As Before, So Ahead

As Before, So Ahead

Yesterday I went to a trendy hair salon. I had imagined that there would be women and men lined up for refreshed or fancy hairstyles, as this week-end is New Years’ Eve: parties, dinners, nights out on the town. But the place was quiet, with only two stylists in the salon and one other customer getting a decidedly ordinary cut, like myself. I inquired of the owner whether her week-end schedule was packed.

“Not really,” she answered. “A lot of people are going out of town for New Year’s, a long week-end. Maybe they’re getting ready mentally for 2012 and whatever changes are ahead?” In the mirror I saw her palms turn up to emphasize either lack of interest or puzzlement. “But I’m throwing a big party. What about you? Big event? Resolutions?””

I laughed.“We’ll be home New year’s Eve, maybe watching the ball, just as likely reading and listening to music. And I host an annual potluck for my family, maybe fifteen people. But that’s on Sunday, 2012 by then.” I closed my eyes and breathed out slowly as prickly pieces of hair rained down. “No resolutions. Change happens all the time, like it or not. And much does not.”

She smiled blandly and offered no argument. We fell into a companionable silence as she expertly snipped away.

On my way home I mused over the fact that I have not made resolutions for at least thirty years. One reason is that the more time I spend on earth, the less apt I am to believe significant changes can be simply strategized and accomplished on a clear timeline. My life refuses to be run like a business no matter how I have tried.

Another is that if I set external goals that matter less to me than internal ones, like lose five pounds, walk more miles, save more money, I begin to lose interest. Those are often easier to attain and thereby less challenging; if they are unpleasant as well, they might fall off my list altogether. At this curve in the journey, I am more interested in change that occurs not only due to intention but as a result of unexpected phenomena. The surprise element can make a big impact.

But the main cause of my lack of resolutions on the eve of a new year is simple: in order to remain in good working order, I have to keep tuned up all year long. There are matters of errant steps and reactive mishaps to address. And good choices, hard-won triumphs, and serendipitous occurrences to savor.  Waiting until the end of the year to review my strengths and weaknesses, goals met or forgone, doesn’t work for me. When another year has passed, it is just so many days experienced. As I see it, time flows less like the proverbial river than an improvised dance through the solar systems and, ultimately, galaxies. I want to be participating daily in that dance. And I want to pay close attention to the stories we create with each move.

I generally awaken fully conscious, whether or not I am always thrilled with those first moments. I put the kettle on and make a mug of tea to accompany my bagel. Then I proceed with meditation and prayer. That way I don’t forget that, although I am a minute part of the global population, my actions and reactions can count in the scheme of things. I strive for clarity about what I can offer others and what I cannot; what I need to resolve and what I can let go; how I can encourage my internal and external well-being. At the end of the day I rewind the tape and review how I managed. I say a prayer for as many as I can before burrowing into sleep. There is never enough hope and healing sent into the world. We all benefit from helping hold one another up.

But today I revisit what mattered when I was a youth. I kept a diary for years and scribbled a long entry on the cusp of each new year. There were many dreams then. True love. A few solid achievements. Creative freedom allowing me greater output. God’s love becoming more fully manifest. Nature’s beauties experienced more. I wanted to be a sort of gentle warrior in the world. These priorities have remained as potent to me as they were then.  The difference is this: although I was a romantic, idealistic teen (this was a girl who had as a motto: Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination, “C.S.T.D.” my impassioned rallying cry!), I had narrower definitions of what mattered. I couldn’t know what I was missing as I kept my gaze on the future. There was little experience to anticipate transformations already underway, much less those yet to come.

So, there have been conundrums and trials that demanded greater problem solving and fortitude. Love took on subtle shadings; it has been more constant in my life than I dared to believe. Creativity has more complexity and variances than I imagined. Success has become equated with work I hadn’t even planned on doing. Money has added far less to the final equation. Nature has sustained me as deeply as ever, but is more appreciated since places and creatures are more at risk.

And about God, well, for a child who calmly informed her mother she was visited by guardian angels in the midst of loss, this living cannot be anything other than numinous to me. Powerful. Mysterious. I tread this earth as though it is a short stop on the journey.

As we move toward a new year on this tilting planet, I reflect on the past, yes, but mostly on the inventorying I will continue. It keeps me honest with myself. It encourages greater freedom to welcome others into my life. All that has happened this year has brought you and me to this point. We are made of found bits and pieces, as well as grand intentions or courageous leaps. The unexpected occurrences, even those which are not wanted (sometimes mostly those), are what make us more adaptable, better informed, richer in heart and soul.

