An Afternoon of Art and Conversation

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

I know what they think, the two of us gliding through the art institute, his hand on my elbow, my eyes a bit dreamy, pearls swaying with each confident step. He is bulky and tall, his hair streaked with silver and wavy, and his heavy coat which he wore as though it’s a royal cloak, well, it’s cashmere, isn’t it? Of course they think those thoughts. I am too young for him. We’re not even friendly in a way one would expect family. I wear, I suspect, a look of slightly tarnished yet studied elegance. Do they think I don’t know what effect I can create? It’s in my blood. An actress mother; a composer father. We design everything.

I call him Samuel and he calls me Galinda, our ruse in case someone should hear or spot him and then proceed to detain us with an intrusive chat. He is well-known. I am nobody despite my attempt to appear cosmopolitan. Bored, perhaps above it all. Samuel bends over from time to time to inquire after me, to offer knowledge or astute criticism. I try to enjoy this tomb full of artistic endeavors. The places they put art! I have never visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why would I? I’m not ignorant. I just live in Kansas City. Or, I guess, did.

After we fill ourselves with a smorgasboard of classical works and outrageously modern pieces that make him squirm and me giggle, we sit in the courtyard. It’s chilly so he offers me his suede sport coat across my legs, considerate, a rather intimate act. I need a smoke. He offers me one of his, and the gold-plated lighter makes the barest flicking sound, not like my blue plastic Bic. I nearly choke; they’re French cigarettes. I suppress a cough while he looks away politely. He doesn’t really want to be here on a Saturday afternoon. I am his wife’s niece. He just married Portia a year ago. He wants to please her while she’s at her office.

Everyone said it was for her glamour but really, it was for her wit. I have seen them together enough to know how much he admires her. And she him. Portia is much like my mother, Eleanora, but absolutely intact. Her cosmetics business thrives.

My mother is in a place no one wants to mention. My father, Abe, distracts himself by playing piano all hours of the day and night. He won’t eat my cooking. He doesn’t like to sleep alone in their satin-covered, sway-backed bed.

This is how it was, act 1, scene 4:

“Why do you bring me chicken and peas at eight o’clock at night? Can’t you see I’m working? No, no food. Remove the tea, as well. Coffee. Please.”

I stand in the doorway, holding the too-hot china plate, then pick up bright green peas one by one and pop them in my mouth. The chicken is enveloped in mushroom sauce that even I loathe.

“Must you eat that way? Don’t we have a dining room table, silverware? Let me work now. I have to get this completed for the publisher.”

How can I blame Abe? Eleanora is the only one who has mastered him. Coddled him. I am the result of idealistic passion that has begun to erode from the sharp edges of life.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, darling. Come and sit.”

He swivels on the piano bench and holds out his hands to me. But I am already finished with the peas and my fingers are slippery with the last tablespoon of butter. I leave the music room. The silence soon iss stuffed with allegretto and appassionata and a moan of misery as he stops again and again. He huddles over his score. I feet his loneliness like an arctic wind. I can’t evade it no matter how hard I try.

Eleanora has always been absorbed by acting–live theater–and has done well enough to have her name on a half-dozen major Midwest marquees many times. But things change. She is now not the type they seek. Age creeps in and her flirtatious nature becomes a little sad. Or she stumbles over her lines more often. Prestige can’t be easily bargained for or bought. I’ve watched her slip away, into odd reveries, into sleep and finally into a dark corner of her mind but cannot tell you exactly why. My mother still can hush every room she enters. She has such flair and is so quick one has to work to keep up with her. But we are helpless. Well, I haven’t been home for four years but I saw it coming even before I left.

Fade to black, scene change. My own dubious future.

I think sometimes creativity can contort things. It can turn you inside out and then where is the refuge? I’ve noticed that everyone I know who adores creating risks adoration of their own feelings. It’s like a mirror they fall into if there are not enough other images to divert their attention and energy. Or simply not enough spark to illuminate something greater.

Eleanora and Abe would scoff at this. I am just a twenty-two year old college graduate with a new job. No matter that I pay attention. I am nothing if not a neophyte. I have not become absolutely amazing, something they desire with all their hearts.

So, Aunt Portia. She found a place for mother to recuperate from life. She offered me a room in their suburban Detroit home that could accommodate three families so here I am. I work at Metropolitan Estates for now, crunching numbers, attending to people’s wills and all. That’s right, as glamorous as all that, but when I tell people I’m quite interested in wills and inheritance taxes, they act as if I’m somewhat a genius, at the very least clever. But the word I most often hear? “Spunky.” How spunky of me to move here and take this job right out of college in nineteen sixty-seven. I think, how crucial to survival now that I am on my own.

“You enjoyed the art?” Samuel asks with interest.

His name is really Arthur Minhausen III. He owns so much commercial property in this city you about trip over it just walking down the street.

I exhale as he stubs his own cigarette out.

