The Safety of Birches

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It’s not easy here. It goes deep, the cold, and shadows push their way across each space as if they cannot hold back, as if the light is too great. I lean toward the small window but the fire is flaring in the hearth and water in a dented tea kettle is sizzling, ready to boil. No reason to leave the cabin mid-morning. Snow is in the air; I can sense it, the trees are not shivering, but waiting. I have come a long way to find a certain place in my soul, long-buried. I will sit until I begin to find it.

A few weeks ago there was the contained chaos of the city, important enough work, my body in concert with others dashing across streets, lifting our heads to stop lights and walk signs meant to keep us safe. Though not to be trifled with, I’ve certainly not been a despot in my mid-management (thus far) job. Rather, the sort of man who knows when to start up a conversation and just how to end it, who acts from a modicum of good will but alert to the right angles. I was an eager study of my grandfather, who used to tell me the way to advance was timing and a take charge attitude joined to quick, creative thinking. I was already good at the last by twenty or so I thought. Timing–I was impatient. Leadership–I’ve had to gain this step by step; it is the third that draws to mentors to me.

Life: success and failure have felt like second cousins, neither all important that great fuss should be made over them. I have been a man of habits. Gotten up daily, kissed my wife, Luann, hugged our young son and off I went. I locked my desk drawers and shut down my computer by 5:15, got home by six. I admired the city lights rather than curse the traffic jams; I liked to empty myself. Lucia got home earlier–she’s a nurse–so made dinner, something simple, color-balanced she says and substantial. The evenings were easy more often than not. We were good company to one another, loved without serious complaint. I would have said nothing could come between us. We were so close that any existent distances acted as required spacers between well-functioning parts. I didn’t know then that routine could be a drug, that if you don’t question things they can blindside you.

I hear the kettle whistling but remain in the heavy chair at fireside. Close my eyes. The sound recalls a train whistle, the train rumbling by my childhood bedroom each night around 10 pm and in the morning at 7. That whistle kept life in order, made the two halves of 24 hours fit right. Maybe the tea kettle will do that here.

I get up, pour scalding water into a stained white mug. There was a stag head emblazoned on it once; now it’s half gone. The fire crackles and hisses, a wild thing. I take my seat and locate its ravaging core, sip and remember things. I want nothing more than to be alone with peace, the surety and gentleness of it, but unease is having its way with me yet.

It was nothing that could have been surmised easily. Perhaps the way my employee rubbed her eyes at her corner desk, or how she seemed passive, just nodding during supervision the last couple of months, More often than not during meetings she stared out the window. I recall thinking then that she must have something on her mind but she smiled at me when I caught her eye. Alicia always looked right, that is, she was put together, long light hair smoothed back into a fancy knot, clothing well-chosen. She was about due for a promotion to supervisor. Alicia had come to us four years earlier freshly wedded; her spouse, Dane, was a young attorney. Someone mentioned she got “a good one”, he was ambitious and would do well. I noticed she didn’t keep any photos of them at her desk. Everything was tidy, almost empty save for a small fresh bouquet she brought in each Monday and tended as if she meant them to last forever.

But did he, her boss, know her at all? At work she was immersed in her job, revealing little else. I met Dane once, a medium-sized guy with a dusting of grey at his temples already and a noteworthy vocabulary. He surely noticed something at home. Did he share it with friends? Perhaps he talked with his dad when they had a weekly cup of coffee on Saturday morning? As I passed her and a cubicle partner, I heard her say he liked to do that. She later noted at a luncheon that her own family was gone except for an older male cousin in Ft. Collins. And now this still-new husband, she said giving a shake of her head. But they were facts reported.

I have always felt fairly in tune with Luann. She, however, says I need to think less, feel more to get the real picture. I differ on that, as just as I know the shapes of my ten digits intimately, admiring their varied functions and forms, so I know her. My wife is mother and lover, a persevering acoustic guitar player and a good water colorist. And more, of course–but what, exactly, have I missed?

I can’t understand–as her boss how could I have been blind to the signs? I asked Luann, ready to leave for the cabin.

Listen, it’s just, you men might look at us deeper. More. Us women. Sometimes we can’t explain things.

I paused at the door, wanting to stay as much as go. I frowned but she kissed my cheek. The more part? I persisted. How can I know if you aren’t clear?

You should just know by now. Or fight to know, she said. Anyway, I love you. I am so sorry about Alicia. I hope the cabin helps.

But her face drooped as she closed the door. I got into the truck, my mind dull yet crammed with things. On the way to the cabin, it was like a terrible chorus you can’t shake off: Should have known, could have known, guilty as charged. About Alicia. And perhaps about Luann, too.

How much had I missed in living day-to-day?

Now I grasp the wrought iron poker and jab at the fire. It spits and snarls at me. It is so still otherwise that the rooms seem to have held their breath until I entered. This is why I came for the week-end. That well of silence. I don’t want to think. I want to know. I want God to tell me things. I don’t go to church so often the minster knows my name right off but I am not a stranger to God. He comes to me in the meticulous design of the outdoors I love so much. In my wife and son. In wordlessness that is scarce. In the nights when I awaken to the lull of Luann’s breathing as there’s a shifting of tree limbs beyond us. I have felt God’s arms surrounding us. But now, this morning in the woods, I am still at a loss for what makes sense. A prayer feels far too much to ask of me. I sit and let the fire pull me to it, and wait for a new story to unfold like my father’s stories did right here, in this room once.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving vacation and as I had passed cubicles I’d tried to recall who had taken time off, who was set for Christmas vacation. I took off my coat, sat, turned on my computer. Then the phone rang. Dane was on the other line.

It’s Dane…Alicia. She’s gone, he told me, his voice hoarse and low.

Gone? I watched my laptop screen pop with images.

Gone…died very early in the morning. Car accident.

I stopped moving, pressed the phone closer to my ear.

What, you say?–she has died?

Dane’s hand covered his phone. Muffled voices. I waited, panic creeping into disbelief.

I had to call you right away, she would have wanted that, she says you’re a great boss … Mr. Larson, she’s crashed her car into a tree, she was to go to the airport around ten last night, but she got a little drunk, see, got in her car, I couldn’t stop her… well she drinks sometimes, she’s this quirky person and I’ve tried, God knows. And I love her, she’s so good…She’s not coming home, anymore. That’s all I can really say.

I said, No coming back, I see. Dane, I’m terribly sorry. Thank you for calling me. I don’t know…what to–if I can help in any way, please tell me.

But how do you help a man who has had his wife snatched away and with it a whole life of loving? I covered my face with my left hand so the fluorescent lights and taupe walls, tidy bookshelves with marble bookends were gone.

I’ll let you know when the funeral is, Dane said, his voice like something small and unsafe. She’d like that. She always said you were too good to her, made it the best job.

Ah, I said. Of course I’ll come.

We hung up, he to face bitter sorrow and terrors to come, me to face my staff, her empty desk chair, fine work undone. Those unbearable, soon to wilt flowers. I turned and looked out my window, my heart seeming flat as a stone. Alicia. Gone?

It wasn’t enough, the call. How did I miss a telltale odor of stale alcohol, not see difficulties? As I thought it over, somehow it made sense she drank. It might have been her avoidance of me some mornings. Or her perfume being heavy from time to time. Could I have not paid closer attention to her work and behavior those days? What of her apparent appreciation–which I never even imagined while she worked hard for the team? I felt miserable that he told me that now. Why did I never inquire as to why she seemed more apart from us lately, a quarter beat off? Because even then she was a stellar performer. I knew how special she was from day one.

