Readers write about Might

Measuring Might

The toasted O escaped my early morning bowl abetted by a flood of milk from the carton in my sleepy hand. The feisty oat circle breached the gunwale, fled across the countertop like an errant spare tire, and found both misfortune and mortality by falling into the noxious abyss of our cat's red plastic food bowl on the floor below. Had the runaway landed on the linoleum, I'd have considered a reprieve, but not now. Despite its heroics, this little loop's breakout ended in ruin for both itself and me. I now faced the painful prospect of bending over to pluck the escapee from its tragic landing zone and, worst of all, trying to get back up again.

My getting-back-up problem first came to light years earlier in my OHSU neurologist's cramped consultation space. I'd have gladly gone over the wall that day for a shot at freedom from the turn my life had taken. The good doctor pulled his prescription pad from the side pouch on his tidy white coat. He produced his pen like a sword from the pocket adjacent to his blue monogrammed surname with the MD suffix, stabbed its point into the pad, and paused. “I can write you a prescription for a wheelchair now if you would like.”

Everything I knew of measuring human might came up for review. The yardstick marked with stripes for strength, endurance, and stamina snapped. The ruler lines of speed, distance, height, and depth: useless. The scale calibrated to things seen and heard, touched and smelled: futile. Money, a tool too short. Fitbit, laughably pointless. Gone too were the sometimes-comforting standards of the mighty: status, rank, authority, and position.

When might, by any known measure, deserted me; when all the weights and measures failed; when all that's visible turned in on itself, how then, shall might—my might—be measured? If restoring order to my cat's bowl becomes my most mighty act today, what then?

Are there, I've wondered, other, more real measures of might? Perhaps they loiter nearby, unused, unacknowledged? Is might not an act at all, but something invisible instead? Is might a gift of serious delight, even when I can't comfortably get back up? Is there might in the satisfaction of surprising gladness when nothing works, of contentment and rest when everything hurts? Is happiness leaking out from my insides, apart from all else, a matter of might? Is might more than the might of core and limb?

Is might a Cheerio I stoop down to pick up, smiling?

Dave Kenagy, Salem


True Rest

The executive director was new to the university the student had been attending for years. She'd stretched every ounce of her polished being while advancing through the academic ranks toward this fresh pinnacle of success. He'd worn his body ragged keeping up with classes while maintaining a duct-taped tent by the lake ten miles away.

She'd gone to her bank that morning to finish paperwork for her new home, joking about the lackluster quality of her mocha. He was already biking to class, but had fire-boiled water that morning, resoaking yesterday's coffee grounds, confident that relief was on the way in the form of a sizable and long-awaited student loan check.

They'd unknowingly walked past each other on campus as he bounced, cans clanging, from the food bank toward financial aid.

His check wouldn't be available until Monday, even though he'd been promised today. This meant four more nights in the tent with heavy rains forecast. It was the last indignation his emptied heart could sustain, and he trembled into tears, pushing away from the empty gaze of the puzzled worker. He knew in the innermost depths of his soul that no one cared that today was the day he was meeting the owner of a studio apartment to finally sign a lease for permanent housing.

She was gliding to the library for a board meeting and took notice of him this time, bawling into the bark of an oak tree. She tentatively approached, and learned, between breathy sobs, his predicament.

She might have given him generic words of encouragement and directed him toward another department. He might have found the power inside to survive another few tent days.

But that isn't what higher education is supposed to be.

She took him to lunch and gave him a twenty. Then she sent him to class and went back to her desk, forgoing her meeting in favor of a student. She counted the many ways that she was blessed. She made a few calls, polite yet demanding, locating his schedule in the database. She collected his off-cycle check from financial and waited outside of his classroom with grace. He finished the lecture, hopeless, expecting shivers and whispers from the cold in the dark of the long night ahead. Then he saw her, envelope extended out toward him, and knew he'd finally have some true rest.

David Downey Jr., Ashland


The Sea of Possibilities

I turn sixty next year. The question is, “Now what?” I could easily stay on course, doing what I do where I do it, and then patiently wait to die.

Or not.

Like Ishmael, I get myself to sea “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” In other words, when I need to touch God or feel alive. Sometimes the sea is as prosaic as Depoe Bay or Newport, and sometimes it is a metaphorical sailing into the unknown, a brave act of cutting the rope that keeps me anchored to a familiar, safe harbor. Such a setting forth forces me to trust myself and the world. It's faith.

I've done this repeatedly.

I left an editing job in Seattle to join the Peace Corps in Cameroon.

I left a promising banking career in Seattle to attend seminary in New York.

I took a sabbatical from my school in Oregon to teach in Mexico, taking my three young children with me.

I sailed in place through my fifties as I took up the cello, published two books, and earned my third master's degree.

Now it is getting toward November again.

Over 70 percent of the world is covered by ocean, and, according to NOAA, “Most of the ocean is unexplored—about 95 percent of this underwater realm is unseen by human eyes.” At best, we live in a tiny known corner of a great mystery.

Metaphorically speaking, however, the entire world is an ocean—dangerous, unfathomable, inspiring, frightening, beautiful, and chock-full of life. And at least 99 percent of it is still unseen by this particular human's eyes, relatively well traveled though I be.

