My spouse and I are headed out for a getaway. He works way too hard so I had to reserve a place, then persuade him to come–of course he agreed! We’ll be exploring our fabulous beaches and forests, so no posts next week unless for some unusual reason I decide to stay put indoors with the laptop. But inspiration is easy to come by, so I will be absorbing it all, giving mind, body and soul a respite while storing up new treasures for more prose and poem writing.
It will be tough to not post photographs, however, so my Visionary Views blog may stay active.
I hope you each discover ways (even if just at home, if feeling weary from busyness or as grey as the weather) to create or avail yourselves of nourishment, too. May your upcoming week be imbued with lovely moments, good play and good work.
I also want to thank you right now for showing up to read what I have to share with you. The past two years have shown an enormous increase in visitors and followers and your kind interest encourages me to keep at it.
I’ll be back in my makeshift office in a week!
Go well amid God’s blessings,
(P.S. For those of you who’ve been following awhile, my gravatar picture has been updated–not as young, but still kickin’!)
News headlines are intense enough to infiltrate my dreams, which then can snag me as I push up from sleep like a drowning woman. I breathe the sweetness of early spring air, blink in the daylight and can’t believe such luck, the fate that grants me another moment of life and relative peace. Today I am not running or fighting for my life as someone, somewhere, is every second. I soon rise from rest–even if spotty, most likely I will find it later or the next night–and initiate comfortable routines. Illness may slow me down; my perspective may need altering. But I have choices that countless others on this earth do not have. It gives me considerable pause.
Does it come down to safety? What does that mean in the twenty-first century? The constant reminders of worldwide fighting, a myriad of brutalities, make it clear it is tentative at best. And, of course, we are inundated with advice about how to protect our homes, health, families. We are admonished to safeguard our computers and passwords, our possessions and personal information. Major money is spent on security systems that are to provide a decent deterrent to intruders casing property of all sorts, and, hopefully, an effective barrier. We realize these work a certain percentage of the time only. But we develop an educated hope, indulge in denial–or risk living in fear.
The so-called “age of anxiety” we have been hearing about for several decades was in existence long before being given a catchy name to commercialize, but the past century’s rapid industrial-technological expansion has ratcheted up pressures and problems, as well. For one thing, there are more people so there is bound to be more encroachment on personal freedoms, daily comfort zones and actual territory. Do we even expect to live without a modicum of nervous uncertainty, anymore? Anxiety has become a byword, a pass key that admits us to the club, makes us a part of industrialized cultures. We all get to feel besieged by a greater world anxiety, too–just turn on the computer, t.v. and radio. Glance at the newstand. The mood is unsettled at the least, tinged with nihilism and prone to cast the future as doomed. More often than not, even entertainment feels more like being dragged through a briar patch than a respite of any good sort.
But have we come to expect to feel anxious and to believe it is terrible? Or is all this angst one easy explanation for self-doubts that assail human thought and endeavor? Afterall, the age of psychology has writ large the prescriptions we need–more talk therapy, more medications. We are told we’re naturally in knots and we must fix it fast. Or is there another way to tame the toxic circle of ruminations? Learn to live with the variable weather of life?
I apologize; I digress as is my bad habit. I can’t ignore that the world has been chronically ill at ease, beset by moaning and wracked by power struggles. Marked by mourning. I’m not sure our ancestors made it the number one public enemy. Life was certainly no simpler in the past despite less fancy inventions. Survival was key, a battle against a host of huge odds. In many ways and places, it still is.
I cannot speak to others’ histories or much of current events. But I can share some of my family history. I doubt that my German-Irish-Scotch-English forebears felt much more secure than I, for one reason or another. I know my mother’s family had plenty of troubles. She told tough stories of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, her hard-working father losing his farm in Missouri so that he was forced to become a tenant farmer, his dignity shredded. The poverty that resulted was fierce for his wife and eleven children, one–my mother’s favorite brother–who died for lack of affordable, timely medical care. Her tales informed me that our educated, middle class lives in mid-twentieth century were by far a finer circumstance. They also showed me that folks could be overtaken by events, wrestled to ground. A small child, I didn’t know that might include me.
I was of the conviction that my mother was a hearty woman of body, mind and soul. But one way I knew she had known fear was how she hesitated if someone rapped suddenly at the back door of our house. A stairway led from the kitchen to that door. We could open the door at the top of the steps and see a silhouette through the rectangular flowered curtain. She would hold her breath. In general, there should be no back door knocking. Friends, family, music students of my father’s or customers who brought instruments to him to repair generally used the big front door. But not always; his repair shop was in the basement. I also knew the washer might need fixing or the furnace was on the blink but she could become alert as a creature in the wild.
“Wait there,” she ordered in a firm voice.
She pushed apart the curtain just enough so she could see who was standing there. If she lifted her hand in a wave at me, I knew it was okay. If she came back up and locked the door in the kitchen–an unusual occurrence–I knew to stay put. We often waited at the kitchen table until the person gave up. She tried to think who it could have been. I wanted to run upstairs and peer down at the driveway to see who it was that left.
“People would steal from the farm until we finally lost it,” she explained. “They’d sneak on our property in the night and take a chicken or even a squealing pig. I’d listen to the dogs barking, chasing them as I tried to go back to sleep by my sisters. I worried: one less chicken, one less pig.”
She looked out my bedroom window, grey eyes unfocused.
“Once I was working in the hayloft when a dirty man rushed in, his eyes wild, face so thin, clothes hanging from him. I knew he was very hungry. We all were, sooner or later. He glanced up in a frenzy as he dashed about looking for something. I froze. That moment felt like a million years. I tried to call my brothers but my voice stuck in my throat. He looked at the ladder to the loft, then ran out. I collapsed in a heap but I never told anyone.”
I snuggled under my blankets, hanging on every word. The Farm Stories, as I called them, were some of my favorites at bedtime, a whole other world taking shape, with many moments of wonder and laughter, too. But this was serious and sad.
She sat close to me, her hand on my arm.
“Your grandmother did feed people if they came to our back door. If she could spare anything at all. It might be half an apple or a thin piece of bread. Maybe they’d get lucky and get a piece of pie. Sometimes they seemed crazed, acted angry but sometimes they were so glad to have anything. Some seemed ashamed to ask. But she shooed us away from the door, and said not to tell our father. She kept a shotgun close by. I came to fear the sound of strangers knocking at our door, not knowing what they would want or demand. Those were desperate days, and they got worse.”