“Some beautiful paintings, of course. But I like living art, not entombed, untouchable.”

Samuel smiles, a crooked front tooth adding a certain flair. He brings his coffee cup to his lips, hesitates before drinking. “Example?”

“How about gardens? Aunt Portia’s is outstanding. Or public sculptures that seem in short supply here but abound in Europe, I hear. People can touch them, enjoy a summer breeze as they sit and gaze at them with serious intent. Or not. Art for the masses, all sorts. Or art you can wear, we certainly need that, too!”

“Ah, now you sound like Portia,” he says. “You should travel more and then tell me what you think. Explore different cultures, enjoy other visions.”

I look away to hide the fact that I don’t believe that will ever happen. My life doesn’t include windfalls. But I see a couple staring at us, the woman whispering to her companion. Arthur is high-profile, a local celebrity. He fundraises. He is a toastmaster about town, a gad-about that everyone likes to rub shoulders with. He looks as good as he talks and his wife is even better.

“Well, I made it to Detroit. That’s a start.”

He leans toward me. “A bold move, I must say.” He inclines his head. “Lizzie, you share your mother’s and aunt’s gifts, you know.”

My actual name spoken is a disappointment–shhouldn’t I go by Elizabeth now?–but I flush. Too often I’ve heard I have my mother’s and aunt’s looks and it gets tiring. I have known this new uncle for about a month. “Meaning?”

“You’re a creative thinker, practical. Smart, personable. Independent. You will do well. It won’t always be Detroit. It may be New York or Los Angeles. Public relations, as you hope. You’ll make your way.”

It seems extravagant to me, all this praise. Arthur/Samuel is lighting another cigarette and handing me a second, which I refuse. His smallish eyes are clear and steady. I open my mouth and close it. He nods to encourage my response.

“You forget I might have gotten a serious genetic load of melancholia. I may be doomed to swooning too much or crying over how unfair life is. Worse, collapsing under my own emotional weight. My own mother finds her life less than she desires and what happens? She dives deep into the cave of her bedroom until we have to search for her and send her away for reconstruction. I’m sometimes fearful if I stub my toe I might decide I can’t even walk!”

I’m embarrassed by my frankness, how easy it is. And my anger. Surely I can be kinder. But there it is. Meanness where there should be tenderness. She is my mother, after all. My father could do with more goodness from me, too. He wept as he told me it was best I go.

“It happens. We think we know how to manage and then find out we have a deficit that needs addressing. Or there’s a change in the weather, whatever! We might need help. Everyone does, sooner or later.”

“Not you, I’m sure.”

Arthur inhales and holds it too long, as if the smothered smoke keeps his thoughts in place. I imagine a boat coming to port, the thoughts ready to disembark, waiting for a signal. The he exhales and words tumble out.

“Why not me? Is my ambition separate from the rest of my living? It all comes from the same source: ourselves. Dreams and failures, achievements and losses. But there are our plans and life’s plans. We make ourselves who we need to be, and it works or it doesn’t. I tell you, I haven’t always had it this good, and I don’t mean just materially.”

I sipped my Coke, then held it with both hands to cool myself. “Okay, wait, so my mother chose to be nuts? And I can choose not to be? Just like that.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes, but it’s also how we deal with what is dealt. Everything we do is a risk. Like my business. Like you coming to stay with us. Even your mother’s choices, Lizzie.” He reaches for my wrist and his hand is dry, firm. “She will rebound, Portia believes, don’t you? People start over. And you are not to feel guilty about any of it, if I may say so. Just live your own life and see what happens.”

I am about to tell him he has a lot to say and I’m glad he took me here. But someone is fast approaching us. There is a camera held high. Arthur takes my hand–“Galinda? Shall we?”–and we stand up, turn, walk briskly away.

He leans and whispers. “Let’s call Portia and meet her for a Greek dinner. This way, my dear.”

We leave a gallery of eyes behind us. I know how we seem. An older man taking charge, his arm about me to shield me from the press, a man who knows what he wants and gets it. Me, a stranger to Detroit, too young to know what she is doing, full of high-spiritedness. A certain sophistication she only copies from her mother, aunt and many others she admires.

But as we walk into the brashness of afternoon sunshine I feel strength of my own. He has let go of me. I can manage just fine. I only have to step forward. Tomorrow I’ll call my parents. Let them know I do love and miss them though I’m glad–delirious, really!–to be here. Cue the curtain. I have much more to actually live, darlings.

Photo courtesy of DIA
Photo courtesy of DIA

Songs that Find Us


You’re walking past a coffee shop or into a bookstore, perhaps up a dusty stairwell to a friend’s apartment, or you’re driving home from the grocery store, thinking of nothing, carrying out errands, when music stops you. You might pull over, sit down. Listen with all of your attention. Wait, absorb all that arrives. It is something you recall vividly from your youth or young adulthood, perhaps when meeting your first love at a dance or were packing up all your belongings for a move to a far off city. Maybe you had just come in from your back yard laden with flowers and you were arranging a bouquet of daisies and peonies.

