A Room with a View: The Importance of Place in Our Lives

It is a surprise that I can hear traffic from the table as I write. I had been imagining the heave and roll of the ocean despite being two blocks away from the Pacific. The mountainous trip from city center the day before to this ocean-side village was fraught with winding icy roads, some people fearful of every inch their cars traversed. But I am originally from northern country and the journey was familiar and enchanting even as I used caution. The trees were transformed with snow, the sky gilded with silvery light, and as I drove up to the cottage, the anticipation for a fire blazing in the fireplace and a fragrant cup of tea in my hands was making me giddy.  I had arrived at a room far from my work of counseling the walking wounded; the hustle and bustle of having a large extended family; the endless tasks of keeping house.

These salt-streaked sliding glass doors that open to the weathered balcony afford me plenty to observe. The coffee shop is buzzing, door swinging open as soon as it closes. It’s a haven for people, both townies and tourists who seek a brisk wake-up with caffeine amid congenial company. There is a young family holding hands as they walk in twos down the sidewalk, their laughter careening across the street. A woman is jogging down to the beach despite the freezing temperature, blond hair and scarlet scarf flying behind her. The emerald-hued treetops are bent from decades of vibrant and unpredictable weather. Soon I will take a walk to the beach and admire the violent beauty of the waves, then seek refuge in the tiny bookstore down the street, or one of the shops selling local or exotic wares.

This room has a reassuring, simple view that matches the mid-winter special price. I am happy with it in late February, when the drear of the Pacific Northwest can trick me into living a somnambulant life. This is the country that drew me like a magnet ever since age eighteen, when I left the Midwest for an adventure in Seattle. It took me over twenty years to return. I was asked why I came back and I explained this is a geography that speaks to me, where water and flora, volcanoes and wind engage in intricate patterns of life. As a child I knew I needed mountains around me like friends and guardians. On the long flat roads across Michigan I would see grey clouds on the horizon and imagine them peaks rising from the fields. Every lake I enjoyed gave rise to the hope of one day sitting among firs and cedars, watching the mist rise above the treetops and linger over blue-black mountain tops. Although one who is drawn to the culture and diversity of city life, I nonetheless felt from an early age that the power of nature was needed in my daily life.

I wonder what my father would think of my room with a view this morning. Each summer we took long vacations across the country. I sat with nose pressed against the back seat window, waiting for a chance to get out and explore each town or city we passed through, each historical marker an opportunity for my father to expound.  My mother instructed us on geological and agrarian facts. We played “I Spy”games and sang songs in easy harmony. Museums were major stops, but so were village churches and roadside parks where we enjoyed picnic lunches. Our cheese or peanut butter sandwiches and a fuzzy, sweet peach for dessert were more mouth-watering under the shade of a tree. Then it was off to a new road, my eyes riveted by the scenes that unfolded before me. The sounds, sights and smells of each new place held me in thrall: how could so many people live such complicated lives everywhere we went? Tired at the end of the day, my father’s choice of rooms with views were the cheapest, the ones that took five back roads and too much gas to find after the sun was long gone, my mother teasing him about his infamous side trips. We might awaken to cows lowing next door but that first look out the window propelled me out of bed, in search of more curious things.

In this village by the Pacific, a seagull wheels and cries on an updraft of wind. A white bearded man in a worn navy pea coat rests on a wooden bench, his wooly black dog at his feet. I can see in the distance a trace of blueness between the heavy winter clouds. The ocean’s voice can be heard as I crack the door. Faint golden light spills to the earth as sun breaks through, with a fine rain glistening in the air. The dog pulls on his leash and his master rises, walking into the sheltering stand of trees. I pull on my warm jacket and frayed cashmere hat and step out as the rain blows east. I can see mountains behind me and know they keep watch.

Wherever I roam, just give me a room with views of people busy living, their labyrinthine stories revealed with each step taken. Place it in a landscape where nature richly nurtures but never lets us forget: we are travelers here, visiting for a very short while.

