Weather Report: Dry and Sunny (Alcohol Not Included)

IMG_0813Well, it’s here again, New Year’s Eve, so my plan is to get this written and do other things, just like you. I’m not dressing up, though the pricey heels I splurged on for a daughter’s wedding have beckoned from my closet. I don’t intend on dropping a lot of cash for a rousing city celebration. I’m not even throwing my own party here, though at times I have, with a sumptuous repast (well, mostly potlucks) and everyone gabbing and meandering. Admittedly, I can become wistful and daydream about dancing during this holiday but rarely have since sliding past forty. (I do intend on taking more flamenco dance classes and Zumba–but first I have to finish off 2014.)

No, I’m soon to wrap up in a velvety sage green blanket and hunker down in my favorite chair with a couple of magazines or a book. Get drowsy just as the neighborhood’s fireworks go off. But the reason why I’m in for the night is not to just relax, nor to avoid the cold snap we’re having.

Earlier this day my husband and I were taking a good look around a newly renovated neighborhood. Portland has very distinctive areas that have a surfeit of atmosphere. I hadn’t much thought about the meaning of the day as we strolled the blocks in brilliant sunshine. The sky was so blue it vibrated. I was taking photos every few feet as I do no matter where we are, noting the changes architecturally and shop-wise. Scores of people were partaking of the simple pleasures a rain-free day affords in the Pacific Northwest. We finally stopped at my favorite tea purveyor for a take-out cup of cinnamon spice rooibos and crossed the street.

And that is when the quaint scene presented itself, an old brick building that had been spared, then perked up with new paint and decorative signs. It had a front door that drew me, then stopped me as I snapped another few photos. Then I read the sign: “5:00, Join Us for Snacks and Champagne.” (See first photo.)

I paused, imagining what it would be like to enter that atractive, arty restaurant, pull up chair to table and dig into a bowl of snacks as I sipped champagne with spouse and friends. And do it as if this was a natural event, a gathering of convivial folks who imbibed alcohol and savored tasty food with it. Without a second thought.

That will never happen for me. Not again.

I can’t recall the last time I drank during New year’s Eve. I doubt it mattered. Oh, I drank, just not on special occasions. Then I likely was alcohol-free so no one knew the power alcohol had over me. I was twenty-seven, late to start use of the mood enhancement and pre-sleep relaxant. It was wine then, cheap and red and taking up only half an ordinary glass. It was lovely. Innocent. Until it wasn’t. By the time I was in serious trouble three years later I could drink a half pint in a short time, with or without a mixer. I was a small woman, about one hundred pounds, so it hit fast. But it continued to ensnare me for a decade, off and on.

Drinking was never a time to party for me. It was a socially acceptable assist to the procurement of a comfortable state of being.  It blunted the grief of random heartache. A glass or two of wine brought me a slumber rich in forgetfulness. Later, liquor loosened tightness in my chest, took the poisonous sting out of  real and imagined failures, helped me avoid dangerous spots in relationships. It made things that were awful more acceptable and depressing, funny. Or so I believed. It seemed ridiculous to consider that it might one day commandeer my life. I had hardly enough years to try out more than a few kinds of drinks. But it happened. Fast. Why? I may never know for certain; my family tree is not an alcoholic one. I was proof that it doesn’t require a clear genetic connection, many decades of heavy abuse, or great quantities to cause big trouble. For many, alcohol becomes a forbidden fruit.

From friends forcibly taking and delivering me to substance abuse treatment to being rushed to an emergency room, I experienced a surprising and compelling powerlessness. And it all started with one drink, that first moment when I looked at an unopened bottle and realized this attractive package held a chemical that might loosen knots in my shoulders and mind. It did, enough that I’d tried it again and again. It seemed easier to drift through rough times as long as there was a glass of magic elixer at hand. But that lasted so briefly I don’t recall if it was a good time.

What alcohol did was erode any remnant of real peace, threaten my health, damage my relationships and replace a natural inclination to celebrate life with an unpredictable attitude. My state of mind became fueled by resentment, bitterness, fear and profound regret, the sort that seeps into the heart and soul and cannot be excised. Did I really see that? No. I was a very competent wife and a well-organized mother of five. My spouse was making excellent headway in his career. When I started back to work I did well, and rose quickly. But the last drink I took was twenty-five years ago because it all sneaked up on me, won every battle I waged against it, twisted and ruined far too much. I had to surrender to the absolute reality that alcohol and I were not close to being friends (despite my imagining we were) and never would be. We were never meant for each other from the start. It was ultimately a near-fatal attraction.

I have never looked back with longing. Why return to darkness when living in the light is so tender, so forgiving? So illuminating with its beauty and power? But sometimes I see a beguiling ad or laughing couples sharing a glass of wine at a cafe. I ponder what might have been if I was not who, in fact, I am. Then go on my way. As it is, I am one of those people who has escaped death more than once, has had physical damage that took years to repair, has endured traumas and experienced internal healing. And I have been blessed with a faith in God–and His love for me–that overrides doubts and carries me into the mysteries of life, then instigates joy.  I’ve had the opportunity to serve others in need, for all suffering–in our lives and in others’–is an opportunity given so we can develop and offer compassion. And what a liberation that is.

It is New Year’s Eve, yes,  and I choose to write of alcohol because I know people out there will die tonight. They will drink too much and drive drunk with catastrophic results. They will drink too much and, shockingly, poison themselves. Someone will drink on top of other drugs and overdose, lose judgement or self-control and say and do terrible things they cannot ever take back. I know this in another way most vividly, as I am a retired substance abuse and mental health counselor. It causes me grief even now to think of those lives lost to the most desired and potent drug in all history: alcohol. There were so many over twenty-five years.

