Afternoons with Urashan

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I met Urashan two summers ago through South Whidbey at Home.  I volunteer with the non-profit, which advocates aging in place, and was founded by Lynn Willeford. When I met Urashan at her home, Maris Stella, meaning Star of the Sea, she was sitting in the afternoon sun, looking out on the sparkling water. She was familiar in a deep way, though we had never met before. 

Urashan is happiest when readers ‘gether book and let her know how it has touched them

At 91 in 2018, her mind and spirit strong, her hearing and eyesight dimming, her body relying on a walker to get around at home, Urashan asked South Whidbey at Home to send over someone with whom she could chat. 

“I was making donations to them and couldn’t get out to do their luncheons or programs,” Urashan said. “I noticed they did do at-home conversations. I thought, what the hell. Let’s try it.”

On the day I arrived in 2018, Urashan wondered if I’d be a Republican, or only want to talk about baseball, or be someone she wouldn’t relate to. Turns out we have an endless source of things to talk about—word origins, nature, history, books, music, families, and public works, for instance. During that summer, I was launching the first issues of This is Whidbey and Urashan was writing her book.

The Sacred Ordinary: the Odyssey of a Ninety-one-year-old Contemplative, was published in late 2019. Work is underway to create an audio version narrated by her, and a Kindle Book as well.

On the book’s first page, on Amazon and with the Sno-Isle Library website, Urashan describes her book in part as: “…a story-poem, using stories the way poets use words. It is about the way of the sacred ordinary. It is about how I loved. It is about how I love. Skip what you will. Don’t agree with me. Go look for yourself. Live your own sacred ordinary. Remember. Remember who you are.”

I’d been telling This is Whidbey’s photographer David Welton about our afternoon visits, mentioning how beautiful Urashan looks in the afternoon sun. David stopped by on a late August afternoon to take photos, as we sat on her deck viewing the Olympic Mountains rising up across the Salish Sea. 

This story is a glimpse into that afternoon gathering, including a chat with one of Urashan’s eight children, John Schelling Pollock, the book’s editor, publisher, and photographer.

John discussed the book’s origin.

“Three years ago when she talked about writing The Sacred Ordinary, we were sitting on the deck,” John recalled. “She said, ‘I live what I euphemistically call alone.’ The ‘euphemistically alone’ quote wasn’t exactly the seed for The Sacred Ordinary, but more a trigger for actually collecting and organizing her already written journal entries into a book. It blossomed from there with Urashan adding more writing to flesh certain parts out or to connect parts together, adding in the ‘fragments’ that she had been writing to (my sister) Sarah in daily emails back then and then she wrote more ‘fragments’ later as needed or inspired.”

David asked if Urashan spent a lot of time on South Whidbey when she was young. She said she did. Her family’s history here dates back to the early 1900’s.

“My grandfather came first,”Urashan said. As head of University of Washington’s new departments of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (now Science), Robert Moritz bought two lots on Maxwelton Beach in the early 1900’s. He was intrigued by the Mackie brothers’ then-promotion of the area as an enclave of intellectuals.

“My father (Harold Moritz) had already spent his teen years here before World War I,” Urashan added. “There were big dreams, then, for the Mackies, who founded in 1905, a Chautauqua that was promoted as the ‘Paris of the North.’ All set out to create a brilliant intellectual community. 

“In ’32, when I was five, my father came out to what was a derelict property. My grandparents hadn’t been coming out since the war. There was an outhouse and remains of a cabin. Not very much. My grandfather’s cabins had been basically shelters with canvas tent frames across the top. They weren’t full cabins.”

The cabin built by Urashan’s father Harold Moritz in the 1930’s. Urashan’s mother Mercedes originally painted the cabin in shades of driftwood gray and reddish brown trim to blend in naturally with its environment. Thinking to update it with a more modern look, one of Urashan’s children and partner painted it white with blue trim in the 1990s. Urashan still hopes the cabin can be repainted once again with her mother’s choice of colors, which she has always loved and which would fit well with the new roof. The cabin is still family owned to this day. Photo shared by John Schelling Pollock

Urashan’s parents, Harold (who taught hydraulics at the University of Washington) and Mercedes (a former high school history teacher—In her book, Urashan writes: “When they married, my mother had to stop teaching—married women weren’t considered suitable mentors for the young”), began building the cabin that still remains to this day. Urashan recalled summers spent at Maxwelton Beach with her older brother Kenny and being asked to walk from the family cabin to the little general store across from Dave Mackie Beach.

“Julia, who became Mrs. Cross, was a Mackie, one of their oldest children,” Urashan recalled about the store’s early owner. “Emily, her twin, was slightly older. These two girls were oldest, which amounted to 12 kids. Julia was widowed. Anyway she came back to be in the community. They supported her by supporting the store. Mostly sold fish bait, any produce from her garden. She kept a cow. One of my jobs as a little girl was to walk up the road to get a quart of milk. We had no refrigeration then. We had Coleman lanterns. Had to haul water. Get buckets. Collect driftwood for the fire. I’d get the milk. Mom would put it in a bowl with cold water to keep overnight.”

After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in music, Urashan left the Northwest for a while to earn a degree in music at Yale, get married, travel, have children, live around the country, be immersed in the world of university life, and gain wisdom along the way.

Urashan met Alan Pollock, her future husband, when they were in high school. Later they were married when they each attended Yale University. They lived in the Tuscan Hill country of Italy for a year when he was a graduate student with a Fulbright Scholarship. Later they returned to the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut. They moved later to Indiana, where Alan taught at Notre Dame and Urashan taught music at a private school. Later Alan was offered a position as vice president at St. Mary’s College near San Francisco. Their family grew to include eight children. Alan and Urashan took part in protesting the Viet Nam war. During that time of unrest, Urashan began composing music. She organized a Baroque group with friends, played with the Diablo Symphony, and performed with an innovative composer friend. She earned a Masters in Musicology at UC Berkeley.

Urashan composed a mythic dance-opera, Tropos: the Sacred Wheel, describing it in her book as: “a myth, the great myth of life’s returning. It was no longer a Greek myth—it had been transformed into a myth of our own future, and it had moved to Puget Sound and Haida and Kwakiutl country. And the women were at the heart of it.”

The opera was never performed on stage and Urashan has hopes it will be performed some day.

Meanwhile, Urashan and her family spent summers at the family cabin on Maxwelton Beach. Her son John recalls buying orange soda pop from the Maxwelton store.

Years later, after she retired, Urashan moved back to Whidbey Island to a house in Langley in 2000.

After Urashan’s niece died, leaving an inheritance, Urashan bought Maris Stella in 2014, the home she lives in now.

The cedar and glass house was originally designed by Northwest architect Paul Kirk. He built a one-room cabin set on piers. The home was later sold to Stan Pocock, a childhood friend of Urashan’s brother Kenny. Stan, like his father George before him, built boat racing shells made of cedar. Stan also coached the UW rowing team as well as Olympic rowing teams. Stan used some of that fine cedar to build a two-bedroom wing and cottage and added to Paul Kirk’s original design. Urashan bought the home from the Pococks, and it is only two houses away from her family’s cabin.

When asked if the pilings in view out in the water were once piers from an old dock, Urashan explained, “No. They were strictly built as a sand trap. They built the sand up very nicely.  Water used to come underneath the house at high tide. Paul Kirk was disabled and was in a wheel chair. He loved to hear the water come up under the house. This (a sand berm growing beach grass and roses) has built up since then.”

As she ‘dissolves into eternity’–the theme of many previous chats–Urashan no longer plays or listens to the music that was a big part of her life. It sounds dissonant these days, she says.

“I’ve been a musician most of my life,” she said. “I’ve taught. I’ve played in groups. I’ve had to give up music. I can’t deal with it anymore. It’s a huge loss in my life. My type of hearing loss changes the pitch of some notes. Especially in the upper register. I also can’t hear the difference between the sound of ‘s’ and ‘ch’, ‘p,’ ‘f,’ ‘t.’ When I hear someone talk, I have to translate and make sense of what I’m hearing.”

As someone who likes math and puzzles, Urashan spends time working puzzles in her dozens of Sudoko and Hanjie books. With a rainbow collection of gel pens to fill in the books’ grids, Urashan finds satisfaction these days in solving logic problems and revealing hidden patterns.

“Hanjie is a fiendish–in a good way–Japanese invention,” Urashan said. “You’re told certain information, which you have to apply logic to. You have to get it right or you’re sunk, I enjoy these. These, you really have to focus on. Anyway, they’re doable and it’s a pleasure to do them. I’ve always liked logic things, puzzles, mathematics. My grandfather was a mathematician. He headed up the department at UW.”

Urashan recalls her grandfather Robert in The Sacred Ordinary: He and I loved each other in a simple, direct way. He respected me; he saw me; his face always lit up for me. I never got criticized or told what to do; I felt free. Sometimes he would set me a puzzle, eyes twinkling as I worked out the answer.”

“You’re adaptable,” David said in response to Urashan’s evolution into who she is now.

“No, curious,” Urashan said. “I’ve had to reinvent myself.”

John said, “I joke that you are on your twelfth childhood. You were talking a few weeks ago, a month ago…you were talking about dying. I asked if you knew you’d have ten years to live, would you write another book? You lit up. You asked what would it be about? I jokingly said, ‘How about the title, I thought I’d be dead by now? I got you notebooks. You started writing again.”

Urashan and her son, John Schelling Pollock, visit on her deck on an August afternoon

Since November, when The Sacred Ordinary was published, Urashan has received a good amount of praise, such as, “I am finding it wonderfully winsome and relevant,” writes a Langley Library friend, Cynthia Kaul . “It is indeed ‘a network of allusions, overtones, and reverberating references’ with many a poetic description, as well as history I can personally relate to.”

Urashan is happiest when someone ‘gets’ her book.

“What I find simply amazing is how good I feel when people like my book, want to read it, take comfort from it,” Urashan said.

“It’s your ninth baby,” John added.

Back on the subject of exiting this mortal coil, Urashan said, without doom and gloom, but honestly and simply, “I still don’t want to stay alive for a long time if I’m unable to see. Don’t know how it will play out. My eyesight is getting worse. I just don’t know…I don’t have a desire to live another ten years.”

“Instead of contemplating your death you can start writing your next book while you’re dying,” John said. Then turning to David and me, he said, “I tend not to take this seriously, you may notice.”

In a poignant tone, Urashan said, “I understand a little better how I’m dying and how I’m going home. I feel like I’m going home. It’s a very strong feeling. I’m not sure what that means. I’ll be in the eternity time. I do know that I will be in the loving place and I will love the people I love. I will love always and forever. Eternity doesn’t have time. Time is a measurement of change.”

For the time being, when we’re together, Urashan asks me to write down some of her thoughts for her next book. I email them to John. “He is collecting some of the things I’ve said,” Urashan added. 

While talking that Tuesday afternoon, John commented about seeing his mother in a new light while rereading The Sacred Ordinary: “I had no idea you were a secret writer. I read a couple of things, your poems. I had no idea you were this prolific and lyrical.”

“I began this because I wanted to know who I am,” Urashan said. “I didn’t write it for others. Others have found it comforting, interesting to read. I didn’t know I was a contemplative ‘till after I was grown. I grew up in a kindly home. Puritanical in roots and thinking. I didn’t know these other things could exist. I went to Italy and saw domes floating in the sky. David (one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces) in the street just standing there. How can you live in a place like Florence and not come home a different person? Beauty gave me the courage. 

“The other thing is Wallace Stevens says, ‘Death is the mother of beauty.’ I’ve thought of that for a long, long time. Death is…well…we first know about death, that’s when we make poetry and music and language. In the beginning we sang. We really get we’re separate, yet connected. That’s part of what I mean by remembering who we are. Remember who you are–you don’t need to be greedy, you’re comfortable in yourself, you don’t need another’s approval, you don’t need ambition, you need dinner, you don’t need a lot of wealth–Oh heck. Just read my book. It’s all in there.”

Urashan speaks with a strong voice of conviction and likes people to do as she asks. She asked that I include her son John’s words for this story, which he wrote in the Afterword of The Sacred Ordinary: “Taken as a whole, The Sacred Ordinary is indeed, as Urashan describes it, a “story-poem, using stories the way poets use words,”and like the best poems, it echoes backward and forward and all over so that everywhere one touches the book it shimmers like a spiderweb across the pages. Or, like a conch shell held to one’s ear, all the lines resonate back in one great song: the spider singing in the wilderness (Orastel, p.370).”

John’s reference to a spider singing in the wilderness is taken from a line sung by the man-poet Orastel in Urashan’s dance/opera, Tropos. Orastel unwittingly causes the death of Yurdah, the woman he loves, early in the story. She is taken to the Land of the Dead. Yurdah’s death, meanwhile, causes Tropos, the great wheel of life, to stop turning.

As Urashan writes in The Sacred Ordinary,Tropos sits on a shelf in my study, a compact artifact of my life. …Tropos has defined my life, bringing me great riches of spirt. The story of a flawed love, it resonates deeply with me—haunting, powerful, a liturgy—the urn of life shattering in deep silence, the long dance through dreams and visions into the forever time.” 

I visit with Urashan this week to try and convey in words the deep resonance Tropos has for her. How do you write about music that fills your heart with a sense of real joy? Instead of explaining, she sings the reconciliation piece between Yurdah and Orastel near the opera’s close. Time stops and I hear and feel and understand on a nonverbal level what Urashan writes on page 370: “No one else has ever heard that final luminous music of reconciliation–it has yet to be performed. It is a last ecstacy, heard only in my inner ear.”

It is my hope this mythical opera will be performed some day in its entirety and that I am there to hear the “final, luminous music of reconciliation.”  

Thank you Urashan, for your grace and insight into life’s last act, and for remembering who you are.

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2 Comments

    • Kate Poss | With Photos by David Welton on

      Hi Terry, Thanks so much for your comments. SW@ Home is a great idea. A friend who turns 80 and moved from Seattle to North Carolina, said the article really got her thinking to aging in place.

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