In a High Green Place (for Those Who’ve Perished)

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Lay me down in a high green place
along a serpentine river to see
sun ride day into night, and
furred and feathered ones gathered as
clouds drift, stars ignite, wind hums.
Let limbs of trees bow deep into
clover, sway in acres of
grassy shimmy and ripple.
Then I will know earth can yet
live and breathe clean.

Let evening speak of honorable ways
and daybreak reveal more gifts divine.
May wild things mingle on land
for all who come to seek, find, pause,
with more arriving and those now done.
Voices here are full call and response,
rumbling deep where silence reigns.

Visitors will release their truths
of late confessions and longings,
hoping for bridges to our migrant souls.
But death and forgiveness rearrange everything.
We no longer know what harnesses hate;
nothing remains of schemes that bound us.

Just lay me down in a cradle of peace
where spirit’s embrace is welcome, safe
and light embraces fleet shadow
and twilight makes tender all loss.
Rites of passage leave no mark
that cannot be transformed beyond.
All life merges with water, earth, air.
We loosen from needs that tether
love to grief and drift on a course
where nothing follows everything.

So lay us down easy in a mountain
valley watched by Eye of God,
where water runs its natural race
and wind blows bright on wing and leaf
and tears fail to flood mother soil
and the soul is a poem filling its sails
on a river that flows up to far away skyscapes.
Lay us down in green fire of summer to rest.

Behold What the Eye Can See

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It happens to me often and here it was again as we moved through the scenery. Beguilement.

Expansive views of the acreage of Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate (built in 1895 and owned by the George Vanderbilt family known for their shipping and railroad empires) are majestic and bucolic. They thrill the eye, the sweeping views evocative of tranquil order, supported by nature and hidden human industry. I absorbed each vista with breathless anticipation of the next bend we would round. It wasn’t so much being impressed by the property as being impacted by the changing scenes. Each bigger picture was mesmerizing in breadth and scope. I could have looked and looked and never been satiated. Such plenitude of detail that at moments I could hardly absorb it all. Even withstand it. That’s just how it is for me. I’m certain it’s the same for others, especially those who have a passion to observe, to know more intimately what they see.

Not that it was overwhelming in a deleterious way. The copious beauty was varied and intense. There is something within me that, though filling up to overflowing expands further for more. I feel hunger for it all, want it imprinted within. And to partake of any wisdom moving beneath the robust and delicate scenes. For what my eyes see, ears hear–they teach me things. Our senses are gifts, conduits to greater understandings, not just of a moment but of complex universal designs. I follow my eye and instincts to discover an abundance of intrigue.

But I need to dismantle it a little. I take camera in hand and as all who love visual arts, focus on separate tableaus with their telltale clues, delights. Eye/mind/soul zero in on minute parts, look into shadows. Seek one cloud’s shape within greater configurations. Each piece is cohesive in its specificity, sometimes even more so than the extended view. They all have value; I am drawn in by a propulsive curiosity. I want to see well the exterior but also find an interior liveliness that is like a secret. It’s a treasure hunt for mind and senses. Any moment can harbor possibility and that is the real magnet that draws me. I can define an object before me , but what does it mean? How did/does it function in space and time? What matters or mattered about it within a garden, in a room, a life?

This is what attracts me in daily living: about everything. Put another way, what exists in this present can well hold my attention, but what has captivating potential–and everything does–is a series of magic doors I seek to open. If a glimpse offers a story, even a tiny one, I have been granted access to a journey that leads to challenges, a certain enchantment and most often, fulfillment. I can’t really lose. All of life is a story within another story within another, like Russian nesting dolls or better yet, a puzzle that is partially solved while added to over time.

I used to pretend being a reporter when I was a kid. I sat at a child-sized roll top desk with cubbyholes, took notes of various household and neighborhood goings on, filed them away in their slots and  folders. Diaries to detail more thoughts and experiences were required. I wrote and produced plays with neighborhood buddies and tried in vain to charge admission. We attempted full make up and ragtag costumes and hung a sheet for a curtain. We had decent turnouts. And then there would be a brief song on the radio which evoked extemporaneous movements–lo, a dance unleashing its tale. There was always something to hear, see, smell, taste, touch–and to read! and a cohort to do things with!– that jogged an expressive impulse. Take the navy, wide brimmed hat with sheer white and pink flowers at the ribbon my mother made with her own hands. It settled onto her silvery hair. It had presence all its own as she wore it; it did things with her. Another story idea.