I’d ask a few questions and she’d tuck me in, kiss my cheek. “Thank heaven I met your father, and we both got to go to college, poor as we were. And here we are. We have so much. Now say your prayers.”
But some fears were never fully allayed. My father (whose father had been more secure as a public school superintendent) always worried about money and how he would take care of five children, working seven days a week in music education and administration, giving private lessons, keeping a piano tuning and instrument repair business.
I also suspected that worse times alluded to by my mother indicated she and others suffered more than I’d ever understand. And then came World War II and that was another hell that bypassed ones like me, born after it ended. All this left scars on those who survived.
So, safety means different things to different people, perhaps. What feels reasonably safe to a child, for instance, in India may be very unlike that which a child in New Zealand or the Alaskan wilderness feels. Yet we all seek protection of (or fight for) basic human rights and fulfillment of biological needs. We all hope for love and acceptance. Without the essential criteria of human well-being met, we begin to weaken, find ourselves living in a Netherland of worries.
I felt deeply safe for the first several years of my life. I recall what that was: freedom. It was the pleasure of making friends and enjoying many activities without a second thought. It was counting on the day to unfold tidily, though little children don’t foolishly imagine the future as adults do. There was a steadiness in my world, my parents and siblings being at the center. Hopscotch on the sidewalk of a busy street. Swing from the maple tree. Jump rope in the front yard. I’d hop on my bike and ride all over, go around our big town block with nary a concern. I just had to tell my mother where I was going (well, first I asked) and she told me when to be back. No cell phones kept us connected. If I made any small detour at a friend’s, I called her from the landline.
That freedom was curtailed by the time I was eight years old when I was sexually abused by someone we knew well. It continued for some years. I was under the perpetrator’s constant threat of ruin of my family or harm to me including death. It involved being kidnapped for short periods on occasion by car, so that eventually when I noticed the vehicle pull up terror jumped into my heart and lodged in my stomach. In other circumstances, I became hyper-aware, senses working overtime so I could outwit him. I most often failed. At night I had nightmares that this person would break into the house. No one could protect me. He was found out–he was an elementary school teacher–and fired by the time I was eleven. And my life had been altered irrevocably.
So early on I learned what loss of safety was. I wouldn’t have known how to define being no longer secure. It meant, for me, that some crucial life-giving light went out of every day and the night felt like a burden. I lived moment to moment in survival mode that remained a hidden thing while going on with my life as expected, doing well in school and engaging in youthful activities. Strangely, the following few decades brought other dangerous events. It would have been easy to feel as if an invisible target was on my back. For a time I did, and found myself at odds with all I wanted to reach for–God’s plan for me was kinder than this, wasn’t it? I got lost in the journey toward wholeness in more ways than imagined. Post traumatic stress disorder landed me in psychiatric wards as a teen (no one knew what happened–I could not speak of it–and in the sixties this issue wasn’t given press, was a taboo topic); to the spiral of substance abuse; emergency rooms and near-death. Unwise relationships. And to my knees, beseeching God, for God was the tensile thread that kept me alive. In time, I got back to my innermost core, the healthy, sturdy self I was developing before I was held hostage by fear.
Perhaps nonsensically to others, I also had to surrender my definitions of safety and fear. Not everything or person was unsafe, was it? Of course not. I did not want to live looking over my shoulder. I also didn’t want to be inured to danger’s signals and take undue risks so paid close attention to intuition, that other sense. I had to learn to live free again. And I wanted to be wiser. To be a woman of substance who did not give up. It might have been my bent for the dramatic that made me want to be–to act–far braver than I felt; it helped. At seventeen, I designed and created a silver ring with a shield and cross and wore it as a visible reminder of spiritual strength via the grace of God. (Ironically, it was lost at a party right after senior year. It felt like a warning to me and, in fact, there were a few years’ rockier times ahead.)
And what was truly worth being scared or anxious about? Just what was the safety I most desired? How was I going to define what was acceptable in my life script as a woman, as a human being? And could I accept that life is unpredictable even in the best of times?
Answers thus far:
*very little is worth being anxious about as it hinders, doesn’t help, and sometimes I need to accept things as they are or make a change;
*the safety I seek and find most crucial is built upon a spiritual foundation;
*what is acceptable to me is what will do no harm to others or self and does good in the name of Love;
*unpredictability is a standard feature of being alive and it is invigorating as well as confounding.
If I long ago discovered life was riddled with illusions and painful experiences, I also believed God would not abandon me, no matter what. That I would find enough strength to endure. There was a way back to beauty and joy if I looked hard for it. I am not alone in this; the statistics on abuses of all types are sky-high for children and for women. And men, as well. It takes emotional drudgery to regain motivation to go on as well as unwavering mental commitment to reorder life following such events. Much patience and support. It is a bleaker road to travel without care from others and resources to help heal. I am grateful for all that has lit the way. And I have been able to offer a hand to others in serious distress, something I promised God as a teen.
But the genuine security desired and sought required that persistent faith in God–despite my anger and pain. It was the world that was often harsh and tricky, not Divine Love. Life’s unpredictability had to be navigated daily; its challenges had to be understood and well met. God did not fail me but withstood and carried the suffering of Earth and its people long before I was present. I have been one more person out of billions come and gone. God so loves us far beyond our limited understanding. Believe it, despite the realities of world news and our daily lives being tested, too often within harm’s reach. Why do I believe? I was rescued from the poison of bitterness, from a murky abyss of despair time and time again. I have known others to suffer far worse, then get up and start anew. I am filled with thanksgiving for this life, this blip in the celestial timepiece of eternity.
I like to read the Psalms, those fervent prayers that King David offered to God. He did not have it easy in spite of his adoration of life and God. He was a conflicted person in many ways, one who felt anger and lust, tenacious regret and humiliation, despair and self-righteousness and all the other failings humans seem heir to despite our best efforts. His songs/poems or psalms give me comfort. I appreciate how David struggled and how his faith lifted and inspired him. The magnitude of his devotion to God and the strength of his committment to become a better person (and ruler) sheds illumination on my own small life. His words remind me to keep my priorities straight, no matter what. Spiritual protection is real and it makes an enduring difference.
Teach me the way I should go,
for to You I lift up my soul.
