Things of Little Consequence

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Someone asked me recently what my hobbies are. That gave me pause. I enjoy so many things, hobbies or not, so where to begin? But I answered: “Thinking might be number one…” She laughed incredulously, not understanding who I was and what I meant.

I spend a significant amount of time each day thinking. Not that I am unique in this. We think without even realizing it, surfing the brain for memories, connections between disparate matters, solutions to challenging problems, the causes and effects of feelings and events. Afterall, we are curious creatures made for verbal activities, outfitted with and guided by words that identify, inform, clarify, embroider and precisely define. So it is logical that even stream of consciousness bouts of verbalizing preoccupy us. And for writers of any stripe, words, whether given internal or external form, are tools that enable transportation to a world of characters, places and times that would not otherwise spring to life. Those consonants and vowels strung together feel like daily sustenance.

So, how easy for human beings to become lost in thought. To contemplate and wonder.

But when does thinking become pondering? Ruminating? When does such thinking cease to become worthwhile, productive? Once I would have said such a thing was impossible. Every thought had meaning and purpose–yours and mine–and if I thought hard and long enough I would find the answer sought. I followed my ideas and imaginings into mazes of speculation. Brief inspiration could capture me; soon I would be swimming in reflections. I adored ideas. A barrage of “whys” and “hows” accompanied me everywhere. Certainly I was not always a favorite student or child despite a proclivity for learning. I wanted even more explanations and answers. In fact, I can still ask more questions than some people can find the patience to appreciate or share.

My mother used to use the  word “brood” when describing some of my youthful cogitation.

“Why don’t you give your mind a rest?” she’d ask with a smile as concern tinged her voice. “You think too much. You’re a brooder, chewing away on things. You’re exhausting yourself. Maybe even me.”

Friends would sometimes try to shoo away my constant contemplation with a flick of fingers and a laugh. “Be cool, lighten up!”

Boyfriends would tell me, “You’re intense. Interesting, yes, but very intense. Where do all those thoughts come from, anyway?”

“Too sensitive, that’s what you are,” my older sister pronounced with a little sneer. I thought her too insensitive then so we were often at it. But how come I seemed different from so many? Was she right?

It was clear I was naturally more serious than light-hearted. Pensive, another sibling suggested. And, from the start, consumed by language–to sort it all out. My head was stuck in a book or journal when I wasn’t practicing my cello or working on figure skating lessons. I wrote songs, poems and stories, gazed out my bedroom window on a cloudy day and constructed kingdom that held a whole culture more vast and intriguing to me than the one in which I had landed–a Midwestern company town where following everyday rules was a major key to life success. Where most every yard was leafy and manicured. Where strenuous competition, no matter the activity, sustained my friends. I longed for something else and a creative life seemed the key. And that seemed to go with “thinking too much”…I thought…and feeling, let’s face it.

I did agree I needed to develop ways to put lengthy contemplation on pause. If everything was a matter of significant consequence to me, as my wise mother said, when could I catch my breath? Where was the balance? The needed R and R? It was hard living inside a mind that was always busy, seldom satisfied for long. So I found ways to find relief from an adoration of ideas and passionate responses. Anything that distracted, soothed or humored me without creating negative complications was an option.

I still hold to this, only variations on the theme. Because I did not grow up to be less introverted–though I enjoy people a great deal–or less contemplative, I’m afraid. Thinking remains a major activity I indulge in for a number of reasons–and due to being a human being. But I’ve continued to discover recreation–for its own sake.

As a youngster and teen I came up with such things as reading fashion magazines, those silly but visually sumptuous fantasy tomes. Pouring over the latest fabrics and styles, make up and hair creations. Pictures that delighted when I found more innovative fashion photography. From this activity came the creating of wall-sized collages with old cards, photos, magazine pictures, even phrases and words salvaged from many places. I liked to draw. Sketchbooks and scrapbooks filled up with pencil and ink designs, rudimentary still life pieces. And houses. I loved to imagine cutting-edge steel and wood houses made with indoor waterfalls, walls of windows that overlooked babbling brooks or verdant gardens and so on. (In 1962 that seemed revolutionary.)

Riding my bike and learning how to do tricks on it in a big parking lot were entertaining. Tree climbing rated high on my list. Ice skating was so important to me that I would brave zero temperatures to hear that zing of glistening ice beneath blades. The adrenalin surge alone as I gathered speed, leapt and spun was enough to convince me skating held magical qualities. I came away exhausted but cleansed of the week’s stress and my clamorous thoughts and feelings.

Dancing was a favorite. Turn on the stereo and move back some furniture and I was set to let all run a little wild–as long as siblings weren’t doing something in the living room or my father wasn’t teaching violin, or my mother preparing the dining room for guests. In which case, I could always visit a friend and have a dance-off, or attend a school or community center dance. I could dance across the back yard, trailing long silky scarves in the breeze. Relief, it seemed, was truly a dance away.

Singing was always a pleasure, especially if completely alone. Or there was someone to play piano in accompaniment. Or I would turn the radio way up. Singing in my room with door closed, crouched over guitar and trying to piece together lyrics with melodies for a folk song was also good, but a bit more like work. (That required problem solving, even melancholic brooding. Or when practicing an art song…well, I was less apt at those times to sing for sheer fun.)

All these mattered because they were entertaining, overall relaxing, and required less serious thought rather than more. And I do some of these things today because I came to know what keeps me healthy in body, mind and spirit. I also worked in human services for many years, which requires serious concentration and reflection. If I hadn’t had fool-proof ways to “let down” and step back from so many deeply challenged, even ruined, lives as a mental health and addictions counselor, I would likely not have lasted twenty-five years in the field. It comes down to self-preservation, whether one needs a break from one’s own mental gymnastics or others’.

A recent assessment of things, then, that interest me but are either frivolous, superficial or just plain fun. A few noted below.

1. Reading a wide variety of magazines, something I have written of before. I subscribe to eleven by last count. So many things to learn, to have fun reading about! I am apt to visit a bookstore and come back with one or two more. I read magazines to get a quick take on things, to see what the culture her or elsewhere (or a certain area of interest) is throwing out there. They can be read quickly. Articles become a springboard for further investigation.

But another reason is that I love the tactile experience of smooth printed pages in my hands. The graphics also attract and involve me. I tend to read off and on all day (including books), and find I can peruse magazines while doing other things as needed. I am amused, sometimes enlightened, and always distracted by what I find in magazines.

By the way, I still remove pictures to save for collages or my little laundry room gallery. I repeat, I read many good books, but that is another topic requiring a whole post of its own.

2. Painting and drawing. Still. I was an art major in college…I’m even not sure why. But I could paint away for hours then, fill good-sized self-made canvasses with shapes made of oils or acrylics. But whether or  not I was any good, it gave me happiness. To this day I love art–to see it, make it, learn about it. So every now and then I take out my drawing implements–which I enjoy enough that I visit art stores fairly often to browse or buy more. Or I use the tubes of watercolors (about which I know almost nothing)–and have at it. Thoughts flee as soon as I prepare to make a colorful mess of things.

