the neighborhood ‘comings and goings’, and would let me know when my tuxedo cat, Sebastian Banderas, had spent a long afternoon lingering on her porch.

[Oh, Sebastian, whom I was lucky to have as a kitty in 2001 and lost in 2009. We were so close that my landline message said:  Ha llamado a la casa de Andrea Cano y Sebastian Banderas… Mercy, folks not in the know would ask if he was related to Antonio. After a while, Sebastian even started to get junk mail in his name.]

I met other neighbors at the meetings of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association (WNA), one of the city’s 90-plus such groupings coordinated by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement at City Hall.  Some were the longest-living residents, others were families with new babies, or single young adults still in college. But we were all guided with a similar mission for Woodlawn Neighborhood — a community where we lived peacefully and securely, our local businesses flourished, and a lovely park was maintained to enjoy year-round.

WNA had committees and work groups that reported at each meeting – from the Foot Patrols to the Land Use proposals. Even the local Portland Police precinct sent a representative to offer crime and safety updates.  We were intent on developing Woodlawn, accessed by two major bus lines (8 and 75) and the main street of Dekum — not as a “destination” such as the Pearl or Alberta Street, but a truly livable place.  We didn’t want high rises or multifamily dwellings. We just needed a good, local coffee shop, maybe a small grocery store, and a restaurant or two.

I would imagine that people new to the neighborhood would get a little confused once they drove off Dekum, especially going south. The crisscrossing of angled streets. Streets that led to dead ends. The two-story house on a little triangle patch of land on Bellevue near 13th.  But that’s part of the charm of a neighborhood that began as its own city sometime ago.

As I mentioned earlier, the catre-corner on 9th and Winona where I lived not only offered a view of the park, but also the occasional near misses, or near accidents, of automobiles and pedestrians on the multiple intersections within yards of each other.

The speeding cars. The no-stopping cars. The screeching brakes. The frequent gathering of neighbors to see what had happened or nearly happened. Ms. Ruby and I were concerned.  It was enough to prompt a call to the city’s transportation and safety department. That must have been around 2004 or 2005.

While I had not documented each incident, I explained to the city staffer the risks and dangers to moms with their babies in strollers, the couples walking their dogs, the senior adults stepping off curbs to gingerly cross the streets.  I encouraged the staffer not to take my word, but to come out and test and evaluate the catre-corner. She said they would.

We’re not sure how the assessment was done, outside of the cables laid on the streets, but within a month or so, there were four stops signs in place!  Ms. Ruby and I were delighted how quickly “City Hall” responded.

Woodlawn stop signs

Woodlawn’s quirky angled streets remind residents of a time when the streetcar depot was a major feature of the city. — Anjala Ehelebe

Ms. Ruby is gone now. Her daughter, Denise, and husband, Fred, now host the family gatherings with lots of youth and children filling the front yard as aunties and uncles enjoy the shaded porch of that big yellow house. The stop signs are still there; however; Fred says he still hears a few brakes screeching and see lots of people rolling through the stops signs.  Hmmm, maybe some intersection cameras now?

My son, Michael, and his wife, Chida, now live in my Winona house and I am a few blocks away. We remain hopeful that the Woodlawn neighborhood will continue to be a peaceful and secure place to live –  where we can continue to stop in for a slice at Good Neighbor Pizza, coffee and a scone at the Woodlawn bakery, Mexican food at Tamale Boy, a delicious dessert at Bassotto Gelato, a carton of milk at the P&Q Market, garden starters and chicks at the Dekum garden shop, meditate on the full moon at the Zen Buddhist Temple, and support non-profit organizations at the Public House.

As importantly, to be able to leave our cars behind and safely walk the tree-shaded streets with family, friends and pets, greet our new neighbors, and enjoy the wonderful, evolving community of which we are a part.



Andrea Cano

At a time when most people are retiring, Andrea Cano continues to serve the community as a clinical chaplain for Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital,  manager or facilitator for special projects under the auspices of Oregon Solutions, Oregon Humanities, and LACE (Latina Associates for Collaborative Endeavors) while “creatively embracing my crone y doña status, and greying in place.”

Editor’s note: Andrea is yet another multi-talented person I’ve met through my work. A former journalist herself, Andrea headed the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs for several years; has a long track record of community service; and a passion for growing and cooking food.  Read her 2011 post: “What spreads, spreads…”

Tomorrow: Brian McCay, All you need is

Organizing my way back into life

emily birthday

Emily Zell celebrating her 67th birthday on July 1, 2016.

By Emily Zell

Cancer, cancer, cancer. It’s been living with me for the past year. It returned after 8 years of clean scans. Having been given a 1% chance for recurrence, I was shocked.

Surrounded by five close friends, I waited for the call giving me the result of the biopsy. I was frightened and then easily handed over the worry to my friends who absorbed the shock for me. My daughter, Lexi, her dad, Don, and Lexi’s partner, Sean, arrived soon after. Don brought cookies, Sean a doorbell to be installed and Lexi carried flowers and some silly things to cheer me up.