For the person, male or female, young or old, who should have multiple opportunities to flourish, to just awaken to sunlight streaming across their blankets, who should reach for arms to embrace: I want you all to greet 2015 and count yourself blessed. This is my passionate hope. If alcohol is making your choices for you, maybe this year you will put that goblet or bottle down and seek change. Walk away, turn the corner, risk another path. The life you will get to lead will be more miraculous than you ever imagined. I’ll be rooting for you every step of the way.

The pretty restaurant  entrance that inspired this post. I  hope everyone drank safely and got home tonight.
The pretty restaurant entrance that inspired this post. I hope everyone drank safely and got home tonight.

 

Hair@2, Tailor@3:30, Reading@7

Moon-Flower2

As Eva stared at the cracked ceiling, her throat tightened but it was not her soft navy plaid scarf pulled too tight. She was feeling things. She’d so regretted that her very grown up children had never seen her act, specifically not in any role other than that of “mother.” And, of course, that was not an act but a daily devotion, a way of living, a tale made of scenes whose very genesis was unknown to any of them. They had not witnessed her life on any stage other than the most pedestrian, the household on Tremont Street. It had often worried her, that the three of them wouldn’t realize how she loved being an actress long before they came along. But now instead of regret, a chill along her spine telegraphed terror to her crowded consciousness.

Eva lay with neck against the cold curve of a shampoo sink at her favorite salon. The stylist’s gentle massage of hair follicles loosened a few memories, emotions she had kept at bay for weeks. It wasn’t meant to be so important. It had started out as a whim, this foray into drama, a silly bet between friends. She had seen the ad for auditions at the community theatre, then her best friend had challenged her and Eva had tried out. And gotten a small part. But no one knew about it except Nils and he thought it was just for fun, too. Until she ended up liking it far more than any of them had planned. Well, Eva knew better. She knew that once she got out there, the passion reignited as she felt the heat of the lights and heard that applause, it would be too late to turn back.

She remembered how the two boys, Dean and Todd, and their sister, Cam, had made up plays, dragging out her scarves, a box of old clothes kept readied for donations to charity, odds and ends they pulled from drawers and closets to design a set. It might be a remake of a fairy tell one week, a story of their own making, often confusing and lengthy, or a puppet show. Eva always jumped right in, trying to improve on their designs or themes, employing her sewing skills at times, showing them how to tweak a walk or speech until finally, when Cam was ten, they forbade her to take part. When Eva, astonished by their lack of gratitude, asked why, the answer was simple: “It’s our’s, mom. You get to watch, though.”

And they were right. It wasn’t her story or mini-production, nor her privilege. So she never told them she used to act, how she had left southwestern Michigan for Chicago and took acting lessons and began to get good parts. How she had been planning on succeeding as she knew well she had a strong will, even at twenty. And then she’d met their father’s eyes across a gleaming lobby, then across a dinner table at a restaurant, then… Well, in due course, Nils and she made changes they could not have foretold at that initial eye-to-eye rhapsodic moment.

Her head was swaddled in a fluffy white towel and she was led to a swivel chair. The wind rattled the building’s ancient windows and she imagined it might snow, luxurious, dangerous drifts of it covering roadways so no one could get to the theatre. It would be a reprieve if nature intervened. This was not feeling wonderful, not at all. What had she been thinking?

Vi, her hairdresser, smiled at her in the mirror. Eva tried to avoid seeing herself; she looked like a cousin to a wet chicken. It was her eyes, looking too small, unblinking as mild shock registered and her public persona vanished. The washing always erased part of her protection and left her vulnerable to random pricks and pinches of life, she thought, and so she looked down. She felt too much, that’s what it was, and she couldn’t hide it without help. A lifelong problem.

“So, the usual?”

Eva nodded, tried on a smile.

“Even with the big to-do tonight? I thought you’d want elegant or daring. You still have pretty, long hair. How about an updo? It’s soon to be New Year’s Eve!”

Eva froze. “Grey hair, long or not, is still grey hair… don’t change anything, Vi. There’ll be enough for the family to contend with as I step on stage. They may slink out as soon as the lights go down as it is.”

Vi put hands on hips and cocked her own pink-haired head. “No way! They’ll at least be happy for you. I’m happy for you, girl. Not a bad move at all, you trying out for that play and now this–what is it? Some reading, you said?”

“Reader’s theatre. We read from scripts on stage, but not with scenery and all the frills. It’s…well, spare, which can make a story more intense.”

Vi snipped locks here and there, then turned the chair. “I never saw anything like that. Might be interesting. Like radio? You see it in your head? No, that’s not right, you’re on stage…well, the important thing is it’s you, their mother, up there.”

“It is rather like radio, how smart to think of it. But what is something is that my husband will be coming. He didn’t get to the play.”

“Really? Why not?”

“He was away on business.”

“Ah.” Snipsnipsnip. “He’s always on business, isn’t he? I mean, so you say, often.”

Eva was spun back around to face the mirror. She could barely see herself through long bangs she had grown out.

“Yes, nothing new.”

“Well, this will be a change, then.”

Eva thought, yes, that’s the problem, we are not about surprises, but gave a half-smile from beneath the fall of hair and fell silent.

After her hair was dried and Vi had convinced her to try the updo and Eva saw it suited her well, she left and headed to the tailor’s. The new dress she had splurged on didn’t fit quite right on the curve of the left hip, the curve that she found more generous than she had expected. She pushed open the door and a pleasant bell announced her arrival. Mr. Avanti rushed forward.