I know this seems unrelated…but thinking of implements and stores…I also enjoy browsing in hardware and office supply stores. Is that peculiar? So be it. It is another sort of recreation I like.

3. Sit on my balcony and watch the neighborhood do what it does, tend to my potted flowers when it gets warmer, sip tea or partake of a nice lunch. I usually see cats prowling around, too, or just sunning. The non-human animals have the art of relaxation mastered. (Little kids, even toodlers, too, I’ve noticed.) Or I gaze out my window in the living room and watch passersby on bikes (all sorts of those, even very tall unicycles), skateboards, roller blades, in cars (I play a game of trying to identify cars-the year as well– as they quickly pass). There are lots of dogs, children, friends enjoying friends. I can see towering, graceful trees that line the block. A church. Pretty houses. Like going to the movies, really more fun, I feel; you can make your own story if you want.

4. Walking and hiking. Yes, you can think a lot then but, oddly, I do very little of it. I feast on the beauty of neighborhoods or parks, the forests, beaches or mountains. Walking or hiking instantly release tension, smooth worry lines, charge up lovely endorphins, satisfy my large appetite for expansive sensory stimuli. It keeps me strong of heart and limb and clarifies my spirit. I also take photos as I go. See number 8.

5. Call or stop to see friends or family. Listen. Share. Laugh. Appreciate. Even forget self. Nothing like reaching out to forgo one’s own tedious thoughts. Enough said.

6. Watch–not for hours daily, just as needed–television’s HGTV, DIY, Travel, Discover, A & E, BBC America, Sundance Channel… you get the idea. (Okay, sometimes “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”, I’m sorry to admit it.) I like to learn things but that doesn’t often require any deep thought while viewing. I watch and am amused or inspired by others actions and ideas, new places I may never see, experiences I may never know first-hand. It’s like magazine reading but without the static images.

Here I need to add the radio, as it is another medium where interesting things happen. No, I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen to iTunes. But I do love a good interview or new piece of music issuing forth from our speakers that broadcast a wide spectrum of entertainments from, perhaps, our primitive yet beloved radio. I just have to listen, relish the moments. And I can change the station, of course.

7. Linens! Yes, I love exquisite linens. Sometimes I go to the store, sometimes I leaf through catalogs, occasionally look online. I think the beauty and function of sheets and towels is a perfect wedding of qualities. Do I buy many? No. But I study them and wonder how they would look and feel in bath and bedrooms and enjoy every minute of it. I might get new things once every four or five years. It’s the dreaming that counts here. Catalogs afford me such moments.

8. Photography. It is instant meditation. I am fully present in the external world though the inner eye is also evaluating. I am not exploring thoughts, I am welcoming images. The way things are (or appear to be) engage, fascinate and refresh, especially nature’s landscapes. But also cities. People and other creatures. I am saved by the variety and wonder of the earth, of the possibilites for humankind. Taking photographs lights up a split second, makes indelible an experience, asks me to be focused on the world beyond my own. The mind stills, gentles while zooming in, then opens wide. Perceives life minutely. Differently. And when I examine the photos later, I often learn something once again.

9. Games. I am not likely to become some outstanding player but I like games very much. I do not play chess or bridge or even poker, nor many others. But I am good at Scrabble, checkers, dominoes, Uno and Balderdash (one of my favorites of all time). I can play gin rummy pretty well. I love outdoor games as well–horseshoes, badminton, croquet, bean bag toss, Frisbee, volleyball when I get the chance–but it’s still the rainy and chilly winter so table games are the focus now. They are some of the most fun times I have with my family. We used to have a game night each month. I might institute that again. What a rousing good way to pass the time. It’s the sort of thinking that tricks you into feeling your brain doesn’t need to employ fancy footwork, so to speak.

10. Music. I adore going to hear live music. I am not a bar patron often as I don’t drink. But there is some great jazz in this town. I do attend many warmer weather outdoor music festivals or shows. And there are concert venues that offer wonderful musicianship. Recently I heard a lesser known but fine German cellist play Dvorak, a treat. I always go hear Bonnie Raitt with one of my best friends, a joyous event. Coming up is a pops concert with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, which I admire. Music–it takes you both into the deepest parts of your being while lifting you right out of yourself. Enchanting.

11. Making chili. Or beef stew. Maybe cookies. I include this although I am not generally a cheerful cook. I used to cook every day for our seven member family plus whoever they brought home at the last minute. And I finally was just done with that. I like recipes when I must do this activity. Except for chili and stew. I can do those blindfolded without a second thought. The cookies? Well, those do require attention to the clock or responding right away to the timer foing off and I am usually reading as I wait…I always burn at least one batch. But sometimes cooking–just making a simple but delicious salad–empties my mind. Nothing like chopping onions, potatoes, carrots, celery and tomatoes to do that.

12. Getting out, looking at and organizing my jewelry. I have too much of it, mostly used for dressier work outfits until I retired. Much of it is “costume” jewelry; some is handmade, like fine art, or passed on to me by family. I turn it over in my hands, study decorative effects, then get out the metals and gemstone cleaner and shine it up. It takes some time–like shoe shining, but much better–and it is satisfying. I like to hold and examine a few pieces that were my mother’s. Sort things I can donate or offer my daughters. I rediscover earrings or necklaces long ago put away. They bring forth memories of certain events attended, people I was with, jobs I have had. Places where I first saw the finer jewelry and how came to own it. But wait a minute, I’m talking about reminiscing. That’s getting too close to thinking. I might have to reconsider.

There is always something else to explore, to seek. Small things of almost no big consequence to anyone. Except to my own peace of mind, that densely packed area where quiet pleasures can and do coexist with weighty–sometimes tiresome–ruminations. I could add much more: say, travel, making pillows, birdwatching, searching for handmade cards to send to people for no real reason, secondhand store browsing. But it’s late, so time to think about something besides this post.

And of course, when one thought leaves, ten more are ready to congregate and have a discussion. So it is in the human dominion of language and thought. I had to learn long ago: don’t demand that everything divulge its depths, its significance, all the time. Let it occur of its own accord, as well. Refuse to allow the messy, marvelous entirety of life be such hard work. Breathe in, let it go. Make some simple fun. Free your body, soul and mind. Those ideas and questions will always be waiting.

 

Yep, that's me, just being happy.
Yep, that’s me, just being happy.

If We Make It to the Other Side

Victoria Trip 7-12 079

There were various shapes of black, grey and brown lining rows and rows of seats. Clothing made for rain, the uniform, perhaps, for travelling in this manner. They were packed shoulder to shoulder, purses and backpacks hugged to chests or corralled by feet. Along the outdoor railing heartier–or new–passengers leaned as far as they dared, gawked at the waves and daydreamed. It was a long trip, nearly an hour, from mainland to island. The savvy ones, those who commuted daily for work or were frequent visitors to either shore, perused easy-to-read books or magazines, played on their phones, took out scones and apples. Many lifted tall cups of coffee as if in a symbolic gesture that united them all.

