Empty streetcorner in small New Mexico town

Restaurant with giant horse statue in front of it

Run-down small house

road with long horizon

Three 12-hour days in a row, through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, the corner of New Mexico, and Texas, followed by an 8-hour day through Texas. So much Texas.

Texas broke me. Late on the 4th afternoon of nothing but driving, it was 104 degrees in Fort Worth. When I got out of the car at a gas station, it felt like stepping into a furnace. When I hit that wall of heat, my tenuous hold on OKness melted.

I felt overwhelmed by how foreign such huge swaths of my country feels to me. I felt overwhelmed by how much of the land is empty, or only very sparsely populated. I felt overwhelmed by our history. We passed so many towns that are shells of what they once were. Old buildings with empty or boarded-up store fronts. Dilapidated motels, falling-down gas stations, shuttered restaurants. I felt overwhelmed by the scope of ugly commercial sprawl. We passed so many towns with nothing but chain restaurants and gas stations. I felt overwhelmed by how many Americans are living such hard lives. It’s one thing to know it from images and stories, and another thing to drive through places and see it first-hand.

(I still feel overwhelmed by all these things.)

All the photos above are taken from the car, often through the window. We didn’t take time to stop for anything but eating and sleeping. The first three days we pulled into the towns we were staying for the night after 9:00 PM. I do not recommend traveling this way.

My ex-husband used to “joke” that if I were on the Oregon Trail, I’d never have survived. (We lived just off of what was once the Oregon Trail, and he said this fairly often. Part of this week’s journey took us past part of the Trail in Wyoming. Or maybe Colorado.) It was a mean joke, and I never appreciated it, but this week, I have acknowledged that he was somewhat correct. I probably would not have. But, as Cane pointed out when I said something about it somewhere in Idaho (or maybe Colorado), I would never have gone on that trail.

Or maybe I would have. I mean, I made this trip, probably for reasons not unlike those other women had for following their men to a place far from their homes.

Somewhere in the midst of the travel (honestly, it’s all kind of a blur), I read “Welcome to Iowa,” which provoked conflicting feelings. Yes, we (Americans, so many of us) are out-of-touch rubes with an inflated sense of ourselves, and, yes, I’m an asshole for having so many of the thoughts I’ve had about the places we traveled through (primarily, that we are rubes).

We did finally make it out of Texas, however, and I felt such relief when there were trees again.

There are absolutely gorgeous trees in Louisiana. We stopped in Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackatush”) for lunch on our last day, after I insisted at the end of day 4 that I needed some restoration before we reached our destination. I was able to take this photo while standing (rather than sitting in a moving car). It’s a pretty town, the oldest in Louisiana. (It’s also where Steel Magnolias was filmed, and I now want to watch that again.)

As you read these words, we are already deep into the reason we came: Renovating the house we bought last summer. Our first full day here we put in about 12 hours of work. It’s going to be another kind of journey. I’ll try to keep you updated, but I have to go to the library to have internet on my laptop, so we’ll see. I am posting small updates and photos on Instagram, if you want to follow along there.

(If you’d like to know about the Freedom School building in the first photo, here ya go.)

On the road

truck packed for a trip

Rita with sunglasses and a neck pillow

long flat landscape

Sun setting in rearview mirror

wyoming butte

We left Portland on Friday morning, heading to Louisiana. We drove east on I-84, through Oregon and into Idaho, and then I-80 through the rest of Idaho and into Wyoming. I’m writing these words at the end of a second 12-hour day in the car. This is the first really long road trip I’ve taken since I was 14. It’s feeling a bit revelatory.

The most striking thing about the miles we’ve covered so far is how empty of humans and the detritus of our civilizations they are. Miles and miles of nothing but open land. The highlight for me was a small group of horses living their best life somewhere in western Wyoming, running free, eating grass, no fences in sight.

The low point was a small town that used to be the home of a state penitentiary, which was operational until 1981. The main drag of the town was pocked with shuttered motels and empty restaurants. There was a neighborhood of what might have been charming homes. We’d hoped to eat there, but we couldn’t find any place we wanted to enter, and, honestly, the whole town felt creepy AF (even before we stumbled upon the penitentiary, which is two blocks off the main street) and we got the hell out of Dodge right after filling up our tank. (Later, I googled the penitentiary, and it IS creepy AF. Operational until 1981, with a grisly history. Now it’s a tourist attraction? And apparently haunted?) It was clear that the town was once thriving, but whatever it had was probably built on the misery of that prison. The whole thing left me feeling sad and icky and unsettled.

Driving through miles and miles (and miles) of land so different from what I know, I had a lot of thoughts about our country and its divisions. I won’t share them, as I know I don’t really know anything about what life is like in the places we’ve driven past, and they are all just speculation. I can say that I found myself having an easier time understanding why so many of us have such different world views; we are living vastly different lives. I knew that before Friday, but in a more abstract way. Something about driving through all these places makes it more concrete.

I can also say that this drive has increased my appreciation for where I live. For evergreen forests, big salt water, glacier-carved rivers, marine air. It was hard for me to drive away from home, knowing that I will be gone for most of the summer. The raspberries in the backyard were just ripening, and the blueberries hadn’t begun to yet. I will miss them this year.

It’s nice to have reminders of how much I love what I have.

And on that note, I’ll share a poem that crossed my feed on Saturday:

And my last breakfast at home. It was so good, and I’m so thankful to have had it.

We still have three more days to go, hitting a lot of Colorado and Texas before getting to Louisiana. Would love to hear about any of your adventures.

Fleetingly sweet

carton of strawberries

I discovered Hood strawberries about 15 years ago; a classmate brought them to a potluck we had for our final class session. Despite having lived in Oregon for nearly two decades, I had never tasted them, a local berry more tiny, juicy and sweet than any I’d known.

They are named for the mountain I once lived on, which is named for a British admiral who never stepped foot on it, by an invader/explorer who came from the people who took over the land and, thus, got to name it. I’d much prefer that they be called Wy’east berries, which is the name the Multnomah people used for the mountain.

A potluck is not the same thing as a potlatch, which I learned about in second grade in Mrs. Smallwood’s class. “Potlatch” is a word from the Nootka, a northwest Native tribe, that means “gift.” At a potlatch, hosts give away gifts to show their regard for their guests. Hood strawberries, despite their name–which came through a process of theft–would be an appropriate thing to either bring or give away at a gathering. Mrs. Smallwood lived on the shore of Puget Sound, a body of water named by the man who led the expedition of the man who named the mountain, for another man in his party. It is part of the Salish Sea, a name and way of viewing the waters I grew up near that I did not learn about as a child. (Washington state did not officially recognize the name until 2009, long after my childhood had passed on.) Mrs. Smallwood invited all of us to her home on the beach for a potlatch that was more of a potluck. Our parents brought food, and we fired the coil pots we’d made in our classroom in pits in the sand, as we were told the Native people had done. What a gift–no matter the name of the gathering–to be a child in a time and place where a teacher could open her home in such a way.

The strawberries are only available for a few short weeks in June, a gift fleeting as that month’s green grass, mild sun, and rose blossoms. I used to try to make the gift last longer, boiling the berries into jam or freezing them whole. I had fantasies of perfect June berries in my January yogurt, a spot of sunshine in the cloudiest time of year. The jam proved to be no substitute for a solid berry, and the whole ones I froze defrosted into a sloppy mush. I threw them all in the compost bin the next June, after thinking all winter that I would surely do something with them, and finally admitting that I wanted them only the way that I can have them in June, or not at all.

I now have them only once a year, for a few short weeks that are never enough and always so much.

This week my friend Lisa brought Hood strawberries and angel food cake to an impromptu dinner. We talked of many things that are changing: our bodies, our work, our environment, our world. “Enjoy avocados while you can,” she said as we discussed diminishing water supplies and schemes to desalinate ocean water and pipe it to southwest states.

I used to want to dole the berries out and eat them slowly, as if that might somehow make them last longer. Or, I’d only get them when I could make them into some dish worthy of their greatness. Or, I’d only eat them when I could savor them, fully appreciate them. I was afraid, if I ate them too quickly, that I wouldn’t have them when I really wanted them. Inevitably, some would rot while I was waiting for the right time, or I’d end up getting only one carton in a season.

Now, I buy them whenever I see them and eat them while they are fresh. I’ve given myself permission to take a few each time I open the refrigerator. I get them as often as I can, because the season is so short and nothing is guaranteed. For all I know, this is the last year I will get to eat Hood strawberries. I know for sure it is the last year that this version of me will. Next year’s Rita might not be able to enjoy them in the same way that this year’s Rita can.

Life is so full of big, hard things we can barely swallow. People lose their land, their names, their loves, their lives. The more I lose the more determined I am to eat all the sweet things that I can, while I can, with love and appreciation and gusto.

single strawberry

Of roots and wilting and home

Drooping tomato plants, newly transplanted to tin planters

Medical exam room, with bed, computer on a cart, medical equipment

A stand of firs in a park, with a faint path running through it

A hand pointing at something on a map in an atlas

House in front of trees with mist hanging above them

This week Kari asked about the origins of blog names, which got me thinking about the name I gave this one, Rita’s Notebook.

Originally, I intended this space to be more notebook than anything else, a place (as I say on the About page) to “collect bits and bobs of memory, thought, and feeling.”

Also this week, in a bit of serendipity, I came across Beth Kephart’s thoughts on notebooks in her book We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class: “Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, knowing is not just a talent or a predilection; it is a discipline. The tool of the trade can be a diary or journal or notebook” (p. 36).

She then draws upon the thoughts and practices of other writers who use this “tool,” including Lydia Davis, Patti Smith, Joan Didion, and Virginia Woolf. Kephart’s selection of these words from Didion, in conjunction with Kari’s question, got me thinking hard about purposes for this space:

We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Didion quoted by Kephart, page 39

Primary question: Why have a public notebook? Can it serve the same function as a private one? I suppose one reason I conceived of this sort of notebook was the digital nature of it. So many things I wanted to save were coming to me in a digital format. What is lost and gained, in public vs. private, digital vs. analog?

Some possible answers might be derived from something else that came to me this week (just this morning, actually, via Anne Helen Petersen), The Case for Phone-Free Schools. There is so much in this that I can’t pull out one or two particularly meaningful bits. It is primarily about adolescents and learning, but it is really about social connection and what smart phones do to our brains (and mental health).

More questions.

I lost most of this week to migraine. I had one that lasted 7 days and could not be defeated by my usual meds or Urgent Care’s “migraine cocktail.” It finally succumbed to a drug I was previously told that I could not use any more, for reasons that are apparently lost somewhere within my medical charts. I held out on taking it as long as I could, but pain is a persuader like no other.

I have spent so much time in medical exam rooms, they feel like a kind of home. There was a small boy in the Urgent Care waiting room running circles around an island of chairs. The noise of his sneaker soles against the carpet, and of his breathing–jagged–almost undid me, but a woman (his grandmother?) spoke so kindly to him as she asked him to stop. He slowed, but did not stop. I needed him to stop and hated to see him stop, hated to need him to stop. I missed my grandmother.

What if those of us who are older ran like that boy in our bodies rather than in our minds?

I say I “lost” the week, but that’s not quite right. My week was rearranged more than lost. I moved the tomato plants that grew themselves from last year’s seeds; they sprouted at the edges of the planters, so I transplanted them to the center, and placed cages over them. They did not like being uprooted, wilting dramatically for several days. I spent several mornings sitting in the backyard, off my phone or computer, learning the ways of the small, blue birds that live in our arbor vitae. There is a squirrel that lives in a neighbor’s cedar, home to a scurry of them, that likes to eat the deep-pink flowers off a carnation I planted last year. It does this at the same time each day. I suppose I wouldn’t have seen this if it weren’t for migraine.

(I love that the squirrel eats my flowers.)

What’s the value of knowing about the squirrels and the birds, of having seen them? I am not sure. Perhaps it will be revealed later. Perhaps I will be glad, later, that I recorded this here, where I can easily search for and retrieve it. My paper notebooks do not have this feature.

Didion had me wondering if I should change the blog’s settings to private, cease making it public. What value does any person’s “bits of the mind” have for others?

After the headache cleared, I took a quick trip up north to my parents’ place. There was a moment, not recorded by my phone, when I was driving on a road that follows a shore’s path, and the swath of trees that borders the road gave way to a clear view of the water. At the moment of clearing I could feel something in my body shift and calm. When I was growing up, my parents were not boat people or water people, despite where we lived. I did not grow up on the water, in any way, but it was always there. Big bodies of it, surrounding me, as if I were a peninsula. Where I live now there is a big river–several of them–but a river is a straight line running past, not a surrounding sea.

As we got in the car to leave, my son said to me, “I can smell the beach,” and I took in a deep lungful. Yes, I could smell it, too, and feel it, standing on the pavement next to the car next to the house. Something damp and fecund and salty. I miss it when I am there, in it. I get it in my lungs and realize that I don’t feel as at-home anywhere else, even back in our neighborhood park full of fir trees that stand like sentinels, reminding me so much of the trees in my first neighborhood, the one at the top of the trails that took us to the beach, that I took a picture of the park trees this week, days before my trip home, while in the midst of the migraine that almost canceled the trip.

Migraine is another kind of home.

A notebook is a kind of home, too. This summer, I will be living and working in a place without easy internet access, and I’m wondering if I should go old-school–do all my reading and writing off-line, with paper and ink. I wonder what that might do, how it might feel?

I wonder if it might feel like going home. (You can never go home again.)

Flowering red-pink plants, with blooms heavy on the right clump and light on the left clump

On blooming

I am in love with our garden. I am in love with how stuffed full of leaf and bloom and blossom it is. I love its abundance, its variety, its generous beauty. I love the way it is just a little bit out of control.

A few short years ago, it looked like this:

And now, it looks like this:

The second photo was taken in a different month, but you get the gist. Originally, once the brief, glorious weeks of the tulips and willow blossoms passed, there wasn’t much going on here. The bed in these photos was nearly empty. Now, it is so full we can’t really squeeze any more plants into it.

When I retired two years ago, people asked me if I was going to focus on writing, maybe try to publish another book. I wanted to say “yes,” but if my writing were a garden, it was even emptier than the “before” picture of my actual garden above. Ironically, as I (almost) fully retired at the end of last school year, it began to get harder to write even here, where I’d been writing faithfully every week for a good, long stretch. Increasingly, I had nothing I really wanted to say. I wanted to say “yes” to the writing question–hadn’t I dreamed of that for years?–but the kinds of projects and goals I once cared about no longer called to me. Maybe, I thought, it was too late for them.

What I really wanted–and, I now know, needed–was to rest and recover. I needed to tend my literal garden, and my home, too. I needed to tend my body, and my family. I needed to slow down. I needed the constant, low-grade vibration in my head to cease its constant thrumming. Sometimes I miss that; it’s a little weird to have my head be a quieter place. It’s unfamiliar. But living this way is better, and I’m beginning to feel myself turning back to words.

I still don’t have a big project or goal, but in the past few weeks I’ve spent most mornings at our dining table in front of a window that looks out to the garden, writing. And it has felt really, really good.

I didn’t have a grand plan when I began transforming this garden. I didn’t even have a specific goal; I just wanted it to be full. I wanted it to feel abundant. I wanted the garden to become a semi-permeable barrier between us and the world; something with a Secret Garden feel to it, but more open. I wanted a clear sense of our own space, but I also wanted to be able to see and wave to people who walk by. I didn’t really know how to make it into that.

I began throwing things into the ground and hoping they would live. I planted a lot of plants that did not live. I planted plants that lived but did not thrive. I ended up moving those to other places in the yard. I transplanted some things from other places where they hadn’t done well. Some things in here–like the peony pictured above–I did not plant at all. I have no idea how that peony got there, but it has come back every year for the last three, bigger each time, and I love it. I love that I didn’t plant it, but it grew there, anyway. Sometimes our creations are like that, you know? The things we never plan for, the things that fall in our laps, live and thrive, while other things we give our best efforts die.

This past week, in my morning writing, I’ve worked on revising an essay I first began more than three years ago. I wrote a first draft of something else that I didn’t like at all, but it took me back to a draft of something older that I’d never finished before, and this week I finished it. I pulled out some other things I started in recent years that I think I might be able to finish now.

I’m realizing that all these years I thought I wasn’t writing, I was. I have bits of drafts tucked here and there–in blog posts, in messages, in emails, in file folders, on old laptops I don’t use any more. Seeds and starts, all over the place. Maybe whatever I’m going to do with writing is not going to be so different from what I’ve done with the garden.

What is it they say–the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second-best time to plant a tree is now? Something like that.

I don’t have anything finished to share here, but I can offer a snippet. Below is the beginning of the essay I worked on most this week. Maybe someday I’ll get to tell you that it has been accepted somewhere, and I’ll have a link to the whole thing. Or maybe not. Time will tell if this one lives or dies, I guess.


Laura, my great-grandmother’s youngest sister, married her husband, Lawrence, after a decades-long courtship. Lawrence had lived with his mother, and he and Laura did not marry until she died. Growing up, I saw them at weddings and funerals, and they were always warm and friendly. Both descended from Norwegian immigrants, a people I considered–based on the other relatives in that branch of the family tree–to be rather dour and somber, but I never saw such qualities in them. They smiled often, and they always found the decorations beautiful and the cake delicious.

Despite the couple’s sunniness, my cousins and I, steeped in ideas about love and marriage that began with childhood songs about kissing in trees, found them strange and pitiable. “Why couldn’t they stand up to his mother?” we wondered, assuming–well, all kinds of things. 

“I’d never put up with that!” my teenage self declared, reading into their compromises (for, surely, their choices constituted compromise) a kind of weakness. I was years away from being a twice-divorced woman in my forties who would move into a fixer-upper with my teenage twins, a new partner, and his young daughter.


Please feel free to let me know how this opening is working. Where do you think the piece is going? Do you want to follow it there? Or, let me know if something in your world is blooming for you. Or if there’s something you long to cultivate. Would love to hear all about it.

(Speaking of blooming, and things coming up that you don’t expect, last night Cane and I were sitting at a sidewalk table, eating dessert, when a rather large group of naked–or nearly naked–bike riders came down the street. The official Portland World Naked Bike Ride isn’t scheduled until August, so I don’t know who this group was or what their ride was about. It was sort of delightful, though, in a Portland white people doing their weird Portland shit kind of way. They seemed to be having a lot of fun, at no one else’s expense, and I’m always going to be a fan of that.)