The Best Defense


Raider watched me as he repeated a litany of complaints. His tall, lean body moved very little but his shadowy eyes were animated with anger and a profound desire to leave the building. He sat like this every other week and what he said didn’t change: he had bad luck, he was a victim of circumstances that seemed never-ending. He’d had a cruel father who died young, a mother who was sick and far away. His girlfriends left him before he could leave them. He felt justified in raising first a bottle to his lips and then raising his fists so he had landed in treatment. Raider lived on the periphery of what he felt was a controlling society and inhabited what he believed was an unfairly difficult life.  Unless he could get out of the system and get back on his own. And he had to deal with me in order to make that happen.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he said, chin thrust out. “You probably have a sweet house, a nice little family, and maybe a fluffy dog. You’ve never seen the sky through bars. And I’m a skateboarder. I need to roam. It’s nothing to you, but I hate every day I’m not free to go where I want to. The system determines my whole life! I have to get through it  somehow, though.”

His jaw tightened and his alert black eyes clouded over as though a mist had fallen. I told him the usual-that I could assist in helping him find housing, that he needed to stay sober more than anything else if he planned on getting off probation the next few months. I was  beginning to wonder if he needed detox. I added a new group to his schedule.

“What are you going to do about finding some hope?”  I asked him suddenly.

He shifted. “What?”

“You talk like you have very little hope.”

“Yeah, well, if you were in my shoes….” He tugged at a torn spot in his jeans leg. “What about it?”

I sat back and took a long drink of water. “People can do more than survive. Even people who have lost everything they think is important. One guy I’m thinking of just about lost his life. He was a skateboarder, too, one with great promise.”

Raider cocked his head at me and blinked.

“He borrowed a motorcycle for a spin in the country one summer evening. He wasn’t driving recklessly, but it was a gravel road and he took a curve a little too fast. He wiped out, hit a utility pole, flipped the bike. He wore a helmet or that might have been that. But he crushed his jaw and teeth. He was rushed to a trauma center miles away. He had serious internal injuries, damaged spleen and pancreas, a kidney that doctors said  would be lost.  Many people  prayed for him. For a month and a half he lay there, trying to keep up his spirits, hanging on to hope while he physically got weaker and thinner. He was not able to walk more than a few steps. The doctors believed he would never fully recover. He was in pain and didn’t know what each day would bring but he held on.  Deep down he was still a strong-minded person, full of fire and love of life. He wanted to skateboard, ski and snowboard, create things, travel,  enjoy people–to fully live his life again. Like you, he was a free spirit.”

Raider was sitting forward, his hands clasped. “So then what?”

“The guy had a vision one night. In the vision he sat with a medicine man who told him to hunt, eat and get strong and he would be healed. So the young man told the doctors they had to stop giving him jello, puddings, fruit juices and other liquids, and round-the-clock IVs with nutrients. They said he was foolish, that he  couldn’t handle foods like meat but the young man told them he had to have protein. He told them to puree the food so he could eat it; he told them what foods he knew he needed. This guy also said he had to get up and walk, if only a few steps a few times a day. He was so insistent that they agreed to start a new diet.”

“They did that?”

“He was so certain it would lead to healing. He had great faith in his vision and in his own instincts. In a few days, he got out of bed, walked a bit. In a week, he could walk down the hall; he walked back and forth and got stronger fast, using those muscles that had served him so well before. He left the hospital in another week. It would take time to fully recover but he wasn’t the sort of person who balked at hard work. And he had a strong belief that things happened in his life for a reason and he could learn from them. Really, he was a person who had a handle on hope.”

We were silent a moment. Raider shook his head.

“But he didn’t skate after that, I guess.”

“Oh, yes. He started to practice a few weeks after he got back home and became a more powerful athlete than ever before. He went on many tours, he’s had hundreds of photos in magazines, been in many films and videos, has his own line of  skateboards. He still skates fifteen years after that accident. And he celebrates life. He’s a man who counts endless blessings, not losses; he shares his love of life no matter what happens. And I’ll tell you,  tough things happened after that. He  just kept believing and going on with his life.”

“Well, who is this guy? I’ve probably seen him and never knew!”

I shook my head. “If I could tell you the whole truth about this story I would. But I just want you to think about it. Hope is so often the best defense in life, Raider. Terrible things happen to people all the time, as you know. So you can get through probation and treatment. You could also see and do things differently if you choose. Or you can take the same path–see more sunrises and sunsets through bars.” I checked my watch. “Time’s up. I hope you stay sober. I’d like to see you back here.”