Let’s take dolls as inspiration. Owning some of the first Barbie dolls was a blast.  I became stage manager and director of their adventures. I’d get the big square floor pillow–brown corduroy–and then cover a matchbox with a handkerchief for a couch or bed, bring in rocks, twigs and grass for a yard, sneak my mother’s fancy scarves to create exotic wardrobes and floor covering. The finishing touches were always changing but each mattered in that moment.  (I know, it’s not PC these days to say I enjoyed playing with Barbie and gang. She did not do dishes and Ken did not mow lawns. It’d now likely be demoted to mere play therapy as well, sadly.) Barbie et al and I got all sorts of events going; those dolls unlocked ideas and enlarged experiences like crazy. They led lives with fine sensibilities but had a talent for spontaneous fun. Or I should say it seemed they did but I was the supposed director.

It took very little to have a good time. From seemingly nothing could come anything at all. A sunny spot by or even under the scarred baby grand piano was a world to be reckoned with, mine to develop and claim. A starry night and a blanket. A cozy camp out within evergreens.

The back yard, with its shade trees and pines and bushes made a great stage but so did various living rooms and bedrooms, a porch or park or back steps. I didn’t even have to make much up, though. Tall tales unfolded all around me as life was textured and colored with people, places, events. I was charmed and mystified by myriad scenes, found them dramatically provocative of ideas and emotions. There still might arise an urge to embroider it–seeing an abandoned plaid, overstuffed chair or a cafe umbrella shading a person at a table whose single booted foot and “talking” hand were seen. Something had already happened, was happening or was about to happen. And I wanted to know, even if I had to fill in the gaps.

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This capacity for probing with problem solving–the urge to learn–is an attribute we all enjoy. It has been a powerful driving force in my everyday life. And because of this, I am never bored. Entertainment is within reach at any given time. There is endless mystery. I am duly humbled by how little I yet know and understand and experience a thrill from ongoing explorations. Even the momentary, least noteworthy ones. Or perhaps those are the best, at times.

It’s all in the details, that was what I was thinking on my power walk today. Walks are interrupted frequently as I pause to examine something. I spot a teal green gate at the side of a rambling house and above it is a heavily leafed branch; amber light is streaming through treetops. There is a soft splash, cat’s whiny meow, breath of wind. Leaves on trees shimmy, almost singing. How all this transfixes me… there is a sense of prescience. But of what? Of life happening and about to happen. Of  intricate connections, from behemoth tree to blades of grass to wooden gate to all creatures to crown of sky and beyond and to this moment. I am flabbergasted by the wonder of it. It is an intimate place in which we live and learn.

I am not naive. I have not lived a breezy, protected life. Surely no one truly does, for so much of what we do and hope for is a grab bag, like it or not. The very beauty that we need to love can hurt beyond measure when we’re vulnerable or anguished. As a young teen I still recall a moment when I experienced the unbounded extraordinariness of just being alive yet also felt  bereft. I stretched my arms around a favorite oak tree and wept. Later I wrote a poem, a terribly adolescent poem, and there is a line that’s stayed with me over 60 years: and yet beauty bites the bleeding heart. I loved so much and easily and still was rent by life’s bitter parts. As we each are.

But nothing is wasted in life; we experience it and let it go or keep it close, even recycle it sooner or later. We reinvent ourselves any way we can and need to do. It is our story to make happen. There is much to be unveiled as breath enters, nourishes microscopic cells, exits the miraculous lungs; while this fist sized muscle of heart beats its tireless rhythms for me. So I listen and watch, reach out, seek more. Wonder visits me like a loving old friend and we root out bits and clues, celebrate even when I get worn out and crabby. I do not want to be careless with the  bounties offered, nor dismiss the grace of moments I am allowed to inhabit. Big picture or small, the scenes of life are ours to unveil.

My visit to the Biltmore Estate gave me a renewed appreciation of my life situation, the assortment of whims, choices, dreams and labors. I left with a more vivid view of settings and circumstances within which the Vanderbilts conducted parts of their lives. The estate might have fleshed out the family more with traces of their individuality, remnants of yearnings. (George man loved books, that was encouraging, and hopefully the women did, as well. ) A visible legacy other than only wealth, with signs of daily interactions, musings and matters of the heart that roiled, pacified and beguiled–those underpinning and perhaps secreted away from such power and industry. I have more investigating to undertake. But I couldn’t help but think of them traversing the stone steps, gliding across endless rooms, seeking solace or joy in the gardens as they spoke in hushed tones. Can we have Act 1 outlined and set up, please?

