What is it about prayer that draws or repels people? There are those who find it as unsubstantiated or irrelevant as the idea that there are other planets supporting life. People scoff at prayer, perhaps think anyone foolish enough to believe in it deserves the result– undoubtedly nothing, the naysayers state. For some it is a critical discipline their faith requires. For others, a spontaneous plea. Many fall back on it when everyday words will not address their need. And others use the very words “prayer” or “praying” as they talk as a sort of protection, to salvage or to inspire, as if it’s very invocation will work the miracles desired. I understand the urge. But prayer goes so much deeper that it can carry us away. Look to the mystics, the holy men and women, and how prayer can shape everything.
If you don’t believe in the path of prayer, then you have stopped reading. If you do or are uncertain perhaps you will let me offer a few more ruminations. It appears those who pray may or may not state belief in Divinity, may not attend a place of worship regularly or at all, and might even deny they are praying when they look as if they are. They explain that they talk to “something”, deep inside their own hearts, their higher minds perhaps, or find a ubiquitous energy experienced within nature’s confounding ways.
Prayer is a vehicle that creates and then carries a language particular to itself. I don’t mean it need always (or ever) retain a certain form or word count. Rather, it can find its own way. It is often imbued with profound feeling, searching questions or even demands. Offered up as a gift or request or a painful need, it is meant to refresh or make a stronger connection to that Other, God, and gain more understanding. Hope when it has been confounded by trials. Clarification of our lives, our paths.
A prayer may be words so often repeated that we have them memorized. It can transfix us, entreat us to go further. It may become wordless, a meditation that moves us into a realm where God seems greatly illumined within and without. A sacred unity. Have you reached for prayer and found yourself emptied of words? We listen better then; we find we know more of the answer than we imagined. We discover that Divine Love absolutely recognizes our thoughts and needs, so praying is becoming present, attuned. Aligning our souls with Spirit, a most natural phenomenon.
I am Christian but I am not writing about specific religious creeds. I came into the world certain of the abiding presence of God. Prayer for me is the language of true, whole living, a bridge that takes us from smallness of self to a greater sense of good. To the infinite source of wisdom and compassion. Without prayer I likely would not have managed to stay afloat during the often perilous voyage through the years. It is an–at least, my–ancient, sturdy boat, the underpinning that holds up my living. It refreshes, instructs and frees me. Heals the sore places and recalibrates parts that are out of sync. Redeems my petty ego with grace. It is a tool God gave us so we would not be alone, no matter what.
Prayer finds me wandering and takes me back home again. I call out and I am answered with unshakeable, encompassing Love. I don’t need every detail for direction. The responses may sometimes mystify me. But I know God knows us. If I welcome God I will understand my own heart, mind and soul more completely.
Prayer will find the words for me when I am seeking truth. All I have to do is open to its gift, the magnitude of connecting to the sacred. And today, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I am moved to pray for us all.
Prayer for Us All/Giving Thanks
Let us speak of vividness, the living who zigzag through days and nights stunned with self-importance, or who become brave or transformed, are found weakened or terrified, who confront evil with numinous light or fall under a burden of emptiness.
May we hold close to the certain Center, may we find this miracle river bright; may we answer as our names are called, Let One Love embrace without restraint.
Let us speak of the everywhere dying, (our flesh made for bounty yet fragile), of those who cling to the mad glory of life or fight to wake as long sleep closes in, who have no time left to share common joys yet flare and float within the singing dark.
May we hold close to the certain Center, may we keep this miracle river bright; may we answer as our names are called, Let One Love embrace without restraint.
Let us speak of myriad souls now gone, they who gave us form and voice, who knew the finite, intimate ways of humankind, or came to believe that life’s velocity held times of giving, forgiving, and left a labyrinth of trails to use, recreate.
May we hold close to the certain Center, may we share this miracle river bright; may we answer as our names are called, Let One Love embrace without restraint.
Who I am arose from the daily endeavors and accomplishments of farmers, musicians, an inventor, a faith healer, seamstress and milliner and more. Many teachers. When people ask me about my family and how I was raised, it is most expedient to respond, as always (cue yawn): “Via father’s side we are mainly musicians, past, present and so, likely, future.” These include composers and arrangers, conductors of symphonies and high school or college orchestras, singers (and players) of every imaginable sort of music (rock, rap and electronic have been mixed in with classical, jazz, folk). And some of us kept the passion for music at home rather than sharing it on stage.
I stepped off stage altogether by my twenties. I had sung and played cello, a little harp, violin and guitar. There was no avoiding it in my family. Even now, mind and soul are imbued with music’s powerful vagaries and wiles each day. Although for years I believed I, too, would become professional, I did not. Rather, I diverged from the norm to explore other artistic endeavors, which I began to pursue with secret fervor. And they appeared to be interconnected, anyway.
