When she settled on the swing
a barreling wind lifted
the edges of her breath
and green gingham dress,
rocked her as if her mother
came to push and catch
so she did not dive
right into autumn’s magic
on each staggering rise and fall.
That sweet fire of swinging faded,
became winter’s crystalline water
but the swing did not forget,
nor the leaves that danced
and gathered at her feet,
tree gifts rusty, tarnished bronze
until like her mother
they left her with a taste
for all dying beauty-
dry sponge of moss
and fermenting apple,
broken leaves, prophetic rain
and love that bargains-
There are occasional days I awaken as if slogging through a heavy mist of haunting dreams, feet unsteady on the floor, body trying to find a barest sense of consciousness amid a three-dimensional space. I perform preparations for further entry into daytime accompanied by a low groan or two. Dressed, wet hair dripping, I finally turn on the tea kettle. I manage to feel less weary as its soft sizzle of sounds hum through the kitchen. Curtains and windows are throw open in living and dining room; balcony door is cracked wide. Let come the light, come the fresh air, there we go.
The Irish Breakfast teabag greets boiling water and I stare into deepening amber. I must get more awake, greet my life with eyes fully open. I will meditate and pray longer, for this may be a day that will take more work to mine the beauty and hope that enliven my life. My love for the world–mine and our greater one– is straddled with grief. I am often surprised by this. Ask my spouse and he will tell you I am a person who is primarily even-keeled, rolling with the weather of life, even optimistic by nature. It wasn’t always that way. I learned a few things.
But am I feeling a little depressed those certain mornings (day, evening)? My training indicates it can happen that way, sudden brief lows, even mild yet disheartening. Close-up experience being myself may indicate otherwise; there is usually to be a reason. A lifetime of valuing the intelligence of emotion also chimes in. I know the voice or silence as well as the faces of depression, the energy and mass of it from repeated encounters with mental health clients. And I have known it in my personal journey when facing serious crises. It carried my burdens with bleak misery. But the older I become, the more I feel “the blues” is but one more variation of the expansive spectrum of emotions–if generally an indicator of other, less visible feelings. And it is not the enemy but another ally, nudging me to take notice. To see what else is going on. It’s a little like the relentless shriek of the tea kettle telling me it is liable to go dry, so time to take action.
That loaded word, “depression”, floats by our collective eyes and ears more times than I can count these days. It certainly was a major focal point all day long when I was a counselor. Also prior to that, while working with geriatric and disabled populations. It has become a dominant topic in literary, scientific and spiritual journals, even popular magazines. It often takes center stage during commercial breaks on television, courtesy of the octopus reach of Big Pharma. It can be a source of discussion among friends, acquaintances, family members. I have lost people to suicide; I don’t underestimate its debilitating, even lethal effect.
Clearly depression is entrenched in our socio-psychological lexicon following centuries of being a word not uttered if it could be helped. Or quietly, behind closed doors. And even then, it was called something else. The varieties of depression have been re-categorized or redefined to keep up with the evolution of diagnostic techniques and manuals. (Or the other way around; it depends on your viewpoint.)
Back when I was working in mental health agencies, powerful grief and loss usually underlay depression symptoms–it might have been an event that kept cropping up (say, ancient family dysfunction fueled by ongoing abuses or abandonments) or a very fresh experience. Anything from unemployment or medical issues to relationship trouble or moving to a new city, even loss of dreams and goals. Addictions of all sorts are also both symptoms and triggers. But right there I’m going to stop. I’m leaving the finer details to diagnosticians who are working away in the field.
I’m going back to my opening theme, those times when walking and thinking are reminiscent of trudging through noxious mud. Because I have worked at gaining self-knowledge a long time now, I also know the acrobatics my mind can perform and the poisons my spirit can let in. So I am ready when my response is needed. I know when and how I must take myself in hand.
If we are in large part what and who we tell ourselves, then I’m a curious human being with intellectual capability, decent physical equipment, rich emotional responses and a seeking soul. All these work together from what I can tell, for if one aspect goes a little awry, others tend to malfunction some. I am made of homeostatic systems that make a whole, one that runs well and without much fretting when systems do their work appropriately. All I have to do is see to insure my human beingness remains tuned up–attend to whatever is askew and appreciate its design and function. It is not so much to ask for; every creature has its work to stay alive and do what it can do.
If we stop to consider the intricate checks and balances that go on in our bodies, alone, that awareness can startle us with awe. We know the brain does countless jobs each moment and exerts tremendous influence– we haven’t anywhere near figured out the full scope of its powers. But we do know, for instance, that sleep is critically needed to provide to good health, and for the brain to efficiently process and park information. Otherwise, we cannot operate without paying the price. (I remind myself that those nights when I awaken at 2 a.m., then return to sleep somewhere around 3:30 am.–this would contribute to anyone’s moody ineptness the next day.)
Every part of who I am wants to work at maximum levels. It is far more interesting; I gain and also give more. This requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual support and care. I know, for example, if I neglect reading meditation books and studying guiding scripture, if I don’t allow enough time to seek the Creator’s wisdom for more clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, shadows of sadness and distress may find greater opportunity to cling more than a moment. I tend to manage, anyway; there is the will, a mighty thing, to help determine quality of life. (Or better yet, there is synergism, a theological assertion that renewal is a combination of will and divine grace.) But how much better to remain rooted in my strengths as well as curtail or transform my deficits? To create more possibilities for a fuller, truer life?
