What’s STICKS Got to Do With It

The first stick I held in my hand with awe was a branch from a Manzanita bush. Manzanita is a scrubby shrub with a growth habit of uncanny twists and turns. It grew along the paths of the camp I went to as a kid. One of the choices for a craft project was to find a stick and sand it until it was silky smooth. I was in heaven – that’s all I wanted to do the entire week. I grew up in North Hollywood, California and sanding sticks was not a common form of entertainment. Most of the kids at camp who went to the “craft room” wanted to use GLITTER; they glued it on rocks or sticks, or painted with thick, sticky, tempera paint and then glued glitter all over the paintings. Not me. I wanted to sand my stick and then at the end, when it was so smooth, I rubbed it with linseed oil and it turned a shade of deep, rich ochre-brown.

In my twenties, while living in the Coast Range of Oregon, in a very small town that was really too small to be called a town at all, I met an elderly couple that lived an extremely simple life, long before such a thing was splashed across the cover of magazines. She was in her late 60’s, he in his early 80’s. Their only heat source was a wood cook-stove. Firewood for the stove needed to be fairly short in length, and small in diameter. At the time, my former husband and I also heated and cooked with wood, although we were woodstove-rich…we had a wood cook-stove which took small wood and a wood-burning heater that took big wood. As part of our livelihood, we cut and sold firewood. I had my own chainsaw and in the spring and early summer spent hours each day cutting big logs up into pieces and then splitting the pieces up with an axe.

Jim and Ros on the other hand, had a whole wall of wooden cubbyholes on one end of their cobbled-together garage/machine shop, each filled with various diameters of sticks. It was a beautiful collage of wood…but I in my cocky, youthful arrogance thought their wood supply looked kind of wimpy. During one conversation, Jim shared with me that he was surprised we would waste so much time, and fuel, to start with big pieces of wood and “whittle” them down into smaller pieces. “Why not just cut up branches that are already the right size?” I didn’t exactly have an answer to his question, and it planted itself in my brain to be used later on in my life.

Well, that time is now. I am a stick collector. I pull branches out of my landlord’s burn pile. When I first moved to this cabin I could be seen walking up the dirt road dragging good-sized branches up to my own private stash. I imagined that I looked like some kind of human “stick dog” – my name for dogs that basically LIVE for sticks. I use a folding pruning-saw now to cut my firewood. Occasionally someone I know shares with me a gift of firewood in its more common form…the firewood from my youth…and I will get out my axe to split it. But now, Jim’s question is often at the tip of my tongue.

Having a good stash of sticks is more than just a practical matter to do with firewood, although that is certainly part of it. I have several piles going and when I see them I feel wealthy in a way that has nothing to do with the definition of wealth commonly used in our culture. These days when I cut up wood for heating, often I am standing outside sawing away with my pruning saw, listening to birdsong instead of the fierce scream of a chainsaw. It’s a deep pleasure.

While showing my stick piles and stacked wood to a young friend, I realized that I had become Ros and Jim. There I was, sorting and saving, relishing the beauty of all these sticks, not knowing yet what I would use any particular one for. But knowing for sure that they were important to gather around me.

This particular pile of sticks that you have been drawn to is similar…only words instead of wood. When I began this blog I had no idea why I was doing it. No idea. I heard, in my inner guidance, that it was something I needed to do. At the time, I barely knew what a blog was, but I followed my instructions. I began to share my writing and over time the cubbyholes have begun to fill with different kinds and sizes of sticks.

Last year I finally spoke some big words, first to myself, and then out loud: “I am writing a book.” I have a friend and neighbor who has been a great source of encouragement and yes, also a little nagging and so I give my thanks to dear Grace for pushing me enough to speak those five words. I continue to revise a working title on a piece of scratch paper with as many cross-outs as words…but I’m getting closer. It has to do with learning to communicate within the language of dementia.

I began learning this language first as a friend, then as a caregiver, and finally, miraculously, as a daughter with my own father, when dementia crept into our world. In 2001 I traveled to my childhood home to assist my elderly parents, stayed for four years and along the way, learned to communicate with a man who was utterly familiar, completely changed, and everything in between: together we entered the uncharted territory of dementia.

These posts are scattered amongst all the sticks. If you’re looking for them specifically, you can find them by clicking on the icon within the left-hand margin on whatever page you’re reading. Or, scroll all the way to the bottom of the blog where you’ll find a listing beneath the Archives, entitled Grace Within the Great Forgetting.

Thank you so, for taking the time to explore a pile of sticks.