But we’re not taught to be ready to aid, to be concerned. We are taught to achieve and manage, to organize, devise, conquer, put that best foot forward. Not to ask after one another, not open up a little more, never as a matter of course at least. And I am the boss, right?

The shadows lengthen; up north they do so as if there is a purpose. A signalling of minutes and hours falling away. It is long after noon. I am on my third mug of strong, black tea. My stomach gripes but I have no appetite. I am waiting for the snow. For some sign. I want this cabin and woods to fill in the blanks left by Alicia’s dying. Those gaps at home perhaps created by me. I need answers but I know smart thinking cannot provide them this time.

The wind whips the frosted air, slides down the chimney and causes fiery shapes to flail. I study the rich red and orange flames and they begin to mimic waves lapping at the logs I brought earlier. My body sinks back into the chair, conforms to the wide, old cushions. My grandfather and father sat here alone or with others and now I do and it feels as if I should be welcomed by them, a son among sons, a man among men. What would they tell me now? I know they still care. The fire settles; my eyelids falter and fall. I smell ghosts, cherry pipe tobacco and Old Spice, venison frying, snowballs with vanilla.

Two weeks before Alicia stopped living she knocked on my office door as I was finishing a phone call. I could see her through half-closed vertical blinds. She was looking at the floor, then looked up as a co-worker passed by. I noted the smile, not for the first time. It usually animated her fine, delicate features with surprising vivacity, as if she changed from black and white to full color. This time, it was muted in effect, smaller. She was younger than I but she might one day have my job. Time and practice, that’s all it took in the end. I have replayed this last interaction over and over but still, I wonder.

Come in, I called out as I hung up the phone.

Mr. Larson, I was hoping to talk to you about time off. I know the deadline is long-passed for turning in requests. But I may need to see my cousin for Thanksgiving.

Is that right? Plans change. Let me see if I can spare you. How long?

Just one day after Thanksgiving week-end. I’d fly back Monday, be back at work on Tuesday.

I looked up; she sounded breathless. She was biting her lower lip as if a chapped bit of skin bothered her. Her eyes were on the sleek brass clock Luann got me five years ago after five years at the company. It was the one thing I’d take with me when I left.

I can manage to give you that. You’re taking more time at Christmas but that’s okay, we need to do that if possible.

Oh, that’s good, I really am grateful. My cousin is ill so we should visit him. My last relative, right? Or maybe I will just fly there since Dane hasn’t even met him.

Her face quieted, closed.

I tapped my pen on the desk and said, I see, good, it’s settled.

Alicia cupped one hand into the other, then sat up straighter. Her pale mouth opened, then shut. I waited to see if she had something else to ask, fiddled with my pen. Her attention moved to my hand, the heavy golden pen that signed everything of importance. I stopped and she raised her gaze to my eyes, held it a split second. Another unwavering moment. I felt something. Then shifted.

Is there something else, Alicia? Is the new program going alright?

No, I mean, all is well, she said, rising, smoothing her skirt down. She headed out the door, turned to me at the last minute. I appreciate your expertise and help. I’ve learned so much here.

No problem, happy to encourage you, I said, returning her once-again warm smile. She left. I addressed my laptop. But I thought about it a moment, the late request, her seeming anxiousness. She is the best I have. Her smile is a welcome sight in a busy day. It all seems good. I got back to work.

Now as I doze in the cabin Alicia is walking across the arena of my mind. She is not smiling but lifts a hand. Walks slowly, nearly dances with long strides in the air, turns to me but doesn’t speak. She focuses on something I can’t discern. Her eyes flare blue as the heart of flames, her visage dazzles the smokey shadows. Then she’s gone.

The images are an electric jolt to my brain and I come to life, stand up, stretch. I look around and see only the comfortable living room, pine table, sturdy chairs and a galley kitchen with steaming tea kettle. I am suddenly hungry. After I eat I am going to look at my fathers’ and grandfathers’ dusty books on hunting and fishing as well as a few fine ones they passed on, some Faulkner, a collection of Twain, the poems of Longfellow. I will wait for the darkness to gather around by the cabin, by this fire. I will make sure it burns long and late. I likely will sleep little though I long for its restorative power.

******

In some endless tunnel of night I am more aware of being alone than I’ve been for decades although I often travel for work. I reach for Luann’s pillow and smash it against my chest. This seasoned cabin has been meant for respite. For hiding out while paying greater homage to nature. But also, meant for more than one.

I lift the pillow to my face and a searing ache wrenches from my throat. No sense running from it now.

I did not know, I tell Alicia and try to not cry out as I search for her. I did not know you cared, that you drank so much, that you were unhappy. Lonely.

Forgive me. That I could not, did not help you.

******

In the morning, snow, and more falling, a delight from above. I press my face against a lacy iced window. It isn’t deep but a soft and glittery sweep of snow laid beneath a sky that promises more. I make a bitter mug of instant coffee and instant oatmeal and eat. The fire is smoldering, has used itself up. I am sleepy but know the air beyond log walls will shake me out, keep me on my feet. Because I am going in search of birches, maybe fox and deer. Weaponless and empty of complex intentions. I pull on ponderous boots and my father’s ratty Navy pea coat and head out. The air bites my face and snowlight obscures my vision the first steps. As I progress snowflakes come more thickly, clinging to my shoulders and eyelashes.

It is at end of mile one that I see the birches shining. The sheer whiteness of the ground reflects enough so slender-trunks seem to rise into the early winter sky from a vast spread of gleaming white confetti. They reach up as all trees do but they are so proud, of their white and black and greyness, of the special peeling layers of bark that add mystery and texture.  You cannot strip it off or it will wound the inner and outer body of the tree. Their branches sway in topmost currents of breeze. Bare twig fingers at the ends of their branch arms seem to point in the four directions. As a child I came here with my father or grandfather on the way to the valley meadows. As a young man I dreamed with the birches and heard them breathe and rustle, watched them shed leaves, then gather snow and let it go, then once more favor new life.

They are whispering now, the sound a blessing on this winter’s day. It is a hymn. To life, to earth, to humans and all other miraculous creatures. I stand between them, raise my eyes. The birches crowd toward me, seem to make a broad circle with me in its center. I am not afraid because God lives here, holds me, my arms held out within this secure hold. I am no longer sad, do not feel lost. Am not alone. This copse of birches will remain upright and sturdy, will welcome the cycle of life and its leave-taking with quietude. From a ragged jacket pocket I remove her last small bunch of dried flowers. Place them at the snowy base of a birch. I step away from their ancient protection. As I move through the swirls of snow there is a flash of elegant red tail. There are deer out there, too, but it is time to go home. Be with my Luann, my beloved son.

 

Thanksgiving: Notes from a Small Eater

The Thanksgiving feast will commence tomorrow afternoon and I will be quaking ever so quietly, studying the food with unease counterbalanced by good will. I’ll take my place at the table, made longer with a second extra leaf to seat 12. I’ll cast my eye over the repast. Roasted turkey with its accompaniment of velvety gravy; bright sweet potatoes and delectable brussels sprouts; green beans with fennel; cranberry/apple/orange relish; that golden mound of potatoes; a roasted beet and squash salad. And not least, stuffing. And pecan and pumpkin pies, of course. I’m leaving something out, no doubt; let me check with my husband on that.

