Friday, September 2, 2016

Lessons from Dorothy

My dear friend of over 30 years, Dorothy Jenson, died of inoperable liver cancer on Sunday, August 21.

She died at home, with her family. She was comfortable and did not experience pain. I was privileged to spend several sweet times with her in her last few weeks of life. Mark and I joined Dorothy and Ken,  at Sparks Lake in July. We visited Dorothy and Ken at home several times over the summer. Three nights before she died, I spent the night with her so that Ken and their son could get a full night's sleep. These were sweet, tender visits. I am so grateful that the family included me as a family member right up till the end.

Her memorial service was held just two days after she died. She had asked that I give a eulogy and play a song I had written with my ukulele.

Life lessons from Dorothy

            Dorothy Jenson and I met when we were in our mid-twenties. We share the same birth year, the same age of convert baptism, and we both gave birth to five children within the same decade. We share a similar love of the outdoors, books, family, and the gospel. For the first 10 years of our friendship, we were in the same ward; since then we have been in the same ward only briefly as the Oregon City ward boundaries have shifted from two wards when we moved here, to the five wards we know today.
            Across the nearly four decades of our close friendship, I have learned many important lessons from Dorothy. I would like to share eight of those lessons with you today.

1.     Use lots of colors
       If you were to describe Dorothy Jenson in only one word, which word would it be? For many of us, the word “artist” immediately comes to mind. And while some artists may prefer to work in media such as black pen or charcoal, that would not be Dorothy. To experience Dorothy’s art is to experience color. One time Dorothy and I were together in the celestial room of the Portland Temple, a room that is decorated in gold and white to suggest the light and beauty of heaven. As we turned to leave, Dorothy pointed out to me that the carpet was a shade of lavender. What?!? A hint of purple in that gold-and-white room? But I took a closer look at realized that Dorothy was right. Dorothy’s paintings often surprise me with color—orange in a mountain snowfield, pink along the side of a road, blue on a hawk’s face, yellow in a nighttime sky, deep reds and purples among meadow grasses, green hues in white daisy petals,
       In one of her blog posts about her art, she wrote, “Well, who knows what is going to happen when I sit down in my studio? I'm not always sure I do. Today I was thinking about abstract...just designing with color to see what comes up.” What came up was a meadow that looked just like a meadow, even though—or probably because—she used 10 or more different bright colors to paint a scene where I might have imagined only 2 or 3 muted shades.
2.    Pay attention
Dorothy’s use of color is correlated with another of her traits. Along the Eagle Creek Trail, on our first girls-only backpack trip I asked her what she saw as we hiked. I wondered what she noticed with her artist’s eyes. She showed me the lines in the landscape—the lines made by tree limbs, and how the lines of a Douglas fir are different from the lines of a maple tree. She pointed out the contrasts between the light on needles and leaves and the dark shadows that made the light more evident.
       Until she pointed these things out to me, I hadn’t seen any of them. She saw them because she paid attention. Paying attention in this way requires analysis, breaking the whole into parts. Seeing detail. Really seeing, attending.
       Not only did Dorothy attend to shadows and shapes, she attended to people. She noticed details and nuances in what people said and did. So much of living a life of kindness is tied to knowing when and how to be kind, and Dorothy blessed my life and yours because she knew how to pay attention.
3.    A sense of smell is highly overrated
       Did you know that Dorothy did not have a sense of smell? There was always some irony for me in her love of flower gardening, but for Dorothy, flowers didn’t grow for sweet smell; flowers were all about color. I remember one time walking into the house on John Adams Street, with the scent of Dorothy’s delicious homemade bread wafting through the screen door as I pushed it aside. “What smells so good?” I reflexively asked her (even though it was obviously bread baking). “I don’t know,” she replied, laughing.
       Dorothy found humor and the bright side in her “disability.” Stinky diapers produced by five babies never bothered her! In recent years when she and Ken organized campouts at Sparks, Lake, she cheerfully managed the group’s porta-potty maintenance—nothing smelled funky to Dorothy.
       Although Dorothy generally maintained a light-hearted take on her inability to smell, she was sometimes wistful. She shared with me how she appreciated the skills of sister-in-law Kate to describe scent in terms of color and texture.  Daughter Sarah remembers describing scents to Dorothy as colors. Dorothy told me once that for one afternoon, she briefly gained the ability to smell and that she had eagerly sniffed everything until the gift faded in the evening. Although Dorothy’s stance toward not smelling—that it was no big deal, really—was positive and light-hearted, I can’t help but think how much she must be enjoying the sweet smells of her new heavenly home.
4.     Be nice
       Years ago, when Gordon B. Hinckley was still president of the Church, Dorothy sat down with the General Conference talks published in the Ensign magazine to read all of Present Hinckley’s messages from the recent conference.
She told me afterwards that she wanted to capture his key ideas so she could commit to following the prophet’s counsel. To her surprise, she was able to distill his several messages into two words: Be Nice.
       Be nice! It seemed almost irreverent to think that the inspired words of a prophet, especially the words spoken over the pulpit at a General Conference in Salt Lake City, could be summarized in only 6 letters. Dorothy was not deterred by the simplicity of the syntax. She fully understood that “being nice” required choices and actions on her part, and that “being nice” is a call to walk the higher road, to make the better choice, to choose charity over cheap gossip, to look for—and to acknowledge—the good, to stick up for the underdog, and to trust that others are doing the best they can.
