Mr. Beech and Little Joys

“It is a day of little consequence,” she said, then whistled some of  “Girl from Ipanema” to make herself feel better. It worked. Her hands disappeared into a big turquoise bowl. “Some ripped romaine and red leaf lettuce and fat cherry tomatoes, almonds unsliced–like ’em whole and crunchy–fresh smoked turkey on top. Avocado. Herb croutons.” Lara licked her fingers, then wiped them on her jeans. Looked around the kitchen which was barely large enough to hold the basic appliances and herself. Her brownish, increasingly-white hair was swept back for a change, opening her pale face, showing off the loopy gold earrings she had found at an art gallery. An extravagant gift for this rude day of days, more a lapse in judgment. She rinsed her hands, then decided to add a  bit of the fresh purple-red onion, admiring the concentric rings, their tangy-sweet scent as she sliced.

“For Mr. Beech,” she said, and added the slightest drops of garlic oil, then tossed the salad. She took down the good glasses for mint iced tea. The round table had been set an hour ago. Down the center ran a sparkly silver-and-rose-threaded runner, something she liked despite the small stain on the edge. Large antique white bowls were at the ready.

The grandfather clock in the living room heralded noon. Lara took her sweater and sat on the porch, the better to watch for him. He always came down from the north, two streets up and two over.

He had been coming that way for the last year, ever since they had met at a neighborhood summer street dance and feast.  “A minor bacchanale, but worth attending,” he’d said to her smiling, taking her hand. She had noticed he’d lost two fingers–“yes, to a band saw some years back”–and yet he held hers with kind regard, and wondered if there was more where that came from or if it was just good manners. Then he cheerfully danced with her around the street, clumsily at first, fumbling a bit as they passed the children with their happy wildness and teens displaying restrained boredom that looked like contentment from a distance. Their parents were mostly youngish couples with brilliant smiles and flat bellies that held enormous amounts of chicken and potato salad and cookies without seeming to show it at all.

“They all seem terribly young, I hate to say,” Lara noted when they had sat on chairs at the curb, tart lemonade cooling them off.

“Not me, I say it often–they in fact are ‘terrible young’, which interests me a very little. But once it mattered, of course.” Mr. Beech turned to her, eyebrows raised. “Have you not noticed this before?”

She was panting slightly from the rigorous dance, and tried to hide it with a laugh. “Well, of course, but I have avoided the reality.” She lifted her hair off her neck, let the breeze take the dampness. “I’ll be sixty-two next spring and somehow that sounds older altogether than sixty-one did. I know it is foolish but…”

She felt embarrassed by the intimate slip of information and sipped her drink. Here was a  a man of good will and good mind, and she was blithering on. But that was her true thought, and she no longer had the habit of pretending otherwise.

The night went on and Lara and Mr. Beech–“call me Jordy if you like, short for Jordan, I know, I know, but it is what it is”–sat and talked. They both liked Pearl Buck novels, (which astonished her since no one mentioned her, anymore) and both had fallen into reading mysteries of late. They enjoyed classical music, especially string quartets. They liked water, any sort of water. Lara would rather meditate by a lake or swim in it. Mr. Beech–she couldn’t stop calling him that, she liked the sound of it; it felt safe–preferred creeks and rivers, the more obscure and humble, the better.

When it was time to go, they had one another’s phone numbers. It had been very easy to exchange them. But then they hadn’t talked again for two months.  Lara had even called  but there had been no answer. He had no answering machine. She was disappointed but that was that.

When she met him in the grocery, he came right over.

“It was my mother, you see. She became quite ill and then passed in October.” He shook his head. “It’s okay. I’m home again. Let’s see what we can find to do.”

And one thing led to another: lunches, small hikes, then holiday activities, art museum outings, films. By January he was spending a lot of time at her place on the week-ends, even overnight twice, a surprise. The rest of the week she worked at the insurance company and he was more than a little busy being retired.

It had been pleasing to spend the wintry rainy season with him. They sometimes did nothing much,  just sat by his fireplace and dozed. Read bits from their books. Lara wrote stories; he read what she wrote and found it mostly good or better reading. Mr. Beech worked word and number puzzles that fascinated her.

“Little joys,” she told him one night. “Life is made of them more and more. Thank you for reminding me.” He kissed the top of her head and held her close, as though she fit. And perhaps she did, better than before.

Now it was April and the time had come: the persistent rumor of sixty-two had turned out to be true. It was her birthday lunch she had fixed. Simple, easy, nothing to make a fuss over whatsoever–that is how she wanted it. They would attend an afternoon film, something foreign and full of intrigue.

She grew restless on the porch, put the salad back in the refrigerator, noted the clock struck twelve-thirty. He was not one to be late. In fact, he was early in general. Lara wandered to the mirror over her vanity and smoothed her hair back again, secured the sides. It was getting wispy and greyer and not as pretty; the barrettes looked faintly ridiculous but she liked their golden accent. She reapplied the soft coral color to her lips and made a silly kiss in the air. The pale blue scarf at her neck was re-wound, then discarded. It had gotten warm the last couple days. The spring heat crept up her neck and gave her skin a generous glow.

But where was Mr.  Beech?

By one o’clock, she grew hungry. She stared at her phone and thought of calling him.There must be something, some reason why he couldn’t get here on time. Unless he had forgotten. They had last talked a week ago. He had gone to the coast for a day or two to visit a friend but had been due back this morning.

Time passed slowly. Her work friend, Anita, called to wish her happy birthday, then her neighbor friend, Deanna. She chatted a bit, told them she was expecting Mr. Beech.

“Really, Lara?” Deanna laughed.  “You don’t still call him that to his face? How oddly quaint! But I can see it, I can. He’s a bit old-fashioned, but then he’s older, isn’t he? Well, tell him I said hello and have a good time!”

Lara thanked her for best wishes and ended the conversation politely. Why did they not understand him?  He was generous with his time and paid attention to conversation. It meant something to him, their talking, and also the silences. He was a man of compassionate reserve, careful opinions. He liked her easy frankness, her sudden questions. It all had made him very important to her, she realized, and the thought made her peer hard out the window. No one out there but kids on their bikes.

Lara looked in the refrigerator, nibbled on a piece of romaine, and worried. He might have fallen down the stairs of his rambling two-story house; he had a faulty knee. He might have had an accident on the way back from the beach, for all she knew, crashed into the sea. Who was his emergency contact? Who had he visited? Was it Stan Tallman or Henry Conner? He was fishing, too, wasn’t he?

“Lara!”

He was there. She was at the door and let him in.His arms held flowers and a small cardboard box.

He kissed her cheek and peeled off his jacket in a rush. “I am so sorry I’m late, what a poor substitute for a man I am, it’s your birthday and I had every intention–but–” he led her to an armchair and motioned for her to sit. “Wait until you see what I have found.”

This was so unlike him, his shirt wrinkled, pants dirty at one knee, his words a bit feverish, and now he was picking up the box and placing it at her feet as though it was some great treasure, his movements suddenly deliberate. He looked at her and made a funny face, one that told her there was something here that was unexpected and he was truly hoping she would be glad of it. She held her breath.

He opened the box and lifted out to her a small grey tabby kitten with four white feet. He put it in her lap and her hands went up in the air.

“Oh.” She looked at the kitten and saw its scrappy beauty and was speechless. “I…”

Jordy Beech frowned. “You don’t like it.”

“No, it isn’t that…” she felt the prickle of tears and willed them back.

“I found her in this box by the side of the road in Manzanita when I was visiting Stan. I looked everywhere for a child or someone else who might be selling the kitten, but no one was around. I drove away, thought about it, went ten miles back. Then a woman came out of the house and said there was one left from a litter and would I please take her.”

Lara stroked the smooth ball of fur as it curled onto her lap and settled in. She felt it purr, the small rumble of its voice strong but sweet. A kitten was something one needed to watch over. Enjoy. She stroked its perfect head.

“I named it for you but you can change it if you want. Little Joys. Remember what you said once?”

Lara placed her hands on the kitten and wondered how he knew this much of her. It had been a long time since she’d had a creature. She hadn’t been sure she even wanted one again. It meant more attachments and thus, naturally, more loss. It seemed harder than necessary the last few years.

Little Joy looked up at her and languidly blinked, yawned.

“Yes, Jordy, it’s more than alright. Thank you for bringing her to me. I”ll take good care of her. She’s an excellent surprise!”

“Ah, good,” he said and took her arm. “Let’s eat and drink in celebration of salad days  being here again, your sixty-second, Little Joy and your use of my first name…”

Lara cocked her head at him and they went into the kitchen. She whistled a little to herself as she poured iced tea; he brought the salad to the table and put the flowers in a vase. It was good to be in the midst of one more year leaving and another arriving.

Gathering ’round the Tree of Life

I awakened this morning feeling something nameless but haunting. Familiarly rich with uncertainty. There seemed to be sunshine leaking from behind the clouds and I awaited a surge of happiness. It was the first day of my three day week-end. It was also Good Friday,  soon to be Easter, and that meant a time of gentle meditation on the death and then resurrection of Jesus. I thought of Easters past and for some reason, the memory of white patent leather shoes and floral, full-skirted dresses saddened me further.

But it wasn’t the particular day, it was me. I mused over the inhospitable territory of my thoughts and feelings as I completed my morning chores. I read over Psalm 100 about joyousness and God and thought as I scrubbed, laundered, tidied. I worried that this would be one of the rare days when I had nothing to write. Stories crept about in my mind, seeking higher ground as I toiled but still, relief was fleeting. The gloom partly diminished but my internal light was thin so I got my camera and headed out, hoping to be inspired.

The truth is, springtime, with all its extraordinary wonders, has not always been the best time for me. Growing up in the Midwest, it signified dreaded stormy weather and sent my family scurrying to the basement when tornado warnings sounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the long winter rains carry us on an upsweep of windy drizzle, tantalize with a pause or two,  then resume with a ponderous, damp trudging into April and May. The bright hyacinths and tulips sometimes seem to mock through gauzy curtains of rain.

Spring has often been the time when difficulties have spiked, also. Among them were raging tonsillitis that left me helpless and lonely in the hospital as a child;  abuse becoming a complicated misery made monstrous by a teen-aged haze of drugs. There was an incandescent love that failed, making springtime the premiere time for love seem like a terrible joke. I much later experienced a second stent implant in my artery when the first one failed and after, a very slow return of fitness. And there was loss of both my parents. I recall writing a poem at around fifteen in response to the so-called glories of spring. There is one line I still recall: “Beauty bites the broken heart.” Such angst and despair were sharpened by the abundance of spring. And so each April can bring a reminder of trials as well as a plethora of creativity.

Meanwhile, the rain held off all day. I started to snap pictures randomly and kept noticing trees, their small tender leaves unfurling, their fragrant pink and white blossoms shaking in the breeze. Bulbous, mossy roots captured my attention. Lithe limbs reached toward  heavens crowded with clouds. As I took photographs, sudden blueness leapt up and danced across the sky. All shone under the fine heat of sunshine that lingered on my shoulders, face, hands.

It was being lifted, my ratty cloak of self-sorrowing. Each step brought a line of poetry, a wafting of song, a simple prayer or two–certainty that this day, this time was good and could be better: “May my hands be useful, my words be balm; may my heart be open, my soul be free. May my mind be clear, my body be true.  May I welcome life and shape it in love.”

I strode down the center of a street and ogled the arching branches above. The trees watched over me as I rambled. They always have, since the first time I bravely climbed the big maple in the back yard as a child. Everything looked better from up there. I could see the bigger picture, all the way past crisscrossing streets, across the busy tree nursery to neighbor houses, into the dazzling, ever-changing skies above. Humanity lived on while I observed and took notes. The rough maple branches held me steady and gave me a seat upon which to wait and rest as I watched, imagined, pondered, problem solved. It let me cling to its smooth and scarred skin when crying and supported me as I sought solitude. I  could speak and not be heard by anyone except the whispering maple, and so I told it my best secrets. That tree took me away from the clanging, messy, unpredictable world below. It made me stronger and more courageous as I navigated its crooks and found favorite footholds, its brittle and sturdy branches. At the uppermost limbs, I hung on with one hand and held my left, flattened hand above my eyes and squinted into the radiant light. I felt like a hearty sailor in the crow’s nest, a bold adventurer. I was a girl who knew her way or would find it. Nothing could stop me.

But, of course we know the reality: things do stop us, at least temporarily. There is a vast and complicated web of stories in this world. We often weave them without thinking and at times walk into each others without a second glance. Even at our best, we make logistical errors, utilize surprisingly poor materials. We promise completions that cannot be finished for one reason or another. And regrets can work their way in and erode the most stalwart of souls.

But still, we can always gather around the tree of life. The idea might have sprung in part from the old maple but it graces many works of art, religious texts, poems and prayers worldwide. I know it is a compass and anchor. A shelter. Touchstone. It is the font of wisdom from which I gain knowledge and find succor.  To many, myself included, it is the divine mystery but I also see it as a community of those who are united by shared strength, hope, and experience. Call it the place of gathered lessons that every person carries on their journeys, then can teach. Perhaps it is the great collective unconscious. For me, the tree of life is like finding God alive and available right here on earth, rooted in ordinary fecund soil, rising to the celestial beyond, granting us all manner of needs while sharing the elegance and drama of creation. Within and around this tree, the truth unfolds. And it  thrives within me as long as I care for it–steady light, breath of air, affirming touch, love and respect for its power.

Last week-end I went on a short trip to Seattle with my youngest daughter, Alexandra; we met her sister, Naomi, an artist who had flown in for a ceramics conference. We enjoyed ourselves, walking and talking, eating and seeing fabulous art, laughing. We went to Pike Place Market one afternoon, perusing the variety of delights. Among the flowers, fish and hand-crafted items, I found silver earrings that had as their a design massive tree. They reminded me of the pewter necklace given to me by my husband a few years ago: another immense tree. I promptly purchased the earrings. It felt right, being with my daughters and enjoying our time together. When I returned home I thought of another tree of life that adorned a table runner, and took a picture of them together which I share with you.

But the question as my day closes–now that I am feeling realigned and more at ease– is how I can ever forget to sit at that tree, at the Master’s feet, in the magnetic compassion of God? How can I forget that there will always be shelter and direction given if it is sought?  It is what keeps me nourished. What enables me to give back. So I write this to remember once more that in this life I have the choice to create good will,  seek clarity of mind and soul. Make things a little better for me, for you.

Come, gather ’round the Tree of Life. Sit with me and rest, then climb higher up the branches. Tell me your story as we survey the lay of the land.