The reality didn’t sink in for a few days as I vacillated from being numb to being super cheerful. The days stretched out full of more tests and doctor appointments. My friends and family took turns accompanying me.

After the scans and chemo treatments were scheduled, I scheduled some other things. I looked around my house, especially my office and its closets and my desk drawer. All I imagined was my sister, ZiZi, sorting through everything to find passwords, contact information of friends and important papers. Even if I was only incapacitated and not already gone, I couldn’t bear the thought of her frustration, trying to figure out my filing system or my touchy garage door when it went up and down and wouldn’t stay at one elevation!

First thing on my list was re-organizing for my eventual demise, with a little room for doing something that brought pleasure to me: tackling my art studio. It was covered with unfinished and finished projects. I hadn’t minded because all the color made me smile when I passed it on the way to the laundry room. But I discovered that beginning to order the studio gave me room to work again without having to put things on the floor.

emily studio

Job #1: Bringing order to my art studio.

Next, I met with my attorney to be sure my will was in good shape. I already did that on an annual basis, so there wasn’t much to update. Then I typed out the pages of passwords and account numbers and ids for water, cable, garbage, Netflix, my Medicare and Kaiser accounts–and all the other accounts and passwords that have seemed to accumulate since the internet has become an insistent part of our lives.

As I worked, I added more and more categories of what needed to be organized. I cleaned and thinned out both office closets and the desk drawer. I ran stacks of an unnecessary accumulation of paper through the shredder after cleaning out my filing cabinet. I filled up the recycling bin many times and started to put in the garage things to give. Then there was a list of repairs, such as a water damaged spot in the living room wall and a window that needed to be replaced. I couldn’t deal with the idea of not having the house in order.

As I engaged in all this organizing, I thought less about my cancer.  The organizing took me away from cancer and into my life.

Several weeks before the re-diagnosis, I had ordered an additional 4 place settings of my stainless flatware, which arrived just in time for my diagnosis. This prompted me to start thinking about who would take all this perfectly usable stuff in my house after I was gone.

My grandmother, Lucile McKay Kelly, 1887 – 1988, left a three-inch binder with every silver serving piece, china and sterling flatware set, painting, garden sculpture, and piece of furniture, along with to whom it would be given. There were also notations indicating a back-up recipient, in the case that the first recipient did not want the item or was no longer around. Guess I received my organizational skills from my grandmother!

For the last twenty years, I have been the keeper of my grandmother’s binder, and I began to study its organization in order to prepare my own binder. I was always impressed how Gramma gave a brief history of many items telling when and where she acquired them. I didn’t want all my history to be lost either.

It took about four months to move through my house, getting everything in order:

  • Neighbor’s keys and who they belong to – photos of such keys
  • Photo and operation of garage door and the sponge that keeps the electric eye from coming out of alignment
  • A written description of quirks about the house
  • A description of every item of furniture or piece of jewelry and how I ended up being its custodian
  • Passwords
  • List of friends and family with email addresses and phone numbers, in groups of “in town,” “out of town,”  ”neighbors,” “close friends in town,” “close friends out of town,”“repair people I have used,” “house cleaner, etc
  • Envelope for my sister, ZiZi, with all things business related
  • Once I’d finished all of this, I was feeling pretty set. Then I opened the drawer in my dining room chest and realized that I needed to get some organization into that as well. The seven drawers’ ingredients included camera equipment, junk, too many tablecloths and placemats that I rarely used. (My orange placemats are my favorite and I am always drawn to them.)

I called friends Toni and Ramsey’s oldest daughter, Erika, who according to her mom, is a whiz at cleaning out and organizing.

Together, we began to bring order to my dining room chest — including painting it — then to my bookshelves and the many stacks of books around the house. It took hours to reorganize the books I could not part with. Next: my sewing room. Erika opened up the armoire where the yarn and fabric stash lived. For those of you who do not know what a stash of yarn and fabric may entail, it can be massive. I didn’t consider mine to be in that category; nonetheless, there was hardly any free space on the three shelves.

emily yarn

The yarn I am saving.

Erika helped me sort through all the yarn and fabric. The armoire is now clean and I can see everything easily. Erika and I also sorted all the fabric, which left me with two stacks I will use for a “Day of the Dead” quilt I will sew. It has been in the works for seven years.

(Click on images to view captions.)

We also organized and sorted give-a-way piles of clothes and other items, which had lined the walls of the sewing room. Once we were finished, I could walk easily–and even roll out my yoga mat, there was now so much space. The room was empty.

Or maybe it just felt that way.

The next morning, I came downstairs to survey my cleaned sewing room. On the sewing table, rather than piles of fabric and mending, only the machine was visible. There was plenty of room to sew now. I opened the cupboard and viewed the few stacks of projects I had chosen to finish. Then I went back upstairs.