        It is one thing to be nice as a matter of our natures. Dorothy has always been a nice person. But even nice people get tired or frustrated or overwhelmed, and they can speak crossly to a child or spouse, or forget to be grateful in the midst of trials. I believe that discovering that golden nugget of prophetic counsel to “be nice” gave Dorothy a motivation to develop her basic nature and become a mature woman of charity who made deliberate choices to follow the example of her savior.
5.    Go play outside
       One of the gifts of the last few weeks of gradual goodbye for the Jenson family has been the time they have spent together discovering Dorothy’s journals and letters from years back. Becky shared with me how tender it was to read her mother’s thoughts about her before she was even born. And one of the hopes that young Dorothy had for her future family was that she would be able to teach them to love the outdoors.
       Dorothy was thoroughly happy outside. She loved to walk and garden and hike and camp and and canoe and swim and paint and dream and simply be outside. For the last ten years that she and Ken lived in Oregon City, Dorothy and her walking buddy Paulene walked for an hour every morning at 7:00 am, rain or shine. I joined them a few times when I wasn’t teaching, and it was hard to keep up with them! For Dorothy, some of the chief joys of moving to Washougal were the meadow and woodlands surrounding their home, roasting marshmallows with grandchildren around the fire pit, the patio perched on the rise that looked over the valley, the shaded porch with its swing, the flower beds lovingly planted by her Relief Society sisters, the raised vegetable beds Ken built so she could continue gardening into the last weeks of her life—all inviting her outside, every day, to play.
6.    Get it over with
Most of the years we camped with our canoes at Sparks Lake, we pitched our tents at “the cove,” a campsite with its own swimming hole. Of course we took advantage of our swimming hole on the warm central-Oregon summer afternoons! I will always be able to hear Dorothy saying to me, “Kathy, just get in!” Perhaps you will sympathize with me as you imagine that cold water hitting the back of your knees, the top of your thighs, your navel—of course one has to experience things like that gradually, to take time to get used to it. Not Dorothy. It didn’t matter to Dorothy that the water was cold. She knew that getting right in—getting it over with—meant that she could be enjoying the water sooner. She and Ken often joked that by the time I got in the water, they were finished swimming and ready to dry off.
       Dorothy’s practical, down-to-earth view of life helped her to take challenges in stride. Whatever the unpleasantness, it was best to face the reality and get it over with. When the cancer diagnosis came, Dorothy squared her shoulders and deliberately savored each day. And when it became evident that the chemotherapy was not going to allow her to be fully herself in her last months of life, she and Ken talked it over and then she made the classic Dorothy choice—to get it over with—not to hurry death, but also not to prolong a poor quality of life, chasing unrealistic fantasies of a magic cure.
7.     Write it down
       Most of us think of visual art when we think of Dorothy, and rightly so. She is a prolific and highly creative artist. She is also, however, a prolific and dedicated writer. She kept a thoughtful, opinionated, and descriptively detailed journal all of her adult life, a legacy that her family treasures. When she was called as Relief Society president, she instituted a weekly email, titled “The Chatter,” to all the women in the ward. Her vision was more than an informative list of activities and announcements. She wanted to write a weekly letter to the women in the ward, her sisters, to bind our hearts together. Oh, how we looked forward to Dorothy’s weekly chatty email letters.
       And speaking of letters, Dorothy maintained a lively correspondence with Ken when, as newlyweds of only one year, they were separated for several months while he completed army training. Dorothy’s family recently rediscovered these letters as they were sorting through her correspondence, and what a treasure they have been—to read the tender words of that young husband and wife, missing one another, writing of their hopes and dreams for the future. More recently, since her cancer diagnosis, Dorothy has composed individual handwritten letters for each of her 14 grandchildren and 5 children and also her mother and Ken.
       Through her writing, Dorothy’s family continues to hear her voice on matters from the mundane and daily to the deeply thoughtful. Dorothy could always be counted on to get to the point, to speak the truth, and yet to do so gently, and with humor and love.
8.    Stick to your story
       We rarely use the word “true” in one of its archaic uses, which is to be in exact alignment, exactly straight. Dorothy Jenson was true in that way. She had an innate sense of justice, of kindness, and though she was often perceived as a quiet person, she was never afraid to speak up in defense of her family and others if the occasion demanded.
      She was also never afraid to interject her version of a story. I have witnessed, many times, Dorothy reminding Ken that we wasn’t getting the story quite right, and then sharing her “more correct” rendering of the facts. These moments almost always included a classic Dorothy eye roll and some good-natured ribbing on both sides.
      Dorothy also stuck to her testimony. She joined the Church at 18 and was firmly committed to the gospel throughout her entire adult life. As a disciple of Christ, she stuck to hope. She and Ken weathered episodes of unemployment, injury, and other disappointments. She chose faith over fear, and gratitude over whining.
      Dorothy’s story has unfolded across the arc of her too-short life but well-lived life. Her story is one of kindness, of gracious inclusion of others, of courage and faith. In sticking to her story, Dorothy exemplifies the invitation of the Master: Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Well done.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