I manage my health needs and revel in the body’s capabilities. I’m not ready to leave this earth. I watch over my emotional wellness because I savor happiness and peace. But I am no longer afraid of sorrow, frustration, disappointment or even failure. I’ve been there; still standing.
So I locate and nurture wellsprings of wholeness. It isn’t too hard. I admit it’s less challenging since retirement, but even as a working woman I kept those operational needs met the best I could. This is my way since I am a person who has been intimate with the vagaries of life fortunes, the loss of health, money, housing, safety, love, hope and twice, nearly my life. Yes, then, I have been to some deep pits. I didn’t expect to step into or get tossed in them. Who ever does? The climbing or tunneling out was exhausting, lonely, left a few marks from hoisting mental, spiritual and physical burdens, from the clawing and gnashing of teeth as I searched for relief. That rejuvenating sip of air, illuminating pinprick of light–it can turn the tides of mind.
Yes, far easier to maintain the well-being I have developed– and take rapid action to repair breakage or malfunctioning than let things head sideways.
We likely agree it’s sometimes a strange and arduous thing to inhabit this human flesh. Optimism can be fickle, faith can get slippery and resources run out more than we’d like. How much we admire the creatures who carry on their business without, we suspect, any thought to the future, without consternation over much while driven by instinct. But we are not they. Let us live the parts we have been given, then seek to make them finer.
When a disenchanted melancholy swirls about then settles on my shoulders like a ill-fitting cape, I don’t panic. I wear it awhile. Acknowledge it. Let it visit me, talk to it, carry it about. Listen to any stories it has to tell, let clues surface. It has come to keep me company. But I don’t give it undue attention, either. The feeling will depart, either when it is ready or when I determine it is time. If a feeling hangs on to my detriment, I know what to do: reap spiritual sustenance; walk, hike, dance; eat smartly; rest even small pockets of time; visit and help others; make or bring life-affirming music and art and literature more deeply into my days and nights. And do not stay glued to electronic mediums, especially when it emphasizes negativity, subjects me to ever more violence. I–we–clearly need edification, more potent solutions born of thoughtful consideration.
But when there is a long and opaque shadow cast, it pays to well investigate the source. A shadow is only light blocked. Is it a circumstance that will pass? Is it a person whose presence is overwhelming the positive in my life? Is it something I have no direct control over, anyway–the complex state of this world, weather, my aging siblings’ health, other peoples’ beliefs? Or is it me? More often than not I am getting in the way, complicating things, being slow to mend a torn or sore spot. Maybe I just feel lazy; it requires strategy and effort to change.
I may be blocking the very light I need to thrive. If that is the case, I may find the deeper shadows suitable for encouraging self-pity, the last thing that’s needed. I can get out of my own way. Then I can influence the issues I can address. But I do not have to make it a big production, either. When a touch or full-on case of melancholy is experienced, quiet work usually gets the job done better than a dramatic response. Either way, its up to me.
Try this next time awakening with your own shadowy companion: give it your respect. What would we be without the mystery of shadow; it helps delineate our lives, as well, and gives us more depth and mystery. So make a fresh cup of coffee or tea to savor, open your window and let your lungs fill right up. Find that spot of beauty and absorb it. Praise the numinous Light of all. Spread it about. We can and should embrace even the homeliness of our lives, their misaligned aspects. We ought to love the weak moments and mad bits, and exercise mercy during baffling trials. It all works well when we accept the vast variations of our living, and help it along.
Anya was sitting at her desk, ostensibly corresponding with her daughter. She had also been watching activity across the street for the better part of an hour. It was possible Karolina might no longer grace their neighborhood with her presence. A Lincoln had pulled up at the curb. A woman in navy and ivory attire and carrying a briefcase emerged. She walked briskly to Karolina’s door and was allowed in without hesitation.
If that was all there was to it, Anya might not have looked up again. But as she began her next sentence on the second page of pale blue stationary, movement caught her eye. Karolina and the other woman were walking the property, pointing and talking with what Anya saw as restrained animation. Karolina didn’t typically emote. Being effusive was forbidden from what Anya could tell. This lack of responsiveness determined all else about her neighbor, she thought, pen tapping pressed lips–except for only one time.
The two women beyond were deep in discussion along the eastern property line, then disappeared behind the house. She imagined them heading down the side steps, pretty shoes landing firmly on each deep step as they descended to that broad forested view. The breathtaking royal blue tiled pool. It was an oval pool. Who could appreciate an oval pool, neither suitable for laps nor comfortable enough for a good number to enjoy at once? It was like a mirror image of sky as one plunged in. As Anya had done a few times, once unintentionally. All that was before they stopped speaking ten months ago.
Anya turned back to her desk in the book-lined study and re-read page one of the letter. She was trying to not give advice to Tricia about her love life or career. She was instead sharing a little of her own experiences, hoping they’d demonstrate the value of both prudence and spontaneity. So far she’d not done so well but it was only eleven, plenty of time to shape tone and intent. It was worth the effort. Thoughts shared with someone you loved ought be indelible, not allowed the flippant, temporal nature of electronic words. One had to be careful on paper as in living, but not withholding. The balance was delicate.