Then again, maybe I will move on to fleeting moments of lives being lived, scenarios created this very second. Wait, see how the summer light moves across the grass and street? All it takes is observation plus a dash of imagination, same as it did as a kid.

The El Camino of My Life

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

If it hadn’t been for the El Camino, my life would have been another life altogether. But you know how it is, you’re walking down the street, mind emptied with each brisk step, air a golden glow and birds flocking and boom, there you are, face-to-face with something beautiful. I spotted it half a block away and my mouth hung open every step to that corner.

A fascination with cars was sown and tended in my childhood. I sat on our uneven brick porch steps noting different colors of passing vehicles and the makes and models and years. My brothers did it so I did, too, to avoid being left out. It evolved into a competition, a guessing game. It gave me more status, a little sister who could name cars before they were even close to passing by. Darren had a rusty black Ford truck that should have been towed to the dump but it was his first set of wheels and therefore like a pet he fawned over. Les and I were too young to drive yet. I drove late. After Les’ accident I almost didn’t dare drive, period, but he got out of the hospital and healed up and was soon instructing me on basics which I knew anyway from riding with them and being given a few chances to drive in the country. The mechanics also fascinated me but I had to push my way between the boys and Dad to get under the hood to soak up even a little knowledge.

I was almost eighteen before I got my license and then Les and Darren and our parents were sorry. My gas pedal foot liked to punch hard and my favorite activity was heading out to dirt country roads to let it all out. I had to take my turn with Les’ smooth riding green Pontiac Le Mans; it was pretty nice. But I preferred anything that mimicked a race car or souped-up trucks. Or an El Camino. It was part truck, part car; it was useful but it was sleek. Two seats like faster beasts often had. It wasn’t fancy but it had real class of its own.

It was not the usual in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s for females to have a thing for cars, only celebrity race car drivers. Darren and Les were first amused then proud of me, Carla, for doing well in various spontaneous races, for often being able to diagnose knocks and squeals. Only Les knew I longed to be a race car driver and I swore him to secrecy as if my brothers didn’t suspect that already, but we both knew that this was out of reach. By twenty-one my path had taken a wide turn and I was soon graduating with honors from an area college. I had been thinking that if I worked for a year I could move out like my brothers had before me. Well, Darren got drafted for the Army after one year of his own college plan. But Les had his sleek shoe box of an apartment on Fifth and Heinz and worked at a big auto parts store just as he hoped as a kid. He’d planned on becoming manager in two years and he was.

But I was going to teach sixth grade. It was practical and secure, I got along with older children and loved learning so hoped to impart that to them. And it took imagination which I longed to use more fully. You might say I settled for teaching although I chose to do it. My parents were proud of me, always introduced me as “our Carla, a sixth grade teacher–isn’t that smart and a bit brave of her?”

And so the years passed, ten to be exact. I had a knack with preadolescents and was good at teaching. But not with long-term relationships. I had an allergy to housewifery, all that polishing, buying new linens that matched wallpaper and whipping up fancy dishes to please others and all that after working all day. I just didn’t have it in me. My idea of labor plus fun was swimming in the river as soon as I wouldn’t die of hypothermia, playing a hard game of tennis, hiking and camping. Reading as much as possible and travel. Though men naturally liked those things they wanted all that in a woman and the compliant homebody. I flat-out gave up after numerous trials and errors.

When I complained, Les shook his head in defeat; he’d tried to fix me up on blind dates that went nowhere.

“You’re too much. Maybe it’s that you think too much”

I eyed him with a frown. “Meaning?”

“You’re smart, athletic and independent. Okay, cute is part of it but then you think all the time. You broke out of the time honored mold.”

“Les, this isn’t the early twentieth century! Bras have been burned or at least loosed and women are rising up if you didn’t notice. Sheesh.”

“Sure, but it takes time to change things.”

“Another century or two? Men are that slow?”