“Look at her posture,” my father said.

            Four words formed in his larynx and uttered in quiet waves in the living room. 1964, I think, staring into the black and white television, rabbit ear antennae with aluminum foil sitting on top. Sunday night for sure, because we were watching Bonanza, which came on after The Ed Sullivan Show, which came on after Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
            So, Bonanza the Western show: a scene set at a fort and a bunch of extras cast as townspeople and ranch people and Native American people walking across the screen to show what a busy hub this fort is and a woman in buckskins walks across the open square of the fort and my father says, “Look at her posture.”
            For weeks after that I walked with my shoulders thrown back, the best, most ramrod-straight posture you have ever seen, but my father never said a word.

            I had grown up hearing “stop picking your nose” because it is important for children to learn tidy habits, and if they are going to pick their noses, which possibly I might still do, they at least need to learn to pick them privately so they don’t get whacked by the back of their father’s hand. The fact that I do not ever remember seeing either of my parents pick their noses says something, although I am not quite certain what. Perhaps their noses did not produce the aggravating accumulations that troubled mine, or perhaps they were more experienced at being discreet, or perhaps I was not very observant. 
            In addition to “stop picking your nose,” which I might hear in almost any setting, I also heard “eat with your chin over your trough,” but only at the dining table. Here, my father explained, he was referring to the necessity of keeping one’s eating apparatus in closer proximity to the plate instead of leaning back and having whole forkfuls of food land in one’s lap. I was far less offended to the references to my plate as a porcine feeding trough than I might have been; secretly, I was tickled by the phrase; I got the joke.

            My father’s tone changed with the phrase: “Eat with your chin over your trough” was a reminder, patiently applied. “Don’t pick your nose” was more embarrassing to a parent, and therefore was delivered with aggravation and impatience. When my father got after my brother and me to “straighten up and fly right,” though, his voice increased in volume and it carried an edge, a raspy gruff warning that we were treading on very thin ice, indeed.  The very idea that we were knuckleheads enough to need such a reminder was patently obvious; we had been taught better than that and we were to cease and desist immediately.
            But when I heard him say “look at her posture,” it was different; he spoke in tones of awe and reverence, and I very much wanted my father to say something like that, in a similar tone, about me. I sat up straight in the third grade when I learned to play the French horn. I stood straight and stayed in step when I carried the Sousaphone in the marching band. At meetings of the Rainbow Girls I glided gracefully—with a straight back—to the front of the room, to the door at the back of the room, giving the secret knock signal, speaking the flawlessly memorized phrases, wearing my floor-length dress, standing with my shoulder blades over my hips over my knees over my ankles, perfectly straight. Such posture, such grace.

            My father was not particularly demonstrative. He loved my brother and me, and we were expected to have enough sense to know that without him having to verbally remind us on a daily basis. He showed his love by respecting us, not so much as children, but as people, people who were quite capable of learning and doing hard things. We lived in a quiet neighborhood in a small town; when I was three I rode my tricycle in the driveway without supervision; by the time I was five I crossed the street alone to go play with the neighbor children. When we were nine and ten my brother and I walked the beach a mile and a half to swimming lessons at the high school pool and home again; when we were ten and eleven we regularly navigated a little row boat a quarter mile across the harbor to play on the sandy peninsula on the other side of the bay. 