I felt empty. Somehow the rooms full of stuff had been comforting. I sat down at my clean desk and paid bills and wrote several letters. Then I wandered back downstairs. I pulled out one of the mending projects to finish. In 20 minutes, I had altered the waistband on a pair of pants, adding fresh elastic. It felt pretty great getting that out of the way.

The thread was at my fingertips and the instruction book for the rethreading of the machine was within arm’s reach. I no longer had to dig through the armoir for what I needed.

Feeling encouraged, I pulled out the largest project, which was a quilt I began in 2008. It was almost complete; I just had to bind it. The quilt was for a double bed, but I had never had enough room to lay it out so that I could pin it. Now I did. With confidence, I spread the quilt onto the tile floor and worked my way around it with my pin cushion. Less than an hour later, I had changed the thread color in the machine and was ready to proceed. The quilt was bound before lunch.

emily quilt finished

The finished quilt.

Later, while enjoying avocado toast, I realized that I had made room in my life for all my creativity.  I was surprised that I was no longer organizing for my demise, but so that I could live.

Update: My prognosis is pretty good. I am off chemo and on a pill-a-day regime. In the meantime. I am living!


emily chair

Emily Zell in her “comfy chemo chair.”

Emily Zell was born and raised in Portland. She graduated, in Education, from Portland State University, in 1971. She migrated to the Bay Area in 1977, raised two daughters and taught elementary school. Among other things, she works in her art studio, is a history docent for the Oakland Museum of California and writes a blog called Zellously, all about living!

Editor’s note: Emily is the older sister of my wife’s longtime friend, Alexandra, aka Zizi. Lori’s connections have led to my own, such as teaming up with ZiZi’s partner, Brian, on a coed bowling team. It was at a milestone birthday party for Brian that I met Emily and took an instant liking to her. Last year, she made her debut on Rough and Rede II as a guest blogger

Tomorrow: Andrea Cano, When four corners are really five


Willow Tree Talk

Willow water

“I visit the willow tree because she listens. Silence. Breath. Leaves.”

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

Sunlight filters through the branches casting shadows on the water.  A gentle breeze ripples the reflection.  Long thin branches, bend low — heavy with bright green leaves. The ground is dry and rocky, the leaves wilting in the heat.

Suddenly, the skies part and rain comes in sheets blanketing brown hills as if Gods and Goddesses from Oregon have traveled South. The Guadalupe River almost floods its banks. The tree becomes a stranger – unreachable. I have mixed feelings about nature’s bounty.  Is this the ending of a relationship?

Willow sapling

The waters eventually recede and wildflowers cascade extravagantly down the slopes. I find a broken branch lying on the ground. I take it home and plunge it in water. Willow will root so easily that you can even use water steeped in it to root rose cuttings. Nothing mystical about that – just the effect of plant hormones.

Speak less, listen more.

I visit the willow tree because she listens. Silence. Breath. Leaves. The flutter of a duck’s wings as it lands on the water.

The world is a mirror.

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted (In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling). “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain!”


Some people say the reality you see outside is a projection of your thoughts. You attract who you are.  Hard as it might be, we must take ownership for what is. We rant and rave at misogyny and bigotry while we actively participate it in it. As we have seen from many recent news stories, it’s obvious that the objectification of women is alive and well in the workplace.

And Racism was creeping and crawling under the rock all the time. When I first came to live in Oregon people like me were often asked this question: “When are you going back?”  I thought I was putting down roots, but apparently, I was quite foreign. Looking back now, I realize what the term micro-aggression means. “Do you live here or work here?” – a playgroup Mom visiting my home.

Examine your prejudices. I had to confront mine. (Why weren’t Islamic leaders more vocal about condemning terrorist attacks?) Until a cashier at a grocery store confronted me after a terrorist attack.  I got the feeling that she felt “my people” were responsible. A couple of months ago I participated in a rally to support Muslims.


Is it possible that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is actually holding a mirror to the Voldemort in all of us?

You are not your story.

They say grief has different stages.  Whatever this dark beast was also had stages for me – Disbelief, Acceptance, Sadness, Outrage, Anger, Personalization.  Yes, suddenly it was all about me.

It’s easier to rail against a common enemy then battle with your inner demons. But actually, our own stories hurt us the most. They change all the time – good, bad, ugly, wondrous. Love, Betrayal, Fame and Misfortune. Characters come and go. Some are there only in the first Act, some last to the end. All the world’s a stage, and we must play our part.

Write a new script.

We don’t have to be victims, though.

Below the surface of our rocky mind is a stillness. And there we can write our new stories and allow them to unfold in their own time. A life force can emerge out of a dead, abandoned stick.

Meanwhile, walk on a sandy beach, teach a class, bake a vegan, paleo chocolate cake.


There is a flutter of wings and suddenly I see it – an egret so big! I whip out my cell-phone, just a little terrified. It stares, almost as if it wants to advance towards me. In a second, it changes its mind and it’s gone – small now – up in the sky, white against a cornflower blue.