I gently punched his shoulder for emphasis; he gave me a testy look but refrained from retorting. He knew what I meant and vice versa. My brother was a great guy and also had found an excellent girlfriend. But I had thrown in the towel.

One afternoon I was walking in my leafy neighborhood where I’d managed to rent a duplex in a spacious bungalow. I was often scraping by but it was worth the quiet, wide streets; arching mature trees; and better security and serenity of an established family neighborhood. I admired many divine houses as usual and was peering into treetops at squirrel mayhem when a downward sweep of my vision registered a vehicle. Shiny, deep blue, shaped like my old dream car.

An El Camino, parked right in front of my place.

I hurried to get a closer look at it. A 1970 or 1971, I thought, and the paint job was impeccable,  vinyl interior slick and spotless, a four speed. The chrome glinted at me. I wondered what that V8 could do.

Across the way a door opened, releasing booming voices, quick laughter. My lawyer neighbors always had someone coming and going; they were the noisiest ones during summer week-ends and always friendly. I had accepted a couple of invitations to attend a gathering in their endless and sumptuous back yard. I’d in fact been considering if I had something decent to wear when attending one that night.

A man of trim build and black shaggy hair rushed down the stone steps, then slowed as he spotted me ogling his car. He opened his arms to indicate the wonder of his fine machine like a proud parent.

“A beaut, right?”

I stepped back instinctively; mustn’t breathe on it too hard. “Quite attractive sitting at my curb. A favorite of mine, actually.”

He looked at me then. “You like cars?”

“I do. I always wanted an El Camino.”

“Excellent taste we both have. What do you drive?”

I inclined my head toward my car in the driveway. “That scarred red Chevelle.”

He opened the driver’s door, rested a foot on the frame and beamed at me across a gleaming roof. “I’m Marty Grant–and you are?”

The smile unnerved me a smidgen, teeth all lined up perfectly, crinkly blue eyes lit up. Danger sign already, too much good looks. But his car was a far finer sight to behold.

“Carla Saunders.”

“I have to do errands for my aunt and uncle but I’ll be around. I’m a nephew of Tom and Jeannie Trimley, here for a visit.”

“Me, too, be around that is, since I live here.”

His short chuckle was refreshing. “Okay, later, Carla.”

I felt frozen to the ground as he took off. It was breathtaking to see that navy blue, no it was a sapphire El Camino in motion, to hear its well tuned roar. I wanted to be inside, behind that wheel.

******

Of course I knew he’d be there but I went because that was my loose plan, anyway. The Trimleys were having their first real summer soiree, as Jeannie said with high arched brows aflutter. She was funny and whip smart and a natural hostess, and her husband cooked up a storm in their out door kitchen. I was frankly a bit envious of their life so was all in before I met the owner of The Car.

It was after seven when I entered the back yard through a tall ironwork gate. There was enough booze and bodies to constitute a jovial crowd in the making. I waved at Thomas Trimley as he glanced about and he lifted a wine glass toward me is greeting, then I wriggled fingers at two or three others I recognized from the blocks. I wasn’t so much a part of the “in gang” as a respectable addendum, an add-on who, due to my age, occupation and I guessed my general civility (little did they know). I had met a couple of students’ parents at one of the parties and it was a challenge to be my real self while learning more about them rather than act like it was a PTA meeting. It had turned out moderately well so far.

I got a soda and cruised small groups of the minglers.

“I noticed you talking to my nephew out there at the curb. That car, he’s just nuts about it, he’d rather own that than a good apartment.”

I took in Jeannie’s yellow and purple flowered sundress as it floated about her. Her earrings had tiny bells, tinkling each time her head moved. I’d worn white slacks with a peasant-style coral top and called it good. Jeannie had also studied law, too, she’d told me once, then had three children fast. She was such a buoyant woman.

“He saw me looking at it but didn’t seem to mind.”

“Oh, Marty enjoys the admiration. He has a passion for car restoration but drives like a madman. Do not get into any car with him! But I can vouch for his honor–he’s a good boy, my sister’s only son, if a bit spoiled. He’s visiting this summer a short time before he takes off to get a PhD. in philosophy, of all things, he was meant to be an engineer at least or so saith his father.”

She shrugged as if it meant little to her in the end, Marty was her beloved nephew.

“Telling my secrets, Auntie?” Marty pecked her on the cheek and nodded at me. “You came to drool over my car again, I see.”

