Green Stamps for the Soul

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Lately the concept of redemption has been a recurring visitor, a cue that tells me I should look into this further. Thus far, I haven’t come up with anything in particular that has triggered this but it won’t let go. It’s not so unusual. But I’ve decided I will sort it out here. First, I have to acknowledge some of how such “guest words” come to  be.

Words knocking on a door of the language cathedral (sorry, language is that important to me) within the brain’s acreage might be generated by cultural/sub-cultural info that targets us randomly. Or maybe it’s a condensed version of phrases I seize upon within various books. It can be a convoluted paragraph that flashes into the mind’s magnifier before awakening. Only to leave me with vague recollections as feet hit the floor, depositing an orphan word, a tiny hint of an idea into my morning. Such has it been with “redemption”–it’s trailed me, more like a misty, never relinquished cape. Perhaps because I read and write a great deal, words–people’s entire names (I usually don’t know them), prayers or places–simply come forward and pressure me for attention and a decent response. Sometimes it’s a word I don’t quite recognize so have to look it up. Occasionally there is no such word in my dictionaries. Not too sure about this; I’m uni-lingual for the most part. And words come sung to me. I know. But it’s how it is.

But I try to give these assertive nouns (or other parts of speech) their due–as least as I can see my way through it. I’m less inclined to spend hours researching, more interested in discovering where a word has traversed my own life as well as how it can be applied in a broader sense. Shared. So this is what happened with the word of “redemption” and its other forms (inflections or conjugations of the root word). The following comes forward now.

I recall two meanings of the root word “redeem” from my early years. First off, S and H Green Stamps were happily redeemable. We got them (given as a promotional ploy) at supermarkets and gas stations. After being gathered, were saved, pasted into booklets, and turned in for a multitude of coveted, useless or helpful items from the company’s catalog. I don’t recall the items gotten–doll clothing and games, tea towels, a watch, implements of various kinds–as clearly as the experience of getting, saving and using Green Stamps. It seemed as if my mother only shopped at places that gave out the mint green stamps that were then licked and pasted into each blank page. She was a great coupon clipper and user; anything that could augment income seemed invaluable. I thought those stamps were magical: buy food or gas, get bonus stamps that could deposit a toy in my hands.

I was often talked into pasting in the strips of stamps that clogged the kitchen junk drawer. I whined about it but I can tell you I enjoyed doing this. I liked the way a blank page, sectioned into small rectangular spaces corresponding to the stamps, would soon be neatly covered. To make the gummed backs stick I used a small bottle of water (we otherwise had to lick all stamps ourselves) that had a rounded yellow sponge top. By the time a booklet was filled the pages were wavy from dampness and fat with stamps. I nearly recall the scent of damp, cheap newsprint with plastered, lined up green rectangles. I placed a finished booklet on the growing pile and when done, Mom put them in a box on top of the frig. Eventually, the stamped pages led to something handy or fun. I thought of the items as gifts. But that was how it worked: your mother or father got stamps and they were complied to be redeemed, or traded, for good stuff.

The second way I understood the words redeem/redeemable/redemption was through church attendance and the Bible. The idea was to be rescued from things I did or thought that tripped me up, could tear me down and also cause others harm.  It meant being saved from going under in a vast pool of treacherous sin–all that stuff that wasn’t good for a person, stirred up more by misguided choices–through Jesus Christ’s love for humankind and his subsequent sacrifice. I saw that it meant being set free, ultimately, from tough consequences of my human tendency to make errors– like telling a fib or sassing the parents or smacking my sister back, I guessed. I might get in trouble at home but Jesus saw through to my hopefully better intentions and, if not entirely overlooked the rotten ones, then forgave them and we basically called it good for the time being.

I wasn’t always sure what I might have done wrong. But as I sat on the cushioned pew in the high-ceilinged Methodist sanctuary with a koi-filled water feature right outside to look at, I just knew God loved me. Jesus had already paid for basic human weakness that led us astray, and even future wrongdoings if I forgot how to do the right thing. Such love was clearer to me than shimmering water of the pool with blue sky bits in it, and it went way past civilized behavior like good manners or small or big mistakes of human judgment. I could count on that.

And that made me want to do better. It was a reciprocal thing: being loved by God, then passing it on while loving God back. Even then I hoped to show my appreciation, be in sync with what I thought of as Divine Spirit, a perfect harmony that sang to me, vibrated in nature. It gave me deep satisfaction and if I could have found the right words, a sense of transcendence. And it felt better to live in accordance with “First love God deeply and fully; love your neighbor as yourself” (to paraphrase the two greatest commandments Jesus noted and insisted all learn and live). My parents insisted, as well, of course. The instructions stayed with me as the eternal light that guides me. It was a serious business, redemption, but as a child I wore it lightly, as if an ordinary thing to know and accept.

It would take unspeakable tragedies, sudden losses and repeated failures; long periods of anguish over my selfishness, badly made choices and lapses of faith before I could begin to know the greater meanings and how hard it could be to hold onto the truths it embodied. It’s unfashionable to speak of guilt or remorse but they have their places in the human grab bag of feelings–and in the guide of our conscience. By trading in selfish disregard, despair and even self-loathing–costs of a life gone awry–for mercy and compassion, I found it possible to give the latter more generously to others. When you have nothing, not even hope of life, and are given one more breath as well as the means to go on, it is easy to feel humility and thankfulness. And that becomes a redemption process.

