Other Than Words, an Excerpt


Sometimes when I sit down to craft short stories, another need crowds out other ideas and challenges my focus. This has happened more often, recently. I have been revisited by characters from a piece of fiction started long ago. Thus, this post is a revised, new excerpt from an older novel-in-progress, Other Than Words, unearthed for the arduous re-crafting process. In a previous, quite different incarnation an excerpt was published in the anthology VoiceCatcher, issue #2. It became nominated for a Pushcart Prize. But I abandoned that too-long novel after many years and another editor’s advice to revamp most of it. I was, in fact, just sick of working on it and thought I was done.

But sometimes tenacious stories will not move from one’s consciousness, something wants to be altogether redesigned and finally completed. To take a writer different places than unexpected, which is hard to turn down. I have a minuscule hope that Other Than Words can become what it was meant to be as the story is reshaped and more useless parts are eliminated. I want to at least to see what I might salvage, as I believe in the heart and soul of this story. It is about emotional resilience and spiritual hope found amid various daunting circumstances, how community can generate healing if they only rally and how trauma’s effects can be surmounted, released. And, of course, there is love of different kinds to weave it together.

Cal Rutgers is a photojournalist who is burned out, enervated by internal and external losses. He has been nudging me to tell more or tell things differently now that I have taken a long break from this story. But as before, his character seeks the solace of his childhood summer home in Snake Creek where once he enjoyed friends and mentors, where his sister, the only other family member alive, wants him try out a quieter life. He knows he is on empty but he can barely dare to find new fulfillment.

But there is someone else who has the village’s eyes on her. Sophie, a creative soul who harbors a strangely complicated story that cannot be told after a sudden death, struggles to re-balance her own life. Her thoughts and yearnings have been silenced and she may never speak again. She longs for normalcy but doesn’t know what that means now.Their lives intersect when Cal shows up for a forced vacation. The insights and experiences they discover together and separately may just free them both, while the village will illuminate more of its own truths in hard ways. And in the end, faith may have a fighting chance.

This chapter posted in WordPress is my first attempt to start over but likely only the beginning again of much work if it is sustained. Readers and fellow writers, I am hoping you will delve in and perhaps respond in the comments area so I have an idea if this chapter beckons you to seek more of the story. Thank you for reading.


Other Than Words



When I arrived in Snake Creek I was a barely congenial wreck, in dire need of a restorative break. I had tried to extricate myself from the effects of working in the Amazon: a just-healed infection from a small wound on my calf; recurrent dreams of tentacled plants wrapping themselves about my head and chest; a confounding sorrow. Joe, my mentor and often partner in the field,  had disappeared while we were on assignment for an international travel magazine. Fitz, our editor in Chicago offices, had given up hope while I held on to the thought that Joe had just gotten too caught up in his usual hunt for the one true king of anacondas. He’d missed our plane, but he had a bad habit of this. Sometimes he stepped away and I didn’t hear from him for three or four months from another country. It was coming up on nine.

I had left all cameras at my rarely inhabited apartment on the Bay. My routine photographs had become innocuous, devoid of a decent clarity of life. Even in technicolor Hawaii I had been unable to capture one frame of magic. I just had to gain a different perspective[–on everything. That’s what I told Fitz but closer to the truth was that I was deeply sick of taking stills, of finding the perfect pictorial angle, all those awards, great assignments and my two books notwithstanding. And, too, there was the travelling from one place to another, one cramped plane seat to the next, time zones rendered meaningless. Who really cared when and where I was? I was a freelancer but the last year I had worked mostly for the magazine because it was a known entity, just easier.

“Yes, Cal, just get out of here, you’re making me nuts with your gloom and boredom. You should have gone back to visit long ago. Take a month if you want!” He leaned back and puffed delicately on the stogie as his penetrating eyes searched mine. “No, it’s an order. Take one month off. I’ll let you know what’s up next.”

“I don’t know about that, I can’t forecast how it’ll be to visit Kirsten and Louis the lawyer in Haston much less hang out in good ole Snake Creek, with, well, who?… I figure two weeks max. I could make it back for the Australia shoot.”

My sister, only remaining blood family (who still oddly tried to mother me via long distance)and her husband had been hounding me to come. the last two years. I only accepted the ticket she bought me when Fitz started in on me, too.

“Look, I need you sharp. I need you present. You have to let go of Joe Rasmuss, too. He’s not likely coming back to this world or we would have heard from him by now….”

“In the jungle things–people, food–can disappear in hours, minutes. I have seen it happen in seconds… But he knows it like his own hand! We’ve been there how many times now? A dozen?”

Fitz jumped up and stood close to me, his weathered face peering up at mine. Though small for a round bear of a man, his presence still packed a discernible force. He grabbed my forearms to impress his point, gravelly voice booming. “You didn’t get lost, did you? It was Joe, maybe he’s off his game! I’m telling you, you need a long time off, Cal. It’s not a request. You’ve burned out. I don’t want you back for at least a month. So go visit with family, eat, sleep, swim or sail, find women or go fish, whatever you do up there in the primitive northern Michigan woods!”

So after ten years of not visiting I came back to the summer community where I grew up a little more each year. Where my father taught music; where my mother re-energized and reorganized the village library. So near that thriving camp just on the other side of Snake Creek once called United Ministries Michigan Summer Arts Program, known as just MISAP. It have been started by my mister grandfather and his secular, visionary crew in 1920. It had taken off in a few short years and grown and diversified. It had been the fertile ground where I had planted my dreams. And just next door in Snake Creek, I had tended them in even more ways.

So after a night and day at my sister’s house (it turned out they had to attend the Georgia funeral of her father-in-law), I made my way to the Village of Snake Creek. After driving too fast on slush-covered roads I slowed to enter the quarter-mile road, then pulled over at the last bend. Unfolding my length from the rented yellow Mustang, I leaned against the hood and looked things over. The last of the snow was melting and pooling and the scent of it mixed with earth and white pines held a euphoric quality. I took a deep breath of it and relaxed. I could make out Main Street, all three blocks of it. It looked so good. My throat tightened, my eyes grew hot and damp. Home, such as it was, nicely brightened up but otherwise simple, tradition-bound. Chock full of stories. But I was not the same person, not the prodigal son I knew old Will, Snake Creek‘s The Clarion’s owner-editor, hoped to greet.



Will had met me with a long embrace at the weekly paper’s office, showing me the latest copies with dubious cheer–he was slowing down at seventy-two; his wife, our beloved Anna, was ill; who would take over?–and then we headed to the best place to eat outside of Haston, the Bluestone Cafe. It was run by my childhood friend.

“There’s Clarissa,” Will whispered as he hunched toward me. “She’s the owner now, you know  that? She and Sonny bought out the other fifty percent. She looks pretty good, right? Sonny is a big real estate developer at last, heaven help us, building a fancy summer community.The Birches. We could use some cheaper family units but no…that won’t fatten his accounts.”

I followed her through the sun-warmed room, her gauntness more familiar than the cropped silvery hair. It had  been dark forever and she was only forty-seven, a year younger than I. The first surprise, and more to come, no doubt. Will had never looked much different; he’d gone white early when I was a teenager. It was longer than I’d seen it and his back was hunched. He even had jowls but his light blue eyes behind glasses were sharp as they darted around the room, taking inventory of who was with whom, what was going on.

“I suspected the same.” I sipped the cheap and steaming drip coffee and found it delicious.”He’s always pushed for more and she wanted a restaurant thirty years ago.” I heard her belly laugh as she greeted someone. “Yes, I’d say Rissa looks fine.”

Will leaned back in his wooden chair and chuckled. “You’re the only one who calls her that, anymore. But you’re entitled, best buddies that you were. You two ran things, a townie and a summer kid.”

I wasn’t about to fall into some pastel-tinged reverie about the past, not then. If Rissa stopped to see us, I’d ask if we could meet down at Ring Lake sometime and catch up. If she didn’t say yes, I’d understand, like it or not. Sonny was a bully before and I’d heard over the years that he had only become more intense.

“I’m still sorry she ended up with Sonny but they seemed to need each other, had a way with each other. I sure had other plans, thanks in part  to your encouragement. We’ve talked about her situation last time–I hope her marriage improved.”

Will looked down at the mug cupped between puffy, worn hands. “Not much.” He sucked his lower lip in as if to seal off any more words. I knew he was a secret keeper. Like a good detective, he observed and heard it all but held things close, letting pieces out only as needed. He changed tack. “So how long this time? A week or two at least? We’ll get some fishing in. And what’s your next assignment, any wild lands or dazzling cities on the list?”

I tried to smile back but couldn’t. “I’ll stay as long as I can be. Depending on how fast I get myself back together. I told you about Joe earlier but it’s more than that. I’m tired of my work, the first time ever, really. It’s been twenty-four years of globetrotting, hanging off precarious points to find that shot, too often eating food not fit for a street mongrel, camping out where the unknown lurks day and night….a bizarre life forged of adrenaline. I have to get a better sense of what I need to do now. I feel emptied, Will. Beaten up.”

“That doesn’t sound like you, son. You’ve thrived on that fast, risky life, stretching your limits. Running to the next thing. Even becoming–can we say it now?–rather famous. But I’m sort of relieved you’ve come to this point. I’ve worried about you. And now you’re at the right place to rest, store up more of what you really need. It’ll all straighten out, you’ll see.”

I shook my head.”‘You’ll see…’ You’re such an idealist, believing the best of people, having faith in life like always. You’re still basically happy–thank God! I think…”

“It just comes naturally, Cal, don’t you remember  how it feels?”

I felt the rise of aching pulled into an undercurrent of a now-foreign feeling: shame. “I don’t think so, Will…I think that got lost somewhere in the Andes or Shanghai or just some unsanitary, cramped outpost corner. Amazonia did me in this time; it did Joe in worse, I fear. I doubt I can recapture all that youthful hope now! There comes a point, you know, when too much has happened. Been witnessed. The world is made of petty, conniving tyrants, of unconscionable and just weird happenings, Will, not only that panoramic beauty I capture in my pictures. ”

“Too true, Cal.” He rubbed his hand over his hair and left it sticking out at angles.

He endured me already, I could see: my ego, my arrogance, the negativity. I wanted to start over, use his essential goodness to help align me better with respect and care. But I was a man, not a kid anymore. I had to wise up on my own. I resolved to be a better friend to all there.

“So stay a month or two, it’ll come back to you.” He glanced at the door as the brass bell on top rang again and waved at the woman who’d arrived, beckoning her to join us. “Oh my, here’s Sophie,” he said, as if this explained everything, and he rose and met her halfway across the crowded room.

I stood, too, and saw first her height as every eye in the room noted. At least six feet tall (not far from my own six-three) she moved with sleek, concerted energy, with such an inborn sense of space and her point of balance that I knew at once she had to be an athlete. About her shoulders sprang wavy auburn hair laced with white. Her skin held the ivory luminescence of a true redhead. I averted my eyes just as she saw me, then composed my face in a calm, genial manner.

Will put one hand each on my shoulder and hers. “Sophie Swanson, this is Cal Rutgers. Cal, Sophie.”

“Glad to meet you, Sophie,” I said and I followed her lead and sat without the usual assertive handshakes.

She nodded at me but her lips barely curved, then she patted Will’s hand. He drank his coffee as if nothing else needed saying. After a moment, she looked at me and ran her gaze over my face before reaching into her purse, made in India, I surmised. It was a shapeless bright purple and orange cotton bag into which tiny round mirrors were sewn. She brought up a medium sized notebook and a silver mechanical pencil. They were laid beside her.

“Sophie doesn’t talk,” Will said quietly, as if his tone of voice made it less obvious he was informing me of this. “She’ll write things down if needed.”

“Ah, ” I said and glanced at her. She was gesturing at a waitress.

“I’m sure she’ll stay a bit but she is meeting Clarissa soon. They’ve become close.”

The waitress appeared with a full blue mug in hand and placed it before Sophie, who then set her head to one side and pointed at me, made a loose “come hither” motion.

“She’s asking you to tell her who you are, why you’re here.”

I thought: he’s like her interpreter but there must be more, like Rissa. “Well, Sophie, I’m an old summer kid who went to arts camp every June through August here with my sister, Kirsten. She’s a violinist.” Sophie’s face held a look of surprise. I rattled off more information, not knowing what else she was interested in. “We all lived at the camp each summer as my father was a pianist who taught at SAP. Also choir and history in a Detroit area private school during the calendar year. My mother was a librarian and got Snake Creek’s library back on track. Now I’m visiting Will and my sister from San Francisco.”

Sophie’s right eyebrow inched up and then fell. She put forth both hands then pulling them  back toward her as if trying to pull me in. I felt like I should pantomime and the thought made me want to uncharitably snicker but I held back. I thought how much I could use a drink other than coffee. Rest before Kirsten and Louis returned to their lovely house, which I inhabited alone for now.

“She’d like more.”

But I didn’t want to tell her more. I wanted to have coffee with Will, steal looks at her, talk to Rissa a moment or two and then take a walk by Ring Lake. Besides, I wanted to know more about Sophie before I divulged a lot of personal information. I would be here awhile; I wanted to be careful with what I did and said. Getting to know more people was also not on my agenda. The old locals were enough, and my sister and Louis. I wanted to drift aimlessly, sleep and eat simple food, think of nothing. Not think of my profession.

“I’m a photographer. A plane hopping photojournalist. On vacation here for a couple weeks.”

She put her hands together, then opened them slowly and looked at her palms.

“She’s seen one of your books, I think?”

She nodded.

“In Haston, likely.”

“I appreciate it….”

And her full lips stretched almost to a grin, small creases deepening in her cheeks like dimples but finer, and her light brown almond-shaped eyes glimmered. She put her right hand to center forehead, then to heart and then towards  me. Her exchange of energy hit me somewhere in my solar plexus. I sat still, stunned, moved and perplexed by the gesture. Not knowing exactly what it was but that it was a real thing given to me. Better than mere words. Did Will see that? Did he know something more about her?

“Cal Rutgers, how on earth did you sneak into town without me knowing it? Come here, boy!”

Rissa engulfed me, pulling me up and so close I felt many hard, tiny ribs under her sweater, fish bones, bones that should have more flesh over them, be kept safer from the world. This mermaid girl, my old friend, her colors fading. Like I supposed mine had.

All four of us huddled together as Rissa chattered.

“We have to have at least one party or a dinner or another get together sometime before you go.A bofire!–if it stops snowing altogether. I’ll have to take some time off and meet you somewhere, too.” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and I knew that wouldn’t be easy, not even after all this time. There was my old enemy, Sonny, and he got everywhere. “How long are you in town this time? I mean, ten years, Cal, ten damned years it’s been and you just cannot creep in and out again like that!”

She looked a little hurt and I knew what she meant. I had slipped away after three days at my sister’s, only a day in Snake River last time.

“A couple of weeks. Maybe four.”

“Well, good for you, good for us!” She pumped her fists in the air.

Will looked triumphant. Sophie listened and drank her coffee, amber eyes peering at us over the top of the big blue mug or looking out the window as sunshine spilled and vanished. I wished she would hold that look, the one where her face was dreaming, I wished I had my camera to catch the play of light on her eyes and pale eyelashes….But I didn’t need my camera.

Did I? I could do all this without my damned cameras. I touched my shoulder where it would have been hanging.

Rissa sat back and studied me. “I want to hear all about it, where you’ve been, how your books are doing–you’re a celebrity around here, you know! I own them both, by the way.”

I let go a quick laugh. We three caught up a bit. Everything almost fell into familiar places with that raucousness, her easy welcoming. We made a plan to meet in a few days at the lake and she’d bring a picnic lunch. I would bring wine. She and Sophie got up and left, looking back in unison to wave goodbye. They were arm in arm as they crossed the street.

“What do you think?” Will asked as our white fish and fries arrived.

“I think I’m starving.”

“Come on, Cal.”

“I think Rissa has a winning cafe and more power to her- except Sonny is likely running her life otherwise. She seems herself, but tired, a little skinny even for her.”

Will vigorously chewed, something I had forgotten about him, his mouth half open. “Sophie Swanson?”

“Well, she’s beautiful, almost exotic, isn’t she. And she misses nothing, is smart. Curious. That’s enough of what I think for now.”

“You don’t want to know why she’s mute?” He took a sip of coffee and flattened his hands on the table. “Her husband, a retired biologist –they moved here from Boston–died last year. Drowned in Ring Lake. There was a big storm but he just went out in the rowboat alone that night. Sophie couldn’t find him, dialed 911 but when they got there, she couldn’t speak, or would not.”

He rested on his elbows and I put my fork down.

“You mean she chose not to speak or she went mute from traumatic shock?”

Will held both palms up in the air. “Either way, she’s not talking yet. She’s a dancer, had her own dance troupe, even, back East. But I don’t think she is dancing yet, either… And she lost her  daughter, too. Mia is living with Sophie’s sister and family back in Vermont. I mean, Sophie is mute; Mia is thirteen. She needs her mother to be there for her but… it’s a crying shame. Sophie is healing slowly. Snake Creek finally accepts her okay. Some of us look after her. Well, she’s naturally very independent. She has enough money, as well–she inherited, of course, and his family is old money.”

“You’re saying even the police don’t know what happened? Wasn’t it ruled a bona fide drowning due to the storm? What do you really think?”

Will took a long, slow breath and let it softly whistle through his long nose. “I don’t know, Will. I think something more happened that night but I do not know what. There is no real evidence other than what they found, the boat, his body later. She’s not the woman who came here with her family a year and a half ago. Vibrant, had a beautiful mellow speaking voice. She adored her daughter, was proud of her husband’s contributions to biology–he specialized in lake and pond life. Anyway. I’ve said enough. But I’m glad you two met.”

“I’m not sure why you told me all that, but it’s quite interesting. I do wish her well.”

We finished our meal and Will returned to his office to see what his assistant was up to. I walked across the street and onto a broad, soggy park area, then paused by the field stone library where I had spent so many hours dreaming and reading. Where my shy, affectionate mother was in her element. I continued to Ring Lake, hands stuffed in my winter jacket pockets, the wind whipping my shaggy hair and running through my beard. Beyond the stony beach the navy blue expanse sparkled in the cold, clear sunlight, was as charmed with beauty as I recalled. My mind slowed as I walked around the north end of the undulating body of water.

Except, Rissa, how I still worried about her. And Sophie, what of that strange creature who watched from deep, secretive eyes? What would happen when she finally exited her silence–if she ever could? I would not likely get to hear her speak and felt a twinge of regret at the thought. For what, I didn’t even know.

But I knew I had to follow my instincts while in Snake Creek and see where they took me as I always did.


Changing the Scenery

““““““““““““““Christmas wk-end- AT&David-PittockMansion., etc 016

I am, at last, considering the tentative possibility of moving and it brings on quaking deep inside. Is this normal, a frantic shove against a most reasonable idea? Is it a healthy response, the refusal to blithely embrace change that will likely soon barrel down the stony hillocks of my life?

I feel stubborn as a young girl, digging my heels in figuratively and literally, daring anyone to insist I just get on with it. Only as a younger person I would have surveyed the current abode, placed hands on hips, and said, “Good, I could do with a fresh infusion of places and people. Let’s get packing.”  I was used to moving often to support my husband’s career in manufacturing. The children were used to starting over. We all pitched in, curious (and perhaps a bit anxious) about the next stop. We have been a lot of interesting, even captivating, places.

But now I cast my eye around the rooms in which Marc and I reside and ask as I have for fifteen years: “Where do I find a place this affordable, in such an attractive neighborhood, close to amenities and our delightful city center? A place I am happy to make a home once more?”

It has been a long time and many tales in this second floor, 1100 sq. ft. apartment with two generous bedrooms, great light, a spacious dining plus large living room. Twenty years, in fact. It shocks me to admit that I have lasted here so unexpectedly long.

I was in my early forties when my youngest daughter, Alexandra; my son, Joshua; and I moved to an older, spacious two-story house in our newly adopted city. It had a renovated basement, a deep back yard and a bonus sun porch I used for writing. But in two years we had to move. It was one of my sister’s investments and with her usual foresight (the neighborhood was being gentrified), she decided to sell. I have to admit two robberies at the corner store and ensuing gun battles in the alley behind us made the location much less attractive. My son was on his own by then. Alexandra hoarsely called out to me in the dark and I slipped off my bed, slithered on my belly down the hallway as more shots rang out. I grabbed her from her bed by long windows, terrified bullets would find us. We lay on the floor clutching each other. We had moved from a Detroit suburb; this was not the least expected. It was clear it was time to move on.

I was also divorcing and just getting by as a counselor in a residential treatment center for youth. I felt passionate about my new calling of providing services to gang-affected, abused and addicted teens. But my bank account was hurting. After a fast search, this place came to the fore. We loved it at the first glance. The neighborhood, historic, dominated by mature trees and flowering gardens, was perfect. The apartment had a balcony on which to sit and sip coffee or tea, read books, chat. I had thought it could suit us three or four years until she went to college, my last of five sent on her way. By then I imagined I’d be in better financial shape and she’d get scholarships and back I’d go to a small single family dwelling.

Except it didn’t turn out that way. My daughter did indeed get to college but then her father moved here from the Midwest. We resumed where we had left off six years prior. I thought: a good time to move!

It would have made sense, of course. But Marc liked it here, too; I had made it a comfortable home and on we stayed. Planned to move in a couple of years. Planned to buy something. He had taken a salary cut to join me in the Northwest so we both worked harder than ever to improve our circumstances. Yet as he climbed the corporate ladder again and I found better positions our housing seemed more irrelevant. Why change what you already like, overall? It was the first ever apartment we’d shared and we appreciated the benefits. We didn’t miss the cost of maintenance issues, the attention required of a place of our own. We could come and go, felt freer. Still, I longed for another house. I’d walk down our graceful streets and though I knew we wouldn’t ever dwell in those million dollar homes, my own memories of broad porches and back yards to play badminton and have BBQ gatherings came forth. And there was much more privacy. Still, it was okay. I had had those things and this was what we had now. The years rolled on. I wondered if and when and what next, felt restless, looked for new habitats online and in our area. Then I tucked away my longings, kept living and working, content for longer periods.

Then, about the time we had a good down payment for a house or condo, I became critically ill with heart disease. The real estate agent bluntly suggested I reconsider where the money was best used–as I might not ever work again. I had never considered that. What if she was right? I knew my prognosis wasn’t so good. Couldn’t I have a house even for a little while again? But my long-held hope and a nurtured dream was receding fast. Soon it was banished. I would make do. I enjoyed our ordinary but spacious, well-situated apartment enough that I had chosen to not move even when we might have. I didn’t need to buy a house at fifty-one, either. We’d put more in retirement, continue to take interesting vacations, help out family as needed. But in under three years I did return to work and only recently retired from my profession as a counselor. Did we ever re-think buying a home? Yes, but we had become habituated to compact spaces and a less complicated lifestyle.

Being adaptable is a talent shared with all other humans. Resilience and acceptance have often saved me. I learned to find contentment in a place not ever intended to be home for twenty years. Because it had felt so temporary in the beginning, the idea got stuck, as if I was certainly going to move on. We didn’t invest in more preferred furnishings, didn’t give much thought to its character except for comfort, changing color schemes and art and photos. A couple of attractive vases filled with flowers can do wonders. Plants on the balcony make it more inviting. I guess we most decorate with groupings of our books… and all is enlivened with music, our own and others’.  I don’t require substantial or impressive. If taken by something unique but expensive I will first wait for a sale –or prowl a secondhand store. Or forget about it.

The truth is, I can adjust to a variety of living conditions, and have posted before about it. I have managed in a renovated chicken coop and lived without heat in winter. And lived on several pretty acres in the country, enjoying a new four brick bedroom home with full views of land and deer grazing upon it, a wood fire burning in the living room each night. As much as I appreciate architecture and the aesthetics of design my everyday life is knitted together by relationships, my spiritual practices and faith, creative engagement and being outdoors. I can write anywhere, after all. And my current corner is just fine.

I started with the proclamation that I am now considering moving. We are, in fact, planning on it without knowing just when or where but the urgency factor has emerged. I have resumed seeking information online and scrutinizing rental ads and keeping track of potential vacancies in the neighborhood. Portland has become a magnet for the young and better-heeled, the techies who have fast track careers. Or an older population who bring from other states more money than I can imagine. It is a dynamic city, a place for innovators and risk takers, where new businesses crop up often and even thrive. Where living closer to city center means closer to so much good action, the thrilling energy of fresh ideas and intoxicating possibilities of more money. The Pacific Northwest is a fabulously livable place, ticks off all the boxes for most. Many of those amenities are why I moved to Portland long ago.

Before it was so crowded. Before it cost so much.

I have watched our city change over the last five years so much that some neighborhoods are barely recognizable. Many renovations are eye-catching and smart, creating vibrant districts where maybe there seemed less appealing configurations. Many people have been pushed out, too–especially those of color and those who toil long but garner less than a decent wage or those who have retired on far less than they had hoped. Whereas in most large American cities people seek the suburbs, Portland has pulled more people closer-in. Our urban boundaries and zoning laws are such that expansion must reach upward, not outward. That means more demolition, regardless of historic or intrinsic value of keeping the old. You can make a lot more money by housing fifty people in a small high rise than a family of five in one rambling house–if you are a real estate developer.

We have been watching and waiting for the owner of our very small apartment building to sell. They know as do we that this place is a steal, that they could ask much more rent if they just spruced it up. But the better option is to sell and either demolish the building or gut it and make them into upscale condos. It has been an odd thing living within the perimeter of one of the most expensive districts. The surrounding area is begging for development and greater density and it has begun. It’s the perfect set up for our five-plex to be soon purchased, perhaps six townhouses, each worth $500,00, taking its place. That’s right–it is getting that costly to live here. This is a city where an apartment of 500 square feet can rent for $2,000 or more a month. Micro homes, they are called.

I don’t have the heart to wait for that day of reckoning. I have known my landlord and his mother, now in her nineties, for the duration of middle age and beyond. I care about them but I know they care most about their investments. I have heard allusions to offers already made them, to the desire to sell sooner than later. I don’t hold it against them. Like my own sister, they have their particular needs; I have mine. But at this point being forced to leave our home would be a terrible ending to a lovely couple of decades.

So I have to get over this, deny an impulse to hide my head in the sand and hope my spouse and I will be lucky enough to stay another year or two. I  spend an hour or two a day searching for new habitats. So far none holds my attention more than a few seconds, though we have driven by a few places. Retirement communities are not yet an option when Marc is still working and I am not interested in being around those only over sixty-two. I want to hear kids playing, see a diversity of people walking their dogs. I am beginning to look across the mighty Columbia River, at Washing ton, where it might stay cheaper awhile. We could still visit Portland without much driving. Except for the mad, burgeoning traffic.

Somewhere there has to be a place for us. There always has been. We have made a life in exciting or trying circumstances, in both prosperous and lean times. Simplifying our lives more wouldn’t hurt a bit. I know that to even possess the choice, to consider yet another home are luxuries in many places in the world, including right here in my city. But all that said, there is a sadness loosening beneath the common sense that marches on in my thinking. It is never easy to let go of what is known, what has been a comfort.

As I become older I know that what is worthwhile often requires a true willingness to welcome ideas  or directions not previously considered. To weather the ensuing discomfort of transition. To be open to the possibility of the most unexpected things–it might be what changes all in the best ways. I have always been pulled to a goodly adventure. So I am readying myself for one more place where I can take meandering walks with camera in hand, to arrange fresh bouquets and listen to a cello concerto or a jazz trio as I sketch or read. To find a decent spot to write more stories. I am building up the steam needed to move on. Bidding farewell to the pleasing past while the new present is becoming inhabited takes time, but I will be taking along the same person I have always been, as well as my husband. Maybe we’ll be even better suited to what’s ahead.

Let new tales commence.

My Hunger and a Surfeit of Life

from La Piscina
from La Piscina

Back then I was always hungry but never could eat quite enough. My life felt this way, over-full of richness yet still ravenous. You might say I was piloted through days and nights by hunger, by the insistence of it, and the baffling measures needed to find the right amount of satiation. Some people know how to navigate all sorts of hungers without worry. They find their destination via set rules and plot a trajectory along stalwart lines and through a captivating geography of internal and external mapping. How reassuring that must be.

I have found my way by a fumbling instinct. I do at times wish for maps of all sorts.

My older brother, Stefan, and I traveled with our parents more than we had expected. We stayed in tiny or enchanting rooms, got confused in multiple countries and alleys, ate at places guidebooks wouldn’t note. But what did I know? I had trust still, at the first. My parents had the nerve to forge ahead and why wouldn’t an adolescent daughter expect things to go well enough? We had become globe trotters by default–we did it and we kept doing it.

Stefan thought he was an authority long before he actually understood much and boasted of his insights: our parents were rootless due to too much money; the kind of work that had left disgruntlement; the right DNA (which mystified me–was there DNA of rootlessness? of an intelligence peppered with rebellion?) but I knew better. It was simple: they had opted out of ordinary life. If one was deeply hungry for more, there was always something else to be discovered and absorbed. Travel was a good way to do that and they could teach us a few things we wouldn’t get in a regular school.

One of the nights when we sat under piercing white stars in Tuscany, during my seventeenth birthday, I told Mom, “Whatever room is left in me–and it’s a lot–needs occupying. I can’t think by just what, though. It’s like I am always needing the last bit of space taken up, like blank spots aren’t bearable. But there is also so much that I feel like I’m going to burst…”

She nodded, a goblet of wine cupped with her birdlike hands. “You really can find all good fruits along the road. Sample, move on, sample more, the right urge will guide you. Trust the road before you, Celia, my dear.”

My father chortled as if she had told an old joke, then smiled benignly at us, his tiny kingdom gathered about. I felt affection rise up. He wrote and published more now and he was happier than when he taught world history at the community college. He got to live his interests every day.

Mom’s eyes sparked when she talked like that, as if she was a poet with the fire of a mystic. There had been a shift from a literal to more figurative view. She was a very good chemist who had fled a dull lab job after a startling inheritance from a great-aunt. That was three years ago. No one had believed she would up and leave with family in tow.

My mother was someone I loved from a distance. I was busy trying to not to be like her. She was brainy, even inventive. Quick to note the wrongs of the world. She could be fun at times. I never thought she was impulsive. That was more like Dad, a born romantic despite his denial. A lover of antiquity and serendipity. Anyway, they made a quick decision, off we went, and our house became a rental property. No one looked back but me.

They had never liked life in Indiana and the memory of pretending to spurred them to travel longer and longer. Stefan thought he was the luckiest eighteen year old alive. I thought how home was supposed to be where your heart was, yet mine was a kite bouncing about in various parts of the sky. I reeled it in each stop we made for more than a couple of weeks. Then let it go, followed the tugs. I liked our weird bohemian life despite being confused by no clear directions for living it.

Today I looked at a picture from the summer of my seventeenth year. The occasion required it, a lecture I was going to attend. I held the picture close, studied Stefan in the print, snoring in the middle. Antonio at the end. Me huddled at the other side, trying to vanish. Mom took it. It was the summer of much less eating, more sun and water, more lingering. We had remained in Praiano on the Amalfi coast for three months.

That sunbathing day Stefan said out of the blue, “If we put down roots again we’d be boring. No one would know what to say to us and we’d lose our minds.”

I rolled over, stealing a look at Antonio. “Then why do you talk about returning to the States? Like you wish it would happen?”

His eyelids flickered and he scratched his chest. “I miss playing basketball and baseball at the park. Remember it? Hamburgers with white buns, dill pickles, onions and sloppy stuff. But not too badly.”

Antonio pushed himself up on an elbow. “Celia, what about you?”

“Sometimes I do miss having a real house of our own. And Lexie, our dog…she was given to our neighbor. And my blue and cream room.”

He smiled at me in a way that said he was glad I was at a house in Indiana. He, however, was going to my country. He was to enter Boston University the following year. His only uncle lived there, he owned some leather goods stores. Antonio would stay with him and study music and anthropology or international finance.

Antonio  liked to sing, his voice melodious and loud. I could listen longer than Stefan. My eyes memorized the contours of his face and length and felt he would be important one day. He had a hunger he would find out how to fill and it would lodge his name in people’s minds. Antonio Marcello. Like it was in mine already.

I ached, head to stomach to feet all summer. I felt his presence like the balm of coastal light one day, the sting of a bee the next. Being near him made me lazy and empty while my skin gave off a fragrance of sea water and wildflowers. He told me that once as we sat on a stone fence above the town, watching the horizon. His shoulder contacted mine. Vertigo threatened but nothing else happened.

I nibbled on bread, olives, cheese when the three of us–sometimes others–gathered at a cafe and talked of nothing but happiness, how to capture it, keep it, live inside it. How to stay forever young. He laughed easily as breathing, fed me pieces of chocolate amaretti cake, his fingers grazing my lips. Antonio’s eyes were two moon shadows, the light glowing inside the deep brown, obscuring my own vision with wild images of love. It didn’t seem as though he knew, or if he did, it meant little that I was charmed. I began to avoid him, walking and swimming long and reading alone. Stefan left me to my ways. They played day and night, roamed like unfettered creatures along the shore and rocky headlands. I crept high along ancient rocks, dove deep, deeper into the wily sea. The chronic emptiness had been filled with Antonio’s smooth, tanned skin though I had not come too close to it; by his voice, resonant and lilting as he joked around or sang; by his eyes, which stayed the rocking of my anxious self with one warmly teasing glance.

I felt ruled by appetites both sensual and intellectual. How is hunger defined? A lack of satisfaction, the hollowness of want, a dull pain that is tamped down by something good or at least filling. A driving need of sustenance. Perhaps the real remedy is in the seeking of nourishment. The work of it settles matters. I slept sporadically at odd hours, ate but felt bottomless, wore myself out learning the land and sea, sought talk with townspeople to improve my understanding of many things. My senses were on high alert in wind, sun and moon, water and earth. The salt clung to me as if I was meant to be there. It was a dream life, one any girl my age would love to live. How could I leave a place so exceptional? But I was pulled by other needs.

Had we found the place to stop or were we heading out soon? My family had tramped across continents as if in search of the last outpost, the one true home. I finally asked my parents when we would return to the States. To Indiana.

“Why? Why now?” My father had just gotten news of a short essay published in a good newspaper.

My mother was darning a hole in her pale blue sweater but looked at me sideways.

I breathed in the scents of oranges and deep ruby wine. Through the living area windows the enormous ocean winked at all. Fishing boats were specks on its undulating surface.

I came back to her eyes. “I am starting to wonder what it is to see only dry land. To watch oak and maple trees turn color, lose their leaves and grow new greenery. To sit in a classroom again, learn with friends rather than being home schooled.”

“We can go inland; we were just talking about moving on. Maybe Germany for awhile again…” Dad sought me with his laser look.

Mother put the sweater down. “It’s something more. You’re restless for something. Ah…is it that boy?”

I turned away from them both. Would they never want to go back, then? Would I stay caught between stupid love and other longings? Here and there? Up and down like a yo-yo?

“Of course, that Antonio, he’s darling, Celia. He’ll do well at Boston University, he’ll be there in two months, not here…does he like you?”

Dad shook his head as if this was territory he could not reckon with and took up his book.

“Dad, don’t you ever miss teaching?”

He put the book down, surprised, forehead wrinkling. There were so many lines there, a graph of life lived with pondering as a main activity, and the beating sun setting darkened furrows.

“Of course I do. Just…not in Indianapolis, Indiana.” But he looked almost doubtful. “Do you really want to go back? Everything would be… too different. We are now so different, don’t you agree?”

“Thank goodness,” Mother murmured and continued with her darning. “Celia, give the boy a reason to pay more attention. Talk to him; I know you’re being shy. And you could eat better, they all love to eat here.”

I left the villa and climbed a long, grueling half hour, up the winding path to the top of a hill. Stretching my arms out I felt as well as saw the panorama. It held an alien gorgeousness. The vastness might look conquerable from that rocky perch but I was only passing through. It was too much, the world at large, a smorgasbord where you never knew how much to take of what, your plate towering with things, your mouth watering but your eyes bigger than your stomach. I was tired of all the options, the endless wonders. I wanted to feel more ordinary, think less of the riddles of life.

Before long my father started to speak of leaving for the States. My mother blamed me for rousing his memory of only the good points, as if I was conspiring against her with my homesickness. She got moody, cried some as they debated the merits of being wayfarers versus being homebodies. Dad won out; it was time for us kids to settle again, and for them to stop. Regroup.

Stefan was amenable either way, it turned out. He had thought some of college since meeting Antonio but he had come to feel at home with few constraints. He had become stronger, muscled; he turned heads all the time. He was nearly fluent in Italian and German.  But I was still the same, I told him the week before we were to leave. It seemed as if I was the one less improved by all that we had experienced.

“Are you kidding? I’d agree just to bug you but in fact you are quite different,” he said. “Oh, I don’t mean obvious things.” He looked down. “Though Antonio says you are soon to be ‘ravishing’… No, I mean you’re a lot smarter than I imagined. Aw now, wait–it’s like your mind has ripened and everything you feel or say is more interesting, your ideas more complicated. I see how much you take in, wonder over like Dad, but you have Mom’s way of making your way with new people no matter where we are. People are drawn to you. I’d say you’re better than before, too.”

He stopped to throw a rock into the vibrant blue water. We watched it sink a little, then disappear.

“I didn’t know you had such thoughts about me,” I said. “I can say you’re more confident, You can learn languages so easily! You always enjoy forging a new path, finding adventure. You seem fearless to me, Stefan, like nothing can deter you. You don’t feel lost in the world, it seems.”

“Nice. Not all necessarily true but very nice.”

We moved closer to the water so our feet found the water’s edge. Each wave greeted toes, then receded. It was good to sit with my brother at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, thinking over the times we had spent in breathtaking or simple or unusual places. I was saturated with the time away from Indiana. It felt as if I could be wrung out and then people might see patterns, colors and textures come to the fore as I dried out. Things that had never been there before, transforming moments that might not be understood for years to come.

Stefan pushed me into the sea but I rose right up and got him back. We swam a long way, our bodies lithe and shining like vessels captured by the water’s mysterious pull, its beauty a power we accepted, felt in our veins.

Antonio was waiting when we returned to the shore. He put his arms around me, hugged me, told me he hoped one day we would meet again. So I kissed him and he responded and everything I had hoped felt true, even if only a moment’s worth of truth. It was just enough to last me a long while.

The three of us joined my parents for a meal and I ate. I ate as if I had not tasted such marvelous food in years. Every bite was a revelation. My eyes rested on Antonio and my heart felt fed, too.

Now, tonight, I am sitting in a large auditorium in Chicago. It has been fifteen years. I am the well known editor of an arts magazine. Two years divorced; one child, a young daughter. Prone to working too late not far from this place. I am riveted by the person on stage. Antonio is taller and darker than I expected and he is leaning into the lectern, enthusiasm for his topic spilling over into an attentive crowd. He is telling the audience how he ended up becoming a ethnomusicologist. That he believes music tells the truth, the critical stories, and he wants no one’s music to be lost or kept silent or to be misrepresented. He travels a lot, the kid from Praiano, Italy who got lucky. Antonio is animated with an ardor for his field and his mission to share what he’s learned. I give in to his words and vision and time floats by. Music plays and I am carried by each idiosyncratic note, how they create a wholeness of song.

Afterwards when he signs copies of his book, my body doesn’t want to move along in the noisy line, to take itself to where he sits, a smile readied as his pen is set upon a blank page. I force my feet to take small shuffling steps until I am third in line. It is too much, the past colliding with the present, his life, my life. I step away and glance at him and he looks up, just catches my eye. Frowns. I pause to smile, then rush through the front doors, onto the sidewalk where glaring lights and honking cars and congested sidewalks conspire to steal my breath and rattle my mind. I am starving, my stomach clutching my ribs. There is a coffee shop nearby, I will find it, drink a strong cup and gather my wits before I pick up dinner to take home. Antonio, in Chicago! It is too crazy and wonderful to grasp.

But the chilled wind is pushing against me, enough that getting my footing isn’t so easy as people rush by. Someone grabs my shoulder and I pull away.

“Scusami, is it really you Celia?”

When I turn around, Antonio is there. Praino is there. That time of wonders unfolds in his beautiful, craggy features, in his vibrant voice, in my spoken name.

“Yes,” I answer. “Want to share a decent Italian dinner with my daughter and me?” and his laughter is a relief, a cascade of delights as we enfold each other inside no small joy. At last.