Bad news

hands

By Jennifer Brennock

I come into the kitchen. Grocery bags. Car keys. The same loose doorknob. He’s waiting at the table. Home early. He hasn’t poured a drink. Boots still on. “I have something to tell you.” I go soundblind. The mouth is doing the things it does when making words. He folds, refolds his hands. The wedding ring he doesn’t wear scrapes across the table: I am deaf but only to him. In California, a butcher saws through a meat joint. In Berlin, firecrackers in the back alley. The hum of an intersection in Mexico City. He stands. Footfalls in reverb, a child finding an old piano in an empty barn. He wants to hold me against him. Crackandbuzz crackandbuzz inside his ribcage. What’s that sound? He insists, holding my shoulders, his palms comfort circling the way I can’t stand. I pull away to read his lips. I’m sure he’s saying it is only the wind through the trees. Behind me, ice cream melts in the brown paper bag. The cold sweat railroads down the carton. I hear it metalscreaming. Like a baby. Taken from her mother’s milk. Too soon.

***

jennifer brennock

Jennifer Brennock

 Since childhood, Jennifer Brennock has gotten into trouble for not keeping her mouth shut. She’s written poetry, prose, and play. She’s worked for arts organizations, created arts organizations, given readings, emceed slam, made zines, busked, facilitated, studied, and taught in all literary arts she could wiggle her way into. Jennifer is uncomfortable talking about herself in third person, but she’s getting used to it.

Editor’s note: I met Jennifer during an Orcas Island vacation several years ago when I attended a writing workshop she was leading at the public library. We met for coffee a couple days later and a friendship bloomed between the two of us native Californians. I find Jennifer’s writing nothing short of amazing.  

***

From the author: A note to one of my writing communities (VOA) about another of my writing communities (TILL): You guys should really know each other. I wrote this prose poem at TILL, a writers’ retreat at a farm gone feral in western Washington. Every year, I’m amazed by the organizers and their ability to keep it low-key, low-stuff, pitch-in, inspiring, egoless, and generative. I’m more convinced than ever that every creative person needs to drop out of the rest of their life for a bit on the regular. Check out TILL and buy a chapbook. If you’re in Seattle, come to the reading in the fall. http://tillwriters.org

till exterior

Till began as a collaboration between Arne Pihl and Chelsea Werner-Jatzke in 2013. (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

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Jennifer Brennock at a workshop in the equipment barn at Till. (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

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Till 2017 included workshops given by writers Matthew Simmons, Rachel Kessler, Jane Wong, and Claudia Castro Luna (pictured). (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

till interior

Till cultivates time, space, and community for writers. (Photo: Chelsea Kurnick)

Tomorrow: Michael Granberry, My Watergate summer

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2017 Oregon Book Awards

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George and Jennifer outside the Gerding Theater.

It wasn’t the Oscars and it wasn’t the Grammys. But it was my first time attending an awards event and it was pretty cool.

On Monday night, I joined my friend Jennifer Brennock at the 2017 Oregon Book Awards, held at the Gerding Theater in Northwest Portland.

No red carpet in sight. But in the lobby there was a pop-up book sale going on staffed by the folks from Broadway Books, my neighborhood book store. Also, there were plenty of animated conversations going on among book nerds of all ages, young adults to retirees.

For those of us who love words, it was a night to celebrate seasoned pros, first-time authors and everyone in between who strives to inform and inspire us readers with works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. If you’ve ever written seriously — whether for work or as a hobby — you know the feeling of facing a blank screen and wondering when or how the first words will materialize.

If you’re patient, they will come. Eventually.

Knowing a little something about what that’s like, I felt nothing but admiration for these accomplished writers who faced the blank screen and won the stare-down. These are the diligent, creative folks whose characters, plots, scenes and dialogues — imagined or real — come to life on the page, often after years of research. Such work is impressive and every one of the Oregon Book Award finalists deserved the whistles, whoops and hollers they received.

***

Before the event, I met Jennifer at a coffee-and-wine bar a short walk from the Gerding. We met several years ago when I attended a writing workshop she was leading on Orcas Island. I was impressed by the way she led the class and since then I have been dazzled by her writing.

Read Jennifer’s contribution (“Baby Shower”) to my Voices of August guest blog project.