–from Psalm 143
Where are we looking for safety? This world has always been and will be dangerous, tomorrow unknown. But we can still step into each day empowered with hope and courage nourished by our spiritual nature. We can take good direction from unshakeable Love. We can help one another. Let your life be bountiful even–especially–in the face of uncertainty. May your soul’s refuge be a stronghold.
The light is failing or it is my eyes. Treetops and meadows blur. I am staring at something I cannot quite pinpoint, far off. Maybe it is only the changing of seasons, dark months torn open by sun, a shock that threatens to blind me. I blink a few times and scenery disappears even when my eyelids stay open. But another second or two and eyes refocus; I identify all I know so well. I am tired despite being up only four hours, since six o’clock.
I sit here after I scour the third of five bathrooms as always on Monday mornings for Idina. Sometimes for her husband, Richard. The room needs airing. This house is ancient, walls have absorbed everything that has been here, which is not to say the place smells badly most of the time–I wouldn’t tolerate that–just full of markers from past and present. It has all been updated, more or less. But still, it bears history heavily. Every room is the same. Vast, crumbling more than not yet exquisite to us all. Damp, yes, marred even when I am done. It’s what you would expect after over almost two hundred-fifty years.
The weather is dry today so I will open every window I can manage unless Idina snaps her fingers at me, gesturing at the shutters. Some days she feels ill with dyspepsia and cannot bear breezes carrying varieties of earthy scents. Some days she is just irritated with life. Then all is haunted by shadows and all the old things here and her family. But usually she smiles or nods in passing, hair swaying. She knows I am excellent at housekeeping, better than she could ever be if fortune turned and she had to take up my duties. But that won’t happen. Richard keeps her secure and can still make her laugh when he isn’t travelling. I help this aging place survive.
I see the cat, Tip, sharpening his claws on a fig tree. There is a bird not far away but Tip is lazy. He watches me all day long as I scurry from one task to another, his long black tail curled about his rotund body. He yawns at me when I try to get him to move so I can sweep. He is like many men I have known, comfortable and arrogant enough to ignore his duties and often me. But Tip’s small white-edged ears turn this way and that, tuning in to my whereabouts. He follows me from room to room, often. Unless he is captivated by mice, only as he pleases.
The grazing cows in the upper pasture send out their throaty moo,moo into warming air, their very simpleness making me glad the sun is shining and that I have ten minutes to sit. I close my eyes and listen to them. Bees (or is it those mud wasps) working hard. The creek tossing and turning its silvery sounds.
We were friends once. Idina and I. My parents farmed down the road and her parents travelled. They left her and brother, Anton, with Carolina, the nanny. There was a good-sized staff that ran the house and until Idina was eight she believed (or acted as if she did) they were extended family members, there to help out. I had to tell her the truth. She looked up at me–I was and still am taller–and frowned as if I had given her a sour candy that she had believed sweet. She asked Carolina to explain it.
“Right, as usual,” she said the next day. “I don’t know how you know things, Celia.”
“It’s because I get to live with the animals and climb trees. Living in a big house keeps you from real life.” I tossed a rock. “Ma says, anyway.”
“Your ma is sort of funny and smart but don’t tell my mama.”
“Because your ma milks cows. She’s a farmer’s wife.”
I didn’t like to think what she meant but she took my hand and pulled me along to a small pond where we watched salamanders appear and disappear under water. Then we had tea all our own on the side terrace. Never once did she act as if I didn’t belong there despite my ma being a farmer’s wife. Her parents tolerated it as long as they didn’t have to witness much, I thought later. I kept her occupied, whereas the older Anton, the heir, had a friend from private school he brought home during vacations.
We played together into our early youth, usually when her parents were gone. Caroline was like a big sister and let us roam, one eye on us and one on either her books or the gardener. Idina had her studies in the library and I went to village school half-days because my father liked that I could read so well and do maths. But it ended when mother bore her sixth squalling, soft-skinned infant and they needed help with him. I was fourteen and lucky I had managed classes that long.
At seventeen, I was asked if I would be interested in assisting the estate’s two older housekeepers. It was easy, so I stayed. I didn’t like farming very much and was not about to marry anyone I knew. This despite my father’s obligatory lectures on advantages of a reasonably friendly wedded life–he knew someone who had a nephew or a grandson or there was a visitor at the neighbor’s, why not be introduced? But he did like the added money I gave them. My mother said nothing, knowing as I did that, either way, I would not be free. At least at the estate I could have my own neat, tiny room overlooking the wild wooded acreage. I saw the sun spread its vivid palette along the tree line in morning. My few tattered books were stacked close by, my trusty companions. Peace at the end of the day rather than the chaos of half-raising my mother’s children. I promised to visit the farm every month or two and have managed that overall. I do love them.
Idina left a few months after I began my work. She married and spent the better part of a year in Italy with her husband, Richard, a businessman and vineyard owner. Soon, it was just like her parents, as if she couldn’t find a true spot to roost. We chatted less easily and frequently; that was natural. Our childhood days were far behind us.
I am the same, strong-bodied, curious-minded but she has become someone else. An even richer man’s wife than her own mother (who then was more often staying in Paris with her husband while he invested in a resurrected perfume business. Perfume!). Idina has lived twenty miles away at Richard’s manse sometimes, and then at the family home for reasons about which I speculated. Richard is still not as attentive as I know she needs. I watch her face when with him and it ripples with longing and disappointment. After her father passed away last year, her mother stayed in Paris. The house was to be sold. Idina refused to go along with that, arguing with an officious, portly Anton and their mother, now white-haired and distracted. After that she returned here for months at a time.
Of course I knew why but I never give away anything. They were never that well suited, Richard with his minions holding forth at their place all hours of day and night from what I’ve gathered from others; Idina with her rebelliously empty womb and passion for art, music and need for order. She seems more frail each passing year. It makes me uneasy but I can’t help her now. And would not be asked.
I know my work beckons, but Tip is playing with a grasshopper, I think, and the light has turned caramel, the air balmy. It seems as if I would rather neglect things. Idina won’t fuss, as long as I get tasks completed by the time I turn in.
Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up. The thirtieth. It had long ago seemed a fairy tale age, a time when one would have settled in once and for all. Children gathered as they did around my mother, soon to be replaced by grandchildren. But beyond that, a purpose that offered tangible and other rewards of some kind. A more incandescent quality to living, does that sound ridiculous? It might have unfolded like that but the possibilities shrink. I embraced the position of housekeeper at eighteen and in three months knew the work so well I could do it without thinking. So I thought of what I had read before breakfast or what I wanted to jot down later, poetry coming in quick groupings of imagery. Wondered over the insects and birds that claimed plants and trees as I hung the wash. The nature of God as I surveyed the workings of our celestial realm yet had few names for all I did not understand and needed to know intimately.
Now I feel empty-headed too often. As if no one resides there, only a shadow of who I was. It terrifies me.
The latest thoughts have been of finding a way out. But how? To what? I haven’t met one suitor in well over four years. The ones that came and went were dull-witted, irresponsible, even unattractive. The one man on staff who is single and closest to my age is turning silver-haired. He is prone to jokes that grow longer and worse with each telling. He would be overjoyed by my company if I had any small part to give. I cannot bear the idea.
I am not content, anymore. If I ever was. How do I know what I want when I have never been given the chance to seek more than what I have? Yet I dream that I am educated, perhaps a teacher and also writing and if there is love it comes with interchange that uplifts mind as well as heart. How many other women feel the pull like a sea tide must feel? I worry it will drag me away and leave me with no good fortune at all.
Tip rolls over in the grass and gazes up at me, sinuous tail dancing, then is up on all fours and gone. I hear someone calling for another, a cook’s helper perhaps, for luncheon. The breeze skims my arms. I close the shutter in time to bar an interested wasp from entry, then move on.
The hallway is still. At the end and to the right are Idina’s rooms. I hesitate, then straighten my shoulders and set out to see if she is up yet, will tell her I am ready to clean her washroom. As I round the corner, she opens the bedroom door, hand to chest as if deep in thought, then looks up and stops in her tracks.
“I was just thinking of you.”
She held out her hand and I went to her.
“Did you need something?”
Her face is pale and her slender hand is at her throat. “Come in my room.”
The drapes are drawn as usual and her bed is a mess, twisted sheets revealing her night of sleeplessness, pillows on the floor.
“Sit down, Celia. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
She’s always had a thin face with sallow skin that made her deep brown eyes seem larger, irises warmed with a cast of gold. But now her skin is more antique ivory, her lips pale as well and quivering. I look down at my folded hands. She is not well.
“We never talk anymore.” She leans toward me a little.
I give her a small smile.
“Well, I don’t like it. We were best friends for so long, then we were not even allowed to see each other, anymore. Foolish of our parents. The older generation always thinks it knows the best thing. When it’s all just what they are comfortable with, what is correct in their eyes.”
I don’t disagree as that would be rude but she was much less interested in being a friend, too. My mother thought it sad I had lost Idina’s friendship and vice versa. But this is a first in some years, her being personal. I sit still.
“I want us to be friends again, Celia. Can we find a way to do that in this house, these times?”
I start, sit up straight and stare at her so hard she lowers her long eyelashes.
“Maybe I’ve made a mistake.”
“You’ve made a mistake? No, not at all. It’s just. Well, it’s been twelve years since I came to work for your family. You. I’m not sure what you’re needing from me.”
Idina gets up from the chair, walks to the window, parts the sumptuous blue curtains, a swirl of dust entering a stripe of sunlight that appears. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, my cleaning not being up to standard. She doesn’t notice. She opens the curtains and her face is flooded with that rich light I love this time of year.
“I’m pregnant. And I’m afraid.”
“Oh!” I feel a surge of giddiness and then unease.
She stays at the window, but turns back to me. “I don’t know how I can do this. I’m quite alone. Richard doesn’t seem that desirous of children or of me, anymore. He doesn’t know yet. He’s travelling again.”
“Ah. I see.” Energy traverses spine and neck, turning into a shiver.
“Do you? Because I’m not sure I even can! It’s a mess, really. He’s gone all the time, he may have other….interests…I can’t bear to think how I will manage.”
Idina sits down again and reaches for my hands. I cover hers in both of mine and feel her deflate, her body crumple against the chair.
What do I want to ask? Do you still love this man? Are you having other health issues? Are you going to be alright? Of course not, she is a wreck as well she should be. After all the years and here we are again, our childhoods so gone we can barely see them. Yet she needs me.
I try again. “What is it you want?”
Idina’s head lowers to her hands. “I just need a true friend.”
Now, you might think that after all these years I would have heard these words and felt once more welcomed, been relieved, look forward to her company. Instead, I release her hands and pull myself up tall. I am filled with sadness and anger.
“Now? You now want me close, Idina? When trouble strikes you feel I should come running as when we were ten? These are adult complications that intimate friends share… I don’t know you, really, not at all. I have been a housemaid passing, soundless, while you have come and gone, lived your rightful and separate life. I agreed to this, the money has made a difference; I have had some good times here. But it has worked because we set a boundary long ago. We have kept to our separate stations. It is too late to be such close friends as you desire, way too late.”
She begins to cry, hiding her face in her hands. How small she looks in her periwinkle dress, her finely woven grey shawl. I have to root my feet to the floor to not reach out to her. I am not the carefree child who has boundless love. I am a pinched and aching and restless woman, given to flights of fantasy, given to dreams that may never come true for me. She has had choices, not so many, but more. She has had love, not the best perhaps but years of companionship. She now has a baby coming. To nurture and cope with day and night. I know all about that after years of being my mother’s hands and feet.
All I want is out.
“I’m sorry, truly I am. I can’t be a nursemaid, caring for your surprise child. I can’t hold you up through thick and thin now. And I don’t want to clean toilets and dust libraries whose books I cannot even take the time to read even if they were available to me. I have to take my own life into my hands. I must do just that when you find my replacement. You were a good friend, once. We were there for each other, once. But now we live lives so far apart that they do not intersect in a way that has meaning for me. I’m not a friend for hire, Idina. You do need care and help. But that help is not me.”
I touch her shoulder–I want to put my arms around her and cry with her even as I want to go–but she bats my hand away. Uncertain and fearful of what I have done, I hesitate. Then Tip scratches at the door. I let him in. He trots in with a small brown mouse in mouth and carefully lays it at my feet. I am glad to see his efforts have paid off and more so that he has brought his victory to share with us. With me, in fact. I turn to Idina but she is still weeping as if she will never stop. But she will.
Tip is at attention, looking satisfied and neat as a pin. He purrs as I smooth that fine old head.