It was easy to be lulled by the engine noise, a steady drumming in the background. Those who well knew this route dozed without self-consciousness, chins falling forward or back, snores gaining volume until someone jostled the sleeper by accident or otherwise. But more were pleasantly dazed while kept awake by the movement forward, the sometimes boisterous waves. Being so close to each other might have been a boon; they had this in common, this journey from one place to another, each with private plans and needs, separate while thrown together on the four-thirty ferry. A gathering of humanity on pause.

She had climbed the steps from a claustrophobic belly of the boat–no, ferry, not boat! she chided herself– that was stuffed with autos and felt spit out onto the main deck. Tried to orient herself. It was as if she had chosen the wrong door and was forced to join aliens that milled about. It didn’t make sense, of course–she hadn’t lost her mind entirely–but she was as ill at ease as a rabbit among foxes. They knew what they were doing there and dispersed, a certain goal in mind. She was like prey who didn’t know where to hide, afraid to move one way or the other, certain her demise was at hand. They had been there before (or if it was their first time, as well, were not alone or riddled with fear), had crossed the waters that flowed, really, from the entire Northwest portion of the Pacific Ocean–“think of it as a gigantic lake”, a friend had suggested. No, not a lake of any sort. All the water that lay between here and there was unending ocean. This floating beast–the current, if secondary, leviathan in her waylaid life–was headed to the San Juan Islands and she was captive until she once more stepped onto dirt and cement.

She closed her eyes and tried to quell the shakiness that made each exhalation almost staccato. The seat she perched on felt too small for her bags and emotions. No one noticed except perhaps the old man who was watching her beneath bushy white eyebrows as he blew across the top of his thermos’ handy cup. She thought he was smiling–foolish girl, he likely thought, worried about a ferry crossing. His yellow teeth flashed beneath a ragged moustache, then he took a sip and looked away.

A vocal baby wriggled and reached in a mother’s arms right next to her. The curly-headed, honey-skinned infant–who ought to have brought a smile to anyone’s face– reeked of old milk and banana and other things. It was too much. She thought she’d lose her lunch so stood up, inch by inch, finding the slight but strange motion beneath her feet an enemy, then as something she must adapt to, could do if she was painstaking, careful. Inner ear and stomach each hesitated, gulped, then complied, kindly. She kept her feet planted apart a moment longer. She glanced at the old man. He winked at her.

When she noted a lanky teen-ager exit the enclosed shelter she followed, pushed through the door to see if she could possibly manage her insecurity better by facing it. That was what she often did, confronted the overwhelming thing she felt she could not otherwise combat. Or accept. Sometimes it worked. It was so windy and cold her eyes and nose ran immediately. The ferocious unseen god of winds was snatching her from safety and pushing her forward towards snaking ropes soon to be under foot. What had she been thinking to come out there? Much worse. She stumbled but kept an upright position, then managed to half-slide then speed walk to the railing. Her breath was taken from her, as if someone had punched her hard enough to get her attention, then left her alone to deny discomfort.

She was unshakably, divinely spellbound by her absurd fear. She loved to fly, had gone kayaking a few times, was a skier of mountain slopes. But there was more happening. Something else. Her long hair whipped about her and she fought to stick it back into her drawn up collar. And she settled her eyes to the place she didn’t want to acknowledge even though it was obvious she could not ignore it: that magisterial body of water, blue and black, a glowing pewter beneath whitecaps that flung their spittle up and out to crazed, chilled wind. There was no land. Well, far, far off, there in the distance a speck, a bump on the horizon. More likely a ship, a freighter or another ferry, yes, something that should not be able to bounce along the ocean’s permeable surface yet did, she now conceded. So supremely confident, whatever it was. Seaworthy, readied. Unlike herself.

Yet, the water shone. Above were clouds heavily weighted that now parted enough to spare a shard of sunlight; the water found it and wore it like a living thing. This ocean beyond her reach was dancing, moving back and forth. Trading caresses and slaps in an ancient ritual set to motion by above-and-below-surface topographical and temperature variations with currents and winds directing. What did she not know about this peculiar place? Everything, that was a fact, even though she had strolled many beaches. But the sea spoke to her now as if she had long known and adored it, then abandoned it only to plead for a forgiving reunion. Its voice roiled and laughed, echoed things. Soothed. She moved albeit impereptibly with the water and recognized there, in the sea, something in herself both resonant and dissonant.

The thought shook her. This was a theme she had longed to eradicate when she bought her ticket but here it was, a wearisome dog following her footsteps. This taking away and coming back to, this abandonment and loss and the endless attempts at retrieval of something good. Yes, something better. Something that more than just masqueraded as love. She spoke to the wind that word she had tried to not utter even in private. Love love love, she said, and they each floated away.

Not that anyone could have convinced her it would end like that. With her bitterness and sorrow. His lack of conscience. His offering her the world–his, yes, not much of hers–and then taking it from her when he tired of the offerings and her refusals then finally, against her better judgment, gave her ecstatic acceptance. Why was it that some people had to make the adventurous pursuit of another so meaningful–and the denouement so trite and unseemly? Ugly, even.

But he badly paid for it, didn’t he?

The water engulfed her thoughts, took from her his face, his hands, those words, that desire and hope, anger, longing and pain. Thrown against the ferry as that sea-changing wind pressed about her, she recalibrated a center of gravity and held on. The pale sunlight fringed clouds with softness, made them yielding until sky let loose a remnant of blue. She felt warmer though the her dark hair tangled and her jacket riffled. Tears slid from her eyes as gusts sheared her face. It was a near-violent thing, this crossing. It was a magnificent body of water, inviolate somehow, immense in its moods. Gracious to its cohabitating creatures. Tolerant of boats, only to a point. Generous with those who respected its bounty. But deadly, too. She felt its magnitude, drawn even to its fickleness. Like life, its unpredictability was either to be accepted or rejected and what good could come of rejection? It rolled on. It created, welcomed and nurtured. Finally destroyed. Every time a person set sail or even stepped onto a ferry such as this he or she took a chance and the thrill of it–of not yet jaded–was whether or not something wonderful might result from the risk.

Had he thought of any of this on that perfect and dangerous day? He had driven too fast in his well-tuned machine. He was so proud of it, had sunk such time and money into its well-being. He always did go too fast, attacked everything with the force of someone who thought they would lose out if they did otherwise. But that day, after he told her it was never fully in sync for him, both of them, he had to go–did he drive faster than even he knew was acceptable? Did he think to himself it might be an extreme risk that could make or break the heart of that moment? The sort he felt compelled to ever seek and find? But it finally undid him. He had left so fast it was like he hadn’t even been there that morning. A kiss on her cheek and the words, all of which were too heated.

Then, it was finished in entirety. She heard hours later. They came to her with halting steps and phrases and all she recalled was the warmth and then the cooling of his breath on her face as he left her. And could not get warm for days.

She lost her bearings, grasped the rail. The sunlight was erased first by a fine mist that dropped over all. Then came a blinding fog. It fell upon the ferry and those who persisted in standing there, damp and cold. Mesmerized like her. The wind slacked. There seemed nothing but greyness aorund the barest pearlescence where light persisted as light does. A soft darkness swallowed all. A beautiful darkness. She would have climbed up the flag pole if she had strength and madness enough left in her. She wanted to feel the veil of fog wrap her up and then unfurl again. She would have liked to be the one to see through to the other side, to site the first small ledge of land. If they yet made it to the island. Courage rose up and with it, a fledgling sense of safety. It was a clue: readiness for more to happen. She breathed in ocean breath, felt bathed in calmness that defied winds or cold or incessant waves. Onward the ferry moved, fast enough, casting off its shield of greyness.

When the light cleared a pathway over the water it was an explosion of jewels. She held hand to eyes and looked hard: there it was. The island. The place where she was going. The spot she had feared to land. To have to start again. The real worry had been who she would become, just what she could bear to discover. She understood so little, just odd snippets of things. Her own self seemed a haphazard   thing at times. Everyone else seemed bigger. Fiercer. Maybe it was an illusion that she had to interpret. In time, she told  herself, in time there would be a whole picture and her place in it.

The ferry slowed and idled, maneuvered this way and that until it came to rest. She searched for the dock in the shortening distance. Waiting for her was her aunt, that large, ofttimes overbearing woman who had lost a son to war and a husband to the trickster sea, the same one she yet floated upon. But still this woman carried on as if every day was something to design anew with pleasure and passion. She was the definition of indefatigable. And kindness.

“Come, learn the ways of sea and island, find good work to be done, eat and rest and sweat with the rest of us“, she had said over the phone as if it was the only answer. Despite her niece’s stubborness and that self-pity like a black flag hoisted high for months and months.

Her fear of these waters and this ferry had been the last barricade. And it had been so small, hadn’t it, just a simple thing for a woman who worried she could never make peace with her own self, just as that old man had divined. She wondered if he might get off here.

She let go of the railing. Her hands were reddened and tender. She flexed fingers, turning her face to welcoming sunshine. Her hair was smoothed back. Feet were moved forward. She faced the crowd assembling to disembark, then went back inside to find her way among them.

 

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Six Superpowers of Humaness

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Has anyone noticed how in entertainment we are being inundated by (apparently) women, men and children who flaunt an unbelievable array of superior capabilities? Or perhaps they are creatures that only look like humans; some of them do morph rather easily. But I feel swamped every time I turn on the television or examine the new line up of bestsellers. I search for those ordinary decent human beings who achieve humble but worthwhile goals. I am more often faced with either unhealthy, i.e., dangerously flawed characters or secretly altered ones who now command vast and potent powers. The thing is, I really am interested in regular people making their way through the beautiful and daunting landscape of life. I don’t need superhuman examples of prowess. I seek the well-functioning, ever evolving essential Human Being.

Not that this pop phenomenon is new. Comic book, fantasy and sci-fi authors, CGI masters–writers and graphic artists who are world builders of a unique sort–have been giving us fantastic tales for well over a century. And before that, we had mighty mythology based on demigods who were compelled to act out otherworldly feats of bravery and skill. I am sure there have always been stories demonstrating what we humans would like to possess–more fearlessness, strength, power, cleverness if not outright brilliance, the ability to first and last succeed and so on. It may lie in our make-up to desire more than what and who we are from birth. As Homo sapiens, we have need of that drive toward invention, a grasp of problem solving. So there seems an internal itch for most people, a restlessness, perhaps a dissatisfaction that motivates us to strive for something better. And thus, to become greater and more effective. And often, more important. Who hasn’t thought of or plotted for the glory of victorious moments?

The superhuman landscape used to be populated with primarily men who could outrun, outsmart and out-kill everyone else. Destruction seems the byword. Women have gradually begun to further assert their own place within this artificial matrix of amazing powers. We were once given the Six Million Dollar Man to admire but I loved that Bionic Woman in the nineteen seventies. How I cheered her on as she used a supercharged mind and body to make things right! And Wonder Woman, well, she was a whole other symbol of woman rising; her outfit was stunning, as well. And then children began to display unusual skills in stories and shows. Check out any Saturday morning cartoon and accompanying ads and you’ll see what I mean. They love the idea of being stronger, faster and indestructible as much as teens and adults do. Even small people like to win, be on top, and think they want or need to be “king/queen of the hill.” Cue raised wooden sword and a flimsy paper crown. I admit I liked dress-up and being queen, too.

But what have we gained from this long history of unusually skilled, oddly gifted, characters that we loved or loathed? I wonder how it has impacted our individual and collective psyches in the end. Afterall, the standards these beings set are quite unreasonable.

Is it all taken in the spirit of light entertainment– or are we working out our deepest fears and desires via these heroic personages? Likely some of both. We are given, after all, that impulse to overcome adversity and large brains with which to resolve conflict like no other creatures on earth. We can already do marvelous things with our limber bodies, gross and fine motor control, our collective senses, and an ability to heal from serious trauma and illness, to even transform physically and mentally. But if we could be better equipped, more innovative, stronger and more courageous–then we could accomplish so much more, we think. Even save the world, maybe. Hence the fantasy human, the more perfect specimen. Meantime, these superheroes I find on the screen and in books seem primarily to destroy, maim, kill, take ultimate control–in the name of an ideology, a dream, a ruler of some perfect kingdom where all will be well once more after all obstacles are removed. Or so the story goes.

I propose that the skills we have been designing and idolizing are, if not entirely wrong ones, far less important, if at all. How much of what we yearn for the most has to do with an everlasting perfection of Divine Spirit/God/Creator/Higher Power? And what if we already have capabilities that can change the world, save others, create a greater vision? Isn’t it possible we are emphasizing the physical realm far more than is necessary, even to the point of neglecting our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being?

On my walk today, several everyday human powers came to the fore on my thinking. I thought about what has changed my own life from one that was once imperiled to one that became much more empowered. There are countless stories of individuals who have been more inspiring than I could hope to be. But I have discovered through trial and error and rigorous self-evaluation that there are some things I cannot manage without. They do not include excellent ongoing health or award-winning physical prowess, though those would be lovely. Money is not on the list, nor even a huge circle of friends. And this isn’t about the basic needs, though I am well aware that the lack of food, shelter, health care and safety alter lives in ways that can be dire, even life threatening. Instead, they are powers of heart and soul that we can tap to render powerless those poisons that harm human life in ways as devastating as illness, hunger, and violence.

1. Empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy, that feeling that I can know what you are undergoing because I, too, am human, and I, too, have felt diverse emotions and had myriad experiences. They may not be the same as yours, but I can put myself in your place for a moment and feel your anger or your pain, your longing or joy. Empathy allows me to identify with what your life experience, motives and situations. I may then sympathize with you and commiserate with you–but first empathy has to be present to enable me to respect your experience and recognize it as valid and real for you. I need strong empathy for others to begin to connect to them and to be caring in even simple ways. Otherwise, relationships are shallow, transitory, without mutual appreciation and I give little to nothing of my understanding or concern. Empathy, then, empowers us to be more considerate and responsive human beings. It helps us reach across large divides of socioeconomic and cultural differences. It keeps us from falling prey to our worst selves and has the power to mediate peace and generate great goodwill.