She’s taught English at the community college level and I’m now teaching communications classes at two universities, so we have that connection, too. Jennifer’s students are blessed to have someone whose writing prompts challenge them to think and feel deeply and whose own intelligence and passion explode off the page.

The awards program, sponsored by Literary Arts, itself was entertaining — probably more so than you’d think given the absence of live music, video clips or other such stuff that you see at the Academy Awards.

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The Portland nonprofit Literary Arts sponsors the Oregon Book Awards.

A California author, Lysley Tenorio, was a charming master of ceremonies, filling the same role as Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres and others have done at the Oscars.

Anis Mojgani, a spoken word artist based in Portland, performed a poem. Téa Johnson, a Grant High School senior, reprised her winning entry in the citywide high school poetry slam competition known as Verselandia.

Read a profile of Téa Johnson in Grant Magazine.

Finalists were announced in eight categories, and the judge for each one read an excerpt from the winner’s book before calling that person to the stage.

Turns out that I had met — ever so briefly — the winner in the first category. Kate Berube took home the award for Children’s Literature for her book “Hannah and Sugar.” Last summer, I took part in a fundraising trivia contest sponsored by a nonprofit that provides books to low-income children. Kate, an author and illustrator, was at that same fundraiser and donated a portion of profits from her sales that night to the same cause.

Even better, Jennifer knew the woman who won the Creative Nonfiction award. That would be Walidah Imarisha, who is currently a lecturer at Stanford but also has taught at Portland State and Oregon State universities. Walidah was honored for “Angels Without Dirty Wings,” a book about life behind prison walls that weaves together the stories of three people — her incarcerated brother and his fellow inmate and herself..

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Reunited: Jennifer Brennock and Walidah Imarisha

Jennifer and Walidah have known each other since graduate school. In the lobby afterwards, the two embraced and Walidah autographed the book I bought on the spot. Gotta make room for it on my always crowded bookshelf.

***

Two quick anecdotes that illustrate what a small world we live in:

Walidah’s companion that evening was a young man who had participated years ago in a summer journalism program for minority high school students that brought him to The Oregonian, my former employer  John Joo, then a student at Beaverton High School, remembered me from the program — probably one of those times when I popped into a room of teenagers wolfing down pizza and soda during a visit to the newsroom and said a few words. What a great memory.

Before leaving, I introduced myself to Cindy Williams Gutiérrez, the only Latina/o among the Oregon Book Award winners. Cindy is a poet who’s worked with Milagro Theater, the bilingual theater group where my wife and I saw a recent production. Her new book, “Words That Burn,” dramatizes the World War II experiences of three men, including Lawson Inada, a Japanese American internee who later taught at Southern Oregon College, where Jennifer met him as an undergraduate student.

Cindy chatted warmly, jotted her email address on a card, and invited me to get in touch. I think I’ll do just that.

All in all, a fun evening spent in the company of someone who loves words as much as I do. Who needs the red carpet anyway?

VOA 6.0 meetup

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Another year of stellar writing by a diverse group of guest bloggers, ages 12 to 70. (Photograph by Taylor Smith)

 

 

If Voices of August were a child, she would be in kindergarten by now.

VOA, as this annual guest blog project is called, debuted on August 1, 2011, at a time when I was working at The Oregonian as a web editor focusing on community engagement. I had taught a couple of introductory communications classes (weekend mini-courses) at Portland State University that prompted me to start a personal blog and led to the subsequent birth of this project.

Fast forward to October 2016 and consider how things have changed or come full circle..

I’m no longer at The Oregonian, having accepted a buyout offer at the end of 2015.

I’m back at Portland State, this time teaching a full-fledged, upper-division class that meets twice a week.

Meanwhile, Voices of August just notched its sixth year. A week ago Saturday, about a dozen of us bloggers, along with spouses and other supporters, came together at a Northeast Portland brewpub to celebrate a remarkable collaboration: a month-long feast of writing, reading and reacting. (Yes, this is one place where you actually can read the comments and not have to take a shower afterwards.)

Click on images to view captions:

Each day, I post a guest blog that’s been written by a friend, neighbor, relative or former co-worker on a subject of their choice. Many of us are professional writers but most are not. And that’s the beauty of this thing. The variety of topics and writing styles flows from the fact that people write from the heart as much as their head, from their personal experiences and professional perspectives.