“Mrs. Wainright, hello. Your beautiful raspberry dress is ready. Let me get it so you can try it on.”

In the dressing room she shivered and held the fabric up close–her dress was burgundy, so why the dreadful comparison to a child’s crayon? But once she stepped into the flourescent light, she saw what he meant. It looked like a somewhat deeper raspberry sorbet that she sometimes indulged in. It wasn’t quite what she had wanted but it was unique.

As she stepped up and before the mirror, Mr. Avanti shook his small, neat head, a grin changing his face from merely lined and pallid with weariness to nearly incandescent.

“You see, it fits well now, just skims the body, and how right for you, this color!”

Eva looked at the three-view mirror, saw her left side (the seam corrected so it fell against her full thigh without any error), then her right (quite the same as the other), then full-on. Was she like an ice cream cone turned upside down, perhaps?

“The color, a little young? A little garish?” she asked.

“Lively, good drama, if you are asking, Mrs. Wainright.”

“I wonder…Nils likes me in classic clothing, you know, neutral shades. Mostly navy, grey, ivory, black. Or tweedy, even, if you recall his taste…” She made a little face, then laughed to herself.

“Yes, ma’am.” His own expression was replaced by a pensive look.

“But it’s for an event, did I tell you?”

“Yes, New Year’s Eve tonight. In an hour I go home to prepare for mine.”

“How lovely. You and Mrs. Avanti going out dancing?”

He blushed, enough so that Eva felt foolish being so personal.

“Yes, true, we are going to the ballroom, we love to dance all night.”

Eva studied him, then the dress and murmured, “Wonderful, you are probably very good at it.” She ran her fingers over the draping neckline, thought it a bit low. The jersey fabric was silky, graceful.

He nodded, then rechecked seams, hem, the fit of shoulders. “All perfect, and the color…may I say, he will like it.”

Eva turned to him. “It’s for a performance I am in. A sort of theatrical thing, you see. He hasn’t seen me in something quite like this, at least not for decades! And my children will even be there.” Eva felt the sudden pulsing pressure of tears against the rims of her eyes so turned back to the mirrors, then composed herself, stood taller, head up, lips pressed together until they were pale and thin.

“That is remarkable, performing! Very good, Mrs. Wainright, no worries, you are a vision!” He cleared his throat. “I mean, a good dress, very well-made for you.”

“Yes, perhaps.” She breathed in and out slowly, commanded the tears to recede. Her reflection nodded gratefully back at his reflection. “You did such a fine job. I must hurry now.”

“Indeed, big night. A new year!”

Eva changed back into black jeans and boots and sweater and sat on the little bench. Her heart was fluttering. Was she having stage fright before she even got there? No way was that going to get her. She exited fitting room, and paid for the alteration.

“Happy New year, Mr. Avanti!”

“Happy New Year, have a splendor night!”

Eva sat back in her car and chuckled at his kind error of speech. Splendid, not splendor, yet maybe that’s what he meant. It would be above and beyond her hopes to have any splendor happen, to feel like it was a risk worth taking, that her family would truly appreciate it. Even find her good enough to be proud.

But this performance was first and last not even for Nils, not for Todd and Dean and Cam. It was for herself. It was her desire to act, her dream reclaimed. She hoped it was a real thing, something she could pursue even now, in a small way. She had started off in the community theatre, down this acting path, a few months ago. Had said nothing to most people, not even her children. Until last week.

Of course, Nils had been informed early on, as he would notice her absences–when he was around. At first surprised and annoyed that she’d be gone much more often, he finally said it was a relief that she’d located an outlet for her “restless energy, for all those latent creative tendencies now that you are in retirement.” Which meant he’d missed the point, didn’t understand her so well as she thought, and had seemed to forget what real acting had meant to her long ago. But at least he hadn’t complained. He uncharacteristically held her close more than a moment and even kissed her before ambling off in search of his new pipe.

It was an early performance, as it was dinner theatre. There would be drinks and appetizers at the forty-odd scattered round tables as the actors gathered on the smallish but atmospherically-lit stage. They were reading an assemblage of poems about winter, the tendency towards rest, the hibernation that precedes transformation. Changes that cannot always be named until they are upon us. The new year rising up in the deep, wide wake of the old, the future unfolding even in the passage of this moment.

Eva had loved this idea from the start, even suggested a few poems and prose excerpts. Since she was on the board of All Girls to Women, the charity to which they were giving all donations, they had encouraged her to participate in the development of the program. At least she suspected that was it at first. But in time she heard some good words, even encouragement to pursue more acting possibilities. She had grown under her new friends’ tutelage and support. But that didn’t mean she felt perfectly prepared. Freed of queasiness that dogged her right up to the last minutes.

The boys were coming from the north end of town, Cam from the east and would meet Nils there. Eva left long before Nils, after he had admired her in the raspberry dress and new heels, an unusual purchase. She’d felt relieved, a little more confident. She could do this thing ahead of her, then maybe more. But she was happier leaving the house than she was upon entering the restaurant. It seemed insane that she could allow herself to be made a fool.

Any second thoughts were dispersed as she waved at her cheerful cohorts. They circled up and headed to the dressing room to do some relaxation exercises. Everything was set; she was as ready as she would be.

