The night before last, I dreamt that the Sandy River had run dry.
Today will be five days since I’ve smoked a cigarette. I’m using the drug Chantix to help me with the cravings and a major side effect is vivid dreams. When I started taking the drug two weeks ago, the weird dreams began immediately. They were funny at first; friends made cameos. The scenes were specific and quirky. Now I’ve doubled the dose, and for the last two nights, the amusing dreams have turned into nightmares; I dreamt an ex-boyfriend was high on drugs and trying to slobber all over me and smother me with a pillow. I dreamed I had a cigarette and lied about it to everyone. I dreamed that my labia drooped down to the floor, swollen like a baboon ass, and I had to wrap them up in a support-hose-like contraption and drag them around with me. (I wrestled with whether to put that last dream in this update, but I decided that I wanted to give you an idea of how disturbing the dreams have been. You’re welcome.)
Perhaps the worst though was the dream about the Sandy. When I told my sister, she just groaned and said, “how awful.” In the summer she takes her kids there to swim and have a picnic at least two or three days a week. To both of us, the disappearance of the Sandy sounds like the worst possible thing, like the end of the world.
I grew up on the Sandy. I too, try to spend as much time as possible there in the summer. I jealously guard my favorite swimming spots. Last summer, the last day I spent there was worrisome; not only did I find a big pile of trash that someone had dumped at the top of the trailhead but usually at that time of the year, the river is low from lack of rain. But on that last visit in September, it was high and green, meaning the river was mostly glacier-fed from Mt. Hood. Meaning, the weather was still too hot and was melting too much snow. (When the water is brown it means that it’s heavy rain that is feeding the river. When it’s green, it’s mineral-rich glacier water. When it’s somewhere in-between it’s a combination of glacier and run off.)
And then that week I noticed Mt. Hood looked bare. My parents, life-long Oregonians, said they’d never seen the mountain so brown. There was hardly any snow to be seen. I thought – we can still say that the pace of change is “glacial” but it no longer means what it used to mean; now it means that things are disappearing at an alarming rate.
After I had the dream about the dry riverbed, I realized I haven’t thought about global warming’s effect on my river since that last visit in September; the weather in Portland has been dark and cold. It’s been raining non-stop for weeks. Why suddenly was the river visiting me again in my dreams? The Chantix has bathed my brain in who-knows-what chemical and what bubbles to the surface is a mystery. It scared me that a pill had unleashed such apocalyptic images in my brain.
But then I remembered that I’ve been reading a new book for my book club called The 6th Extinction. I joke that it should be called: Everything is Fucked. The first chapter is about the mass extinction of amphibians. I remembered that I read that the night I had the dream, at a bar, while I waited for some friends to arrive for my reading. All the frog talk brought up memories of my childhood in Corbett. I remember finding newts, frogs and crawdads in the streams and the creek that ran through our property.
The newts were fascinating to me. They were so pale and Gollum-like. As if they never saw the sun, their eyes small and squinty. The newts had only two modes of being: flight or freeze. They would dumbly sit there as we poked them with a stick or else they would shoot away under a log, their long spines whipping furiously back and forth.
Crawdads were amazing to me too. They seemed like grouchy old men in crimson armor, the opposite of the newts with their porous white flesh. They reminded me of the Rip Van Winkles of the forest, rising from slumber after millions of years, refugees from the ancient ocean, washed up in a mountainside creek. As a kid I saw that crawdads must have been originally lobsters, but that they shrank and became shriveled and vicious over the years. Time had abandoned them in a mountain stream as the ocean dried up around them. They were an animal that the world left behind.
But they too were tortured a bit, like we tortured the newts. But mostly we tried to avoid them. We were often barefoot or in sodden Converse after all, and we’d seen what crawdads could do to the nose of a curious dog.
In the last few days I have been most tempted to smoke in the car. It’s an association thing. Car: cigarette. One thought leads to another in neural networks. Cars, cigarettes, The Sandy River, global warming, crawdads and converse…. they are all connected in a web of memory and desire. Fear and grief.
David talked about being a “leaver” in his last update from Amsterdam. I too have been thinking about why I stay. Here in my home, in Portland and East County, the changes have become more painful the longer I stick around; I was driving some real estate clients around yesterday and my cell phone GPS app mispronounced Flavel Street. Instead of “Flawvell,” like I would’ve pronounced it, it roboted out “Flayvill.” I laughed bitterly. I wonder, what with all the newcomers in Portland, when the GPS pronunciation will overtake the “real” pronunciation. Gmaps doesn't care about respecting local culture.
My mother has been feeding lunch to a group of homeless people once a week in a public park in East County for a few years. She says this weekly act of kindness “feeds her soul”. The day before yesterday, after my nightmare about the Sandy, my mother told me that one of the older homeless men that she has been helping, her friend “Arthur,” had a stroke and is in the hospital. She fears that he is on the decline. She told me she’s trying to coordinate a reunion between Arthur and his nine estranged children.
At the time, my mom and I were sitting in an empty house in SW Portland, listening to the rain falling outside. I tucked my cold feet up underneath me and listened patiently. I always have a mix of sorrow, impatience and anger when I hear the stories my mother tells me about her homeless friends. It makes me sad when I hear about their troubled lives and seemingly intractable problems. It makes me angry when I hear about how the cops routinely arrest and harass them and steal their few belongings. But I often admittedly become impatient because I’ve never met any of them, and have a hard time keeping them straight. My mother will often jump into a story as if I know who she is talking about. But Arthur – I remember him; he’s the longest homeless resident of this wilderness area. This area near the Sandy is his home. He’s lived there for twenty-five years. I am amazed every time I think about it; he’s managed to support himself camping outside for a quarter century. That is no small feat.
I asked her some more questions and my mom told me about his condition and her plans to help him.
“You know the cops found his camp,” My mom said.
“Yeah, they stole all his stuff. Arthur camps so far out into the woods, he always thought they’d never find him. But,” my mom raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “they finally found him. And now he’s had a stroke and is in the hospital. When they release him, he’ll have nowhere to go.”
This hit me like a punch in the guts. I felt like crying. The razing of Arthur’s camp seemed symbolic to me. Arthur was the last crawdad. I didn't want to ask myself the inevitable: If Arthur can’t survive, how can I?
I told my mom that Arthur was the canary in the coal mine.
“Yeah, he is,” she said and smiled bitterly.
If I’m still here in Portland in forty years, when I’m an old lady, maybe I will point out the window of whatever vehicle I am in, in the direction of Arthur’s camp. “That’s where the old man used to live,” I will tell my companions. “When I was a young woman, my mother used to bring him food. But eventually the cops found his secret camp and he died of a broken heart.”