Since VOA began, about 70 people have participated as guest bloggers. Among them: teachers, professors, musicians, lawyers and documentary filmmakers. Contributions, totaling nearly 200, have come from several states and even a smattering of foreign countries: Vietnam, France, Slovenia, Poland and Texas. (Kidding. Just kidding.)

Looking back at my initial entry on 8/1/11, I launched VOA with three reasons in mind.

  1. I expected it would be fun. Boy, has it.
  2. I thought it could be a teaching tool. Indeed, I’ve learned much about online communication that I’ve applied to my work and social media.
  3. I knew it would bring more diversity to the site. Duh. When you invite people of different ages, races and ethnicities, people who represent different generations, bring varied life experiences and a constellation of passions, well, you wind up with something pretty special.

VOA is like opening a new gift every day. You never know if you’ll read something light or heavy, funny or sad, something universal or deeply personal — but you know it’ll engage you. This year, people wrote about their mothers and their cats, about politics and immigration, about love and loss, about pregnancy and a years-ago fishing trip gone bad.

Call me biased, but I think this year’s batch was the best ever. (I know, I know. I said that last year too.)

At month’s end, bloggers and regular readers cast votes for three favorite pieces — whatever resonated with them for whatever reason — and five were judged the most popular. In no particular order, they are:

“The memory keeper” by Gosia Wozniacka, writing from Poland.

“Rhubarb summer” by Jennifer Brennock, writing from Orcas Island, Washington.

“Night on the Kahawai” by Tim Akimoff, writing from Salem, Oregon.

“American internship in the shadow of Yellowstone” by Aki Mori, of the Portland area, and “My visit to Heart Mountain” by his 12-year-old daughter, Midori Mori. Both reflected on their family’s summer visit to two historical sites in Idaho and Wyoming where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.

A tip of the cap also goes to first-time VOA bloggers Anne Saker, Elizabeth Lee, Sue Wilcox, John Killen, Michelle Love, Maisha Maurant and Gosia Wozniacka.

Final word: Last weekend’s gathering at McMenamin’s on Broadway meant renewing friendships and making new ones between sips and bites and much goodwill. It was great seeing friends from Washington, Oregon and California.

For me, though, the best takeaway from VOA 6.0 was the thank-you note I received from Midori the day after our gathering. In it, she said she had always imagined that the only way to innovate for future generations was as a top government official such as senator or president.

“But the fact that I was given much positive acclaim in my essay moved me to a new perspective I have never once perceived,” Midori wrote. “It was the fact that such a small action, as to writing a blog entry, had moved and altered many people and their way of thinking. I, only being 12, have much to discover in this universe. However, I am grateful to know that my writing was just the beginning.”

If you missed Midori’s piece or want to re-read it or any of the others published this year, visit the VOA 6.0 index page.

Rhubarb summer

rhubarb

In a summer of loss and love, rhubarb plays a symbolic role.

By Jennifer Brennock

I lost my job today. I mean, I have five jobs, most of them meaningless and labor-oriented, but this was the one that made me feel like something. It floated me when the tide was low and kept a roof over my kid’s head no matter what. It woke me predawn for a red eye ferry for six years. I walked into it and said “Good morning, class” with a genuine smile every session without fail. It tested my brain’s capacity and asked me to be better because what they learned was important. Yeah, that one.

I’m a little freaked out. In response, I’m harvesting rhubarb. I should be trimming the mean girl tomatoes, but all I care about is the emo rhubarb.

My child is already in bed this summer evening, so I’m being liberal with the wine bottle. From my view, no structure nor person can be seen, only pasture, birch, and evergreen—a Cascadian ideal. I am solo under an expanse of easy sky, but clouds lurk atop the treeline. The moon wants to be seen and the swallows dive for insects inches above my head. I can hear their wings back and forth in a spasm of feeding. There is a Brett Dennen song on the radio. Not my favorite, but he insists “It’s the life you made.”

The rhubarb is a mistake I made. I planted this blushing, awkward teen in the center of the very best bed in the garden. Inside the deer fence. Deer don’t eat rhubarb. I could have planted it anywhere else, making room for sensible broccoli, more delicate lettuce, and cheerful, knobby Brussels sprout. Instead, I am protecting something that no longer needs it. Even so, there is primordial, fantastical growth on these dogs. It’s like science fiction out here.