Btw, before you go, stop sharing every @#$&ing thing on social media.

Wow. I didn’t know a willow could cuss like a sailor.

And listen, hey, don’t walk away from me!! Get your $#@ together.

When are you ever going to write that book. What about your online energy healing community idea?

I know, I know, stop nagging me. It’s just that my life is so complex!! Time is like a thick sweet syrup, trickling sluggishly into a drain. I have insomnia I wake up tired and then drink a lot of coffee and then I can’t sleep at night. And then.

Excuses, Excuses. Never mind. It’s Ok.  Life is not an Amazing Race. Nothing to prove to anyone. Just be.

Photographs: Lakshmi Jagannathan


lakshmi jagannathan

Lakshmi Jagannathan

Trees seem to be a theme in my life, says Lakshmi Jagannathan.

“As a grad student many years ago at the University of Massachusetts I developed techniques to propagate a tree in vitro – Paulownia tomentosa, the Empress Tree. Revered in Japan, bridal chests were made from its wood. Later, long before social media, I attempted the creation of a portal for authors and their readers called Gulmohar (aka Flame Tree – a tropical tree with bright red flowers).

Now it’s a Willow Tree that inspires me to create a community to nurture emotional and mental wellness. If you are interested in knowing more or offering your expertise, contact me.

Join this Facebook page:

Visit my blog: Living La Vida Pura


Editor’s note:  I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writer program. Her love of the natural world is evident in this piece, as is her sense of humility and her striving for a more equitable world.

Tomorrow: Emily Zell, Organizing my way back into life

Being creative — while being a parent 

Sharon and kids

Sharon Tjaden-Glass with son Henry and daughter Felicity.

By Sharon Tjaden-Glass 

A few months ago, shortly after our son was born, I had an idea.

Kind of.

Actually, it was more like an evaluation of a previous idea that my husband and I had put on the back burner years ago.

For the first seven years of our marriage, we often had friends, co-workers, and fellow church members over to our house for dinners. My husband would cook and I would clean up afterward. At many of these meals, our guests would turn to my husband and say, “You should teach people how to cook.”

And once YouTube became popular, we started hearing, “You should start your own YouTube channel.”

Ha, ha, we usually responded. We’ve got enough to do.

And we did.

We earned our Master’s degrees. I wrote a (still unpublished) novel. We dove into our careers and engaged in research and presented at conferences. We got promotions (okay, that was just him—there are no promotions when you’re an educator.)

There were also vacations (Turkey, Finland, Maui) and cabin trips with friends (twice per year—because we could). And every Saturday morning, there was Saturday Morning Breakfast with about eight to ten friends—always hosted at our house (because we loved hosting).

And then we had a baby.

And Life Changed.


This is the point where I tell you that I haven’t been able to do anything for myself since our first child was born in 2013.

And definitely not now since I had a baby six months ago.

This was one of my worst fears about having children: that I would have to stop being creative because I would no longer have the time.

But the truth is that since my daughter was born in August 2013, I wrote and published a book and started a blog. I even made this video (A love letter to Felicity), a video montage of my daughter’s first year.

And although my son was born six months ago, I’m getting ready to publish a short collection of essays related to his birth and the early postpartum period. I’ve also been working on some academic collaborations (University of Dayton, ecommons) and publishing those materials.


Being creative while being a parent — and working full-time — seems a bit insane. I mean, honestly, we have enough to do.

But it’s not unheard of.

In fact, I think it’s more common than we like to acknowledge.

Perhaps creative parents are a bit self-conscious about our peers mistaking the time that we spend on creative projects as evidence that—by some magical turn of events—we have loads more free time than they do. For some reason, nothing feels worse than telling a fellow parent about your creative work and hearing their bubble-busting reply of, “Wow, I wish I had the time to do something like that. Must be nice.”

But I’ve seen the creative hunger alive in many new parents. In the last five years, many of my peers have had one, two, or sometimes three children. They’ve also started blogs, set up Etsy shops, and jumped into direct sales for any number of ventures (Lipsense, Scentsy, Lularoe, something called a “virtual makeup soiree?”). I’ve also known colleagues who have decided, yes, now is a good time to tackle that Master’s or Ph.D.

Busy life, be damned. They jump in.

Perhaps it’s the feeling that you have a message to share, a strong need to be heard in a time of relative isolation. Perhaps it’s the realization that staying at home with kids can turn your brain into oatmeal. Or perhaps, it’s the newly discovered strength that, hey, if we just went through that, what can’t we do?

Whatever it is, I’ve seen creativity in parents of young kids, time and time again.


However, this is the point when I acknowledge the truth of that bubble-busting parent’s reply of, “Wow, I wish I had the time to do something like that. Must be nice.”

I hate to admit it, but she has a point.

In order for parents to be creative, they have to have the time to do it. They need uninterrupted, child-free time to drop into the creative flow. And this is what I think keeps most new parents from engaging in creative endeavors: time away from their kids when they’re not working.

