Becoming Bolder: Disclosures of a Somewhat Reluctant Adventurer

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Though I have days to prepare, I’m already madly packing in my mind, selecting clothes I want, making a mental list of toiletries, determining the comparative value of protein bars (added protein) versus chocolate-covered pretzels (dopamine upsurge =crunchy happiness), and considering what books and magazines I want to lug around. The last seems like a critical decision, but that may change tomorrow. Tomorrow it might be how to find a corner for the white loafers I love but rarely wear. Or the hoodie, just in case. And I can’t forget my omega-3 fish oil pills! And mints for my purse.

I feel like I am about to embark on a journey into another world. In point of fact, I am. Not the Amazon basin (I dream of this) or County Clare in Ireland (I wish). A five hour plane trip back East for nine days. That’s it. But it’s not a very familiar world. Though I have lived in other states, my home has been in Oregon for over two decades.

My oldest daughter, Naomi, has invited me join her exodus from her old place and job at a college to a new place for another college job. Virginia to upstate New York. When she first mentioned it I counted off reasons why it was impractical–costly, lengthy, inconvenient due to family needs as well as writing projects and other weekly commitments. I couldn’t comfortably lift and carry heavy stuff in order to help her so I’d only be moral support. Oh, and her youngest sister has a wedding coming up in the fall–there is much to save for, think about and assist regarding all. And I’m not so good, anymore, at handling three different time zones, questionable food sources, not to mention foreign beds.

Naomi ignored these. “I have a mover coming, mom. You don’t have to lift anything, just be around. It’s not a whole month away. And you’ve not yet been out here for a good visit with me. Plus, this can be a little vacation. You’ll be fine. And maybe Cait can take a day and drive over.”

She was probably right on all counts. And when I mulled it over I realized I haven’t even been alone with her for more than a short day since…well, perhaps the first year and a half of her life. Her brother was born, and then a sister and then two non-biological sisters joined our blended family (one of whom is Cait). Except for the beginning of Naomi’s life, there has forever been a group involved in all activities, overflowing the rooms and filling up time. She went to college at eighteen and a couple years later I divorced and moved with two children to Oregon. She visited us on holidays, for a week or so in summer. Some of the family attended her Masters’ art exhibition at Carnegie Mellon University and visited her a couple of times in Virginia and Michigan. But she has travelled to see the family here or elsewhere once or twice a year.

Since she began college, twenty-three years have somehow passed. I was aghast that I’ve not spent an entire week alone with her since her toddlerhood. It seemed too long overdue. I talked to my spouse, who travels a great deal. He said, “Sure, I have enough mileage to send you. Done. Go and enjoy!”

The last time I visited Naomi in VA. was with my husband two and a half years ago.
The last time I visited Naomi in VA. was with my husband two and a half years ago.

In the span of twenty-four hours I had a flight booked. Then I wondered what on earth I had done. I am still wondering, though committed and engaged in preparations. My full disclosure is that I am not an experienced traveller and, thus, a bit anxious. It isn’t that I haven’t desired to visit more places, but matters of money, time and convenience can alter one’s plans.

When I was growing up, I would have said I was and would forever remain a traveller. My parents took us on trips each summer, often by car. We visited nearly every state to sightsee–for our education, my father would remind us, as well as to visit family and friends. Since we had a decent-sized family, that meant five kids (the same number I raised but with the aid of a minivan) were squashed into our sedan’s back seat, or I would sit between my parents until they couldn’t bear my wriggling or bouncing. I don’t recall feeling claustrophobic–we were crowded at home, too, and we managed. But we took turns hanging out windows until the parents scolded us. There were plenty of stops so we could run off energy or soothe tempers. And we viewed countless historical markers and places, breathtaking scenery, stopped at museums for seafaring or military events or arts and crafts. Later on, we camped in a pop-up camper.

It was the ordinary sights and sounds, the colors and textures of countryside flashing by, impromptu stops at the odd drugstore or cafe for lime Cokes and grilled cheese, the exploration of forested state parks or walks along rocky coastal beaches that I recall. I learned things, yes–everything from impressive geological formations to what farmers planted in different parts of the country to tidbits about Mark Twain or Leonard Bernstein. But it was observing people live their lives that fascinated me. I wondered over all of them, even the ones we passed in cars. Who were these unique beings? What were their hopes? Did that fussy red-headed boy like learning new things, too? Did that round-eyed, elegant young woman want to be a doctor, flight attendant or a famous singer? How was life lived behind closed doors in a neat, quiet place with the pretty town square–or in the maze-like, beautiful metropolis of Boston or San Francisco? Sharing events with others was a bonus but the images and questions were my treasures to hoard for future analysis.

I certainly dreamed of travel. I devoured every issue of National Geographic and Life with hunger. I was possessed of a spirit that craved to roam, perhaps to collect anthropological data, certainly to absorb sights and smells and feelings, meet such people whose very gaze might shake my world up. Fall in love in Italy. Write moody poems in Argentina. Create elaborate stories from the seeds of real-life stuff. Meantime, I took buses halfway across the country as a teen, hitch-hiked when it was still fairly safe, travelled by train a few places and flew enough, my only thought being how excited I was to be on the move. And I planned on exploring countries beside Canada (whose wiles I am fond of and still return to enjoy).

But now I inadequately meet my definition of a real traveller. I am often hesitant to embrace the how and where of leaving home for a far destination. Off to the Pacific Ocean is a breezy couple of hours drive. To the Atlantic way over there is a challenge.

Maybe it started way back, right before 9/11. That spring my mother–my second parent to pass–died. After attending the funeral in Michigan with family, then addressing estate business, I returned home alone. On the plane I was so weary and bereft I could not create a way to relax, be calm. Just be still and carry on. My heart raced uncontrollably. I was abandoned, lost, floating in an emotional netherworld without beginning or end. Looking out the window did nothing to improve my state. I wanted off that plane but had to endure a lengthy flight. I felt so ill that by the time I arrived home I was barely able to walk unassisted. It was grief that rendered me powerless and fearful. My heart was breaking–and that was before I had a heart attack that summer. But the flight was endured. I put the anxiety behind me, I thought.

I still visited places, saw noteworthy things and met intriguing people but I don’t kid myself about being any seasoned traveller. I have several family members (my parents were two of them once) who have been all over the world more than a few times, including Naomi. My idea of happiness is staying in a cottage at the Pacific Ocean or hiking in the mountains, driving to Seattle or ferrying to Victoria, BC. Even an impromptu day trip brings me pleasure. I am hinting to my spouse about a train trip to Vancouver, B.C. next year.

So about this trip to see Naomi. I am brimming with anticipation of all the new things I will see and do. And I am nervous, as I usually fly with others. It is the unfamiliarity of things that both thrills and somewhat intimidates me. If I step back and assess, it is much like other trips–a different way of experiencing time and place, opportunities to learn. To enjoy being renewed in spirit and mind. Riding on a plane is a means to an end. Even better this time I will share each day with my oldest daughter, finally. Revel in her creative intelligence, wry wit, industriousness and boundless good heart. We may learn more about each other and our lives than we reckoned. But this is what I know: we have little enough time to share love. I want to see her eyes shine up close. I want to hear her stories first hand. I need to laugh over stupid stuff, share spontaneity with her. Drink iced tea in the sun as we catch up on crazy and heartening family stories. So I am jumping at this chance even though I’m telling you, it is not easy for me to step onto that plane alone.

Back to packing then. I’ll take my good camera, a pen, pencil and notebook. Laptop, yes? Two novels. That new lipstick? White cropped jeans or grey crops, green or purple top? I am pretty good at organizing so it’ll all get done. I’m giving myself over to this. Going with the wind; may it whip up more adventuring. Welcoming each day with Naomi (and Cait if she can join us) as our mother-daughter journeying continues to unfold.

Get ready, Na--I'm coming!
Get ready, Na–I’m coming!


(NOTE: Due to being busy with travelling, no posts will likely appear next week. But one never knows.)

Laundromat Encounters


I staggered to the swinging glass door with my mountain of laundry baskets. Only two, but it felt like more with the teetering contents. A bespeckled woman on the way out raised a cup of coffee in greeting. My protruding elbow grazed the door edge as it began to close. I’d have sworn except I was already halfway in and considered this a triumph. One less hassle in an already complicated day.

It was barely seven-thirty in the morning. Except for one old whiskery gentleman who sat with his chin propped on top of hands that folded around his cane, it looked empty. He was watching the dryer. That seemed to agree with him if his small smile was any indicator. I surveyed the washing machines, coral chairs and canary folding tables. There were hanging plants and other decorative touches, all to encourage relaxation and good will while cleaning dirty laundry. I had it on good authority–Dawn, our Resource Diva at my company–that this place had very few flies bombing customers, and it included a coffee bar with scones and donuts in a case. Mentioned as an afterthought was that it seemed a good place to meet men. The sly look on my co-worker’s usually composed face told me she thought I might need to know.

It had been years since I had done laundry at a laundromat, way back in college. People could get combative over available machines, the timing of wash and dry cycles. Lugging laundry down the block on Saturday mornings when hangovers disabled all speech and reason had constituted a rite of passage. It had its own culture at school. But after that, I didn’t expect to forego the luxury of home laundering.

Four days ago my machine threw a fit of shivering and clanking. The repairman was coming next Monday but an emergency was declared when I could only find a pair of faded red undies with shredded elastic. I yawned. Three tubs filled with water as I added detergent. They were big enough to hold heavy sweatshirts and tall man pants, a passel of smeary rubber duckies and a few pair of tennis shoes. None of which I had loaded. The men’s clothing had left with the man some weeks ago. I had my pair of blue sneakers on my feet. The duckies were lined up in the garage waiting for my dog, Spark, to play. He would be banned from free runs until we apologized to the neighbor for his dawn tear through her garden. He’d been pursuing birds.

The old man shifted, then stood up a quarter-inch at a time. I watched, shirts in hand, waiting for his painstaking ascent to be completed. When he made it, he turned to me and blinked–at least, I don’t think it was a wink, though you never know–then shuffled down the aisle to the coffee bar. I wondered if he was alone, and how he’d get his laundry carried out. My eyes prickled with a tear or two at the thought. Poor old, broken down guy. I envisioned him at home, alone with a tiny television and a frozen dinner, his living room wall taken up by an ancient aquarium filled with exotic fish that swam around and around in a dim haze.

Life seemed murky in general to me lately, and it was a momentary comfort to think I had some company. Self-serving sadness, I admitted, since empathy was something I had lost track of during the fiasco of my rotten, overdue break up with my ex. I got  busy. Separating and dumping in three week’s worth of crumpled items, they began to sink and drown in bubbling cold water.

It wasn’t just my machine that broke down, I guess. Oh, I go to work as biography section manager in one of the country’s largest independent bookstores. Tutor kids in language skills once a week at a summer program. I pay my bills on time and make sure Spark has enough food plus a good run every night. For all outward appearances I look like a well-groomed, good-intentioned, industrious thirty-eight year old woman who is on the road to better things. But I’ve been feeling like I’m on permanent detour.

The fact is, I should never have agreed he was a great painter when very shortly I began to loathe his oil portraits of fussy pets and occasional, vain people. His renderings of hothouse flowers were irksome; he took such liberties that they seemed less floral, more half-impressionistic clumps of colors. Orchids and lilies melting into a rhapsodic twilight background. And they sold at least half the time. I couldn’t bear it yet smiled and kissed him when he showed me his work, waved another check. I felt he was wasting time and space in my house, the small studio that should have been my study. Now even with the windows open the walls released waves of turpentine and linseed oil. I shook my head and took a long, uneasy breath.

Three little boys pranced ahead of their mother as, back to the door, she dragged in a garbage bag of laundry. They ran around the laundromat as if it was a playground, leaping like springs were on their feet, shooting imaginary guns at the dryers’ glass doors. One boy of perhaps five, brown hair sticking up in tufts, browner eyes glistening, stopped to aim his cocked index finger at my basket. A stray duckie had come along, likely when Spark was done mauling and squeaking it so dropped it in.

“Okay, shoot,” I said. “See if it keels over. But Spark, my dog, will be sad and mad.” I smiled to show I was kidding, sort of.

He backed away, then lowered his hand.

“Come over here, boys,” the mother gestured at them. She reached back to her ponytail and pulled its ends, making it neater. “Leave the lady alone. Or else no snacks!” She gave me a sideways once-over, then pulled her sweater tight against the air-conditioned chill.

I sat closer to the coffee bar and eyed the berry scones. Soon more people arrived. This was what I’d hoped to avoid, all these people with their private lives on display, mismatched socks and faded rock ‘n roll t-shirts, lacy purple bras and gym wear reeking of work outs. It should all be done at home. Did the stubborn 70% dark chocolate stain on my favorite white shirt need to be shared? What about the Prussian blue and cadmium yellow that refused to let go of my favorite pink hoodie? I suspected he had done that on purpose after I burned his birthday dinner. Halibut and asparagus extremely well cooked, partly out of spite, the other part because we’d been arguing about whether we even loved each other and I forgot I was cooking. He then packed a few things and moved in with his colleague and associate. That’s what he called her. I offered another viewpoint.

“Why don’t you ask that nice lady to move over a couple?”

A perky young woman whispered loudly to her compainion, an older lady with a shawl around her shoulders. Her body shape was reminsicent of a giant top. Her skin radiated ill health but her shawl was made of gorgeous colors and designs straight out of Mexico. I wondered if it was her favorite, like my hoodie. But she didn’t budge or look my way. The speaker studied the empty chairs between us, then the windows, then me. Apparently I was soaking up too much of the sunlight. I got up and wandered over to the coffee and treats area. The women moved over without a word, the shawl marking their territory.

The old man had found a spot at a table. His face was close to a magazine, one hand pressed on the page, the other gripping a mug.

“A sixteen ounce mocha on the rocks,” I said, then blushed when the barista giggled. “I mean, an iced mocha, hold the whip.”

I lingered over a bueberry scone.

“Granddad, there you are!”

Sans scone–it looked like yesterday’s–I leaned against a wall. A trim man loped across the floor, palm in the air, sunglasses riding the brim of his baseball cap. A few curls escaped from the sides.

Granddad glanced up and grinned, pushed out the chair beside him. “Tony,” he said, gesturing to the seat.

“Got your package mailed. Thought I’d lost you, couldn’t see back here. Pretty different, huh, from when we lived down the block. Cleaners are gone, too. So it goes, Granddad.”

They examined an open page, heads together.

“I like the other clock more, but I can see why you’d spend more on that.” Tony pointed at the page. “When is that garage sale you wanted to go to?”

“Estate sale,” the old man grumbled. He blew across the coffee surface.

“Iced mocha for, umm…one iced mocha!”

I came forward and grabbed my plastic glass and straw, then sat at a table near the two men. Tony looked up and smiled, a bright incisor flashing. He pushed the cap back from his forehead, looked at the magazine, then back at me. His eyes flickered. I thought he and Granddad shared the blinky habit.

I moved off a bit, thinking of the hours ahead. Saturdays felt wasted on Spark and me. After laundry today, the park, errands and back home. I usually watched old movies in between a few chores, and Spark rested his head on my thigh while I rubbed his ears. Not the same as playing catch or taking country rides in the back his ex-master’s truck. But Spark was mine, first, so we’d made do just fine.

“I love those old Grandfather clocks the best, son.” Granddad’s voice was loud and raspy. “You can spend twenty thousand on a Howard Miller chiming grandfather clock. But I’d take that Miller mantel chimer for five hundred.”

“That’s a ton of cash, too rich for me.”

“I can do ‘er, Tony, just need you to haul me around.”

“Well, my day is yours, Granddad.”

I stepped closer. “Excuse me? Tony?”

He jerked his head up, surprised I knew his name.

“Your grandfather said your name…Anyway, I have a Miller at home. It sits above my fireplace, gathering dust. Came from my great-great aunt.”

Tony repeated what I said a little louder to Granddad. He perked up, and his white eyebrows raised an apparently obligatory quarter-inch. “That so?”

“Yes. Key wound. Still chimes clearly.”

Tony tapped his keys on the table. “Are you selling?”

“I hadn’t thought of it. Maybe not. I just overheard you talking. Sorry for intruding. I do like my clock a lot, as it happens.”

“I’d like to see that,” Granddad said.

“I’m going to check my washers.” I was getting cold feet.

“Me, too–for my grandfather.”

We stood and walked toward the rows of machines, fast but not as if we wanted to get away from each other. I liked how he smelled. No paint, just the outdoors, peppermint gum.

“Tony Langley,” he said, offering his hand.

I extended mine and he gave it a let’s-be-friends shake. “Marissa Bly.”

“Man, clocks are his obsession! He was a watchmaker once. Now he loves to troll estate sales, antique shops and flea markets or pour over catalogs. I don’t mind. Gives him happiness, focus, you know?”

I nodded. I did know. I was missing some of that, myself. We arrived at my washers. On closer look, Tony was shorter than I thought. We saw nearly eye-to-eye. Blue, like mine.

“Seems like an interesting thing to collect. You into that, too?”

“Not really, but for him I’ll go along, check out other stuff. Old records, some glass. Hey, if you ever want to sell your mantel clock, I can give you our number.” He inclined his head toward his relative. “Yeah, he lives with me in my downtown apartment.”

“Nice, that’s different. I’ll meet you back at your table when I’ve put my stuff in the dryers.”

Were those my words? I felt like they must be in a bubble over my head, put there by someone else. But no, it felt pleasant talking to people I’d never met before. Laundromats and clocks, I mused as I dumped in a wet load and fed the machine change. Suds and coffee, a little good, harmless chat to pass the time. Maybe I’d even call Tony. That Dawn was an excellent know-it-all.

Walking back to Granddad and Tony, I considered how excited Spark would be if we took to the woods for a hike instead of watching Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.












The Scary One With That Power Tool Might Be an Angel


It’s like a little horror story that reveals a deep underlying niceness, I think drowsily. I slept little the night before and now I am looking up at a golden orb of light seen darkly through goggles, my body very still, lips stretched into the sort of grotesque shape a mime would create to depict a scream. I cannot make a sound. I’ve been this way a long time, or maybe a little; it’s difficult to discern actual minutes. Industrious hums and grinding noises intrude on my consciousness. I think of the chair I am pressed into–it’s a cool, smooth Granny Smith apple green. A shadow falls on my face and water droplets trickle across my neck and chest. My jaw may crack apart at some point but my tongue already fell asleep long ago in the dry gulch that is my mouth. I want desperately to swallow, so do.

“Doing alright, yes?” Dr. K. asks sweetly.

I nod, then she bears down upon the front tooth again.

There have been occasions when such an innocuous question was my cue to consider putting a halt to business and bolting from the tiny room. But, no, I’ve made a long drive from my home. I will stay the duration. I am willing to put myself into her hands despite the costs of being plied with treatments that often can bring pain. Dr. K., my dentist, was found again after I endured a few months with her old team. They gave me enough trouble.

Saved, I think, despite discomfort. It’s not as big a deal as it could be. In fact, it’s downright pleasant when I consider the alternatives. No one is thrilled to see the dentist but if we can any way afford to have even routine care, we go and endure, sometimes with the aid of drugs to prep us. I have experienced dentist appointments in many ways; my history is chock full of them. But fear of dentists was not natural to me as a child.

Dr. Smith was the first to take care of my teeth. That was back when they were still whiter, neat little gems that encouraged my wide smile to grow wider. His office was on the corner of our street, a small brick square overhung with maple trees. From the patient chair I could watch branches sway in the breeze, see birds hopping about, the weather change; the window was large.

He always greeted people with a glamorous grin (Was it really white back then, before whitening was a requirement? No, likely just charming). His black hair was shiny, wavy, precise. He shook my hand, asked me about my family, then school and activities, then how my teeth had been behaving, as if they were unruly things that he would set right. He didn’t have puppets about or cartoon characters on the walls. Dr. Smith was just friendly in a quiet way. Simply hearing his voice made me feel like I was a member of an appreciated group. Comfortable. He was a handsome man, and I imagined he was a potential movie star who decided to take on dentistry at the last minute.

I was glad to be there, no matter possibility of pain. That was a good thing, as I visited him often enough that his waiting room started to feel like another living room. Despite fluoride in our water in my hometown, good insurance, diligent parents, decent habits and healthy meals, my teeth were trouble. He never once indicated he thought so.

“I’ll take care of this,” he’d say. “I’ll fix you right up in a jiffy.”

He’d tell me, “If it hurts, raise your finger and point right at me. But it shouldn’t hurt; I’ve tried to take care of that for you. We’ll be done in no time.”

He had given me a shot? I had barely felt the prick of the needle because he was talking to me about his garden and kids. Afterwards, because I had managed to sit still and let him do good work, I got to pick a small toy from his reward box.

The years passed; I began to grow up some but still visited Dr. Smith often. Between the two of us, I was managing to keep complete ruin of my perilous teeth at bay. In fact they looked and felt pretty good so far.

A few years later when my mother told me Dr. Smith had drowned on a boating trip I burst into tears. Terrible way to die. Horrible that he would never be there again, that he wouldn’t smile at me and pat my shoulder, shape up my defiant teeth and send me home with a greeting for my folks. I couldn’t imagine how things would be managed and knew his family was heartbroken.


You can see why I was shocked when I got older and visited other dentists. They were too silent or brusque. Many seemed less than happy about their work (many are, I later learned, enough for the profession to have a high suicide rate). Their offices smelled stringent and were a little frightening with their chic colored walls and accoutrements. Who were they kidding? And I hated paying a fortune for the big or small miseries I suspected awaited me. Because my teeth had not stuck to a good course. They had surprises for me like decay, fractures, moving about and coming out. Sometimes they made me ill. I had not inherited good dental genes and worse, I had health issues that added challenges. And my insurance was sometimes not very good. Or it was gone.  Who can afford the cost of surgery, crowns and root canals when you have five children and their teeth are more critically important?

By the time I was in my late-thirties I was aware that my smile was not so lovely. I was a smoker and a coffee and tea drinker. Toss in some rum and whiskey instead of food at times. Chronic illness. I knew my history was apparent.

One time a quirky new employer, my manager, told me she remembered people by their teeth; she was studying mine as she spoke. I was so embarrassed that I talked very carefully with her and smiled infrequently. After that I learned to smile in public with mouth closed, lips curling up at the edges. If you knew me, you would have seen it as fake from the start. I am a laugh-out-loud person, a gabber, someone who likes to say hello with a big smile when taking walks or shopping. In fact, I love to laugh and smile so it was tough to not do so more readily.

But I didn’t have much success finding competent–never mind excellent–dentists. One let a dental tool slip down into my throat, and I had a death-defying moment of gagging until he managed to grasp and remove the item. Another gave me a local injection for a procedure that had epinephrine in it, which I cannot take due to bouts of tachycardia, that is, sudden onset of rapid heartbeat (120-140+ beats per minute). It was coded in red on my chart. Sure enough, in seconds my heart nearly thumped out of my chest. It took 45 minutes for it to settle down. I left shaken up and exhausted. The dentist was appalled by the error, yes, but I was done at that office.

There was the dentist who told terrible jokes, even off-color and sexist. I was captive in the patient chair, unable to even protest as he worked merrily away on my teeth. I complained to the office manager but he was still there the next time so that was that for me.

A life changer occurred when a practitioner didn’t take my emergency phone call seriously enough, instructing me to wait over a week-end. An abscess worsened, causing me to become systemically ill. In bed with severe dental pain and high fever, I finally recovered in two weeks after family intervention and a more potent antibiotic. Following this, I started to have strange heart palpitations with dizziness. I dismissed it as a left over from the infection. Years later I would be informed the infection may have caused my early onset coronary artery disease.

Dentistry! I often told dentists that they should save me the misery and pull them all out. Dentures would look great, too.

All this due to those less conscientious than Dr. Smith, I thought. So when I first met Dr. K. I tried to be hopeful once more. I had just left another dental office due to billing issues that lingered for over a year. There were no more expectations of a satisfactory visit but there was yet another crisis. Dr. K. entered the cubicle, small, quick-moving, soft of voice with an Indian accent so thick I tried hard to figure out what she was saying. She repeated herself. I attuned my ear shortly. Dr. K. explained everything before she did it, answered each question as if it mattered, not as if I was demanding too much. Then I received the best dental care I’ve had in decades. In a couple more visits, we chatted easily.

I apologized for my teeth–occasionally dentists look in my mouth and sigh–but she reassured me.

“No, not such a problem. Don’t say take them out. Good to keep them very long. Many are still quite strong. You are beautiful lady. So good you give counseling to people. I enjoy music and art, too. But really, you must smile more, okay?”

She left after six months to develop her fledgling practice. It was forty-five minutes from my neighborhood. I thought that too far to drive. That was before I experienced “dry socket” effect ( a first; may you never get this) following an extraction done by another dentist in the office. I got on the internet and found her office number.


So here I am in one of her green chairs; it is a favorite color of hers. The orange color used to upholster a few others is her son’s chosen color. I know this because she is telling me, that musical lilt to sentences that are clearer to me now, her voice confident, gentle.

“Do you like my new place? Had to do it, Cynthia. It is so close to my home and I have a family, you know. How are your grandchildren doing? Tell me when I am done.”

She works away, explaining what is necessary now and later. She is conservative in her approach, cares to do her very best for each patient, she explains. I know this. I have no fear here.

Afterwards, she tells me this:

“Cynthia, I was just thinking of you right before you called. I had made a small mistake one time, remember? It so upset me. I still wake up at night, think of those things. I wondered how you are doing. I miss my old patients. I now tell you this, how I did think of you. Then you just called my office and I happen to answer. How wonderful you find me again. I will do good work. I hope you come back though it is far.”

I can barely recall the incidenty she referred to but I wanted to hug her. I felt one within her as well. She’d spontaneously embraced me the last time I’d an appointment at the old office. It was right before Christmas; we wished each other happy holidays.

She had said, “You are a beautiful lady, a lovely person, God go with you.” My old teeth demanded I give her a big smile.

But now she had other patients waiting. It was clear she was doing well.

“It’s very good to see you again,” I said. “Thank you.”

Dr. K. stood with hands clasped in front of her as usual when her hands aren’t maneuvering drills and sharp things. She nodded, then attended to the next person.

You can see this isn’t so much a story about teeth or dentists as it is about human nature. How we do better with kindness. How I admit I worry about things like how teeth look even as the world has so much suffering going on. The little horror story part is that I have had a time of it with dentists but the nice surprise is it depends on the actual dentist. Dr. K. seemed so familiar to me that as I wrote this it struck me: she is very like Dr. Smith. Thorough and accomplished. Someone who cares first about people, second about an impressive career. I have been a very fortunate recipient of both their talents.

And I’m still working on this, but expect a full-on smile if our paths ever cross. This one is for the incomparable Dr. Smith, may you rest in peace. I will always be thankful for such careful assistance.

Ava’s Running Late



The years had breezed by but it wasn’t long enough. Ava came because Aunt Lou had called, her voice husky with cigarette smoke. She agreed they had seen one another in Chicago three years ago but she wanted her niece to visit “before I head out to the store and never return”. It was their private joke that Aunt Lou would likely drop dead when walking home with two bags of groceries, nothing dignified. Milk and prune juice spilled everywhere. She was down-to-earth, her only close aunt. Before the joke had made Ava laugh. This time the bronzed skin on her forearms prickled. Aunt Lou was aging faster than Ava.

“Your ten-year high school reunion will be going on. You have to come!”

Ava, in fact, had taken her name off the Middleton High School Alumni notification list six months ago. She didn’t care to be reminded she was from Garver with its clusters of uniform trees and rows of square houses. Her life there had begun to fade the day she left town. Once Ava’s mother, trying to keep her abreast of news, had sent her a news clipping of Ava’s oldest, best friend. He was the same man, yet so different in a Navy uniform. Ava had left it on the dining room table several days, trying hard to discern the person she had once known, then she had thrown it away. But the image remained, a mark on her memory that refused to be erased.

The day Ava arrived a  passing thunderstorm had spread a sheen on Garver. The worn-out town sparkled like a wallflower dressed up for a summer party. Its familiar simplicity gave rise to a rush of nostalgia as she drove down Mallard Street. It frightened her a bit. She saw ancient Mrs. Jesson at a window of Jesson’s Hardware. The woman stopped polishing the glass and eyed the yellow Miata that Ava drove. She crept along; this week-end the cops would be prowling. The pavement steamed in the heat. Ava put her window up and cranked the air conditioner. 

Aunt  Lou’s house was painted teal now instead of tan. It looked good enough to eat with flower baskets hanging from the porch and two rockers set out, the same ones they all had enjoyed before but brick red. Her throat felt as if it was closing up. She gulped chill air, then parked and got out.

“Ava, Ava Lillian Huntley!” Aunt Lou called as she rushed to her niece. They collided in an embrace. “I can’t believe you’ve come home, at long last!”

Their skin stuck to each other’s as they linked arms, the sweat releasing Lou’s natural sweetness, something Ava hadn’t noticed from anyone else. On the porch Uncle Travis waved from his wheelchair. She bent down to embrace him.

“Ava,” he said, “you’re ever punctual. Still, this day is overdue. But you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“Uncle, you were always gracious. You thankfully haven’t changed.”

“You must be exhausted! Wash up, Ava, and then come sit. I’ll fetch drinks and start dinner as we gab.”


The next day, the air held a promise of cooler temperatures. Even the birds were energized as they trilled and flitted here to there. Aunt Lou gave Ava a short list and sent her off.

“Don’t hurry! I’m sure you’ll want to look around. Call some friends, dear, get a coffee.”

It was one thing to have a family tree whose branches are sturdy and bear pretty good fruit, but another to wander among the others. She felt a need to sneak about. Ava had little desire to attend the reunion though it seemed a foregone conclusion.

She posted some bills for Aunt Lou at the post office when a woman with pimply cheeks and ash blond hair rushed up.

“Ava? That you? My gosh, you look even better than you did at eighteen! I’m Fran Cullin, now Ritter–oh, you remember? You’re coming tonight, of course, dinner and dance at Embers Lodge?”

With a wave, Ava shifted into first and headed to the grocery. Without being further waylaid, she made it to a parking spot, then sat looking about.

Someone let loose a flirtatious whistle. Ava clenched the steering wheel.

“Fancy car! A little small for my taste but cute.”

A voluminous man held out a broad paw and helped her out, then re-settled his baseball cap. “You remember me, right? Tom Duluth? I was a friend of–”

Ava kept moving as she glanced at him. “Yes, I do know you! ” She smiled as though pleased. “Nice to see you. I’m doing some errands…”

“Sorry your mother passed.”

He took off his cap and folded it in his hands. His courtesy stopped her.

“I read about it. We all knew she moved to Farwell after you left. Tough, the cancer.”

“Yes, thank you.” Ava felt perspiration pause halfway down her back and wished she had worn the linen top, not a dress. The sun was unforgiving despite the cool start of day. She wiped her brow. “That was five years ago, yes, she’s long gone.” She smiled wider, teeth bared just enough. “I’m so sorry, Tom, I have stuff to do for my aunt but perhaps later.”

“Lou and Travis, good people. Okay. See you tonight then. I hope.” His gaze burrowed into her chest, then he shifted his bulky frame and lumbered off.

On the way back she idled at a stop sign. Her eye was drawn to shadowy patterns on the park grass, a glint of river beyond. She loved water, lived on the lakeshore in Chicago. She wanted to sit at a picnic table and breathe small town air, really more rural than town. She hesitated, wondering about nearby Bathwell House, but felt it must have been torn down by now. After seeing new wooden benches she parked and sat close to Keep’s River. Listened to it tripping and twirling over rocks.


For some, the soundtrack of their youth was made of a certain band or hit song they’d saved up to purchase. For Ava it was the river. They had lived on a quarter acre by Keep’s River in a bungalow her mother inherited from her grandparents. It made their lives easier since Cass Huntley was a single mom. But it was the river that made the difference to Ava. She had spent much of her childhood and youth at its banks, exploring the woods, making friends of birds and rabbits, turtles and frogs.

It struck her as it often did what a peculiar twist of fate had made her a junior executive in the fragrance business. Knee-deep in muck and rocky waters she had been happy. Now she was financially secure and, if not happy, at least felt good about her future, pleased with her independence.

Ava scrutinized a muddy pathway, then got up and walked at its edges toward Bathwell House. Despite her anxiety, she’d wanted to see it ever since she’d arrived. Find out if it was even there or if they had built a concrete block apartment complex in its place or a new house. If so, what a relief. She’d take a peek, then go.

The muddy spots slowed her but she came upon it so fast she thought it couldn’t be the same place. It had been a long walk as a kid. It had stood on a quiet corner with pride even as it began to corrode from neglect. The town mayor’s home in the early twentieth century, it had been abandoned by the family when he was ousted and sent off to jail for bribery. No one wanted it then.


Now it looked as though someone had tried to destroy it but was just short of failing. As if years of hard weather had worked its terrible magic on it, only to miserably hang on, crumbling amid weeds. Ava walked around the corner to see the rest. Her chest tightened; breathing quickened. Maybe it wouldn’t be intact, just obscured by time and rot. She would leave Garver without any more thought of it.

A rock rolled down the side gravel road and she startled. There was no one afoot, only a car pulling out of the road. She could see two stories better here. The pitch of roof was irrevocably damaged as the roof itself threatened a descent. Moss clung to shingles. Windows were bleak holes. Doors had no doorways. Ava looked up at a second story window. There was something, a flash of movement as it fell into darkness. A bird, she decided.


And then she saw the barest path to the sign.

Steven and she had been there ten years earlier, after the graduation party. The empty house had long hosted keggers and make out sessions. There had been three other couples but one by one they left. Steven and Ava sat in a glassless window and scanned the sky. There was a slice of moon bright as a smile, and the Big Dipper spilled more star-studded darkness. They imagined Orion’s strength and decided a shooting star was really an S.O.S. They talked of nothing and anything. Steven and she had been friends since they were eight.

“I wondered if you’ll still call me.” He sounded odd. Uncertain.

Ava laughed and pushed her shoulder into his. “Of course. How else will I deal with all the grueling work and snooty clicks?”

Steven nudged her back. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m the one with dyslexia. Ill need to lay off weed. Want a hit?”

Ava shook her head. She wanted to etch the night onto her mind. One more week and they would be gone, in pursuit of something else. They’d write, talk, meet up on holidays–how could they not after all these years?

She laid her head on his shoulder. He smelled of tangy sweat and a hint of Zest soap (“Really, why Zest? No one buys Zest!” she’d told him but he’d shrugged) and green things. Dirt. Nothing mattered but that moment, the peace they shared, immersed in rudimentary astronomy. Ava felt as if she was passing into a timeless zone where she and Steven moved among stars. She knew she had to hold it close. Nothing would be the same when they left. It hurt her to know it.

And then Steven turned her face to his, grasped her shoulders and kissed her so hard her teeth started to ache.

Ava fell backwards and hit her shoulder first, then her chin as she rolled. His hand was pressing her back, then her hip as he leaned over her.

“Ava, are you okay? Man, I didn’t think a kiss would do that! But I felt it, too….”

She sat up. “What? No, of course I’m not okay! What do you think you’re doing? Since when do you try that on me? Aren’t we best friends?”

He bent down and helped her up, then enfolded her in his arms.

“Ava, please–it’s me here, Steven!”

He held her too tightly, her round breasts flattened against his damp, broad chest, her legs half-tangled in his. His lips grazed her neck, nose, forehead.

Ava planted her hands on his chest and pushed with all her might. He resisted, then loosened his grip. She tore away, stood several feet from him, hands clenched at her sides.

“What, Ava? Huh?” he asked. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you know?”

She shook her head over and over. He then saw her become very still then, a statue that could have been a ghost. It unnerved him. Her face disappeared in the dark but he knew it was crimson.

“Really? You, of all people! Haven’t I had to fight too many off? You, the person I trust more than anyone! That’s why we’re best friends, Steven. We know each other, care about each other.”

“Exactly! Ava, please.”

She emitted a low growl of anger and frustration. “Then why did you have to screw everything up? You’re scaring me, Steven…”


And before she completely lost it and yelled and cried, she ran down the sagging, creaking stairs, out the door, and into the road.

It was a bitter night with no sleep. And in the morning she did not answer his calls. Not the next day or week. She packed for college. But before she left she listened to his last message on her phone.

“Go to the spot where there’s that piece of wood that was a sign, nailed to the tree. Please do that much. Miss you. Forever.”

But there was no time. She never saw the sign. They hadn’t spoken since.

Now she parted weeds, walked around poison oak and laden blackberry bushes until she came to the place where she thought the sign must have been, might be now. And it was there. Ava’s hands crossed her chest, then she folded her arms about her and despite her intentions, despite time passing and success and losses huge and insignificant and things learned the hardest ways, her heart pulsed hard, then folded into a deep ache she didn’t know was still there.

“I’m sry” the sign read in his truncated sentence.

“I am stupidly, completely sorry, too,” she cried out, then ran back to the park, got in her car and drove fast down the streets, vision blurred, not caring in the least that a siren wailed behind her, the police car flashing its lights as if she was some fugitive, a woman running for her life. Ava hated being late, especially ten long years late. She was going to make this right.







Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth



It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh
Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

MISC. 8-11-12 032

(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)