Why does it matter?

Why not stay here, doing this, with people known and loved? Why make a move?

In José Saramago's brilliant fable “The Tale of the Unknown Island,” it isn't the man petitioning the king for a boat who most enchants me: it's the cleaning woman who leaves the familiar routine of the palace in order to sail with a stranger into the great unknown. Once the idea of renewal is introduced, how can it be ignored?

Or it's like this: Over twenty years ago a dear friend of mine was dying of kidney failure. I got myself tested, and once I knew we were a close match, what choice did I have but to go under the knife? Love overwhelms all other possibilities.

Why should it be any different for my own life?

Because as sure as the sea is a metaphor for all the possibilities in the world, so is it a symbol of seven billion unique souls. Few of us have explored 95 percent of our own depths.

As I approach elderhood, then, I must ask myself: How much more can I experience and learn in whatever time is left to me?

So when I turn sixty, I will move to Central Oregon, get a new job, meet new people, and take up hiking. I have no idea what else might happen, which is the point.

“As you set out for Ithaka,” Cavafy suggested, “hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.” I would add, hope the voyage is a lifelong one.

Lea Mathieu, Ione


Museum of Mights

We muck out the garage. Again. Not naturally organized, we often fail to put things back. Children of depression-era parents, we fear tossing anything in case we might need it.

Our garage is a museum of “mights,” or “might someday” or “might still.”

I open a red-and-green Christmas organizer box, one of many. I love to decorate but have resorted to easily placed Santas and one small Victorian tree.

This box of country-style ornaments reflects a previous décor phase, a collage of our life: ferry from Washington State, sunflower from Kansas, cuckoo clock from Germany. I might put up a big tree covered in memories—someday.

“I haven't used these in twenty-five years; time to let go,” I think now. With no children or grandchildren of our own, I pass them to friends whose little boy will get more joy from them than I do with my guilt each Christmas, leaving them hidden in a box.

Flipping through boxes of record albums—Gordon Lightfoot, Abba, the Moody Blues—memories flood back. My husband planned to convert these to digital, but with iTunes, where's the need?

“Vinyl is coming back,” he says with a grin. The boxes go to the attic.

Our bikes hang from the ceiling, where they've hung unused for a year. I'm not giving up that might.

I'm inspired by older athletes, like Olga Kotelko, who started competing in the Senior Olympics at seventy-seven and kept improving each year, breaking new records until her death at ninety-five. At sixty-two, I still have time. I doubt I'll follow her into events like the high jump or hammer throw, but maybe long-distance biking. I have visions of biking inn to inn in Vermont, in France.

In years past, I hired a professional organizer, Jill, to clear clutter.

Jill would say, “In a perfect world, how many cleaning rags do you need?” We'd compromise. I kept seven.

As I use twenty rags to clean sawdust off garage surfaces, I think: “Good thing those seven rags multiplied.”

Faced with the stack in front of me, I hear her voice. “Those comforters don't go with your décor. The rain jackets are worn. Tent and sleeping bags? You hate camping. Army boots?”

Solid organizer thinking, but the Oregon Coast's big “might” overrides. If our house survives, if we escape the tsunami, we'll need all these things—for us, for neighbors, for tourists caught unprepared.

Kathie Hightower, Nehalem


Fort Hunter

The boys called it Fort Hunter. They made it out of driftwood, intricately designed in a way that rendered nails unnecessary. Instead, they used their twenty-year-old bodies to lift and arrange the old logs, more gray than brown from years of being bleached by the sun. We were in our early twenties that summer; I was on the edge of graduate school, at a university on the East Coast, while my boyfriend was going to finish his undergraduate degree in Corvallis.

On the morning of July 4, we parked behind an old summer house, in a paved lot that only Astoria locals knew about, paraded through the tall dune grass, up and down banks of sand, and finally witnessed the structure. It stood proudly at the edge of the spit, spanning about four hundred feet of sand. The boys gave us (the girlfriends) the grand tour, urging us to use our imaginations. A fireplace graced the entryway, little chips of driftwood angled against each other to symbolize flames. In the next room, the bedchamber, rows of logs formed a roof to provide privacy; a bed frame, beautifully white where they'd shaved the wood down, stood in the corner. The kitchen boasted a dining room table, chairs, and a stove. We admired their work, moving from room to room and rolling our eyes at the flag, composed of someone's boxer shorts, attached to the peak.

Our group hosted an annual Independence Day bonfire, inviting friends to drink whiskey and PBR while we tried to win the contest for the biggest fire. As sunset passed into dusk, one of the boys set a lighter to a beam supporting Fort Hunter's entrance. We watched the fire lick along the fireplace, the bedchamber, and the dining table. For one perfect moment, a moment when we all paused, put down our drinks, and, quietly, looked, the structure stood brilliantly aflame. In the next moment, our drinks splashed against our ankles as we screamed and fled the sparks scattered by its collapse.

That was the last summer we were all together. I live in California now; other high school friends moved away from the coast to the valley; a few are dead. Some of us have children, others PhDs, and others, such as myself, are still out looking for that perfect version of life—like the one that we built and burned that summer, years ago.

Claire Conklin, San Francisco


Oregon Humanities Magazine


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