The Heart Chronicles #2: What the Heart Means

Some years are more memorable than others, and not always for the reasons we expect. The year I had a suspected heart attack with resultant stent implants was the year too much happened. It was as though the ragged old life force had been slowly drained out so the new might find its way in. In the midst of it all a thief had crept in when I was too busy keeping all the wheels spinning to notice.  Little by little a major artery narrowed and became more inflamed until it seriously objected to being a thoroughfare for all that blood. This stealthy activity took its toll on the intricate system of checks and balances amid sinew and bone. My body–which had once seemed a stronghold against all my impulsive whims, negligence, illnesses, wounds internal and external, and simply the daily adrenalin output that occurs from living a life with verve and a sense of purpose–felt like a stranger.

There were events that should have been warnings long before the operating room. First, there was the worsening, unpredictable tachycardia that had started years before with a dental infection.  It was akin to riding bareback on a galloping horse through  brambles. Then there was the job that became an endurance test as the year went by; panic could wind me tightly as a rubber band ball as I neared the building. And finally I experienced becoming an orphan: the loss of my second parent, my mother. Her departure turned my days and nights into a dark river of tears.

I was being made vividly aware that I had little control over life.  This, for a woman who had labored long and hard to correct many errors, eradicate shabby intentions, achieve excellence in small but meaningful ways. And who did not leave the house without every hair in place. What had kept me standing tall no longer made me strong. My heart demurred and that objection brought me to my knees.

And so, I took three years off from work as a counselor. My cardiologist would have said that I was taking my time recovering from the events that occurred in response to coronary heart disease. I went to the hospital cardiac rehabilitation room and exercised dutifully. I walked daily and rested when tired. I attended a support group for those who had various types of heart disease and was buoyed by their hope and courage. And when the fear of impending death again haunted me, Dr. P. would reply quickly but not unkindly: “We all die of something eventually.” The pragmatism of this corrected my viewpoint.

But ultimately what I was really doing was grieving all the losses, as one more can compound all the others we have had. Right before my surgery, 9/11 happened to us all; it was a wound unlike any other. The tsunami of grief led me into a land of shadows and light, terror and beneficence, surrender and empowerment. I sat deeply still in a chair with books or pencil and drawing paper. I walked for hours. I looked, and in seeing the world from the sidewalk, saw facets of myself that had been forgotten. I ruminated some days and others, thought of nothing. I prayed in a hundred different ways. And I sang.

That was one revelation that awaited me in the cave of grief: I could sing. It might have been another simple act. But I had not really sung for thirty years. An eager performer with a passion for singing, I had stopped when I was twenty, when I had been challenged by other losses and impediments. I made choices that no longer included music. It had been such a devastation that I would not speak of it.  Singing lullabies for my children was the most I could do, and they were secret moments of relief, even joy.

Now, so many years later, I moved from dreaming to wakefulness with music that seemed to broadcast from an internal radio. I spontaneously recalled songs from my childhood, songs my father had taught me as he accompanied me on the baby grand, folk songs that I had written as a teen and those I had sung on stages.  Hymns came back to me, songs from old records of the big band era, classical art songs I had been trained to sing for music competitions. I called my brother, a professional jazz musician, and hummed a tune into the phone until he could name it for me. He even asked if I wanted to sing a couple of songs with his band but I declined.

I kept my singing close, wondering over the pleasure of it. And I sang at home, then in choral groups and at times in church.  I sang because the songs wanted voice and I could again offer them mine. But even more, singing helped fill the empty places after weeping had left me empty. Each breath and note coursed through me as the living blood in my veins and I got stronger.

That was a beginning of more surrender, which infused me with a renewed life force. I began to rediscover personal power, in large part, by singing my heart out.  Between the return of music and writing my way through a geography of sorrow, I gradually came to more intimately know the ways of the heart.

It is not just the most vital organ in the center of the body. It is the center of our living because it knows best, feels the most, intuits deeply.  This small but powerful organ speaks to us in a myriad ways, driving us into each day, alerting us to danger, responding with mercy and kindness, leaping with joy, constricting with anger, made calm and expansive with peace.

In the three years of going inward and circling outward again, I found that what the heart means is this: it is crucial to live bountifully, as though you cannot bear to live less. Live from the profound wisdom and constancy of your heartbeat no matter its surprising rhythms. Do not be derelict in your devotion. It will fight for you if you love it well. 

A Valentine to the Arts

I am a dedicated writer, so I appreciate the vast potential of words. They can create irrevocable damage; they can also illuminate mysteries and secrets. They are as apt to build a mighty life as take it down. Well-chosen, measured words are powerful enough to divide or unite nations. They teach us much about the natural and human-made worlds we love so much to inhabit. And words can convey crucial needs and flesh out our dreams.