            It’s funny that four words can still vibrate across the living room fifty years later. Why that young woman in the buckskin dress provoked that particular comment from my father, I do not know. When he said, “look at her posture,” I looked and caught just a glance of her, her collar bones set back right sharp, her hair swinging behind her. Was his comment a euphemism of appreciation for the actress’s comely shape? A premonition of my mother’s eventual hunching over? A completely random meaningless spewing of four small words to cover some awkward moment I did not understand as a child? Was good posture something he even cared or thought about? Out of all the things he said, why do I so clearly remember those four words?

            Dad died three years ago, a good death, clean and painless. He was sharp right up until the last couple of hours. He sat up straight in his living room chair and gave me orders, made me write things down that he wanted done that last morning he was alive. He was not unkind; these were simply things that needed to be done in certain ways, and he knew he didn’t have much time left, so he made sure I knew his expectations. He snacked that afternoon on his favorite “nibbles”—a piece of cheese and salami, only two or three bites, which turned out to be his last meal before he died that night in his bed.

            But that last afternoon, a lot of things suddenly got hard for him. Hard to breathe, hard to walk to the bathroom, hard to speak. My parents lived in a cramped single-wide trailer; even though we had a wheelchair for him, it was too wide for the hallway to the bathroom and the bedroom. Dad and I were in the kitchen. He was sitting in the wheelchair. I was standing behind him, wheeling him toward the hall where my husband would help Dad to the bathroom. My father reached up for my hand, and I paused the chair and moved my hand from the wheelchair to his hand. My dad leaned his head toward my hand held in his, and he leaned his cheek on my hand. I could have bent over to hug him, could have kissed him, could have told him I loved him. We were paused there only a moment, barely longer than a glance. He rubbed his grizzled cheek on my hand and I squeezed his hand from where I stood, standing there, just standing, standing in the kitchen behind the wheelchair, standing straight with good posture behind my father.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Dear Friend

Dear friend,

You know who you are. Yes, this post is for you.

Although we live a thousand miles apart, I can hear the gentle cadences of your voice, the way your smile comes through when we talk. How does it work, this digital world we've grown old in, your voice beamed through unimaginable miles of cold space from where you stand to a silver satellite we cannot see between us and into the waiting curve of my ear?

We are not really 62. We are 16, standing outside the classroom door, watching the boys. We are 16, on the front lawn of the school eating lunch with our circle of girl friends, the lunch bags spread out in a patchy brown paper tablecloth in the center between us. We are 16, driving to Taco Bell for lunch. We are 16, sprawled across your crocheted bedspread sharing the things we thought might be true, the things we could tell no one else, the things we trusted to no one else. We dared to think and dream those things together, yes we did. We are 16, walking the beach near my house while the moonstruck waves lap at our feet and the stars tug at us to sail somewhere out over the far dark horizon.

We've seen each other how many times since that June night when all the seniors rode the bus to Disneyland? Not enough. A handful of times, no more. You married young, and so did I. You moved east, I moved south, then farther north. Since we left our parents' homes behind, our paths almost haven't crossed, and when they have the time has been brief, too brief, and yet. And yet. It doesn't matter, does it? There might be an awkward hug, a cliché to begin our talk, and suddenly we've slipped into the old familiar way of being with, of listening to, of trusting one another.

There's a kind of muscle memory to our friendship, a sureness in the moves, a thread of laughter that winds its way south along the Cascades, up and through the Siskiyous, and gently between the Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range through your valley, and then back north again. A thread, a current, a drumbeat, mostly quiet, but sometimes insistent like that time you called last year because you knew, you just somehow knew, that I was sad.

To you, my friend, I hold these outstretched hands, cupped, trying to hold on to what? Cupped hands as useless as a sieve while time slips through, and here we are: hanging on tight to this beautiful blue spinning planet, and all I can say is happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday. I'm so glad that our times and places on the planet coincided enough that we are who we are: dear friends. Peace to you, and love.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sign Language

*Another reflection on our trip to Antigua in 2004.