But the song spoke to you, even for you. It touched, enlivened you in ways you could not have explained if someone asked. That music entered your blood and settle din your mind. Now it lingers in recesses of memory, sometimes coming to the fore: that moment you heard it, that feeling, the place you stood or sat or lay. It summed up your life in the split second it began; it augured what was to come.  You were sure of it. But whatever it was or meant, it will always evoke the original magic. You will hear it again and be stilled.

I heard one of those songs a few days ago. Well-known to me, I once attempted to play it on my cello, sing it. The gradations of feeling, its complexity of melody and instrumentalization…it still brings me to my self in a way that few songs can. It remains a rich elixir of hope and longing, tenderness and passion. And its melancholic pulse and key pulls me deep and deeper.

It is a big song about surprisingly delicate emotions. It spills from every space it is performed. I first heard it at fourteen or fifteen in my parents’ dining room where the stereo was set up by our long dining table. An LP pulled from tightly packed groupings in the wood record cabinet, it was played along with all the other classical composers my father collected and studied. We knew them well. It was his habit to put on an LP and quiz all five children over dinner–the composer, name of the composition, the movement, symphony or soloist. I was wrong as often as I was correct. I was far more interested in daydreaming my way through mashed potato, green beans and chicken breast, enthralled by what I heard.

But this particular song caught and held fast longer than many. Suspended in time and place, it was a wondrous bridge that transported me to Latin America. I felt it in my sinew and soul. I was a romantic child and youth, on my way to becoming a tougher woman before I understood the meaning of either. This composer gave living sound a shape and beauty I recognized. It provided an aural vision of the bittersweet nuances of love and life, expressed via nature’s wiles.

I played it often when everyone else was gone because I wanted to be entirely mesmerized. To feel its intention and know its every note and pause. And I, a young musician and singer, wanted to sing it despite knowing I would never do it the justice it required. So the album played and in the empty house I sang along with eight cellos and a vocalist whose voice lifted me out of time. Later I would practice the composition for both cello and voice lessons, laboring over fingering positions or breath control. I sought the musicality it demanded because it had easily won my dedication.

Those days I often looked for temporary exit from exposure on various literal and figurative stages of life. But brought up in a public family known for being achievment-oriented, for performing and musical competition was like living in a fish bowl. Although I loved singing, acting, dancing or playing cello–the luxurious, exciting swish of heavy velvet curtains across a stage—I also craved solitude. It was alone that I could best sort ideas and feelings, put them into some semblance of order that might be better managed. I failed often at that but at least I had them to myself. Playing to applause was one thing, often pleasant. Creating or performing alone in a room with no expectations, sharp criticism or approval was another. There was a greater freedom in the latter, even if less praise.

I adored classical music, not only because it was a powerful way of communicating, even our identity. It sometimes seeemed life itself, having been born into it. But I also needed folk and jazz, rhythm and blues and sought them in secret. It was a time when Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson educated me, but so did e.e. cummings, Anne Sexton and Hermann Hesse, Soren Kierkegaard. The Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society were beating their drums and I heard them through a delirious fog. Kennedy had been assassinated and that changed everything. I teetered on the precipice of an intellectual precocity that lacked the crucial maturity of hindsight or foresight. I took risks of many kinds during those teen-age years. We all battled demons both personal and societal, imagined and real. Music was a safety net I counted on. It was the same for everyone, no matter the genre.

Growing up is a long train ride through tunnels that can blind the traveller, often inhospitable terrain that demands new skills and scenarios of shocking loveliness that leave one weak-kneed. What does a youth do with so much? Today things are confounding in different ways, complicated by virtual amusements and mind-boggling scientific advances. It makes me long for moments that are direct, true, clear of confusing distractions. Songs can do that. I cling to music that moves me. Sometimes it echoes over and over; I hear it, sing it, savor it. I am made better by it.

Why would a classically composed song rather than something from the sixties or seventies (the Beatles, Moody Blues or Blood, Sweat and Tears) rivet my attention after all these years? We might argue longevity or quality of music but that is a matter of personal preference. I require all manner of music to fortify my life. No, it was just who I was and those times–being swept up rapid historical and cultural changes while trying to tend my dreams and survive my own losses. This song seemed both a lament and a beautiful beckoning. It was obe song that claimed me, found a home with me.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer who was born in 1887, died in 1959. He was considered that continent’s preeminent twentieth century composer up until that time. Influenced mightily by folk as well as European classical music, his compositions were wide-ranging and remain popular with both audiences and musicians. The song I heard and for which I feel such kinship is from his Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, “Aria: Cantilena.” The soprano on this recording is Barbara Hendricks. (Though this singer is excellent, I would rather hear Renee Fleming–I love her warm tone–but couldn’t find a recording of her singing the arrangement with the preferred eight cellos.)

