It is hard to say when words will again flow without hesitancy, like odds and ends in a sudden stream I can snatch with delight. For my beloved sister has left the land of the sentient, has entered another vista, far, far more incorruptible than this. I know such things, but it is as if she has gone missing and I do not know where she might have wandered, how to just be with her while being here. Not yet. How can one say, this is the measure of a life and it is shortened without our full compliance? The mind hears but the heart does not. It draws into quietude so resounding that nothing echoes. It is just human sorrow but it swallows me whole without a glance. This gaping ache pounds upon the center of me where the best parts have waxed and waned, where the wellspring that offers nourishment of love gives forth without end. I have no real questions. I know the present time has an answer and that answer is life, more life, here or there, this moment or another one, they are all a mysterious, elegant movement of the dance of being, our souls expanding to overlay others while still… we are asked to let go, each one. We are like fine lace shadows upon this landscape of changing light. We are the breath of the sky, the shifting wind offering power. I watch the branches of a tree shimmy and wave and want to take refuge there. Let me reach to heaven, too. Yes, yes, this life beyond life speaks to me. We live within that slender space between life and death. And endure the taking of so much. But this one earthly loss that cannot, will not be avoided: it undoes me today, it undoes me, leaves me flattened against a void where only God’s voice is known, where God alone hears all I cannot now speak without this thunder of weeping.
As an habituated writer, on any given day I sit down to the computer–or pull out a notebook if I am on the go–and start writing without much brainstorming. Words are conduits through which clues for tales arrive to stimulate forward movement. If the story is fiction, my mind becomes a space akin to an open doorway. I see someone traverse a room or street, their hair or feet, perhaps settling back into a bus seat or panting on a steep mountain trail. Crying on the edge of a bed. Eating ice cream as storm clouds gather. They are always up to something even if silent.
Nonfiction can seem more elusive. Patience is needed to seek a topic that grabs me, even though I could choose any topic and write until I am bored of it. Ideas are everywhere to note. And I can research things as needed. I love to learn while writing, not matter the genre. Writing is an act of gathering points of reference and insight, of defining personality and place, giving the story’s innate depth and breadth more air and light. It records life as it unfolds.
But this is a day that resists my laboring and inquisitive nature. I have other matters on my mind, events and people with no useful place in a narrative now. I pull out and stare at a list of writing prompts received at a workshop. I’m not big on verbal prompts although I do use visual ones. Yet I am stuck on this list, perhaps due to its simplicity. Or so I think. On second and third look, each one unearths deeper things. Which is the intent. I seem to gravitate to this:
Write about what got left behind.
Possibilities draw me in: people, places, creatures or objects. And what comes forward is all the houses I have lived in, all the rooms and yards and neighbors and pets. The five children raised there.
Starting at age twenty, I resided in thirteen homes in sixteen years, followed by one house for seven years, then three more places after that. That is a plethora of experiences, with something left behind at each stop, I am certain.
It was related to marrying, unmarrying, marrying again and where the work took us. Employment tends to dictate habitat. My first husband completed a Master’s degree in sculpture and ultimately had a construction business. Sometimes that industry required moving to more booming areas. My current husband worked his way up the corporate ladder, which meant he was transferred by companies or he accepted better positions. Inevitably it meant moving closer to the next job. (My career began in my mid-thirties. Luckily, I always lived near my place of employment.)
So: what got left behind?
The question reverberates as I review homes. There was a college abode that required patience and humility: a combination renovated chicken coop-shed painted a dull yellow, minute square footage currently qualifying it as a trendy “tiny house”. The roof slanted so we had to stoop to move from kitchenette to couch to sleeping area. A couple more early marriage/student housing locales were rented. After college and two children we found a townhouse with wonderful woods and playground. Then a Texas apartment with a pool of aquamarine water where we cooled and relaxed daily though we went broke. Next up: a solitary Michigan ranch house surrounded by fields and deer. The business eventually improved, but our marriage had come apart.There was a transition period during divorce where I, with two children, found a renovated two-story carriage house on an old estate while I took more college coursework.
Second marriage and three more children: a two-story blue house with a wide front porch on a quiet street. Then to a modern glass and cedar house on rolling country acreage with central wood stove and a red barn the kids took over; we also had a field mice infestations in the lovely place. We moved to a ranch-style house with lilacs that enclosed the yard, a fireplace that crackled with cheerful flames all winter. The split level house by a small nature preserve called Dinosaur Hill was next. And there was a perfect-sized Tennessee A-frame house that reminded us of northern Michigan. It offered an acre for a garden and a pond that attracted cotton mouth snakes, worth avoiding. Then came a house that once had a hair salon in the basement lined with mirrors. Our daughters practiced jazz and ballet dancing there. And at last a house with green shingles and a hilly back yard for sledding where we managed to live for seven years. After a Northwest move, there was a spacious, airy home, a favorite place with French doors to the living room and a sunroom that became my very own writing room.
Perhaps it was not the usual way to live for one who was middle class, moderately upwardly mobile. I had lived in the same comfortable childhood bungalow for eighteen years. But I wanted to a different way of liviung, to escape the strictures of the home town. Have adventures! I was drawn to the impermanence of a somewhat nomadic existence, the spontaneity of it with curious contrasts of life lived on the fly. There was a challenge to finding new jobs, houses, neighborhoods and companions. I didn’t often feel regret as we packed up to move again. Our children seldom complained or not for long though it wasn’t easy to change schools that often. We discovered the plastic nature of resilience, how we could readjust ourselves with every new demand. For example, when we couldn’t locate a suitable house after one move we resided in a state park lodge and then cabins for two and a half months. And enjoyed much about those times. (This is shared in another post.)
Our five children are close in age. I think they would have suffered more (if they suffered, at all) if they had not had one another to play with, rely on, fuss at and care for. We stuck together as a team, from playing games to homestyle musical concerts and plays, to art events and museums and quick week-end gababouts. They found friends as did I. I enjoyed meeting people, navigating new territory so made my way. It was never boring and gave rise to more creative activity: more stories, poems, drawings, music. Education galore for the children.