Consuming that food will prove a challenge for me. It always does. I’ve shared with my parents and a couple of siblings an unfortunate proclivity for digestive issues, from colitis to diverticulitis to IBS to a general dyspepsia–whatever decides to attack every few days/weeks months. We also do battle with any number of food intolerances and allergies, even when all else behaves better. So eating with abandon is unlikely. Eating large amounts in utter faith that happiness will reign in stomach and gut is downright foolishness. Yes, there are medicines–they help manage things but do not cure. Accordingly, I have a complicated relationship with food and tend to keep it simple: whatever is a known factor and bland, whatever appears benign is what I enjoy. Every now and then I throw caution to the wind and exult in my good fortune. But that is infrequent to rare.

My life has been physically very active and I enjoy getting out and meeting people, travelling and finding fresh experiences. But unless you have these ills, you may not imagine how they dictate daily choices. How one’s digestion system can create a false appearance of anorexia or even annoying finickiness. How it influences what you do and where. How it can wreak havoc on what was a delightful time with a gathering of friends. Nonetheless, I appreciate food when feeling mediocre to well. The rest of the time it still appeals to me– but in theory.

Thus, I can work up real excitement about enticing new recipes. I like to peruse exotic or historical cookbooks, albeit with some longing. Meanwhile, chiming in with my ideas gets a nod or two from my husband as he prepares dinner; he cares for my well being and has some interest in my feedback. He took over much of the cooking years ago since I cooked for 7 people–often more as children brought home buddies–each day for twenty years. Now I more look forward to sprucing up the home and dressing up the worn antique table with a pretty tablecloth, an arrangement of flowers and candles. I seek a balanced but lively look.

Last Saturday we went to our favorite farmer’s market, exclaiming over earth’s astonishing bounty. I appreciate ogling edible items and having our coffers well-stocked. I got to pick a few goods while he chose others. I am drawn to baked treats–carbs are easy to handle–or vibrant fruits while he waxes nostalgiac over heirloom vegetables. He at times imagines himself a bonafide chef; I am usually grateful he does. He can eat anything, it seems, and will research and prepare food with a gusto I cannot quite fathom.

M. is an engineer, an expert in manufacturing quality assurance. His position requires detailed data gathering, statistical process control and overseeing the production at three plants. He is passionate about systems, spread sheets and problem solving. It turns out these come in handy as he prepares for a large meal like Thanksgiving dinner. Not only does he create a grid of needed items on computer, he keeps notebooks in which are jotted down ideas and recipes. They are accompanied by doodles–decent ones–in colored pencils, commentary that is a bit mysterious. He devises a timetable of days, hours, minutes. He has, in fact, records of previous years: how long things took to cook, at what temperatures, what seasonings and recipes worked or did not and why, the line up for oven and stove—well, you get the gist of it. As noted, he’s an engineer.

All the while he is singing praises (at times literally–he sings well) of the beautiful food he gets to work with, the dishes he will create. (“Look at the cranberries, they’re like jewels!”) And I help out. I fetch things, shop for items, make sure he has forgotten nothing vital. Clean up, provide fresh tea towels as the used ones fall to the floor. I’m like the assistant in the slightly mad scientist’s laboratory. But mostly I’m not too welcome in the kitchen as he gears up to full speed. For one thing, it’s a small u-shape. Our city apartment is good-sized but for some reason the design didn’t include a kitchen that more than 3 medium-sized bodies can comfortably occupy. And when he gets into motion, well, one can be elbowed or squashed if venturing in unannounced. Or even if I call out a warning. For M. is busy with executive direction and production of a feast! He is engaged in an important purpose, heading toward that goal of having every dish ready at the same time–the hour people are to arrive for his delicious dinner. Even if he doesn’t quite have time to change his clothes, it will happen.

I admire his can-do attitude as he solves timing issues or plows past mini-failures. More so, his joyful industry. But he didn’t always pitch in during mealtimes; he traveled often those earlier years. He does now at times but how much easier to to fix food for one. Even a sandwich will do.

So I cooked for our brood but it was often at the last hour, favoring one pot meals of stews, hearty soups or chili, baking a nice roast or chicken with a few veggies thrown in, then tossing a big (easy) salad. I had better things to do–running 5 kids everywhere, doing house chores, working for pay, trying to find a few moments to write. Or slowly breathe, alone somewhere. Creating one stanza of poetry would provide me with gratitude and a generous benevolence for days. Yes, food was important to growing children, but it didn’t need to take longer than 30 minutes prep time. It didn’t need, well, frills.

Besides, I had to fix decent food despite being chronically ill with the woes; i.e., feeling nauseous and/or in pain. I wanted to love cooking and all manner of fabulous food and to hone great skills, but I needed primarily for my children to eat well enough on a then-tight budget. I often just ate their leftovers, a habit that suited me if others thought it a bit odd. It beat saving scraps in the frig, then forgetting about them until they bloomed with unsavory growth.

I recall at least once being asked to specify the things I could not eat. The one recounted was for a visit to my mother-in-law’s. I told her to not worry about it, then at her insistence listed the culprits. It was my spouse’s mother, after all. But to my embarrassment, the list was long; to me, the food taboos were instinctive, well-ingrained. A simple part of my living. I hated to put her out, for her to shop for special things as though I was a poor sickly person who had to be accommodated. I am self-conscious reminding people of even though it is hazardous if I don’t. No one likes to draw attention to themselves over something that others take for granted. But I can’t just dismiss food’s potential hazards as if a small annoyance, a fly buzzing over your plate.

I hear things clanging around in the kitchen. My husband calls out to me.

“Cynthia, do you know where I stored the big roasting pan for the turkey?”

“It’s where you always keep it…”

“No. Not there. I have looked everywhere.”

“Did you look in the cupboard above the frig? The ones below and  above the stove? Way back in the corner of the main one? The storage room?”

“Yes, yes, yes…but it’s not anywhere!”

M. is marinating a 17 pound turkey in brine tonight and tomorrow it will be roasted long and well. I push away from the computer desk, get the flashlight and lay down on the kitchen floor. I am smaller than is he, admittedly more agile. I peer long and hard into the big cupboard. Nothing but pots and pans and wait, a casserole dish I had forgotten, plus a swooping cobweb or two in the farthest shadowy corner. I can see no spiders but that means nothing in Oregon. I consider eliminating the cobwebs before I meet up with said sly spider some morning when I am too tired to notice. But he asks me if the pan is found so onward with the search. After five minutes, the roaster pan is still missing. He throws up his hands and grabs his jacket and is off to the store once again.

I adore that M. loves to cook, that he finds joy in colluding smells and flavors, textures and colors. I do, too; the variety of food and combinations is entrancing. But I am ever the prudent eater. A consumer of small sums of known things. I cheer him on as he blazes a culinary trail: raw to cooked, freezer to oven, salt and pepper to fennel and chestnuts and cranberries and yams. I can be duly surprised how well things turn out; other times, just surprised…but I am without question grateful he will cook. When he sets my plate on the table, a stained tea towel dangling from his forearm, I feel special.

That is what tomorrow will mean to all 12 of us: being treated well, feeling treasured, partaking of the banquet with one another. As did my mother, I set the table with care, center the flower vase just so, light the candles as the family takes their seats. We’ll take each other’s hands and say a brief prayer. Often we share what we are grateful for. And the eating begins. I will dig in the best I can. This overflowing table will be duplicated in countless homes all over our country. My hope is that few if any spend the afternoon hungry or alone; our city provides thousands of meals on Thanksgiving.

Afterwards there will remain the same work I had as a child at home: cleaning up the aftermath. I might pick at what’s left, get the dessert dishes lined up for pie later. So I will set the coffee to brewing, the tea kettle boiling. It’s all good. Good and satisfying. The murmur of my family’s voices will find me as I quietly rinse and wash, stack and dry. The pleasure has been in sharing time, thoughts and conviviality over a hearty meal. Giving my attention to each who has favored me with his or her presence.

I might have some company, my son or daughter, grandchildren checking in, asking if they can help–and what’s next? (Likely a game of charades or a chat about school, maybe some art making if we’re inclined.) Or my husband will sneak up, place his arms about me from behind as I scrub and scrape, my wavy grey-streaked hairdo now out of sorts. He’ll give me a squeeze and then find a spot to put his feet up. Belly full. Content with all for the moment. Me, too.

 

{Thank You, O God, for the gathering of family and friends, the sharing of sustaining food. Awaken the love that You have provided our hearts and souls. Deepen Your healing over this world rent with strife and grievousness. Provide us with steadfast courage. May we find and share hope in coming days and nights. Bless and guide our lives with deep peace and compassion. Amen.}

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Come to Me, My Shining Time

Williim Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Though I’d just awakened, I was to get up and meet him at the Tacos ‘n Thai cart owned by Javier and Apsara. Not my favorite place at the moment. Food and I have not been on good terms even when I can afford more than this. Stress attacks my insides. The scraping for money. The nights I try to trick my body into sleep as I rock back and forth, all knees and elbows in the hammock Neal left on my porch when he disappeared. I am not often left with an appetite for breakfast. Hunger for relief, yes. I just want to live normally, take care of my business and do good things with no whining. Not so remarkable, but you’d never know it from the fears that threaten to abscond with my brain.

“Lily, back at last!”

Apsara flashes her monumental smile and the morning is improved. Her good will makes every dollar I spend here worthwhile so I order a side of rice noodles with egg, carrots and mushrooms with a bubble tea.

“You got something going on now?” She means work; she dabs her brow with the hem of her apron. “Shining that sweetie face in more glossies?”

“Modelling…well, no. I’ve been cleaning more houses for the past couple months. It covers gaps since Neal left.”

“Cleaning still… ” Her round face clouds and her lips purse.  “No good!” But her smile returns as she pushes a pen further into her hair and stands tall. She never prods for information, unlike her husband. “I’ll get you fed.”

I don’t know if she means “no-good man” or just “that’s bad news”, but either way it may come down to the same thing: not the best situation. I find the man who was with me for two and a half years entering my mental screen, all lankiness, blustery talk and warmly lit pools for eyes. A filmmaker, he was often gone. This time gone for good, and it’s not as hard as it looks to others. He was difficult to take in doses bigger than a few days after the first six months. It wasn’t his roving mind, the constant storytelling; I like stories and ideas. It was his expansive self-appreciation. I got bored. Even though he helped me out as my money dwindled, it was not such a sad day when he left on a promising European project, gone before dawn.

I need rent and grocery money, not him. I need things to go just right for me for once. My own time to come, my own passion to be acknowledged and enjoyed. And it’s sure not modelling, which shocked Neal. Well, it would.

Javier sticks his head out and waves. “Back for the best, I see!” he shouts, causing a handful of customers to gawk. “That good-for-nothing guy gone or what?” He makes a motion with his hand as if saying “good riddance” or worse, then is yanked back in by Apsara.

As I walk to a far table, I cringe. My personal life doesn’t need to go public in my neighborhood. I know I should get used to this, a different life. A harder one. I’ve considered the food bank but can’t handle the thought of lining up behind parents who have kids crying in their arms. Patient and often disoriented homeless. Clots of women pared down in size and spirit who are spurred to action by their men or a gnawing pain in their stomachs. It doesn’t seem right; I should be able to manage by now, not take from those who need it when I eat unevenly, that’s all. I’m almost thirty and haven’t gotten off to a roaring success. Well, the modelling paid well but that isn’t the success I aim to have.

As my madly successful family reminds me.

“You might consider getting a skill at last that equals a dependable and decent paycheck,” my father, a mover and shaker in biotech, advised on the phone. I had called for two hundred dollars to pay past due water and electricity. Every word including a “please and sorry” felt like failure. His voice can disguise itself as an audible grater, shredding both my eardrum and self esteem.

I pinned my cell between ear and shoulder as I folded clothes on the bed, then let it slip to the quilt as he continued to enumerate all I might have done or still could do. I counted in sevens as I did even as a kid. It still helps calm me.

“–instead of trying to become some sort of photographer! Art for dear art’s sake does not make for very fortuitous ends. Why couldn’t you have stayed with modelling longer?At least that got you in some doors and offered tangible rewards.”

“Yes, dad,” I murmured into the pause.

“Lily? You still there? You want your mother to talk to you? She’s just back from her book club.”

I clutched the phone and let my eyes rest on a dark corner of my room. I thought how it might look in a wide angle shot, a young woman with voluminous flame-red hair facing a dark plum wall, shoulders and feet bare, soft light slipping over her back. Her shadow flimsier than she imagines. I closed my eyes. “No, dad, it’s fine, I’ll call her another time. And thanks for the money, I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right, will do and love you, just get back on track.”

I’ve lived off my modelling savings for over eleven months and it is about gone now. My three year contract with the agency ran out. I haven’t returned phone calls from other agencies. I don’t want to be anyone else’s mannequin. Beauty alone can carry you for a great many miles. But long ago it left me at a dead end where its meaning and values are at odds with my idea of a real life. How can anyone pay such big money to hang clothes and jewels on my torso? To use me as a canvass for someone else’s often hallucinatory visions? It’s all disposable, even meaningless as I take the longer view.

It was a convenience from the start–easy money before, during and after college where I garnered an Art History degree. But I’m sick of it, want to shed that persona like a coat both heavy and sweaty. I am a burning creature inside this muscle and bone, burning with dreams and impatience.

Neal did not understand my doubts, nor did he try. He found my career invigorating, a jump start for his tendency toward sluggish ambition. I got to be his muse for a bit, gratifying at first. And a useful asset when we went to the endless parties and he could say, “This is my partner, Lily, who last had a starring role in British Vogue. Isn’t that wild?”

“Noodles steaming hot!” Apsara calls out.

I get up and walk near an occupied table. There is “the look” from three young men, that ten second stare as I come and go. The hair, the legs and so on.

“Got a minute?” one asks and another elbows him. The third whistles low and tunefully.

I want to snap my teeth at him and make terrible faces.

Javier is right behind his wife, grilling and turning meat and peppers and onions for tacos but he stops to turn to me.

“So what about it? Gonna go back to modelling jobs or still trying to sell those pictures of yours?”

I pick up the plate, succulent steam flowing from Apsara’s noodles into my nostrils. “No, done with the first and working on the second. I’ll figure it out.” I dole out ten dollars, glad for change.

“And we’ll put a few pounds back on for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll help out if you need it.”

He gives his head an affirmative nod and his dark eyes fill with an odd mixture of compassion and gentle mirth. I want to take their photographs: hustling side by side in early mornings and into late nights, the joking and running into each other and cussing and stealing kisses. They’re life being lived on maximum volume, quick to respond, full of enthusiasm, cooking a way of life and an offering of affection.

“You got what it takes, little sister,” Apsara says, leaning in the open window. “I know you make it. Your dream life. Look us, we get it done, so too you, Lily.”

Tears arise hot behind my eyes but I shoot her a grateful smile and head back to my spot, the fragrance of noodles and veggies a rich perfume. I thought I wasn’t even hungry but I had thought I wasn’t lonely, either.

“Hey, you lookin’ so good!” The whistler gets up and ambles over. “Got a number?”

“It’s not available, just move on.”

He makes a sour face, as if he put his hand in the shimmering water and got stung.  “You got sass, my oh my!” he says but takes off to catch up with his friends.

True enough, I’ve shown it all: sass, melancholy, wide-eyed surprise, riotous excitement, wild fierceness, seductiveness, tender innocence–you name it, I can locate each and work it into my face and my limbs as fast as demanded. But today I feel tired, vulnerable, transparent to the world. Just like yesterday.

Except for that early phone call. Even the persistent ring sounded official and yet I hung back, unwilling to find out who was on the other line. It wasn’t a familiar number.

“Lily here; hello?”

“Herb Winters. We talked last month, remember? Meet me at the food cart, that Mexican and Thai one by the park in an hour. I like it for lunch sometimes.”

I ate half my food when my stomach began to balk. I wanted to leave before Mr. Winters arrived. His voice was devoid of clues as to whether he had good news or bad. That might mean exactly that: indifference. The worst sort of response to baring one’s soul. No one has ever seen my photos up close in person except for two people: my oldest friend and then Neal. It took all I had of small courage to take my portfolio to his gallery. Leave it there for his scrutiny. When I didn’t hear anything after two weeks, then three and four, I knew I had made a serious miscalculation. I hoped Mr. Winters would be open to my work because I admire what he hangs in Winters’ Photographic Arts Gallery: pictures exposing human foibles; scenes of ordinary life so vivid with insight, perspective; moments captured that revealed deeper truth; such layers of texture and form and hue.

If my photography has any true power, it will hold onto one millisecond of life that renders it visible to many, each person bringing with them their history and inquiries, emotions and intuition. A slice of life is brought close not entirely by me in a blink of focus, a suspension of time–but also by the vision others bring to the result. Their eyes see with mine. And I want that intersection to be transformative for them. I’m not sure I want to invoke anything except attentiveness, an experience of all else falling away so the one standing before my visual notations knows some of what I observed and felt, then adds adds his and her embroidering to it.

Exploration can begin that easily. I want us all to be witnesses to lives we carry and lead. To say: I am here; I acknowledge this moment, feel this life force move, regenerate.

And what else is there? A series of truths to absorb and share. I think about all this every day now. About how much I want to make pictures, have them in shows. Put them in print. Hope others emerge from the seeing with a greater sense of life’s density and transparency, too. I guess what I want is to find each essence, then be a person who will tell her truth.

I tried to explain this to Neal. He found me contradictory–“A foxy model longing to be profound?” he teased. I was thought ridiculous with my desire to create something more worthy. Change the ways we know the world, even for even one person? No, not this pretty woman.

“Entertain them,” he said, “that’s exactly what every one wants and that is my aim. Distraction–not being more present in this miserable world.”

I slipped away without answering, the moment emptying me of it.

I have never been very religious in ways I suppose I might be, but photography is a kind of conduit to God. Through my cameras I begin to discover what makes things as they are. The mysterious otherness of each perceived creation shows me a holy Presence. Stillness, astonishment, awe, grace: all I could otherwise lose possesses me with magic. I feel as if caught inside the perfect whorl of time, a still point where everything is unified. Makes sense or may, one day. I feel rent and made whole all at once.

This I could never experience as the posed subject of a camera, as a person to oggle, study or use as a vehicle to advertise material goods. To design an identity that was as foreign to me as my cohorts’ (including Neal’s) hunger for wealth and public adulation. My beauty was a destination for many; for me, simple DNA. Then a reckoning. Then a barrier. But I will define myself through and beyond these. Be a human being who does, not only who is.

I shred the paper napkin in my hands, look at my watch, sip the chilled bubble tea. Herb Winters is late. Nerves jiggle my leg and foot.

Javier is wiping sweat from his forehead with his plaid-shirted forearm, fists full of cooking tools. The lunch crowd lines up, then disperses. Some shift their weight as they check the menu, others stand with arms crossed, patient. A moving tableau of color and form. I reach for my camera and start to shoot, get up and move quietly, my old friends unaware, lunch people shuffling and taking places at tables. The high sun is clear, golden in the autumn coolness, an element that competes with the faces, then complements expressions rippling one to another. A wave of fascination for my eye.

Apsara looks up, past me, her eyes locked on the far treeline, perhaps, and she is turning luminous, black hair almost sparking, her mouth a ripe berry as happiness gathers and she turns toward Javier. He slips his arms about her, pulls her close so their foreheads meet. Another customer arrives, waits, rubbing his tired neck as he watches such big love. But there are so many aromatic choices for lunch. He speaks up. They laugh. My camera finds them all somehow exquisite and I take them in, fill up with images as they are framed and snapped, spellbound.

A shadow splays itself across my path.

“Lily Rossiter?”

I look up. It is Mr.Winters. He has my portfolio under his arm.

We find our way back to my picnic table but it is full up now, so we walk.

“I have spent good time studying your work. I’ve begun to see what you’re doing.”

“Yes? You have?”

He’s a big man, has a girth that is not enviable but he walks with a long, easy stride. I match his steps.

He nods. His beard is more silver than black I see now, his face more lined. It is a good, open face, the sort that’s both distinguished and capable of humor. My heart takes off and I wait for his final report.

“You want to love everything and everyone. The longing is there, the care.”

I steal a glance at him but he is not looking my way. What he says is true, I realize. I feel my insides have been exposed.

“But not everything is lovable, not everyone commands the valor of it.”

“Maybe so… I hope otherwise. I know there’s much more to taking pictures than beautiful design or engaging people or other creatures.”

He says nothing as we enter the park. We’re walking faster. The birds are chorusing and kids are playing basketball; there’s a woman with a red and white striped dress on and she’s reading under trees. I want him to just tell me–that it isn’t going to happen, he doesn’t find my attempts at photography commendable yet; I must work and study harder. Maybe he’s a man like my father, wanting me to wake up and get back to real life, that making art, honoring life and giving it my heart needs to stop before I make a fool of myself.

“You have a lot to learn, Lily Rossiter, but you have both eye and courage, I suspect, to do this. I want to hang a few of your photographs soon. You have much more to do to prepare for inclusion in my next show, ‘Discovery: Works of Rising Photographers’.”

I am about to burst with fear. “I know I need education or a mentor but I had to take a chance. Maybe you can tell me what to improve…wait, hold on…you want my photographs?”

Mr. Winters takes my hand, presses it between both of his thick, warm palms. “I think you have a gift. Let’s see what happens. I’ll call to set up a formal meeting.”

“Thank you… so much.” It comes out a hoarse whisper.

He heads for the Tacos ‘n Thai food cart. I’m standing by the merry-go-round with my portfolio so put it under a bush and hop on, push off from the ground so it starts to spin and gathers speed, and the sunshine is velvet on my skin and the breeze is sweetness and then children call out and jump on. We turn, turn, turn and there’s laughter and squealing. I lie back, let all my mad hair go and it flings itself over the dusty earth like a brazen, happy flag of victory.

 

Inclusive/Exclusive: Helping More Good Happen

boatmen3
The Jolly Floatboatmen, 1846, by George Caleb Bingham

I am not a natural joiner of groups, but life has often provided me with reasons to do so. It is as if my comfort zone needs frequent testing and expanding, like I am being asked to develop greater fluidity of mind and spirit. It is not usual that I’ve been coerced (though that has happened, too). If I include my family I was a joiner of musicians from the first breath. Then came sports and other activities to pursue, talents to hone (or abandon) while in competition with others, academic coursework to seek alongside more students. There is a long list of summer camps, workshops, conferences, churches and their smaller groups, treatment centers, recovery groups. Assorted special gatherings (Native American pow wows, holiday parties, weddings, funerals, etc.). Volunteer work and ever-changing jobs. Musical and theatre groups. Writing groups, book groups. As a youth in the sixties I was a joiner for purposes of social and educational change. And I briefly joined a group that had mysterious chanting and left me dizzy for a few ecstatic hours.

I have praised these groups or hidden them, added them to resumes or trotted them out in interviews for new positions. And I still search for a couple that will fit me well now.

Think about it, all the joining that has gone on in your life. If you are like me, you either do so because of shared interests and goals or it is more or less a requirement or you believe it will aid future endeavors. Surprising outcomes have likely occurred. You get to put on all sorts of hats, enjoy different interactions. Everywhere I end up there have been good reasons I might benefit from group inclusion. In theory and generally in practice I do appreciate other human beings. I pull up a chair and join, even if I am not always at ease and wonder what can be gained or shared.

But I admit this joining occurs despite a near-constant pull to solitude. The anchor of it amid life’s ceaseless shifting of demands and distractions. The satisfying yield of hours spent perusing ideas and exploring a spectrum of interests. I feel time is like breath, it sustains my life or is not good. More extroverted persons might be inclined to suggest introverts are more selfish. I have experienced the direct opposite, a release from self-centeredness and that nagging, attention-grabbing ego when engaged in solitary activities. My mind frees up, the restless ego sits in a corner, and my intellect and spirit begin to escape confines of societal limitations. There is no one to worry over, impress or surrender to. The clarifying of thought and opening of heart occur readily.

Perhaps in another life or time I might have sought religious sanctuary. A studious and pensive life, asceticism, constant communion with God–these are magnets for me (admittedly romanticized by lack of prolonged experience). I likely inherited some of this from my parents: they contrasted very public personas with private, my musician father inventing games and fixing cars, seeking knowledge and prayer; my teacher mother withdrawing to design and create with fabric and thread, write down thoughts, study Psalms, tend flowers in the yard. They both filled up with whatever drew them inward. I know the feeling.

So there is this dichotomy, one among others. I am certain this “push-pull” is shared with lots of people. Creatures of complex desires, and contradictions, we become immersed in the physical realm then yearn for greater understandings or richer spirituality. We love our earth but wonder over other galaxies or dimensions. And there arises a twinge of loneliness with the love of solitude. I, a restless seeker, yearn for like-mindedness again and wonder where are those who share my callings, passions, beliefs. And so I consider another group. The problem is, often I still feel alone. The partial solution is better grasping that each and every one of us is alone–even as we are a part of the conglomeration of Homo sapiens, sharing a planet in one of innumerable universes. I embrace this far more comfortably than I did fifty years ago. I am an ordinary soul among all others yet we each are particularly ourselves, powerfully unalike. Our eyes–those conduits to our inner being–when meeting, know this.

When I review my life, I find a seat around countless tables with mixed company: some strangers, some friends; those female and male; believers in Christianity seated with believers in other faiths or in their own self-determination. We have spoken of both sacred and secular trials and shared lessons bringing us to greater understandings. There have been individuals who have endured follies unlike mine and met with victories I have never known. And some who may as well have been telling much of my own story. And at work meetings I have at times just stopped myself from rebutting a boss’ decree or fleeing the room. Some mediations have resulted in more fractious discussion; others have brought sudden enlightenment. But first you have to  say “yes”, agree to participate. Cohesion of a group depends on willingness of others to join in and support the meeting of minds.

From each group I take what seems useful, turn it over in my thinking and being. The rest I leave on tabletop. I do not carry anxiety or fear or anger with me if I can help it. What matters is a basic respect for others, for how their own souls thrive and seek even if their ways are not mine. I have faced being the odd one out and believe compassionate detachment brings better outcomes than judgment.

A common experience of mine is having to explain how I experience my faith in God, why I came to believe what I do. It started long ago, at about age 5 in Sunday school when I said that God did not look like an aged grandfather since God is Spirit. I was met with odd looks and questions. I wasn’t sure what the reaction was about but was sure of what I meant. In my current Christian women’s group we shared our first memory of church. Most offered experiences praying with parents or their childhood church building or hymns sung together. I shared the above anecdote of about age five. I was asked once again how I had come up with that idea. I said I may have heard it at home but the truth is, I just felt it deeply. Embraced it as I always felt embraced by God.

There has not been a time when I didn’t sense God watching over me–and all of us. Despite the horrors of this world, despite a seeming lack of answers to life problems or my own soul at times feeling wrenched, forlorn at certain junctures. But neither did I feel altogether at home in this physical vehicle and in this earthly life. As a child or as a youth, I saw life in different ways than most I knew, though it took years to understand it. Where someone else perceived the appearances of things, I was drawn into the multi-layered center of them. When someone saw the withered face of a crooked old man I saw a vibrant soul if a bit tired and cramped. When someone else saw the pretty blue sky I saw God’s territory stretching beyond our imaginings. Life in all its wonders exceeds our interminable need to box things up in simple equations. To me there were and are endless connections of one thing to another such as a single leaf’s veins and veins of my body and the pathways of distant celestial bodies: to me, they are each a stunning facet of the great Design. God is in the morning and night, in sorrow and joy, in creation and meditation.

I countered the raised eyebrows of teenage friends: Who said we were the only sentient beings? Why believe we cannot read feeling, thought and needs of others when we each are given another sense of intuition? Why this separation from God, from each other, from our own selves? Can we not overlap belief and actions more freely? Is there really so little room for uniqueness while sharing common ground? I desired unity and wholeness–in microcosm or macrocosm, It was already present. We just needed to recognize it. But I felt adrift then, and can still feel that way when I forget we are taught to live with daily illusions, put on masks to get by, feign interest and understanding when raising our hands with a question makes far more sense. We are informed we need to blend in when the beauty is in our differences as well as our similarities.

The groups I have joined are often rife with an underlying anxiety about how we identify. If attending, say, Alcoholics Anonymous, one is first and last an alcoholic. If in a church group, one is a member or being schooled to be a member of that denomination. In political groups, one’s party is of paramount importance. In a private club, the involvement is dependent on qualifiers that allow you to be an exclusive member. As a counselor, I signed a code of ethics agreement but further, I had to meet expectations of the organization with little to no resistance. If a member of an order serving God, then all partake of the same vows. No matter to what we attach ourselves, we agree to a creed, a commitment, a mission. Otherwise, we are likely to be suspect or not serious in our intent–or otherwise ill-suited to the culture of the group. Rules matter; they help keep in place needed structure. Yet I am not convinced this is always the way that works best for diverse human living–at least when it is about being on a lifelong quest of the soul. We are more than the obvious, and more than our genes or resumes or talents. We are spiritual and, I believe, eternal beings living short human lives.

I recently read an article about Thomas Merton, the mystic, poet and Trappist monk. He stirred up my far less eloquent and lofty thoughts with a few sentences from his journal entry over sixty years ago:

“If you want to find satisfactory formulas you had better deal in formula. The vocation to seek God is not one of them. Nor is existence. Nor is the spirit of man.”

Merton devoted himself to seeking God and lived half his life in a monastery. He sought profound connection to others amid his solitariness and greater silence, needed nourishment of mutual understanding. He wrote over 70 volumes on social justice, spirituality and pacifism and rallied for interfaith understanding. Merton wanted to experience belonging here and now in this world as well as with God in ways mere–powerful but limited–language cannot bring access.

There are things we tend to keep to ourselves, even when we identify as part of a group. I have often kept to myself my experiences of God-moving-with-us, of near death, of intuition and angelic presences, among others. I wonder what would happen if we shared our uniqueness around a table and in the world more easily. What might someone find in our experience that could reassure or liberate or comfort? There is a risk in being wholly one’s self, in a group or even alone.

The worlds within us are reflections of who we are separately and together. We each have wisdom, stories and good questions to offer. We live and die within a far-ranging confederacy of human beings. In our particular groups we can make a difference for good or ill. There is potency in joining together, even if it includes a handful neighbors on your block. So I would hope you and I each can take a seat at a table, then be able to say without fear or disregard: “This is my truth. What is yours? And how can we share resources to make the whole better?” I’ll be coming back to that group, and it will influence my time alone, as well.

Moon Face

Photo by Bill Brandt
Photo by Bill Brandt

The elderly man to my right, clutching a book of Blake’s sonnets in gnarled hands, whispers words to me all day. I will miss him, which is a surprise. I never expected to miss anything but freedom to do as I choose. I guess we all want that. But here, in these secured and sparse rooms, many of us find how much everything matters, even things you never thought of before. When you are stowed away in a halfway house, rights become privileges you have to fight to regain with all your creative might. It’s the system, and you are the systematized.

“Lovely tiny dancing doll,” he says now, eyes never leaving the floor. He has once looked right at me though he’s about blind–then he squeezed his eyes shut.

I forgive him–I don’t like my size being referred to, I am nobody’s doll and I’m not pretty–because he has lived a long time and he’s no longer quite with us. I guess it’s better than what “Q the King”, the giantess who had to leave due to violent outbursts, named me: Moon Face. She used to black out with rage, throw things, then fall onto the floor, the whole place shaking from her height and bulk. Mr. Eisenberg was terrified of her. I always smile at him–Mr. E., I just call him–though I doubt he sees me. He must feel it. I believe he needs more good smiles, at the very least. he deserves it and more. Because he is not leaving at all. He lives here with his granddaughter, our overseer, Mistress Manley.

“Dancing doll,” he says. “My dancing doll.”

The windows are a sieve for vapid light. I get up and look out. Everything about this place is marred with benign neglect, even the lawn and fields stretching out like ruined carpet. Not a hospitable home. It is a miracle we all are on speaking terms, even if in whispers. But far beyond this glass I see rolling green fields and in the distance a promise of hills. Past those hills is where I’m going.

Lucky, my big brother, will soon come get me; he really is lucky because he was born with simple wants and right thinking. My bag is packed. All I have to do is sign forms and then I will be closing the doors on this break in my life. That’s how I see it; a time apart from everything else, especially those who had no faith left in me. Others might see it differently but if I have learned anything here it is that our human eyes give us very different views of the world outside as well as inside ourselves. We can only think we understand. And you would not want to know everything even if you could. Still, plenty is worth discovering. I’ve had long, ponderous hours to watch, to listen and imagine, to feel and wonder over the lives of people who have lost their minds one way or another and are trying to retrieve them. I guess that includes me, as I have tried to clear some things up and reorder my life plan after terrible things happened.

“Well, Amanda, ready to take off, I see. Two months and one half-day and set to go. You did the work so now you get to do more life.”

Mistress Manley stands over me with hands on hips. She acts tougher than she is. It’s her job to be in control as supervisor but I know she is not, not really, as neither are the two part-time residential therapists. The doctor is, though he comes only once a week, as well as the mental health agency with which the Darren Manley House is aligned. She is not as big as she seemed the day I came but still, she is three times the size of me. I am small, so small I was told as a teen that I would not make a dancer. Thin is one thing, tiny is another. But I ignored the warning. I had to push all limits.

“Yes.” We had a more thorough conversation two hours ago after I stripped my bed and swabbed my part of the room, the last manual labor portion of my “therapy.” I lean against the wall and she steps back as if conscious of how her wide shadow can engulf us. Her next-to-last word can about seal our fates.

“Let’s have a chat.”

I follow her to the back room, the one that has the sign on the door that says “Private” as if anything in this rambling, 2900 square foot, two-story house can be very private for long. There are not enough places to fit sixteen of us so we have bunk beds in four bedrooms, genders separated. Until we are ready to leave, when we get a closet-sized room for a couple weeks, perhaps the reward for surviving.

We know everything about each other due to habitual contact. We are perhaps as close as some of us can be without being family. Lucky has always assumed that’s miserable but for me, it’s felt more than okay. Our own family is piecemeal by now. Only Lucky and I hold onto each other.

I sit in the wooden chair that had a seat cushion added recently, a small luxury. Mistress Manley leans her elbows on the massive scarred desk and stretches her lips into a smile that still looks suspect. Her blue and white striped blouse strains across her chest and shoulders, collar flopping open so her silver Celtic knot necklace  gleams. I cross my legs. In groups we had to sit with both feet on the floor and backs straight so we could oxygenate our brains. Pay attention to the wise one, Dr. Hannert. I have thought of him as moderately witless more often than not, I confess. His idea of health is not mine, though I half-faked it for him. But today I swing my foot back and forth, almost striking the desk. I’m wound up, ready to leave but have another hour to go.

Mistress Manley clears her throat in a rumble like a motor starting up. She can talk a lot if she has the chance. I have heard much of her life story, ending with how her parents left her this farm house. So after she got a Masters in clinical psychology and practiced at a city hospital and hated it, she decided to open the halfway house for aftercare of psychiatric patients. I can’t say she’s happy here but I think she might not be no matter where she is. Her life is burdened with sad, lost souls and her own dreary childhood. I respect her effort to make a difference even if she has little talent for it. I think she would prefer to run an old folks home, for her grandfather, at least. But he’s going senile now. She has to do what’s necessary; I hope she finds a way to do something else, though.

“Do you feel ready to strike out and take on the world yet?”

“No. But I can manage ordinary life better, I think, and I might make something of mine again. Eventually. I accept what I cannot do now. Or what I don’t want to do, more accurately.”

“Meaning what exactly?” Her hand goes to her Celtic knot. She often touches it like a talisman or a guide. I wonder what she thinks it does besides soothe. It was a gift from her one, long-gone boyfriend.

This meeting is a last test. If I am overly confident, she might second thoughts and get my departure cancelled with a swift phone call to Dr. Hannert. If I have too little confidence the same judgement could be made. I must have moderately aligned expectations. Be calm.

“I know better than to try to off myself. It’ll take a while longer for my sliced wrists to heal up. I still feel like a sort of puppet–my hands don’t want to perfectly cooperate even since surgery. The foot injury still aches at times. Time and physical therapy, the doc says. But my head is on straighter. I think about the future and it looks like a country I’d like to explore again…”

I stop my restless foot. I wonder where Lucky is, and strain my ear to hear the sound of his ’78 Mustang. I haven’t seen him in so long, almost five months now. I’m hoping I still recall all pertinent details, the baritone voice, the way he used to walk like a loping dog, his worn out cowboy boots caked with things Id rather not note. We both have probably changed but me more, I’m guessing.

Mistress Manley sits back, satisfied. “And that will include eastern Oregon now. The ranch life with Lucky and your friends. And Tammy. You’ll make a good helper now, Amanda.”

I swallow, find my throat dry. “Helper” is not what I was hoping for but she’s right. Tammy, aged four, is the daughter of Doug and Cassie, the ranch owners and our mutual friends, the ones who are willing to take me on as a kind housekeeper even though I tried to die a few months ago. They knew me long before my dancing passion became a profession. And then was deleted. Before Lucky left the city to work the ranch with them three years ago.

“And your plan for dancing?”

“That’s not fair.”

I want to leave. I have had more than enough. She  knows nothing of that life, despite my having to share the best and worst of it. I already got my release from the doctor, “acute severe depressive episode” no longer like a tattoo on my forehead. Coping skills duly noted, medications tried then slowly titrated off as I proved I was back to normal. I call it “my brief psychotic grief episode”, not a flat-out depression. I don’t remember feeling depressed before I got fired from the ballet company. After I broke my left ankle and then couldn’t get it all back, the overriding power and agility that kept me secure among other dancers, ones with longer legs or more grace, charisma. More beauty.

That Amanda, the one who succeeded against all odds and then lost it all, is fading to a fainter memory, an erased self-portrait on a weathered page. Folded up, put away. I don’t want to take it out again for a long while, if ever.

“Not fair at all,” I repeat, the flame of anger heating my face.

“Maybe not. But it’s never going away, your desire to dance.”

“No, but it can convert to something else, say, horseback riding– I’m good at that, too. I don’t know yet. Maybe still dance, just not ballet. Maybe country line dancing–wouldn’t that be something?–or tango!”

I shrug slowly, as if this is not the one bruised nerve that still cries out when pressed like this. One more hour to go.

She looks at me with skepticism, then slides paper and pen across the desk. She sets a white plastic bag with all extraneous belongings near my feet. I note the listed items, scan the doctor’s advice and so on, then sign and date with a flourish, my hand steadier than I feel.

“Good,” she says. “I want you to know once more how much I enjoyed having you in our little community. You’ve been a surprise, resourceful, hard-working, and helpful to others. You’re well on your way to recovery. But don’t get too bold at first. Take it slow. Don’t forget we’re here if you need us.”

Her pleasant choice of words about my behavior almost sound like skills I could list for a job now I am discharged. I sigh.

“Thanks. It’s been interesting. I appreciate your assistance.” Which is half-true. I appreciate her constancy, the rules she enforced even as I balked; her firm, even response when we all took turns freaking out. I appreciate her clinical insight into mad grief and worse maladies. But I haven’t enjoyed her overbearing ways or her own poor boundaries or slips of provincial attitude.

I hated the dirtiest menial chores. Found it hard to help care for physically ill patients when extra hands were needed, despite it being against the law. I hated the glaring, humming overhead lights in the group room twice a day, how it felt we were being interrogated. The demands to spill it all in front of people I didn’t really know, who could not truly understand what ballet is to me. The insistence that I was sick instead of devastated, betrayed by my body. The way the wind moaned and rattled the shutters when I couldn’t sleep but wasn’t allowed to get up and roam or sit outside on the porch and take in the night’s fertile air. The long days when no one laughed or commented on that glowing line of royal blue at the horizon before the sun set. How most acted deaf when I talked of the beauty of farm land, the mysterious alchemy going on at vineyards right down the road. Except for Gina, my unusual ally, who would exclaim that she thought things like that, too.

How they questioned why I wanted to die. How many times did I have to say: Because I am a dancer who now cannot dance! Until it made me want to quit it all. Until I decided: Enough. I have to–want to–stay alive even if I have to crawl a little longer. And then I stopped explaining. I just did the work they asked and talked to God in skies spilling over with moonlight and shape shifting clouds.

We exit the office and heads to the medication room; I go downstairs where a few of the women are sitting around. Three are new the last two weeks and don’t trust me and besides, I’m leaving. A couple others stir, put down knitting and books.

“Do we get to meet Lucky?”

“You’re finally being sprung, Moon Face!”

“Moon Face?” a new woman asks.

I laugh. “Yeah, and you’ll get one, too, like it or not.”

Gina aka “Catgirl”–used heroin for fifteen years until finally kicking it in a tent in some woods, then getting assaulted on her way back home–got up and put her arm around my shoulders, pulls me up to her boniness. “Moon Face. Look at her. All round, white as a moonstone. And she likes to sit on a windowsill, the moonlight on her–moon bathing! And she does have a kinda sweet light, see?” She turns me to her, hands holding me at arm’s length so we were face-to-face. “I’ll miss you, girl. Our fearless talks in the night.” Her dark almond eyes fill, then clear. She gives me a friendly smack on the top of the head and sits down.

Jana “Java Queen”, resident bi-polar thief, bursts into the room, riffing off-key. “My, my, soon on down the highway, brother at your side in a fantastic classy ride, you got it right this time, yes, Moon Face, my my!”

She has her usual thermos full of coffee and holds it up in a cheers!  gesture, then plops onto the couch by Gina, resuming the song.

“Gonna just get up and go, leave us alone with ole Manley-o, just like that, am I right or no? Not one of us will miss you, though. You got too many wants and needs, you gonna need more crazy therapy, gotta get the right pill they say, stop another spill, but your soul is–”

“Oh, please, Java Queen, spare us terrible rhymes!” Gina moves to the end of the couch.

Jana rises again, hands held out to me as she danced.”–your soul is riding high now and you’ll be flyin’ soon now, Moon Face, your little Moon Face will be moving past the clouds!”

She comes up and holds out a hot, dry hand and I take it in both of mine. Her brown eyes, lightening with a long-dormant spark beneath the haze of confusion, smile into mine.

“Thanks for the song.”

I can hear the Mustang coming down the road. My knees tremble until I stand with legs apart, feet splayed as if readying for plies.

Marilyn “Matchgirl”, the hoarder who collects old matchbooks and so many other useless items and dyed her short hair green, says, “Don’t forget us…? I’ll remember. Your kindness.”

“Of course she’ll forget us!” Gina the Catgirl snorts. “Who’d want to remember being here?” She shoos me to the door to urge me on: Go now!

I want to say, Wait, I see it’s all of you who have saved me. But Catgirl knows this, and more that I will never get to hear.

When I hear him cut the motor, I pick up my bags and step onto the porch. Some of the men are there, in a rocking chair, on a bench swing, sitting at a card table playing canasta. They wave and a couple say things both regrettable and sweet. I have known them less well; we women stuck together except at one group and mealtimes. But they have been there, too, have witnessed me as I have witnessed them. Their faces are so familiar that I wonder if any of them, women and men, will stop keeping me company in restless predawn hours or when Lucky and I butt heads as we do, or I wonder if I can get on with it all.

“Dance, my little doll!”

As I hurry down the stairs Mr. Eisenberg’s voice pipes up, quiet but clear. I look up and around to see his wizened, white-haired head stick out an open window. I put down my bag just as Lucky opens the door, starts to get out; he looks almost happy to see me. But I run the other direction, run faster with one good and one ruined foot, the steps a joyous ache and I leap high into the air, legs parallel to earth, arms lifted like wings, chin high, body leaving gravity to other creatures. As I reach the pinnacle of the jump I see Mr. E. stretching out his neck to see me, waving. Lucky looks as if ready to catch me, but I’m not in need of being caught. As I descend, a cheer goes up, then Mr. E.’s words, bright as bells, ring out.

“Dance, dance your way to the moon for me, little one!”

I land gently, soundly on my feet.