They soon gathered together back stage and waited for their cue. The crowd beyond coughed, chattered, sipped and ate while they tried to steady their heads and hands. Recessed lights dimmed above the tables and spots of blue and silver bloomed on the small stage. The MC introduced the group and the crowd welcomed them as the four of them walked on, then sat on stools set before podiums. After relative silence settled about them, the first reader, a man, stood and let his baritone voice tell of the strange richness of winter nights, the brittle brightness of its mornings, the way we wrap ourselves up in comforts and people and wait out the waiting, the lengthy and trying drear of the season.

Eva was ready for her turn in the sequence of poems and prose. She saw nothing, no one beyond the stage. She leaned forward into the faceless space, spoke deliberately, then let emotion mold each phrase as she surrendered to the poetry: a prophecy of new beginnings amid tenacious remnants of the past, every syllable a promise of more enchantments, the soul of each stanza a fragrant balm. She closed her eyes and it was as if her powerful voice rose from a place too long forgotten, from a life that was bigger and far better than she was. And she again fell in love with this, the longing to act, even as it fell for her.

And so it went, forty-five minutes of readings, the audience responding, clapping and whistling, then again silent and breathless, then erupting once more.

Backstage, Eva found herself not wanting to emerge from the tiny room where they had prepared. The others rushed off after congratulating each other, gone to loved ones and other special affairs. But then a sharp rap landed on the door and she opened it.

“Mother, that was lovely, really good!” Cam hugged her quickly and tightly.

“Great stuff, I had no idea!” Todd, more reticent, patted her on the back, then put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed a second.

“Mom, why have you hidden such talents from us all these years?” Dean lifted her nearly off her feet with his bear hug, then stood back a few paces. “Is that why you were so attentive to our make-believe?”

Eva felt herself unwind under their fondness and laughed and talked with them readily. It was good, such appreciation, their coming to witness her efforts and finding them acceptable. She knew they wouldn’t have hurt her for the world, good work or not.

And then she caught sight of Nils at the door.

He stood motionless, not watching their family, not speaking, but simply staring at her as if she was a rarity, a ruby throated hummingbird right next to him, a night-blooming moon flower, an exotic jewel. Eva stopped talking, let their three lively adult children chatter on. She crossed the room and stood before him, just a foot between them, warm breath mixing with his. He took her forearms in his hands and slowly pulled her to him.

“Hello, Eva,” he whispered in her ear. “Dear, darling Eva, so glad to have you back.”

“Yes,” she whispered back, “hello, Nils, here I am.”

It seemed they stood together with eyes closed an eternity in that embrace, and it must have been, for when they looked around they saw the room held no children, and the dim hallway was empty. Eva put her arm around Nils’ waist and he, hers, and they walked out, closing the door firmly behind them.

Moon-Flower-in-Full-Bloom

The Mime and the Houseboat

Photo by Rennie Ellis
Photo by Rennie Ellis

The story was that she came up from the south by way of the river on Octavio’s ramshackle houseboat in 1995. He’d been on one of his trips, fishing and trading and so on. I was gone then, working in Leeds, but two years later I came back and eventually met her. She was barely forty, I guessed (to his fifty). She was winsome and lively; Octavio would have it no other way. But she didn’t keep him in her sights. He soon went missing, she said, but seemed less worried than irritated and not much of that. The neighborhood knew he was on another jaunt, maybe gambling or fishing, this time took off on motorcycle, an old Indian Arrow he kept at Artie’s garage.

The women felt sorry for the Lady from France–her real name wasn’t known. She had remnants of a musical French accent and didn’t deny it. Soon it was just Lady, as she had a sterling if lightly tarnished manner. Anyway, they offered her plenty of unsolicited advice and she’d look sad for a day. Other times, their words were met with a delicate shrug. But the men, well, we thought she must have known what she was getting into or had other reasons for floating around with him. Octavio had his good points but sticking around wasn’t one of them. He’d never lived with anyone as far as we knew. Not that we thought it was okay to leave this woman alone, being new to the docks. So we all kept a look-out for her. Or him, however you saw it.

Whenever he was gone, which was as frequently as ever, Lady kept up appearances. She fixed up his well-weathered houseboat. She planted pansies and daisies in rough hewn flower boxes that she hammered together herself. Painted the window trim yellow and the door blue with leftovers from two paint cans. She was often seen sweeping and airing things out, and I’m sure they needed it as Octavio was not a tidy man at heart except if he chose to clean himself up. Then he excelled; the rest of us couldn’t help wonder how he did it, that transformation from river rat to debonair man.

When Octavio came back, he rode right past the houseboat at first, then circled back, sat on his rattling motorcycle. Just stared as Lady peeked out of a window. Finally, he gave it rave reviews, threw a small party on board so we could all appreciate her work. You could see he thought Lady was something good, even special. In fact, who could miss it? Everyone watched out for her, though she didn’t seem fragile. Or lacking in street smarts. She just had a peculiar decorum that invited protection, even from many of the women.

She wasn’t a talker but her face spoke volumes. I thought she could have been a silent film actress if we could go back in time. Turned out she was a legitimate dancer, then a street mime once upon a time. She didn’t make much of it, just agreed it was an interesting way to make a living and she did well for many years. Off and on.

She laughed when someone asked her to mime something, then just stepped up on the houseboat’s porch hand rail on bare feet. Just leaned against a post with her shoulder and made like a ship’s figurehead, one leg raised high, arms reaching upward. She sure looked like one of those formidable wooden sculptures that seem as if they could quell or do battle with any storm. And she was petite and lithe, not tall or husky. We gasped at what a bold figure she made. I almost grabbed her to keep her from toppling into the river. But she didn’t fall. She was rock steady, didn’t bat an eyelash or wriggle a toe. She hopped down as we clapped.