But, in the end, what got left behind?
1. Friends, first of all. Each new place brought the opportunity to find at least one or two folks who could become a good friend. Monika, Steven, Jerri Jo. Betty Jo and John. Carol. Kurt and Madonna. Kenneth and Jane. Noreen, Judy. Deborah, Nikki. The list grows as the years come forward and faces pass before mind’s eye. When you move from one city to another, one state to another, those friends become harder to hang onto. If I let myself feel this procession of friends come and gone, I can admit to having known homesickness–not for much for a place but for certain, once-close friends. The pain could go deep and remain long. Sometimes phone calls and letters–before computers were common–made my yearning worse. One learns to love and let go. Move on.
I especially remember Jane, the receptionist at the lodge who became my treasured friend in an insular town where I felt like an alien for a time. I was slow to understand her rich Southern accent, often asked her to repeat herself as if she was speaking a peculiar language. It took me a few seconds to even decipher her name at first: Jaaahhhien. Jane had lived a rough and tumble life but her graciousness was generous, her heart wide open. She found the best in others. Our settling in was aided by her food and laughter and tips about how to understand our locale and its inhabitants. Jane shared the area’s history, educated us in differences between harmless and dangerous snakes and insects, told me where to shop and what dentist to try, how to cope with incipient racism and a pervasive anti-northern sentiment. In time, we gabbed as if we were meant to be sisters. Saying good-bye was arduous. I can still feel her hug, see her standing with hand waving above a wobbly smile. I wanted to load her up with my family. In the following year we lost track of each other. We were given to each other as friends for only a short season.
2. Dogs. One died from parvo virus, two were given to others for safekeeping, to love. There was Max, a mixture of various big dogs; Twiggy, a miniature grey hound; Buddy, a Brittany springer spaniel. They all should have been country dogs. Two of the three were. The last was shipped out to the country when we moved. I really liked Buddy but hope to never again try to raise much less catch a springer spaniel. Our big family likely felt like a crazy zoo to his nature. He would lie in wait for the door to open even an inch. He zig-zagged like mad across streets and parks, engaged in a serious hunt that only he could discern. He liked us, yes, but he loved his freedom far more. I empathized at times.
But it is a vignette about a neighbor’s dog that sticks with me. When we locked the door to one of our favorite houses–one purchased–the very last time, a muscular, unkempt but handsome German Shepherd bounded over to us. Tag had often visited, chasing around the kids, given to barking at us along with anything else that moved or made sound. He watched us plant vegetables in neat long rows and weed the garden that ultimately failed–partly due to his digging habits. He was powerful and friendly, sometimes stalked bugs and snakes with us on humid summer evenings. I wouldn’t say we were so close to him that we thought he was counted as also ours yet we appreciated one another a great deal. For one thing, his presence meant we didn’t have to get another family dog during our two-year stay. I admired Tag. And I love dogs that stand high enough for my hand to graze their fine backs and heads as they trot beside me.
On moving day we had said our goodbyes, cleaned up after ourselves and were ready to try to beat the moving van back to Michigan. The house was hard to abandon to someone new but time to move on. Then my eye was caught by Tag’s race across the open land separating our two houses. He skidded to a stop, jumped up on us, licked each of us enthusiastically, big paws on our chests. And my husband and I, well, we wept as we hugged him.
3. Back yards. I miss them more now, as we reside in an apartment (large enough, comfortable for us) with only a balcony. I daydream about them, remember them with the glowy sensation of someone in love.
There have been all sorts of yards, some far better than others. How can I not recall the three yards that were really fields, where wild creatures came and went, along with shy deer and foxes and scores of birds, bold raccoons and quiet opossums. Rasping cicadas and tree frogs and bull frogs making their good racket. One rural house was across the road from a small river. I took the children daily, learning about wildflowers and plants each spring and summer, tromping through snow in winter, pulling two little ones on sleds. I chopped wood at three country houses for wood stoves that provided excellent heat. Clothes on clothes lines snapped in the breeze, smelled of far away winds. Sunsets and sunrises engulfed the sky. Those yards felt more like a giant campground.
But another comes to mind now. It belonged to a home that we perhaps liked structurally the least. A two-story bungalow, worn at the edges, it was crowded with seven people though it had four bedrooms. We stayed there the longest as four of our kids entered and exited adolescence. The village, as it was known, was one square mile in size, located between a couple of Detroit suburbs. Our tree-lined street meandered towards another community known for residents and businesses with exclusive attitudes and tastes.
But our own back yard was quite good enough for barbeques right near the door that led up to three stairs into a too-small kitchen. Tulips and irises popped up along the lawn. My husband planted another vegetable garden. There were large maple trees providing shade and beauty. The uneven yard sloped gently to a back alley that the kids loved to use as a short cut to everywhere. A jungle gym on flatter ground served them well–they practiced daredevil acrobatics and swung too high. Neighborhood kids careened in and out, biking down the hill, my son building and sharing daily his skateboard ramps. There were more outdoor games, sledding, building snowmen, raking and jumping in vast leaf piles. It had a sweeping view of neighbors and vibrant clusters of treetops. It fully worked for us; it matched our easy style of living. I counted my blessings as well as worried and wept over life’s woundings in that back yard.
At least, I would like to believe we left something decent and true of ourselves in every place. Each child’s distinctive personality and deeds had some effect on others, just as their classmates’ and buddies’ did. Who they were in essence is reflected in who they are presently; strengths and talents they developed at each juncture have held. And they still keep in touch with special childhood friends, now adults with complicated lives like theirs.
As for me, I shed my youth and many illusions. A compact person, I lost more weight as I burned energy as if on fire. That winding road provided some treacherous turns and suspenseful times alongside excitement of discovery and spontaneous joy, those serendipitous meetings and little dawnings of broader wisdom. I suffered from mistakes and healed with love and faith. I gained gravity, a coveted element for a poet-seeker at heart.