It has been impossible to imagine a life without the written word since childhood when I was swept up by an early passion for playwriting, then poetry, soon followed by short and longer stories, and finally, as an adult,  novels that wait to one day be shared with many more.  A few things have been published. But the joy of creative journeying has been far greater than words alone might have allowed. 

Before all those words there was, for me, a way of being that was based largely on an absence of language spoken or syllables committed to paper. There was music.  Because my father was a classical musician, conductor and music teacher, our home was filled with music from morning until night. All five children played instruments as early as possible, some before school age. I sang, then played cello and sang, and when I could wrest the baby grand piano away from my siblings and father, I would noodle around on the ivory and ebony keys, making up tunes with a jazzy beat or melancholic drama. I played, studied and when sleeping, dreamed music.  In those otherworldly places within mind and spirit were childish symphonies that grew from happy hours climbing trees and floating upon clear lakes, figure skating against the frosty wind and playing kick the can with friends. I was trailed by music all day long. As I grew up, my cello warmed under my hands and spoke to me in deeper melodies. For a short time, the harp intrigued me and a guitar found its way to me, unleashing songwriting attempts. Singing often felt more natural than speaking. I understood that music was God’s language, and I was a willing believer.

Where there was music, dance surely followed. It didn’t always require the stereo, radio or a sibling’s instrumental accompaniment–just a tune whirling in my mind that set my feet sliding, leaping, spinning. I had discovered the best of both worlds: melody in motion. When multitudinous scarves were added, I was a firebird, a lowly flower seller, a warrior princess, a small, disheveled empress of all. Rhythm and melody moved my body as much as my heart and I felt freed of gravity.

Equally wordless was drawing. I had a small talent, but I did have vision. I drew what I observed but often I let the pencil or pen carry me away, as it seemed to move of its own accord. Houses became a near obsession and I could not have explained why. But they had substantial possibilities with their sun-reflective windows, their elegant porches, the way the chimney gave forth ribbons of smoke, the interiors sketched carefully so that I might wander from room-to-room as eye followed pencil. Add paint and an entire idea turned into a living thing. Later, photography would become a medium I loved. Visual arts were as magic as music and dance.  

I learned I could think of something, then provide it a life of its own, or, rather, simply give rein to imagination and let it express itself. Creating required work, but it most often felt like play. Discipline only increased the pleasure.

I might have felt lonely even within a large extended family of musicians and other creative souls, but there were always summer camps. When I arrived at Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan it was as if I had stepped into the only universe that ever mattered: it was like home except populated by hundreds of youth and adults from all over the world.  Everywhere were people making art: music, theatre, dance, visual and language arts.  It was here that I realized the vast scope of the fine and performing arts. It was here that I learned that while language had its place of pride in my heart, all other arts cast a similarly powerful spell on me. I watched (and later joined) the dancers with awe, their graceful, sweaty bodies illumined by sunshine refracted from the lake beyond. I performed on open-air stages under the pines and was moved by the majesty of Beethoven and the delicacy of Debussy. Art studios drew me with the heady scents of linseed oil, turpentine, clay; there was the flash of a welder at work, the intent gaze of a jeweler as she aligned gems with silver and gold.  Stage plays shaped up with each rehearsal; I left light-hearted and inspired.

And not the least of my experiences occurred in the practice rooms beneath great trees and shimmering sky, when my cello and I became intimate allies in the effort to make good music. And my singing voice? It got to ride with the wind, carried high on the wings of birds.

I fell wildly, mysteriously in love with the arts from a young age, with the act of simple or complex creation.  Language has given voice to what matters most to me  and storytelling never fails to surprise, challenge and keep me company. But all the arts have saved me more than once and made beautiful this world in which we each struggle, strive and hope. Like wise spiritual teachers, they have mentored me every step of the way as they do countless others.

One should be so fortunate to experience a lifelong love such as this.

One Right Word Can Save Us

I have been thinking about healing, and how language can be a powerful agent for making well what has been unwell. And how it can also be a burden or impediment.

This is written after spending seven hours trudging through more revisions of my novel, Other Than Words. It strikes me as an irony that for years I have been devoted to a story of over 400 pages that has at its center a woman who has stopped talking. Sophie experiences her muteness as a dictator, an ally, a healer, an exorcist. She wrestles with finding the one word that might set her free of her silence. Still, she continues to use it as a safety zone in an embattled life as she seeks to integrate the pieces of her inner and outer life after terrible trauma and loss.