Lady was easy to be around, seeing to people’s needs, comfortable with men or women, her clear sea-blue eyes focused on the speaker with the encouraging gaze of someone who learned long ago the way to someone’s heart was simply to listen well. I wondered if she understood everything we said; she’d sometimes frown and ask for a definition of a word. I asked her once how long she had been in our country.

“I was born here, in North London, then my mother took me to France in search of her fortune. Many years gone, now back awhile.”

“Did she find it, her fortune?”

“No. She married a mad Frenchman with a small venue. A theatre. She worked for him tirelessly as a designer and seamstress, making costumes. I had talent, too, danced early on. Then at intermissions. Later, starred in many things. And finally, a street mime.”

She was doodling on a scrap as she spoke, as if to avoid looking at me or maybe to focus better. She crumpled it, tossed it aside. I wanted her to keep talking. We were on her covered deck eating oranges as a light rain fell around us. Octavio was at the pub, a newly favored haunt when in town; she never enjoyed it for long, I’d heard, so let him be.

A breeze ruffled her long half-grey hair. When she turned to me, her eyes were like hard glass stones. I started to speak when a smile flashed across her pale face. She shrugged. That seemed her punctuation at the end of everything, just like that old saying, ces’t la vie.

“Octavio is a decent man at heart, Lady. You’re good for him.”

“Eh, he’s good to me. It’s okay, a man who is nice looking and usually kind enough. But it’s this houseboat–I have fallen in love with it.”

And she swept open her hands to include all of it, the structure, the river with its changing traffic and signs of life, the street where many of us lived and worked. I felt her happiness. I thought, she’s no different than anyone, afterall, needs a feeling of security. But it wasn’t likely to last forever, not with Octavio.

Lady jumped up. “I have work, Hugh. Bring bread and cheese sometime. We’ll have lunch.”

We became friends of a sort. She remained guarded. Maybe she liked my face, too, or maybe it was just timing. You know how sometimes things just fall in place–synchronicity, they call it. Was I smitten? Only a quarter true if so, and I’d have denied it if anyone said it. I had been long-married, was in my second year of a lackluster, sometimes miserable, freedom. I was drawn in by her differentness, had an irresitible urge to get to the truth of who she was. I was also bored with my life. I was particular about keeping things in perspective. I was a machinist and knew all about being careful. Exacting, if needed.

On a sunny day, that rare event, she’d say, “The sky is a perfect backdrop to lunch with burgundy wine. See it change from blue to bluer? It’s the lighting, Hugh.”

Or if Octavio was around she’d call out to him: “Octavio, mon amour, come, put your arms around my waist, dance us right out of this bleak world, into the heart of dawn.”

Octavio shook his head, then held her close, breathed into her voluminous hair. He looked good when he was with her and acted better. Very few of us understood why he would ever leave her.

The women sometimes repeated her poetic phrases, mimiced how she spoke, half joking. A couple decided to take dance lessons, as her grace was such that anyone would want to copy it. They invited her out, as she had no children to keep her busy, no tirades offered against Octavio. She spoke a little of her exotic life on stage and street corners but always with reservation. They all said there was a sadness behind her facade of ease. They didn’t believe she loved Octavio but she sincerely cared enough; he gentled a smidgen. We gradually enfolded Lady into the community, pleased with her presence.

The years continued, repetitions of sorrows and joys, wearing on our face and softening our bellies, our fortunes ebbing and flowing. The river rose and churned and stilled, full of its own drama; we watched it as one of our own, with affection and worry. Respect.

I had less time to visit Lady and Octavio over the next five and then long ten years. My health declined with diabetes. She stopped by to see if I needed anything but left after a brief chat. I was kept abreast of things by the street, heard how he was gone farther and more and she had turned inward, less sociable again. Every few months they might float off and return a week later but mostly he took off on his often-repaired Indian Arrow. Some said Octavio had just expected she would tire of him and leave. Hoped so, then he’d be footloose again. But she burrowed, stayed and stayed. Made herself an integral part of his life, our lives. A part of the houseboat, even. Perhaps too much a fixture, they’d heard him grumble at the pub.

The day came that we’d worried over, a couple years after Octavio started to drink too much and created havoc here and there. Much longer a wait than we had expected but he did find her alluring, afterall.

It was late afternoon and I was napping. My cat, Henry, startled and then I was fully awakened by a hard rap at my door. Annoyed, I got up scratching my beard and shuffled over to open it. It was Lady.

She didn’t speak, just placed her hands at her throat and squeezed, thrusting her tongue out, her face turning pink in the dusky light. I reached up to wrench her hands away. She smelled odd, acrid. Smoky. In the distance I could hear a siren.

“Lady, stop! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

“Octavio! House! Come!”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me, then pointed toward street’s end where the houseboat was anchored. We raced down. Saw fire engine and ambulance pull to a stop. And then she screamed. It was not a sound I’d want to hear again from her. I was certain what it meant. What lay ahead. He was dead. The houseboat was spewing flames like fireworks gone bad.

But Octavio did not die. He had had a heart attack in his boozy panic over his combustible floating house. He got better, collected insurance money due to irreparable damage caused by faulty wiring, and had the remains hauled away. Then left Lady on his Arrow.

She did not recover. Her houseboat was gone, her man had disappeared for good. Her hair went fully white soon after, five years before she turned sixty. She took to the street even though some offered her a bed or couch, usually sleeping on benches, under bushes, wandering the streets. And practicing her rusty art of mime (I never saw her, couldn’t bear it) for a little cash each day, getting hand-outs at restaurant back doors. When we came face-to-face by the river park three months later, she kept staring at my left eye. It’s eyelid was sagging, another sure sign of old age. She looked terrible, her face streaked with grime, her clothing raggedy, filthy. That hair, ruined. She’d taken up smoking, inexplicably. It all made her look forlorn, wrung out.

“You’re getting old,” she stated.

“Yes,” I said. “Inevitable.” I cleared my throat and looked her up and down pointedly. “You’re…well, getting dirty and smelly.”

“Yes,” she said. “Also inevitable.”

“Come home and take a bath.”

She put her hand in mine and we walked slowly to my little place, people staring at us as if we were two demented souls bound for the twilight zone. I smiled down at her, glad to have her close again, and she shrugged. I got her fresh togs from the next door neighbor, who came to help Lady in the bathroom. It took a long time.

Later, Lady and I sat by the fireplace and she warmed her sore feet and legs. Henry jumped into her lap, checked with me by way of a glance, meowed, then made a spot on her lap. She stroked him, murmured something. Her hair broke against the narrow cliff of her shoulders. Tired like all of her. How would she recover? I felt hurt by life’s fickleness, her lostness.

But then she spoke.

“I’ve been often abandoned. But now, bereft. I am not so wonderful! But never have I been so mad and also in utter tatters with you. I vow I will stay clean. Maybe wander at times but not too far… Henry needs my care, see? Ah, Hugh, mon ami, how long trouble can seem, how short our patience with it. But so it is.”

She closed her eyes and reached for my hand.

“Got to cut this gauche hair.”

I said nothing, content. She cleared her throat.

“Hugh?”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s Selene. But really Trudy. Morris. Birth, ugly name.”

“Hmm.”

Lady is often about the streets. I’m not sure what all she does. I do know she takes food to other cats she sees scrounging about. She hasn’t found my place quite as amenable as her doomed houseboat but she returns. People talk, say she’s lost her mind but maybe she’s found it in some essential way. She tries to be pleasant but they’re afraid of her, I suspect.

I am afraid of very little, that’s my strength, and now my broken, beautiful friend is here to keep us–Henry and me–company. Sometimes she’ll mime something for us, odd as that seems but it is a rare and beautiful form of communication, making words seem like noisy foolishness. She is in by dark. She takes her bath before climbing into the pull-out bed, but will sometimes keep me company if I have insomnia. Henry alternates between her feet or head and mine. We have our tea in the morning as we remark on the color of the sky and life of the river. Lady and Hugh, we’re the story now but we’re just getting older, getting by.

 

Let Heart and Soul Resound

IMG_0486

As I recover from a mild virus, I look forward to having more pep for holiday events. But I also think about things that traditionally have no place in the usual lexicon of this season. I think about birth, divine and metaphorical, physical birth into this world as well as spiritual rejuvenation. But lest you think I am writing only of jolly times, I will state right now that this includes references to suffering, even death. This season has to make room for both; this is our world, our lives.

The reality other than the shined up one is that not everyone is having a merry time preparing for feasting and gift sharing. Not that we can avoid this.  The news recounts more massacres. There is a stream of headlines alerting us to missing children, assaulted students, murdered families, racism and violence, kidnapped officials, tortured journalists, ransomed professionals. It is nearly impossible to avoid the horrors visiting human beings every minute of each day unless we separate ourselves from the digital and print barrage of global news. And while we want to be responsible citizens–be aware and engaged, active rather than apathetic –we also may, at times, step back from the unceasing losses. But we should not forget.

There are less headline-grabbing crises people will endure as the next weeks gain momentum. People who battle physical and emotional challenges might not be gazing at a twinkling tree, decorating cookies or kneading traditional breads. Nor wrapping special gifts for ones they love. There are those for whom all this celebrating grates and leaves raw. Too many will lose another battle with addictions; holiday revelries can offer a smorgasboard of temptations. There are those who feel that all they want is to avoid reminders of how much pleasure others share when they awaken and go to sleep with a ponderous gloom so heavy it cannot be carried further. Those who are in no position to even call home.

I want to remember these, sometimes neighbors who I may never truly know. A stranger on the street with collar turned up, hat pulled down, rushing past. A homeless man who drinks and sleeps across the street at the church. Those about undone by their family’s troubles. Someone who is losing the battle with terminal illness, soon to be moving beyond the excruciating limitations of flesh. And all those loved by the beloved who are stunned with grief, or will be.

Christmas is supposed to be a time to sing praises and capture good times. We come together to recall, I hope, just why we gather in faith and anticipation of better times as one year blends into the next. We make it more or less than just another December 25th by what value we place on our interactions with others rather than the value of material goods. Love, we assert, is what makes it all worth it, whether human or Divine. And so it is.

So tonight I fall on my knees in remembrance of those who may not know such love. Or who will be leaving it behind as death ends their travails. Who cry out without a reassuring answer returned. Men and women who face a wall too massive to scale alone. Children who weep at the sound of the wind, who cannot find their way to a single comfort. May we find in our hearts room for the ones who need miracles, those for whom time is unravelling, this life relinquished.

Decades ago when times were tough another Christmas loomed. I had no anticipation other than of more strife. Work was scarce, my children had needs not adequately met, and my life felt like it was dwindling, able to fit into the palm of my empty hand. There were moments I imagined I could just disappear into thin air, so little did I feel I counted in the scheme of things. I dreamed of simple relief. Struggled to make sense of the perilous turn of events.

One day, as my children and I whiled the time away, there was a knock at the door. Cautious, I peered out at two strangers who had in their arms two bags and a Christmas tree. As I opened the door, they introduced themselves from the church I had attended a couple of times. They had, they said, gifts for Christmas.

The children came forward, curious. I stood awkwardly, embarrassed, wanting more than anything to reassure them and refuse. But anyone could see the apartment was dark and bare. The children were thrilled by the thought of treats. And real, good food. They didn’t bother to inquire after us or to chat about things that mattered little. They didn’t act holy. Or condescending. They set down their packages and small fake tree and ornaments, then wished us goodwill. Then left before I could utter more than a quiet thank you.

Overwhelmed, I tried to blink back tears of shame mixed with gratitude as we put away the food. Then we set up the little tree and placed small presents around its base. The shiny bulbs gleamed in the light that crept through half-closed curtains. It hurt that I had failed. The gift-bearers’ kindness and cheer were stronger and lingered. I held onto a modicum of my dignity plus a spark of hope.

Yes, I’m glad Christmas is coming once more. The old yet still amazing news is about the Light illuminating Darkness. And what is claiming my thoughts is that if I can practice mercy every day, I should get better at it. That I cannot and will not forget those who can be too easily forgotten. Living a human life is an uneven thing, a fragile endeavor made stronger by sharing its sorrows as well as its beauty and mysteries. May we unearth our wealth of caring, then give it away. And I pray: May God’s Peace, even the barest tender breath of peace, abide wherever most needed this day and night. And each that follows.

 

Girl Seeking Happiness

Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900
Destiny, by J.W. Waterhouse, 1900

“Be grateful for all you have, Francesca!” Her mother called out but she didn’t acknowledge her, just bounded up two steps at a time. “Then maybe you’ll be in a better mood!”

She was always tossing off platitudes like that–“Easy Does It”, “Count Your Blessings”, “One Day at a Time.” Well, easy for her to say all of them. She didn’t have to go to middle school, anymore. She didn’t have to sit behind Carys Morgan and inhale the nauseating scent of lime and coconuts for the entire duration of Social Studies. Or study the structure of a cell until she felt her brain would fall out. Her mother had gotten through all that because she was smart and gorgeous even then. Dad confirmed that many times. Frannie thought their own teen-age years must seem like a distant dream, pleasant but nothing to waste another thought on.

What did adults think about except money, work and their children’s achievements or lack thereof? Frannie didn’t want to know. It was enough that they offered opinions, the wisdom of the ages and random advice without being asked.

Well, her father thought about business, which was consulting on antique musical instruments. Her mother thought about paintings and such. She worked at an auction house so it was all technically work and money. Who bid what, how a price was driven up, what appreciated and depreciated. And what a magnificent still life came in the door today via someone’s great-aunt, now deceased.

Why did she have to use her full name when making a point? Frannie slammed her bedroom door, then opened it.

“Sorry, it closed hard!” she shouted but tried to sound apologetic. Then shut it firmly again.

Frannie sat on her bed, head against the wall, books to one side. She could see her reflection and the print of a painting above her in the dresser mirror. Smiled in her best cover girl pose. No use. She’d never be one, in fact didn’t even care about being one, she was just supposed to care, so why pretend it mattered that she had a crooked front tooth? Short hair like a terrier’s just after it had been shampooed. An odd streak below her left ear that was a birthmark despite her mother telling her it was “a variation in your light olive pigmentation, just a little smudge.” It was her way of saying, “You are unique, which is better.”

Better than what? When did uniqueness cross over into weirdness? Since the world put such a high value on appearance–her mother’s work taught her that much–Frannie might be doomed.

She used to think her name might save her: Francesca. It sounded like it belonged to someone important, someone who knew what to determine and utter at any given time, someone exotic and approachable who was capable–with  only a look–of keeping Anthony Giles in one place, preferably her front door. But it got changed to Frannie years ago, back in first grade when no one could say it quite right. Names mattered. Carys–how unusual was that?– made sure people said hers right so they did. She was the most popular girl in eighth grade. Despite being rather slow on the uptake, she ruled with a smile and fierce dance moves. Frannie’s best friend, Dana, had once known her well and now Carys never even talked to her.

Chiming sounds interrupted her litany of aggravating things. The ratty little mobile Frannie had made as a kid turned in a breeze that slipped through a partly opened window. Made of multi-colored paper stars, some now bent and torn, and tiny golden metal bells, it caught the afternoon light and flashed it onto her walls and face as it slowly turned this way and that. It made faint shimmery notes that soothed her whenever it was in motion. This alone seemed a good reason to hang onto it.

In the driveway below her a dented old Mazda Miata came to a squealing stop. She got up and peered through her curtains. It was Jordan, her brother, aka Spideyman. As he got out it became apparent why he earned such a nickname. Each long, thin appendage emerged from the little vehicle with deft swiftness. When he finally stood it was a surprise, as he wasn’t overly tall, but compact and wiry. He popped up with all the energy he usually displayed, as if he was solar and moon powered, unable to run out of fuel.

“Hey Frangelica! What up?”

She threw open the window sash. “Hey Spideyman! Quit calling me a liqueur! I looked it up!”

“Yeah, really? If you’re a nut, you’re a nut. Not so bad to be called a hazelnut liqueur! But I think you should know that the real thing is called Frangelico, not Frangelica.”

She made a face at him and closed the sash, then watched him cross the street to pick up an envelope from the pavement. Jordan read it, took it to the house opposite theirs and knocked on the door. Old Mrs. Hale took it and patted his arm a few times. He circled back to their house. When Jordan saw her, he stopped a moment and shook his head as if he had just remembered something, then entered the house.