I have been practicing my living skills awhile and making a little progress day by day. I’m confident I can keep on with it. That’s good enough.  Maybe it can be for you as well.

Happy New Year

(This marks one year of blog posts—many thanks for stopping by!)

Credit: NASA. Andromeda Galaxy.

Writing the Life Eternal

The short man in a bulky tweed coat and brown fedora stepped around a young woman who sat on a camp stool. Her reddened fingers stuck out of gloves that looked sadly as though they hadn’t been finished. They tapped on an open notebook and she held a pen aloft. She smiled vaguely in his direction, as though she wasn’t really expecting a smile back. He was about to reach for a dollar but there was no cup or box for donations. When he looked back, she was scribbling away on a rumpled page. He sighed and rushed on. He had much to do before Christmas dinner with his sister, Rose, and her family.

The fact of the matter was that Earl Jay had never liked Christmas as much as he did other holidays, like Memorial Day or Labor Day, days that you got to take time off from work but didn’t have to fuss over at length. There were fifty-two public holidays in the United States; he had looked it up once and was astonished. But just a few seemed to command all the attention and Christmas took the prize. It wasn’t that he was irreligious–he attended church enough and he prayed nightly for everyone he loved and then some as he fought off sleep until the “Amen.” His faith was a given, but he was not a showy man, not one to make a public hullabaloo about what mattered. But there were obligations, traditions. He did what he thought best and participated.

A simple window display caught his eye as he trotted down the street, a large shopping bag in hand. All those garish, blinking lights seemed designed to blind you if you stared longer than three seconds. He pressed his nose against the glass and looked beyond six neat little elves amid giant stuffed stockings. Reese Hardware was not the place he had thought to shop for any gifts on his list. He did have a blank space after the name of Carl, his eight year old nephew. The window fogged up and he cleaned it with his gloved palm. He could see on a front shelf a grouping of child-sized tool kits. Earl rushed into the warm store, nodded at the salesman checking his watch, then studied them.

Everything was there: hammer, pliers, screwdriver, small  boxes of nails and screws, a wrench–all scaled to fit the hands of someone (a bright-eyed boy grinned at him from a decal) nine to twelve, it was noted on a large tag. Earl mused that it was  poor marketing. He imagined his neighbor’s daughter, age thirteen, pounding nails into the wall to secure shelving so she could display her collections of sea glass and shells. (That’s what she needed, a nice pine shelf). But Carl would like it a lot. He had inherited a talent with his hands. Tools, with some candy, would be the ticket. Maybe not chocolate Santas–did boys that age even still like those?–but something with good peppermint.

He turned the tag over to read the price and gasped. Forty dollars. Earl was thrifty. He saved change in a tall glass jar and turned it in every six months, at which time it went into his growing savings. As a single man for twenty-two years (all of his adult life), the only kids he knew well and truly liked were his two nephews. And also, of course, Keira the neighbor girl and Tate, the toddler grandson of his cleaning lady, Mrs. Hallender.  They were all on his list. He picked up the toolbox. This was not the time to second guess what he wanted to do for them all: give them a little happiness. He certainly  had the means and his interest had increased the last few months.There had been trying times with that mean, stubborn tumor. Yes, the children had seen him through without even realizing it, with their exuberant locomotion, good questions and laughter that turned the greyness of his days into vivid color.

When he stepped into the deepening darkness, Earl Jay looked up and felt a miniscule, chill snowflake land on his eye, and then several more on his pale cheeks. He watched the snow gather velocity and thicken in the lamp light. Cars were honking and people rushing by before the snow fell faster and there was one more delay in the completion of their tasks.  He pulled up his collar and felt the comforting weight of the coat about him; the  hat was pressed firmly on his bald head. He started down the street, then slowed as he neared his car.

She was still there, the girl with the notebook, writing away by the light of a tall candle that someone must have offered and which she held tightly with her left hand.  A faux fur coat was draped over her legs. A fuzzy hat covered her hair and ears. Earl Jay wondered why she didn’t put the coat on; her sweater didn’t look substantial. He stepped toward her. Although she didn’t stop writing, she looked up and smiled as before.

“What are you writing?” he heard himself say and was embarrassed. It was really none of his business. You never knew what people were up to. Street kids often used drugs, came from terrible situations and landed in worse. She might be waiting for someone, for all he knew. For something that might not be so commendable. He was a stranger and he ought to have the good manners to let her be. Earl shivered and reminded himself he had to get to Rose’s.

“I write whatever seems right,” she answered amiably, and her pen stopped moving. “I write little poems for the kids. Or stories that take us away.”

She brushed her stringy brown hair out of her eyes and he saw them clearly in the soft darkness: they were palest, melting-ice blue. Blue like an early March sky. They took him all the way back to childhood and the train he boarded on raw spring mornings to visit his beloved grandparents for the week-ends. Those eyes carried him back to the sea where his mother had lived and painted and truly loved him, even from a great distance. They took him back to a blizzardy winter replete with snow blindness–and to where his anger-powered father cut dead and downed trees for extra cash. Until the time he slid into the ravine and broke his leg. He called out for Earl until he went hoarse. But Earl had found him; they made it back to the cabin, eyes aching and useless. Back to each other when they had thought it was too late. And her eyes even took him back to true love, just once. A blue dress, a blue night, a perfect last dance before he left for the Army. And left that splendid girl.

“Who are you?” he whispered, clutching his coat as the wind pressed  against the wool.

“I write the life that no one should forget, but got lost somewhere or hidden way or longed for so hard that it stopped breathing. I just write what seems good. And tonight I have written what I love most, one more life eternal, because it is nearly Christmas and you saw me and stopped to talk. I write until it seems enough and it always works.”

She looked at Earl steadily and this time he felt she really saw him standing there. It struck him that she still smiled and yet her young eyes held a most sobering gravity.

“A life eternal?”

But she pulled on the coat and gathered her notebook and pen,  then headed down the street. “Oh, you know.”

“But exactly what life eternal?” Earl called after her. He didn’t move, couldn’t move.

“Merry Christmas Earl Jay Jr.,” she called over her shoulder and slipped in between the gauzy windswept snow. It looked to Earl like the dark was raining jewels under the streetlights, or maybe wintry tears or bits of crystal breath, the breath of God. And he knew it, what she meant. Soon, maybe months or a few years, there would be no more happening here that he need attend to. But there was the life eternal. His life. His own quiet, rather fussy being. First he had more to do here, gifts to give. He had a Christmas dinner to share. It was that simple and he had to remember.

Earl walked  over to the abandoned camp stool and looked around. There was nothing much to see. No trace that she had been there all that time. But there was one glove lying in the shadow that looked as if it hadn’t been finished. He took his thermal-lined gloves from his pocket and laid them with the snowy forgotten one. Then he left to visit Carl and Rose. Tomorrow, Keira and Mrs. Hallender and his littlest friend, young Master Tate, were coming over for brunch. Earl truly did make excellent cinnamon rolls.

What Awaits Us Behind Closed Doors

The homes in my neighborhood are  putting on the glitz, just as they are all over the country this time of year. A thirty minute jaunt yields houses that have undergone a transformation from ordinary to lively or stately to very grand, depending on the block.  Some of my favorites are Arts and Crafts style homes; they boast a sturdy grace and warmth when festooned with crayon-hued or starry-white lights. Doors are festive with ribboned wreaths, and winking blue snowflakes or silvery orbs brighten some porches. Shining in a spotlight are icicles so impressive that for a moment there is an impulse to feel the chill burning my fingers from a stolen touch. But, of course, illuminated plastic ones bedeck these eaves.

The walks bring chuckles and appreciative comments from my spouse and me. There is Santa in his sleigh with three lively reindeer, only they are leaping from a treehouse (where Mrs. Claus smiles widely alongside a deer left behind–what is his story?). The treehouse is as attractive as the main house. One of our favorites is a giant fir tree that, being too mighty to fully decorate, morphs into a smaller one as a more manageable Christmas tree is outlined among branches with traditional lights. A proud bright star tops it off. From a distance it looks as though it could almost rival the fabulous tree that watches over downtown Portland in our “living room”, Pioneer Square. Which is breathtaking, I might add. After Thanskgiving, I couldn’t get enough of its beauty and cheer; neither could dozens of others.

Yes, we live in a beautiful city. I am thankful more than usual for shelter as the weather turns ornery and demanding with rain-driven winds and persistent cold sweeping across the streets with no mercy for those who have no place to rest. It reminds me that reality is only partly what we determine, despite our work hard to make it so.  It is also comprised of unforeseeable circumstances. No one expects to be trolling the streets looking for a place to lay his or her head. There isn’t always a plan B or C for those who lose jobs, become ill and use up their money to pay medical expenses, escape from domestic violence, or struggle and bargain with demon addictions or severe mental illness. And for many of those folks, seeing those warm, vividly decorated houses only brings grief.

There was a winter in Texas a little like that when I was still young enough to rebound despite circumstances. Times were lean then, too. The economy was not as robust as hoped and work was elusive for the father of our two young children. I was working at an ice cream store and making next to nothing, my hands tired and sore after hours of scooping the sweet confections and working in a huge freezer. Water, electricity and rent for the small apartment had to be paid. After that, there was little left for food. The cupboards were not completely bare but they glared at me with a half-full cereal box, a few cans of soup, a box or two of macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and crackers, some white rice. The children, two and four, had mattresses on the floor for beds in their room but managed to enjoy that, though I furtively checked each night for spiders and the assortment of other insects that made Texas their preferred habitat. For fun my son and daughter climbed and slid down a bright wooden slide and hideaway combo their father, an artist and carpenter, had built for them.

They counted on me, on us. And I was not sure I could be the parent I needed to be with stress and discouragement wearing us down. There was just too little to meet so many needs. The truth was, I wasn’t sure I could even be the human being I wanted to be as I wondered what would become of us. My oldest sister lived in the area and she helped as she could. But angry and embarrassed,  I told her as little as possible, like how mammoth cockroaches scuttled underfoot in the dark nights when using the bathroom. Or when I spied them in the kitchen and grabbed the children and ran to the neighbors. They had them, too.

Signs of Christmas seemed like rumors of doomsday and it advanced despite our desire to forget it that year. I found praying strengthened and soothed me, as usual, although I was getting impatient for more immediate assistance. I had gone to church at times in Texas out of a lifelong habit, but didn’t quite feel connected to the well-fed, content congregants. Still, I nurtured a strong sense of God’s steadfast presence in my life and the world despite the blows life had unleashed. So I hung on by my fingertips.

Yet as the days passed, a persistent dis-ease nagged me despite my best intentions: where was the succor I needed this December, that very day? Where was the job that could help us get back on track? Most importantly, where was the old persistent hope that was essential to remaining strong, finding more love in our lives, and designing a safe and sure way through the trials? I contemplated these things as I sat in the empty living room and my family slept fitfully. I looked in the corner where the tree should have been, and was not. I remembered the resplendent beauty of fresh snow, toboganning down an icy hill and making igloos in the Michigan snow we had left far behind, and the memories felt like a burden.

One Saturday morning a few days before Christmas, someone knocked on the front door. I peered out the drawn curtains and found two strangers on my stoop. Smoothing back my hair and quieting the children, I  opened the door a crack.


A man and woman smiled shyly and said my name, the person they meant to see.  “We’ve brought you a couple things. From the church you attend.”

I fought back the terrible urge to tell them they had the wrong apartment number, that I wasn’t who they thought. I wasn’t a real church-goer, at all.  There must be a mistake, as I did not take charity; I survived one way or another like everyone had to do and I would get through this. But two big boxes were in their arms and they looked at me with a simple sweetness. I bit my lip, recalled my manners, and allowed them into my spare, cold living room.

And they showed me their gifts of food for our family and wrapped toys for the children, and decorations for an artificial tree that waited outside the front door. They did not make a fuss. They did not pat my toddlers on their heads as they pawed through the food with squeals,  grabbed the tree and the lights, eyes wide with amazement. The couple just smiled and turned to leave. Tears broke through my astonishment. I tried to speak, but could barely stammer out a whispered,  “Thank you.” And then they were gone.

I stood with my smallness and debated whether it was good to receive or not. The humiliation of having to accept such gifts battled it out with gratitude and relief, with a restoration of hope. Thankfulness won out as the children and I set up the tree and made a hot breakfast. I realized later that the gift-givers had not told me their names. But their acceptance and warmth–those stayed with me.

So we had a Christmas Eve and morning, after all. We had food to last a couple weeks. And what I learned was that pride can be a damaging thing, and that people care more than we even imagine. That we get what we most need if we have even a little faith. Gifts of Spirit first and last: kindness, compassion. Basic human good will when all else is failing, if we open ourselves a little.

The places in my neighborhood give me happiness. I love good architecture, bountiful plant life all year ’round, families coming and going as they busily live their lives, joggers running, their faces flushed with health, dogs and cats sidling up to me. I feel my good fortune like a surprise bonus.

But this time of year I remember how it was, how it can be, and, surely, how it is for countless others. I hope you will remember them, too, and share a little more –quietly, maybe even secretly–and hearten someone with whatever is needed and good. And if you are on the other side, the far side of joy, open your door. See what happens.