Those two taboo words for new parents: free time.

Childcare is expensive—sooo expensive. And if your creative endeavor doesn’t earn money, it’s extremely hard to rationalize spending money on daycare to pursue creativity—in the hopes that it will eventually reimburse you. Because most of the time, you will not make your money back. That’s the truth. Many of our creative endeavors are done simply for the joy of creating. And spending money on something simply for our own satisfaction or joy is often seen as a waste of money—or worse, a real sign that you are a negligent parent.

I mean, jeez. You’re a parent now. Take some responsibility and set aside that money for college, why don’t you? God. Don’t be frivolous. You’re an adult now. Grow up.

Those are the voices that we hear.

The message is clear: You should no longer care about yourself. You should only care about your child now.

But if you’re a creative person who is also the parent of a young child, I will share with you a truth about me: having some time to myself to be creative allows me to be a better mother. Even if it means paying for two kids to be in daycare. Even if it means that I don’t make the money back right away. (Or ever.)

Because I know that if I don’t have the time to let the creativity out, the creative musings in my mind don’t get quieter. They just become more and more persistent.

I wonder if I could write about X from that angle…


I could be doing X or Y right now.

They creep into all the moments when I want to be present with my kids.

And soon, I’m not really present with them anymore.


In a few weeks, we hope to release about three to four episodes on our YouTube cooking channel, Our Final Freezer. (View the trailer below.)

The topic of the first episode is How to Make Steel-Cut Oats, a breakfast favorite in our house for years and years. They’re cheap, easy to make, healthy, and very filling. Something with broad appeal.

Taking time to strike out into this creative endeavor has felt sooo good.

There is something deeply satisfying about the creative flow. If you’ve ever created something, anything, you’ve experienced this feeling of getting lost in your mind, losing track of time, this seamless thread of problem-solving, invention, and experimentation. Trying things out. Reviewing your work. I’m doing it right now as I create this. And to see a finished product at the end, something that wasn’t there before, but now exists.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so many parents are also creative.

Perhaps, then, we are not so crazy to be doing this.

Perhaps then we’re just doing what feels natural right now.

Maybe that’s why this feels like the right thing to do right now.


Sharon Tjaden-Glass is part-artist and part-academic. She is the author of Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity, and the forthcoming collection of essays, Why Your Middle Name is Jacob: A Story of Natural Childbirth, both available on Amazon. She loves any creative expression that allows her to use her storytelling abilities (blogs, videos, podcasts). She also teaches English as a second language at the University of Dayton.






Editor’s note: Just before I became a grandparent last year, I was looking for a gift for daughter-in-law Jamie when I stumbled upon a wonderful book and blog titled “Becoming Mother.” I bought the book and sent off a complimentary email to its author, Sharon. We became Facebook friends and since then Sharon has written two guest blogs for me, one about life in a swing state and another about the horror of discovering her baby’s due date was on Trump’s Inauguration Day. I have yet to meet her in person, but I’m delighted to introduce this overachiever to the VOA community. 

Tomorrow: Lakshmi Jagannathan, Willow Tree Talk

Water music

P and C

Patricia, right, and one of her daughters on a windy beach in Trouville, Normandy, France.

By Patricia Conover

“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea…we are going back from whence we came.”
— John Fitzgerald Kennedy

In one of my earliest memories, I am standing at the edge of the ocean. My feet are burning on hot summer sand as I watch my mother swim. Effortless, elegant silky strokes through blue-green water.

So much majesty.

So much fear.

On a visceral level I understand that the ocean is beautiful, strange and powerful. I am drawn to the sea and I am afraid.

My mother calls to me and I wade in. She teaches me how to float. She shows me how to move in the water. She reminds me to breathe.

(Oh, how lucky I am to have a mother who loved the sea.)

Another memory: Swimming in the ocean for hours. My mother has packed a picnic basket with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a thermos of orange juice. She calls to us. My brothers and sister and I climb out, shivering, lips purple and hands and feet wrinkled. We wrap ourselves in beach towels and devour lunch.

We know that we will die if we dive in before a half hour is up. We walk to the bay to look for crabs. We fill our pails with shells and sea glass and pieces of sea creatures. We chase butterflies but can never catch them. Now it is time to swim again. We dive in and we do not emerge again until the sun dips below the horizon.

All through college I swim in an enormous lap pool beneath timber beams. Later, in New York City, I wake up at 5:00 a.m. to swim at the Y around the corner from my apartment before work. When I move to Oregon with my growing family we have a neighborhood pool and the vast Pacific Ocean. Our next move — to France — offers the grey Atlantic Ocean and the azure Mediterranean Sea.


To swim is to be human. Paintings over 10,000 years old in a cave in Egypt depict swimmers who appear to do the breaststroke. Swimming is mentioned in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

To swim is to meditate. The rhythm of the body moving through water is calm and peaceful. Swimming is mindfulness. Anxiety melts away.