But it is still, after all these years, hard to act in accordance with an old legacy of soul-stirring rescue and renewal. It asks a lot of people to exchange their unwise whims and ravenous appetites– as well as prejudices and a tendency toward small cruelties. That we can do worse, much worse, in the name of “right and might” we know from bloodied annals of history. But do we really act as if we know we can do far better?

Since I believe we come from God, God remains within us when on earth and we return to God in an unbroken circle, I have wondered: what shatters that primary, even mystical connection? We are each birthed into the world, and we don’t usually come with beatific smiles on our faces but crying out. But we arrive equipped with intelligence, fantastic systems of locomotion and for learning, a capacity for feeling a spectrum of emotions. We arrive with impressive free will fully installed, unlike creatures who are motivated by instinct–as witnessed by even a crawling baby’s refusal to do as caregivers desire, even demand.

We think we know so much from the very start. And we do, in some unspoken way…and then smudge it up here and there because we can. And just want to. And then is there still workable knowledge? That which can make things add up to our benefit while acting in good regard for others? Is our will expansive and benevolent or spurious and undermining? It’s our choice, after all.

The word redemption comes to me again and again because it’s powerful. And we each seek it in various ways at certain times. I worry about the fate of this place, our planet Earth. We all do. We lie very still in the breath of night and maybe go to the window and try to count the inexhaustible stars and wonder how that ravishing universe can seem so rarefied yet far from our pettiness and misery, our terrible designs with their misappropriated energies and labors. We fill our lives with distractions to quell the contagious anxiety rippling around the world. How far have we come from our best beginnings? How much have we forgotten of the mysterious congruence of a universe that goes on despite our misguided, our flagging efforts here?

How lost can a species of creatures become? Are we not primal enough? Or not open enough to wisdom greater than our limited, perhaps one might think lazy, speculations?

We are naturally inclined to be explorers. And we have good clues in maps right here. They are in our natural bodies: the pumps and one way doors, a myriad of interdependent chemicals, connectors and transmitters: the blood-rich, nerve-conducting wisdom. Our bodies mirror much outside of the flesh. We have extreme mapping in our brains, those vast reservoirs full of information and imaginative juices. We enjoy our barrier busting leaps of thought. Are we irretrievably lost? Think again, only let higher functions of mind and soul open more effective routes, bolder solutions, itineraries that can take us to answers and make things work for the many– not only the few. What is below is as above; the universe and this planet are part of an infinite, barely grasped whole. Entire unto itself, we guess– yet we are within it.

So much that we can discern about us reflects the rest in endless configurations. If you love nature, you can see that: whorls of a tree’s inner trunk and planetary paths and spreading circles a single drop of water falls into a pond. So much more. We are here to immerse ourselves in such wonders and utilize our capabilities.  To pass on love as the treasure it is. We are given all this in exchange of stewardship of a planet and the tending of our human lives so that all may flourish.

And yet here we are. These times of catastrophes, power mongering, failures to communicate. It is all so not new, but nonetheless disturbing.

How, then, can we participate in the redemption of our better natures? We must not once forget the inestimable value of human beings even as we struggle with blindness or confusion. Life can be redeemed little by little, moment by moment, one more sound act of reason upheld by care. And then another and another. There is never too much kindness; we do not run out of it, not if we keep it at the ready, put it in motion. But we are not the only vital characters coming and going as the story turns. Perhaps one challenge is to know our place and yet to find it essential and beloved.

We can count on God knowing we are floundering–we, I believe, share Spirit and Mind. We are earthly specks yet celestial beings, made for greater things though we strain to understand. Still we can take action, bring to the fore our finer and braver impulses. Let the clear heart of redemption move us to trade scattered, weakened intentions for something more sound. More sacred. Practical matters and visionary potential are not mutually exclusive. We can trade for the consequences of a quiet (create/enact the work of hope; smile often, gently) or boisterous (bring on the music, speak up for change) life but do it with the transformative intentions of love.

The time we are given and endeavors we choose, I learned, are worth infinitely more than Green Stamps stuck into piles of flimsy books. It is my responsibility to daily renew commitment to an uncertain life on earth, to make sacrifices as needed and ultimately to live with deep and abiding charity. This is perhaps the means and ends of the miracle of redemption’s power.

Harlequin River Dreams

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

More than anything–despite the security of his high paid job, despite many rewards he had labored long and hard to gain–Ward secretly wanted to be a poet. Or, if he was honest with himself, still wanted to be, as it was not a new inclination, nor a whimsy that came and went. The dream had remained like a watchful dog sitting in a corner of the attic. That’s how he thought of it, of that life: the slanted walls, a view of the river Harlequin, the old desk made by his grandfather snug against the slant of the southwest wall. It wasn’t all fully his. If it was, he’d be there now, or at the least whenever he could take off a few days now and then. But it was the family place, owned by his two brothers, Randy and Owen, and himself. But when you got down to it, they were the ones the place belonged to as they were the overseers and regular week-end inhabitants. He got there once a year at best, so far from his life was every bit of that. In miles and in culture for twenty-five years.