The music floats over the berm to the narrowing valley and pasture below. I wonder how far this sound travels at night. I turn it up.

“Who do you think you are?”

Tonight, I feel the full power of middle age. I select a stalk, grip it at the base, and twist. The decisive choice makes the most satisfying staccato of fiber breaking under force. Rhubarb harvest is imbued with more “fuck you” than any other fruit picking. With a middle finger, I tell life to do its worst. I’ve already been here. There’s nothing you can do to me that I will not survive. This is just another day. There have been worse. Days when I could not get out of fetal. The days I hiccuped from crying too much. The days I fell farther. The days I fed myself with nonfood that I will never confess to. Still, every time I got up with Invictus, not because I believed I deserved to live, and certainly not because I believed I deserved to be happy. I got up because someone smaller needed me.

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Jennifer Brennock: badass writer, artist, mother on Orcas Island. (Photograph by Melanie Masson)

Tonight, I remove the yellowed, limp, snail-trodden leaves at the base. They were the front line months ago before the plant knew it would survive new earth. The clouds are approaching slowly, as if I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. My nose fills with the fresh and bitter fruit, an olfactory stab. The wine buzz and unyielding song makes this night a syrupy date.

Rhubarb is obnoxious. Who does it think it is with those gargantuan leaves of poison? We know what you’re up to; you’re not impressing anyone, rhubarb. You are not the umbrellas you think you are.

This rhubarb summer, I am in love after rejecting him over and over for years. I managed to fabricate reasons. His desire to provide my soul with daily tenderness and my life with strong shoulders was, you know, over the top. I had to save myself; I believed these were separate things.

“Don’t be afraid of the hands you play.”

I give sun space to the stalks that need the light by pulling out the four-foot charmers. The new ones—curly, insecure entering the world, virginal—are wearing the wrong green. If a stalk is thick but short, I pardon it, ask it to grow taller with girth and confidence. Confidence begets confidence they tell me. Hot pink root tips peek through, small flames, genital-like, solidly in place and keeping steadfast to center.

I’m in love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower and once said the words “I concur” while we were fucking. His heart has been broken in the worst way it can be, and he is still willing to go all in. You know the guy who taught you to ski? Remember how he leaned down to your cold-rosy five year-old face on the verge of tears and asked with perfect enthusiasm and a smile, “We gonna have fun today?” Remember how just then you forgot you were scared to death and how you let go of your mother’s hand without thinking and took his? That’s him. He enters sleep just like a tree falls, calls climbing Rainier “going for a walk,” and is not afraid of carrying heavy things. I am a heavy thing.

“Who do you think you are?”

rhubarb JB

“I’m in a love with a man who drives without shoes on and brushes his teeth in the shower…”

I’m the chick who writes about being alone while being a parent. These are the stories I tell. I write about falling down. I write about sex, and I write about pain. To separate things, juxtaposed, rarely intersecting, but close enough that the possibility is there. That’s my schtick. I make weird art by destroying 1950s gynecology textbooks and sticking their diagrams next to poems describing fellatio. To remind you—haunt you—that love and body are not one, and they are not to be trusted together. It’s all going to hell once you’re happy and spooning. But what happens when the sex is actually leagues away from any pain, and he loves you enough to correct you when you call it fucking? He’s not leaving tonight, and not tomorrow either, and if he’s right, I may die at his side. What happens? Will I still have words? Will I still have night gardens and disturbing poems and breaking rhubarb at the neck? Will I still come out to see the moon at 2 A.M. alone?

All good stories must be universal, and, dear reader, for you to trust me, you have to get something out of the read. So here it is: you deserve it. We all do. Each of us deserves to be loved and supported regardless of our failures and voids, past and present. You’ve said things you regret. You’ve neglected someone who was counting on you. You failed her. You couldn’t deny wanting someone else. You did not forgive him in time. No matter how hard you try, you are not enough for her. You made him into someone he didn’t like. Okay. That happened. Still, there isn’t some huge karmic punishment coming for you because of it. When the song points at you and says, “Who do you think you are? This is the life you made,” you can just say, um, yeah? So? My head is unbowed. So you planted the rhubarb in the wrong spot. You gave attention to the wrong thing. You made bad choices. You still deserve to be loved, supported, adored, and saved. You do.