Frannie heard the murmur of her mother and brother talking, then laughter. Their good humor made her feel more sour. She felt guilty about her envy but really, Jordan had all the luck, soon to graduate, going somewhere decent to college, getting on with his life.

A sharp knock on the door.

“Go away, Spideyman.”

“I have a message,” he said, lowering his voice to sound official, important. “A message from a distant power.”

She got up and let him in, then put up her palm. “That’s far enough.”

“Hey, it’s not too bad in here. I almost like it. A little too tidy for me.”

He pointed to the print of “Destiny” by J.W. Waterhouse that hung over her.

“Yes? What?”

“I forgot about that. Mom gave it to you right after, uh, four years ago…when you saw it in the museum…”

“Jordan, what did you want?”

“Oh, right, I was supposed to tell you that Anthony Giles might break up with his girlfriend. I know his sister.”

She involuntarily gulped but hoped it wasn’t apparent. “What does that have to do with me?”

Jordan rested his lean weight against the wall and sighed. “You like this dude? Right? Tara said to tell you because he mentioned your name the other day and she was sitting nearby. She recognized it because Tara and I are friends, remember?”

Frannie sat down on the edge of her bed. “Sure I do, but what does it mean?”

“I’m not the one to ask. It was obviously favorable so she said to pass it on to you.” He walked out then came back. “I’d watch out if I were you; she says he’s sort of suave for fourteen. And by the way, their mother is really sick with something, I can’t remember what. Tara didn’t go into it. Tough, huh.” His gaze swept her room then he grinned at her. “He’ll have to step up his game. He isn’t likely as smart as you are, Francesca-jello.”

“Jordy-boy!”

Frannie picked up one of her paperbacks and tossed it at him. He closed the door in the nick of time, the book sliding down and landing with a soft thump.

She lay down with feet pointed at the headboard and stared at the Waterhouse print. She wasn’t going to think too much of the message. Anthony had girls lined up at his locker half the time. He might not have said anything worth repeating to Tara. He might not be all that interesting to know once if you got inside his head. It might be like something you want for months and months and then when you finally save up and get it, it loses its appeal. Or maybe Anthony was going to be someone who made a good difference in her life, and she, his. She felt so overdue.

It was admittedly notable that Jordan was looking out for her. Even had stopped by her room to talk face-to-face. Frannie admired him more than she admitted. He aced calculus. Was a natural artist, to their parents’ unending joy. And he could bike twenty-two miles up the mountain without killing himself. But most of all, he didn’t try to make Frannie’s life too miserable. He might not pay much attention, but he often had a few words to exchange with her. He had a life ahead that was more exciting than hers, she was pretty sure. He wanted to be a physical therapist but also to travel around Europe on his bike. She’d miss him, old Spideyman.

What was her destiny? Like the girl’s in the painting, to always bid someone (likely warriors, in her case) farewell as they took off on a ship, airplane (like her dad and mom) or bike (Jordan)? (But was the engimatic girl celebrating something? Conspiring? She was studying someone–or was she looking out a window, wondering about one long gone?)

How long would her own life be idling away? Or would she figure out where she wanted to go and find her way there before long? It worried her often, that she didn’t know yet what she wanted. That she loved paintings like her mom but also the idea of an unusual business like her dad’s. Being independent, no one directing her all the time would be good, no matter what. Right now she liked science most despite sweating over it.

But wait a minute. Frannie backed up to her brother’s visit. Anthony had mentioned her name. And his mother was sick. She saw his sunny face in her mind, closed her eyes, then looked at her Waterhouse print again. Okay, no excitement allowed yet. She might write him a note. Tell him she’s around if he wanted to talk; her own had had breast cancer four years ago and it was overwhelming at first, even devastating. But they had gotten through it, a step at a time. It was like her mom was walking a tightrope and everyone was waiting (yet also feeling their own way across) to see if she would make it to the other side safely or lose her balance. Yeah, she could tell Anthony that you figure out how to get through things. If he wanted to know.

The aroma of potatoes and onions sneaked into her room. Frannie felt an easing up of things, her testy mood dissolving, thoughts lightening and making space for more. She stretched arms and legs, hummed a favorite song as she sat up. Stood and headed to her closet where she rooted around in the bottom under a battered shoe box and a mound of old purses. Her fingers found her plain black journal. She took it back to bed and positioned her pillows behind her head. Unhooked her best pen from a page, flattened the hardbound book on her lap and started to write on paper smooth as silk.

My voluntary non-list of gratitude:

JW Waterhouse’s paintings
Mom and dad, who make me look at myself in different ways
Jordan, who makes me laugh even when I want to be mad
Mrs. Tell, fourth grade teacher who hung my star and bell mobile above her desk for one whole week
My mobile; I still love it (make another to hang with it?)
Anthony, or at least the thought of Anthony
My mom being cancer-free for now
Carys, for not being my friend, as I will always like Dana while Carys does not appreciate her
My name: Francesa. Because it’s a grand name to grow into someday– I’ll know when I can fully claim it, ask others to use it
Christmas. Because it’s a beautiful time of year. And we will all be here together.

“Fraanniee! Dinnertime!”

She closed her book and put it back under the box and purses, then opened her door. The handful of bright bells jingled in the draft. Frannie turned to regard their homeliness and cheer, then felt an impulse to wave at the mystery girl in “Destiny”–was she going on a journey, too, or had she arrived already? Had she been happy?– so did just that, then hurried downstairs. The girl on her wall would be right there, as she had been for years, when she returned.