Ward was the oldest so he might have been the one to get all one hundred fifty acres and the cabin. Their grandfather had passed on the horse farm, all that verdant rolling land, to their father where he still lorded over the successful stables and breeding business.

Grandpa Greer had informed them of some of the will’s contents the night before he slipped away.

“You now.” His thin, deeply veined hand rose a half-inch off the ancient quilt. A finger beckoned toward Ward. “You’ll share the cabin with your brothers. But you’ll get your own Harlequin acreage. Where we liked to fish…you’ll know what to do with it, son.”

The wrinkled, age-spotted old man had tried a smile, chin quivering, eyes lit up for an instant before shuttering. Ward took his weightless hand though it made him anxious, the terrible frailty of aging and impending death.

He later wondered what Grandpa Greer meant but for a long while it felt enough to enjoy reminiscing about the place. The fishing they’d all done. How they might stand at the Harlequin’s banks on a clear blue and yellow day, raising and spreading their arms to open sky like wings. Freedom, Grandpa often told Ward, is what you find when you stop all the ruses and the running. You’ll get there.

He’d frankly acknowledged that Ward was the one who had to strive harder, keep the family name flying high.

You have to jump on that treadmill of life, spit blood and sweat until you make a big splash, Ward. You got born first with more sense and brain power so you have to do more. It’s the way of things. But you can’t take one thing for granted in this life and you have to give back. Those are two rules. We’ll talk about the others later, alright? Get to it, boy.”

So he’d become a corporate attorney as planned from days of middle school. Like his father, only his father was a divorce attorney who had married three times. Now on his fourth. At least the latest stepmother knew about horses and made his father laugh. Unlike his father, Ward became high-profile and also had had only one wife. Now an ex-wife. His father called up when he heard of the proceedings.

“Well, I’m sorry, but Merrill was not much good at the game. Now you’re let loose, I guess. Need any legal advice?”

Ward considered his response. He knew Merrill never took to the lifestyle or that endless entertaining. She had chafed until she pulled away from him. He hadn’t been watchful enough; he’d found her reprimands too sharp. But he didn’t see a divorce as the grand open gate that guaranteed  freedom. He still reeled from it after a year. “I’ll have more time and space. Yes, for more work, I’m sure. No, I don’t need your counsel, thanks.”

“Time to loosen up, son. We should get together at the cabin soon, relax as so damned well deserved.”

And then he’d laughed with anticipatory pleasure, like it was a great victory for Ward, as if the men in the family would get together and engage in a manly celebration dance around an open fire, spears in hands, puncturing the skies with guttural roars. He could imagine his father, Randy and Owen having at it while he slunk back into the darkness, headed toward the river. It hadn’t happened, not then. Randy, his youngest brother, was busy with his fledgling dentistry practice, Owen with his cheese/wine/chocolate stores. They managed to go there every couple of months, but Ward was in Seattle. A long way from southeastern Pennsylvania.

And now he found himself at a city park’s pond more often than not on a week-end, book in hand. It was a four block walk from his place. It did him good to be a bit reckless with time even as the tug of work was always nattering at his shoulders.

He brushed something with wings off his shoulder and watched the ducks paddling on the water in easy unity. He could count on those ducks being there and doing that. It was the first warmish day in over two months; the air was a caress on skin rather than a slap. He put his book aside, pulled from his jacket pocket a small black notebook along, a mechanical pencil snug in its small loop. His hand, pencil held aloft, hovered above white blankness, then fell upon it with trembling.

If power of dreaming wins,
I’ll take to that intimate river
and let the water roil, carry me  
gasping to distant rims of earth,
submerge me in heart-deep currents
until I rise, float, grow sharp fins of light.

He read them, erased a few words, realigned things, uncrossed his legs. Leaned forward to write more. Put a big space between last line and the next. But it felt a new poem and a much harder thing.

Can you ever love me this way, as much falls away?
Can you even find me in iridescent undercurrents,
amid sly, dangerous waters that return me
a different man to banks of a forgotten ravine?

A dog barked, then two more got into it and Ward set down the notebook with pencil. His eyes stung in richly exposing sunlight. What did he really mean by giving voice to such strange feelings? He didn’t know but kept at it, the last few months measured by work hours but, increasingly, also poetry time. He told no one, shared nothing. All Ward knew was he wanted to do this, had to write these things and he didn’t know if they made sense, if they were worth the time, if he should feel embarrassed anxiety more than the happiness. He just set each word down like a marker along a precipice he traversed alone. He was trying to make his way without falling prey to disparate elements, to superfluous demands, to the enveloping disappointment and hurt. And so he accepted any help his beleaguered mind and soul could bring him.

A few months ago he’d stayed awake until the frail light of day seeped into night’s hollows. Not so unusual, anymore. But it wasn’t work nagging at him. His now ex-wife and forever daughter–Merrill and Kelsey–haunted him most empty minutes. Yet not that night. He’d heard rumbling traffic beyond the partly cracked window; heard a homeless woman muttering to herself while she searched through trash; heard peevish cats yowl below his new city condo. He had once looked out and caught a glimpse of a coyote in an alert pause and this had frozen him in a thrill of discovery for one long second.

But that night Ward just lay with eyes half-closed, then began to hear words. They rose up like musical notes, lithe and bright, as if a windfall of rain had blown across the parched expanse of his brain and left lush vegetation. Things began inhabiting the wild trees and secretive undergrowth and they crept out and spoke to him as if he was the one they were waiting for, so he listened. The more interested he was, the faster they arrived, those creeping and leaping words, and he rummaged for an old law magazine in his night stand and wrote them down along the curled edges of pages, feverish.

When the alarm went off, after a fast shower, he studied them as he sipped coffee and was horrified. It barely made any sense and he attributed it all to crazy effects of sleeplessness, the roaming magnet of his mind picking up useless syllables and depositing them into a half-consciousness. But this didn’t stop him from being open to more of the same. In time things straightened themselves out a bit. The phrases were better held together by greater connectivity of poetic thought.

In the daytime, smooth tailor-made suits carried his body and his will carried his active mind; he allowed himself to be overtaken by rigors of his profession as required. He excelled as usual, pushed through it all. And then at end of day he looked for more words to harvest that didn’t buy or sell, divest or ruin or reconfigure lives and lesser assets, although this was what he did and it was nothing more or less than that. Still, he waited for poetry as if for a shy lover, his very being leaning into the ether that might hold a phrase that could make a bridge over the grit and sweat and tarnish of the world and into a soon familiar other land, that place of wonders.

“Ward, are you doing alright?” his assistant Sandy asked once a week at least. “You seem tired out. Distracted.”

“Divorce has a way of draining the energy from you but yes, I’m okay, thanks.”

“How about a few drinks after the meeting? You need to get out there again, get to it, man, come on!” Terrance from across the hall demanded this for weeks.

Ward noticed people were trying to engage him more personally, as if he was a bit feeble and in the throes of mourning and in need of dauntless encouragement. They wanted to share sly asides about liberation from the heavy yoke of marriage. It got on his nerves. He refilled his coffee cup as everyone else was otherwise engaged and just smiled wanly at the few co-workers who actually meant something to him.

“What’s going on?” His brother, Owen, asked when he called out of the blue. “You haven’t said a thing since…since you two broke up. How’s Kelsey doing?”

“Well, you know, she’s really busy with soccer and friends and school. Okay, I think.”

“You had better take some time off, huh? Come out to the cabin. Really relax. We can have a family reunion of sorts, what do you say? How about soon?”

Ward looked out at the dregs of slush from a freak early March snowfall. Puget Sound looked icy-grey, mostly empty of activity. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

He kept writing on Saturday or Sunday mornings, sometimes off and on all week-end and except for house chores and a movie here and there with friends plus a couple of drinks, did little else. Ward bought ordinary notebooks on sale and kept pencils handy, ink pens freshly filled and at the ready. And when he walked around his neighborhood or elsewhere he let his barriers down so in flowed that new friendliness of language, its fast or slow meandering a balm, its unadorned frankness a relief. How had he forgotten what he had wanted all those years ago? To be a poet. To let magic flow with its wealth of stimuli, and generous evocations come forward so his world changed on the turn of a simple word, and then a tide of truth and fiction that no one else might decipher opened in him such locked places he was overcome at times by tears. Yes, tears. His ex-wife, his daughter, would not believe such things.

He felt humbled.

The nights, too, continued to shine darkly and sweetly with poetry that sang to him, angels and sirens. They were generous, faithful, without judgment. Full of transformative possibilities.

******

“I can’t believe you came,” his brother, Randy, said as he parked the car by the cabin. “It seems ages since the brothers have gotten together. And maybe Dad will get away. It’s been three years now, right?”

“It has.” Ward hoisted his bag out of the back seat. He turned in a slow semi-circle to take in the green, familiar scene. Spring time in Pennsylvania.

Randy unlocked  the cabin and they entered. Ward pulled open curtains on two sets of windows as Randy took a small bag to his own room. The spacious, open, pine dominated space was musty but neat, the kitchen at back was cramped and out of style. He smiled, ran upstairs to the attic space. To the left were two bedrooms. Straight ahead was the attic room he had tried to reconfigure in his memory for so long. He pushed ajar the door. Pale light thick with agitated dust motes met his entry. There were no curtains on the square windows, only dirty wood blinds half-raised. He wrenched them open to let in a waft of cool air. The built-in desk and bookshelves were homely, mostly devoid of magazines and sturdy volumes.

Ward sat down at the desk. Below, through a thicket of budding bushes and trees, he could see the Harlequin River and hear its voice in its rush of lightness and unruliness. It calmed him now as he heard Randy talk on his phone to Owen or their father. A wave of unease intruded as his brother’s voice rose in an attack of laughter, a blade through the air. Randy, the hunter, the warrior. The youngest who fought for everything. Owen had a different sensibility, finer-tuned, quieter. Owen had convinced him to come. But Owen–no one–knew that Ward already had a plan, that he had looked already at plane fares, that he knew what he wanted to happen.

And here they all soon would meet. Gathering into a circle around that primordial fire, sharing beers, swapping stories and entering strongholds of memories.

******

It had gone well. Everyone was relaxed after two days, felt more reconnected to the land they loved and were more pleased with each other and themselves than expected. They had taken the rowboat and then canoes onto Weller’s Pond and they’d fished for catfish and bass with some small success. Their father had arrived for the last day–he had had an emergency with a prized horse and missed most of the fun–and now they were walking along the Harlequin, talking from time to time.

“It’s so good to have my boys together again!” He was chewing on a drooping piece of wild grass and it bobbed up and down beneath his spare white mustache as he spoke. “We’re coming up to it now, Ward, remember?”

He naturally remembered. This was the swath he had inherited and it was the same one he’d many times enjoyed with Grandpa Greer and others. There were groupings of old silver maple, sycamore and river birches he’d long admired. The river ran slower up here north of the cabin; it was wider and deeper, curved a bit. Behind them was a graceful open meadow, then a good-sized hill which offered higher ground, safe from water breaching the riverbanks as it was likely to do now and again.

“Any reflections to offer?” Owen asked. “I know you and Grandpa Greer loved this area. Me, too. After you took off for college five years ahead of me, I found myself traipsing about with him and Dad more.”

“I’m happy, relieved to be back, for sure.”

He walked to river’s edge and squatted, looked more closely at rocks and sodden earth, swirling patterns of greenish brown water. He stood again and strecthed and was suddenly aware of his six foot two inches which originated from their deceased mother’s side of family. His brothers looked healthy, ruddy cheeked with thickly auburn haired but they were weedy, he thought with a chuckle, slighter of  build. Ward felt like he towered over them and wondered if it had always been so. Even his father looked smaller than he recalled a few short years ago. They looked at him in expectation, as if he was about to say something about the past that would draw them together even more, bridge their various ages, gaps in connection, and old pesky slights. But he didn’t want to just pull out stories as they had at a bonfire the night before.  So he said nothing for a bit.

The brothers and their father murmured among themselves, recollecting good times, glancing over their shoulders at Ward as they jostled each other, and wondered if he was just depressed about the divorce or if there was something else. He had always been a little apart somehow, less free with thoughts yet forceful when ready to talk.

And he studied again the ebb and flow of the river, felt how it was ever made new with rain water and snow melt, how it brought along creatures small and larger, how it eroded and rebuilt common domains of dirt. Ward breathed deeply of it, the potent fertility of plant, air, water, mineral, animal.

“I’m coming back,” he said as he turned to face them. “I’m giving notice when I get back and moving here. I’m going to build a house on the hill”-he pointed at the mound of earth beyond-“and I’m going to do something different with my life.”

The brother stepped closer to one another, as if seeking refuge from such odd  words. Their father stepped forward, hands opening wide.

“You mean here, you’re building here? We have a great family cabin already. You can use it any time, you know that. And what do you mean by ‘giving notice’?”

“I’m quitting the firm. I have other ideas to implement. Building my own house is one of them.”

Owen stirred, eyes lively. “Okay, then what’s next?”

“I’m going to write.”

Randy gave a low nervous twitter.

“Alright, tell us more,” Owen said cautiously.

“Write? You are a lawyer, not a writer…” Their father stood with feet apart, arms crossed before his chest. “I’m sure you’re good with language–but write what? A memoir or something? Oh, wait, a legal thriller, maybe? That makes sense, I guess. And it’s your land, this piece, anyway… But what about Kelsey?”

Ward took his place in a reformed circle. “She’s off to college in the fall, remember? I’ll see her, you can count on that.” He put one arm around Owen’s shoulders, the other about Randy’s. “I feel like a change is necessary. Look, I’m fifty-four. I can leave the field and be okay. I can return if needed, if it doesn’t work out. But I already have contacted a builder and an architect. I have ideas for the design. It won’t mess with our…my… land. Don’t worry. And I want to be closer to family. And I really love to write.”

They exchanged exclamations and ideas as they started back to the cabin. For the most part, the mood was buoyant. Ward believed it could really happen, at last.

Owen pulled him aside as Randy and their father kept on.

“Okay, Ward, what’s up? I agree a woman right now is not the answer. And I love the idea of you being near us, I look forward to hanging out more. But what’s really going on?”

Ward gazed at his middle brother long and hard. “I. Am. Going. To write. In fact, already am.”

“Yeah…but what?”

“Poetry.”

Owen seemed to weave a little as he squinted in the sunshine and then Ward’s hand shot out to grasp his shoulder.

“Poetry, ” his brother repeated, stood up taller and gave a moment of consideration to the possibility his brother had not lost his mind, after all. “Like you talked of doing as a kid, if I recall.”

“Yes.” His hand slipped off Owen’s shoulder as they began to walk again.

Owen took a chest expanding breath and let it out in a soft whistle. “Wow. Alright then. Write your poems. I’ll stand by that. And they will, too, I think.”

Ward shrugged.

They caught  up with Randy and their father. Ward thought the afternoon exceptional, the river music perfectly pitched, trees casting just the right gradations of shade along the path they made. He barely restrained himself from running up to the attic room desk, from diving into a poem that was coming forward with easy urgency, a fine new gift from that ancient, fecund land and from his reawakening mind and soul. And when all was said and done, in no small measure, from family.

Things of Little Consequence

Well, life can be a trial, even seem a travesty as well as a delight and a noble undertaking. And I would rather be writing a decent and thoughtful nonfiction post than recovering from the latest meddling with health. Some of you readers may recall that in the last month or so, I’ve had some heart issues reappear for awhile. Then last week I had a fairly common oral surgery, more like a fancy extraction ending with silk (!) stitches. And just as pain diminished and better energy returned, wham! Vertigo. If you haven’t experienced vertigo (unlike the feeling when surveying city or landscape from a high peak or balcony; that dissipates as you pull back), count your blessings. If you have, you get it right off. The ungodly spinning and/or sense of sudden and severe dislocation, the stumbling or falling about and surges of nausea. It’s caused me enough consternation the past twenty years.

This time it took a trip by ambulance to the hospital to clarify if it was vertigo or possible stroke, as I had trouble speaking and moving for a bit and could not–would not–open my eyes. Thankfully, “only” a rotten episode of the former. It gets embarrassing to experience such weird events, but the fact is, I seem prone to a small host of scrappy issues, most of which are never written of and only a very few that can be serious. Vertigo, even managed, is tiring, a moment-by-moment challenge when it resurfaces. Luckily, good medicines help tremendously. And physical therapy. But all that is a medical foray I will not take now. This isn’t even supposed to be about vertigo, but how I have been trying to cheer myself up…

As I lie about I strive to look forward to more peaceful, healthy times. To envision greater strength and courage. To gather fortitude while cheerfully live “life on life’s terms.” Yes, rise above, be of good heart, I tell myself, it could be so much worse–and this does work more each time I say it and brainstorm options that can create happier experiences. (Even during these difficult days and nights in my country.)

First, I began to recall that spring really does come after winter. That makes all the difference to me as I watch rain pummel concrete and sodden earth and hear news of landslides and flooding which is not very unusual in our neck of the woods. But spring opens up life like a surprise series of gifts and that is certainly worth waiting for. As I continued in this vein, I recalled the many activities I enjoy or would like to enjoy and slowly I began to feel some better. It can be hard to catch tantalizing beams of light amid a current gloom, as we all know.

Now I need to catch a break on the sofa again. The following older post must stand in for a better new one today. It’s about a handful of quite ordinary things I well enjoy. I hope you find something here–sharing what I fancy just may stir your mind so you can start or add to your list. I’d love to hear about your favorite activities; I can use all the inspiration you’re willing to share. Thanks, all, and I’ll be back again as soon as I manage a more clarified head/heart with minimal spinning. I have hope!

Tales for Life

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Someone asked me recently what my hobbies are. That gave me pause. I enjoy so many things, hobbies or not, so where to begin? But I answered: “Thinking might be number one…” She laughed incredulously, not understanding who I was and what I meant.

I spend a significant amount of time each day thinking. Not that I am unique in this. We think without even realizing it, surfing the brain for memories, connections between disparate matters, solutions to challenging problems, the causes and effects of feelings and events. Afterall, we are curious creatures made for verbal activities, outfitted with and guided by words that identify, inform, clarify, embroider and precisely define. So it is logical that even stream of consciousness bouts of verbalizing preoccupy us. And for writers of any stripe, words, whether given internal or external form, are tools that enable transportation to a world of characters, places and…

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Friday’s Quick Picks: Columbia River Sternwheeler Cruise

 

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I was looking though photo files today while recovering from oral surgery. I don’t have many words to offer but want to share a few happy moments. My family and I–various combinations of adult children as well as siblings (often with partners), and grandchildren –have several times enjoyed a sternwheeler cruise along Oregon’s famous Columbia River, right through the majestic Columbia Gorge. It’s a great way to get together with family or friends and the views never fail to satisfy.

I am so fortunate to live among outstanding rivers and mountains (and ocean to the west, high desert to the east) and hope to show you more lovely places as the weather moves from an unusual winter of icy cold to more temperate times again.Spring can’t be all that far away…we usually have flowers by now!

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy the river trip!

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Sharing a Life…and a Desk, Table and Lamp

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One of the basic skills we are taught at a young age is sharing. But I’m still learning, sometimes the hard way, to share. I am lately up against a “I want but he wants” dilemma in my home. I tell myself I ought to have greater adaptability. Even generally believe I do possess this attribute. But it is tested and I find it lacking. It is all about furniture, old versus newer, lighter versus darker. The look and feel of things. I recall how often and well I have compromised and shared throughout my life in order to gain better perspective.

I was raised in a family of seven, primarily in a not-too-large, two-storey, bungalow type house. Five kids shared two of the three bedrooms; for a brief time two sisters filled a double bed. And we all shared noise, food, information even if meant to be private, clothing, parental attention, musical instruments, pets, the tree swing, weekly chores, space on sofa and loveseat. And so on.

For example, it was routine to have to wait in line for the bathroom. I often sat on the top step of the stairway for that door to my immediate left to open. Often a long time, accompanied by moderate wailing toward the occupant to hurry it up. Then I dashed in before a bedroom door on the second floor cracked open, when a bigger sibling (all bigger as I was youngest) pushed me aside, yelling, “Dibs!” Same for showers and baths, of course. The parents were first, usually, and then it descended in birth order or importance of daily schedules. If there was any hot water left at the end of the line, you were incredibly lucky. I have a recollection of sharing bath water a few times as a small child, for that very reason–there was no more hot water to be had. My dad started to time bathing to ten minutes max. Complaining didn’t help a bit either way. I had to be savvier and faster to be close to front of line-up. More often than not I accepted things. But I was a bit envious of friends whose homes had two or even three bathrooms. It was not middle class fashion then to reside in such spacious homes, a bathroom on every floor, or more.

There was enough food, fortunately though we could act as if there wasn’t. Serving dishes were passed around as we helped ourselves, mindful of serving size. Still, someone might sneak an extra slice of meat or scoop of potatoes. Dessert was hardest; a pie or cake can only be cut into so many pieces and still be worth savoring. A half gallon of ice cream was emptied pronto. But we did understand all had to be divided by seven; we had to share. Except sometimes for my sister, who loved food greatly. She somehow managed to snag extra food and then made me hide it in my napkin to later give up to her. This kept her out of trouble.  My mother, if she caught me, was not to mad at me as I was often picky about food. But sometimes it seemed I deserved the “extra” just for hiding it. That sort of forced sharing did not end well. My sis saw it as theft, deserving of due punishment.

Sharing time and opportunity to practice violin, cello, bassoon, clarinet and/or piano was much harder. The living room and the den was often reserved for private students of our father’s. We sometimes had to use our bedrooms; other times, the recreation room finally created in the darker, somewhat dank basement. Or go to the back yard. We did have schedules to deal with musical pandemonium. We also practiced at school. But music was always playing or being played and we also simply adapted to the sound, even as we hoped for more quiet.

The beige telephone affixed to kitchen wall was another matter of “share and share alike”. It rang constantly for our parents and us. The long curly cord was stretched to its limit as we wound it around corners, behind closed doors. We had to call “dibs” again for its use but often just met up with friends or love interests to talk face-to face–it was easier than waiting for the darned phone. Or we waited until school or an event where we could see each other.

The entire point being: sharing wasn’t and isn’t so hard. It can be annoying but is expected, even natural coexisting in a group. Communal living needs rules for the good of the whole; that’s how families and neighborhoods work and play best.

All this history is a long lead-in to my current situation. I want it clear I was trained correctly in the behavior of sharing. After all, simple courtesy works for social betterment. I was taught to extend an attitude of sharing, to defer to others if they were older, slower, younger, injured. There were also cases that one was to defer gratification on all counts. Say, the case of entering through doors: it might be a matter of two people arriving at once. The correct thing to do is offer the other person first entry.

My situation is not as simple, but requires not so different a sharing guideline. It has to do with furniture… really, it is about family matters. I try to share and share alike, to respond from strength of love, not personal preferences, base selfishness or greed. And I misstep plenty–but that is the marriage deal, to cooperate. And it’s just…furniture… right?

My mother-in-law, about whom I truly care, is in the process of changing home bases. To that end, she is sorting and tossing her belongings and she divided a few good items between two sons with old photographs and various mementos tossed in. She informed us a couple months ago she was shipping two pieces of furniture from Florida to Oregon; there was also a lamp. I was surprised she would go to such trouble but Marc, my husband, was ready and waiting.

“They’re really here!” he exclaimed.

This was the happy response upon returning home after a long work day. I’d left three immense boxes at the lower level. He lugged and pushed them up the stairs to our apartment, was huffing and puffing and yet would not stop until all pieces were unboxed–tall piles of packing materials littering the floor–and displayed in our living room.

I, too, suddenly recognized the pieces–and immediately considered their heavy shapes and darker wood, how much room they took up, how they didn’t conform to the rest of our furniture. The pieces we have are lighter wood, oak and pine, simple clean lines. The new arrivals are walnut, cherry, and something uncertain and also darker. The lamp? Well, that was a whole other story.

“From Bay View!” he enthused.

He circled them, examined each piece, put together the secretary and the rest, eyes wide, his face enlivened by warmth of joy. He was transported back, so many years back, to the white Victorian summer home his grandparents owned in northern Michigan, right off a beautiful Lake Michigan bay. Little Traverse Bay. Bay View was established in 1875 as part of a Methodist camp meeting site as well as the U.S. Chautauqua  movement for education and the arts. And it was a part of his family legacy, including these pieces his mother shipped. And so, a part of him.

Oval lamp table (in severe need of refinishing) with ornate lamp is soon pushed against the far end (drawing attention to the blasted mid-century paneling) of the living room. The elegant secretary is pressed against another wall near the front door. Ah, yes, Bay View is present in our own place.

I knew his Grandma Susie well (Grandfather was long passed when I joined them). I thought of her as a fearsome dowager until I knew her better. She welcomed me into her life, shared genuine good will and sternness in equal measure. A teacher, she had summers off. Her daughter, Beth (mother-in-law was also a teacher), Marc and his brother remained there most of each summer. There, my husband learned much of what he considered important–about family ties, sailing, taking art classes and enjoying classical concerts via a college-run arts program, camping, swimming, being a volleyball and badminton team player. Making close friends. Building and cooking over beach fires. Sneaking out at night–the enclave held 440 cottages and people reside there only in summer– and having fun. He felt this summer life, this family life, had helped mold him in the best way. I was inclined to agree, understood the mystique of northern Michigan.

The two story house with graceful yard and towering trees was enchanting. The interior was informed by streaming light and vaporous shadow. Not a huge, fancy house yet true to architectural type, it had two porches and much gingerbread trim, and inside were nooks and crannies our children also soon enjoyed. There were narrow back stairs off the kitchen, and secret hideaways in closets, a screened side porch, quaint cozy bedrooms. The furniture and decorative touches reflected older times and customs.

The lamp we unwrap was always called a Tiffany lamp but Marc is sure it isn’t a real one but made in the style. He recalls his grandmother having its metal work painted a cream color one year; he said he was disappointed and missed the original brass. As do I. But there it sits after he cleans it up a bit, in our living room corner, on a sturdy table that is do in need of help. Part of me balks just glancing at the ensemble here, so out of place. So I watch him examine the old desk–it has a piano-type lid that lifts up to open. He checks each narrow drawer and shelf in the Federalist secretary, pulls out and sits at the writing surface. The walnut and cherry fairly glow. I readily admire it, too.

The memories attached to this furniture are powerful, happy ones. For us both. But none of it fits in our home.

My eyes rest on our old oak dining room table beyond, then the hand crafted oak and tile lamp tables between chairs and by sofa. There is a mishmash, I admit, and the pieces aren’t precious but have been our casual taste for years. Found pieces as well as searched for and bought. Things work together just fine. My resistance returns, grows stronger.

“Maybe they will fit in the second bedroom,” I suggest. “You can use the secretary for your own writing or business.” I half covet this piece for its interesting features.

“I don’t know, I’ll have to rearrange things in there.”

“We could just…store them.”

“Hmm,” he says.

He turns in his hands a hand carved horse  with rider and a wolf his great uncle once fashioned. And a tall ship model. I take a look at that.

“We might get rid of this filthy ship, for one.”

“No, not that, it just needs a good dusting, cleaning. Look at these sails! I loves boats and ships, you know.”

“I love this furniture…” he says. He hums to himself as he sorts things.

I take a deep breath and offer my thoughts. “I really don’t want it in here for long. It doesn’t match anything! But… just for now. It will take awhile to figure out what to do with them.”

It’s still hard to say much as he’s clearly enjoying his mother’s offerings. I mainly want my living room back so start to clean up packaging. But I say nothing more for a few days.

I purchase new light bulbs for the ornate lamp. There are a couple of old side chairs I notice have a darker finish so I gather and place those by the desk. I realize the cabinet that upholds the stereo is also darker…Well, the room definitely has a two-toned look now. I am distracted and even bothered whenever I enter but let it be.

One early evening after placing beneath it a lace dust cloth that was sent with, I turn the lamp on. Rich blue glass wedges behind the metalwork illuminates beautifully. It’s a scene of a turquoise lake, with sunset or sunrise of peach, ivory, rose and gold. The metalwork is of trees and bushes. I feel an appreciation for the archaic loveliness. I wouldn’t ever buy it and still am not comfortable with it here. But it’s oddness nearly attracts me.

Marc is thrilled to see it all lit up, so I turn it before he comes home from work each night. His stance visibly relaxes as he eyes the furniture his mother and grandmother passed on to him.

I enjoy purging excess material items and don’t like much clutter. He is a hunter and gather of  things, some of which I can’t relate to, at all. And what he ascribes value to, he will keep a very long time. Sometimes it can become a contentious matter. But this time I feel myself relenting.

Bay View as a home was so meaningful to him. And I understand the love of his grandparents and his mother, now 89, even though he doesn’t speak at length about the past, nor are we able to see his mother much. I have been with this man a long time; I know much of what it all means. That span of time spent summering at the Bay View house is a hallowed thing in his memory, in his deep and tenderest heart it helped shape him into who he is. It also contributed to enduring happiness for myself and our children. I am filled with gratitude for those visits.

I think, too, about Beth, how she chose these things for her son. About it being taxing, even sad, to have to sift through so much life and revisit the past. To have to address such changes and an uncertain future. We hope to visit her soon and help.

So this is what I mean about the many ways we learn to share. My failures and ineptitude, at times. It’s something we’re taught for good reason. It makes room for others’ needs and wants. It offers opportunity where there may have been none before. Sharing is an action we take for those we love on a more critical level. We’re in the same home, occupy a life together. I am certain there are items of mine my husband could well do without, too. But we make room for one another.

I take a couple pictures to study, view the pieces from different angles, in daylight and lamp light. They aren’t all that hard on the eyes, I guess, despite being so unlike the feel of our rooms. I don’t know what will ultimately happen with three gifted items that were not here for years. But for now they stay, and will gradually make themselves at home with us, no doubt.

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Bay View lamp, desk, Marc and me