Little things you notice:
            Three different times, as I walked past the church called La Merced, I saw a man cross himself as he passed in the other direction. This was not the same man, mind you, but three different men, and one time, the man I saw was riding a bike as he crossed himself. It was a small motion, private.
            On another evening, the son of our dueña came to visit. He wanted to introduce his nine-year-old daughter to us, and he called her to him with an outstretched hand. If it had been me, I would have cupped my hand upward, ready to catch rain perhaps, or a gift. But he was Guatemalan, so he called her with his hand cupped down as his fingers motioned. His hand was the perfect shape to curve gently over her head.
            Then on the plane ride home, we chanced to sit next to one of our former students. This really happened. Eric had been in my literature class last year, and Mark’s homeroom class his freshman year. Eric should have graduated last month, but somewhere between the lit class and graduation he dropped out, and completed a G.E.D. instead. This plane ride was his first one ever, and he watched the landscape below his window with wide eyes. We chatted, and he told us of a summer visit to his mother, where she is a student at Gallaudet University, the university for deaf people. He was a coda he said, and he must have seen the question in my eyes, because he explained that CODA means “child of a deaf adult.”   He told us about working at Gallaudet, as a counselor at their summer camp for deaf children and codas, the challenges and the rewards he experienced. “You just fall in love with the kids,” he said, and his eyes glowed.
Now this is where your heart breaks, because this kid didn’t do well in high school, but he’s obviously bright and eager, and you wonder where the system let him down. Here he is, bilingual in ASL and English, loving working with kids, and yet he doesn’t know what he wants to do in the future. I didn’t know any of this when he was in my classroom last year; I only knew of his interest in skateboarding. I enter my classroom with the intention of being an insightful, caring, helpful adult in the lives of my students. How could I have missed so much?  Eric tells us a funny story about checking in at the airline counter in Baltimore. He had been waiting in line with his mother and her boyfriend, conversing in sign with them both. When it was his turn at the ticket counter, the agent had called in a sign interpreter to help, not realizing that Eric could also hear and speak. He chuckles again over the humor of the moment, and the flight attendant stops by to offer us soft drinks. As Eric accepts his cup, he thanks her, and out of the corner of my eye I notice his hand flick away from his chest, thumb extended, saying thank you twice.

A few small signs, caught with peripheral vision. Who can count the signs I miss every day?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Antigua Mornings

*My friend Liz Jorgensen is currently studying Spanish in Guatemala. Her posts and pictures trigger so many memories of the study trip that Mark and I took in 2004. Here's what I remember about the mornings.

            Sometimes the roosters begin first, sometimes it’s the empty trucks rattling over the cobblestones, but morning comes early in Antigua.  At 4:00 a.m. it’s still pitch-black when the roosters begin.  One fellow sings pretty well, but the rest of the chorus must be teenagers:  cocka-dooka-rawka-rawka.  Sound carries well up to our third-floor room, perched on the roof of the house where my husband and I are home-stay guests for three weeks.   We are intimate with the roosters, and their neighbors the geese.  Year-round, the temperature is in the 70s, and the windows are always open.
            We hear street noise equally well, and we deduce that at 4:00 a.m. the trucks are empty.  Their empty trailers bang down the cobblestone streets with the sound of someone throwing trash cans around.  One morning the sound is even louder, and the next morning, louder still.  One of the stones in the street has come loose, and the hole grows deeper with each passing bus.  Antigua buses!  This is not Tri-met.  Guatemalans import broken-down U.S. school buses, paint them in bright and wonderful colors, and drive them for thousands of miles after their northern rejection.  We live on a street which has been designated a truck-and-bus route.  Before we arrived in Antigua, I imagined that the cobblestone streets, the calles empedradas, would be quaint and tidy affairs like the cobblestone drives I had seen in picturesque settings in the U.S.  The cobblestones I had known were uniform rectangles marching in neat rows.  Antigua cobblestones are stones of all shapes, placed in holes in the street, and occasionally held in place by cement.  When the cement wears away, there is only dust, and then the stone rolls itself out of the hole.  Bang-a-bang-a-bang! Another truck on its way to a load.
            With a sigh, my husband rolls over in his small bed on the other side of our small room—this furniture is not designed for romance—but before he settles into sleep again, he reaches for the bottle of nasal spray to combat his allergic reactions to the constant dust.

            If we are lucky, we will sleep until 6:00, when the church bells will begin their insistent call to mass.  One time we asked a shop owner what the Spanish word is for the noise of the bells.  He looked at us quizzically.  “Ding dong,” he said, leaving us unsatisfied, for these bells are much noisier than a simple “ding-dong.”  “Bong-a-bong-a-dong-a-bang-a-clang” is more like it.  Nearly every morning before the church bells we hear a string of firecrackers, signal that someone in a neighboring family is celebrating their birthday today.  The geese chime in, roosters make a chorus, the bells sing out, and it is a new day in Antigua.