To swim is to produce endorphins, improve oxygen flow, and strengthen muscles. Swimming for only one half hour a day improves heart health.


The sea has its own peculiar magic. It calls to us — a seduction like the mermaid’s siren call. It is beautiful, mesmerizing and deadly.

Once I was caught in a riptide in the ocean off the tip of Long Island. A college friend and I had jumped in to help a stranger who was in distress. Once we were in deep water and near the drowning man, our eyes met. Panic. We both realized that we were out of our depth. We yelled until we were hoarse, “Swim parallel to the shore,” which we attempted to do as well. He did not seem to hear us. An inner voice — my mother’s voice — told me not to struggle, to remain calm, to breathe.

After what seemed like hours but was really only about twenty minutes of hard swimming, the three of us rode a wave back to shore. We lay gasping, panting, coughing, hugging, salt tears running down our faces, as beachcombers strolled by and looked at us with curiosity.


Today I dive deep into an ocean on the other side of the globe. The cold clear water takes my breath away. I remember not to buck the tide. Long strokes, even kicks, measured breathing. My mind, floating in my skull, empties itself of the world and all its cares. It is a sacred time: The sun is setting and the sky and the sea and the night are becoming one. Tiny bright stars appear and the pale moon is reflected on the shimmering dark water. Here, in my element, I am serene in the face of eternity.

The sea reminds us that we can never be still for long. Take the plunge. It is best not to struggle. Keep moving, always moving, always forward.

And don’t forget to breathe.


PC between flags

Patricia Conover: Re-invigorated after a swim.

Patricia Conover spent her early professional career in the editorial departments of G.P Putnam’s Sons and Random House in New York City. She began her writing career when she moved with her husband and three daughters to Portland, Oregon. Her work ranges from an overview of women in architecture to expat strategies in pursuit of an international education.

Patricia teaches writing workshops in schools and libraries in both the United States and France. An advocate for literacy, she’s volunteered many hours to teaching reading and writing to primary, middle and high school students.  She is currently a project editor and writer for Going Global, a multi-platform site that offers guides for expats.  

Twitter: @ParisRhapsody

Editor’s note: I met Patricia back in the days when I was a new editor in a suburban bureau at The Oregonian and she was a young mom, looking to get started as a freelance writer. She got the gig and since then her byline has appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. After ten years in Paris, Patricia (and Kirk) have lived and worked in a suburb of New York City for the past two years. 

Tomorrow: Sharon Tjaden-Glass, Being creative — while being a parent

A writer writes. Always.

thumbnail_Screenshot 2016-07-11 14.59.44

For a veteran journalist, learning to write code was a whole different thing.

By Jacob Quinn Sanders

Writing always came easily.

Rhythm, cadence, structure and flow. The deadline never really mattered: I could do it slow or I could do it fast. The pieces always just assembled themselves, first in my head, then on the page. I didn’t much have to think about it. I just knew how to do it.

That was with words. Learning to write code was a whole different thing.

They have a lot in common. But doing one after only having ever done the other — they require different things of a brain. Going from one to the other required relearning, grain by grain, what has long since been a vast beach of unconscious muscle memory.

I was a reporter and editor in newsrooms of all different kinds for 15 years. Longer than I’ve done any other single thing. And I grew up reading. I grew up writing. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, always asked first thing what you had been reading lately. It was expected. It was demanded. It was unequivocal. Not having an answer was not an option.

Which, like a child’s religion or devotion to a favorite family-loved game, quickly gets internalized. There is no stopping to think of the rules or the boundaries or the next move. There is no doubt or delay. You just know how to do it.

And so you do it. Not really with any direction. But you do it.

When I was 10, my fifth-grade class had an assignment: Write a piece in the style of TV news about the coming 1988 presidential election. My teacher, Mrs. Roberts, stopped me before recess the next day.

“This is better than what I saw on the news last night,” she said. “Have you ever thought about doing anything with your writing?”

Nobody had asked me that before. I’d never thought of writing with purpose. So I tried everything. Poetry, stories, journals, plays.

I was a freshman in high school when I took my first journalism class. Our first assignment was to write 1,300 words — researched, non-fiction words — about whatever we wanted. I was 13. I wrote about Guns ‘n’ Roses. Hell yes, I did.

That was my thunderbolt. Whatever I wanted to learn about, wherever my curiosity took me — I could go there and then tell the world about it.

That was all I needed. That was enough. Until it wasn’t.

I met more and more people who wrote code in the service of journalism. I got jobs that brought me closer to workflows and developers and how our own software was getting in our way, preventing us from doing our best journalism.

Code can do a lot of things for a reporter. Does a government agency always dump poorly formatted electronic records on you? If you can write the code to parse and analyze it once, you’ve already done it for the next time those records show up. Does your job involve some repetition? Maybe you can automate it. Do you see a couple data sets you think should learn how to talk to each other in a way no one else is thinking about? You can make it happen. Did you file a records request for data that is technically online but structured badly across hundreds or thousands of pages and annoying to try to download? You can go get it yourself.


