Shooting the Portage
Along the Canadian Shield in Northern Ontario is a path of water that connects beaver dams to streams and lakes to rivers. With an old Grumman canoe, it is possible to witness remote beauty while gliding and paddling north of the Toronto commute on the way to James Bay. The earth that rises above water level and intersperses dry land in the midst of the water trail is the recurring reason to leave the canoe. When landfall is necessary, moving the canoe and packs overland to the next body of water is called “the carry.”
The carry is not the purpose of the journey. The carry is a hard—but essential—part of the journey and is a solitary experience. I have exhausted my range of profanity while feeling that I could carry no longer. I continued to carry because it was my obligation and the only way to continue the journey.
Carries range from fifty meters to five kilometers, and my feelings about the carry ranged correspondingly. The older canvas and metal canoes were heavy, and by inverting the canoe overhead to make the carry possible, my journey became awkward and uneven. The gunnels in a canoe are so wide that I could carry an inverted canoe only by lashing the paddles to the inside, resting the canoe’s weight on the paddles and then on my shoulders. The upside-down canoe shrouded my vision and placed the gunnels at eye level.
The carry commonly involved walking on steep ledges or through marshes and mud. During one particularly long carry, I had to set the canoe down in shallow water, repack the gear, paddle across to an open marsh, and unload to continue the carry. To this day, I recount this as “shooting the portage,” much like shooting rapids or swells—but much slower.
At the end of the day, the end of the trip, and long after the years of canoeing in Northern Ontario, the water trail memories recede. What I remember, and what has been exaggerated in the retelling, are the carries, because they made everything else possible.
GARY ALBRIGHT, Rockaway Beach
When It Shifts
One after another I carry them to her, chore transmuting into ritual.
The hospital bed has been here for months, since she began hospice last December. This week’s addition is a second, smaller bed, wedged in so her partner of twenty years can sleep nearby. But the second bed blocks the closet. Out everything must come, to be moved somewhere else.
Her wife insists she’ll get to it. But why burden her with one more task, something I can easily do? Besides, the wife is a fusser even in the best of times, and the sick woman has no tolerance for being fussed over.
And so, on this first warm day of spring, I send her fussing, loving wife from the room, then pull things from the closet, holding each item up for her to say “yes” or “no.” Shirts. Pants. Jackets. Coats. The illness that is stealing her breath makes her tire easily. Although she isn’t yet confined to bed, or even to the house, her hours are mostly spent lying here or, when she can exert herself, in a recliner in the living room. “Yes” means keep that, I’ll wear it again. “No” means don’t bother holding onto something someone else might use, when I never will.
Terrible at organizing my own life, I am deft at organizing other people’s. Within half an hour, the stack of “What to do with?” shrinks, as both the pile to keep and the pile to give away grow. I don’t notice whether it’s a shirt or jacket, flannel or fleece, that she first asks me to bring closer. She takes the sleeve in her hand, feels the thickness, and, as the April sunlight streams into her corner room, calculates whether she’ll ever need something so heavy again.
After that, I keep carrying. She talks about purples, greens, blues, sometimes recalling where she wore a particular thing. I notice but don’t mention when her touching shifts, becomes not a matter of gauging weight but of bidding each garment goodbye.
LOIS LEVEEN, Portland
What Doctors Carry
Doctors want to help people. I certainly expected to when I finished medical school. It all seemed so noble and unambiguous. Thus it was quite a shock to discover that being a doctor also carried the burden of causing harm.
As a new intern, I remember being awakened at 6:00 a.m. with a report that my patient (my patient!) had an elevated potassium level. I can’t remember if I intended to get up to address the problem and then fell back asleep, or if I hadn’t yet learned that elevated potassium can cause ventricular fibrillation, i.e., sudden cardiac death. In any event, the next call I received was the nurse informing me that my patient had died.
This particular patient was old and infirm. He had a do-not-resuscitate order. Perhaps it was simply his time. But still, after thirty years, I wonder if I served him well.