The rhubarb is crowding the artichokes. I shouldn’t’ve planted those there either. The trees are blowing now and the birds have become bats. The bird-murdered strawberries won’t be moved tonight, but these fruit-stalks look like an armload of ugly miracles. I’ll make cardamom sugar for the jam this time, I think. Best go inside now. The rain is coming, and I gotta find a job before summer’s end.

***

Jennifer Brennock lives on Orcas Island in a cabin nicknamed “Slaughterhouse” for some reason that she’s not asking too many questions about. This is an excerpt from Real, a memoir-in-progress about adoption and single motherhood with conversations with the Velveteen Rabbit. Contact her for organic rhubarb $2/lb.

Editor’s note: I met Jennifer seven years ago when she was leading a creative writing workshop at the Orcas Island Public Library. She is a dazzling writer — fierce, fearless and unfailingly honest — and someone I’m proud to call my friend.

Tomorrow: Taylor Smith, I’m desperate

Friday flashback: ‘Baby shower’

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Jennifer Brennock writes powerfully about the bond between mother and son.

Attending a baby shower for someone who’s conceived through sperm-meets-egg when you’re an adoptive parent stirs a kettle of emotions.

Such feelings might go unnoticed if they were not given voice by my Orcas Island friend Jennifer Brennock. She is a remarkable writer — fierce, fearless and unfailingly honest.

In this 2014 piece for Voices for August, Jennifer puts readers on her shoulder as she takes us inside the home of a woman whose friends have gathered to celebrate her impending passage to motherhood.

“From her living room floor, I smile the correct smile and chat the correct chat. In my chest, something has grabbed and is squeezing,” she writes.

VOA readers were moved by the words that followed.

“Every year on VOA I am rendered speechless by your ability to turn words into magic,” one wrote.

“I have no words for the impression this has left on me, but thank you for giving me something to tuck away as I remember my friends who are walking the roads of infertility and/or adoption,” another said.

Read it yourself right here: “Baby shower”

Carpentry and poetry

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Rose Swartz is a writer and visual artist from Kalamazoo, Michigan, currently living in Portland, Oregon.

Life is full of coincidences, isn’t it?

In early November, I drove out to an industrial park in Northeast Portland to do a story about the progress being made in Oregon placing women in apprenticeship programs.

In a room full of women at the Sheet Metal Institute, I found myself next to Rose Swartz, a 32-year-old former English teacher, originally from Michigan, who was now hoping to become a carpenter.

“I feel optimistic, but I also feel it’s really hard work,” she told me. “I don’t have any misconceptions.”

After the story was published, I got in touch with her again, thinking that once she completed her pre-apprenticeship class she’d make a great subject for a followup interview focusing on the transition from the classroom to a blue-collar trade.

Rose agreed to the idea and I made tentative plans to contact her early this year. That plan went out the window, however, when I took the buyout offer to retire at the end of 2015.

Fast forward to late January.

My Orcas Island writer friend Jennifer Brennock posted a Facebook blurb about a poetry reading she had organized in Eastsound for late February.

The program would be the first featured reading by an artist affiliated with Drop Out on Orcas, a new residential program for writers and other creatives. Through Jennifer’s efforts, there is now a destination on the east end of the island for people to work on their art in no-tech solitude.

The blurb said: “Rose Swartz will read from her latest offering, “Panhandle,” a letterpress chapbook. Rose will be coming from Portland to join us.”

I did a double take.

Holy crap!” I wrote. “Is this the same Rose Swartz I interviewed during a Women in Apprenticeships program?”

“Oh wow, yes it is,” Rose confirmed.

If that weren’t coincidence enough, this past Friday was my turn to contribute to the neighborhood poetry post maintained by our little community of townhouse residents.

It was an easy choice. I turned to www.roseswartz.com and came up with “Half-Fish Daughter,” originally published by Silver Birch Press.

I share it here, courtesy of Rose (who goes by Rosa in her published work):

HALF-FISH DAUGHTER
by Rosa Swartz

At first frost I vacate the pond,
hooks and barbs wedged in the shadows of my flesh.
Asleep in winter’s wool blankets
dry beds of hot air scrape tears in my scales,
my pulse swoops into a murky scream.
Below the bridge at Wolf Creek,
my body swims away
each morning leaving just a raincoat,
the wind that slaps the maple trees.

Lori and I won’t be on Orcas until the spring, so we’ll miss this Feb. 28 reading. Along with sending best wishes for a good turnout, I hope another opportunity pops up to hear and see Rose — on the island or the mainland.

Photographs: Drop Out on Orcas

 

Water, woods & wildlife

Pristine Eagle Lake.

Pristine Eagle Lake.

Nothing quite compares to our little getaway off the Washington coast as a place to chill. During the time we sail away from the ferry dock to Anacortes to the time we arrive at Orcas Landing and then drive out to our place near Eagle Lake, a sense of calm comes over me. My breathing slows, my blood pressure drops and my senses come alive in appreciation of the outdoor scenery.

Afternoon clouds over Redes' Roost.

Afternoon clouds over Redes’ Roost.

En route to our cabin, we see goats, sheep and horses and view pastoral scenes with farmhouses and ponds. We drive through Eastsound, a laidback village of 2,000 residents, cruise through a canopy of tall fir trees in a state park, skirt the shore of a lake and a bay, and then pass by homes whose big yards draw families of deer. Up a hill we go, climbing a dirt road that brings us to Redes’ Roost, a log cabin looking out over the water to a panorama that includes Lummi Island, Mount Baker and Bellingham. (Click here for a map.)

Just writing about it makes me relax all over again.

Last week, Lori and I visited our place on Orcas Island for the second time this year. It was a Monday-through-Friday trip, a little shorter than usual, but still enough to produce fresh memories of one of my favorite places on Earth.

With apologies for any self-indulgence, here’s a taste of the island life.

Iconic Cascade Lake.

Iconic Cascade Lake.

The water

On this saddlebag-shaped island, roughly 20 miles from west to east and 7 miles north to south, you’re never far from sight of the water.  Orcas is the largest of the San Juan Islands, nestled between the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. You can’t get to our place without going through Moran State Park. And, in doing that, you’ll pass by picturesque Cascade Lake, the site of summer canoeing, kayaking, paddleboating, swimming and angling.

I ran around the lake one day, an always satisfying experience made even better by my decision to keep my iPod shut off. Solitude + Silence = Something special.

Past visits have included kayaking out of Deer Harbor and Doe Bay, runs and walks around Mountain Lake and short hikes to Cascade Falls and Obstruction Pass Beach. And then there’s Eagle Lake, a feast for the eyes.

Lori & Charlotte on the South Loop Trail leading into the Cascade Lake Trail.

Lori & Charlotte on the South Loop Trail leading into the Cascade Lake Trail.

The woods

At the end of our driveway, a sharp left turn takes us up a hilly road that connects with several trails meandering through the woods. Thick-trunked trees, moss-covered rocks, feathery ferns, colorful foxglove and other wildflowers all combine to create a natural landscape that invites exploration.

Foxglove on a trail above our house.

Foxglove on a trail above our house.

If I’m not running around Cascade or Mountain Lake, I’m most likely running the trails around and near Eagle Lake. Nothing like a corridor of leafy trees to counter summer’s heat or provide a shelter of sorts when it rains.

The wildlife

As I started a run around Eagle Lake one morning, I saw a large bird fly from let to right and settle in a treetop. I slowed to a walk, curious what it might be. A hawk? Nope. A great horned owl. Majestic.

A goldfinch snacking at the feeder on our porch.

A goldfinch snacking at the feeder on our porch.

On another morning at Eagle Lake, as Lori and I set up a board game to play at the water’s edge, we spotted a female bald eagle. As we should, right? I mean, it is called Eagle Lake.

The following day, as I played golf with three other guys, we spotted another bald eagle watching us as we walked the fairway on the No. 2 hole. That white head of feathers is so striking and the bird itself such an inspiring sight.

Back at home, I was delighted to see a goldfinch among the songbirds that came to partake of the feeders. Other visitors included Steller’s jays, rufous-sided towhees, Oregon juncos, pine siskins, robins and hummingbirds.

If I were more of a birder, my list would be a lot longer. But, hey, I’m good.

***

We had dinner at Doe Bay Cafe with our friend, Jennifer Brennock.