Listen. Prepare to be carried away. And if not, pay homage to your own song and tell me what it is.

English translation: (words by Ruth Valadares Correa)

Evening, a rosy, translucent cloud, slowly crosses the drowsy, beautiful firmament!

The moon gently rises into infinity, adorning the evening, like a sweet maiden dreamily getting ready, making herself beautiful, desiring her soul to be beautiful.

She calls to the heavens, the earth, to all of Nature.

She silences the birds’ melancholy laments, and the sea reflects all her treasures…

Softly the moon awakens, a cruel yearning which laughs and weeps!

Evening, a rosy, translucent cloud, slowly crosses the drowsy, beautiful firmament!


The Blueness of Summer


“The problem is clear, Reg–we have the wrong colors! Everything must be painted blue. Then we’ll have more peace. At least I will!”

She threw her up hands in disgust, then pointed at the living room’s pale yellow walls, orange floral couch with lime green and lemon yellow pillows, a tarnished goldtone floor lamp, all three tables an antique white.

Reg stood with hands on hips. This was the stand-off he had hoped to avoid. If she was going to tick off the terrible errors of each and every room he’d lose it. This was not their city house which “requires a more spare palette”, she’d insisted. This was a vacation home, a spiffed-up cottage, really, and he liked it just the way it was.

“Absolutely not. It required no renovations. The colors are lively. It’s a simple place. For once we can go outside the lines, relax. And I’m not buying a bunch of new furniture.” He ran a palm over his forehead. “You liked it well enough when we bought it in spring. We’re lucky to have it.”

Reg said this with satisfaction and pride. He’d saved a long time to afford the right place on Whitetail Lake. A moderate-sized, old but not too-creaky lake house on a half-acre. It made him happier than he’d been in years.

Marin turned away from him to face the view of water, let her eyes rest on birches and pines on the opposite shore. The lake was languid today, a smattering of clouds reflected in its gently sloshing surface. It made her feel moody and restless instead of calmer.

“I’ll shop at second-hand stores, garage sales if I must. But it has to be re-done in blues.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “The girls need blue, too. They’re too agitated here.”

With a dismissive wave of his hand, he left. The girls needed to fish with him, swim, get sweaty and dirty, water ski, meet new friends. They still had time to make good messes at ages ten and twelve. At home they were under Marin’s watchful gaze and tutelage. Here they could whoop and race around. He had no intention of falling prey to his wife’s obsession with color therapy out here in the northern woods, on this welcoming lake. It had become a strange keystone of her life but it was not his.

He worried she was losing it. This color thing was now impacting how she cooked, organized things, even wanted everyone to dress. He knew it was her attempt to re-exert control over her life. It had been hard. She’d lost her job ten months ago so she had more empty time. But they’d lost a helluva lot more than that. He understood she needed to adjust; he still did, too. He was lonely for her, for the past, and it felt like a black hole some nights. But time, it was all about time. And color, apparently.

Marin watched her husband head to the boat house where he stored his fishing tackle. He’d be gone all day, likely. She just couldn’t get into fishing, baiting the hook, the harm it did to fish tossed back in, the hours of boredom as you cast a line and waited, cast and waited. He cleaned and cooked them with relish. She ate them but felt haunted by their grace in the water, scales flashing as sunshine glanced off their sleek bodies. It almost made her cry.

Water. It was an ever-changing tableau of shadows, of light. A blue life. It was the reason she had agreed: to be by the lake, hear it all hours. Musical blueness. And she needed everything indoors to reflect calm and an inviting coolness, as well.

“Kel! Give that back! You have the old one!”

“Let go! You’ll tear it! Mom!”

Natalie and Kelly exploded into the room, the older, Nat, trying to pull her new beach towel from her sister’s hands. Nat knocked over stacks of books Marin had been sorting. She shot her mother a look but kept moving and holding onto the towel. They were like two harnessed, runaway horses.

“Stop galloping about! Walk!” Marin commanded, but they were already beyond hearing range.

She stood in the middle of the room and counted the items she wanted to dispose of. The tables were barely tolerable but at least not yellow or orange. It gave her a headache, all this vividness in the cramped living room, the old fireplace smelling of decades of fires. At home there were wide expanses, many windows, clean lines, grey, taupe, pale rose, ivory. It was really for Reg, this Whitetail Lake adventure with fishing and hunting, the nature he missed from childhood. Sorely needed at a crucial juncture in his career. And the girls loved it so far, even their small bedrooms that accommodated only twin beds. They said it was like going to camp. Reg insisted it was homey. What did that mean? Wasn’t their city house homey in a classic way, hadn’t she made it so?

What did she get? What did she even have left, anymore?

It was not a good time to examine or answer such questions. She grabbed her bag and keys, jotted a note and left it on the green lacquered breakfast table. She was going paint shopping.


