Readers write about Joy and Pain

The Black Gloves

My mother wears black gloves that tell of sports cars from the thirties, but also black horses. The type of gloves that demand to hold a slender car wheel, or a whip. The gloves are tight but comfortable. They make my hands appear thinner, longer. Perhaps I once asked my mother to purchase the exact same gloves for me; perhaps she did, unprompted. I can’t remember when I started to wear the same gloves, although I hate driving and I am scared of horses. Staring at my gloved hands can bring the same uneasiness as staring into my mother’s eyes.

One year, over a decade ago, my father asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told him I wanted a new pair of gloves, the same type that Maman wears. He sent me a gorgeous pair of leather gloves, bright red. A loud color, close to quinacridone. The first day I wore them I went for a coffee in my neighborhood, and as I was paying the barista commented on the gloves. These are stunning, he said, but with more incomprehension than admiration. Then, perhaps that same year, perhaps the following winter, I did something incomprehensible: I used the red gloves one Sunday as gardening gloves. For hours I kneeled in the mud under the rain, and I gathered soggy dead leaves and branches and more dirt, until I completely ruined them: their beautiful red color, gone, their shape irremediably damaged. After I had killed them, I attempted to bring them back to life. I brought them to a dry cleaner. The person looked at me quizzically and said, These are ruined. I can’t remember whether the news caused sadness or relief. I don’t miss my red gloves. I miss my red gloves. I try on both sentences like I try on a glove, and I attempt to judge how it feels from within: is it comfortable, is it the correct size, would I ever wear it and in what context? Is it warm enough? Will it protect me?

—Lucie Bonvalet, Portland


Walking a Labyrinth

The Sun warms the Earth through radiation. It’s necessary for life and potentially dangerous. During the end of one of Portland’s hottest summers yet, I was diagnosed with cancer. Along with other treatments, I had five weeks of radiation to my right breast. The beam was skillfully targeted on the tumor to avoid damage to heart and lungs. Happy to receive help, I never minded the discomfort or humiliation of my daily visits; lying face down on a “special” table, naked breasts dangling midair in a room with lights, sounds, and strange, scientific equipment. I thought it perhaps akin to an alien abduction. When treatment was over, it was like leaving a battlefield. The immediate threat to life was eliminated, but my sad, sagging breast was scarred and burnt. I was physically exhausted. By then it was the middle of winter. Wounded, I drew inward to be still and let the body heal.

Gratitude developed for my body, which had carried me so well for so long through life, a labyrinth full of twists, dead ends, and surprising openings. By spring it was time to reach out and reconnect with the world. I heard of a weekly writers’ support group for people whose lives had been touched in some way by cancer. I visited the online gathering of women. Each one seemed to be an amazing writer. Intimidated and in awe, but no longer afraid of becoming terribly embarrassed, I joined. We came together to write and to hear what the stories had to tell. Our backgrounds were widely different, but the space between us filled with compassion, empathy, and presence. The understanding grew, no matter how it looks on the surface, that illness and other forms of suffering will come or have already come to everyone. I listened and learned a deeper definition of beauty and happiness.

One year from my diagnosis my heart and lungs were still strong, although cancer had peeled off layers of psychological protection, exposing the fragility of life. Underneath I found humanity breathing deep, buoyant, lifting me up. And the heart, on its own accord, pulsed like a small sun radiating warmth outward. Cancer came with an invitation to show up and join others sharing everyday life, high points, and traumas. By saying yes, I found that joy showed up too.

—Susan Gladstone, Portland


I Am Here

In the Zendō, I heard one student say to another: If you speak from your own need, it is practice. If you expect something

back, it is suffering. We sit on cushions, or benches, or chairs. They are placed atop zabutons, square cushions that divide the Zendō into a checkerboard of personal arenas for practice. My child left home this past summer, shortly after his seventeenth birthday. There were no raised voices, no ultimatums. He simply left to stay with friends for a night or two and never came home.

He’d arrived nearly six years earlier, when he was eleven, a small figure peering from underneath the hood of his jacket, dwarfed by his caseworker who stood next to him in the rain and the darkness. Only a week later, we were attached. We stayed up late eating pizza and watching Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. In the morning he drowned his pancakes in a cataract of syrup, then we crawled back under the blankets cuddled while I read to him from The BFG. That was the morning our attachment became fully and irreversibly formed. I had not known until then that parenthood, like joy, is more physiological than emotional. It is lodged in my very bones and sinews.