My goal: to progressively suck less.

The more I understood the possibilities, the more I had my own ideas about how to use code to tell stories, to solve problems, to create more of what I wanted to see in the world.

Trouble is, I couldn’t write a line of it. I could no longer execute my best ideas. I couldn’t scrape or analyze data or build a quick little prototype. I couldn’t take a single step in a direction I felt I needed to go without someone’s help — a lot of it.

So I took little day-long code classes at conferences — one of them twice — and tried some online tools. I wasn’t good at it. It wasn’t something that came naturally. For the first time in my life, I was terrible at writing.

But I was convinced. Maybe not that I could master it, but at least that I could suck less. I told anyone who asked my long-term and short-term goals were the same — to progressively suck less.

I left my journalism life. A life that got me into college in Nevada and then took me along to Philadelphia, the California desert, back home to Portland, off to Little Rock and then somehow to Pittsburgh. A life that had been mine professionally for 15 years and part of my identity for longer still.

I found a code bootcamp in Provo, Utah. Three months. My wife stayed in Pittsburgh. I rented a room in a house with four dudes all a decade younger than me. I borrowed a bike so I wouldn’t have to spend any money I didn’t have to.

And I started to learn how to write again. How to think about writing. How to accomplish something by writing. How to create. How to fix. How to edit and rewrite.

thumbnail_Screenshot 2016-07-11 13.36.04

I started to learn how to write again.

Confidence came slowly. Impostor syndrome is a vicious and real thing. It has claws and teeth. It has girth. The only way through it was to keep writing. I stayed up late and I got up early and I tried not to throw my laptop out any succession of windows. I asked for and got a key to our lab so I could stay for hours into the night and morning and pound and pound and pound until one of us — sometimes me, sometimes the code, sometimes the machine itself — acquiesced.

Having written words for so long ultimately gave me a framework to use for writing code. They both have grammar, syntax, structure. You make and support arguments. You have several layers of audiences to please, whether an editor and a copy desk and then readers who simply need to understand or a compiler or interpreter and code-reviewer and then an end user who just needs the damn thing to work.

No two writers would tell the same story the same way, even with the exact same information and the same conclusions. The same is true in code.

Having been senior at something else helped, too. I valued the repetition, I knew to start within the rules and guidelines so I could better understand later which ones I wanted to break or ignore. Being junior again was oddly freeing.

And slowly it started to make sense. Slowly I started to suck less. I got home to Pittsburgh and kept writing, kept building, kept asking for help. Kept learning. Kept practicing.


And slowly I started to suck less.

First I freelanced a bit and created a project or two for myself. One of those projects helped me get a job. A full-time job. My business card says “software engineer.” That never doesn’t tickle me.

It was still hard. It’s still hard. I got that job a year ago. My impostor syndrome followed me. Even when it hibernates, it’s still right there with me.

The difference is now I know that whatever it is I don’t know, I can learn. I don’t think it. I know it.


It was hard. It’s still hard.

At some point after few months in the job, it happened. Rhythm, cadence, structure and flow. It just happened. The pieces looked like pieces and how they fit was clear.

It doesn’t happen every day. It doesn’t happen most days. But it happens. If it doesn’t happen today, maybe it happens tomorrow. Maybe the day after.

Meantime, I do what I’ve always done. I keep writing.



Jacob Quinn Sanders

Jacob Quinn Sanders grew up on the West Coast and yet lives in Pittsburgh, where he writes code and words and sometimes both together. He still has impostor syndrome and always will. He misses the hell out of salt water, so maybe that’s what he can write about next year.

Editor’s note: Jacob is a journalist friend I’ve known for about 15 years since I was a recruiter and he was a college student. Though we never worked together, we’ve kept in touch through the years and his many moves, and he’s been a regular contributor to VOA. During a visit to Pittsburgh last year, we reconnected at Nadine’s, a Southside bar and restaurant that’s been featured on “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins.”

Tomorrow: Patricia Conover, Water music

Olivia Newton-John and the test of a friendship

olivia newton-john

Grammy Award winner Olivia Newton-John performing in Las Vegas.

By Maisha Maurant

I think true friendship means making room for each person to be themselves, even if it causes us sometimes to roll our eyes, bite our tongues, shake our heads or shake the other person. And it’s not always about the big things.

Chris is one of my best friends – supportive and generous. He gets me in a way few other people do. In fact, we call each other soul mates.

We’ve also learned along the way that even soul mates can sometimes be pains in the ass. Which leads me to Vegas, where this all started.

Chris was finishing up his dissertation in San Francisco. On the spur of the moment, we agreed to meet in Vegas. I was headed to a conference. With him in California and me in Michigan, it was a rare opportunity to spend time together. We had a great time.

Walking down the Strip one night, he stops in his tracks and says “She’s here!” I started looking in the crowd around us. “Who’s here?” Then I notice he’s pointing to a billboard.