“Good job, old fellow. Quite the catch. But I have my own work to do. You’ll have to show your mistress.”
Tip picks up his mouse and walks out the door with me, then runs down the winding stairs. I pull it shut and hurry to the next room, chin up, chest opening as I catch the heady scent of spring from somewhere beautiful.
In this world of billions, do you know exactly who you are? Or are you defined by what others imagine to be you?
You might answer: an overseer of systems; a happy but beleaguered parent of triplets under age two; a college grad who ditched the job hunt to camp across the USA, or a gardener who battles multiple sclerosis. The first person may be seen as a “techie” or “geek”. The second may be viewed as unlucky or saintly. The third could be called bold, aimless, or impulsive. And the gardener, brave– or comprimised.
But at the end of each day, who do these folks really think they are? Do they go home and ponder what it is they honestly want/need/love/loathe, then end up feeling lost? Or do are they better attuned to what matters most, the inner intersecting the outer, continuing to confirm their actual identities?
How we define ourselves may be getting more complicated as the world’s technologies advance. We are given many opportunities to obscure or reinterpret who we are. No longer confined to front porches, to known neighborhoods or even one country’s cultural climates, we can broaden our world without end. With social media and technological advances, fancy phones and tablets and all the dazzling apps and options, people can and do create new identities online, for example. The televsion show “Catfish” exposes that curious phenonomen.
If I want to be “Brad”, age 32–okay, easy. If I want to tell you I reside on an island off Italy’s coast, how can you determine otherwise if I do my homework (online)? I might, in fact, be a woman over fifty who lives in a row house in Detroit. Or maybe I’ll just say I’m a woman over 40 who has a career as a young adult book illustrator, loves Siamese cats, and has no kids. Meanwhile, this hypothetical “I” is, in fact, wondering how much longer things can be managed with an alcoholic husband, an autistic son and a part-time job. But who is to ever know?
I am not, of course, dismissing playing, trying on different styles and ways of expression, stepping into another role from time to time, exploring fresh avenues of becoming. I doubt we ever stop experimenting entirely with how we inhabit ourselves and manifest personality. As human beings, we evolve richly over time, using our own basic building blocks, our own boxes of colors.
But technology can obscure things for me rather than clarify. I often wonder what a person texting messages is actually thinking, feeling and doing. Where are the vocal inflections, the minute facial changes that reveal so much? Can a simple “emoticon” even mimic the correct emotion? How quick to pick a smiley face and send that on. How lazy, I suspect. How little it takes to throw one liners and truncated symbols out there. Who really cares what we feel in the daily mad dash for success or sheer survival? Still, I wonder how it is that we got so busy we can’t spare fifteen minutes to make a call or a half hour to stop by to say “hello.” To look at each other, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Now that takes some vulnerability. Intention and determination. Trust.
But even when we have the time to visit one another, it can be hard to drop a persona that is well-known, habitual. Hard to be frank about what’s really going on in our lives–good, not good or boring. I have skimmed over more meetings with friends and family than I to admit. It may be a minor at the time, but later it can sure bother me.
I recently had lunch with a close friend whom I met twenty years ago. We’ve both worked in the mental health/addictions treatment field for decades. While I am now retired, she has been employed ten years in a prison setting. Her work is so integral to who she is that she talks about clients (no names) almost as if they were her family. There are characteristics I recognize from way back–sudden laughter, garrulousness, an easy yet tough demeanor that demonstrates she will accept everyone if possible but not without immovable boundaries. I know some of her most private stories; she knows some of mine. She is one of the most generous people I have ever known. I know she loves blues but also opera and Bonnie Raitt. And that she is ill, that her life will come to a close far sooner than either of us can admit.
I know all this because we have gotten together a long time. She does not do email, Facebook, or texting. She doesn’t even like to phone that much.
“If we’re friends, we’ll make time for each other,” she insists.”I don’t have patience for the tiny keyboard and fancy stuff. Let’s cut to the chase. If we want to hang out, let’s not pretend to just write what we feel or tell news we can finish fast. I’ll meet you at 10:30 this Saturday.”
I know her history and that who she was in her twenties still exists minus the heavy existential angst or cumbersome baggage. She has had to contend with many labels over time. But she is who she truly seems to be. She has gotten older, sure. A little heavier, fine lines on her strong face. And she has mellowed by her own accord. But her values and beliefs have been central to her character as long as I have known her. Her boldness and big heart. Her realness. My unfabricated friend. She doesn’t have an urge to cover up who she is, nor to evade harder truths. She offers up her personhood with a dash of humility and often laughs at herself: Here I am, nothing more, nothing less.
Time changes us in subtle ways, but not the intrinsic essence of who we are. Our values and habits are carried with us into stormy or sunny weather, from highs to lows. If they work well, we keep them; if not, we can exchange them for something that better fits who we are as we mature. But we are likely known by them wherever we go, even years later. Any parent can tell you this: we know our children’s strengths and quirks in babyhood and they intensify or jell as each year passes. A core personality was present from the start. Even if behaviors can be learned and unlearned, then recreated, that central personhood somehow remains faithful to infant beginnings. Of course, big events–natural and otherwise– can remake people to some degree. Cataclysmic change like something miraculous or monstrous shakes the personal core. Transformation of a profound sort may reorder the whole person, even appear unrecognizable to others. But it is just as possible that the essence that was original comes forward, even more pronounced. That kernel of personality revives and triumphs.
Many, even most, people have a work persona and a private life persona. Like my friend noted above, I have heard I don’t show such distinctions. You might not have known many personal details when at work (boundaries), but I was not effecting some other incarnation of myself–I’d share what felt right. When I demonstrated public speaking skills in my job, you can be assured I also like to talk at home, hopefully with precision, always with my hands dancing and with feeling. Conviction. If I was a persistent, hard worker at the office, you can expect I am at home. And if I was quick to stand up for others in my work, I will do the same for you and for my family. But, too, if I disliked making errors at work, that perfectionist tendency also invades the rest of my life. When I was engrossed in work I sometimes forgot the passage of time; I commit the same faux pas in my non-work life, sometimes not aware of what’s going on. My irritation can spring up no matter where I am, but I work to tame it so it might idle with a purr more than roar. If I am having issues at home, feel sad or overtired when I go to work or events, you will note it if not always mention it. My eyes will tell you the truth. It’s how and who I am. I will do my job here or there, but I’m not a good faker and don’t want to waste time pretending. Living is much better when I am just myself being present.
