Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Wintering Waters

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Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The river greets me at this gateway hour
as it slinks through twilight like a secret
receding into netherworlds, its depths
shielded by arrival of night’s perplexities.

Within its quietude, creatures are mudbound,
await to be swept up by flicks of wind,
to spiral into its sleek rocky blueness.
Wintering currents roll through dirt, by trees
that receive with whispers. Sky reconciles
past with present, lays its tenderness
onto the low-slung back of river now
moving toward me on the watch point.

I glimpse my reflection; it is reconfigured
as it is taken elsewhere on the icy edge, into
gradations of light and darkness, light redux.
Riding these waters, I become a simpler woman,
unfettered, unafraid. Welcomed into a wilder fold.

Dry (!) December Walking=NW Winter Pleasures

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All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Walkers of all landscapes and weather, I just got back in, my heart is content, my face smiling in a cold leftover glow. I am more than ready to get back to work. What an excellent thing to have life and limb, to be able to exit the door and return with a fine satisfaction, full of invisible gifts.

As most know, I am a devoted walker, one who ramps it up and keeps the pace for an hour or so daily, if at all possible. And for over a week now, the sky has been an essential blazing blue. Temperatures have hovered between upper thirties and mid-to upper forties (Fahrenheit). No rain to speak of, maybe a few drops here and there.

This dry spell is almost unheard of in December; it should soon be raining, perhaps hailing or sleeting here in the Willamette Valley with rumors of flurries that make it down the Cascade Mountains to us. The drizzle is on a brief hiatus. Of course it is a certainty that rainfall will reappear, do its duty of keeping our vast forests and lovely yards emerald green–likely by end of week or so. Wetness then will slicks faces and hands, grow familiar, even feel like a transparent second skin; we are half amphibious after a couple of months, and for another four.

Meantime, it has been a wonder to be out and about in crackling bright gusts. Rarefied air. The clarity of everything out there is dazzling. So you would think this  a superior time for joggers, walkers, cyclists. Instead, there seems a scarcity of people. I am not entirely alone on my jaunts but I can state there seem fewer than on usual rainy days. So I power walk–and pause to snap pictures– with impunity, now free of skateboarders, runners and cyclists bearing down on me (though we adapt well to one another, usually). Less likely to have a dog dash in front of me, yanking the owner along with Herculean effort.

The thirties registering on the outside thermometer is close to riveting Northwest cold, true–cold enough to make my cheeks feel like pop sickles after a half hour. When that East wind blows, all parts of my face wish they might take cover beneath a wool mask. I am not such a fan of hats–I pull up the hood on a sweater (or on my rain jacket if it’s a drencher) but I’ve popped my old cashmere cap with the little moth hole onto my head more often or not. My nose runs and runs–sorry for that mental mage–and often I am out of tissue halfway through. My damp, half-frizzy hair is useless now but since cutting it to chin length-another post, perhaps–I care even less, smash it down. My eyes sting when attacked by biting gusts. And I have Raynaud’s, a condition that makes my hands (and often, feet) soon unbearably cold below 60. For safety and comfort I put on moderately insulated gloves as soon as it dips, and heartier ones for chillier conditions. (Indoors I wear finger-less gloves part of the year, especially when typing.)

As I write this, I am uncomfortably aware that Northwest winters are a breeze compared to Michigan’s, to Maine’s or Alaska’s, to those in Canada or Iceland and beyond. I do know the depths of winter. I do know and relish the memories of  being buried in snowdrifts before popping up and throwing snowballs. The romping about like a wild thing in it and doing fun sporting activities. And I recall the dangers and the inconveniences.

But this is here and now. It is my winter, Oregon’s months of pungent, wet earth and green shadows all about, of rampaging icy rivers that take my breath away with their beauty and snow-encompassed mountains above that call with singing winds and sleek, glittering mountainsides.

But given all that and the good and not so good here in the valley, what do I love about walking in the winter? Nearly everything. Discomforts are not that trying. This time of year is as chock-full of pleasant surprises as others. And being Christmas season, decorations are eye-catching additions to places and landscapes. I like the zing and zip of the cold as long as I am adequately dressed, and the body warming up so kindly as activity continues. How it feels to pull in piney-fresh, cool air. Even the reddening of cheeks feels cheery. The landscape shines differently in weaker winter sunlight, and shadows take on textures and shapes missed in other seasons. Maybe being raised in northern parts, I still sense mysterious earth’s re-tuning, its settling in for a long haul. I feel deeply at home outdoors. I am rejuvenated by sights and sounds, scents, tactile experiences–but also non-material ones.

Nothing quite impacts me as does nature no matter where I am. The ease of body through space, of mind given free rein to cultivate peace is priceless. It is a wellspring that nourishes and reshapes me into a fuller human being. This is happiness in its simplest–but not too simple–form. Taking care of myself in this way aids me in caring for others, and it provides greater resources from which to create. Writing ideas arise constantly when I walk–first lines, characters grabbing my attention, whole plots, a poem that lodges within. Problems present potential solutions. Spiritually there is no better antidote to being worn out or threatened by melancholy about the state of my country and our world. And of course, my overall health is rewarded and my cardiovascular system thanks me first, then the rest. I haven’t felt so terrific the past month–it is this or that as we age, let’s face it–and yesterday I was flattened while. Today I had to get back outdoors as walking unties body’s knotted spots, sweetens a stewing mind, and sets the spirit on a smoother course.

As I walked there came a conviction that I am in preparation for something lovely. Undeniably, winter brings hibernation for much and for a writer this is a benefit  as restful solitude, that cocoon of introspection, can well fertilize the brain and greater being. And I sense my winter will pare me down closer to the essence, bring forward truer needs and desires. I will make ways to call forth what is necessary but potent and, hopefully, more valuable to my writing and daily living.

I was recently surprised to discover I have written three posts a week for nearly seven years! Can that really be over a 1000 pieces written, pictures often additional contributions to the whole? I started with three blogs, each a separate genre; this continued on a few years. Those morphed into one–Tales for Life–that encompasses fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry (plus photography thrown in) on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I am grateful to have had this obliging spot on WordPress so long. I plan to stick to it albeit with some upcoming changes. More on this later.

Come along for now and see what I have seen recently. Enjoy a few random Portland (rain-free) winter shots and have a peaceful rest of  the week.

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A Way Back Home

“Life hurts more in this city, it shakes its fat fist in my face every day. I can’t take it,” he said, glasses reflecting the phantasmagoria of the giant tree’s lights. They beamed onto the brick and cement urban park, “the Square”, but he was blind to that.

TC knew what he meant, but she couldn’t entirely agree. It was pretty there. They could view the 75 ft. tall Christmas tree decked out in its glory, gather with others in the Square each morning with their maximized paper cups of coffee and a warm  croissant with butter or a cranberry scone. They could watch the shoppers mill about with brightly bulging shopping bags, study folks on lunch break as they lined up at food carts–oh, those savory aromas of hot food drove them nuts. Maybe they’d manage to get a bite to eat later. If she sold enough of her leather jewelry to tourists trying to be tolerant, or city dwellers trying to show good will, they’d get by another day. Harley didn’t think the way she did, though; he needed a drink by noon and then he went from bleakest to medium bleak.

“It’s too pretty, unlike reality, a total sham,” he insisted and took off his glasses, put them in his pocket. Something he did when his eyes hurt or he was just weary of seeing things. He frowned at her, deep brown eyes going darker. “What do you see in it all? It’s just another city where we half-starve and are too cold and wet–or too hot and dry. I’ll take too much heat over this. Let’s go back to California, baby.”

“It’s better here. I like Portland. I feel some real good energy here; just let yourself feel it, too, Harley.” She tamped down the  irritation in her words but it was like a bubble, it sneaked up to the surface.

He got up and winced, then bent over to grab fifteen bucks from her little box before she could stop him and ambled down to the Plaid Pantry. A beer, smokes, a small package of beef jerky.

There went their decent lunch. TC sighed and smiled at the same time at passersby who glanced her way. Her hip bones and rear hurt; her big jacket was barely long enough nonetheless and the sidewalk got harder by the hour.

The light drizzle had been wetting scenery along with people in fits and starts all morning. No one was much bothered. TC had pulled her burlap scrap laden with jewelry under the corner awning of Lil’s All Natural Bake Shop. They had been overlooked by the owner for two days and they hoped for a few more. But there were countless stores and offices, about as many awnings, so they’d just move on. It had been this way for about seven months, ever since she had lost the baby and he had lost his job due to being drunk too many mornings. Harley had argued he was just hung over but if anyone had taken his blood alcohol level he’d have had to cave and admit he was rarely sober. He had things on his mind and his fiancée had had a bad time of it. Two miscarriages in a year. Well, he was sick and tired, too, and out of decent luck. Maybe she was the luck killer, he wasn’t sure.

Fiancée. TC had said that word a few times in her mind. It had first felt luxurious in her mouth, like caramel and dark chocolate or salmon with creamy potatoes. It had shaken her up, given her a small thrill that he’d asked her to marry him a year ago. That was when he was still working at the factory and she’d had a part-time job waitressing. But she’d had her doubts back then, too. Harley wasn’t easy to be with; he wasn’t pleased with anything for long. He reminded her of her father, really, who’d been miserable enough about his circumstances that he’d exited her and her mother’s life early on, then later turned up dead behind an Alaska cannery. Her mother and she hadn’t gone up to his funeral even after his current girlfriend called, hysterical. It had been three years since he’d skipped out by then. They’d not missed him much; it was sad but understandable her mother reassured her.

TC was eleven then and she already had the notion that men tended to be thin-skinned, slow to change, hard to coax love from; she found real life matched those ideas that over the eight years. After the miscarriages, she ought to have struck out for better parts but she was determined to not do as her father had done.  Look where it got him. Her mother just swore and threw up her hands the last time TC had met with her, told her to lose that boy.

Now here they were. Lacking a home and broke and Harley going from bad to worse. She worried about his alcohol problem every minute. She wasn’t able to make one whit of difference.

“Those are cool,” a teenager said as she touched a pair of earrings with their fine leather leaves. “You make these designs yourself?”

“I do,” she said and held them up to the potential buyer. “Thanks!”  But she knew better. This was a teen with little cash, less real interest. The girl fingered the earrings, put them back, made a peace sign and left.

Someone will come along and buy five pairs, TC told herself in a sing-song way. It was like a spell she said often. It could mean at least fifty dollars, maybe seventy-five if they got the fancier ones. She got scraps at the leather supply store and she had had the tools for years, so her profit could be decent.

If only they hadn’t lost the apartment in Sacramento, but when Harley got going all the money was poured down his gullet or wasted elsewhere, she was never sure how. And she had been unwell with the pregnancies, then miscarriages. It got too hard to get up each day and try to hold things together while Harley was out there ripping and roaring with buddies. TC hated being a loser, being unable to pay her way, giving up when she had a very strong will. her will didn’t do her much good when she made bad decisions. Yeah, she had weak-willed herself right onto the streets along with dealing with Harley past the expiration date of their relationship.

So much for being a fiancée. And how to will herself off these streets, nice as they seemed? She knew she might be kidding herself when she filled up with hope but it mattered to her to believe, anyway.

Before the sun had peaked and then started its way back down, TC had made three sales, enough that she could eat even in the morning–maybe share with Harley if he hadn’t gotten food. She stood more often, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her gloved hands together, blowing her nose on extra toilet paper she had taken and stuffed in her pocket earlier. She had to go to the bathroom now, but she’d learned how to wait and wait and wait, if necessary. When Harley came back, they’d go into a store for a while to warm up, use restrooms. Meanwhile, the towering Christmas tree was so beautiful TC stared at it again, then counted the bills and felt much better.

But Harley didn’t come back. TC decided to not run the streets looking for him; it was getting late and unsafe. He might show up later, he might not. That was, finally, how she felt.

******

It was dark  by 5:00 so time to head out. After she used the restroom, washed up a little and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (and saved the turkey jerky, a fair protein source), she warmed up as she sipped fragrant hot coffee. Harley was nowhere near from what she could tell. She got up and checked out nearby shelters, but they were already full since December was spewing icy darts of wet. She walked to a nearby residential area. Her feet were starting to ache with damp and cold, the old leather seams of her boots letting in water; she tried to avoid puddles. She knew of a small apartment building; its second floor cement balconies were big enough that she could stay mostly dry beneath one. There was a spot by a casement window where she curled up with a fleece throw kept stuffed in the backpack. The spot  was still available; she hunched down, knees to chin, blanket about her, thick navy cap pulled down to her eyes. The trick was to become invisible–not the tenants as much as roaming street people. So far it seemed she was alone.

It took a long time to doze off to the dull rhythm of rain on cars, trees, gutters and roofs, that balcony but when sleep came it gave her five or six hours, to her surprise. She’d been dreaming of Christmas  as a kid, and she was about to open a box she shook it but it sounded and felt empty. TC straightened up, the aching stiffness making her feel old and half-sick, Her legs were cramped up so she stretched them, only to get a direct hit from raindrops. TC yanked her soiled blanket tightly about shoulders and chest. Her cheap cell phone indicated it was almost midnight. She should move, find a doorway even more protected.

“Hey,” a husky but feminine voice called out. It came from above. “What’re you doing there? It’s freaking pouring ice chips and it’s about my bedtime so I step out for a smoke and there you are, shivering underneath my feet!”

TC stood up fast, crammed her blanket in her pack, started across the muddy spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, girl–I’ve seen you here before. I was going to offer some help this time.”

TC hesitated, looked back, rain flooding her face. She then pulled the cap down to her eyes and struck out.

“Hey kid, I’ve been there!” The woman lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the weak light of her balcony. “I’ve done the street thing, suffered the price and now have a place.” She coughed. “This weather, what can you do? I have a couch you can use tonight, no deals needed, no ulterior motives. Just a chintzy dry spot.”

TC hunched her shoulders. The rain was biting at her skin now, it was closer to sleet, and she was shivering in spite of her strong will to be okay, to deal with it. She’d heard the stories of street people dying of hypothermia, getting vicious lung infections, being killed. This woman of about fifty with reddish hair stood on the covered balcony in sweatshirt and sweat pants. Waiting as if she was willing to be patient. What was there to lose? Maybe she would attack her, maybe she would do worse, her nightmares come true but she carried a knife, everyone did.

With Harley she had felt safer even when she wasn’t, really. Why did he disappear again? But it was freeze or hopefully get warm.

“So you know, I’m Eve Marker and I live with my terrier, Pearl. I’m a singer but she is not. She doesn’t bother to bite unless I am scared. I’m not a bit scared, and neither should you be, dear. I’m cold and I’m going in, are you coming?” She tossed her cigarette into the sheet of rain. “And you are, if I might ask?”

“I’m TC.” Her skin was starting to get goose bumps from the temperature. “Okay, yeah.” Did she know the name Eve Marker or was she just wishing she did? A club, maybe, near where they hung out. Not that it made her feel very reassured.

“Smart kid. Go to the front door.”

Animal comfort just won out. She ran to the heavy door but it was locked so she, stood under the eaves until the older woman came. She followed her upstairs. Eve wasn’t as old as she had first thought; the woman gave her a lopsided smile and her face softened.

“Hello there,” Eve Marker said.

“Hi.” She wondered if this was the biggest mistake of her life but no alarms went off in her. She knew how to sense danger and avoid it if at all possible. This was just different, even if peculiar.

When they entered the apartment, and Pearl the terrier lifted her head from her bed and then put it back down on front paws, TC was filled with a small relief. It was a small, cramped place–Eve said it was one bedroom, that was all she needed–but no matter, it was dry and there was small fake, decorated Christmas tree; a candle burning that smelled of cinnamon; and a tiny kitchen revealed a late night snack of half eaten toast and peanut butter nd a mug on the counter. TC dropped her backpack, took off her shoes by the door, then lay her wet jacket on top of the rest.

“Nice manners, TC, you were raised good. Want some tea?”

TC looked about her. She felt calmer, now she was inside the pleasant rooms, soon to dry out. “Sounds nice, thanks.”

Eve leaned against the kitchen counter, hands on thin hips. “I don’t know why I let you in. You could be a madwoman! But I just thought, I’ve seen you a few times down there–I’m an insomniac, everything gets me up and going–and tonight the spirit moved me.” She smiled that sloppy smile at TC. “And like I said, I’ve been on the street. Once, long ago, for nearly a year. I got behind on all my bills and one things led to another. Those were the bad ole days when I was below thirty thinking life owed me and I drank to silence the whiny wail of self-pity.”

She laughed a throaty laugh, eyes half-closed, and waved her hand as if to dispel the past, faded red hair fluffing about her delicately lined face. She filled a mug with hot water, dunked a peppermint tea bag into it–Eve thought she’d like chamomile but no matter, any hot tea was a gift as she dried out. “What happened, TC?–and what’s that short for?”

“It’s just TC.” She pulled her hat off and shook matted chin-length brown hair. Put her nose close to the bright scent of mint.

“Alright, then, you from around here or what?”

“Are you?” She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t about personal questions yet. “You said you sing?”

“Yes, born and bred. I’m at L’Heure Bleue Club four nights a week, you know it? Jazz club at Twelfth and Main. Tonight is a night off.”

“I’ve heard of it.” She had passed it many times; it was in a more ritzy part of city center.

“Well, it doesn’t pay like I used to be paid but it’s a gig and I’m glad of it. Music is my only love these days!”

TC sipped and when she bent her head she could also smell sweat and the dirt and despair and anger of the streets on her. “I make jewelry, that’s how I try to get by. Harley, he– oh, never mind.”

“I know, he’s here and there, huh? I like the sound of handmade jewelry. Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me.”

“I don’t know if it’s any good. Just made a few bucks. But Harley’s gone, maybe. Just has less patience and sees the worst in everything. I guess I should find him.” She looked back at the door, as if thinking this was a mistake and there was time to get out fast.

Eve watched her face close off emotion, saw her mind drift and so she yawned dramatically without apology. “Listen, TC, I am going to try to get some shut-eye. The more we talk, the more wide awake we’ll both be.” She rose and pointed down the hall. “Bathroom is there, feel free to shower, warm up. I’ll get some pajamas if you want. If you need anything else, holler.”

TC’s eyes flickered with anxiety despite a deep desire to be calm. The lady came closer and TC could not avoid her eyes without being rude.

“Hey,” Eve said gently. “You’re safe here. I get it. Still, we may as well be as nice to one another as we can. I know you’ll hightail it out of here early morning. It’s okay. Eat something. Take food to go, I don’t care. I can give you a few bucks, I’ll shove it under my door to the hallway, you can just get it, no worries. ”

TC shook her head. “No, I won’t take anything–maybe I should leave, I shouldn’t be bothering you and I’m not sure– I mean, why?”

Eve ignored the question. “And let me know if I can help otherwise. You can look me up at the club anytime. Tonight, though, I’ll put clean flannel pjs and undies in the bathroom if you want to use them. Toss your clothes in the washer, dry them tonight –there are stackables in the closet by the kitchen to use.” She gave a quick but sad smile, eyes quiet as her voice. “Night, kid. Take care.”

She turned and went to her room. Pearl trotted after her mistress with the slightest glance at TC then gave a small yelp as she disappeared after Eve.

TC sank into the lumpy couch, smoothed the worn wooly blanket on it and gazed at the blazing Christmas tree. Sleet slid onto, then pummeled roof, street, trees. She thought of Harley squeezed in between the dozens of other dirty, tired, hungry, angry and tough and longing men at a shelter. Or drunk under one of the many bridges, too cold for living long. New fear and hurt threatened her fragile hold on her oddly improved night. She looked toward the hallway. What luck she had found under that balcony,  being told she could come up just like that.

But a stranger, she was in a stranger’s home and no one knew where she was; no one really cared. Even her mother had gone off the radar the past month or two, caught up in her own dramas (husband number three) and pressing needs. His house was overrun with two bratty kids and three crazy cats, she’d said. No room for TC.

TC entered the clean oh-so-private bathroom, not a mildewy group shower, and stripped off soiled damp clothing. Held a sweet-smelling, soft green towel to her face. Her feet had raw blisters, more cracked and itchy spots. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she shuddered. How had she gotten this miserable and worn out? Where was her basic good nature, the hope? Was it all an act for Harley, and to kid herself so she could go on?

The shower was turned on; she stepped into a generous spray and let it run over chilled flesh a long while, relishing the moments, the fresh smell of the soap. Heavenly. This woman must be a genuine angel–was that possible in these times? She giggled at that and let out a deep sigh. She’d have leave in the morning, of course, but at least she would have another good memory.

Eve heard the shower and lay with eyes wide open. The girl would leave at dawn and keep on running, no doubt. She knew how it was. No good place to claim as one’s own, no one to care for you, no reason to keep trying after a while. Or was she like herself, more stubborn, and willing to get out of her own way, let the man go and start to better grow up? Get a life together again?

The water flowed a long time. Eve imagined how good that steamy air felt to TC and recalled how it had been for her when she had been drifting in a haze of boozey illusions and days without food or good hygiene. But she drifted off, anyway, and began to dream of her little sister when she was still alive, of the music she adored and sang by heart every set, of other rains sweet on her lean body in a faraway time, a different country.

A triple knock at her door brought her right back so that she sat bolt upright, her quilt pulled to her chest.

“Who…?” Oh, the girl again.

“Eve?”

Her whispery voice didn’t sound right. She must have been crying, that was it.

“Yeah, what is it, TC?”

“Can we…talk a little more? I’m sorry to bother you.”

So Eve got up in the fine veil of darkness and sat on the couch. The Christmas tree threw a multicolored prism of light across the humble room, on a bunch of white and yellow mums in a second hand blue vase set upon the coffee table and the art prints on walls The leaf print overstuffed pillow on the floor was taken by TC, where she slouched, looking at her hands.

“Shoot,” Eve said. “We all have stuff we need to tell.”

“My name is Teresa Christine…Keenan.” Her voice almost disappeared but she began again. “I grew up in L.A after my father left my mother and me and then we got by on her hairstylist’s earnings–she’s good– but it was not a piece of cake. Though back then I thought it was all good, I was glad to wake up in my peach bedroom with its narrow bed and a handmade Raggedy Ann doll and my library books, hearing my mother yelling for me to get up, come down already, it was late, and she made me frozen waffles. I believed if I tried hard enough, things could be better… but things got worse off and on. My mother says all this is just more life, take it for what it is and don’t complain. But now I have to change things. I just can’t accept my life like this.”

Eve heard her voice as if it was the sea rolling in and out and she sensed this lost young woman might be ready to find her own balance for the first time. She might even stick around a bit. Pearl jumped up to listen on Eve’s lap, ears cocked, and they sat that way even after the heedlessness of winter rain failed to wreak greater damage and just gave up. Even after TC fell into the relief of  good sleep.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: A Small Ballad of Beauty and Fortitude

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Photograph by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The freshening darkness sings and snarls.
At the window she rests and waits for
that loft and heft of air that carries
all four directions into her emptying mind.
She doesn’t need to move an inch from the
extra wide bed (nor can she) that cradles her

smallness like a bird wrapped within
skeins of a variegated night.
It is a waiting that brings pleasure
as all the light is turned down.
Things that were hiding or resting
take their places, reveal wondrousness.
It’s all a giant music box that pops open as
last shards of color soon pale and vanish.

Why and for what must you wait? he complains
as he nudges her bones away from his heat.
To be friends with life, she tells him.
He utters noises that suit the hollow he makes;
she watches beyond a narrow window, senses keen.
An easy enchantment as earth shifts, sighs;
wind brings sonatas to her strong teacup of a heart.

Everything living in the far-flung night is
larger, far more than she knows, but this is
a comfort: cats ferocious in hunger and desire,
handfuls of birds all glide and whisper,
squirrels and spiders that burrow and spin.
The moon glows without prejudice as the man
creates distance, keeps safe his importance.

Once when she was a brave child
she sat at night under the peach tree.
Savored flesh of tender fruit as twilit sky
stirred with a flurry of bat wings,
each no bigger than her fingertips.
Insects joined in chorus, brittle and bright.
Warm were the rocks, smooth beneath
her failed legs; night crawlers scaled her toes.
No one knew she had dragged herself out
until morning and they found her asleep
by a den of foxes. She had dreamed
she’d stood up, raced in fields behind them.

She grew but her legs did not lead where
she begged them to go. Later, more useless
than when she was certain of healing. Romance.
She has been more at home in breadth of bed
day and night. It has become less to bear.
Fine night creatures circle under the stars;
nature’s design makes room for her in the
unnatural world of trivia. Useless tears.

Night breathes on me and I am freed of it all, she says.
He snores on, head under quilts, blind and safe
from the dark while she floats, heedless,
toward the salvation of this in-between time.

One Eager Hostess, Short on (Perfect) Talents

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I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).

To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.

I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.

Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers.  Ah, table artistry was worth developing.

From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.

Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.

So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)

All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.

There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.

In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a  huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.

I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.

“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”

“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”

I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating  and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook  from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”

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Avery and me, 2012. We’ve skated since then–she has improved!–and it’s definitely time to get on that ice again!

I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.

Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.

Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.

“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”

“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”

Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.

So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can,  the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.

( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )