Life, Texturized

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My head feels as though it wants different nerve endings, ones that cannot transmit this particular pain. It starts at the top of my spine, crosses to the base of my skull and thereupon spreads out like tenacious ivy overlaying my brain’s domain. I have had communication issues all day due to the fog that has made itself a barrier between internal and external stimuli. My eyes have felt like tiny balloons waiting to explode. My mind whirls and floats a bit like when I have had migraines only with less intensity. I need a new neck to hold up my head.

Last night’s sleep was heavy and tinged with dreams about visiting a hotel in a village that felt familiar, where people were vaporous yet colorful, half-ghosts or characters let loose from stage left in a play. I knew this place yet not every corner or staircase. There was also an unnamed man whose hand on mine felt familiar and vibrant. Our words meant things without spoken language as often happens in my dreams. Some of these people and rooms glowed. The furnishings were beautiful, brocade and velvet curtains, furniture to last centuries. In the end I slowly made my way out, then didn’t know where I was and asked myself, “How could I be lost?”, irritated, as though I was responsible for knowing my way around a seemingly infinite and complicated structure. But it was the architecture of dreams, an oddly cantilevered netherworld, supported by one thing only: REM sleep.

Why would I write of this today? Why not lie down nice and easy? The answer is three-fold: 1) I know many others can empathize, 2) I write daily and 3) pain is not generally a good enough reason to not do whatever I want or need to do. I have had familiarity with all sorts throughout my life due to a few chronic health issues. I know its nuances and what each kind augers, how I can best handle it as well as when to ignore it. I don’t mean deny its actual existence. I give it a nod but then deny it its fearsome and full power as long as possible. Often it dissipates when I am busy looking elsewhere.

So I wonder: why the odd dream? Why do we tend to dream of unusual spaces mingled with the common? Why do both loved and unloved, alive and passed on all appear like sudden visitors, as though they have been waiting for us to swing open the door? And they inhabit the same conversations as strangers do, making me feel there are no strangers, really. And that landscape that is so familiar to me, as though a second home… Who knows what exactly happens as we close our eyes? It is an adventure which allows us to experience things differently. Sometimes it is a revelation.

In the morning, icy air sneaked in through a cracked window. And that old companion, pain, told me I had slept askew. I took stock of the past week as discomfort drummed against sinew and bone, squinting past the quilt that wanted to be pulled closer.

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It has been a Christmas season that I would note as a “10” on the rating scale for holiday satisfaction: three of five children with their families here for various events, a perfect tree from an Elysian tree farm, food that fed us well, made us happy. A candle light service at our Presbyterian church: music sung from the core, flames casting flickering halos, communion as conduit for mysteries of faith. Not even once was perfection my goal; I wanted to share love and it happened. I embrace my family’s quirkiness: five children who include an artist/professor; a grad student who will manage a performing arts venue; a professional skateboarder/painter; a budding sociologist/activist; and a chaplain. They each are called to do service for others in some way, are strong-willed and live a bit (or more) on the edge. Five grandchildren, as well. Two daughters were visited via Skype, something I never expected when they were born. How good it was.

Actual gifts were the extras. Among other things I received three fat books to savor. One is about American residential architecture, one about exceptional children (dwarfism, autism, genius, and other traits that fascinate me), another a biography of great composers. They reflect some of my interests; my spouse knows me well. I can’t imagine a lifetime long enough to learn all I want to learn. Sometimes I gaze out a window at the scenes unfolding before me and think of it: in this sixth decade of my life there is so very little I have mastered yet I remain passionate about learning. It both distresses and thrills. The engine of curiosity thrusts me forward.

The days will proceed of their own accord and rhythm as before, now that Christmas is over. If all goes reasonably well. It is just as likely not to, I know. Last January started out with challenges including an inner ear disorder accompanied by a nagging malaise I loathed to call depression. The last half of the year I have been recovering from severe muscle toxicity due to taking a statin for thirteen years. I have to save my heart from its disease now only through beta blocker, blood pressure medicines and vigorous exercise. I can and will do the best I can. My siblings are older, too, I notice. But the world is ancient and confounding. Marvelous and horrid. Who knows what is next? It keeps me present and attentive to what matters. How swift, how tenuous life on earth can be, like dandelion fluff carried far, then no longer visible.

So I move through time on faith, flying on light wings of grace so I may engage in life’s creation of a rich warp and weft. I want my being and doings to make some difference. I sweep up this fullness of life in my arms and wrap myself in it, unfurl it like a flag, throw it around another’s shoulders, offer it as a bridge over deep chasms and use it with gusto, pain or no pain. We all suffer somehow; we all make our way as we see fit.

Ah, you see? That pain in my neck and head is lessening. Writing makes me strong. Love makes me brave. Music (today: Bach and Gilberto) grants me pleasure and peace. Spiritual practices keep me lithe of soul, unifies the pieces. And I think I’ll head to the gym or take a brisk walk to give my heart a chance to work with me better. What is it that you will nourish and honor as one day slips into another, then soon–so soon!– melds with a whole new year? I trust you are making good weavings of your own distinctive threads.

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Power of Place

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When I leave behind the congestion of the city and move into country stillness fills me inch by inch. There is an alertness coupled with serenity that blooms in my core. As Portland subsides with its array of tantalizing offerings and entertaining moments, it is like a long-held breath released, mind emptied of scattered thoughts, lists, a vagary of wants and needs. I begin to be at ease within the world again, and feel gentler towards self and others. Countryside affects me profoundly.

This is common for me and likely many people, though I have met those who prefer city’s jangle and jumble, its towering paeans to human progress and folly. They rarely leave it. I can’t imagine such reluctance. If I can’t find my way to less populated land regularly I feel less than content, full of longing. I am lonely for nature’s balm and beauties.

Place holds strong energy for me, be it human or not, constructed or deconstructed. I believe they are infused with remnants of past or present inhabitants’ and events. Buildings, houses, neighborhoods, parcels of land, anywhere there is or was life feels benignly neutral, compelling or repellant, with shades in between. I have felt this way all my life, impacted enough by it that my daily decisions are informed by it. I find it as natural a way of perceiving as with physical senses.

People are influenced, even if unconsciously, by intuitive responses. Think of real estate shows and how often folks reject or appreciate a house based on how it “feels.” It is a conscious experience for a great many people. Throughout our years of moving, I have chosen housing based on my internal perception of it far more than outward appearances. I intensely feel aftereffects of violence that has occurred, when great sorrow lingers, or if those who have inhabited it harbored various destructive behaviors. At times it seems like people have inserted their personalities and are still there. There have been many occasions I have driven up to a place and immediately left. Or knew instantly this was the place that would be home. I do not second-guess; I’ve learned it’s not worth it.

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I also am attuned when hiking, detouring when I feel unusually close to wild and possibly threatening creatures. There was the time in the Columbia Gorge that I knew bears were very near and I lagged behind my spouse. A few moments later I heard soft huffing sounds of cubs. Of course their mother kept an eye on things close by; they exchanged communications. I told my husband it was time to leave. And once hiking in a city forest something had created a wide swath of flattened grass and weeds where I was walking. My feet suddenly would not budge another step. I wasn’t certain yet what was near, only that it was wild, large and perhaps guarding or enjoying a meal. Despite my spouse’s stating it might be something but likely nothing, I turned and walked away, quietly calling him. At the nature center we were informed of a cougar’s recent sighting. Would we have been harmed either time? My instinct said “beware” and I don’t regret it.

We all have such guidance if we pay attention. It could be an angel or God or our own animal nature or all. We cross a street or become more guarded when we feel ill intention attached to a passerby. We have strong first impressions before we even know someone well; later we recall that first response. It isn’t the physical world we respond to but the inner one, the soul’s intention radiating outward. It is the measurable, palpable life energy of who we truly are. We can be as enchanted by one another or by a place as we are not. If warnings are given us, so are calls to come much closer.

We know people can inspire and draw us. So, too, places can move, heal, awaken and strengthen us. Think of a time you needed respite and found a spot where you felt deeply relieved, energized or calmed. Or when you needed hope and an experience of place gave you opportunities to release pain and embrace joy anew. Some people claim a spot and return to it always. Others search and discover them worldwide, like my family who regularly follow the call of unknown roads and the wilds.

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Just last Sunday some of us headed out to a Christmas tree farm. We had chosen a place new to us. As soon as we left the tangle of cars and houses and entered a misty, hilly terrain we knew we were onto something especially good. Foggy patches opened and closed about us, yet afternoon’s golden light brightened everything as though from inside out. The acreage stretched far and wide; the sky opened. We inhaled deeply the redolent, chilled air: damp earth and evergreen scents permeated all. The lots were overseen by a tall, burly man who was laughed readily, was helpful and liked to chat amiably. He seemed the quintessential lumberjack but he has a day job behind a desk. He loves this work on the side.

It took less than ten minutes to find what we wanted: a rotund, sturdy Douglas fir, straight of trunk. Nearby were equally lovely Nobles and Grand Firs. Every tree looked healthy and strong, showing off their needles of rich emerald or bluish-green. They cost a fraction of what we usually paid, as well. Our son cut it down quickly and his Noble, as well.

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We walked up the muddy road to the house and pole barn where attractive, fresh wreaths and coffee awaited. On the way we met sheep who mildly gazed back at us. Their thick wool, random voicings and gentle faces cheered us further. I gazed at the tree line against an alabaster and robin’s egg blue sky, heard brisk birdsong and wings caressing air, sheep baaaing and my family softly talking and laughing. A thick mist began to spread around trees and fields. We had stepped away from all the world and its worrisome matters, through a portal to a place where work built muscle and was valued; kindness thrived; peace prevailed. Though the cold increased I felt steady warmth gather within and around me.

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We met the owners, Tom and Harriet. They chatted easily with us. They had bought the land and house over twenty years prior; it called them. The older gentleman worked in the forestry service and worked the tree farm on his “off” hours. Impressive in their knowledge and congeniality, they are people one would like to have as neighbor, break bread with on a cold winter’s eve. We praised his trees and shared our city-folk love of their land.

“Every time I leave the city and country rolls around me, I feel all is aligned in the universe, and I’m happy,” I told Tom.

He smiled warmly. “Yes, that’s it.”

I was reluctant to leave. We all were. This was more than an exceptional business, it was a place of power, a spot of land where people, creatures and earth conspired to support and tend life together. Its magnificence was there long before it was settled but it had been respected and loved. It is still appreciated for the blessing it is. And it was shared with us, a gift we thankfully took home.

On the way back I saw the nearly full moon through a vaporous veil of fog and thought of Bethlehem. I wondered over the manger where animals surrounded an infant Jesus and his parents. The Wise Men and shepherds had travelled far from home to be part of a place and event of sacred power. What did they feel as they witnessed all? What was it like to stand beneath that star’s radiance as it fell upon them, obliterated darkness for a short while?

I hope for each of you that you claim your special place and moments of power are found this Christmas. Then share them with others. Count yourself fortunate to be able to be still and present, to acknowledge the perfect glory of God, the gifts of life now and through eternity.

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(All photographs taken by the author; please ask before using. Thanks!)

What Hud Did

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                               (Photo by Alessandro Imbriaco)

When Hudson Quinlan left town in late September, Jenisse was given use of part of his warehouse. It held his party store merchandise and was 8,000 square feet, not so big for a warehouse but not small, either. Hud owned this property outright. She suspected he’d used it for other business dealings, but she preferred to not think about it. He was her brother, eight years older. His reputation wasn’t one hundred percent stellar. He was a man of many skills and talents; she knew only a few. She didn’t think they were close but they had been as kids and she missed him more than she’d admit.

In the voice mail Hud indicated he’d be back eventually but in the meantime she could use it if she wanted. There was a key left in her glove box; he’d gotten in and out of her aged Pontiac without leaving a scratch.

Jenisse gave notice at her apartment building and moved into the westernmost quarter of the building. She’d been saving for months to find studio space she could rent to work on her painting. If Hud had said he’d be back in a couple months, she wouldn’t have bothered but “eventually” meant as long as a year. However long he wanted or needed to be gone. It wasn’t uncommon that he took off for parts unknown, sending an occasional postcard to her or their parents with alluring scenes of beaches, mountains, cities far away. They weren’t clear if it was business (he owned a big party supply store, a parking lot and, they thought, more) or pleasure, but Jennise knew it was both, ultimately. He attracted lively people and events without trying, and that meant good times and bad. Her brother trusted Jenisse enough to say his life was going well or less than well (never poorly, according to him), and held opportunities or was momentarily stalled. This time he’d said he needed inspiration so she assumed it was important. She might never know what. He didn’t talk shop around family.

Everybody said she was foolish. Hud was a man with some power and more money but his connections were less than commendable. They worried about her being alone. There could be thieves and rodents; Hud’s warehouse workers would come and go five days a week. She was told the industrial district was dirty, gritty, and frequented by petty criminals. Jenisse had visited the spot with Hud a couple times and over a few years the area’s commercial properties became valuable and condos started to go up nearby. Hud had made a savvy investment.

Her parents, unsurprisingly, came knocking on her door after she’d relayed her news. They loved Hud from arm’s length.

Her dad stormed in. “Why are you doing this? We could help you find studio space. You know Hudson and his associates! You don’t know who might show up. My vote: stay here!”

Her mother was out of breath from trying to keep up with him. “Jen. Really. No good. Will come of this. Stay put. You’ll regret this. So will we. Just think!”

Her parents, dancing beams of sunshine. Why couldn’t they give Hud a chance–and her more credit? They had two smart kids.

Jennise stood with arms crossed over her chest. “I’m half-packed already, as you can see. He’d never do this if he didn’t think I’d be fine there. He knew I’ve been scraping together the savings to get a studio space set up. I am going to work on my painting.”

“He’d have done better to just give you money! Now I have to worry about both of you?” He flexed his right hand as though he was getting ready for fight but it was old-fashioned parental nerves.

“Sorry, but I’ve been handed an opportunity I can’t turn down. I’ll invite you over for pizza sometime.”

So she moved. During the day Jennise worked at the art store, which gave her a break on art supplies. It was nothing she’d wanted to stick with but somehow she had been there for three years. She liked being with other artists, walking up and down the rows of paper, ink, paint, and a hundred other common and exotic tools of visual artistry. But it could get dull on slow days.

At night, though. Oh, at night, it was a far different story.

Jenisse had never had the right circumstances to support her creative vision. She’d always wanted to do big work, paintings six feet tall and wide. Maybe panels of paintings. Or constructed paintings, three dimensional. So she got busy making things happen that she’d only dreamed. Between seven and ten or eleven o’clock she painted. Some nights it was after midnight before the weight of sleepiness rolled over her.  She’d turn on Arvo Part or Bill Evans or Gregorian chant–whatever suited her–and it ballooned in the space, adding to her energy, encouraging new calmness. Never had she felt so free of distraction, even when she heard forklifts and men shouting if they worked overtime. At night she ignored random noises and street people with their carts. But Jenisse wasn’t much bothered even when she got cold due to the space heaters barely keeping the chill at bay. Or hungry, since she often forgot to eat as she dabbed and layered, smoothed the colorful textures on each canvas that she had framed and stretched herself. Afterwards, a hot shower and bed, drifting off to the muted cacophony of night’s secret doings. She began to feel at home.

Her parents remained shocked, so they came over with a casserole or took her out to the new Thai place across the street. Her mother had the mistaken assumption that Jenisse needed her help to decorate. Two more lamps for the mammoth living area. A picture and scented candle for the rudimentary bathroom Hud had put in when he set aside an office space. For the cruder kitchen with its tiny stove, microwave and mini-frig and small sink, she brought rooster-adorned tea towels and a basket full of fruit. Jessine was grateful for the fruit.

If there were rats–her only real fear–they didn’t bother her. The workers left her alone. The foreman, whom she had met and was memorable for smooth skin and crooked nose, knocked on her door one morning.

“Doing alright by yourself?” He ground out a cigarette on the cement floor, then picked it up and thoughtfully tossed it outside. “Hud says to keep an eye on you.”

“Okay, all is well. Thanks. Have you heard from him?” She didn’t want to say she wondered where he was this time.

“Naw, you know he’ll show up as needed.” He turned to leave then swiveled around. “Let me know if you need anything.”

So Hud had made sure of her safety, just as she’d thought. She worked even longer, easier hours, her body moving from paint to canvas to paint with a blood-deep rhythm, the music on her stereo a chorus of encouragement.

By December, Jenisse had nine paintings lined up against the cinderblock wall, most of them as big as she had hoped, a few smaller and oddly delicate. She had loosened up; her landscapes had morphed into undulating swaths of color and motion. The small ones were of watery iamges. It had been taxing to develop a quality of light that had long been elusive but she saw it was beginning to emerge, paint illumined from within, rich hues vibrating. She took photos for her portfolio and posted them on her website, hopeful.

A couple co-workers she enjoyed were spontaneously invited over to see them. They stood with hands to chins.

“Gorgeous,” the guy said. “Really good stuff.”

“I didn’t know you did all this.” The woman looked around at the huge space. “I didn’t know you had all this!”

It was then, three weeks before Christmas, that Jenisse got the idea for a public showing of her work along with the other two. They would put a sign outside, post a few ads in weeklies, announce it at the store  and online, and see if anyone came. A holiday art sale might bring in some appreciative persons–and they could mention the store to stir up interest in business.

Jenisse had worn her short fake fur coat for warmth with good black slacks and silvery sweater. She stationed herself with the others at the entrance. She’d cleaned up the area and set the paintings against the walls. Coffee carafes and cookies were at the ready. The lighting was great thanks to the foreman. Her parents were studying their work along with a few curious souls, a couple on their way to the next thing down the street. Some of the store’s staff were chatting amiably.

It was seven-thirty, a half hour into the show. Nothing had sold. The street was dead. Disappointment bubbled up even as she told herself it didn’t really matter, they made art for love, after all.

At seven-forty she could hear a low murmur with a few laughs, and then she saw them come down the street, some in twos and threes, some in larger groups. They were coming to the warehouse in elegant dresses and suits, high heels clicking on the street. To their little painting show. As the first woman passed through the door she smiled, tossing a mane of ebony back from her burnished face, then leaned in to Jenisse.

“Hud said this is just the beginning for you, darling, so let us in to see!”

Then she handed Jenisse a postcard with a picture of the lustrous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Jenisse flipped it over to read. The name he called her was the one only he could use when they were kids.

“Merry Christmas, sister/artist Nissey! Get ready for a fabulous New Year! Later/love/Hud.”

(Photo prompt supplied by Patricia McNair.)

Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Space and Time to Celebrate Family

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(A gathering in 1964)

Because I am soon off to visit my brother, along with a gaggle of other family members, I thought I’d share a bit before I board the plane. I am more a traveler by car so this trip, non-stop, requires a good reason. Much of my family is converging on the other side of the country to celebrate W.’s seventieth birthday in a few days. It seems preposterous we all could have aged so, but certainly it’s a blessing we’re yet here on earth and engaged in hearty living. To that end, there will even be a nephew arriving from Germany. The party will be a good one.

December is a month full of meaningful dates. It occurs to me my mother’s birthday was this month; I wonder if she will attend in in spirit, which would be like her. And a dear grandson will be turning eight the day I fly back home. But, too, I must say–because he is so much on my mind–that I lost another nephew far too soon one December. I grieve his passing, still. And Christmas is coming up, a time of faith that matters to me spiritually, far less so materially.

Family. We all have complicated families. I read once that those who maintain congenial family relationships tend to fare better as they age–particularly if one feels close to siblings. There is comfort in familiarity (notice the root word there!), the forbearance and forgiving acceptance that being blood-connected offer us, and a love that cannot be shared in quite the same way with any other.

Besides, in my family we share: similar cowlicks, white hair generally arriving quite early (I am the odd one with more auburn brown still), large and mostly blue eyes, mental and physical stamina, musicality, and a tendency to believe all things possible, even good things. We love to hope, learn and create. We also can be fussy and critical, high-handed, overly generous rescuers, perfectionistic, easily moved by suffering and kept awake by troubles here and afar. We pull toward God, those ancient teachings a divine compass, yet we can be too demanding of ourselves and others. Fervency can be a pro or con here but at least we have passion.

I have written of my family before, most recently of the aforementioned brother on Veteran’s Day. What could possibly interest you further? I’ve told a few tales about five children growing up in a two-story bungalow in a small Michigan city. Our father was a music educator and administrator, a conductor and musician. Our mother, an elementary school teacher. For some years she was a stay-at-home mom, which translates into being the CEO of a home-based business: a large family with drive, wide-ranging goals and assorted needs and deeds. We were (and are) a slew of “doers”. That meant keeping track of intricate schedules for each one, not to mention my father, who was so busy his recalled presence is at times like a blur except for dinner and Sunday mornings. Then he slowed down, sat (often with a symphony score at hand), talked with us. Quizzed us on various topics. It was like school at home and we all had something to say.

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(Birthday brother and our father and a shared appreciation of cameras)

W. is much like my father, with his passion for history and music and his artistic eye, a genial way with people and generous laugh. Today I got a text message from my sister-in-law: they were on their way to perform with a small choir at a White House holiday reception. It doesn’t surprise me; they remain professional singers (not their actual vocations) though they are retired. W. plays viola well but his voice is lovely. We all used to gather together around the baby grand at my parents’ house, five kids singing and/or playing an instrument, a mini-orchestral experience. Our father accompanied us on piano and directed; my mother watched from the kitchen door.

You can see where this has gone: family reunions unlock the door to memories and it is an experience that recalls sounds and smells, feelings, specific slices of life. The way my father’s eyes warmed (yes, twinkled), his laugh when sharing a new pun. The way my mother touched the side of her nose with an index finger while regaling us with a story. It might have been what happened as she walked to the store yet it was somehow funny and fascinating.

I am the youngest of the bunch. My two brothers and two sisters were off to college when I was barely thirteen. W. is more a known entity today, despite the miles. One of the sweet pleasures of being an adult is getting to know your siblings as co-adults. I feel fortunate; there is not one I am not proud to know, and I look forward to being in their company.

If holidays triggers nostalgia, then family reunions bring reality into sharper focus. No one is without flaws or quirks; we are all creative types and strong-willed, but were taught to be kind and civilized. Laughter will embellish conversations. Debate will be commonplace. I am sure there will be discussion of our diminishing extended family, events we recall from our youth, the passing of pictures to exclaim over. There will be feasting around tables. Music: it goes without saying, whether we sing, attend a concert or listen to the stereo. And since W. is a professional photographer, as well, his cameras will be recording details. The schedule for five days will be orderly with some room for spontaneity. My brother’s house will accommodate us, people wall-to-wall. I look forward to the “side-by-side” composition of our meeting, rubbing shoulders, exchanging hugs.

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(Childhood home)

When all seven of us, our friends and father’s music students were present in the house it was cramped. Often it felt lacking in privacy, was noisy and action-packed. I would climb the backyard maple tree with notebook and pen, breathe and think, plan faraway jaunts and dreams. After my siblings departed for the next stage of life there was such gaping space, a swell of silence that at times unnerved me. Then I’d sit on my bed and marvel at finally having my very own huge (so it seemed) room. I felt suddenly like an only child for the next several years, with the high and low points that came with it.

We can’t go back to the house on Ashman Street–no one wants to return to childhood, really, and my parents are long gone. But this is even better. Each of us grew up, became individuated beyond the group as everyone does with good fortune. Our lives have at times been challenged, even fragmented, then stitched together and made whole again. We have many interesting years between us, voluminous talk to share. We will develop new snapshots while tending and savoring each moment. Age has sculpted our faces and no one knows just what lies ahead. So now we make space and time enough to celebrate my brother and, too, these enduring and deepened family ties.

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(My brother and me)