I learned about myself in ways may never have been realized had I remained in my childhood town. Every time we started anew I was called upon to stretch myself, often beyond reasonable expectations, but what needed to get done was done. How does one find a new home–often rental–for seven when the main breadwinner has gone ahead to the new job or is too overworked, himself, to participate much? Research and phone calls. Repeat. Visits to places and presenting my best self. Repeat. It was a sales job. Talk quickly with friendly confidence: no, my kids don’t destroy things (not often); no, no pets will join us if we can’t have one; yes, I manage the household, husband is an engineer (or whatever the title became) who often travels. Too much to relay and examine and make deals about, perhaps, but that home had to be won and signed for in time.
Speed often mattered those days; so did thoroughness. It was critical I knew how best organize our children as well as material possessions, how to coordinate timelines and rapidly changing priorities. I, an introvert who likes people yet a creative sort who’d rather dream and write or sing in a quiet corner (when I could find one) than chat up strangers at a tedious business dinner, just adapted. Once everything arrived at the new house, it was another list of “To Dos”: school info, medical resources, parks and playgrounds, afterschool classes, introductions with neighbors, find the fastest route to the grocery and other marketplaces. And as for the slow unpacking: does anyone know where the cheese grater and toilet paper went? And who stole my sweater and jeans this week?
I know I gave care to my friends. Enough? Much time and thought to my work with people whose needs required patience, insight, compassion, problem solving. If I left anything with them, I pray it was gentle acceptance and hope, a desire to live deeper, more happily. When I had to leave my job overseeing services for homebound disabled and elderly clients, their phantom lives followed me. I dreamed of them, missed their talk, wondered from afar if someone kind was listening to them so they were fully heard, reading aloud their letters. Giving them a gentle pat on the hand and minding their meals and medicines well.
I used up my youth, I suppose. And hooray, as what is it for but to be lived inside and out? I didn’t notice it slipping away amid all that love and chaos. Growth happened when I wasn’t paying attention. Sleeplessness and surprise when I was fully alert. By the time I was forty-two, four of my children were out of high school. Those of us left moved to the Pacific Northwest and there were more changes than ever before. Middle age became a well-earned haven, mentally and spiritually. Life has become calmer, clarified, streamlined, sparked with new meanings. It’s been twenty-two years here and I can barely believe this: I have lived in one home for nineteen years. I may not leave, at least for a time. If I do, I hope I go once more without a backward glance, eyes wide open, shoulders back, head high. Something good will come of it, I just know it.
What did I finally leave behind, then? A lifetime inhabited with my intense committment, for good or not. But that’s all. I carry what I want here, in my heart. New moments and memories are being made as I type these last words.
(Note: This writing prompt is taken from Jessica P. Morrell’s “Brave on the Page Writing Prompts”.)
Sometimes at dusk we would see him come out from the hidden interior of his island. For years we had no idea who he was or what he did until after a savage storm ransacked most of the shoreline on the mainland. Such gales with driving rain that hammered our skin and knocked down even living things were not common. Our hut shells weren’t salvageable so we set to work, felling a few donor trees, fashioning pieces needed to reconstruct twelve homes. Liat Two and I worked side-by-side. We all helped each other. Those who had kept old disputes before the storm put them aside after the wreckage became apparent. I wondered if others were as impressed and shaken by this development. They were intent on rebuilding all habitats. Survival instinct required us to find food and erect shelter in Aritkus, our home. This was about our common weal; arguments clearly had no place in the agenda.
One of our unwelcomed weather events, a thick yellow-dog haze (named after constantly shed, windblown fur from the terrace dog, Zab) fell about us, blurring everything after the two-day deluge and howler winds. So no one even saw much less thought to check on the state of that island. Who would? It never changed. But just as the faint light seeped through gauzey air, I turned away from the village. And I saw.
It still hadn’t changed despite the merciless storm, with its jungle- entangled foliage, its subtle, ever-present glow about the canopy top. Except this: Nil the unknown now stood in front of the giant trees, arms straining toward sky. I stepped away from Liat Two, trembling, then moved toward water’s edge. It wasn’t dusk yet, so why was he there? It was not even a time I could pinpoint, so wild had the storm been, so unnerving as to turn us inside out. But Nil seemed to be doing what he always did, performing obeisance, moving through his forms like a gifted dancer or a practitioner of ancient warrior ways, we didn’t know which yet. His bright outline, its fluidity and strength riveted me and others. We practiced our own morning meditation but from the ground only. He seemingly had to speak to sky whereas we spoke to earth and all below its surface. Or were supposed to do. I honored whatever I wanted, how I wanted, though in secret. If anyone had looked askance at me, I would have said nothing, as it was a profound urge to keep apart and holy what mattered to me–perhaps because I was young.
Or different, Liatus, our leader, hadn’t decided for sure. His uncertainty kept me safer. When it was determined which, things could change.
But that moment I knew I should alert Liat Two. He despised Nil although he had never met him. It was rumored the man was a criminal, thus, a prisoner of NOM, New Order of Markmen, who gave up their lives to surveil and punish the worst of wrong doers, those the higher court deemed unfit. We had little fear of the stranger–he was safe from us, and we from him. But neither did our community have any inclination to know him. Liat Two was the right hand of Liatus (also Liat Two’s uncle), and it had been decreed that no one formally recognize island man. So I named him Nil since in the villagers’ thinking he was a zero. No one and nothing–how could that be? But bestowing a name made him a person. Officially recognized. Like other things I care about, I kept it to myself.
The stranger had been there when we arrived. Liatus and his warriors gave due diligence, tried to investigate underwater. They got only so far, could move no farther. Several others of us had taken our floaters out to see him better one dusk when he was visible but could not get past the reef, either. No one had been able to safely penetrate its barrier. So that was the end of the matter, we were warned.
That day I continued working but kept a clear eye on island man. He appeared to circle the lush pod of land, then stepped close to the lake when I had a well-earned break, sweat slipping off my skin in rivulets. No one else noted his presence or, if they did, like me, kept quiet. This situation enthralled me since the only times we had ever seen him was when the sun was lowering, and then, not often, perhaps every other moon at most. But no one noted it further since Nil belonged to that island and we belonged to the shore of Aritkus.
Well, in fact I sighted him more but no one suspected. I was akin to the night flowers, sleepy by day and wide awake until dawn more often than not. Sleep held less value to me than others; I found I didn’t need it much. I also often craved to leave the borough, just move above ground. Liat Two said I lived on the very air I breathed, the sun and moon rays that fell upon my skin.
“Riza, going too slowly for once, move faster!” Liat Two growled at me. “We have to get our borough cleared of mud by nightfall, then tomorrow the new shell goes over it.”
“Yes, working hard is the duty we carry out. And have you seen how much we have accomplished already? We are faster than all others put together.”
He might have smiled but it would be hard to tell. His face was tattooed with many badges of leadership; even his lips were stained red and black. But he liked me well enough. We still shared one of the most extensive boroughs under the earth since my mother, his last wife, died. He could be ferocious but also kindly. It was a sign of his place in the scheme of things, our tiny village, that he was mercurial without much need of discipline. Privledge changed people. I accepted rather than rejected him; my mother had been like lightning in a pot and I adored her.
I dug along with him, wishing for the coolness of the inside corridors, wide rock tunnels that connected with others at various intersections. I wanted to be done with this, to drip dry in the trees’ great arms. I glanced over my shoulder as I scooped and deposited another pile of muddy earth to the side. Nil was yet there, and he was not moving. It wasn’t hard for me to see; I immediately intensified my vision with a word sound, a light click and whistle made under my breath. Slowly my vision clarified and brought me in closer. In another moment I might have been able to see his face. My heart jumped.
“What are you doing, girl? Imagining things again?”
Liat Two tried to ignore some of it; he knew I was not so much like others but was tolerant. Still, I shook my head, reached for a sharper stick and wedge with which to dig as he scanned the island. How foolish that I would not stop looking, me and my terrible desire to know things! But Liat Two turned back without comment; Nil must not be visible. I stole a look. He had indeed vanished. We returned to work, then gathered with community for a meal of food delivered from the safe bins.
I slept all night, my breathing a long song of sleep, exhausted by the cleaning, hauling, digging. It then took two more days to finish the work on our homes and surrounding area. There were dead animals to remove and use correctly. On the terraces there were branches and twigs impaled in giant feeder plants that had to be excised, a delicate operation to save koya fruits and danys pods that gave us protein. Zab stomped around us, sniffing at everything that had been overturned by the gale, indulging in surprise delectables. He was a good spotter and retriever. Zab also helped to guard the community.
One night Liat Two and I were relaxing before entering the borough and bed.
“I worry.” He poked the fire in our outdoor stone fire bowl.
I jerked my head up; did he hear my thought?
“You haven’t entered the Women’s Survival Race yet. Soon it will happen. But are you prepared for such tests? I see you get too distracted despite your agility and strength.”
“I know.” I looked up. The sky was turning into blackened sapphire. I wanted to wander right then, bypass his lecture.
“You don’t know. Your mother made and kept you in high regard but you have a need to push at the ways of our people. Liatus is not so impressed.”
I stirred the fire with a stick. “Not push, expand. Open up.”
He snorted. “That’s the wrong talk, like talk of hers–she indoctrinated you behind my back.” He pushed his artful but fierce face close to mine. “Beware dreaming without purpose, seeing what cannot be seen.”
“It’s not that I will things to be different. I feel them, know them. Mother told me this would become my way; it is not a choice.”
He made a gesture that dismissed my words. “Your race will begin in Everling. What do you feel about that?”
“I didn’t know.” I swallowed hard. Everling, the changing time. Not Greenstor, the other, our current, season. It would be harder then, when all the cold with its bitter wiles came down from the mountain.
He said nothing more, only built up the fire so our skin and hair would dry faster. He glistened. Mother likely missed him from the AfterEarth but he made me anxious that night. I thought his fate and mine would diverge.
Sleep failed to take hold. I thought about Everling, the miles of runs up and down the hills, the shoreline more jagged and unpredictable each year. Things the cold would bring, sperlings with their terrible sharp beaks and worse cries when homing in on the rock piles I would have to climb. Hasternin, those leathery creatures that rose from the deep of Greenstor’s heat and rode waves in and out, their bodies like buoyant rocks until you stumbled over them when the tide went out. Then they displayed their strength of grip on your ankles and legs and left painful welts that weakened muscle. Everling’s voracious cold sent us underground more. Life became communal more than ever with its good and awful matters. Perhaps I would be given milder days in which to run and puzzle out clues to lead me to victory. But I doubted it.
I got up, wandered. Between thickets of trees the water gleamed silver and bright as if crystalline in the power of moon. Still, soft in the easy darkness. So many shunned the night but for me it reverberated with life that felt safer at times than daylight. I found my way to the shore without interruption.
Of course I was looking for him, for Nil, the one Liatus said we could not know. he could never find a place with us since, criminal or miscreant. Yet weren’t outcasts powerful by virtue of their unusual status? Their very existence bestowed acclaim. We all wondered about him despite the decree against it. I saw it in the faces of those who glimpsed him at dusk as Nil’s body flashed in and out of the woods or his swiftness carried him under water until he surfaced like a flying fish in an impossible spot. He glowed in the resplendence of Greenstor’s dusk. He was unaffected by Everling’s frigid winds. And he possessed ways unlike my community’s.
They felt more like mine, though I knew little of other worlds and ways.
At the shore I positioned myself in front of amberstar, a plant that emitted a perfume so intense it clung to skin and hair for hours. They grew without compunction, covering trees and rocks and hiding me from anyone who might also get up and about–though rarely did that happen– and pass beside me. If Nil came out and stayed that long after the storm he might also stray from wherever his home was in the jungle center.
A high pitch rang out, then another. They were thrown out to our shore, silver darts of sound. No bird emitted these. I sat with knees to chest, arms wrapped around them, stayed small. When I felt Zab’s warm nose, I tried to not shrink back. He sniffed, listened. Again the note, now an octave lower, was flung into the air, a swift arrow meant to find its mark. I felt it enter my core, but it wasn’t a wounding. It was a perfect key that turned inside mind and soul. Zab lay down to my surpsie and closed his eyes. I rose, walked to the water’s edge and gave voice to words, “Creator, come help”, which I had to say to get past the wall of darkness betweenme and that island. Perhaps beyond. To find him amid the static of confusion.
Nil was waving at me not from his island, but rather from a long, low skiff. He was paddling to me.
I might have run away if I had been born with the hesitancy of Liatus’ followers. This was what Liat Two worried over: my utter willingness to locate and pounce on truth, my lack of fear in the risk it took–that I might endanger myself or others. But I was so filled with conviction that this was the time and place for me. When the skiff bobbed near enough to make out his face and my name sung, I swam to him and pulled myself over the edge and got in. The skiff was invisible as a hunter and Nil’s voice sang out a note that careened through night as if a warrior cry yet it also carried delight. The skiff passed over the reef as if it had been given wings; no forceful barrier curtailed us. We landed upon a grassy ledge of land. He disembarked and so did I.
We traversed the island easily, moving between thick growth of trees, bushes, vines. He had made the path a labyrinth and when it came to its conclusion there was a structure far too large for such an island but here it was, overreaching treetops, filled with an increasing light. I felt faint with its beauty. The tender darkness had surrounded it as if a shield. I covered my eyes until they grew accustomed to the peculiar scene. Nothing but light was present and it spread out from the center of the top of the room, high above. A church of light, a place of energy so intense I felt my brain afire.
I spoke. “This…?”
He at last turned to face me. All I saw were his eyes which grew brighter and deeper as did the space in which we stood. They were both unlike any I had seen before, made of rainbow colorations changing and changeless. Radiance filled the room, Nil resonant of voice and brilliant of flesh, and myself struck with an overpowering love that found me weeping.
I call it love but the truth is that it was nothing I had known before with such overwhelming clarity and grace.
“A Cathedral of Light.” His voice was multi-layered and rich.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“A Keeper of the Light, here to share such honor with you,” he sang out in chords that echoed among the rafters of the cathedral.
The island shimmered and trembled, displayed time passing and time ending and time defeating time, erasing any doubts that this was Light that created and wove together everything known and unknown, named and unnamed, here and elsewhere.
I knew what my village would think: I was stolen. I was beguiled and mesmerized by the dangerous unknown. But I had gone where I wanted to go. Found what I needed to know.
And so, of course, I stayed, if not forever, until that night was done, then many more to come. Until the Keeper taught me enough that I could bring to Aritkus a lamp of bold compassion that never ended. This was the vision I sought. And was given. This was the truth, the reality of Home for all.
There was a small island that housed a Keeper of Light and it offered ultimate freedom, if only we would take it, and with a mighty love instill equality, wholeness and peace. Become transformed. As Nil the islander had a hand in trnaforming me.
So I, Riza, a curious girl, began her truest work. Will you watch and cheer for me in the Aritkus Women’s Survival Race? I will carry my small flame through Everling, then into Greenstor, underground and over tree canopies, into and out of the dark for you and me. And ever after, I will carry it.
(Note: This short story is my response to a writing prompt from The Writer’s Circle group.)
At the park where I power walk, I spotted a few couples comprised of wildly disparate ages. No, they weren’t romantic partners from what I could deduct. Rather, they appeared to be son, daughter or grandchild walking and talking with their parent or grandparent. Or they may have been neighbors or others, good friends. I didn’t want to impinge on their privacy but observing them gave me great pleasure. The energy of spirited discussions which accompanied quick footsteps or the meditative quiet as they strolled–reasons to appreciate their presence. One twosome sat on a bench and pointed out abundant water fowl, naming many, enjoying the water’s painterly reflections. They all appeared glad to be in each other’s company.
This park is, as are all safe and well-kept public parks, popular for recreational pursuits. One side is devoted to basketball, kickball or volleryball or soccer with a busy jungle gym and swings nearby. On the other side of the street the pathways continue in hilly loops around an ample, tranquil pond, then past an off-leash area for dogs and sprawling picnic areas. I can easily spend forty-five minutes there and still be loath to leave. The rich light filtering through old trees changes moment by moment. The park always infuses my spirit with examples of life being lived well. There there are homeless folks, too, who seek sanctuary, as well they might. The lush, varied spaces welcome everyone. People (and dogs) romp, barbecue, read, make music, meditate, practice Tai Chi and sleep. Meet friends and lovers and family. Today I saw a group of role playing older teens in full costume. It’s a fine place to witness generations interacting, particularly parents and younger children.
Yet I do not as often see children, teenagers or younger adults with men and women between the ages of sixty and ninety (or older). These are often previous careerists who are now focused on other activities, whether it’s sitting on a porch crocheting, running a marathon or developing another business. Illness may alter their lives, slow some down. So can loneliness. I wonder how many of our older citizens visit with families and friends enough?
Likely not that many. Much of our culture doesn’t encourage intermixing of young and old. Unless it is already a long-held tradition, reflective of one’s ethnicity or part of social mores, it can be easy to gloss over ties to relatives and other important persons once integral to quality of living. Relationships become transitory with a pick-up-and-go society. We often meet others online or text whole conversations on cell phones. There is so much distraction that we forget the visit, the call, the time spent face-to-face with those we insist do matter.
I don’t want to lapse into sentimental nostalgia. I wonder if my viewpoint arises from having parents who were forty when I was born. As a youngster, I spent time with many silver-haired people (very few dyed their hair) and found them quite nice, fascinating with such varied life experiences. Still, we don’t necessarily cherish great and grand memories of family, neighbors or long ago friends, or at least not without equally impressive hard times recalled. Most of us, however, can yet recall enough occasions of togetherness that were momentous or contented, even happy. Love found its way into those gatherings with a few someones and in time the good will spread out, repeating acts of care.
I recently wrote a post about summer Missourian visits to see my aunts, both lovable characters, and an uncle and cousin (which you can find here: 2015/03/25/summer-trips-the-kelly-girls/). But I had many other cousins and uncles. My mother was one of thirteen children, many of whom were alive when I was born. My father, one of three brothers. Though I never got to meet my maternal grandparents, I did know my father’s parents. We stopped at their place each summer, as well. Many cousins, aunts and uncles had moved to other places, so were less well-known. But they came whenever they could to the common ground or we travelled to their homes, at times.
When we joined forces at relatives’ houses and yards it was entertaining, a bit crazy: lots of kids racing and yelling and playing games; tables laden with a large variety of home cooked food, conversations that veered from updates of life circumstances to detailed health updates to general gossip in lowered voices to worries and hopes about the future of the country and world.
My family was a bunch of talkers; kids could wedge in some words. My elders expected respectful exchanges but they were interested in what I accomplished in school, what I enjoyed doing for fun, who my friends were, what I was going to do with myself when I grew up. And I, in turn, held on to their offerings, sought their affection. They knew things I didn’t. Some had been to Europe both before and after terrible wars they fought in. But even if it was Arkansas, Texas or Colorado I wanted to see the slide shows and photos, hear at least a good chunk of the travelogues.
There was an uncle who owned a plumbing business, something so different from my musician and teacher parents that his world seemed exotic. I peppered him with questions. An aunt had a thriving seamstress business. Her descriptions of fabrics, designs that worked and those that did not–even the countless buttons and thread types explained were like a litany of small delights. Witty vignettes about their customers or past spouses captivated me (divorce was not at all good in our religious family but sometimes, it seemed, could not be avoided). One uncle was a high school coach; his daughters were my favorite girl cousins. Another was a music professor, flutist and prolific composer. A grown second cousin revelled in being domestically talented, which impressed me since I had very few domestic leanings. They all did and said things that inspired, intrigued, motivated, and guided me somehow. They introduced me to different ways of being and doing. Plus, lest it seem I am only on a serious note, those Missourians were plain fun to hang out with. Laughter is a constant in my memories and even now when who is left meets. So, too, were the majority of older guests my parents welcomed into their home good-natured.
How fortunate I was to know at least one set of grandparents fairly well. Grandfather Will ran a public school system and read voraciously, wrote poetry and essays, encouraged me to write more. His presence had a leavening effect on my life. Grandmother Ida worked hard in her garden and I followed her around, picking tomato worms off fat red orbs, choosing brilliant flowers for display on the dining room’s lacey tablecloth. It was she who patiently taught me to peel a potato so its tough skin came off in a curl, showed me how to decorate a pie with cuts in the top crust. Her quiet presence was certainly well noted.
They made up some of the best of my life, those adults who fussed at me, corralled my energy, sought my ideas and exercised their considerable opinions in group conversations that lasted hours. The older ones modelled examples of whom to become as a grown up–or not to become. I sensed the deep reach of the past, the connectedness through time and this helped me more fully thrive in the present. Envision my own future better by paying attention to it all. The young adults were like sisters and brothers who had run the gauntlet of adolescence, were powerful in victory and seasoned by defeat. I aspired to their smart decisions or worthy careers. Rooted for them if they backslided. My youngest cousins were some of my best friends. How could I not find pleasure in a fierce family game of badminton or croquet, ghost stories as we huddled under covers, tag played in the dark amid moths and mosquitos and scents of summer? Even for one summer each year. I waited all winter for it.
When children’s lives entwine with a few generations, they learn to better value not only the young and old, but also themselves. The past and present overlap visibly and invisibly. If there is loving involvement in the everyday as well as special occasions, it begins to permeate one’s world view like osmosis. A feeling of belonging not only in the family but in the greater world is more likely to root itself and flourish.
I’m not discounting the failures that happen, the breathtaking losses families inevitably experience. Disagreements that may linger. We have all been through things never imagined, with likely more to come. But for those, there is this: sitting in a circle, passing a handkerchief with cups of coffee or tea, remembering better times and praying for relief. Taking each other’s hands in your own. Later, making phone calls, writing letters that offer solace. When troubles are shared, they become more endurable. And out of that dark time arises the will to go on. There is that net beneath us made strong with the care of all who love us.
We have five grandchildren. One is barely known as he has lived far from us all his life. It has been challenging to stay connected. It may be too late, as he is still at a distance in more ways than one, a grown man. But I still hold out hope. Two others who are older have been in and out of our lives due to parental life changes. They finally moved to our city with a daughter so we have gotten to know each better in recent years. I try to show them my love is real and won’t disappear. They are always my family despite time and space gaps, despite the fact that I have been their mom’s stepmother since she was five.
And there are two with whom we have been more up close and personal since their births. They remain in my life in significant ways. But I wonder how much longer this will be, for any of the four nearby.
I recently took my soon-to-be thirteen year old granddaughter ice skating. We had a ball gliding about. We can shop for hours. We are going to attend a dance concert for her birthday. I feel her start to move beyond my easy reach yet know it is part of inevitable transitions. We still made Easter eggs with her brother. My nine-year old grandson loves to draw and paint with us and enjoys hunting and identifying rocks. We have hiked in mountains and walked seashores. My husband and I play Scrabble, checkers, dominoes and more with them. We attend school events. I correct their manners if they forget because manners make far more difference than they can know yet. They voicalize family complaints; I try to stay neutral. We share many meals with them and the rest of our good-sized family.
I can offer a listening ear and hugs when they are hurt or angry or discontent. And pray for them all, that they might cross through the vast reaches of their lives with a firm hold on honor and dignity, a philosophical sense of things when encountering hardship.
Is this enough to offer as they navigate an increasingly complex and treacherous world? Will they grow up feeling the strength of such love, will they be secure in the knowledge that their families are here? The thought of my leaving them one day suddenly grieves me–not being around for my children, their children and with all our other relatives. Then I remember: I was blessed by previous generations. They followed me into my own adulthood in some way or other. They keep me company, still, as I grow older. I dream of those who have left, and their faces shine. They formed the major part of the foundation of my living. They were so many things to me, strong and resilient, faithful and forgiving, shaped by creativity and good humor. And, too, there were weaknesses and foibles. I have loved them for it all.
I can pass on what I have received. We each have the task of sorting and strengthening bonds that matter most, and the opportunity to carry forward the good we have been given. The common wisdom we have is gathered like imperishable riches.
So at the park today it was satisfying to see folks moving and resting in concert with each other, younger and older. I hope they were related by blood, but if not they were connected by interest. Perhaps by the strength of the deeper heart. I could see it in the way they leaned toward each other, how they talked, what they experienced together. This day will be another that remians with them if they remember the details or not. The cumulative benefits will be reaped. We are all on our way to tomorrow. We find our way better with each other.
I, Marianne, don’t drink alone, I keep telling him. I don’t go to bars and hang out. What else does he want and why does he care? I’m aggravated all over whenever he brings this up because it is none of his business.
We’re sitting in the back yard for the first time in a month. Justin usually gets home too late to cross the street to my condo for coffee and scintillating conversation. Or he comes by with Thai take-out and enters a “no-talk zone” by flipping on my TV while I pretend to work on my laptop and eat. I watch him. He scrutinizes ads and each program, doles out critiques as if offering tidbits from his store of wisdom. Many of his remarks are accurate and funny. But he has a lot to say about my life when he decides it’s needed, too, even though he’s just my neighbor.
Justin’s decision to corral my alcohol consumption arises from old history, his one-time fiancee. She never knew when to stop. Anything. She spent money as if there was no end to it, wasted time on craftsy projects that came to naught, miniature houses collected until they crowded out items in her china cabinet. She even got swept up in reading marathons as if they were critical to her health, per his report. But he lost her to martinis, he insists. He doesn’t want that to happen to anyone again.
“You just chose the wrong girl,” I tell him. “I drink a good microbrew and a well-made Seven and Seven.”
“You only seem to enjoy either after the fourth or fifth.”
“How do you know? You’re not around that much.”
“I see you on your balcony all the time. I’m hoping you don’t accidentally execute a swan dive from the third floor some night. You get loud, did you know that?”
“How can I get loud when I close the balcony door?”
“That’s the point–you close it when things get too boisterous during your Friday lonely hearts night of revelry or, in the past, during weekly parties. You’re drinking more by yourself, I think. I notice things.”
“You’re spying on me! I forbid it. You’re my neighbor, not the police, certainly not on some sobriety surveillance. And why don’t you come over and see for yourself, if you’re all that interested?”
He leans over from his lawn chair and puts his hand on my shoulder, gives me the barest shake. “Someone has to. You’re running amuck with booze.” He leans back and uncrosses his legs, feet splayed. “I’m not a partier, as you know. I like to come by when you’re being the true you.”
I roll my eyes. “Maybe you should be, loosen up. You work too hard. Your brain is on overdrive with no outlet.”
The sun is hovering over the horizon, casting light that bronzes his skin. Justin’s face is reminiscent of a sculpture to begin with, the assertive nose, enviable cheekbones, those eyes that can spark the dimmest room when he gets another idea. He’s the right person to work in advertising, a go-getter attitude paired with a great profile. I often don’t get him but I like him. I’ve lived on the block for three years to his five. Justin owns a narrow, tall, newer contemporary house wedged in between two big older ones. Perfect spot for an ad man, new overtaking the outdated.
I am, on the other hand, between jobs. I was a top travel agent until I had too many conflicts of opinion about how to increase revenue and run the place. Redecorate in bright colors and glass and steel (I like cutting edge, too), hire younger people, get multimedia going in the reception area, for starters. For my research and trouble, I got asked to vacate my office. I have an interview in two days at a competing agency. It’s my fifth interview in two months.
I stand up and look closely at the scarlet azalea blossoms. I pull one off, cup it in my hand. It pulses with life. The lilacs are even opening. I am grateful for this yard shared with three other condo owners. If I don’t get another good job before summer, I’ll have to get creative with my bills. Fear sweeps up my back, taking me by surprise.
“You don’t know what I’m up to here. Why do you care?”
“Because you’re a decent person and I like having you around here. Like to keep it that way.”
Despite the fact that we both like Westerns, brunch at Cady’s Cafe, daffodils over tulips and Moroccan mint tea, I find Justin a narcissistic annoyance at times. This is a good example. Is he on some neighborhood governing council I didn’t know was started? As if he has anything to say about who is his neighbor and how they can act in their homes. No one asked him.
“I’m getting a beer, want one?” I ask as I turn away. “If it’s a ‘no’, why not enjoy your own back yard?” I laugh as if it’s meant lightly.
He’s gone when I look down from my balcony. I’m disappointed despite intending to not be. But I don’t know what else I feel like saying to him tonight.
I sit down at the white wicker table and sip the beer I say I don’t ever drink alone. Of course I drink an occasional beer with my meals or when I watch a tennis match on television or get ready to go out to dinner with a new man I meet online. Or whiskey if I can’t sleep, maybe. Justin is the one who’s a bit out of the loop. He drinks mate and apricot or guava juice and sun brewed iced tea. He eats vegetables because they’re “attractive, colorful”: “Those attributes alone guarantee well-being!” And he runs every morning. Maybe he’s right because, yes, he looks good. He dates very selectively, only those he has already met. He has way too much confidence. What can he do to temper that?
The sun is lowering itself to the distant river that defines our city. The one I had to cross every day to get to my job. The job I was proud of and enjoyed, the place I worked for over five years, advancing rapidly. The boss was soon to retire. I thought this was a chance to introduce an innovative agenda into meetings. Everyone else seemed open. But HRH Claire Purcell found me “presumptuous, not properly seasoned despite some time here, and although a good contributor to our monetary health, not the one who charts the course, nor likely to in the near future. You can’t seem to rein it in, Marianne. It’s best you go now rather than later.”
The sun has nearly set and the skyline bursts into flamingo pink. The moon glows like an opal from afar. It all makes me feel lonelier than usual so I go inside, open the refrigerator and search the dreary contents. There are many more beer bottles than yogurts or aging strawberries in their glass container. I root around and find nothing that appeals or pairs well with beer, so take another bottle, then think better of it. I open a top cupboard. Grab the whiskey bottle.
Who does Justin think he is? His agency is in a part of town I can’t even afford to park in so why does he talk to me? He feels the need to caution me more each year. He once admitted to me he considered being a monk when he was in sixth grade after he went on a church retreat with his parents–every now and then I try to imagine this–and displays a surprising philosophical bent when he lets down his guard. But this does not make him a fine moral compass– not mine. At times I can’t stand his smug life. Contentedness. That he seems happy.
I open the whiskey bottle and find a glass and fill it to the brim. There. One glass of whiskey. That will do it, not too much, not too little.
At the stereo I find and put on a jazz vocalist, Diane Reeves, then start wandering around my well-earned condo. The glass is warm in my hand. I take a drink, whiskey burning its way down my gullet. I am shocked by its potency. Its savage purity. I almost never drink liquor without dilution with other ingredients. There is a reason for this. Liquor commandeers my good sense fast. But Justin’s nagging, my interview coming up, the fact that I haven’t heard from my best friend, Lil, since she went to Austin on holiday a week ago–it all conspires against my better judgment. I can still hear Justin talking at me, that steady-eyed concern. His patronizing.
I take a small gulp and slowly dance, feet light, languid, arms held out wide. The whiskey in the glass is golden and full of shadows in a dissipating light. I turn on the electric fireplace to add cozy atmosphere, then head to my bedroom. I take another drink, this one so deep that I sputter and cough. It doesn’t make sense that I am drinking right now but neither does having been fired when I’m good at what I do or that Lil didn’t ask me to go with her since I’m not working. That Justin has to make my life harder with his increased inquisitions.
The alcohol may be starting to singe my veins, as I feel hurt abound, deep under my skin, under these musings.
I shed my sweats and want to play dress up, a thing to do when bored. I open my closet and rifle through the dresses and suits I no longer wear, the sweaters that need to be put away from winter. At the left end of the long closet is summer clothing. An ankle length blue and white sundress grabs my attention. It’s still a bit chilly but I put it on. I go through boxes of shoes, tossing them here and there until I find sandals. Pick a pair of thongs with silvery leather and beaded flowers that slip right on my feet.
I study my long brown hair in the bathroom mirror, take a drink and pick up a brush. I try to count to one hundred strokes when there it is, the smoothing glow of whiskey mixed up with the soothing motion of the brush. I, Marianne, sing a lullaby barely recalled, one that came from my mother on a good day or a children’s movie, I don’t know which, but it is sweet and tender on my tongue, takes the sting out of whiskey. I have another drink, dance with my reflection. I might have been a ballroom dancer instead of a travel agent selling tours to China and New Zealand. I might have gone to college in Paris. I might have been the girl who got the boy of her dreams. Found a way to save my mother. Made a fortune from my big smile before the accident changed all.
It is always a mistake but I need to really look into the mirror. There, the deft scar above my brow, the way the jaw hints at another sort of chin taken from me. The teeth that are implants, poor copies of mine. Her face, my mother’s, vanished beneath a blanket after the accident. I saw her feet slip from under, one snug in its mahogany leather loafer, one bare, twisted and bloody, the gold ankle bracelet still hanging on.
I put my right hand on the eyes in the mirror. My face is cut in half, then fingers slide down, down. I don’t know who this is, this stricken woman in a cheerful sundress who lifts glass to mouth, glass to mouth until glass offers nothing more. But later, maybe, if I sleep, when I get up and try to start over. Brave reality again.
The walk to the living room is far and tiresome but the fireplace draws me. Duskiness creeps in from my balcony door. It matches my mood. I must do something. The door swings wide and I lean against the balustrade. Where is he now I have something to tell him?
“Justin!” I call, but he doesn’t answer. “You are correct! The drinks after the first get better!” I raise my empty glass to his chic house, then toss it to the grass below where it rolls over, a sad, empty vessel. “Now leave me alone.”
Dark is transforming all, blurring things as I stumble inside. Get the bottle. Carry it to the couch before the fire. Stop thinking. Mouthfuls of medicine, bravado swallows taking me from this world, its lofty pretensions, dangerous mistakes. Down the magic rabbit hole on a slippery slide. The fire speaks in sly hisses, grim crackles.
The whiskey talks louder. Drink up, my friend. So I do. Try to submerge every inch of my life.
“Marianne! Let me in.”
Dull throbbing drumming underwater, muffled foreign tongue and a crash far away from me swimming this ocean of cheap whiskey.
“Open up, Marianne! I’m breaking in if you don’t get the door now!”
I feel nothing. Zero state, ahh. No, wait, wait. A hand on arm, then arm underneath, laying me lengthwise on sofa. A boat on this forgotten sea. I float. Sink.
“Marianne. Please. Don’t do this, anymore. Can’t you see where this ends up? Do you insist on proving me right?”
Even if I wanted to speak, I cannot. My lips, sealed with whiskey, my mind saturated with whiskey, that first beer somewhere at the bottom of it. Want nothing but the sleep of ruinous paralysis.
“I can’t spend more time with you if you drink, Marianne. You know I don’t drink. I lost Estelle from drunk driving and you lost your mother….stop doing this. For you, for me.”
This boat, rocking arms hold me…long ago a rocking chair I rocked through abyss of loss until I had to say good-bye to her my mother too young both in our blooming had to find my way alone so lost.
Weeping, an echo from long ago, another place, a passageway through space, my face burns at a touch, breath is razor ragged, this is the terrible place of love gone and longing so I open my eyes to find out who is crossing here this dam overcome.
Justin is rocking me now. He speaks to God, doesn’t he? Monk Justin. Cries, hand on forehead smoothing back my hair. Speaks my name. The drag of whiskey lets up in my blood a second so I can breathe, wincing from vapors of alcohol, forgotten tears. Fire flickers, his insistent voice flares like a beacon, a way out or back, maybe home.
“Hey,” I whisper. “Okay, okay…”
Somehow he knows it means: I surrender; I give up, will get help. Because he stays, is there in the morning, minds my business with me as I retch and grope and sip clean water. Justin the ad man, the profile that undoes all women but me, the little boy who felt called to God. But this is my doing. I have to figure things out. This time I must create a trail back to myself. I will believe.