We take ourselves with us wherever we go, right? (See A.A. Milne’s “Us Two”, a poem both fun and wise about Pooh being wherever Pooh goes.). I’d rather take along someone–me or you– I know well.
And who wants to be simply labelled, misread, lost in translation? Do we ever benefit from presenting ourselves as individuals we are not? What will an employer think (and do) when he/she discovers that resume and interviewee are not what was expected? How will true intimacy develop when, after many hours spent together, a couple still play hide-and-seek, give confusing clues, leave out the important stuff? More interested in subterfuge? That’s a sort of entertainment, not meaningful engagement. It can be risky. Come to a bad end. Unless you are a sociopath, this is not what most people want.
The ability to pair emotion with thought, keeping them parallel at times and merging them at others, may be distinctly human. They help inform us of our experiences for our understanding but also others’. When I visit social media, I’m not sure either gets across too well. I am confused at times what people choose to share. Amused…at times horrified. And what does “liking” something mean, anyway? That one is okay with it, i.e., that it is not offensive? That it resonates or pleases or impresses? I have a sister who has conversations on Facebook and it delights me–this is typically not the place to indulge in lengthy sharing but she is not educated in the accepted ways and means. She may never care, either. So she talks to people– tells little stories, responds in some detail, as if you are sitting across from her. Is it annoying to others? Maybe, but seemingly not much. People do answer her and “like” her offerings. She makes me chuckle and I know she is being just who she is–interested in many topics and others and intelligent, fun, open.
My son, Josh, has been spending more time with me and the stepfather who raised him since his natural dad died. It is amazing. I used to leave him voice mail, text him to get back to me, wondering how he was, what was going on. He would call back at some point and be glad to see me as he could but there was a sense of a pressure, the time crunch. I was guilty at times, as well, when I had more “absolutely must do” lists. Now I feel like I am getting to know him even more and he feels the same. He’ll call me (before I get around to it now) at least once a week. We gab for an hour or two. Josh lives fifteen minutes away but, hey, we have things we want to note and wonder over, tales to tell right then.
He’s asked to do more with us. Not only bring over his adored children for a day. We all go places together again like we did when he was a youth. Museums, parks, hikes, movies, out for a fine meal. He comes to our home and invites us to his more often. He shares his art and music, experiences at work and home. And he talks from his heart and soul. I know this adult child; he care to tell me his truths. He hears me, too. Sure, we do text, but much less. He recently turned on his Facebook account again after having it off a long time. (If you want to reach me, you know where I live or have my number, he noted.) I like many of his posts and he likes mine. The bigger picture is more interesting.
It may seem easier to be semi-anonymous, to keep one’s identity separate and protected. What is there to lose in a superficial, brief update with those we don’t know well? There is a time and place, of course, for everything. I’m not advocating for greater loss of privacy, or that people fling innermost struggles and epiphanies into the social stratosphere. (You can blog like I do and take a chance with others who may empathize and have their thoughts to add.) Or you can stay on the surface. Share something invalid or extraneous. I get it. I just not what works well for some of us in the final analysis. I also want to note your expression. Take a reading on mood. I want to be a part of your happiness or consternation or wonder, in person whenever I can.
Loss can jar us and bring us back to who we truly are and alter priorities. But we can learn to slog through the morass to see dawn blossom, our sky’s vibrant palette revealed in increments. It will remind you time here is too short. We have daily chances to be who we want and need to be as well as love and be loved. Right now. If you are thinking of someone, why not call, make a date to visit, stop by spontaneously if possible? Bring them your best if you can. Make opportunity happen.
I hope you will make embrace the life you alone do own. Create it bit by bit. Turn the inside outward, see what happens. If you have forgotten what you feel deeply, what your passions are, take a moment; remember. That you love brilliant, fragrant blossoms in your rooms or that antique browsing provides stimulation and peace–that you want to sink your toes in the sand and ocean more or read for fun, not just knowledge. Rediscover; take someone else on the journey. Give yourself due respect, just as you do your dearest friends. Don’t just “like” something out there–get inside the moment as it deserves. Live as you know you are meant to and take time to celebrate others face-to-face along the way. Assume your own identity and find it good.
(Note: The photo is mine, of a daughter–she seems to know how to claim her identity with verve! We accompanied her and her husband to the Oregon Country Fair, an event that is peculiar to our state–quite a interesting, zany experience for her parents. Blessings, A.)
Every ridge and pothole on the state highway broke up his rest. It hadn’t been an easy bus ride–twenty-two hours, fifty minutes total to get from Omaha all the way to Portland–and now they had hit a bad stretch of road work. Tim readjusted the inflatable pillow bought at the last minute, en route to the bus station. Gran Eccles had suggested and paid for it, along with a sleep mask. He thought she was overdoing it and hung back, embarrassed, as they checked out. Now he was thankful as he moved the black fabric onto his forehead.
“Hey, I’ve got an extra apple.”
A huge red apple was inserted into his peripheral line of sight. Tim glanced from the corner of his right eye. This kid with a mess of straw hair insisted on trying to make friends with him when all he wanted to do was read or doze. He was much younger than Tim, maybe fourteen, and he listened to rap on his iPod. Tim caught the heavy bass beat and had asked him to turn it down. The kid agreed but kept gabbing at him. Tim didn’t want to babysit. He was intent on getting through the hours with as little stress as possible. Buses were worse than cars (he’d sold his to buy the ticket and have some reserves) but better than planes. Trains he hadn’t even considered; too many accidents lately.
“Naw, I’m good.” He waved it away. “Thanks, man.”
The teen closed his eyes, then settled his head back on the bench seat and turned up his music. He stuck his hands in soiled windbreaker pockets. The jacket looked like it had been worn on a year-long camp-out. Tim tried to imagine the kid with rap music on. sitting with others around a fire, roasting marshmallows.
Not that Tim was much better off. He hadn’t bathed in a couple days, though he’d brushed his teeth. There had been no time to get his shoulder-length long hair cut before setting off for cousin Hal’s in Oregon. A shave might be good; he could do that at the layover in Baker City. But it’d be after five the next morning when he arrived in Portland. Hal wouldn’t pay that much attention. He’d drop Tim off and go to the law office, leaving him in the professional hands of Marie. Really. She was a hand model. The thought of someone who did that weirded him out. Hal had suddenly gotten married in Vegas and no one knew her so were taken aback by the picture of her at a turquoise pool in a white robe. Her hair looked persimmon-red, Gran said with a laugh but you could tell it worried her. It turned out to be a wig just for fun, they chortled on Skype. She sported very short auburn hair. Tim wondered who she truly was.