2. Compassion, after which the word mercy entered my mind. It also is attached to empathy. Without compassion I would not be moved to assist anyone, would not be willing to overcome reticence and take a risk to be there for others in their distress. I would not care when someone else is suffering because it would not be seen as my problem. Compassion enlarges our understanding and strengthens our hearts. It moves people to interact in ways that offer solace as well as time and energy. But it can also be what keeps us from reacting impulsively and unfairly to others, to say things that are undermining and hurtful. When you have compassion, you sense another’s sensitive spots and feel suffering and so, respond sympathetically. You choose to be gentle and helpful because you desire the same and want others to experience life that way, too. Compassion moves from your heart to another’s and creates a vitally important bridge. But do not mistake it for a softness that is weak. Rather, it strengthens your character and shores up bravery.

Mercy is only an act of extreme compassion. It may be a little dangerous to experience because it can mean putting one’s own self on the line, doing what is unpopular when others may be unable to see the value in such a compassionate response. You may hold the power to do otherwise, to be inclement in your action, yet you choose not to be. It may mean that the person has been deemed undeserving of such care and acceptance by others yet you are still moved to offer both and abundantly. Mercy alleviates terrible misery and offers freedom from harsh judgment and a punishing response; it accepts another person or situation as they are, with deep kindness.

3. Forgiveness, without which there is little hope for ourselves or the world. To be unforgiving means that anger and resentments are stockpiled. It indicates we think we are right and others are wrong and they need to be punished somehow. The old angers take up room in our souls and minds and crowd out potential for growth. They keep us stuck, grind us down. Have you been around someone who is resentful of something that may have happened twenty years ago? It lives in their bodies: hunched shoulders, tight mouth, frown lines. They move as if ready or even looking for a fight. They are marked by discord because they cannot let go of what someone said or did or what did not happen as they believed should. They blame and conspire to get even or get revenge. Without forgiveness, they will never know serenity or lasting joy. One foot is in the past and the present is spoiled, the future a repeat.

When we forgive, we are freed of the toxic state that drove us into a wilderness and kept us hostage to loneliness. Hanging onto old hurts and wrongdoings sours life and impedes becoming effective individuals. It weakens us to keep close and hate the thing that wounded us. At its worst, a lack of forgiveness ignites rage that is taken out on others, intentionally or mistakenly. Forgiving is letting go and letting God–or time or other circumstances we will never know about–take care of things. It means not worrying at all about who deserves what. Learning to take responsibility for our present lives and be engaged in this moment. And all this includes forgiving one’s self. And then moving on.

4. Hope. Without hope people would not get up every day and get on with the work and risks of making and living a life. It’s just hard being human in so many ways. We all experience setbacks and losses and if there is not hope, despair can seep in and spread like a slow flood. Then it is difficult if not impossible to see good coming of any efforts. People do finally stop trying. They can die–emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. Or they numb themselves further with addictions and distractions. Hope is the power that changes a viewpoint from bleak to brighter. If we don’t have it within ourselves we must seek until we find it, as it will transform everything.

Offering hope is one powerful key to serious change. It renews energy. It offers solutions. If held out to someone, it indicates that you care enough to see a reason for him or her to keep trying, keep believing life can be even a bit better, even much more so. Hope is a lifeline that can lift one person up out of the quagmire of self-destruction and self-loathing. It can take fear and make it obedient to a new courage. It assesses trouble and then infuses it with the healing of greater possibilities. Hope is a light, carrying us from the stormy seas of human living to that obdurate lighthouse which reassures us there is a safe place for us to land. And to start again.

5. Gratitude. Without it we humans cannot appreciate all that we have. And if we are not appreciative, we are surly and anxious and tend to get lost. Flailing about in the bottomless well of complaints. Gratitude–for one small thing each day if that is all we can come up with–reminds us what counts most and what we do have. Not what we don’t have–it will always be something we do not yet or may never have. Unhappy with your life? Sit down and write a list of what you can appreciate. It might be the camellias starting to bloom. It may be your neighbor’s two little dogs that don’t bark all day and night. It could be that fact that you can open your cupboard and find enough food for a week. Or it might be that you can make another choice, do one thing different, find a new path because you have a mind and a will that enable you to do so. The power of appreciation and gratitude is that you find out you have blessings you just forgot. Next option: share what you have with someone who could use a boost, too, and see how much more gratitude you reap. Be prepared to feel refreshed and ready to do more good. Like taking expensive vitamins but much better.

6. Resilience. That’s right, we human beings were born with the ability to recover over and over, to bounce back from punishing times. To recreate ourselves, if necessary. Resilience means we have elasticity; we can be pushed and pulled and even broken down and still we can get back to our innermost heart and soul and start again. We do not take failure easily, do not stay down for the count if we can help it. But if there is not a way to overcome at the moment, we tend to think we just have to wait out the bad times, gather all our strength and be ready for change when it becomes possible. We persevere and find a way through or around impediments in our lives. We take stock of ourselves–resources, energies– and our attitude becomes regenerative. And that means we overcome and make things happen even when it seems it cannot be. Our will and our minds and hearts seek triumph and completion. I believe we all harbor a profound, inherent love of life, will do all we can to enhance and enjoy it. So we will not be defeated for long, not if we have breath and a smidgen of hope. It all works that much better when we pool our collective skills and gifts. There is power in one, yes, but there is more creativity, wisdom and strength in adding to that one. Not to mention companionship, a boon to any good thing.

So there you have it, my thoughts on a few amazing powers we already have. We may forget them in the hectic mad dash of our daily living. I could write for hours more about the unique, life changing ways and talents we human beings have. And it also hit me when I looked at the list and realized that nearly every human power is rooted in, of course, love. I guess I thought it had already been made obvious by naming compassion, mercy and empathy, hope and forgiveness, gratitude and resilience.

Love. It means I want to do good things, even a great deal of them, for me and for you–and always, only the best that I can do even if that is not quite up to snuff sometimes. This is my aspiration, in any case. It is what I want for my children and grandchildren. Not to emulate some fantastic, overdressed, frighteningly overbearing and willful “superhero”.  Just to be the extraordinary ordinary human being that we have always been meant to be. We are already heroes, my friends, waiting to happen.

 

Verushka’s Friday Salon

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They never knew who would turn up next. Some Friday Salons would attract the upbeat, scintillating energy that only the fashionable women of Layton Quarter could bring, their mannequin-like men peering into the dimly lit rooms to locate others of their ilk, women linking arms and chattering as they showed their best sides. Eloise and Oz thought they wasted the lovely spaces of the house on the river but Verushka didn’t ask their opinions. It was her house; they just rented two of the four bedrooms. But at times they were enlightened by good minds and talents–Oz said distracted, albeit by decent entertainment. Eloise said it was like group therapy only better, as she got to study others while having a little fun with those they might not otherwise have met.