Maybe that’s why I chose a career in palliative medicine, caring for the terminally ill. Because there was no expectation of keeping patients alive, maybe I hoped to avoid the responsibility of doing no harm. Yet I discovered that, even in palliative medicine, there was no escaping that burden. I still caused harm sometimes. Sometimes my patients died in pain, attached to machines, or amid family strife.
Now I serve as a hospitalist. I fix simple illnesses that require hospitalization: pneumonia, kidney infections, heart failure.
Yesterday I saved a man’s life. I had some premonition his condition might deteriorate suddenly. I wisely moved him to the ICU. When his heart fibrillated the nurses were immediately present to start CPR. We shocked his heart back to life.
Initially I felt immense relief and pride at our success. But then I reviewed his medical record from the prior month, which revealed missed opportunities to avert his “sudden death.”
Even a life saved carries some ambiguity.
Soon my pride morphed into hubris. I found myself thinking, I would not have overlooked those obvious clues.
Just then the ER called. A woman I’d cared for the previous week, with intestinal bleeding, had collapsed at home. The changes I had made to her medicines caused a devastating stroke.
As they say, pride goeth before the fall.
PAUL BASCOM, Portland
Crossing the Bridge
When I think about the word “carry” at the age of eighty-eight, my brain immediately forms the phrase “carry to my grave.” After allowing my mind to explore the implied question of what that might entail, I conclude that I have no dark secrets or unfulfilled ambitions to be revealed, or that best be left unstated. Further exploration of the word leads me to conclude that I am a very long way across the bridge that is carrying me from the first opening of my eyes to their final closing and eternal blackness. In contemplation of crossing my bridge and reaching the end of my trip, I have decided that I wish, and have made the best plan I can conceive, to have it be as abrupt as if I had leaped off.
BILL DURST, Florence
The Burden of Loss
The word haul doesn’t fit, nor does lug, or tote. Move or bring? No, they aren’t right either. The word that applies to that time in our lives is carry. We happily expanded our family to accommodate my husband’s mom. New territory for all, some fun to be had together was what we spoke about. Life doesn’t always go the way you’d like, but you get carried along.
Mom wasn’t happy about becoming dependent; that much we can all agree upon. When we decided a change of scenery might help, I was the one who thought it’d be too much to take the dog along. In my mind it seemed there wasn’t room for Bebe to come to the coast. At this point Mom needed a walker to get around. My logic was that a little cute dog might just get in the way. Trip her up, run out, or get hurt.
I arranged for friends to take the fluffball. I felt funny all day. We stopped for
lunch; Justin carried his grandma out of the van, most likely around the time that
Bebe got out of our friend’s yard. I was moody and not hungry at the restaurant. Looking back, I actually felt frightened. Mom was enjoying her food and talking excitedly about her views from the van. The change of scenery was working for her, at least. Pulling out of the parking lot, headed to Manzanita, we got the phone call: “We wanted to tell you that Bebe got out of the yard. We’re out looking for her and will keep you posted.”
Two days later, we returned home bleary-eyed and exhausted. The kind vet tech explained that a lovely couple had rushed our dog into the hospital a few minutes after we had gotten off the phone with our friends. When they carried her in, Bebe was still warm. They had found her right away, but there was nothing to be done. The tech handed me our dog’s frozen body to be taken to her final resting place. I will carry her death with me the rest of my life.
DARLENE ZIMBARDI, Portland
Heartsad and Resolute
Even here in progressive Portland, I have had something thrown at me from a moving car. Without exception, the common denominator in this aggressive behavior is that those involved are white men. What they fail to realize is that I am too. The nature of the epithets tells me quite clearly that they believe they are threatening a Muslim, that they are threatening someone who’s other than white.
I have lupus, and along with ever-present joint pain and muscle deterioration comes a UV sensitivity so severe I must cover my skin from head to toe in protective clothing. The resulting reactions from people I meet range from benign to openly hostile, with most landing somewhere in between. I have chosen my wardrobe deliberately, testing different options over several years, finding the least threatening version of each piece: a bright blue raincoat to go with my floppy shade hat. These choices have helped to mitigate the fearful responses of people on the street, to move people and thus their responses toward mere caution or even curiosity. Sadly, these choices have done little to alter the angry, threatening responses that sometimes occur. The racist remarks dropped by passersby or hurled from moving cars have been on the upswing this year.
A dedication to meditation helps me carry compassion each day, rather than internalizing these experiences and thus carrying the fear and hatred that defines these violent expressions. It also helps me continue to look for bias in my own responses, to acknowledge my own privilege. For sixteen years, I have had the opportunity to observe how people respond to my physical disability, but in the last few years, the required changes to my wardrobe have brought on these racist responses.
I grew up mainly in the South and witnessed both racism and misogyny from a young age, so I am neither shocked nor surprised by racism. I am heartsad and resolute, determined to do whatever I can to counter its destructive influence. While I would never pretend nor presume to understand what it is to live as a person of color in this city, this country, or this world, I want to share whatever I have to offer that might better illuminate the problems we face as a society and do so in a way that helps move us toward solutions.
ROSS CHAPPELL, Portland
The World Asks More
I asked mama if it was okay to come home running. She said it was. I asked her if it was okay to come home heartbroken, and she said it was, but for a moment only. The world asks more of us. The world asks us to breathe in, burst, and give back. There is a fire in the hearth where we might warm our toes and fingers and, with the right company, we may appear beautiful in cast orange light.
I asked mama if it was okay to love my friend. She said it was, but to bear up. Be happy again because the ships may come and the ships may go, and all the while it is the ocean that carries them. We were made for drier metaphors, I said, and she braided my hair too tight.
I stood on the yellow-orange-green rock at daybreak and asked nobody anything. I bore the horror and delight of loving and let the sunlight burn away everything but this tolerance. I muffled the articulation of my body to this: I am in here. I clamber to get out, I stare, I scratch, but still we’re all together me. I pressed my cheek to the earth and felt its thrumming along the sinew-string of our communion: Good trouble. Good trouble. Good trouble.
MIA BURCHAM, Portland
The Real Mother of Invention
One time, while working in the garden, I needed to remove a large weed. I didn’t have any tools nearby, but there was a triangular-shaped rock I could use to dig it out. It was very natural to pick up the rock and start chopping at the soil. There wasn’t much thought to it at all. The act was propelled by instinct.
As contemplation took hold of the moment, imagination carried me away. I wondered if the development of cutting tools occurred the same way, not for hunting, but simply for digging out roots, bugs, or whatever—a practice in protoagriculture.
Later on, I did a small bit of research.
One idea is that, while perhaps not ignited by bipedalism, tool development was stimulated and accelerated by the ability to use our hands more freely for a wider range of possible uses. It not only became easier to make tools but also became convenient to take them with us. So our ancestors stored tools along the migratory routes of game. While this shows they valued portability, it also indicates they understood the cost of a heavy load.
The evidence, such as tool marks found on bones, supports the use of tools for hunting or scavenging for meat. However, any agricultural evidence would be hard to come by, since it would likely decay rapidly over time. So we carry with us an incomplete and biased image of the past.
Our cultural inclination is to think of men when we think about our ancestors hunting for food. It isn’t surprising, since recent history in our tradition has been disproportionately preoccupied with the political, economic, scientific, and technological achievements of men. However, there is no reason to suppose that one sex or the other deserves credit for developing tools. It’s just as easy to imagine a female hominid using tools for hunting, scavenging, and foraging, among other things.
But there is a difference. Childcare in many species, including our own, tends to fall on the shoulders of women, since women have a physical ability that men do not possess. Consequently, the burden of evolution has often been disproportionately placed, and since our evolution was influenced rather significantly by the use of tools, it would not be surprising if their development had been initiated by some clever woman forgotten long ago.
QUINN ANDREWS, Portland
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