I took Willowmena home this week.
I lifted her right out of the Land of Bleak and fled, with all my might, to the mountains and the water, my city in the hills, Seattle. It is no simple matter for me, to travel two thousand miles, even with a non-stop flight. It’s not cheap for a school teacher/writer, and I have a house and a couple of sensitive and demanding pets which need looking after. Nevertheless, I did it. Or maybe it was Willowmena. Because I felt like it wasn’t actually me sitting behind my desk in Room 6, twenty kids put to work so I could get on the computer and make the arrangements.
At first, I was simply going to look at prices, but before I knew quite what was happening, probably at the behest of one of the characters that are housed in my body, I had booked a flight and a hotel room. It was done. I was going, money, house, and pets be damned. I was going home, and no one or nothing would stop me. I told very few people of my plans. I just went. I fled, almost like a thief in the night. I went home. I took Willowmena with me.
I grew up in Washington state, was torn away from it very abruptly early in my teens with the sudden death of my mother, banished to Houston and the hot, coastal plain, away from any familiar family and friends. I hardly had any say in the matter as I was placed in school and found myself living my life in a place that felt as foreign as the dark side of the moon. To say that I was homesick in those early years doesn’t adequately express how I felt. I was sick for home, for the mountains and the water, for four seasons, for the sense of direction that I had lost in a place where there were no physical landmarks. I cried with the pain of it, listening to Carol King’s “Home Again” from the Tapestry album, over and over.
Of course, I moved on. You do what you have to. I have made Houston my home these past fifty years. My blood has become thin in this climate, and I shiver and chatter like a skeleton if the temperature falls below sixty degrees.
But for some reason, something in me had to get back to my real home last week, and so I just went. To say that it’s been a difficult year would be an understatement. There have been hurricanes and floods and freezes which have caused me no small amount of property damage. I will never forget lugging my aging yellow lab, Genevieve, up the stairs by myself as the flood waters of Harvey rose downstairs, even as I was getting texts and phone calls from well-meaning friends to climb up onto my roof because this was the flood to end all floods. My children had moved out the previous month, and I was alone in the big old house. I had unexpectedly lost someone very dear to me that same month. I had to put down Genevieve in November.
School started two weeks late, and when it did, the difficult group of parents that my second-grade colleagues and I had been warned about came on with a vengeance. I have never, in my nineteen years of teaching public school, had such a hard time with parents. They think they know everything, and all I can do is shake my head and think, “You’ll learn.” Children grow up and have minds of their own. I think they come to us this way.
So, for all of these reasons, or maybe none of them, I ran, to my mountains, my emerald city, a magical place of floating bridges and ferries, houses clinging to the sides of steep hills, coffee and flowers, fish and chips, a Space Needle – someone’s whimsical vision of the future which we are now living in. The numerous bums and pot smokers on the streets don’t even bother me. I came home, if only for a few days, and it was like an infant being returned to its mother’s breast. I stood on the edge of the continent, the very world, and I got what I needed, with every footstep, every breath of mountain air, every glimpse of the bay.
I said to myself that it would be a writing retreat, and maybe it was, but I did little more writing than my daily morning journal. I was too busy soaking it all in. What did I do? I had no plan. I checked into my hotel and then walked down Spring Street to the water, the piers. I stopped at Ivar’s and had some fish and chips, fed some of my French fries to a likely looking seagull. I’ve been writing about a duck that Willowmena has befriended, and I had been advised to feed some ducks while I was there. This bird sufficed. He was bright-eyed and cheerfully expressive. He was a pro at catching fries in mid-air. I came back every day and he was there – I swear it was the same bird.
I found myself on a Washington state ferry, bound for Bremerton. Never have I taken this particular ride, but it is magnificent on a fine, clear day. Mt. Rainier looms right out of the water, practically on top of you, and the view of the city cannot be beaten. It’s an hour one way, so you get your money’s worth. I have never thought much of the touristy joy rides around Elliott Bay that are offered from the piers. Take a Washington state ferry ride, either to Bremerton or Bainbridge. You will not be disappointed. You will get your bang for the buck.
Seattle-ites are not sharp dressers – indeed, it’s hard to tell the good citizens from the bums – but they are friendly, in spite of this thing you hear about the Seattle freeze. They are serious about their coffee; they put me in mind of the French with their bread, the way they carry their baguettes under their arms on the streets and in the subway. There must be a Starbuck’s on every block in Seattle. Still, you must wait in line to get your coffee, while customers discuss the specifics and nuances of varied blends.
I favor the Starbuck’s across from the main entrance to Pike Place Market. It is not the original store, but this I have never been able to find. This one works for me. I love to sit at the window, drinking my coffee, watching the Market open in the rising sun. It is a fascinating, colorful place, one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country.
Readers of Willowmena and her adventures should recognize Seattle in the Land Outside and the City of Jewel. I am so happy that there is such a place that she can escape to, if only briefly. Even Willowmena needs a break from Bleak, as purposeful as her life there may be.
I am back now, in Houston, these last two days. It is like a dream happened, and like a dream can be, very real and immediate. I feel calm and replenished. I think Willowmena and I got what we needed. We can continue with the trudge.