We had dinner at Doe Bay Cafe with our friend, Jennifer Brennock.

The trip allowed us to spend some time reading and relaxing, hanging out with our dogs, and seeing friends as well.

We’ll be back again in just a few weeks — our third and final trip of the year. May the next visit be even more satisfying than this one.

The moon over Doe Bay.

The moon over Doe Bay Resort.

VOA 4.0 meetup

From left: Sue Wilcox, Eric Wilcox, Aki Mori, Raghu xxx, Lakshmi Jagannathan

From left: Sue Wilcox, Eric Wilcox, Aki Mori, Raghu Raghavan and Lakshmi Jagannathan

My guest blog project, Voices of August, is now four years old and running. What began as a tentative experiment inviting friends, co-workers and a few online acquaintances to contribute to a month-long collection of essays has evolved into a robust community.

Jennifer Brennock and Lakshmi Jagannathan

Jennifer Brennock and Lakshmi Jagannathan

The annual exercise is something that we all look forward to — in the same way that a sprawling family comes together at the holidays. The comparison is apt because when we come together physically, as we did two weeks ago, it’s an occasion to renew friendships and welcome first-time attendees into the fold.

I hesitate to say that we are a collection of professional and amateur writers because it’s not that simple. VOA is defined more by the friendships that have taken root amongst people who range in age from their 20s to their 60s, whose professions vary widely (a pastor, an architect, a nonprofit executive, an app developer) and whose politics mostly lean left but also tilt right in some cases.

We mostly live in Oregon, but others reside in Washington, California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. This year, we added friends and a couple of relatives from Alaska, Texas, Slovenia and France. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Starr Flavin, Michael Granberry, Natasa Kocevar Gabric and Patricia Conover.)

David Quisenberry and George Rede

David Quisenberry and George Rede

We write about anything and everything. Travel, exercise, joy, despair, music, technology, life and death. Whatever moves us.

As the blog coordinator and comments moderator, I am doubly fortunate as am I the first to lay eyes on each person’s contribution and to view the feedback each post generates. It’s so gratifying to see expressions of support for someone going through a hard time or embarking on a new adventure. It’s also satisfying to see a person view things in a different light upon reading someone else’s piece.

Most of all, it’s just fun to see these online connections come alive in person.

And so it was that 19 of us, including spouses, gathered Oct. 3 at Kern’s Kitchen, the same place as last year, with new ownership and the same great menu. It was a summery Saturday night and we sat at picnic tables under strings of light as darkness fell.

Jason and Alana Cox

Jason and Alana Cox

As always, we took time to recognize those whose essays we voted as our favorites, simply because they resonated with us. Last year, four women swept the honors. This year, it was five men and one woman, including two first-time contributors. Each received a gift to a bookstore or coffee shop, though only two of them could attend.

The VOA favorites, in no particular order:

Jennifer Brennock, “Baby Shower.”

Parfait Bassale, “Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant.”

David Quisenberry, “The dance.”

John Knapp, “They call me dime-bag.

Jacob Quinn Sanders, “Almost the bad guy.”

Tim Akimoff, “Chicago’s mind-numbing numbers.”

Nike Bentley with husband Jason and daughter Remington.

Nike and Jason Bentley with daughter Remington.

Already, I’m looking forward to next year. As of this post, there are only 287 days until 8/1/15 and the start of Voices of August 5.0.

In case you missed any posts, here’s the VOA 4.0 index page. (Never too late to add a comment on any of them.)

Baby shower

JB.shadow

By Jennifer Brennock

Jane is having a baby shower. From her living room floor, I smile the correct smile and chat the correct chat. In my chest, something has grabbed and is squeezing.

With their easy sperm-meets-egg success, all-natural Joe and Jane won’t have to take a parenting class before they can bring him home. Joe and Jane won’t have to be visited weekly for six months before their status becomes officially recognized by the courthouse and they can change their child’s last name to match their own. Jane won’t be compelled to explain this fact to all receptionists brandishing clipboards of forms. Those receptionists won’t assume Jane is an unmarried mother; they won’t assume she didn’t want him in the first place. I sip my mimosa in Jane’s quaint, recently-remodeled Craftsman, thinking about the social worker who won’t come into this house and open Jane’s cabinets and inspect the cleanliness of her counters.

I can’t bring myself to buy a mini union suit glazed with dragonflies or an Easter-hued skull cap or the checked dress with bloomers so yellow I bit my lip when I saw them. I purchase utilities instead. An electronic ear thermometer. A palm-sized baster to suck out boogers. Nail clippers with a miniature magnifying glass. A green towel for mopping throw-up. I gift her tools for the work not jumpers for the joy. I wrap it all in the ducky paper I forced myself to buy because I’m going to be good sport if it kills me.

Jane is gorgeously full. Her pregnancy has filled all her voids. She sits on a golden pillow with no shred of humility. When it’s time for my gift, Jane politely surveys the utilities, uttering minimal niceties. The climate of the room changes. With nothing here to “aww” over, the women take the opportunity for refills and chit chat. My friend takes out a handful of safety pins. Happy duckies conceal their sticking points. She calls to the missing audience, now around the table smearing hummus and complimenting each other’s potluck.

“Hey, you guys! Look at these,” she calls laughing with yearbook nostalgia.

“Oh my gawd!” another woman calls. She is also in the family way. “Where on Earth did you find those? That’s so retro!”

I don’t understand my mistake.

“Yeah, right,” Jane says. “Nobody uses these anymore!”

Another friend looks at me. “I guess we could have had a shower for you,” she says.

Jennifer Brennock

Jennifer Brennock

My son is three. He knows all the words to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” He knows the meanings of “difficult” and “requirement.” He plays soccer. He’s worn underpants since I adopted him the year before.

I leave the party early, telling them I have work to do. When I get home, I hand the sitter cash and her own backpack. “Thanks. I’ll call you,” then gratefully, it’s just him and me.

I pick up my son for the Little Tiny Baby game I like to play, when I lay his enormous body in my arms and rock him like an infant singsonging, “Look at my little, tiny baby!” Most days, he knows his role for this game; he thrashes and laughs on cue trying to escape my embrace with his toddler arms and legs windmilling. He asserts with a lisp that I’m wrong; he is a big boy. Then I let him win and put him down. He’ll run back to me and beg to be tickled.

But the day of Jane’s baby shower, he lies still in my cradle. He sucks his fingers and looks at me with eyes as deep as caves searching for his mother. This time, I set him on the carpet before either of us is ready. I know I’m trying to make him into something he is not. I scared myself.

“Let’s play dance party instead,” I say.

He runs for the stereo, cues up the song that is ours alone. I turn it up loud, scaring the cats and making the wine glasses restless on the shelf. I flip the switch on the blue strobe light, and it makes every moment even more temporary than it was before. It makes the here and now a mere slice of time, and this slice is just the one that came before the next, and all these fractured moments are as elusive as a handful of sand.

JB.hands

My son is showing me his ballet. He’s stomping his feet like a jackhammer while the strobe takes snapshots of him, and I know these flashes can’t be scrapbooked. I won’t recall it like Jane will reminisce about her baby shower. As I watch him throw himself to the floor in a three year-old’s musical ecstasy, I think of the clerk at the health food store who can ten-key while breastfeeding. I think of those strange ultrasound images that make every almost-baby look like it’s malformed. I think of the hand-in-hand circle that is likely forming right now in Jane’s living room, and the blessing words my friends are saying to her, wishing her strength for her day to come. I feel like the last human on Earth.

Adoption tested me, and I’m not sure I passed. Yet in this moment, I have a dance partner. He’s laughing maniacally, just like the first time I saw his face, and now he wants me to take his hands and sashay across the floor with him. Right now, I know only one thing: Mommy is nothing more than a flash of light.

Jennifer Brennock writes and teaches in the San Juan Islands. “Baby Shower” is an excerpt from her memoir in progress, Real, about infertility, adoption, motherhood and The Velveteen Rabbit.

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Editor’s note: Five years ago this August, I walked into the public library on Orcas Island and nervously joined several locals who’d signed up for a Writers’ Roundtable. Two hours later, I emerged excited about my first foray into fiction writing and impressed with the professionalism of the flame-haired discussion leader. Jennifer was then completing her MFA in Creative Writing.  Friendship ensued.

Tomorrow: “Ferguson through the eyes of an African immigrant” by Parfait Bassale.