Sophie takes her time. She finds new ways in which to communicate with others–she is a dancer and a painter. She listens. She takes solace in the pleasures of living without the obligation to speak. It is made clearer that people are by turns compelling and foolish in their succinct or clumsy attempts. How crucial it can be to make known to others what matters most and least, what moves and bores and delights them. But it is what they do not speak that she hears the most clearly. Sophie’s muteness has the odd effect of making her presence irrelevant at times, as though she is invisible, so they say speak without thinking.

I work with Sophie in my story deliberately, carefully, because she is a woman like so many I have worked with as an addictions clinician. I have also met her in different cities and towns across the country or at recovery meetings. They have been diminished by the lack of their own voice. They harbor secrets and grief that weaken them from inside out.   They may learn to sit patiently with pain; they have a higher tolerance than many and just get on with their lives the best they can. But so often it doesn’t work out well.

Some years ago I had an opportunity to work with Native American women in a residential addictions treatment program. They brought with them some of the most devastating histories of trauma I have ever heard. There was much they could not say aloud.

I wanted to develop a different sort of women’s recovery group, one that utilized poetry, song, dance, exercise. I thought that they’d had enough of education and process groups. They were restless and resistant with a tight treatment schedule. By late Friday afternoon they were ready to fight or retreat entirely.  After we stretched and breathed deeply, we sat down on the floor in a circle. They spoke about their ancestral and circular stories and songs because that is what they loved and missed from their homes across the western states.  Little by little they shared favorites, some in their tribal tongues.

And something happened to them when they spoke up, shared the old words and sang the songs. They stood taller, sat straighter, became alert. They looked at each other with new respect and offered me English versions as well. 

One day I decided to ask them to get in a line. They automatically started to move into place as they had at pow wows or other occasions at home. Only, this time I asked them to call out what they most wanted to tell the world and themselves. They were embarrassed for me, a skinny, middle-aged white woman who was going to stand at the head of the line and shout out things–they couldn’t imagine what. So I began.

“We are beautiful. We are strong. We are joyous. We are free.” I looked behind me and they shuffled along, each holding onto the woman ahead. “Come on now! We’re going to snake through the entire building, so I want you to be loud enough to get everyone out of their beds and office chairs.”

They laughed, incredulous. I started again, kicking out my feet one at a time in a rhythmic sort of shuffle-dance. I could feel them catching the beat and off we went into the main hallway. I kept repeating phrases and shortly I heard more voices join me, then more, until our voices grew louder as we wove our way through the building. Counselors stuck their heads out their office doors in surprise, clients ran up to us and teased us, then clapped. I saw the director come from her office, stunned, then shake her head with a bemused expression. I figured if I got fired it would be a good way to leave.

Downstairs and out the doors, we kept going. “We are women! We are strong! We are brave! We are good! We survive! We stand tall! We are good-looking, smart, valuable women!” They clapped their hands in unison and spoke with such fierce joy that by the time we had assembled in the back field, much of the building had emptied and followed us.

It was late afternoon and the sun was laying gold over the trees and grass. I stood in line, my words following theirs as we formed a circle. They were illumined, beautiful with pride, full of this moment, their declarations.

It became a ritual each Friday. Some times we were  joined by others, sometimes not. But always there was something palpably happy about the group, the same group of women who bore visible and invisible scars of abandoned, often brutal lives. Potent words were raised to the sky along with fists raised, feet stomping the ground.

Every time I felt their victory as a vibrating force of life rippling between us. And they began to get better, day by day. Things were said in their circle that hadn’t been said before. Risks were taken that once had been unthinkable. Enemies became cautious companions. And what was fearful was sometimes put into the circle and laid bare. As one woman said, “Something gets unplugged. It feels so great to sing and yell, to shout out to the Creator. I am learning how to feel good and free, again.”

Such is the mysterious power of language to liberate, to heal. And so I return to Sophie, who struggles with her inability to speak in Chapter 3. I care about her. She is a woman in need of compassion and courage, another chance, and her own one right word spoken aloud. Until then, she will learn how to settle into her silence and use it to clarify her vision on the road to health.