Hal was his own man; he didn’t explain things to anyone, naturally called the shots. He had ordered Tim out to Portland, saying only that he had to return to college. Hal and Marie had an extra room in their condo in the Pearl district (a place Tim looked up: glittering with money and high rises, crazy) until Tim found a job. He could help him find one if necessary. He made it all sound like a foregone conclusion; he was very firm about things in real life and business.
Unlike Tim. Twenty three years old, college drop-out, last working at Mac’s Feed and Seed the last two years, right after being sprung. There had been possession charges. An ounce of weed and some coke residue. Mac, who had known Tim’s grandmother his whole life, fired him after Tim was about to borrow a couple of big bottles of weed killer for a neighbor. He had wanted to do a good deed, he protested, he’d pay him on payday, but Mac called him a common thief. Gran told him it was time to move on and start fresh. It hurt Tim a lot more than her to go. And what would the payback be with Hal? Would he be like an beholden lackey? He shook it off as he repositioned himself on the bus seat.
A heavy man up a few seats roused himself from a snore session and squeezed through the aisle, working his way toward the restroom.
“You might try going sideways!” another guy yelled, snickering.
“You might keep advice and opinions to yourself in a public place,” a tall Native American woman across the aisle muttered.
“Don’t act so sensitive, lady!” he said as he looked her up and down.
She threw a frown at Tim. He half-lifted his hands in a submissive movement. What could he do about jerks on buses? He had things to add but seldom did. He didn’t want more trouble, period. Bus stations were even worse, random people loitering and sleeping, aggravating those who got to leave. He got it but he didn’t like it when he was minding his own business.
There wasn’t a full load on board but it was still way too much humanity. Only two had gotten on at Twin Falls, women more his age. They wore skirts with bare legs, cowboy boots and puffy down jackets, a combination he found odd. They sat behind him, made a few comments on a dramatic sunset but fell silent as it got darker. Tim heard rustling in a bag, something found and pulled out, he guessed. A book, maybe, a snack. He smelled banana mixed in with the ground-in staleness of the bus which was laced with citrusy air freshener. A small light above the seat was switched on.
The roughness of the road smoothed over as the countryside disappeared little by little into blackness. Tim liked sightseeing this way, structures and vehicles and geography a constant stream of colorful shapes and blurred edges. He’d tried to focus, though, to snap a picture of unique sights he might recall when he worked it out in his sketchbook later.
He hadn’t realized he could draw well until jail. That was something for the trouble he went through. There was so much time; he had to fill it to make it tolerable. Granny had brought a flimsy sketchbook and pencil with half an eraser and he used it daily, sketching memories, dreams and people he saw or missed. Practice was an exercise in discipline he needed. A semblance of solitude helped.
On the bus he felt constrained, physically uncomfortable. The kid–Louis?–would watch every stroke and ask too many questions. Tell him how good he was when Tim seriously doubted it was all that. Or critique what he didn’t know. Maybe Louis would insist on drawing something of his own, interrupting Tim’s flow. Everyone had to share their ideas, make a statement in this world. He had done the same at times. It hadn’t gotten him many strokes except an undercut to the chin.
Tim put the mask over his eyes to oust the lights and shadows that played on surfaces as they passed though Boise, then Nampa, Idaho. At night it was quiet. He felt anonymous, good. Too, there was something comforting about sunlight hiding out there until it arrived with fanfare once more. Tim had always liked being awake in the dark, just another night creature, sitting still with no bother to anyone or thing on Gran Eccles’ broad porch. Or by the kitchen window with a mug of bitter, heated up coffee and a last apple muffin, hearing, smelling, eyes affixed to the starry canopy, examining weather behaviors. Sly raccoons, feral cats and quick dark birds gabbing–getting on with their work. He felt part of the night. The night accepted his uncertainties, gave him peace.
“But–I still miss Emily,” one of the women behind him said with a wispy voice.
“She should have come. Was supposed to.”
The second woman sounded peppery. Edgy.
“We planned this trip for six months. She was so sure she’d come, back then.”
“Goes to show you. Never plan too much that you might have regrets. Things change in a flash.”
“It’s worked out for us, so far,” Wispy said.
“That’s because I couldn’t let it go wrong! Who wants to live in Twin Falls their whole lives?” She muffled a cough with hand or sleeve. “Smelly in here, don’t they clean? I know, you had doubts, but everyone has doubts about changing things up.”
Louis squirmed in his seat, opened his eyes, closed them again. He slouched, feet under the next seat. The iPod started to slip from his hands. Tim eased it away, put it on the seat. Rap music played on.
He crammed his head into the pillow against the window and pulled the mask over his eyes. He hoped the women would get quiet, that everyone would chill. He had hardly slept the night before, not more than a half hour at a time for about three hours. He’d wished he could’ve smoked some weed when he transferred at Denver but of course he did not. He didn’t have it. It wasn’t his intention to locate any again. But he still wanted to sleep better, on buses and in beds. He wanted to be in excellent again. His cousin had promised in Portland it would be different. Mountains, rivers, forests all over the city, everyone working hard to get and stay healthy. As if Nebraska was nothing but a little concrete rolled out among corn fields. But Tim was ready to try anything that might ease the tension he felt in his chest, morning ’til night.
“I will never forget it,” Wispy said.
“Yeah.” Cough subdued.
“I mean it, wasn’t it too weird? I have sort of…dreams that are like nightmares. I never told anyone that.”
Tim heard fabric slide against the seat, one moving about. Then maybe looking right at the other one.
“I do, too, but they don’t bother me. You?”
“It’s not what happened so much as how she was.”
“You mean, looked?” Pepper cleared her throat hard. “Half-dead?”
Tim thought she was about to get emotional on top of being allergic.
“More how she acted. Like, in her own world.”
“She was in her own world. That was the whole problem. Nobody could figure her out before and then after–”
“Shhh, not so loud. Is and can, you mean, not could and was. She’s still alive.”