The whole next week they had to eat, sleep and live around their mother and her paint buckets. Their dad was fishing mostly. Sometimes he took them skiing or on boat rides of the deer’s tail-shaped lake. The three of them swam into the dusk, calling their mom to join them. She was too busy painting. In another week their dad would be going back to work. Worrisome.

“How’s it a deer’s tail? It’s so big you can’t even tell,” Kelly asked.

Nat snickered. “You can see from a plane what it’s like.”

“I’d do that.”

“You’d do anything, that’s the problem.”

Kel bit off a cherry licorice stick inch by inch but paused. “The problem is mom and that painting. We’d have more fun if she stopped.”

“I know. She’s…paint crazed! It’s blue madness!”

They laughed though it wasn’t very funny.

“I think,” Nat said, “she’s still trying to feel better. Dad says we have to be patient. It’s only painting walls, at least.”

Kel looked at her as she licked her fingers clean, then wiped them dry on her shirt. “She doesn’t drink at all. Danny’s been dead a year. She should be better by now.”

Nat put her arms around her sister’s shoulders. “Yeah, Danny’s gone…we’re here. So we can’t give up on her.”

“He hurt all the time. He couldn’t play, anymore. Danny had to go, didn’t he….? He’s better now, right?”

“I guess. Yeah.” She gave her a squeeze and stood up. “Want to swim out to the floating dock and lay out for a tan?”


Marin walked through the kitchen with its bright breakfast nook, the living room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms. Even Reg liked their bedroom, how it soothed. She had emptied them of extraneous things, found used natural wood furniture. But what delighted her were the aquamarine, cornflower blue, teal blue in variations of all three that covered walls and woodwork. No, illuminated. It was as if she was floating underwater, inside a small universe of blue, a skylit haven. It reminded her of bodies of water all over the world, places she had travelled when she had curated art for the museum. She was light-headed with pleasure. The panorama of tones loosened up straggling tension. Her heart unclenched.

At the doorway to the screened-in porch she had hesitated, paint brush and can in hand. The walls were knotty pine that felt warm with a sheen deepened from many years, hands, weather that passed through. It held a couch covered with a worn navy, red and cream plaid, two easy chairs that matched and a low table for books and random objects. Reg had left a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson essays there, the book she had bought him for his thirty-ninth birthday, when things had gotten tougher. Inside it she had inscribed: “To your soul from your love.”

Marin left the porch unpainted. Instead, she dug out the one picture she had brought of Danny. She painted a frame she had found at the local antiques store, a deep sapphire blue. It matched his eyes though a stranger wouldn’t know that. The five of them were sitting on the edge of a pool in Baja California, the last vacation he would be able to bear. But his smile was so powerful you could see God in it.

She hung the picture between two large screened windows. Under that she put a small white ship’s anchor and sat down on the couch. Danny would have loved the cottage. She felt the closing of her throat, the sting of tears and waited for them to etch hot trails down her face. But they didn’t fall. Her throat gradually opened again. A brisk breeze crisscrossed the porch and lifted the hair from her damp neck. She watched the girls playing badminton in the front. Reg was sitting on a chaise lounge near them, sipping a lemonade she’d made fresh earlier. She got up and left the cottage, pulled to the lapping water, trees and birds. The summer’s sweet light and her family.






SOS: Dreams to the Rescue



I know these who arrive in the night. They are as familiar to me as my own reflection, and yet I cannot identify their features as easily as their intentions and meaning. The are speaking to me in fluid tones, as if we are underwater or flying. This different communication requires heightened interpretation. I sense things, feel things richly, not like fleeting emotions but a deeper knowing. I think vaguely as I watch us all that it is like a telegraph system of glances, pulses of energy, knowledge sent and received in a transparent, efficient manner. Swift passages of understanding flow, heard by dreaming ears.

It is neither day or night here, and we have basic bodies that mean far less than thoughts. But they provide me with a tangible sense of happiness, a buoyancy in this hazy, opalescent place. It is clear I deeply love them and they, me. There is excitement, as though I am being cheered on, as if something wonderful is happening. I realize I am part of this forever even as I awaken from the sweetness of the dream.

There has been a crisis in my family involving a grandchild. I am filled with consternation and sadness as we problem solve. My dream reminds me not only of the strength of love in my daily life but also the love that is given us by our angels, passed relatives and allies, even God Almighty, those who tend our hearts and souls even as we slumber.

I have been in that Otherland we enter when crossing from the country of physical wakefulness into territories of dream life. We exist there for seven or so hours every twenty-four hours if we are fortunate. We sink into REM sleep state and dream. We recall it vividly or partially, or not at all. But life continues to be experienced despite our slumber. We gather information, bring it back and break the surface to wakefulness. Then we let go of dream gleanings or bring them closer for examination. We remember, we forget, but there is a difference made.

I remember. Not everything–how could I even capture all that is left behind once my body reclaims my attention? A dream might nag me yet remain ephemeral, unable to reconfigure fully in this consciousness. An identifiable sensation lingers for hours, days. Yet every night there arrive interesting scenarios, bits of ideas. Dreaming is a potent resource. Questions and answers arise from the journeying there.

It is an ancient idea. Dreaming has been valued throughout our human history and remains more important to some cultures than others. Dreams have been revered as oracular, providing wisdom. They are fables for greater living. They are sorters or filters of the ceaseless input we receive and discharge during all our human endeavors. Scientists study brain waves in an attempt to demystify the how, why and when of the subtle complexity of dreaming. Psychologists analyze, develop a guide of dream symbols; psychics advertise skill in personalized interpretation. We know that without sound sleep that supports dreaming the human mind becomes disordered, even disturbed.

Moon and clouds

I have always believed in the value of dreams. It was my mother who taught me about them when I was a youth. Each morning she would ask how I slept. Then we would share our respective dreams over breakfast. I found her dreams intense, vivid, full of portents, sometimes fears, beautiful visions and tales of life. Even prayerful answers. Her dreams could foretell alarming events; she never discounted them and was often correct. I saw how dreams swirled about her otherwise well-organized, accomplished living. They moved her and impacted me as the receiver.  Early on I acquired the habit of observing and keeping track of my own, sometimes in dream journals.

Perhaps this example of how dreaming seemed to save me will further clarify the heart of this essay.

During early adulthood I ended up in situations defined by economic instability, victimization and spiritual crisis. I utilized resources but still saw there was not enough headway made. I needed definitive answers, tending to discover external solutions as I examined internal issues. I clung to hope but self-esteem became fragile. I prayed yet it seemed both pleadings and praises were often placed on hold. I wasn’t sure what to feel grateful of: that I had housing but lived in uncertainty and fear? That although my children were cherished they inconsistently had bare necessities? I had barely begun college only to have to quit, had few wage earning skills. I daily ruminated over all that had brought me to that point. If God loved me well–I still believed it so–then why did I feel I was barely hanging on to the sides of a small boat rolling in treacherous waters?

My dreaming reflected the turmoil. For years, they included an emergency–a fire, dangerous intruder, the house on the verge of collapse, a tornado or other catastrophic natural event–and I would immediately seek help. In these situations a partner turned away, family and friends were otherwise engaged, were not to be found or did not know who I was. I dialed 911 repeatedly only to find the number was wrong, the phone was damaged or disconnected, had vanished at the last minute. I was hanging on to my children as I tried to find an escape route. Yet I could not get out or in any door or window I located. It doesn’t take a scholar to see these dreams mirrored my feelings. I awakened fighting off defeat, tired out by a relentless sense of futility that even permeated sleep.

But I kept praying to be heard and delivered. Gradually, I began to dream differently: during an emergency, I would secure the children with watchful, benign people and go in search of help, or strike out alone and stop passersby to ask for aid. There was friendliness and pleasing events at some junctures, danger at others. I had adventures that became frightening, tests of my resilience and wits but I managed to stay alive, to keep going. Ultimately, though, I found no lasting help. So I would return to the starting point. It seemed I could depend on no one. Yet I awakened thinking: This is different–I leave and go looking for help, take more risks. But there is still no constructive solution. 


In time, I fell asleep and found myself wandering a college campus, exploring classrooms, navigating throngs, stumbling over books, finding rest under fairy-tale giant trees. Trying to find my way back home, feeling disoriented but unafraid. I discovered different houses, often oddly familiar, some marred by disarray but safer. I then travelled to places with commonalities such as sparkling expanses of water, in mountains, situated on verdant land, town centers astir with activity. In the mornings I thought: I must save myself, my family; I must take much greater chances. God will always be with me but I must take full responsibility. Take action soon. No one else will. This is my life. 

The thoughts crystallized. One night I dreamed of trudging up a mountainous path, children in my arms, all of us sweating. So weary. The difficult path led to a huge, exquisite structure at the peak. I stood before heavy golden double doors and then turned the doorknobs. The doors sprung open. Before us was a gleaming white and black tiled floor which was part of an expansive reception area that seemed to not end. To my right and left were infinite numbers of doors. I stood before several. I did not want to open any of them, thinking then I would be ensnared in another room that was not my place of peace or freedom.

I stepped forward and kept walking when before me the wall melted away. There were white columns on either side of a vast veranda. Beyond shining steps was a paradisal garden, a scene of multiple wonders and beauties, sustenance awaiting us. A grand fountain burbled into a large pool. Sunlight warmed and energized. There were people moving among plants and walkways, engaged in discourse. At ease. I was overcome with relief. Happiness, even. We had made it. Strength and resolve welled up inside as I awakened.

I shared this with a Methodist minister who counseled me. He was so affected his hand flew to his mouth a moment, then said, “I believe God has shown you something powerful. You will make it out of your difficulties and be alright.” (Later I learned he shared my experience in a counseling workshop as an example of spiritual and emotional healing.)

So I left home. I gathered my children up, found a new spot to live, returned to college. For years I had delayed this–leaving that marriage felt cataclysmic after being in love and losing so much. The act felt defined by defeat. Yet it changed my course in many good ways. I am not telling you it was easy, that new problems didn’t arrive and need to be overcome. But opportunities also appeared. I began to trust that a better way of life was within my grasp. That I had what it took to succeed. Eventually a surprising career changed everything futher. And it had all started with a vision that came from dreaming, a choice that was spurred by night-time seeking.

Dreaming has assisted me in fine-tuning life, taught me how to resolve conflicts, become more creative, reach out to others. Even to forgive. Not every dream matters as much as others. But they each do their job of keeping mind, body and soul in running order.

Do you willingly enter the innermost place where dreams tell you a truth, even a difficult one? Have they helped save your life, too? Tonight, rest well; sleep an ancient slumber. Recharge your soul and mind. Expect to learn good things. You will find your way there and back again with more pieces of the puzzle put in place.

"Reach" by Naomi J Falk, 2003
“Reach” by Naomi J Falk, 2003


Garnetta Looks Backward and Forward

DSCF5174 When Garnetta finally left her high school counselor position it was an unceremonious affair, handshakes at a small but respectable luncheon, a voluptuous, rainbow bouquet of roses (her least favorite flower after lilies) and an oversized card with blue birds and butterflies on it. A touch of glitter, she noted with a raised eyebrow. She was grateful there wasn’t a drawing of a sign on a shack saying “Gone Fishin’.” But it managed to move her.

Everyone signed it: “Best wishes” and “Miss you already”.  Her favorite was from Rafe Kellogg, the science teacher: “I wish I had known you better, but look forward to your life!” As if he was looking forward to her life being carried out elsewhere.  The blue greeting card script trumpeted joy and delight: “May Your Retirement Bring Renewed Rewards!” The phrase stumped her: did that mean she should look backwards to old rewards so they might be revamped? Reclaimed?

How was it that after nineteen years at the same place no one knew her? Yet they were oddly intimates, by virtue of years they had rallied for their students’ well being. Resources. Political skirmishes. She patted their backs when they offered sudden hugs. Being in such close proximity was a surprise to them all.

It ended on her thirty-fifth year of soothing, encouraging, advising and intervening. So many teenagers! It had been a trying last year, the sort that one does not prefer to add to a trove of good memories. There are events everyone fears and loses sleep over, and the loss of one young man hit her hard. Not that Reese died–that had also happened, other students and years– but that he had chosen to drop out. To follow the footprints of his father. Which meant sawdust filling up his lungs at their (admittedly good) wood shop, maybe developing a penchant for petty criminality as father had and, God forbid, countless drunken debacles. It was known the boy tied one on more often than he ought.

He could have become a designer, an architect, a preserver of old historic houses. He might finally flip houses rather than make benches and tables. Time would tell. But the last time they had met Reese was on his way out.

“I wanted to tell you how much you helped me,” he said, smiling crookedly as always. “I mean, I wouldn’t have made it even this far without your talks. Just being here. I feel better about things. But I have to move on.”

He leaned forward. For a moment his hand hovered over the stapler as if he was going to emphasize his point with a sharp stapling of air. He picked up one of the pens and twiddled it between his fingers like it was a twig. Reese was big and always moving.

“You’ve still chosen to quit despite all my talk and all your listening. I feel somehow less than satisfied, Reese.”

“I did hear your advice!” He squinted at her. “Miss Harlinger, that time you told me to do what I knew was best, not what was easiest, hit me hard. It’s best I work with my dad, then take over one day. And we both know that ain’t gonna be easy to do.” His gaze swept over her cubicle divider. “Hey, you got a new poster? It’s nice.”

“Not ‘ain’t’, Reese, isn’t, it isn’t going to be easy but that is beside the essential point. I hoped you’d stretch yourself into something bigger than this town can contain. You once kept up your grades because all other indicators said you are more than a good athlete and great woodworker. And then it was to be scholarship applications with my help, and then I might have put a one way ticket to somewhere fantastic right in your palm. To your destiny as a more successful creative person. An innovator.” She sighed. “The poster was a gift from a student who is going to college. It stays for the next one of my ilk.”

Reese stuck the pen behind his ear and laughed. “See? That’s what I mean. You cheer me up just by saying that stuff! Okay, seriously, I know what you meant. Being creative and all that. I agree. I have to make all kinds of things. But my mom, you know this, she counts on me now. Dad has to get help with the booze and maybe a new liver and how will the shop run then? And if he doesn’t, who then?” He put the pen into its plastic holder, opened his hands and studied the broad, dry palms. “Not by itself, it won’t run. I can do it. I will.”

“I’ve asked more of you because you have it in you to make great things happen.” Garnetta picked up another pen, underscored the school’s logo on her desk calendar as if it was an important reminder of something, then laid it gently back down. She had to let go.

“College, I don’t know, but I’d love making cool houses, skyscrapers, even.” He stretched out his considerable length, arms held high, then pulled it all back in. “I disappointed you.”

It was true, but Garnetta wasn’t saying it. Worse, the boy felt let down by life, itself. “You gave it deep thought or you wouldn’t be here telling me your junior year is your last. For now…”

For a long moment Reese was still, staring at her desk. Then he picked up her mascot, a stuffed spotted owl. “I always liked birds. I hate thinking about trees being cut down so we can make big houses for humans. Desks for paper calendars to doodle on. Magazines and junk mail that Dad burns. I watch the ashes float away above our pine trees and feel sad.” He patted the owl on its soft head and set it upright before her again. “I keep an eye open for owls. They’re good omens.”

Garnetta caught her breath. This was the Reese that often hid and who she was able to find. He felt things between the known world and other worlds. She had seen his sketches, how they captured the rich tension between the functional and imaginative, each frail pencil mark defining space with his vision. The houses he drew caught one’s eye and mind, such was his grasp of spare, soaring beauty.

He stood up and she looked all the way up to unkempt brown hair, at hazel eyes that shimmered with energy even though subdued.

“Yeah, well, I have to go now…” He held out his hand. “Thanks for everything. I hope you have a real good retirement.”

He held out his hand and she took it into her smallish hand and gave it a firm shake. “I think we’ll hear more from you, still.” She hoped it was true. She willed it to be true. “Yes, a good retirement is the least I can ask for! A nice long life on a park bench. You can feed the pigeons with me when I don’t know you anymore.”

He laughed again, shoulders bunched up, and then he did a small thing with all that teen-age muscle and bone and restlessness, with that crowning brain. He bowed. Then turned and left.

Garnetta put her head down and wept.

It was the last Sunday of June when Garnetta ended up at a favorite park with a duck pond. It was near an Italian restaurant where she planned on having a late lunch or early dinner. She had her book, one that she had put off reading so she could savor it, a biography of a woman explorer in the nineteenth century. She was hoping it spurred a sudden hunger for adventure, made her intrepid enough to vacate the country for a couple of weeks. 

Garnetta had lately felt going to the store and back was enough of an outing. It scared her. She was just sixty-eight, in good health, so why the sluggishness? Her friend Jane told her it took far more than two weeks to adjust to the thought of summer stretching into fall and so on–all without a desk calendar to direct her and a yellow Big Ben alarm clock to wrench her from sleep.

The second chapter had failed to snag her attention. Not a good sign. She watched the ducks swim in seemingly aimless circles, ducklings blithely following moms. The air smelled blue and green, all bright water and shadow-laden trees. It was sweet to sit and enjoy the moment for no good reason.

“Is this seat taken?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is!” She put her book beside her and turned to look at the man who spoke. He was taking the spot, anyway.

“Nonsense,” Rafe Kellogg said, and sat down. “I need a rest.”

“How did you happen along?”

“I came by the same path as you. I, in fact, often do. I live down the street. And yourself? Enjoying your altered life? Smart hat you have there.”

He let out a thin stream of cigar smoke in the direction of the pond. Garnetta imagined the ducks holding their breath, then decided it wasn’t all that terrible a smell. Just foreign. It was curious, his desire to stop by.

“I tend to go with the wind these days.” She flapped her hand over and up in the breeze. “But I haven’t found a fine unfettered life yet.”

Rafe puffed on his stogie. “No, I imagine none of us quite do though we delude ourselves pretty well. We just have to sort it all out, I guess.”

Garnetta stole a glance.  He looked different out here, away from the brick walls. Cigar smoker! More substantial but less stuffy in dark blue jeans and smart tennis shoes. He didn’t have his glasses on; they poked up from his jacket pocket.

“I plan on following the clues,” she said, closing her book. She ought not to bother him–but why not? He had insisted on sitting. “Any thought of a late lunch?”

Rafe looked away as if seeking the answer in watery reflections or the little island of stubby earth at pond’s center. “I’d like to go over there at night, that bit of land, flashlight in hand. Just a notion I have but I wonder how it might be managed? Without being caught or drowned? And, yes, lunch is something I’d like soon.”

She smirked at the thought of him wading through murk in the dead of night. It had an appeal. He grinned at her, large yellowed teeth resultant of cigars from years passed. But when he held out a piece of dark chocolate, Garnetta took it, then pointed out a flicker that landed nearby. Black bib and red dots under its eyes, a dash of yellow. She dearly hoped Reese would see one, too, wherever he was, whatever he was creating.