The Whiteley Center is a retreat for scholarly and creative activities at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. “It is a phrontistery – a space for study and thinking,” says the website. And it’s a space for writing, I would add, which I did plenty of during my recent week there with two members of my writing group, Allison Green and Jennifer Munro.
I was lucky to be was assigned a cottage near the water. It was the one that offered the most privacy. My view though the wall of windows consisted of trees, ferns, and the harbor. After my morning bike ride, it was easy to stay in my cottage until dinner. I had everything I needed. I could and did stay in my smelly workout clothes all day, showering just before dinner.
At breakfast, I set up my laptop on the little dining table in front of the sweeping view. I slid open the glass door to the deck and I could hear insects buzz and birds call and anchored boats rock with the waves. I looked up often to see the ferry sail in and out of the harbor. Deer, ubiquitous but magical, ambled through the grass and ferns.
At lunchtime I made myself a salad and ate it on the deck. In the afternoons, I took my laptop onto the porch to sun myself while I worked. I took breaks to read. I had brought Sayantani Dasgupta’s wonderful book of essays Fire Girl and Jonathan Evison’s lively novel This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! There was often a brief nap in the afternoon. In the evenings, I switched on the fireplace and KPLU jazz. Throughout the day I would pause in whatever I was doing and just contemplate my luck to be in that space and in the world.
Under these perfect circumstances, much can happen in a week at Whiteley.
- On my first morning of writing, a deer kept a watchful eye on me from the other side of the glass door.
- I finished the first draft of a novel I had begun last October at Ragdale and made an annotated list of scenes to help me manage the still untidy plot.
- I learned to identify by sound a red-breasted nuthatch. (Thank you, Jennifer Munro.)
- I wrote the acknowledgements for my book of short stories coming out in November.
- I finished an essay solicited by an online journal.
And because this phrontistery is a place for thinking, one morning I began to think of my mother, who died in June, and I made myself cry by navigating to YouTube and playing “Sentimental Journey,” my mother’s favorite song.
When I came home from Whiteley, in my semi-regular Sunday call with my sister in National City, I got the news that the spiritual counselor who was part of my mother’s home hospice team had died in early August, not even two months after my mother died. I probably spent a total of no more than an hour with Henry Rodriquez. As a long-lapsed Catholic, I tend to be detached but polite with church people. But Henry, which is how he introduced himself though I suppose the more proper address was Father, was so kind and unassuming and probably quite used to skeptics like me. Two years apart in age, we were soon chatting like old friends. He was born in the hospital where I volunteered as a candy striper when I was in high school. He’d been a priest at St. Jude, the church I’d been made to go to as a child. He went to Memorial Junior High, the same school my mother had attended.
My sister told him about my forthcoming book and handed him one of the promotional postcards lying around the house. Henry was genuinely delighted and expressed his eagerness to read the book when it was available. Before he left that morning, he gave a blessing to my mother as we stood around her bed. Several days later, when my mother passed, Henry was at the house within the hour to give a final blessing and to comfort our family, which he did with quiet grace. I hugged him hard before he left.
This is what I learned about Henry from his obituary, which appeared prominently in both the San Diego paper and the Los Angeles Times as well as other news outlets: He had a difficult adolescence and dropped out of junior high school for a life on the streets. After a few years, he began volunteering at Sharp Memorial Hospital as an orderly. Encouraged by the nurses, Henry earned his GED, after which the nurses helped pay his college expenses. Henry followed his bachelor’s degree with seminary training. He was ordained a priest in 1986. After graduate studies in Minnesota and Rome, he returned to southeast San Diego, where he became a beloved community figure though his work with the church and the community, and with the police department in his role as volunteer chaplain. And luckily for me and my family, he also became a hospice chaplain.
While I was at Whiteley, as I sat at my little table in that sweet cottage or on the deck outside blissed-out on the view and sun and sea breeze and wonderland deer, I think I knew those moments were not only to be savored. They were to be saved up – to absorb the unexpected punches that life throws one’s way every so often without fail.
So here’s some saved-up Whiteley magic. Rest in peace, Henry Rodriguez.