But the writing held fast despite attempts to put aside the call. I was hounded by words, stories, characters, a veritable conucopia of imaginative delights. And I feasted.
But who was my role model when all around me were musicians? Who wrote with fearless focus as did I even as a child? First was my mother, who wrote meticulous and scintillating accounts of travels and spun stories in the oral tradition, holding us in thrall. She kept notebooks and sent letters that offred a panorama of ideas and experience. But then my scholarly paternal grandfather comes to mind. He was a Missourian county superintendent of public schools. It seemed to fit him well. He loved books, learning and teaching. A couple of his volumes remain on my own shelves. I have a poem he published for Ida, his beloved.
He and my quiet, hard-working grandmother lived in an attractive one-story white house near the edge of town. It was replete with a fenced vegetable garden out back that I explored for hours, thinking it was country living. Grandfather G. always seemed dressed in a well-worn suit and tie. He was tall, six feet two. Wire-rimmed spectacles did not dilute an appraising, but not impolite, gaze. He was forward-looking in many regards, teaching his (musical, athletic) sons much at home and encouraging them to excel at school, and naturally to seek college educations. I found him calm. Gentlemanly. God-loving and God-fearing. Stern, even formal, from a distance. Close up, his large blue eyes, a family trait, were as inviting and warm as twin sky-blue summer ponds. He spoke in a well modulated voice with meaningful pauses, his beautiful words like sign posts for my mind. I knew we were going somewhere interesting as his words pulled me along.
But what I liked most about him was that he wrote. Essays. Poetry galore, even love poems for his wife. Editorials for the newspaper. Agendas for school meetings. Thoughts I could not discern as I watched him at his desk but imagined. I sat there myself when he wasn’t busy and hoped something of his prowess might rub off on me. All those cubby holes for important things. I breathed in the scent of old wood and paper, appreciated the exotic beauty of flowing indigo ink and a fine pen. I admired his penmanship, thready and graceful. He allowed my visits, giving me pencil and paper, checking up on me. I coveted his old Remington typewriter.
My grandfather, William H. Guenther, was on friendliest terms with written language. That was all that mattered to me. He passed when I was still growing up. But if he was still in this land of the living, I’d mail him my essays, stories and poetry, expecting a no-nonsense review of strengths and weaknesses. Underscored with a gentle smile. Love.
Tissane isn’t afraid of her mother yet she feels as if she still could be. Melinda has always had power, cutting a swath through life with the incisive edge of her words, her intelligence an army of rebuttals. The fury of her routine inquisitions could pierce three layers of winter clothing and locate the tender spot where the mighty heart shuddered. Her amber eyes were like lasers set to short circuit Tissane’s own ideas. She was formidable. Until the last couple years.
She’s getting carried away. It was perhaps not so traumatic as all that. Those sentences arise from memories of being thirteen until maybe seventeen, when the sound of her mother’s voice at six a.m or p.m. often landed like a smack. Dangerous days then, her great need of adventure bypassing curfew and other rules. Beyond her mother’s grasp and her father’s burden of sighs. Her father was so absent that they were all they had, and Jonny, of course, for awhile. Then only Pill, the scrappy little mutt Tissane got her mother after she graduated college. A gift for putting up with her until she managed to grow up and succeed. That name was reasonable. Her mother had ingested tranquilizers like they were jelly beans. Instead of taking another pill she had that fussy, bouncy dog to focus on. Melinda’s true nature was revealed day by day. It was some better. And some worse. Nothing was the same in every way, though. Not after Jonny, then dad.
They fought out of the need to not love each other too much, she has thought since then. There was so much that could be lost.
Now it’s just the two of them. Not even that. Most of the time Melinda is alone. Tissane lives three hours away by plane. But it’s Thanksgiving week and Melinda had heart valve surgery three weeks ago. Tissane couldn’t come then; she was in Bali. Melinda’s recovery seems to inch along. She called to ask her to come to spend the whole week, help her out.
“Yes, mom, I likely can. I’ll check.”
But should she? They hadn’t talked much in the last few years. Tissane had a high pressure job in aquisitions in a big hotel conglomerate. Two new ones opening up in the next three months. There were meetings wedged between others, plans to execute, sites to visit. Travel afforded her independence she had craved her whole life.
And distance. She thought she had more in common with her father, long gone and now a retired pilot, than she liked to admit.
“Four days. Mom, I can’t spare more unless you don’t have decent help. If it’s critical.”
“Of course I have help; I’m in a swanky place that guarantees it. But is it even par? Is it worth the money I pay out? Not likely. And how can it remotely be critical? It was only a heart valve, Tissane. They replace them like rubber tubing, in, out, a couple neat stitches and done!”
Tissane bit her lip to squelch a retort. At least she sounded more like herself. She made arrangements and got there fast.
Now she has been listing things she needs at the store. No lukewarm Thanksgiving dinner to be delivered to the door. Tissane will make something good.
“I don’t want you to go to a lot of bother, dear. I’m not the ravenous type, you know. We can have canned pears well-chilled, a dash of cinnamon, and one of those handy pre-roasted chickens.”
“Is that what you prefer? Or my Rock Cornish hens? You used to like those.”
“There’s so little meat on those delicate bones. Is that what you eat? No wonder you’re so thin, dear.” She sniffs several messy sniffs. “Hand me a tissue will you? And a mint. The chocolate mints in that ghastly pumpkin dish. Saralee–I know, what a name– gave it to me. She has good taste but it took a hiatus. She shops at flea markets with her son now once a month. Dreadful.”
Tissane watches as she chooses three mints, then dabs her nose. She is propped up with two pillows and frequently requires readjusting. Her hair, though, looks as if it has been freshly washed and set. It hasn’t been done since Tissane arrived yesterday morning. She sleeps on satin pillow cases.
She’s beautiful at seventy-four. Maybe more than before, with a relaxing of tension that used to make her look severe at times. Her silvery white hair waves around her sallow face, etched with lines around mouth and eyes. Her golden brown eyes are at odds with the swoop of her hair. Their liveliness draws people but her powers of observation too quickly deducts who they really are. Tissane would not be surprised if her mother is both loved and resented, perhaps even hated, now as in the past.
“I will buy the birds, red potatoes or rice pilaf, fresh green beans, salad fixings–add stuffing if you like.”
“Leave the stuffing. Pilaf preferred. I’ll benefit from Saralee’s stuffing artistry later.”
Her mother painfully raises her shoulders a quarter-inch. Tissane rearranges the pillows until she is more comfortable.
“Are you good, mom? I’ll head to the store unless you need something.”
“Another pain pill. Please.”
Tissane raises her eyebrows, hesitates with list in hand. It has barely been four hours. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, mom.”
“Now would be good! My dear, I don’t have patience or time to be polite. Let’s get on with it. This was not a fun surgery.”
“I think they broke every single chest bone getting in, getting out. I am not convinced even breathing is recommended. Much less talking. But. Being mute is no option. The thought of leaving this bed is less enticing than expected, I can tell you. Yet I don’t feel like reading much. What can I do but lie here? Perhaps chat with you.”
She seems exhusted–all those words. She smiles at Tissane. Her eyes warm enough that her daughter thinks of tiger eye stones and honey. Of caramel, yes. Perhaps that oddly bitter and sweet marmalade of her youth. It makes her feel like she’s ten and that triggers shakiness, to her alarm.
“I’ll take your word on the pain. Yes, we’ll definitely chat more.”
She studies Melinda; Melinda gazes back but with flagging interest. Then Tissane gets the bottle of narcotics, shakes out a pill, hands her mother the water glass. Watches her swallow, and then her eyes lower to half-mast.
As she leaves the bedroom, Tissane waves but her mother doesn’t see her. She is already moving toward a place where pain will recede like waves at the seashore.
The rain started yesterday and has not let up an instant. Tissane is on her way back with two bags. She has turned the wipers on full force. Treetops bend this way and that like muscular dancers. The temperature has dropped greatly and she wonders if her mother is warm enough under two blankets.
The light seems to have been red a long time as her mind wanders. It’s so much nicer in San Francisco. She cannot imagine why her mother chose to remain in Oregon. But, then, she has never liked to move about. Even leaving the couch or a chair by a table after she completed her chores seemed a bother. She read alot or wrote poetry (Tissane saw a few but doesn’t know much for sure) for hours. People came to her. None of that traditional greeting-the-family-at-the-door. Children and husband searched for her when they came home. And then she opened her arms.
They played croquet or badminton or bean nag toss with dad ten times to every one with her. She sat on a white wrought iron bench in the shade, bare feet tucked under her. Looked up from the magazine to emit a sound that might be mistaken for a faint bleat of acknowledgement if you listened hard enough. Then came the critiques of their form or foul play, as she did seem to know about games even as a spectator.
A driver behind her lays on the horn several times. The light is now green. On a quick take off her rental car slips, slides sideways and for a minute she thinks she’ll cross the lane and smash into the oncoming truck. She recovers at the last minute, heart in her throat. Sleet is now assaulting everything. It takes her fifteen extra minutes to get back to her mother’s, shoulders knotted with tension.
“Tissane? You back, dear?” Melinda’s voice is a taffeta curl of sound, words drawled out.
“Yes, just now. It’s mad weather out there!”
Tissane sloughs off her wet coat, rubs her hair with a teatowel. She puts away the vegetables and Cornish hens. She is skittish, anxious after the slippery road, and chilled. Her mother sounds drugged. Tissane needs a hot shower and a steaming latte. She needs to be on her own balcony watching the city lights wink on and off. With her cat, Domino.
“Do you want some tea, mom? I’m putting the kettle on.”
There is no answer. She enters the bedroom and watches Melinda’s chest rise and fall rhythmically but shallowly. She wonders what it feels like after something has broken into your chest and meddled with the organ that keeps the body humming. That feels everything first and last. It terrifies her, takes her breath so she sits on the end of the bed, gently so her mother can’t sense her there. She wants to lie down beside her.
She whispers to herself as much as to Melinda. “Remember when Jonny used to draw houses inside houses inside houses? Like those old Russian dolls… And she said it was for protection from the world but also like a maze? We thought she’d be an artist, a first in the family. She always had an idea that was better than mine. Even yours sometimes. She was so…curious.”
Tissane’s voice hurts even in a whisper. Something grabs her larnyx. Melinda rests, eyelids delicate as shells that cover her soul.
“Remember when she told us she saw fairies by the rock behind the oak tree? I thought of that the other day when I saw a pewter one, only pewter but still…she reclined on a shelf at a bookstore. I wondered if Jonny’s fairies were fair or olive-skinned, if they looked like dad or you or no one. I never asked. Did you? Maybe fairies have skin you can see through. I bet she knew.” She swallows the angry crush of tears. “Who would she be now? With us?”
It is true she cannot control herself and she is crying but she doesn’t want to think about it. Nor let it damage things. She is here to help her mother, not herself. Tissane wants to be a strong woman, the grown up daughter she truly is. To take care of everything she needs to take care of even a few days. But her mother looks very small in the aqua-blanketed bed. An exotic fish the size of two hands in a big ocean. She looks very pale beneath the olive tones, as if foreign forces are leaching the vibrance. Like thieves of pain and loss and illness and time have won out.
“But she got hit, that car…ice storm, ’86…” Tears snake down one cheek then the other only to join the green-blue bed, water lost within cottony water. “It was so icy cold, mom. I was scared, she was smarter, older, I couldn’t make her come back…”
She is afraid if she closes her eyes she will see Jonny tossed onto the side of the road. She will yell Jonny’s name. Make a mess of things when she came to aid healing, to be courageous this time. For them both. Tissane keeps them open, stands up, enters the spare kitchen to retrieve the tea kettle. Outside the window she sees the night is blue-black. Quieter. She gets out mugs, tea bags. Dips them a few times. Watches them float, then sink. Blows her nose and splashes kitchen faucet water on her face–she’s startled by its deep chill. She carries the tea drinks, then sits on a bedside chair.
“Tissane. Dear.” He mother’s eyes blink at her a few times so their fading sheen eyes goes off and on, off, on. “Is it snowing? I thought…the wind, how it sounds when it gets snowy. Not likely, I know. Anything can happen in Novemember, right?”
Her daughter places each mug on the lamp table, then turns up the lamp one notch so the room pulses with a faint shimmer.
“Well, it was nasty out when I went to the store. I skidded…it was, I was…”
Melinda turns her head to better see her, surmise the intention of her words, discern her mood. Tissane makes herself glance back. Those eyes the color of hard amber agates they hunted once, up and down Oregon beaches. Her skin, imbued with richer hue after her nap. Since the snag of pain has been unravelled by a pill.
Arched eyebrows rise a little in anticipation of what will next be said. “Yes, Tiss? Then what?”
Tissane reaches for a mug. “It was so windy! A bit slippery. And the snow swirled about so prettily and all I could do was sit and stare at it as I waited at the light. Enchanted. So lovely, how it drifts and dives through the air. It makes me think of little winged things, I don’t know, like the snowflakes have angel wings, or maybe it’s all fairy dust, know what I mean? There is something about the snow that visits here. It’s softer, finer, brighter than any I’ve seen. It won’t last, though. But yes, you do have your snow.”
Tissane hopes so much her mother cannot, will not, read her face or thoughts tonight.
Melinda lifts her mug and breathes in sweetness of orange and spice. “Ah, I can imagine it entirely. Don’t you so appreciate a mystical snow before Thanksgiving? I have to tell you. I do like you being here. In early winter. Fancy Cornish hens. And your kind stories. I-” she sits up a bit, winces, then the pain falls away a moment–“do! Love you! Now I have a story as well. If my will holds out.”
She huffs a bit as she tries to blow across the surface of tea, then sets it down. Her daughter is blinking away memories, eyes lowered. A sure sign of shielding the heart. A shadow of sadness seeks the room. Melinda will need to make it rise over them, transitory as breath. Release them.
“Don’t worry. I’ve only the best tonight, too. Help me get comfortable, Tiss. It may take some work to tell it…you might need to add a few words here and there…”
It was just Gustav Mahler and me in the elegant auditorium. He may have been born nearly one hundred years before me but no matter. He may as well have visited this century, jumped on that stage. I almost could see him there, his intense, intelligent profile. His judicious conducting, passion imbued with delicate control. The present conductor, though excellent, melted away. For over an hour I was ensnared, mesmerized and startled by each note he belabored in the year’s span between 1901 to 1902. And beyond. He couldn’t let go of what was driven by love. It must have kept him fretfully awake as he took risks, poured forth the music. But I heard only the luminescent completion of his sweat and toil. Thought: What sort of great good fortune enables me to hear today what Mahler began in earnest 113 long years ago? That live musicians can interpret those difficult black notes upon the pages tonight? And I can surrender myself to it.
I’m not a classical music critic or scholar so cannot go further and impress you with my insight into Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor”. I can tell you the three sections made of five movements are a panorama of sound and feeling, thought and experience. Seldom have I heard every instrument given so much to say, the voices of woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion stirring and essential. And far from sounding archaic or stilted –however you may consider classical music at times–this symphony presaged a contemporary view. It help initiate a visionary change. I find the composer deeply intriguing as well as gifted for this composition alone.
But to get back to sitting in the seat in that auditorium. It fell over me as if the barrier of flesh had fallen. That whirlwind of notes spun and drifted through me. Defined the air I breathed. I felt it in places where no words can form, where blood leaves and returns to heart and then transfuses soul. Does this sound too much? You weren’t there with me, my friendly reader. Language does not do it justice. The intricate connection between vehemence and tenderness, the interplay of sorrow and love all have a perfect place within the measures. I cannot imagine why he was never satisfied with his Fifth Symphony. For me it is numinous perfection which I hope to revisit many times.
This is the value of live music, one of many sorts I seek. This is why I buy symphony tickets each season despite the cost. It is why I look for every event that can be managed as the holiday season amps up. Sometimes the performances are spontaneous. Some are happenstance when I am not seeking them. In the summer I have availed myself of free concerts, usually outdoors, which is another sort of happiness. I have been known to stand awhile to hear a talented drummer on a street corner pulling music from a five gallon pail. But when the temperature drops, the rains fall and Columbia Gorge wind starts to whip about my sonorous chimes on the balcony, I prepare for musical events in wonderful locations. There are several auditoriums to visit; I prefer some acoustics better than others. But it is the live performance I need to experience. Hearing a quartet of bluegrass musicians at the farmer’s market or a Baroque orchestra are both satisfying.
Seeing and hearing musicians place instruments in hand, to lips and chin and chest, then breathe life into notations–well. It’s vital, isn’t it? It is an outreaching of life in a form that can seem utterly pure, devoid of consternation or falsehood. At least for me.
I read recently of professional and amateur musicians in Ireland who gather every year to promote and support a traditional Irish music school. They talked about the essential need of young students to learn instruments and the old music. They are passionate about this, help raise money for the school. It is a community endeavor, the learning, performing and celebrating. Beyond that, it is an active, happy lifestyle. There are often three generations of musicians coming together not only during the summer school but also at many times over the year. Families play together. Old folks share their songs with youngsters. The tales and jigs and sense of belonging keep the music going on and on.
I can well appreciate this. I have written before of growing up in a musical family, that my father played multiple instruments well. We were taught from a very young age how to play something. Our old baby grand piano took up one-third of our living room. There was always someone playing it or a stringed instrument, with later additions of woodwinds like bassoon, clarinet, flute, saxophone and more. I played cello, as my oldest sister did. But singing was my first love, whether creating my own songs or learning an art song for a competition.
When our family gathered around the piano we made good harmonies. Our squabbles dissipated. Problems were momentarily irrelevant. My mother paused to listen; her encouraging presence spurred us on. Our extended family held many musicians as well, and whenever we got together there was music first and last. In church I suppose people wondered about us (though most already knew us) in one of the left front rows. Or wished we would just pipe down. All seven of us–unless my father directed one of the choirs that day–would sing out, the hymns one more opportunity to use full voice, make harmony, share our united love of music. I remember thinking as a kid that music was God’s mouth from which Spirit spoke. Give sound to the notes; there was music as prayer.
The operative words are “love” and “united”. That’s how it began for me, this great companionship with music. Live, daily made music was part of awakening and going to sleep. School and after school. It was a challenge, a solace. It could be demanding or acquiescent, offered diversion and fun, inspired me when discouraged and soothed the wounds of growing up. It was a guardian angel. It was just life in our home. But also of my choosing.
This week-end in my old hometown in Michigan is a lovely celebration of sixty years of the yearly talent show called Rhapsody Rendezvous. I heard about it because a videographer contacted my sister. Then I read about it in the town’s paper. My father instituted this event back in 1955 when he needed to raise funds for his high school orchestra’s trip to a music conference. The first years it was called The Talent Assembly but I knew it as the fancier rendition. Students and teachers were called upon to audition with entertaining acts of all sorts. My father got out his saxophone, clarinet and trombone to play music that no one knew he could play. He was known as a “string man” who played violin and viola. But he got on stage with a handful of other music teachers, playing rousing songs of earlier eras or Broadway tunes. They had a blast. All of my siblings and I performed in the talent shows. I still have a couple of black and white pictures of me singing, one with musical friends. The song “People” was my crowd pleaser.
The shows never failed to elicit a hearty response from audiences which were comprised of students, their families and other citizens. There were many talented youngsters brave enough to stand in a spotlight. Seeing the teachers do funny, interesting things was a boon to students who discovered the staff had skills and personalities encompassing more than teaching math or history. From stage hands to lighting techs, scenery designers to performers, the Rhapsody Rendezvous has always been a shared experience. It moved from the high school to the Midland Center for Performing Arts in the early seventies. By then I was living elsewhere. I would have liked to experience it from a prime seat in the first-class auditorium. My father would be so pleased to know it still mobilizes performing impulses, both for the students and for the old hometown’s benefit. For the sake of music.
Give me, then, more Gustav Mahler (and so many others) or sacred music, bring on the jazz or soul or folk. May I nourish myself always with the feast of music. And make it live, please. Whatever the concert program is, I want to claim a good seat in order to hear well music that lifts into rafters of a building or the cathedral of sky. From outer to inner ear: move me. Fill me. Let me feel it all. Reaffirm I am fully human but with a longing for the Divine that music powers from within. For it goes on for all eternity, I expect.
(This movement is the most famous but to really appreciate the symphony, I hope you will seek it out in its entirety.)
I knew him before all the furor started, when no one thought much of him and never guessed who he’d become. I’m talking about other people. There were things on my mind, like my cousin Arnie in jail and my mom tiptoeing around like she was a mouse. Dad had taken off my junior year and then we lost our bungalow. And then there was Ginny Marston’s smile which looked like it belonged to a movie star, which was good and not good.
But since we lived above the three car garage on Mrs. Tilby’s property, I knew Michael. Mrs. Tilby, his mother and a widow, tended to not talk to us except to ask if we’d please pick up the mail for her at the gate or would we mind getting cough drops when we were going to the store. Little things that she didn’t feel like dealing with or didn’t bother to ask Michael to do. It irked my mom. But she was alright. She rented to us when few others would have.
So I thought of Michael as belonging to the property and maybe his mother. Some called him a mama’s boy, an only child still at home. Kept to himself. He worked three days a week in the family’s law business, fraud investigation. At twenty-nine, he seemed old to me.
I got to know him by accident. I was roaming the field behind their yard, trying to flush out rabbits. Crouching low, inching along. Then I saw pant legs which would have shaken me except I had just trained my eye on one plump, four-legged creature.
“John, right?” he said.
“Shhh!” Then thought to look up.
I saw it was our landlord. A backpack was dropped at his feet. He had the sort of boots I admired, sturdy leather, lace-up ankle boots.
I stood up. “Joel,” I answered, half-offering a hand which he ignored. “I’m just scouting rabbits.” I pointed to a clump of bushes where I had last seen them, now surely gone. “Is that all good with you?”
He shrugged, then stuck out his broad, dry hand.”I’m Michael. I’m sure mother wouldn’t miss a few. Not fond of rabbit stew.”
“I don’t hunt and kill them!” The idea gave me a shiver. “Deer, okay, but not rabbit. I just like being outdoors, watching things.”
“I see. You ever get a deer?”
“Not yet. I only hunt with Arnie, my cousin, and he’s…gone awhile. You?”
“Once. With my dad. Years ago.”
We just stood there, me in my jeans and dirty tennis shoes and stained hoodie. Michael shorter than I thought, bulky in a kind of bush jacket. Those great boots. He looked like he was going on a picnic or birdwatching. I saw he had a camera in hand. Maybe I had interrupted his fancy, urban wildlife picture-taking. But it was his place.
“Should I leave?”
“It’s okay. You live with your mom in the apartment. How’s that working out?”
My turn to shrug but it was more like a shoulder stretch as I stifled a sudden yawn. I wanted to get back to the rabbits, then get home. “Not bad for a two bedroom. Bigger living room than we had before. But weird living above cars. And a Cadillac…truck.” I turned my head at a sound. “Look.”
Two greyish-tan rabbits scattered, hightailing it to better cover.
Michael hoisted his backpack. “Well, we used to rent it to tourists who came for the fishing and all. It’s better having just a family there. But we’re all tourists however we live as I see it.”
He shot me a wry grin. I thought about that a second. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or being deep.
“Yeah, maybe so…”
He gazed toward the horizon. “Well, the light isn’t as good as it was, so I’m headed back. Enjoy the property, don’t make a mess anywhere.”
I watched Michael lumber along, zigzagging through grasses and weeds. He paused and looked up, pointed his camera toward a branch. Maybe it was a certain bird he was after. He snapped a photo and left.
We got used to each other. I’d see him pass in the distance when I roamed the woods. Sometimes we waved at each other as he was coming in from work or elsewhere. I sat on the balcony off the living room if it didn’t rain, watched the road and a pretty birch wood. Finished homework. His silver BMW gleamed in the fading sunlight, then disappeared into its bunker beneath us. I could hear him walk up the winding stone pathway to their gigantic back porch. A faint thud as the back door closed. I liked that he went in back.
Mom often noted Micheal was going to be one rich bachelor when Mrs. Tilby passed. I half-wondered if she wished she’d had a daughter so she could somehow marry her off to him.
“I just think he’d be a nice husband–quiet and smart–and anyone can see they would be secure.”
“Not like us, you mean. Kinda poor. Well, he’s a little young for you, mom.” I was anxious to get over to see Ginny. “And you havent; signed the divorce papers.”
“Joel, you know better…! Anyway. Just wondering what he’s about. I see him with his mother or running errands, strolling the streets. He’s always snapping pictures of this and that.”
“He’s not that happy.”
I don’t know why I said it. But I knew it was true. I’d seen it on his face alot.
“And you know this because…? Special observations from your balcony perch? Some people say–”
“Mom, I’m going to Ginny’s. Call Caroline if you want to gossip.”
I wasn’t interested. But I thought he was probably really bored. How could anyone so obviously enjoy the outdoors and stand being stuck in an office? I was going to be a forest ranger, I hoped.
Their gigantic, sprawling house was at the edge of town. Michael’s grandfather had bought a lot of land to protect and enjoy. I got mad when Ginny said she was sorry we had to live over a garage. I loved the quietness. I felt lucky to have all that land I could walk. I felt even less sure of Ginny when I heard her telling a friend how we had to live above expensive cars and I had not once driven one of them. Yet, she added. There was a breathless edge to her voice that reminded me of Arnie’s. He’d gotten locked up because he liked other people’s cars way too much.
Michael and I sometimes crossed paths on the Tilby acreage. I had gotten to taking a book or my cheap binoculars. I liked to spy on the animals, look into undergrowth or close up to a nurse log. I saw Michael doing the same with high-powered ones–he let me look once–and he always had that camera in hand, too. We might talk or not and usually only a few words. He seemed to crave solitude like I did. I noticed he always wore those boots and jacket with lots of pockets, a uniform, I imagined, for his real life. I pondered his statement about being tourists on earth. It struck me as smart.
One Saturday we both ended up at Skinny Creek that wound through trees. I kept hoping it would run wider and deeper, flush with fish, but no luck.
“You like your job? I don’t think I could do that all day.”
He chuckled. It altered his wide, jowlly face, made it friendlier.”I like having work to do but not so much that kind.” He pointed at a yellow winged bird high above as it flapped away. “You like school?”
“No. But I can get through it. I have to be a forest ranger, definitely.”
“Ah. My grandfather lobbied for preservation of forests all over the state. My dad, less so. He liked three-piece suits a great deal and fine booze, and the rest.”
“Money.” I leaned over the creek bank with a finger and watched a turtle creep down a thick wet branch.
“Yes, indeed.” He squatted. I looked at him. His eyes were deep-set. They flicked to mine, held steady. “Money matters. But not so much as people think. Take me. I have some. But I love photography more than anything. And nature. But I’m expected to stay in the family business. She’s alone now. There are many expectations. So I take photographs as much as I can. And wait.”
“I have those, …expectations, I mean. But wait for what?”
I picked up the turtle and set it down on my knee. I figured he might mean until his mother died or until he got the nerve to leave. It felt a little too personal but at the same time, we were just tossing out thoughts. It seemed natural out there.
Michael sighed. As if he didn’t want to have to explain anything but would if he had to, because I had nicely asked.
I shifted and got steadier in the muck. “It’s okay. I have to wait to leave this fishbowl town and go find mountains. But could be worse.” I replaced the turtle on the stick and got up.
“You’re right, Joel. I meant wait until something bigger happens.”
Michel took some shots of the creek and turtle, leaves falling and another bird. We walked together a little, then he split off. On the way back I thought how if I had gotten an older brother, someone like Michael would have been okay.
Days, then a couple of weeks went by. I got more busy with school, football, spent time with Ginny less, then sometimes Val, a new girl in town who liked to hike.
Then it happened.
I was wasting time until meeting friends and wandered further than usual. There was an abandoned Ford truck in the middle of a field. I could see the cab. It was maybe nineteen seventy-something. It had been blue; now the paint was chipped and faded. The body was more rust and blemish than good clean metal. Tires were long gone. Windows windows rolled down or gone. Weeds grew high like a protective fence around it. A little lopsided, the bed of the truck had branches in it, leaves, dead wildflowers. I wondered how many others had been there. Some crushed beer cans lay on the torn plastic bench seat. They were from way before my time.
I climbed into the bed and jumped on it a few times, then piled up the branches in a corner. Grabbed an oil-stained rag, the lid of a can and a torn up t-shirt stiff as a board. Set them in the corner, too. I climbed atop the dented cab and threw out my arms to the sky. I felt good lately. My mom was perking up, getting her sense of humor back. My cousin was out of jail. Maybe we’d go hunting with his dad. And Val was getting interesting.
“Yes!” I shouted, my fists pumping into the open sky.
I jumped down again. Did a little dance on the metal bed, making a racket. Ordinarily I was very quiet out there but what the heck. I saw a few tiny flakes of snow. I felt a surge of adrenalin and danced a little more. Animals would figure it out or hide. After that I sat on the hood and dangled my feet. Greyness seeped into the sunlit sky and the blanket of clouds thickened. I’d smelled snow coming all day.
It fell. On my cheeks, on my eyelids, jacket. I climbed up to the cab and held out my hands, smelled deeply of the icy-silvery-wild-apple air. Soft white flakes fell faster, sailed and whipped around, a snow dance. I closed my eyes and listened to the wind until cold tunnelled its way into my jacket.
I slid off and down as dusk fell, ran out of the field. Through the clumps of trees. I glimpsed Michael heading to his house in the distance but kept on, then burst into the warm apartment. My mom was pleased I fell onto the steaming chili with a mean appetite.
Two days later she tossed the slim newspaper in front of me. My phone was ringing but I didn’t answer.
She pointed at the picture on the front page with a look of confusion and surprise. It said: “Joel’s Place”.
It was me, kicking up my heels in the back of a beat-up truck. I’m jumping about a foot off the bed, knees up and feet splayed, arms stretched up, head thrown back. Face half-covered by the hoodie I wore under my jacket. But you can tell it’s me. It’s my smile, my mug, alright. The November woods, the light snow and field looked beautiful. I had been there, after all. So, apparently, had Michael.
“Did you know he took this? Michael Tilby! It’s good, Joel, you look really good. His mother showed me and seemed baffled. Not upset, she thinks her son is talented. But still–”
“Wow. My gosh! I’ll explain later–have to call Val back.”
“Famous already, huh?”
That’s what Val said, and we laughed. We didn’t know what was coming.
Some kids thought it was weird. Arnie found it amazing I personally knew Michael. I thought it funny so much fuss was made of it. Still, the picture was special. It looked old-fashioned, black and white and sorta raw. The way he caught the angle of light, the different shadows. Almost like you could walk right into it, too. It was surprising Michael had gone unnoticed. But I knew he’d had lots of practice getting his best shots. He was likely there first. And waited.
I had felt happy, confident; there it was for everyone to see. Mom said I was going places. She said it was the best thing to happen in our family in a long time. It made me feel proud.
Michael, it turned out, had taken quite a few pictures of me screwing around on that broken down truck. So I gave him permission to publish more in a couple of magazines. Then he sold several. Eventually he got a fancy photography award for the series. And then another one for a shot of me standing on the cab, eyes shut in the snow, winter’s magic moodiness right there.
So he moved on. Success gave him the freedom he wanted. His mother is okay; we watch out for her. “I’m still just a tourist, Joel, you, too,” he says when he calls. He’s thanked me too much, offered to help me with college, which is scary–means I have to work harder. And I felt good when they were published, sure. But it was more than that. Michael welcomed me onto his grandfather’s land. Then he made it official with a picture, a title, my little nutty moment. His kindness, man–that’s what no one seems to get. That was more than enough for one year in my life.