Silence. Tim thought Pepper had turned away, was looking out at the whizzing blackness that let loose a few stars. They flew across the sky. At least that’s what he had seen and would draw. He itched for his pencil and a table top with good light.
“I thought she was gone right off. From the tent when I got up all I could see was a nose and chin.” Pepper said. “Who wouldn’t be after bobbing around out there awhile? That spring got so deep, it was too cold, no one was with her, we were asleep when…”
“…you got up and got me to go with you to the spot where she was. Floating.”
Tim opened his eyes underneath the mask and saw her, Emily, in the spring, her nose and chin pointed up. Hair slicked back to her head, skin shiny with water. Regal and still. He crossed his legs at the ankles and his arms against his chest to stay still.
“She always loved to wear long dresses. Wears, I mean.”
“Why do you mention that?”
“Because I thought about how the dress might weigh her down and she’d go under fast if I didn’t go out there. No shoes but that long cotton dress from the sunny day before. She hated pants. So impractical. Especially when camping. Honestly!”
“Hates. Present tense, okay? She is not a sporty girl but she loves nature.”
Wispy acted unnerved by the talk. Like it had happened yesterday when it seemed it was some time ago.
Tim sat up taller. The pillow slipped away. He let it go. He should try to not listen so he leaned against the thick glass. The window was cool on his cheek. It had gotten so dark that even the birds couldn’t see, he thought. Only bats could manage. They liked the pole barn rafters at Gran’s since he was a boy. Their navigation powers seemed extrasensory in a way that Tim admired yet brought him unease. He’d watch them come out at twilight, try to keep track of them but always squatted on the ground when they swooped around the yard. They were smart predators. He’d felt so big and slow, dumb in comparison.
He had the same feeling now. He wanted to know what happened to Emily in the cold spring. Why she was floating. Who she had become out there. But it made him anxious, too. And he felt incompetent when that happened, still. It was the similarity to something that had happened to him, maybe. He had dropped off a rope swing and landed too forcefully, went too deep, thought he would never get back up to the air and sunshine. But he did–after an eternity of adrenalin-charged propulsion to the distant surface of river. Sputtering and coughing. And he stopped going there that summer, afraid of breathing water.
“Here’s the thing,” Pepper went on. “She’d just been floating awhile, that’s what she said. Trying to reassure me. After she dove in and thought about not ever coming back up. She had thought about that the whole time we camped out there. It makes me sick to think about it even now. But then that…that thing happened.”
“We’ll never know exactly what she saw.” Wispy’s voice became more delicate. “Along the bottom, a glimmer that grew, she said, a light that took on a form…or was already something. And it grabbed her and pushed her up.” She paused several seconds, breathing was audible. “A water angel, she said. A water angel!”
“She said. She said! She was about half-drowned. She had thought about suicide! Crap. Maybe she totally lost her mind down there, do you think of that? Huh?”
Tim took off the sleep mask. He could see their friend, fragile, astonished Emily, as clear as could be. Her feet drifting under the water, hands lifting and falling, long dress graceful but maybe deadly as it caught currents, pulled at her body. But she was stronger, afterall, and resting, face an oval of luminescence above the surface of water, her body calm. She was not afraid. She had seen an angel in the sheerness, the clarity of the depths and it had changed her.
He was about to turn when Pepper spoke again, voice in a near-whisper as if telling a secret. But it was no longer hidden to Tim at all.
“It’s just this: she almost died, I agree, something happened in that spring. She’s not the same person today. It’s like she did die…came back someone else.” She gave a gasp and shudder that sounded like the awkward start of tears. “She seems religious now, that’s what everyone says. Not at all like before. So we have to let her be. Let her go, even.”
“Maybe she just woke up from her misery. With God’s help.”
The sound and force of his words threw him off as much as it did the shocked young women. He turned around in his seat. “Maybe Emily had gotten so sick and tired of being sick and tired that she knew something big had to happen to her, even get close to death. She was tired, let her body sink and sink. And then she was, well, okay, yes–saved. Right? Because she had to live differently or nothing would be good, nothing would even be left of her. And now she can start again.”
Louis stirred and sat up. “Man, pipe down! What’s up?”
“Eavesdropper. Really!” Pepper glared at Tim.
“Well, I don’t know, he’s probably right,” Wispy breathed.
“I agree,” the Native American woman added, sitting with elbows on her knees as if she had been like that awhile. “If we’re offering opinions, afterall.”
The heavy man paused on his way to the back again, waited for the Native woman to let him through. He studied her and Tim, then continued.
Pepper turned to the window. “Me and my big mouth.”
Wispy fiddled with her hair. Looked down.
“Sorry,” Tim said as he turned back around, embarrassed by his intrusion. But he had to say what he felt about it since it was out there now, Emily’s story, the woman’s life being torn apart by people who didn’t understand. Or were unwilling to accept.
“That was good.”
He looked across the aisle at the woman with the black shoulder-length hair and dark bright eyes and shrugged.
“Good story, I mean. And your understanding. Appreciation.”
“I feel for that Emily, is all. I get it.”
“Me, too, man. Me, too.”
She left her eyes on his a good few seconds. He thought they smiled so he let his crinkle up some. His face and neck prickled with warmth. He slouched into his seat.
The big man came back. “So you know: in Oregon now. Ontario, then Baker City, La Grande. By Pendleton it’ll be a new day, just after midnight. I’m off at La Grande. Have a good one, wherever you’re going.” His thick lips spread into a grin, revealing straight white teeth. He plopped down at his spot.
Louis yawned, took the ear buds out.
“You headed to Portland?”
Tim lifted his eyebrows. The kid going there? Good for him. Maybe his mother or dad or both lived there, would make him a good breakfast. He could use more meat on him.
“Cool. Me, too.” He turned up the volume and plugged back in.
Tim stole a glance at the Native American woman across the aisle. She seemed to be sleeping. He put his eye mask on, positioned the pillow. It sure was a long ride. Pretty uncomfortable but it was going to be worth it, he felt. He thought about Emily, hoped she had found her way, at last. Thought about Gran, how she’d tried her best to help him.
“Yeah, me, too. Portland. Quite the journey, huh?”
Her confident voice slid through the dark, crossed the aisle between the bench seats and met him like a friend. He felt tears rise up from a place he had long forgotten. Tim let a couple seep into the mask, then a few slid into the darkness, granting relief. Sleep at last.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson