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

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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.”

***

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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.

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42 big ones

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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.

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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.

 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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?

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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

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“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.

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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.

***

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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.

Email: wozniacka@gmail.com

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.

1977_Gayle-Brian

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.

***

cano

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