I tell my friends it is probably better this way. He doesn’t believe he could finish school or work an “honest job.” He doesn’t want to live steeped in the shame I know he feels each time I lecture him. I tell them that living with someone who struggles with substance use disorder can be unbearable. I tell them that he left to save our relationship, to spare me from having to kick him out. We talk on the phone once or twice each day. We meet for dinner, ordering burritos from drive-thrus and eating together huddled in the car.

I thought he’d live at home for several more years. I thought we would celebrate him finishing a vocational program, that we would somehow mark his transition to independent living as a rite of initiation. Things were supposed to go one way, but they did not go that way.

I sometimes indulge fantasies in which I park my car outside of the house where he stays and refuse to leave until he comes with me. In these stories, I am the forgiving father, and he is the prodigal son.

“You suffer,” writes Cheri Huber, “when you think there is something wrong with what happens,” when you think, “this is not my correct life experience.”

My zabuton encompasses the life of my child. I cross my legs. I feel the Earth beneath each point of my knee. I breathe out. Nothing comes back. I am here.

—Matthew King, Corvallis


Last But Not Least

The Lane coach was always pushing and testing our physical limits. He went too far with me in 1973. University of Oregon traditionally hosted the Oregon Invitational Track and Field Meet, a gathering of athletes from the local track clubs, the UO track and field team, and Lane Community College. Coach entered me in the two mile event. Normally, that would not be a big deal, but when I looked at the roster, I was horrified.

Coach had entered a time that was twenty seconds faster than I had ever run that distance. That time still placed me last in a field of ten; even worse, Steve Prefontaine was in that field. Pre was an American track legend. He was sure to lap me. In those days, if you got lapped in a race, you had to step off the track. In front of the Hayward Field crowd of ten thousand fans, it would be a terrible embarrassment.

I begged the coach to scratch me from the race. He said he would not, and that it would be an excellent chance for me to set a new PR. I was terrified as I lined up at the start. Pre was in front of me, along with many others. The gun went, and we

all took off. I decided to just try to hang onto the pack as best I could. A two-mile race, at that time, required eight laps on the track. I soon lost touch with the other runners, but I kept my pace. As I came out of the first turn of my seventh lap, I heard the final lap bell ring. I looked across the track and saw Paul Geis just going into the turn, but no Prefontaine. Geis was Oregon’s second-best runner, so I immediately realized that meant Pre was probably only a few yards behind me. I tore into my pace and started sprinting. As I started into the last turn, I heard the fans start to yell. I went faster—I don’t know how. I could hear footsteps behind me. The crowd grew louder and louder. The finish line was under my feet, and I was exhausted. Pre passed me on my right as I slowed to a jog for my last lap. The next day, the local newspaper showed the finish. There was Pre crossing the line, but there was someone’s foot just barely ahead of him.

My sister later told me that, at the moment I went across the finish line, my dad stood and cheered. Dad yelled, "He didn’t get lapped!” My last lap was the fastest I had ever run, and even beat my best 440-yard time. I have never been so proud to finish last.

—Scott Richardson, Happy Valley


Cuts Both Ways

I was impatient. I went in search of aspen, basalt, and mariposa lilies in the Big Indian Gorge of Steens Mountain. It cost me hours of August sweat under a silver umbrella, and six stitches. The sunbrella dug into my shoulder, impeding my views of the high desert. I couldn’t wait until the trailhead. I cut zip ties and flesh. I crouched in the cool cottonwood cave of Big Indian Creek and bled into it. When I saw the fascia of my left index finger I yelled a word I never say. Big red splotches painted rocks. The blade stared indifferently at the damage. I had quick clot gauze and a level-headed little sister who wrapped it all up. It was four more miles on foot and a ninety-mile drive to the Harney County Hospital. Later that day the finger throbbed while coyotes sang the sun down. Slicing myself open turned out to be a half-day hiccup. When I imagine the view atop Steens the next day—looking down the steep slopes falling away into the Alvord Desert—the finger has no presence. It was there with me, wearing a white robe of shame, but didn’t detract from the awe atop Oregon’s fault-block mountain. Of course, I knew better. I knew to hold the blade away from my body. We know better, but we do it anyway. In some cases, we can’t help it. In some cases, it’s an accident. I looked out over the glaciated shape of Kiger Gorge. We watched a hawk ride thermal currents. What must those talons feel like to a field mouse? What is it like to be ripped open? I knew. Perhaps those searing moments and sharp edges are what remind us: life is suffering, yes, but also wonder. The warm sheen on a mustang’s flank paired with the bite of a fly. Emergency room visits paired with the silhouette of deer on a sage-covered escarpment. Life in motion, with punctuation. These keep us humble. These remind us of our smallness, our dependence on others. My sister rinsed off the knife and buried it in my pack. She helped me shove my feet into sandals. She shared her stash of dried vegetable chips. She sat in happy silence with me as we watched how the light played over the water of Wildhorse Lake.

—Jenny Gapp, Portland


Conversations with Strangers

“My name is Eileen, and you can talk to me. It takes courage to ask for help. What’s going on to make life tough for you today?”

This is how I start conversations with strangers who text me for help. It might be a minor problem—minor to me, never minor to the texter. It might be a matter of life or death in a very literal sense. I save lives.

In need of a way to help the world in the early days of the pandemic, I began volunteering for a crisis hotline. I am calm under stress, have been trained as a social worker, and I like that I can make a difference. The nights I spend with people around the country—as young as eleven, and as old as the hills—are a privilege. I enjoy making connections and finding ways to bring peace of mind to people in pain.

Until James (not his actual name) texted. He was nineteen, a college student. He said he was hurting and was considering suicide. He didn’t want to tell his parents, but he needed to talk to someone.

We talked for an hour, and I praised his strengths—asking for support isn’t easy, especially for young men. I validated his stressors. We brainstormed ways to find relief that were healthier and safer than the one he had in mind.

As we spoke, there was another young man in my mind: my son, who was nineteen and in college when he took his own life. He didn’t share his pain with me. He didn’t tell me that he couldn’t see a better way out of his distress. Had he called a crisis line? Was there someone who had spoken to my son on his last day?

I talked to James, someone else’s son. I stayed with him until he told me he felt better, that he would survive the night and find help in the morning. He thanked me for talking with him.

I’ll never know what happened with James, and I’ll never know why Henry ended his life.

When I hung up with James, I felt the warmth of saving a life, layered with the chill of not saving the one I most wanted to save—glad I helped someone else’s son, wishing I had helped my own.

I logged off early that night.

—Eileen Nittler, Eugene


When the Fire Came

We had been watching the fire for a week or so. Online, blotchy patches of red and black stormed across the forests to the south and east of us. Tremendous plumes of smoke settled in our little valley day after day, and warning messages came nonstop.

As a volunteer at our local fire district, I found my days and nights continuously interrupted by fire calls, including a dozen arson fires in the hills surrounding our little community. At the same time, I was responsible for a couple hundred cattle scattered across several ranches. I watched the sky and listened to the radio as the warnings came: level 1, get ready; level 2, get set; level 3, run for your life.

Then an unexpected thing happened. The message on my answering machine said, “I see that fire is getting kind of close to you. Just keep in mind that if you get overrun, we have a place here for you to get set up, so don’t worry. Good luck.”

Other calls came from people I had done business with over the years. They assured me that they were standing by with trucks and trailers and people to help evacuate us and the cattle if things got bad.

At the end of a terribly hot and smoky afternoon I met my wife on the deck and looked out over a crisp dry landscape with ominous red skies to the south and billowing smoke to the east. We asked each other if we’d rebuild if the fire came. The answer was yes.

Fire conditions were worse the next day. I made the call. In three hours our cattle were scooped up and hauled to safety, the work done by friends, highly skilled people who dropped whatever they were doing and came to our rescue. Even now, I am near to tears. They were magnificent. With the cattle safe, we loaded our most-loved possessions and fled ten miles west, camping in a barn surrounded by freshly-plowed fields.

One week later, we were home, and the cattle were in their pastures again. I felt gratitude for our escape from the horrible hell of the fires and awe for the sacrifice our friends and neighbors made to keep us safe.

There are some debts that can never be repaid unless, perhaps, with love.

—John Marble, Crawfordsville


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From the Director: Consider

Editor's Note: Joy and Pain

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We Will Be Here

The Nature of the Beast

Rustication and Return

Creation Stories

Minor Malady

The Wisdom That Finds Us


People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading: Joy and Pain