She heard someone laugh through the study’s second story window. Not Karolina, surely. They were half out the front door, then the stranger turned, went to the street, got in her car and departed. The front door–heavy steel painted white to match the rest–was shut like an exclamation point in the surrounding silence.
The sound jarred her; she put down the ink pen. Anya stood and stared at that house of serious angles, its blank, clean materials lending a fine severity that suited Karolina. A house that Anya had once coveted–she’d first found its structure organic yet imaginative–but hadn’t been able to afford when in the market for a good house. Her husband’s medical practice had barely gotten started fifteen years ago. She’d gazed out her window enough while still dreaming of it to have redesigned the landscape, changed the door color and re-thought the interior a hundred times. That house was stone cold inside. It would protest at a barest twitter of vivacity, then relent happily if it was her hand on it.
But now, the white door, a barricade not to be breached, remained shut. It had been that way more often than not since Karolina took it into her possession. Now she would fully vacate it.
Anya had known this might happen sooner or later at the start. From the time they met and established they were both from St. Petersburg, there had been something about Karolina, a restlessness and emptiness that seemed at odds with her career success. The new neighbor had noted she was born and mostly raised in Prague. She had only stayed in St. Petersburg when her father was an unemployed professor; they had lived–he’d found a bit of work–with distant cousins for a year or so when she was twelve. So she said. Anya wondered over such abbreviated history–was it a short time in Russia? she knew quite a bit about it–but was pleased to meet her.
They had not gone to the same school or known the same people, Anya being four years older, her parents chemist and nurse, respectively. They had later both attended university but Karolina had moved back to Prague, eventually worked and lived many places. Anya had become a medical researcher. Karolina lilsted some of her emplyment on her long fingers: “journalist for a Czech news service; taught four languages in a Greek program, then in England; then there was my horse training business in the U.S. and other things”, all of which made her money. Her checkerboard past was put away after that. When she bought the gleaming white house, she was overseeing a travel agency.
Still, they had a few memories to share. Aya felt a swell of pleasure over the serendipity. But Karolina did not, though at first she noted that humble, famous bakery and museums of history and art so intimidating and beautiful, the parks for all, and of course the snow, the blazing snow. The deep ache of winters as well as blinding beauty, waiting in warmth and safety until spring broke apart all the frozen parts. It made you thrive with strength or it made you weak, Anya mused. Karolina was quiet. So few understood how Anya felt, what she missed, not even her husband when he took her there. He got cold fast, stayed cold. So they were hers, the memories, as she and Carl returned to their rain-blessed house.
Anya touched fingertips to the warm glass of her window; it appeared she was touching roof of the alluring house across from her. She was jarred by a thought. She would be able to get inside again when the Open House allowed potential buyers to troop through. She could see what had been changed or not, how Karolina had retained her austere mark or erased it. Was it possible for a personality to be more bloodless than she’d appeared during the last months? Like ice. Even as it slowly melts it will disappear into the vast thirst of the earth: Karolina had become invisible.
It had always looked like a a snow house to Anya, cool and warm at once, given to the magic of light’s variations, subtle yet obvious in its beauty. Karolina kept it cold and remote as her personality dictated.
Perhaps that was unfair of her to think of her neighbor, once more friendly. She was clearly more often gone as verified by the voiceless house, the many cabs that retrieved and returned her again. It was said she found another business opportunity, was moving fast.
She returned to her desk, mind cluttered with more than she could sort. The blue page awaited its next lines.
My dearest Tricia, having friends is far more important than you might realize, so I do hope you’ll consider this when factoring in attributes of your new love interest, as well. Will he be a loyal friend of yours no matter what? One who embraces your other ones as being good for you? Or will he be an intrusion on your circle, an impediment to good times shared? Will he, Tricia, turn closeness into a precarious thing with one word or look thrown in a surprising direction? He must trust you and you, him.
The definitive waning afternoon on a Saturday when Anya and her husband, Carl, were invited for drinks started like any other. Perhaps sunnier; it was just June but heat had imbued the air more deeply that typical for Oregon. There were also Ellen and Milt (Carl’s older medical practice partner), their happy sidekicks. Karolina was single. It had been a non-issue. Sometimes there was a male friend, sometimes not.
She sat with her arms resting on metal arm rests, thin hands dangling, a silver bangle loose atop prominent wrist bones. They encircled a sea foam green glass tabletop. It was smooth on the surface, rippled underneath. Anya liked this piece, it reminded her of a river that had been dammed. Karolina had drawn her eyebrows together at the observation: well, Anya, it’s only ordinary heavy glass.
“Well, it’s that time again,” Milt began and they all knew he’d be talking about his boat. Ellen smiled absently; she also loved boating. “Day trips, a few long week-ends if I can finagle them from Carl.” He wriggled his eyebrows at Ellen. “My wife has to break in her new swim suit before Corfu in October.”
“The boat, always that boat,” Carl said , then quaffed his drink. “She rivals Ellen in allure– and after all these years, both romances still going strong!”
Ellen raised her goblet, then nudged Anya, lowered her voice. “He’s thinking of heading somewhere gorgeous, within a stone’s throw. Wait for it.”
“Corfu? What happened to Santorini?” Karolina’s words came out languid but edgy, as if miffed by hearing herself speak of something so boring. “Why not try something else this time? I can get you exactly what you need. Better yet, something you didn’t even know you wanted until you get there.”
“Sorry, Karolina. The best rates at that hotel we liked before– it has become a tradition, as you know. For our anniversary.” Ellen pushed back a longish fringe of graying hair and her eyes warmed. “I wish we could skip summer and go straight to Corfu.”
“But first, another treat,” Milt said. He leaned forward, palms flat on the table, his eyes dancing with delight.
They were more than fond of Milt. His moon-shaped face was noteworthy, pockmarked by youthful acne and a broad smile, eyes that revealed kindness. He could talk you into anything. And Ellen was a friend you could count on, a partner who knew more about her husband’s work than most would care about, while her own career as a computer programmer had flourished. She’d just left it “in favor of general fun.”
“Tell us before we die of suspense, Milt,” Anya said.
“I’m taking you all to the Channel Islands, we’ll hang out around Catalina Island a couple days– as soon as we can clear our calendars for ten days. What do you say to that?”
They all whooped. Except Karolina.
“I can’t possibly, it’s such a hectic season. But thanks.”
She frowned at no one in particular, threw an irritated look toward the pool, as if not in the mood for talk, or perhaps she thought it foolish to even consider her. Light sparked the pool’s quiet water as a breeze ran over its surface; she blinked twice and her gaze fell.
“Bring it on, I’m ready to be another passenger on your legendary boating trips!” Anya clapped her hands in excitement. “I know you love and care for that boat like you would your neediest patient. Oh, by the way, I get a bit seasick…as you know. I’ll need meds and good care, Doc.”
“Oh, watch it, Anya took a shine to you long ago, Milt and now she’s playing helpless!” Ellen chortled. “I know for a fact that you are a good sailor, anyway, my dear.”
They talked about the possibilities, if they could manage it fast. How to get the boat down there with time left. What Carl and Anya would pitch in, to help with costs. They could likely make it by early September. Karolina was quiet, but she knew about boating. She had co-owned a small yacht, she’d mentioned, in her Mediterranean period before Martha’s Vineyard, before Chicago, and the Northwest. It was resoundingly not the Pacific Ocean. She showed some interest in their plans, she just didn’t share in their pleasure.
“Well, I’m thrilled. But it won’t be the same without you, Karolina,” Carl said, his eyes falling on her face, then pausing a beat longer than usual, as if he saw her anew. “We’ll send you photos of the fun you’re missing.” He emptied his goblet of wine again, eyes not moving off her.
Karolina opened her mouth, made a little circle with her lips and a simple “Ooh…” was emitted. Then, “Mmm…” The she looked to Milt and asked for more details about his boat, her hand smoothing the skin of her throat.
It was the angle of the light, Ellen said later as if that was all there was to it, nothing more. Her long brunette hair shone in an elongated patch that slid across her chest and neck, full lips, then lingered on the slant and rise of her cheekbones. They made her face, far more than her eyes which were wide-set and grey with something else. That mighty bone structure made her seriousness dominant, yet it hinted at more, a sensuality underplayed but ever present.
Anya had never seen her husband look at another woman that way, as if he was awakened suddenly, then on full alert. Even though he’d drunk how many goblets of wine? That’s what she thought when she went into the house to grab the new bottle of wine from the cement slab counter. Ellen followed.
“What on earth was that?” Anya asked. “Some sort of flirty maritime code between those two? He’s never done that around her. No one. His eyes locked with hers, Ellen! It’s–weird!”
“Never mind, let it go,” her friend advised. “Be at peace, dear, she casts a shadow as fast as that beam. He’s a very good man, but he isn’t perfect…neither is Milt. A glance is nothing.”
Karolina gazed at Anya on her way back; in it was a rebuke or a warning. It morphed into a half-smile. But late afternoon became early evening as it tended to, and then they ordered pizza as small ground lights around the pool’s area illuminated well enough. That pool was bold and bright. So, by then, were they.
How can a person know for sure what will happen with a few drinks, a clear and promising sky above, perfect water and easy chatter? But Anya saw it once more, that telegraph of information from Karolina to her her, then to Carl, the moment’s smallness exuding a power she hadn’t expected. A chill.
Carl was a solid husband, she knew that. He was also magnetic. He couldn’t help himself, it was in his sinew and joints–that way he moved like a wild cat. It was in his voice, a dash of lemon in a sea of sweet tea, the way he kidded. He complained in the early days that all this was an nuisance and impediment, that he was taken less seriously and women didn’t hear him, they saw him and what good was it when you had to teach people self-are or tried to save a life? Anya found him to be her best friend from the start. She wasn’t that keen on fancy looks–that kind of man was risky– but was all over his kindness and intelligence. They had fallen in love. After the first few years, she stopped thinking of it. It had been nearly twenty together now.
Karolina had decided to swim. She had dressed in a white silk caftan scattered with salmon pink petals. She pulled it over her head and revealed the modest white-and-grey striped suit that hid nothing. Anya knew it well, they sometimes swam together.
“I will let you talk on–I need to get in that pool.”
“Why didn’t you tell us to bring our suits?” Ellen was disappointed, considered going back home for hers.
“Glad you didn’t mention it, not up to it,” Milt said.
“Ditto,” Carl agreed.
“I just always like an evening swim…”
Carl stood and sauntered around the pool. Paused to watch her, then walked a bit again, his fourth or fifth drink in hand, navy polo shirt rumpled, unbuttoned. He took off his sandals and decided to dangle his feet in the water. He sat and kicked the water, stole a glance at Anya, then Karolina.
Karolina looked unperturbed, which was how she usually was except for the show of irritation earlier. Her arms spread out about her, she was a cool white flower rotating in blue water, legs moving like they were at home, body wafting to and fro, in a slow circle about the pool. A lotus, Anya thought, lovely, untouchable. At the far edge of the pool, Anya saw her husband think about slipping into that inviting water, hands tugging on his shirt, khakis darkening where water crept up the legs. Karolina changed herself from a lotus to dolphin and upended herself in a dive, sinous arms and legs propelling her deeper and deeper until she touched the bottom.
“What’s going on over here?” Ellen asked, Milt right behind her.
“Don’t ruin all your good clothes, buddy,” Milt called out sharply, warning Carl, telling him he saw things, too. “Too much to drink, right, my right hand man?”
Carl shrugged oh so nonchalantly, began to lower himself into the dazzling pool.
“Carl! Here I come, honey, ready or not!”
Anya jumped in and swam a mean stroke, shorts hiking up, linen blouse billowing. Just as he was chest deep, she reached for and grabbed him.
He looked up, eyes blurry with confusion. His breath stank of souring wine. “Going swimming tonight, Anya? Everyone in!”
“Too much to drink like Milt said. Not a good idea. Besides, you’re not exactly the best swimmer even sober, remember?”
He put his arms about her and held tight. She struggled to keep him afloat. “Help…” she said but Ellen was throwing daggers at Karolina.
Milt was watching his wife, then Carl, back to Ellen, torn.”Ellen, don’t consider anything foolish, we can just leave.”
“I love you,” Carl gurgled drunkenly.
“Sure, honey, I know that, could you dog paddle or something, move with me to the side of the pool?”
But Karolina had resurfaced nearby, was treading water as if she were dancing, then floated closer, her cheekbones gleaming silver in the underwater lights. Hair slicked back against her head and back. Wide hungry eyes settled on him.
She’s not a dolphin or a lotus, Anya thought, she’s a shark, as she dragged her husband with her, water sneaking in and making her cough and spit.
“I got him,” Milt pulled Carl with a yank on both arms and Ellen held onto Milt. “Damn.”
“Just a refresher swim,” Carl announced as Anya hoisted herself over pool’s edge.
“That was an escape from pirate waters,” Anya said. Ellen put hands on her ample hips, then looked at Karolina, anger tightening her softly lined face.
And they all three left, only Milt thanking their hostess.
“Thanks for drinks and nibbles, we’re off!”
Karolina’s hand came up from the water in a small salute of acknowledgement, then she dove under.
The last Anya saw of her was this: Karolina floating, her lithe ivory body relaxed but strong, eyes closed, mouth slightly open, that blue pool like a watery cave going dark as the underwater lights suddenly failed. Karolina kept on floating; she was quite undisturbed. Unfathomable.
That “For Sale” sign had gloated at her every day; she had moved her desk away from the window and wondered why she hadn’t before. It had been a week and the open house was happening. The white was radiant in early afternoon light. She stood by an open window in the living room, watching.
“Don’t go,” Carl said flatly. “There is no reason for it, we’ve been there and it was not anything we wanted to repeat, remember?”
“I want to know something.”
“I don’t know, I just feel I need to go see it.”
“Don’t even think about buying it. We have a fine home.”
“No…” But the thought had entered her mind more the past week. “It’s a beautiful place. My snow house, I once thought of it as that.” She snickered in embarrassment.
“Snow house. Well.” He brought her close, smelled what he thought was wind and a touch of cinnamon in her hair. “I’ll build you a snow house up the mountain.”
She gave him a squeeze. “But a real one?” They had talked about it once.
He looked down at her, then kissed her forehead. “Yes, if you must have it, you must have it before we get way too old. I have thought so myself. We can have snow up there and our usual permutations of rain and sun down here.”
“A little bit of my Russia in good American mountains.”
She let out a contented sigh. They had had a moment after Karolina’s gathering; it was like a thread pulled and rewoven. They liked to live forward.
Anya walked through each finely appointed room and found the entirety of it unattractive. She had worried she would feel nervous, as if she might meet Karolina in a corner. She wondered what she’d been thinking all those years. Maybe she had glimpsed its potential in the beginning. And it was there, still, the contemporary beauty of clean lines and open spaces unburdened by a plethora of objects or disorder. It remained grey, white, grey, black, white everywhere you turned. The light was stark and unrelenting; the house nearly leaned into it with expectations of more. Anya could feel the need for color in every room, just a stem of scarlet flowers or a big green pillow, a few brass or ceramic items amid steel and boundless walls. Had she really hoped for such change?
It was still wintry. Not in voluptuous or prismatic ways she recalled of the season. It was winter used up and discarded, void of hope, one long seductive loneliness that would not accept or acknowledge abundance. What had happened here? What had Karolina brought with her from places she had left? What poisoned her when she could grab more happiness?
She had been inside two times. Karolina had preferred they meet outdoors, even swim since that was her “sacred R and R.” When it rained they didn’t see each other much (she came to two dinners at their house), as Karolina didn’t entertain in the strict sense of the word–she didn’t cook or make effort to engage people much. But by the pool with drinks they could all hang out. It was good enough, if it felt a little off-filter beginning to end (the rest later agreed).
Until that night when any more social possibilities vanished. No more reminiscences, either, about Russia. They had just had enough of her.
Anya had enough of the house, too. People were milling about; Anya threaded her way between them. She did not want to see the pool and backyard. Not even the forest rising regally above all. She had her own trees.
Once out the door, she felt the need to run but walked, briskly.
She turned to see Karolina leaning through the open window of her car. She must have been sitting there, watching people enter and leave. Had seen her.
Anya walked closer but not too close. “Yes?”
Anya’s eyes squinted in the sheer sunshine and her face bloomed with fury.
“I hated that blinding snow in Russia! I hated being dragged to St. Petersburg, left alone in an alien place, my mother gone. You have no right to know my life but that time and place meant nothing to me, hear me? Nothing.”
Anya’s hand flew to her chest. “I don’t understand, Karolina, I’m sorry, but what are you–”
“Stop!” Karolina pointed at her. “You are so like all the others, belonging to no one. My soul is Czechoslovakian, my life waits in Prague!”
She pulled in her hand, tucked in her sleek head, sped away.
Anya sat on their front steps, watched people trickle in and out of the Open House, tears thickening in her throat. She thought of her parents and brother, all gone. She thought of her beautiful ancestors. Longing passed over and stung her afresh like swirling snowflakes. She closed her eyes tight. She would call her daughter, tell Tricia about the vacation house they’d finally have on the mountain. How they could all go cross country skiing, she’d teach them.
Carl came out and said he’d heard, then seen Karolina drive off too fast. Anya leaned against his warm shoulder. She was exactly where she belonged.
There is nothing that can break the heart quite like music. Or reassemble its jagged, scattered, keening parts. It inhabits such power partly because music is a human birthright as much as it is any other creature’s (or element’s) within nature’s domain. Everything warbles, croaks, chirrups, bleats, bays, whistles, howls–something is offered up. Behold the loon’s peculiar call. The snake’s slither and hiss. The dog’s curious vocalizing. It is inside our voices, runs in our blood. Even the wind-blown grasses, fallen leaves and quieter waters have music to make. And when they do, we listen and it stirs us.
But the human of the species ascribes much more to what might be a simple rhythmic utterance. I know something of this, having grown up in a musical family and having aspired to become a musician the first two decades of my life. I hummed and sang as a little child and a violin was placed in my hands before kindergarten. I sat by family members at the baby grand piano and plunked along when I could. Surely all children come by music naturally, no matter what they hear, sing or dance to. Just watch them.
It becomes a communal state of being when a family is rooted, nurtured, shaped and bound by making music. It is a many-limbed entity that hews a major part of its foundation from vigorous realms of musical expression. Especially if it is classical music. Which means: in our house there was played on the stereo or via our instruments and voices an almost entirely classical repertoire. The exceptions were hymns, a little big band music and musical theater songs. The emphasis was on quality of musicianship even then. If it wasn’t very well executed, it was not abided.
It’s a topic I’ve written about and around countless times, attempting to clarify its meaning and impact. There is an essential musicality of life, it goes to our cores and impacts all cultures– not just mine. And then there is the breaking and reassembling aspect.
Despite being inundated by it, I stopped my engagement in music before I was twenty. I simply abandoned all this: private cello and vocal lessons, innumerable daily hours after school of redundant, critical practice, rehearsing and performing in orchestras, studying musical scores, trying to decipher music theory and learning music history, memorization of long and difficult pieces, performing in voice concerts and music competitions, attending workshops and music camps, protecting my fingers so they would be strong and calloused for heavy pressure and rapid movement upon cello strings, protecting my voice so it was responsive, resonant, accurate.
There is far more to it than this but you get the idea. The ultimate goal was to be worthy of others’ time and teaching, and especially of a discerning audience’s approval. At least, that is what I thought. Learning to play classical music and play it well is about many things. Strict discipline. Patience. Being able to take and utilize criticism. Seeking or creating nuances of sound even within a single note. Duplicating with exactitude a composer’s complex marks on a page. Becoming mathematically oriented and intellectually awake even while opening profound emotional channels–and all this while practicing the same measure over and over and over, then performing in front of people who may be utter strangers as if it was fresh and personal.
And the fact was, I adored it, despite the laborious parts or disappointments, tired hands or those failed attempts with a new measure. Music nestled in my bones, directed my dreaming, held up hope and resided in my best places. And I was singing more and more; it was becoming more compelling than playing cello, at times. So on it went, this life made of music among all the other activities of a child, then youth, those movements through time.
Until I could not do it, not anymore.
For years the drill went as usual, the pleasures were daily; it was nothing extraordinary. Many of my friends were learning instruments at young ages. In our city, elementary schools had music programs, courtesy of my father and others, started when children reached the fourth grade. If they did well on music aptitude test, they were given instruments to play throughout their education, though many bought their own before long.
Our own house held six musicians who were blood-related. (I often thought my mother might have been one, too; she’d played “a little piano once” and possessed a pleasing alto voice.) There were three cellists (the girls), one of whom deserted to play flute and bassoon. One brother played viola while another played clarinet and saxophone, then flute and more. One of my sisters, Marinell, was a very good pianist but became a cellist who played professionally in symphonies and chamber music groups until her early seventies; she passed on at 78. My other sister, Allanya, played sporadically into her thirties with groups. She also learned how to repair instruments. The woodwind- playing brother, Gary, revolted and only played jazz professionally; he’s now in his mid-70s and still plays often. Our younger brother, Wayne, played viola professionally until recently–also past 70 now–and still sings professionally. Our father played all of the above and knew how to play several more. But other than playing sax, clarinet and trombone in dance bands while in high school and college, he always played violin and viola professionally. That is what he mostly taught others. He also was a conductor.
So you can see how it was. We all played something; it was expected, even imperative. We all sang, harmonizing with one another around the piano as Dad or Marinell played. After we dispersed to other places we still would make music when we got together. This extended beyond our nuclear unit. My father’s younger brother was a flutist and successful composer (Dad was a music arranger, too) and his wife a pianist; my cousins have played cello and violin professionally. We have an opera singer in the family tree, Dad’s second cousin, I think. It goes on…
It would have been hard to back away from this life saturated with music. It never occurred to me; I was committed to being a musician then. I was passionate about music, happy to play classical. Things began to change a bit as I strayed into folk music by mid-teens, teaching myself to play acoustic guitar. I sang all the popular folk songs, started to visit coffee houses where singer-songwriters played. And then I discovered the joy of song writing, performing them as I could. To me, it was that happy union of two creative passions–writing (lyrics being a configuration of poetry) and music. But classical “art” singing had become the priority–or, rather, my father’s. I found it harder and harder to sing with hands clasped before me or at my sides, standing with erect carriage, my body so still. I wanted to move–I danced, as well–to express the music more fully. In community musicals I got the chance, so there was a small reprieve from the more rigid aspects of classical training.
Too, when Dad was home doing nothing much–a rare occasion–he would play the old standards from the thirties, forties and fifties on our piano while I got to sing out like a bird uncaged. And he did approve–just as long as I got back to business later. I understood that was frivolous singing, for relaxation and fun. It wasn’t serious music, important music, not to him. Well, this was no shock, but I resented it more as time went by and further explored genres like blues and jazz–but secretly. It was truly a forbidden world. I was drawn into its human woes and triumphs easily despite my primary allegiance to classical. Not that there wasn’t struggle, victory, comedy and tragedy in classical music–it was just set to another beat, was given a different sort of platform, had a different life.
It was clear to me that being a fine classical musician was my father’s true calling, and also the teaching of it, the nurturing of the potential of each student. He did what he was meant to do and was lauded and even loved for it. It seemed some of my siblings wanted to follow suit.
But as much as cello held my poet’s soul in thrall, it was singing that had finally overtaken me. When singing I felt like everything in my life was cohesive, aligned. Enriched and authenticated. Freed. I’d had good training and I had a rapturous desire to sing truly well. I performed often at school and community events as well as music competitions. I did well. But it was no longer about singing well to please anyone. It was for the music that I sang, for the precise beauty of each note and the moving, sassy, challenging lyrics. It was singing for life. Its wonderment and aching. By 15, I was struggling to stay alive due to abuse from outside my blood family and then a assault. It was becoming nearly impossible to always keep up a good front, to speak nothing of it. And music kept me breathing, kept me reaching for a better day. Singing was my lifeline in so many ways, as well as my solitary writing.
But it was that singing that I finally let go after a second rape, after the drugs and breakdown they brought, after I could no longer see the point in believing God might seriously protect me in the world. Sometimes life overcomes the very best intentions, even courage mustered once again. Its contradictions consume such energy and effort. I was 20, and exhausted.
After the grave woundedness and protracted healing, I tried to sing a bit more. Quietly, alone. It came out hard and slow, scraped my throat as if it protested against release of it song. I felt sick when I tried to sing more, as if all that music had slipped away, perhaps recoiled from my living. It left me nothing but a hollow echo and worse, it left me without the easy, spontaneous joy, the passion. It was as if my voice had been snatched from me, the essence squeezed out of it. There was nothing good to sing about or for anymore, not the way I wanted. I had not the stomach for it and, I realized, as many accessible opportunities. It would take such will and work. Each day living with music was both a balm and a bitterness as I felt it slipping away from my destiny.
I had longed to sing so long, so deeply that it struck me soundly with pain when I opened my mouth. So I became more silent, an old way of dealing with things. I stopped wanting it in the same way, then hated ever wanting to sing. It had become a wound that would not give up and close. I was nearly an adult; I had to gather every remnant of strength and move on, leave behind what couldn’t be repaired or reawakened. The life I rebuilt sheltered a tunnel of subterranean anger. It held the fierce resolve to never be caught off guard in the world or in my heart. It would take many more years for that armor to be dismantled. But there were better changes in life direction. I lived another year and then another, grew up despite myself. In time, there were other goals, college, new family. There was love. I sang for my children a little, softly; their very presence somehow made music flow.
Sometimes I was asked to sing but refused. My voice had lain down, made a nest in a faraway cave, wanted to sleep. And a singer who does not truly sing, cannot hope to sing true.
I hadn’t lost my belief in Divine Spirit, but gradually there unfolded a profound renewal of my Christian faith which had been hibernating, only awaiting my return. God had not abandoned me, never would; I had mistakenly abandoned God’s wisdom and succor, inviolate compassion and mercy. I realized again that though the world has few welcome mats for a loving, transformative God, I can still live as though God walks with and among us, in the midst of all the chaos and terrible disregard and grief. I can open doors–mine, too– to what is true and good, still, and work with and share what I yet have left.
But I didn’t rekindle that potent spark of desire needed to sing–really sing. I may have given it away without fully understanding it– to weariness, to a leave-taking of youth, to old scarring that no longer meanly defined me. I remember walking away from my music and singing, as if from a dearly beloved. As if it was a terrible love that could not break through the heartaches. I chose to give it up in the end, to not do whatever it took for my voice to return. Even though it broke the believer, the dreamer within more thoroughly. Even though I was, in spirit, a ready warrior, last to go down, rising up for one more challenge.
It was something I could not, would not, speak about other than the barest reference.
The decades brought what marriages and children, fulfilling experiences and new places, trials and more loss, happiness, work, sharing my life. I sometimes got out my cello, its soulful sound billowing in the room, giving me goosebumps and peace. But it was hard to keep up skills without practice, without performance.
I did not sing except for my little ones, then less, then nothing came.
Until something astonishing came to pass.
In 2001, after my second parent died and my heart attack in the forest at 51, I worked hard to recover. I took three years off work to find ways to sturdy healing and a longer, happier life. Prayed and meditated often every morning, read and studied. Briskly walked an hour each day. Wept more easily, began to laugh more. Created peace and found gratitude. Made it a priority to have a little fun every day. Traveled a bit more and reached out. Started to make art and take photographs. And I wrote and wrote, wrote a novel and more. That sort of thing–the good stuff we can forget or just put off. Until it’s clear you can’t put it off, not one more second.
One morning I awakened with music full blast in my head, songs I hadn’t heard in decades. I barely had my eyes open when I began to sing, still in bed. They were the old standards I used to sing with my father, at first. The songs just slid out between my lips. I was sure they would disappear but no, I got up and they kept coming. I sang right out loud in the shower as if I had never stopped singing. My voice didn’t hurt, it wasn’t strained, it was on key. I was no longer a soprano but an alto–that was alright. I kept on, not laboring over notes, not trying to remember more songs. The songs arrived like they wanted to be sung. I was entirely happy with this, to have so much music rise up and be freed. To know it deeply again, to feel that rumble of air, recognize notes intimately as they swirled about and rose from my innermost being and then–that sharing of light and life. Oh, Lord. That perfect melding of heart, mind, body and soul given sound! And I knew I was all put back together. The old terrible things were just ghosts that had no songs of their own but now my music was back.
Music, it has always seemed, is God’s mouth.
I didn’t go on to become a fabulous singer in my fifties. Those lovely songs lasted for a few months. I find I can sing more easily at church whenever I attend–I had been used to feeling breathless and constricted. I also joined two choirs but the repertoires–classical– weren’t what I wanted, anymore. I enjoyed the seasons but did not return.
I believe, though, that the sudden gift of singing made serious repairs in my physical and emotional heart. It opened wider and then gentled and fortified my soul. That late-coming, magical time of having an easy, rich voice came to an end as mysteriously as it began. Now I hum about the house. I am a quite good whistler. Half-sing along with snatches of music I enjoy. I might even put on a CD and let loose when I’m alone. But more often I do not. There is a small empty room inside me, that holds my singing. I keep it well tended, but the door is barely cracked.
I don’t make music with my family members now. I might, but it’s alright like this. They’ve been living their musical lives and I have lived mine in my way. We are ever attached soul-to-soul by inherited abilities and adoration of music, by the ways we yet make it and inhabit it. Or to it. For this alone, I love them well.
The result of all this is that not singing as I once sang (and hoped to sing) doesn’t hurt nearly so much. In fact, it doesn’t reduce me to tears, anymore. We all make choices whether we grasp the truth of it or not. Things get left behind. Or certain manifestations of our dreams slip away. It was likely that all that music played and created and sung was enough–for that time, for those needs.
My cello now reminisces in its case, is stained with the lost heat of my fingers, the sweat of my chest. My singer’s voice sneaks out now and then and sometimes startles me with its vivacity. And I attend great concerts performed by others. I hear music daily on the radio and computer, play my stacks of CDs. I listen to two primary genres: jazz and classical. Anything that catches my attention I will give a serious listen. Love a little soul and bossa nova, flamenco and Celtic, indigenous, experimental, singer-songwriter, electronic–but that is another post: such myriad music I adore or seek. I would, I admit, still like to compose music.
But classical music….its complexity and dignity, its swell and flow, the mercurial shaping of notes and rhythms; its fractious and buoyant nature contained within the bounds of deep structure, like an elegant sound architecture in wilderness…It yet serves me well and has my devotion.
But I would have sung jazz if I had found my way to it.
Here’s the thing: music is everywhere, moving us. That is its power and mystery. Its gift to us mortals. How can we all not hear it in our waking or sleeping, in our plodding, seeking lives? It is a primal connection to all. And I don’t have to even sing it to stay alive, anymore. It will go on within me or without me; it sings me–and surely you–through each moment. Will do so until eternity where there is surely an extravagance of music.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson