Celebrate Ties that Bind

DSCF7458We strolled among acres of tulips, fields spreading out like a quilt of electric color. It was a Pacific Northwest spring day unlike most, sun warming our faces and magnifying bright hues of flowers. Marinell gazed over the swaths of color, a smile warming her hazel eyes. Allanya noted varieties of tulips, making a list of those she might purchase. I was clicking away, each picture a frame of transient beauty captured. Flower season is not lengthy; blossoms wither and fall. The purpose of flowers, after all, is not to last forever but to offer pollen to bees who pollinate so next year we get to witness another display of beauty. The Cascade Mountains rose above Skagit County tulip fields in a show of stark permanency amidst the temporal, echoing our shared family moments.

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My sisters and I have had a years-long tradition of allotting time together each spring,  a “sisters getaway”, generally a long week-end freed of work and family obligations. M. is thirteen years older than I am, old enough to have helped my mother care for me when I was born. She has lived in the Seattle area for twenty-five years. A. is five years older, once a squabbling partner who became an important part of my daily life since we both reside in Oregon.

Although the three of us have been only 3.5 hours apart, we see one another on average four times a year during family gatherings. Our separate time ensures our own time, doing and speaking as we please. We have travelled to other destinations, walked many paths in village, city and country, shopped, and visited museums, gardens, exhibits, galleries. We enjoy learning things, exploring new territory, sharing enthusiasm for places and people. And as we go about sharing many interests including the arts, books, nature, psychology, travel to name a few, we talk.

We swap tales of family history and how we each experienced growing up–not necessarily so much alike, as we each have our own perspective and moments. We compare and comment on our trials, errors and successes which have been thought-provoking to witness. M. has been a professional cellist. A. has been an executive director of several non-profit organizations. Since we are not all committed to the same faith practices we explore beliefs and what has impacted us spiritually. Disposed to analytical thought, we have probing discussions on everything from social issues to natural phenomena.   We often just meander from topic to topic. And in the process, we laugh readily and often. And cry, at times. We are also very good at putting up with each other as needed.

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This visit, however, was different.  We stayed at M.’s house instead of going off on a small adventure. The house, in fact, that is being put up for sale next week. She and her husband are moving to a southwestern state, closing one chapter of their industrious, fulfilling lives and beginning another. A. and I assisted in the sorting and tossing process. We each ended up with mementos, some of which were photographs of our extended family. I felt a deepening quietude as I scanned the pictures of family dinners and celebrations, lingering over images of those no longer with us. The picture of my parents’ back yard awakened my heart. Was it always so beautiful, the modest yard that hosted croquet and other games, barbeques served at the round wooden table with the umbrella, gatherings around the maple tree where we all climbed and swung on the old swing? The green shadows are dappled with playful light. Still, the life lived there, along with our two brothers and parents, was not a life without strife. Some of my memories are a blur imbued with an urgent need for peace and a longing for happiness that would not be dismantled by loss and pain. I study the pictures of my teen-age years and wonder over my seeming confidence despite secret struggles. The dining table is circled by family members who were accomplished, good-hearted and, naturally, flawed. But it was nonetheless a family life powered by the energy of love.

I studied the many decades-old portrait of M. taken a few years after she was named homecoming queen, an event that awed me as a child. A local photographer deemed her so lovely that her picture was entered into a contest and subsequently published. She had and has a humility that is noteworthy. This sister-woman who weathered a lifetime of challenges also profoundly enjoyed various fruits of her labors. I watched her as she spoke now and there it was: the same graciousness, soft but insightful gaze, a smile that emanated good humor. Her wavy hair is mostly white now, but she is the same big sister who so carefully watched over me as a little girl. Who I admired from a distance of thirteen years difference yet was lucky enough to get to know closely after growing up. Whose cello playing mesmerized me all the years we all practiced our instruments. I took up cello, too, because she did. In fact, all of us girls played cello at one time or another but she worked hardest at honing skills and considerable talent.

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One of the nights together we sat in her music room and looked through music, some of which belonged to our father once. There were the old songbooks of standards. She stood n ear the grand piano. It, too, would be soon sold. The thought was more than I could bear as I remembered the baby grand in my parents’ home, and the shock I felt when I came back to find it long gone. So I asked M. to play for us. She chose a couple of songs I used to love to sing as she or our father accompanied. She stopped too soon for me, the last notes echoing in the room.

How do I say “farewell, have a good and happy new life in Texas” to my oldest sister? Of course, it is what my intention is when the day arrives for leave-taking. I know she is just moving from one space to another. I understand we will all see each other here or there, that A. and I will fly down to visit or meet up somewhere in between, perhaps each spring.

IMG_2851But it somehow feels as if she is going far away, just like the day she went off to college and I stood in the doorway waving, bewildered, at age five. And this feeling rises to the top of the laughter, hearty tales of tough and triumphant growing up years, and becoming older the best way we can, with lots of grit and the force of joy. This sadness floats and spreads out over my morning and brings me tears. Nothing stays the same, I know. And there is merit in that.

Then I am saved by this: we are sisters first and last, despite the relationships that have come and gone, the changing fortunes, the  health crises that can derail us each. We are of the same family and so, also, three who share a heart.

The last night together we talked by the warmth of a fire, right into the early morning. When we were emptied of stories, we hugged one another close. M. said: “We have all survived!” meaning we have all made our way through this wilderness called life and been able to call up enough strength and gumption to stay the course thus far. We have sought God and found faith a constant flame. We have elicited and shared laughter that lights up the deepest dark. We have made it together and also apart. Life in the final analysis is very good, indeed.

We straggled off to bed, only to arise the last morning to attack more sorting and tossing. It was a chore made lighter for M., but it was all just stuff. One house is soon to be exchanged for another house and furnishings. It is people who will make the difference for her as they do for us all. For now, she had sisters working side by side with her. And the fact is, the love that binds us has no state line, no expiration date, not here or in eternity.

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How I am Being Alone in the Here and Now

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I flung open the louvered closet doors. The sight of colorful skirts, sweaters, shirts and pants crushed between one another made me wince. It is time to make a seasonal change, trade the winter group for spring and a few items of summer. It’s a chore, but usually painless. This year, it felt like something else: an anxious moment that brought me face-to-face with remnants of a previous way of life. The work-for-a-paycheck life.  I sorted for charities, hesitant about several pieces. Since I am no longer working four, ten to twelve-hour days at a community mental health clinic, how often would I use these?

So far, most of them remain. I haven’t given up hope of finding part-time work so that I can keep on writing more. And there are other occasions to get a little fancied up, even in Portland, the only place I have lived where one can wear jeans and sandals to a symphony concert.

I intended on working for several more years but when I became ill with vertigo I identified cause and effect. The job I had didn’t fit; stress was gaining. The answer? Time to go. I have been happy to fulfill a true calling for twenty-five years: counseling many at-risk populations including addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to my clients. I found a way to let them know I was doing what I advised them to do: taking care of myself, making prudent decisions to support my well-being. I planned on doing just that.

So what have I done the last four and a half months? I wanted to be happy with my choice, while the pretty attire seemed to accuse me of sloth as I stood there in jeans, t-shirt and an old grey sweater. And slippers covered my feet after a long walk in the damp morning. But I stopped to reassess. What constitutes work? Am I not managing household business affairs, running errands and taking care of my husband, who works in an intensely demanding position? I spend time with adult children and grandchildren as often as possible.

But there is more to be done, much more.

All those years of raising five children, getting more college credits when possible, working outside of home and then doing laundry until midnight, I longed for one thing more: time to be and do all the other things I loved. I have never been truly bored. That may have come from my history of growing up in a prodigiously active family; we did not have time to do nothing. We seem to have excellent stamina and reserves of energy. And if I even hinted about being restless, my mother told me to find something to do. I was expected to comply.

So I show up each day to fully experience and utilize my time, just as when I had an ID badge. It would be dishonest to state it has been a simple transition. I am still a person moved to be of use, to aid those in dire need and listen with unerring attention. To be centered and calm, to not derail the client, to maintain clarity of thought and keep an open heart yet not to be swallowed whole by the suffering: this takes rigorous practice. It became second nature.

So, to be without people around much of the day has been strange and hard. But here is the time I craved so long; it was either use it or lose it to something I have never known before–a lack of direction. Solitude has much to teach me. I will continue to give thought and prayer to possibilities that must be within my reach. But this is what I am doing, in between numerous household chores and seeing family:

*I read as soon as I get breakfast, starting with magazines. I have subscriptions to The Writer, The Smithsonian, Vogue, Architectural Digest, VIA, and American Craft. Oh, yes, also People and Entertainment Weekly. And I sometimes buy Glimmertrain or Tin House (literary journals), Real Simple, and Sunset and The New Yorker. I peruse Willamette Week for area events and arts offerings.
I enjoy newspapers online as well as blogs of many. I also read non-fiction and fiction off and on during the day and at bedtime. Currently I am reading The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (a novel about author Edith Wharton), Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz (about spiritual experiences of the author), Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran, and A Book of Luminous Things (poetry anthology) edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
I read a few hours daily, more if I am researching something. I have to set a limit or nothing else will get done.

*At night I schedule my time for the following day and the bulk of my day is reserved for writing. When I write or research writing issues, time can cease to exist. The work includes: research on agents and publishers as well as lit journals both online and in paper and writing competitions, revising my work, writing blog essays and poems, working on new fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, preparing and submitting work according to the specifications of various editors, editing my novel for the umpteenth time. I have an abiding passion for writing. I want to write pieces that will move, surprise, and engage people so that after they are done, they have something interesting to take away.

*I walk or hike. Every day, rain or shine, cold or hot. The only thing that will stop me is serious illness. I walk because I love the rhythm of walking, the way it relaxes and clarifies my mind, and I so appreciate nature, architecture, people and random and surprising moments that occur. I also walk and hike because I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease at age 51 after an apparent heart attack while I was hiking in the beautiful Columbia Gorge. I don’t worry but I am aware of my “borrowed” time as heart disease does not go away. I keep the inevitable (but who among us doesn’t leave this world eventually?) at bay any way I can.

*Daily I pray, sometimes read meditations and the Bible. I think about and sense Divine Love/God in my life and others’ routinely. I cannot imagine my life without God in it daily, every second, whether or not I am fully conscious of it. I would not be alive without God, could not have endured and healed from dangerous and painful experiences, would not have stayed alcohol-and drug-free all these years, would not have the gratitude and peace that permeates my life. There are times I am not totally clear about the next step in this earthly life, but I am never uncertain of God’s eternally compassionate guidance.

*I am learning to draw and use watercolors after many years of not painting and drawing. I used to paint large acrylic paintings so this is new. It is a wondrous thing to see what pencil and paint can do on paper. It is scary because it is new but that is part of the adventure.

*I am happy when photographing things, mostly nature and architecture but also people. I have a passion for

* I either call (or text or email) my children at least weekly if not more if I am not going to see them. I talk to a sister often. I call my mother-in-law and email my other siblings. I visit with a few close friends. Despite being introspective, I have extrovert tendencies and miss people at times. So I get out in my neighborhood and enjoy shops and restaurants.

*I am thinking about taking flamenco dance classes, engaging in voice lessons so I can actually sing again, enrolling in a tai chi or QiGong class, taking more writing workshops, volunteering again, finding more botanical gardens and also forests to explore, self-publishing my novel. I’d like to make some new friends. Appreciate my family to the very fullest. I don’t know how many more days and nights I have to immerse myself in all there is to hold close, then let it go.

This is my slice of life, alone, in the here and now. I don’t think too hard about the future; it will come, or it will not. I am still a good friend to myself after all these years, but I can always learn more. It has been a slow letting go (for now) of service work. But when the heart breaks open even a little it has room for so much more life. It creates space and insight needed for change. For me, that means making more stories and sharing life’s bounties. I hope that whoever reads this can find time alone to explore all that wants to awaken and better serve your life.

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