It had come down to Eloise’s Great-uncle on Fournier Street or the two rooms with shared bath fashioned out of Verushka’s generous attic space. While Elie, as she preferred to be called, was fond of her uncle and his drafty old Victorian, he was nearing eighty. She knew he wouldn’t have patience with their friends traipsing in and out, their burning midnight oil with music as they studied. It was only for a year while they finished grad school but a year could feel very long in the wrong place. When they saw the ad for Verushka’s place, they nabbed it.

Their home owner/landlord was several years older than they were. She had inherited the house and seemed responsible. She appeared to work little, however, to support her well-heeled lifestyle. It was offered up that she designed paper goods for various stationers, one on Forte Boulevard that was so exclusive Elie didn’t even look in the windows. The woman had to have talent. They sometimes caught sight of her as they passed her study. She would be hunched over the drawing table sketching, then gazing out the window before asking them what they needed, her head never turning in their direction. What they would have liked was to see what she drew but that was private; she always locked the door behind her as she left.

Verushka had told them she was named after a famous model in the sixties. Elie looked up the model in question. Their looks were quite different but the point was made. Verushka of the current time was quite tall, yes, and thin but her face was much softer, even dimpled when she smiled. Her cheekbones were enviable. Her black hair was cut short and her large eyes were framed by severe bangs. Elie wondered what it was like to have such a strong effect on others. Her own life had been mostly devoid of drama. She did not have unusual influence. Elie found herself trying to keep up her unobtrusive appearance a little better since moving there. She had almost turned into a mole, holing up to study all hours. Her thesis was all-consuming.

“I think you fuss too much at the mirror now that we’re living with a beauty,” Oz noted, “and it’s strange and unbecoming. For Verushka it makes sense.”

“Is she that beautiful to you? You sound like my mother scolding me, using that tone. You might revamp your own image: you slouch around in those baggy corduroys and a moth-eaten grey cashmere as if you were a poor little rich boy who doesn’t need to bother combing your hair.”

“That’s no different than it’s always been. It’s reflective of reality, El. And the ladies like it, present company excluded. You are so pure, an intellectual in the making.” He snickered as he bowed to her, knowing she despised such talk.

“You’re a bore, Ozzie, when you criticize others. Since when has it mattered to you? Just because you’re like a brother, don’t think you have the right to offer comments on everything I do. I suspect you’re infatuated with Verushka. Even though she is an older woman. Or because. Now that would make for a juicy little drama.”

He threw Elie a look that indicated she was speaking nonsense. “The only way I’d find her interesting is if she actually said something interesting. She’s not one to let her guard down. I find her presence can leave me chilly. I think she has people over just to warm up the place!”

“You find her fascinating like everyone. So many come to her get-togethers. Oh, I mean salons. Gads.”

“The use of the word ‘fascinating’ is not even reasonable. Or our standards differ. Think of things in context: We have some universities, yes, but we do not have a gaggle of gifted individuals like, say, in Chicago or New York.” He sighed and picked up The New York Times as if to emphasize the point. “I think she has longings to be something more than can happen here. That we have in common!”

“Who doesn’t, Ozzie? One more year…”

He couldn’t disagree with that so fell silent. He longed for New York stages but first he had to finish his dramatic arts degree or he’d not be backed by his father. Elie reclined on the window seat and stared out the bay window. It hadn’t stopped raining in days, and the gutters were awash in swirling leaves and two disposable coffee lids as the rivulet rushed downhill.

The attractive city subtly glittered before her but she thought how, in another year, she could leave it all behind. It wouldn’t be hard. Her Masters in Linguistics might garner her a decent job or it might not. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure she cared. She was getting sick of language all day and night. Part of it was living with Oz, her best friend and the one man she could bear to be around without longing to be a part of a couple. But there were times he talked too much, his words like confetti tossed into the air, light and frothy, a pretty mess that she preferred to avoid.

Elie wanted to travel after graduation, to, say, the outer reaches of Mongolia. Study their complex linguistics. Live among honest working people and learn what connected them to each other, how they tolerated and supported one another in such a harsh land, what was said and left unsaid that made things better. Here it all seemed rather hollow to her, all frills and no content.

The Friday Salon exemplified this. People came armed with intellects all shined up, their flashy words clattering about the rooms, drinks barely taking the edge off strained pauses while someone else tried to come up with a smarter insight or better-turned phrase. Elie attended because it was an unspoken expectation, as if it was part of their lease agreement. They had to be conversational if possible but at least present and accounted for–or perhaps Verushka would not allow them to stay. She couldn’t be certain.

“That’s ridiculous,” Oz said. “It’s a simple courtesy to include us.”

“No. Remember that time I didn’t attend? She came to my room to ask why I wasn’t down there with you. She seemed surprised I might have something else on my agenda. I had a paper due so she ‘excused’ me.” She shook her head.

“Well, she wants me to help keep conversation fresh, moving forward, and I don’t mind! You are…safe, ordinary. And I adore you–you soothe me, Elie darling.”

That was Oz, always thinking he was essential to the success of any gathering. But, then, he was, in a way. Easy on the eyes and comfortable to be around like a well-trained, congenial Labrador, he was a magnet for men and women alike as he regaled them with tales of worldwide travels (unlike Elie, who had just once crossed Illinois’ state line before coming here). How could anyone not like him? Whereas Elie had to work at the social game.

This Friday Salon was going to be more of the same, she thought grumpily as she tried to tame her frizzy, voluminous waves and applied pale lipstick. She would allot one hour, then excuse herself, perhaps with a headache. Which might be real by then.

They could hear the piano music as they descended two flights of stairs. Verushka played randomly, but her repertoire was confined to basic classical pieces she had learned in her youth. She played nicely but the hands on these keys were certainly not hers. Elie paused and closed her eyes. This was jazz, languid, full of changes that surprised. She hadn’t heard such music played here. Maybe nowhere–only on the radio. Verushka saw them and waved and Oz immediately went to her, kissed her cheek. They headed to the kitchen arm-in-arm. Elie sat on the bottom step and listened with ears and heart.

She imagined lying in a meadow on a hilltop, sunlight sliding over bare arms and legs, a breeze ruffling her hair, birds crisscrossing fragrant air. Every worry left and in their places were strands of music that wove a complicated web of glistening mystery. It cradled her, rocked her to and fro. This music spoke to her in a way that she recognized in her soul. It was different. Lively but tender, innovative, lush.

“Elie, are you alright? Need a drink?”

Elie’s eyes snapped open to find Verushka looking down at her, one eyebrow raised, a tiny smile playing on her vermillion lips.

“Are you faint or just tired out? Oz is mingling about. Of course. You do put up with a lot, I know, but he’s a good fellow, isn’t he.”

She looked over her shoulder and Elie followed her gaze. He was in the middle of a group, busy working the floor at that end of the room already. No one would wonder why he was an actor, hopeful of Broadway one day. Elie would tell him what Verushka said; that would please him.

“I’m just fine. I’m…quite taken with this music.”

“Oh! Well, dear, that’s Carter Mills. I happened to meet him at a dinner party last night. He was agreeable so I invited him. Quite the rising star, I hear.”

A couple came up to Verushka but she bent down–“If you want to meet him let me know…”–then drifted off with them.

The piano was on the far side of the large living room. A new, up-tempo song careened through the babbling and warm bodies and wedged itself in Elie’s mind as she moved closer. She could see only a chic brass lamp to the side of the pianist. A small crowd was gathered about, ice clinking in glasses as they sipped, voices raised to be heard above the piano, smoke curling around and then lingering above their heads. Elie cracked open two windows; it was getting hot with the blustering added to humidity from the rain. She didn’t want to push her way through, though a couple of acquaintances waved at her to come forward. Instead, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes once more.

A cool glass was pressed under her nose.

“Oz! I don’t need a drink. I’m listening.”

“As well you might; this is the new Bill Evans, or so I’m told. I know that name, of course, though I have a tin ear as you like to remind me. He does sound good. Take a sip, Elie, join the jolly fun, it’s Friday night!”

She gave him her polite “back off” look. Oz clinked his glass to hers and took off.

The wine was good but she wasn’t much of a drinker. Though her natural reticence was eased with a glass or two, she liked being conscious, fully present. Especially when it came to music. She set the goblet down on a window ledge and moved slowly through the group, smiled hello, greeted another linguistics student, turned back to hug her old roommate. Then she turned and stepped forward again.

And stopped in her tracks.

The pianist was shirtless and looked a bit disheveled, sweaty. It didn’t shock but startled her. The man’s eyes were closed and a cigarette dangled from his lips. He was wiry, on the thin side despite a muscled abdomen. A heavy necklace lay on his bare chest. On his shoulder Elie spotted a tatoo that said “Indio”. He leaned into the keyboard, fingers running over ivory and ebony as though they were an extension of his being, essential, beloved. His face was suffused with peace, inklings of joy. Perhaps longing or wonder moved across his appealing features. Elie wasn’t sure at first glance what his face told her except it belonged to this incredible music.

And it was then she knew who he was. The recognition sent a flush to her cheeks, tears to her eyes–struck her in such a way that she felt weakened and charged with power all at once.

It wasn’t possible. Was it? Two thousand miles away from Chicago and the old, grimy neighborhood? Lifetimes away from her youth. Yet here seemed to be the very boy she had fallen in love with at fourteen. He had the same dark features, the same intense set of jaw and shoulders as he played. He was just a somewhat worn, older version of himself. Only then his name was Charlie Millsinger. Elie watched him play and knew they had to be the same hands that had made a creaky upright sing on stage in eighth grade as she sat in a dank auditorium, wishing he knew she was there. It wasn’t long before he did. And then, even with their naiveté and differences, they told each other they were soul mates. They instantly understood each other. And what a gift for music ran through Charlie’s veins, even then. Elie wrote and he made music and they were happy for a long time.

Until Charlie moved to Syracuse, New York with his stern father and little sister after his mother suddenly died. They tried to stay in touch for a few months. He wasn’t much of a letter writer. Elie was not one to chase what seemed so beyond her reach. It hadn’t been destiny after all, she decided, but she hadn’t forgotten, either. Not by a long shot.

He opened his eyes as he brought the song to a cascading culmination. Elie felt it had to be Charlie, those were his deep brown eyes with a few crinkles at the edges, his expressive lips, his way of commanding the keys, his head inclined at a slight angle. But why was he Carter Mills now? Was this what he needed to do to leave behind his past, forge another path? Was he making music full-time, making it happen? It certainly sounded as if he had taken his talent and worked it and worked it until it did his bidding. She knew he was exceptional. Still.

Carter stubbed out the cigarette and lay his hands in his lap. Looked around. Elie lowered her head, started to back up as Carter stood, put on his rumpled shirt, left the piano. He circled the edge of the group, smiling as he looked around and shook hands. How tall he had gotten, how broad of shoulder and so confident! She hadn’t imagined he would be so much himself. Yet, much more. He had transformed from shy prodigy to someone who emanated a calm, magnetic energy. Elie felt foolish watching his every move. She found a chair in the corner and sat. If she had any courage at all she would go right up to him and speak his real name, remind him who she was. It could be so easy. Yet she waited, uncertain. What would they say now? She was not the girl she had been, either.

Before she could make a decision, he walked right by her with a beaded glass of ice water in hand, then placed it on a napkin on the piano. And began to play once more.

Elie got up from her chair and followed the music to him. She stood at the edge of the group that began to disperse, then stepped closer. She leaned against the piano and looked at him as his eyes closed and he put his body and soul into the song, let it carry him, them, to a place of circuitous delights. She began to sway with the rhythm, to hum along. And when he opened his eyes, they met hers.

Carter, her Charlie, kept right on playing but his gaze never left her face. She smiled at him and he smiled back with warmth. She watched his awareness awaken. The realization of who she was. Who they had been to one another. His hands stilled, then fell from the keys.

He stood up. “Eloise? Is it you? No…really?”

“Charlie, yes.”

He took her hands in his, then embraced her, saying her name again, an unrestrained cry enveloped his words. They felt exactly like they used to, perfect together, better than she had imagined it being. It was challenging to think of him as Carter as they exclaimed over the time and distances and now this meeting, but she was no longer little Eloise, either. They’d learn the changes, or they would not. Time would reveal more.

The crowd had quieted when he stopped playing and now they stood still, listening like a good audience to their exclamations. Verushka and Oz came up, baffled. Then Oz figured out it was all good so he began to clap. Verushka and others joined in, no one understanding what they were celebrating but raising their glasses, whistling, glad to be there on that rainy Friday night. To witness a romance illuminating the drear of winter.

“It’s the magic of my Friday Salon, you know. People get together all the time here. I’m thinking of renaming it Verushka’s Love Connection.” She glanced at Oz, then laughed. “Not really, of course. How dreadful!”

They started toward the kitchen in search of more finger foods. He liked helping her out.

“I think,” he said, wiping off the counter with a flourish, “we should call it a victory for our Elie. I’m stunned by her story. Who would have thought? I wondered if she’d find the right man and it turns out she just had to follow the music. Amazing–to find each other again. All because of your work and good intentions, you rare creature.”

Verushka put her arm around his waist in an uncharacteristic act of impulsivity, then leaned her head on his shoulder. She gave him the slightest squeeze, just enough that he knew he could squeeze back. They seemed to fit well, he thought, and said so. To her surprise, she had to quite agree.

 

The Power of Blue-Greeness

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The northern Michigan lake waters were undulating with energy, striated with transparent blues that changed with the angle of sunlight. I sat on the dock and watched waves roll onto the rocky shore like a long exhalation, then listened to the inhalation as they pulled back. In the distance, the others were horsing around on a floating dock so I took off my glasses and jumped into the jade-to-navy depths. There would be time to sit and daydream later when the sun went down.

The water rushed over my legs and arms, covered my head. I opened my eyes enough to make out shadows and shapes beneath me. Swaying plants tried to entangle me, bits of muck floated up from the bottom then floated on. As I swam further out the sediment settled, the waters cleared. I could spot fish darting this way and that and sometimes felt them skim by my legs or nibble my toes. Though I was not conversant in the fine art and science of fishing, I loved their names as well as delicious flavors: perch, bluegill, yellow bass, trout, pike, whitefish. I dearly wished my parents fished. I enjoyed observing those who cast their lines patiently, admiring the skills of such a peaceful pursuit.

We played on and around the floating dock for hours, forgetting about the sun’s power to singe our skin after the initial slathering of baby oil. We engaged in uproarious cannonball jumping contests that left our skin smarting. I loved to dive and practiced making my body taut and thin and swift like a knife as it sliced through the lake’s ever-moving surface. On the way back up I followed the stremas of light, finally shooting up and out, silent, at ease. I felt at home surrounded by lake life.

Nearby powerboats showed off, young men and women demonstrating their prowess behind the wheel. I knew I would be waterskiing before the week-end was over and anticipation surged through me. There was nothing like the experience of being tugged through the water, legs straining to hold up cumbersome skis, the tips just out of the water, then that tug becoming a force that yanked me up so I could ride the surface. It was either stand tall, use every muscle in thighs, torso and arms to keep balanced and upright or fall, sputtering, into a choppy wake. Once up and steady, gliding and zigzagging across water was an explosive thrill for body and mind.

And then there were canoes, sailboats, and rowboats. I was happy in any of them. As I floated and bobbed near the edge of the lake, I searched unruly undergrowth as shapes and sounds caught my attention. Birds rose and darted and sang. Birches, pines, beeches and maples and oaks with all their variances of beauty filled me with appreciation. Serenity ruled.

In the evening I would gather with family, friends or neighbors on a rough lawn overlooking the lake to watch fall the lemony-orange globe of sun, that brilliant overseer of daytime whose light gave way to a phantasmagoria of color. And then arrived deep mystery of darkness.

Nature revealed itself differently in the soft charcoal black of evening. After we played the fireflies’ “catch-as-catch-can” game, their luminescence like blessings, a wall of sound surrounded us. Frogs’ light or bass voices, crawling and flying and biting insects, flip-flops of fish, the lake’s shushing vocalizations, four-legged creatures scampering and scratching, winged things (birds and bats vied for air space) with their odd Morse codes. Nothing was as emblematic of lake country as the eerie yodel of the loon, the song floating through the night. With red eyes peering from its elegant black head, its white and black striped body bobbing along, it was startling in its grave loveliness.

Later, someone might light a fire and bring out hot dogs, then marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers for S’mores. The talk would be generous, easy, traded with quietness that soothed. I would slip away, back down to the dock. Let my feet find the water, its silken coolness sleeking my skin. The fragrances of lake country claimed me, a damp muskiness of earth and fecund sweetness of water, both rare, ancient perfumes. Across the water were lights of more cottages and cabins, other campfires, and they were cast onto water in an ethereal pulsing necklace of gleaming points.

Above, the celestial map of heaven where stars looked to me as if they held all the wisdom if only I could only fly up to meet them. The moon illuminated the lake realms with an opalescent swatch of light, gentle and steady, powerful and unattainable.

I was filled with God’s Presence. I felt whole in and of myself, yet taken beyond the small self that sat upon a weathered dock. I felt flung far beyond yet held close to my body’s confines. Nothing could have convinced me I was not counted as a thread in that perfect, fathomless tapestry because I knew my place in it. Integral to planet earth and the universe. And I felt utterly safe.

This is why blue-green is my color of enchantment: it is the waters of my youth. It is the color of open sky and towering trees in the northern woodlands. It is the night air as twilight bridges afternoon and evening. It is the color that heals, that illuminates, soothes, brings forth living energy within parts of me that are deepest and wildest and ever seeking–and finding–God.

*****

Today I let my heart write. For most of the afternoon I had not one idea, an unusual occurrence for someone who can write the moment pen touches paper or fingers hit keys. I was distracted by musings about a daughter who has been called to pastor a small Presbyterian church in northern Michigan. It is a place she values and, after years living in other states, she is coming full circle. She once resided near the very church she will oversee. In fact, she reclaimed and grew her faith less than an hour away, then embarked on the demanding journey to become the person and minister she is today.

I understand some of the significance of her return to the area. I was there her earliest days, later followed her stumbles and triumphs through time and distance. I know some of the cost of her work, her losses and gains. But beyond that our family of seven often visited the northern lakes and woods for happy vacations, stayed with her paternal grandmother and great grandmother not far from where she will be making her own home. Now she will design another adventure, each year another exploration and revelation.

Her tie to this country and to God awakened some of my own past today. My connection to northern Michigan country goes back over fifty-five years. My parents never owned a week-end home but we knew many people who did and who graciously invited us. It has been a long tradition for scores of families to “go up north” for the week-end or holiday getaways for snow skiing and snowboarding and also each summer, if possible. So we would follow the caravan of cars, trucks and vans along I-75 to scores of lakes. Michigan has 11,000 such inland lakes. There are 3,000 miles of Great Lakes coast. There is plenty of water for everyone.

Going up north was a joyous occasion. The bountiful landscapes called to me with an intensity I can only partly describe but recall viscerally though I have been gone from Michigan for 22 years. The breathless wonder I felt along those pine-strewn pathways, amid ghostly, stately birches; the joy that arose with scents and permutations of lake waters; the peace that entered my being like osmosis as I wandered ragged shores–it was a gift every time. It was no small salvation to be up north as I attended what is now called Interlochen Arts camp, where the arts and nature combine to provide powerful creative energies. My childhood and youth were rocked by life-changing trials. To my relief I early on discovered nature provided a conduit for God’s presence that I sometimes could not otherwise locate. Here was indelible proof that there was order, grace, symmetry, reliability, perfection amid irregularity, possibilities emerging from devastation and renewal from sudden loss.

The lakes, the forests, the secret, complex pulse points of places that returned hope and its innocence to my childhood were cherished. I called upon them as one calls upon Ominpotence for rescue. God heard me; I, God. There, I was righted when I faltered. With the singsong rhythms of the lake, Divnity sang old, regenerative songs. Within the seasons of the wild was the promise of permanency as all else shifted around and within me. There, kneeling on a piney cushion under trees, gazing out over the rippling water, emerging into sun and winds that polished my skin, I learned the earth’s story. It was courageous and wise. The outdoors gave wings to a weighted soul and guided me toward a faith that could not be contained within brick and glass, nor practiced only before an altar. This faith journey had its passage guided by a compass of the stars, which never left me, which never dimmed.

Along the way, happiness always returned. How could it not, with birds nesting and calling out? How could it not, with the rise of sun casting gold on water and the wind sculpting waves of teal, silver and sapphire? I would have never known that life could be so abundant, infused with delicacy and strength without those nights and days of water’s tales, campfires and fireflies unmasking the darkness and revealing miracles within enchanted lands.

Daughter, I know what calls to you. I have heard it, too. It is the voice of Almighty God that never sleeps, that cannot forsake us, that will not promise more than can and will be given. It is life lived in the center of the universe, inside the heart of a wood, in the great chalice of a lake and sky, in the opening of our hearts and hands: a victorious message offered all humankind.

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(For Caitilin, may your days and nights be imbued with Love)