“I’ll try–I did better this week. And I think I’ll ask around about that guy.”

Raider walked down the corridor but at the lobby door he turned and raised his hand.

“See you next week,” he called. There may have been a half-smile on his face. It was hard to tell–he was gone in a flash, skateboard in hand.

As I returned to my desk, I thought of all the young men who lose their lives to substance abuse, violence and despair, and also to the most random of events. To defeat. They cross paths with me, and then they often vanish. They give up just short of a miracle. But a little hope is a fearsome thing, persistent, potent, courage-building. It is what matters most to those I see day in and day out–and it’s available to all who seek it.

(Thanks to my son: vision seeker, loving husband and father, contractor/painter, music and art maker, pro skater and one of five of my heroes –my children. You all inspire me.)


The name and identifying features of “Raider” and all others in my blog posts have been changed to protect their privacy unless otherwise noted.

The Heart Chronicles#4: Finding Refuge for the Heart/A Poem


The heart carries more than we know. It demonstrates its strength by beating day in, day out, its tide of blood keeping our bodies in running order. But there is other work: feeling and processing what the body, mind and soul intimately experience. I have imagined there is a kind of twin heart–an invisible one that resides within the dense muscular one–feeling its way through each moment, acknowledging external information and giving us clues and directives. This heart-within-a-heart also emotes what is felt, whether we speak of it or not.

How do our hearts know sympatico? Joy or grief? Empathy? Compassion? It is a vast receptacle of human experience and at times, I think, a sort of oracle. If this were not so, we wouldn’t say with certainty: She has a cold heart or He has no heart for this or My heart is going to break or My heart is dancing.  Our lives are mosaics of moments that we often miss. Not so the heart. It captures and is captured by the vagaries of this existence; it opens us to the possibilities of more than what can be seen. It speaks to us even as it does its pedestrian work. 

 Why do we forget to care for our hearts well in return–the one that leaps for joy or moans deep within and the one that circulates volumes of blood? It takes discipline and even inspiration to become well, to be whole.  For this, we can seek refuge, find a holy place of renewal.

I have found since the pronouncement of heart disease I must be even more diligent about replenishment. I watch the world news and sit with heartache that swells and lingers too often. I see faces yearning for relief, eyes welling up with unspeakable loss, devastation beyond imagining: Japan is now ever-present in my thoughts.  And my work with mentally ill and addicted persons stays with me long beyond the work hours, at times keeping me company in the depths of night. I am sometimes too full of this weeping world, and I seek a place to lay it all down.  To rest.  So tonight I offer a poem that speaks of my need of nature and solitude, both a balm to my heart. There are many ways that take us back to the heart’s power and soul’s vision.  May you each find your own holy place.

Carry me into blue-backed hills,
into the circle of no desire.
Let bitterness fall like
jeweled ice in the heat of day;
grief disperse in the cry
of mother winds;
salt of tears dry as filigree upon
the mossy rocks.

Pull me into shadows that
will not deceive these unbound feet.
Let dreaming escape  into the breath of trees
and the blood wounds of the world become
flowers scattered among tracks of elk, raven,
cougar, snail.

Lead me into places where earth is undisturbed
and the scents of the living survive.
Let me lay down my heart among wolves at watch,
and my spine curve against roots that nourish
bark, leaf, blossom, limb.

Free me of the seizure of time
so I may hear the sun singing,
see the luminescence of air, then sail
along a horizon clean of violence.
Let river light flow from my fingers
and my prayers drift beyond the western rim.
Carry me into the resonant center of each
star and wild golden eye.

Here is the elegance of stone, trillium,
spider, fern, of raindrops encircling
my throat, of bold spring heat
which leaves no mark on transparent leaves
or the skin in which I live.
Let me return whole

to walk again through the
world’s treachery and unspeakable thieveries,
and offer mercy, hope, love
as God has so easily given.

Copyright © 2011 by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

An Ode to the Crocus and all its Royal Companions

Spring unveils its beauty in tantalizing bits where I live; it takes my spirit on a journey with each new day. Even as brash winds shake the treetops and chill rain rattles my bones, crocus and snowdrops have the nerve to venture forth. I am drawn to their instinctive resolve in the face of drenchings or filmy ice, the long days of grey that can simply seem like paler shades of night. Are they so hopeful that all will unfold as it has years before? Such royalty, the flowers, along with their attendants, the trees and shrubs which keep their places from autumn through summer. 

Still, leaving winter is not an altogether easy event. I have been busy listening to the jazz patter or vast symphonic sweep of rain for months. I have tasted its bright coldness when walking day and night, my parka pulled close. The wind chimes have crashed against the outside wall as though engaged in emphatic disputes with the northeastern storms that barrel down the Columbia Gorge. It enlivens my mind just to walk outside and smell the wet earthen scents in winter, and at night, I am lulled by sheaves of water outside my window. Verdant is the world in which I walk, work and seek small adventures. All is persistent green and overlayed with charcoal/slate/pewter/silver, a shining work of art as the low light fans across the earth.

Since November I have often sat wrapped in a soft blanket and noted the glistening views outdoors as I’ve worked, dry and warm, on writing. There is always a steaming yellow and lavender mug of tea warming my hands; my books crouch around me like co-conspirators. I bask in the comfort of  shelter as the rain envelops the world and dream of my characters in the novel I am revising. Perhaps  Sophie will make her way to the end of the peninsula where her husband drowned and see his visage rising with the lake mist, his finger pointing at her accusingly. Will she stare him down or will she turn and take her faithful husky, Daedalus, back to the chapel-house and dance in front of the roaring fireplace? I pull the blanket around my shoulders, set down the mug and type to the accompaniment of rain dashing the windows.

I am not unhappy with winter here. The constancy of rainfall is a balm and the soft light turns me inward.  But in January when I spot the first tender-petaled crocus, there is shiver of anticipation. I know how much more will be given us in lengthening days, with bursts of warmth and sunlight. Daffodils have been sighted in early February. Bright pink camellias bloom in all their sassiness and daphne beckon me from around a corner with their heady perfume. The cherry and apple blossoms burst open, as will dogwood; a raft of others will unfurl their buds. Petunias and pansies in a rich palette of colors last most of the year but new plantings will cheer up stone walls and porches. My neighborhood will be graced with redolent gardens; I linger at their edges during walks. Before me unfolds a grand pageantry of vivid color and design, both natural and human-made. In June there will be a bounty of roses to smell deeply, as this is famous rose country and thousands travel from afar to admire them. And the voluptuous lilacs? They rule for a short while yet keep us in their thrall.

But the best moment will come in late April or May. I will enter the woods quietly and seek the flash of white or purple adorned with deep green: trillium. This is the wildflower that informs my longing for the natural world with a mysterious desire, a stirring of both the sublime and common. The simplicity of the trillium belies a luminous beauty and brings me to a point of stillness within; when I spot it among the underbrush of the woods I catch my breath. I scan the expanse of trees and profuse ferns and seeing no one nearby, step forward and crouch on the damp ground, my hands cupping its face. It is perfect amid the moss and lichen, the fallen trees. For me, it shines like a jewel in the clean spring light, like a small angelic visitation amid the rubble and detritus of life. And I take my place with it for a few rareified moments.

My gradual farewell to winter will be tinged with fondness as it has kept me company and brought me gifts of many sorts. But soon the sunny breezes will sweep away the rain. I will enjoy the heraldry of the crocus, daffodils and all the others as I roam the deep woods, awaiting the treasure of trillium.

The Heart Chronicles#3: All is Not as It Appears

Viv, one of my long-term clients, tossed her long fire-red hair off her shoulders and narrowed her eyes at me, then shook her head. At fifty-two, she looked good, her face transformed by new-found health, her brown eyes lively. Only her missing front teeth might give her away: she survived forty years of addiction, a life in the farthest reaches.

 We had been talking about her new studio apartment, the money that finally came through, the skills she was gaining every day now that she had been clean and sober for a year. I held back my happiness for her; Viv kept her feelings quiet even when she knew exactly what they were. Too much from me could create more reserve in her. But she was clearly feeling good. I asked her what I had said that warranted “the look.”

“You ask me how I get enough sober support when I don’t go to any AA meetings or have many sober friends. You know I don’t count on people to keep me going. What actually helps the most is that I’m nobody special. I’m invisible. It don’t matter what I do anymore. I can walk into the grocery and buy anything I want with cash–I’m not the one running for the door with my pockets and purse stuffed. People aren’t staring at me because I haven’t had a shower in a week. I’m not taking heat from the cops, doing what I did before in an empty building or alley. I can go anywhere I want and no one notices. No one knows where I have been, what’s going on inside me. I was such a badass once; now I get scared of all this change. But I’m starting to just blend in. That makes me free.” Viv raised her arched eyebrows. “Get it?”

“Yes,” I said, “and I’m glad for you.”

She smiled back at last. “Thanks. Me, too.” 

Viv’s words had struck a chord and they echoed in my mind all week. I thought how, despite our differences, we had something in common.

I’m a person who, due to genetics, got a couple helpful and not-so-helpful traits. I have tended to look younger and perhaps more fit than I am. And I got the heart disease that runs in my family, although a good fifteen to twenty years earlier than others. Both facts have presented me with challenges.

The day I was given the surprise diagnosis at age fifty, I looked out my living room window at the brilliant street. There were people bicycling, walking briskly with their dogs, running in pairs.  I tried to imagine how they felt,  lungs easily expanding and compressing, hearts thrumming, legs powered by strength and steadiness. They had dependable bodies, hearty and whole, that took them places without a thought. 

Heart disease research doesn’t tell you what it feels like after the major heart event stops you in your tracks. That is the part where you learn to live with things you never imagined. I didn’t climb the stairs to my second-floor apartment without stopping two or three times.  Even walking from the bed to the chest of drawers could bring on tachycardia. Carrying laundry would leave me breathless. Sleeping became erratic, as I awakened with new and haphazard heartbeats that threatened to lift my heart right out of my chest. I felt this organ, my heart, was taking over my whole body and mind like an intruder. What had once been the unobtrusive powerhouse of my energetic body could turn on me any time. It could become my mortal enemy at worst. After the stent implants, things got better but progress was like moving slowly through a maze in the dark. I had to learn the organic ways of the heart for the first time.

Looking in the mirror that first year or two was confusing. I saw a woman who did not inherit the early (as early as late twenties) white hair gene. My shoulder-length hair was brunette and wavy. I had always been of muscular build even as I put on a few pounds in my late forties. My skin had few lines and my eyes were still a clear blue. All I had to do was get dressed and go outdoors and no one would know that the walk down the block took all the courage I could call forth. I hesitated at the door each time. What would happen if my heart took off racing, if I couldn’t catch my breath when the crazy palpitations grabbed hold? What would happen if no one was around to help me when I got dizzy and faint? If my new cell phone my husband insisted I have didn’t work? Leaving the apartment got harder the less I left, so I just pretended I could do it and walked out every day, going as far as I could, to the stoop, to mailbox, then around the corner, to the neighborhood park, to the store for a very small bag of groceries. I gradually walked harder and faster and checked my pulse often, terrified of the one hundred twenty marker. After that, I was lost to the runaway heart rate and would have to sit down and wait, sometimes pray. But I didn’t stop. It was either move or lose out on the rest of my life. Better to be struck down on the way to the park than on the couch.

And success! I survived each ordinary adventure. And no one knew I was filled with trepidation, or that my heart was banging against my chest like a mad thing again. Passersby just saw a casually dressed woman who was going about her business with a smile and a friendly nod. They greeted me in neighborhood shops as though nothing was different from what it had been six months, then a year before. I moved among them and wondered what they went home to, what they were thinking about behind their composed faces, and began to feel like one of the crowd again. I even envisioned having to ask for help if that day came again–and imagined getting it. I stepped more hopefully into a world that had seemed too much to negotiate. And each step forward helped me believe my heart was healing: I would, indeed, live. This, despite the ambulances and angiograms and dangerous fear that came and went.

There are times I have shared the fact I have cohabited with coronary heart disease for over ten years. I might become privy to others’ physical challenges and we gain a new connection. Most of the time they are surprised, even disbelieving, as I am a person of many passions, and do not live that quietly. I am blessed with expansive energy and a busy mind that keep me engaged in work and play throughout lengthy days. And I may still look just a bit younger than some my age, with a little help.

But I know where my life has taken me, and how it has worn away some of the inside places, leaving them with a grainy sheen that only I can see. Like everyone else in the world, I carry this singular life forward, day in and day out. It resides right here in my body, mind, spirit. It gives my heart its depth and breadth, maturity that it didn’t have when I was a daredevil youth and thought I had the world on a string. My beating heart has paid a few dues. I longed to be unique then, whereas now I am more content to  be a part of, rather than apart from, the vast scheme of things. I am just another face in the crowd. And meanwhile, the secret lives of our arteries go on, wholly invisible. We each hold our lives close; they are in our safekeeping.

The next time I see Viv, I will tell her a thing or two, like how proud I am of her. She was a cocaine-addicted, desperate, angry woman who fell long and hard into a vortex of loss, then began anew. You might see her somewhere buying flowers for the first time in years or getting Thai take-out. She may capture your attention in passing but you won’t look twice. I must tell her that I hear her words; I take them with me. How miraculous that she feels free again.  I do know how sweet that is.