Mar 1, 2011

In October of the year following my divorce I moved three blocks away from my children’s father. I hadn’t worked outside the home for almost six years, my children were five and three, and I couldn’t afford the mortgage payment on our family home. I was having trouble finding an apartment with no work history and I was in graduate school at the time, still parenting during the days, and despairing as to how I would add a job into the equation.

Enter Desiree. Desiree and I had been friends for a few years...and, since the birth of my daughter, we had walked together almost nightly. Desiree was in the midst of her own transition, with her middle son heading to college and her youngest in high school, she had some extra room in the form of a cottage that she had begun to remodel into a separate residence that summer.

Desiree didn’t just rent me the cottage for a low rate. She offered me work finishing the painting of the new kitchen and some of the interior trim. She gave me furniture to use, and the run of her back yard—poppies, roses, marionberries—complete with swing set and raised garden beds. Desiree brought chicken soup and gingerbread to our door, invited me to dinner, and made all three of us waffles on Sunday mornings. When I was sick she brought my children into her home to play. When I was sad she took me walking.

We lived behind Desiree for not quite a year, and in that time my children adjusted to living in two households. I healed, a lot, and grew and wrote my thesis. She is still very much a part of our lives, our minds and hearts. We visited Desiree in mid December. She wrapped us in her homemade quilts, gave us caramel and tea. She is, and will ever be, for my children and for me, home.

Another View of Home: A Room

After my graduation in 2007, out yet another year of work experience and with $50 in the bank, I was offered a position as a teaching associate at Pacific University in Forest Grove. Enter Kristin. I call her Sis K now. After a week of commuting back and forth between Cottage Grove and Forest Grove (a two and a half hour drive) I decided to try to rent a room—all I could afford—for myself and my children. Sis K is a social worker, a social networker in the old-good fashion. She knows everyone in her community, which sometimes feels like it extends into the greater Portland metro area...or maybe all of northern Oregon. Sis K has a three bedroom house a few blocks from the Pacific campus and she rents out two of the rooms, furnished, mostly to Pacific students. After a few phone calls and an email interview we finally met over an early morning coffee visit. We laughed, ate berry scones and talked poetry; ee cummings, William Stafford. And then I got down to business:

“I have two children who will be with me on the weekends and for vacations.” Two other individuals with rooms to rent had turned me away once I mentioned my kids.

Sis K didn’t even blink. “I think I have a fold up cot somewhere,” she said.

The situation was supposed to be temporary, but after one semester of teaching I couldn’t afford to move back to Cottage Grove. Sis K found me a lead on some freelance work. She paid me to walk her dog. She let me pay my rent late. We made dinner, together, for each other. We celebrated birthdays and holidays. In the mornings we would meet in the living room for coffee and tell each other our dreams.

We lived with Sis K for two years. Initially in one bedroom. My employment was never stable but I did receive the first of several one year contracts with the university and was able, eventually, to rent both bedrooms. My kids bonded with her deeply. “She’s like a step-mom to me, “said my son when he was seven, with great affection.

Sis K, with her dog Tomochan, her chickens, her homegrown greens and corner lot garden, her irrepressible verve, taught me how to live con gusto, how to love and create family wherever you may find yourself. “Hey sis,” she writes, “let me know when you are ready for an early morning oatmeal visit. You know you can always come home.”

A View from Home: The Apple Cabin

The ad appeared on craigslist: a cabin, six acres, pond, organic apple orchard, $550 a month just outside of Cottage Grove. I rented this auxiliary dwelling from Gene. He was simplifying his life, moving into a smaller home on the eastern edge of the property, acreage he had tended and built for the better part of twenty years. My children and I stayed in the cabin from Thursday to Sunday most weekends and during the weeks on school breaks before I made the long drive north again to the university to teach.

Gene taught my son where the snakes slept and how to set a humane trap for an apple tree loving beaver. He offered my daughter a lesson in picking apples. Together we watched a pair of Canada geese settle on the island in the pond, hatch goslings and nurture their growth. Gene plowed the plot for the best garden I have ever planted, rich soil, abundant fertility, where after watering a hundred or more butterflies would come to drink from the paths. He allowed us to trade work for rent. He turned on the heat on the nights we were due. He fed and petted my cat in the days I was away. He gave us boxes of the most beautiful apples, rosy and crisp.

And we cooked for Gene, brought him hot soup, blackberry cobbler. We fed his cats while he was gone, visited with him in the fields and took walks to watch the giant black and gold spiders together in the grasses near his house. Together we witnessed the change from autumn to winter, spring to summer, the newts in the pond water, summer smoke in the valley. Clear stars, a winter moon. We loved the place together and loved the sharing together, too.

And my children and I moved on, in time, to a different place, a house of our own, where we have lived now for over two years and intend to stay for as long as we can...but that is another story.

The story that I carry in my heart each day, is the one of Desiree and Sis K and Gene. It means to me community, it means to me the future, it means to me the daily growth and nourishment of my children in the world. This is one part of a great whole, our story of transition. And in this part there are three individuals whose hospitality and kindness meant survival to my family.

These are, for Oregon, for the nation, hard times. Transitory times where the old cycles of boom create an inevitable trough. In Governor Kitzhaber’s recent state of the state address he told the story of an unemployed woman in rural Oregon whose neighbor ran an extension cord between their houses so the woman could have light and heat. Another was providing her with water.

This is an image of relationship—a cord strung between houses—and I can identify with that relationship, the lifeline provided by friends and sometimes strangers to those of us in precarious circumstances. That trust and tremendous generosity is a small vital channel, an artery. It pulses with potential, with all we can be to each other, and, if we are willing, all we can choose to share.