“Olivia Newton-John?”

“Yes! I loved her when I was a kid. We have to go,” he says. He’s already on his phone checking for tickets.

“Seriously?” I ask. But he’s not even listening to me at this point. Unfortunately, she isn’t playing that week.

“I wouldn’t worry about it. This is Vegas. I’m sure she’ll be back,” I assure him. He looks devastated. If he was my 7-year-old nephew, I’d buy him ice cream. Instead, we go have a drink.

Fast-forward a few weeks. Because concerts are my thing, I get Ticketmaster alerts. Guess who’s coming to town? Olivia.

Well, she’s not coming to Detroit. She’s playing in Windsor, Ontario. It’s not far from Detroit. But you do have to cross the Canadian border.

I get tickets as a present to Chris for completing his doctorate. By this time, he’s relocated to Chicago. This is going to make getting to the concert a lot easier.

It should have made it easier.

Chris and I have one land mine area in our friendship – time management. From my perspective, Chris makes plans, but he sees them as flexible. Sort of “Let’s just see where the day takes us.”

My approach? Um, let’s not. Let’s be prepared. He knows this about me. This is not the first dustup we’ve had about this.

So when we started planning for the Olivia concert, I was explicit. Let me know if we’re hanging out the whole day, part of the day or just going to the concert. I was trying to figure if I’d need to take the day off.

He agreed to let me know – but no word from Chris. After our previous discussions about this, I decided I wasn’t going to chase him to firm up plans.

A couple days before the concert, he gets in touch. By this time, I’m irritated and stressed by work. I tell him that I’m not going. He can use the tickets and go with someone else. He’s got lots of friends in Detroit. Then he says, “But we’re supposed to do this together.”

Ugh. Now I’m feeling petty. I’m also thinking about how little time we’re going to spend together once he starts a new job. The next day I tell him I’ve decided to go. He hesitates and says, “Great. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

“Okay. There’s just one thing, though. I didn’t realize I would need my passport to go to Canada. It’s in Chicago. I’m trying to figure that part out.”

Are you kidding me?!

Later, as we’re walking to the car, he says, “Well, I didn’t know that Canada …”

I interrupt him with “Is a foreign country?!”

“No, that they require a passport. I mean, c’mon, Windsor is like Detroit’s playground.”

Cars at Border

At the border: Who would have guessed Canada is a foreign country?

I tell him that I don’t think the Border Patrol sees it that way. This is the part where you might be thinking, “Cut the guy some slack. He doesn’t know about traveling internationally.” Chris has lived in Haiti, France and Indonesia and traveled to Spain and Turkey among other places.

I ask Chris who he wants me to call if he gets detained. He laughs.

We head to the border. He has an “aha!” moment. He’s going to see if a friend in Chicago will send him a picture of his passport. He has his California driver’s license. He stopped by his mom’s house to get whatever documents she still had that identify him. We don’t think his baptismal record is going to help.

They let us into Canada. The concert is good and relatively uneventful. Except for a senior citizen asking Chris to stop screaming in her ear. And he’s that person at a concert. Like VH1’s Pop-Up Video, he offers fun facts throughout. Right out the gate, he leans over and whispers “The name of this song is ‘Magic’.” I whisper back “Yeah, I got that from the chorus.” He’s having such a great time that it’s infectious. Afterward, we get food and toast to him now being Dr. Chris.

We head back to the U.S. It’s late, and I’m worn out after a long week at work. I’m dreading the drawn out process this might turn into. But part of me wants him to learn a lesson.

Chris is still unbothered.

Patrol officerWhen we get to the border patrol officer, I give him my passport. Chris leans across me and gives him a handful of papers – every identifying document he could get his hands on.

The officer asks, “What is all of this?” And I think to myself, “Welcome to my world.”

Chris offers the photos of his passport. Many questions later, it turns out that the officer is able to look him up in some database. But just when I think it’s over, he asks how the concert was. And Chris launches into a detailed re-enactment.

Oh, no. We’re not doing that. Christopher, say goodnight to the nice border patrol officer.

As we head back through the tunnel, I give him a look. He shrugs and says, “What? He asked how it was.”

I’m looking at a person I love with all my heart. Maybe I should have lightened up. Maybe I should have had more patience.

Then he says, “I told you it would be fine.”

It gets me thinking. We haven’t crossed the border yet. There’s still time to let him be Canada’s problem.

Lead photograph:



Maisha Maurant

Maisha Maurant manages a team of strategists, writers and designers at a health care insurance company in Michigan. She is also the chief corporate editor. She and Chris are planning their next adventure.

Editor’s note: It hardly seems possible, but the calendar confirms that it was 1995 when I met Maisha at a job fair in Detroit and recruited her to The Oregonian for a summer internship. She came out to Portland last year for a conference and we happily reconnected in person.

Tomorrow: Jacob Quinn Sanders, A writer writes. Always.