“And to eat great food. But you’re quite right though it shows better in sunlight. How long have you had it?”

“I’ll leave you to it, see you at meal time!” Jeannie wafted along on a soft breeze, melted into a thickening crowd.

Marty took a swig of root beer before answering. “Let’s see, about three, four years ago. I’m ready to sell it, then attend to a fine but creaky MG GBT. Interested?”

A young woman sidled up to him, shook his elbow. “Marty, are you really going to Germany to study philosophy? How stupendous of you.”

“Sara! Yes, off in search of wisdom.”

Sara widened her eyes in astonishment, fluttered impossibly thick and false eyelashes and sauntered off with a damaging sway. Marty shook his head.

“When can I drive it?” I asked him. No risk, no gain.

Marty looked around at the crowd. “How about now?”

That was all it took, I asked and he assented, to my utter surprise.

He got in the passenger’s side. I put it in gear and drove it eight miles out to the Needle, a pointy land mass that overlooked the river. I knew those country roads like the lines on my palms. Hugging those curves was nothing. The El Camino clung to them them all, responded with a surge of power at a touch, took the ascents and descents with nary a pause. It was a well tuned dream of a car and we both knew it was worth whatever he’d ask for it. I parked it and hopped out with a yelp made of adrenaline, then scanned the sunset sky.

“That was cool. I never knew a woman who took so easily to cars, was so in charge. Why is that?”

“Short version is that I had brothers and a dad who loved them, too. But I think my passion rivaled theirs. I wanted to do more with cars…Now I teach fascinating, rowdy kids. No time for such daydreams, at least not now.”

I turned toward him. His neck was craned so that he could see the stars. They struck me as crystals from another dimension, displayed on multi-colored silk.

“You wanted to race, I imagine,” he murmured. “Me, too. But I also like to just ponder, know what I mean? It isn’t all about machines and money, exactly.”

I didn’t answer. We were at the edge of a narrow piece of land, I felt a little stunned as we became absorbed by celestial unfoldings upon night’s onset. And that very moment I could smell his faint fragrance, a mixture of musk, pine, light sweat–and was that the car, gasoline or oil? I could feel my muscles and bones, strange to say, but I’d just raced an El Camino up to the Needle and everything in me felt strong, powerful, right on target.

Marty slipped an arm about my shoulders companionably and I leaned in just enough.

“Look, the North star and is that Cassiopeia?” I said as I pointed.

“Wonder what the sky will look like in Heidelberg this autumn…”

“Well, study star maps along with Erich Fromm or Hannah Arendt or Hildegard von Bingen. Or even Schopenhauer, if you must–that terribly pessimistic viewpoint.”

It seemed Marty laughed silently. Then he took a mighty breath, let it out slowly as if all that air was rarefied nourishment. I could feel his ribs move up and down beside mine and then they pressed against me,  and his hip, too, and there it was, that sparkler of a charge that was half body, half soul. It skipped from brain to brain, heart to heart, hip to hip.

This man, this woman. I closed my eyes.

“I could do that…and then come back with something good, maybe with a BMW 507. Oh wow, wouldn’t that be amazing?”

Eyes open again, I leaned into him a little. “That would be far more than even that.”

That was all it took. That brief interchange. That’s how I came to own a vintage BMW 507, among a few other classics, along with Marty. We take it out for a good spin every weekend here in Heidelberg and a bit beyond, even more now that we’re retired. But an ebony 1974 El Camino belongs strictly to me.

 

Heat and Thunder

NC Day 3 012
Photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

This is a place where sky strives to
overcome water and aged rust of earth
deepens, decorates shoreline
like copper on bare skin. It rumbles
into sinew and bones. Peepers clamor, chorus.
Dusk is well laden with primal scent of
rock, teeming lake, the sponge of heat.
Day departs on vibrations of thunder.

I remember this canopy of tension,
and how royal summer sun leaves
its marks on flesh and mind,
a deep etching of my bloodline.
Sweat was evidence of industry,
nature’s work and our play, and it
leaked rivulets, gathered as bright beads.
We consented to heat’s demands or fell
into shadowed space, the breezeway.
Coolness swirled as we watched our mother
and a searing iron smooth cotton into fine art.

I know this heat’s oppression, it’s random release.
This place, discharging its cloying essence,
perhaps unforgiving, bound up
in a rapture of prayer, grief, laughter.
Being Southern was our way, a study in
drowsiness, easy talk, dignity and dreaming.
Din of cicadas and bullfrogs background songs,
and peaches so fat with sweetness they
dropped themselves into our hands.

See there: a spear of lightning charges a spot
that is unknown to me but I do yet feel it,
a sizzling clean flash that makes no wound.
Quaking clouds that can turn into killing force
now seem a surprise of reassurance.
This damp red earth cools like my blood,
and light flings its beauty over water’s body,
adornment like silk, a slow dance  of
ardent adieus, night secrets trailing me.

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Bravehearts, One and All

Photo: Man on balcony of Biltmore Estate by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of bravery. It intrigues and impresses me. I haven’t looked up the definition since elementary school, but I’m confident of its core meaning. It is generally equated with being willing to face and cope with unseen or unwanted challenges, to persist in holding steady or going forward despite strictures, opposition or hardship. It is about nurturing hope despite a current reality that serves to quash hope. Bravery involves finding reserves of strength though feeling weak, harnessing courage in presence of fear, and taking meaningful risks when one might be cautioned otherwise. It is standing up, stepping out, going forth because one must. Or one determines it more desirable. To do otherwise would be harder to live with even if there is reasonable chance of failure. Bravery calls for a deep moral fortitude, for a tensile mind and will.

Often it seems we don’t even know we possess these until we need to use them. They come to us at our command or perhaps with assistance. Surprised, we revel in new prowess it can afford us.

Then again, I may be kidding myself. How much do I know about the need of truly mighty bravery? It’s true I’ve had diverse experiences through which to assess such qualities in people, either first or second hand. But neither do they include the full spectrum of circumstances by which people develop then utilize an almost mythic bravery. I am not a trauma nurse or doctor, disaster aid worker, war veterans’ services provider–those who surely see this firsthand. But I am a retired alcohol/drug and mental health counselor. And I have been witness to a lot of true stories that caused my heart and spirit to lurch and weep and experience great joy for lives lost and found again.

But I don’t have to go to work to see lives being lived despite many perils. There are examples of this even on streets I traverse, places I go.

For months homeless men have made their shelter in a cement entryway of a nearby church. The doors remain locked but this area is free to use. In bone chill of rainy winter they huddled deep into worn sleeping bags or tattered blankets. Sometimes a radio could be heard. Sometimes they’d be talking with one another–perhaps two or three as if there was a limit–or sharing a hot or cold drink. As the seasons morphed into warmer days and nights, they’ve been there less. But mostly they are there, belongings piled up on carts or in plastic bags. They–or others–rummage in our garbage for salvageable food or cans and bottles to turn in. And when it’s a decent day for one reason or another or weather is more amenable, off they go. I rarely have seen them arrive or leave; they just are there and not there. They, like thousands more, live a nomadic life in our city. They are tough or get toughened in every way to just go on living.

They are brave urban street survivors. They endure so much of what we will not ever have to, if we enjoy better fortune. By that I mean we have adequate income to cover our needs, adequate care and medicines to help treat illnesses of all sorts, none of a variety of addictions (gambling is perhaps the worst) that plunge us far over the edge with little help of rescue. I’ve had many clients who lived in city’s forests, along streets in tents or boxes or in relentless heat and cold of the open air under the freeway overpass. Their feet get weary and wounded from walking–from poorly fitting shoes, no socks, no shoes. They live with hunger despite a free warm meal once a day and handouts. They get lonely except for a stray dog they feed scraps and then give a name to only to know it might be taken or die or run off, or a buddy or two they trust this week. They suffer from maladies that they just ignore or cannot get treated. Fight to keep what little they have from those who rob them, and suffer attacks from stronger and angrier people.

The ones who came to me for help desired a safe place for their own, even a very small room. Or a  corner under an awning or camping in bushes with no one bothering them since being in open air offers freedoms, too. Sitting in my comfy office I knew they came partly for respite a while, for dryness or warmth or air conditioning. And to talk and just be heard. To get help with an opiate, methamphetamine or benzodiazepine addiction; or bipolar  or psychotic episodes or recurrent depression with crippling anxiety. To find a way out of the particular rabbit  hole they found themselves in despite once dreaming and working for a far different life. No one expects to be homeless, after all.

Not often did they admit to being brave but they knew they coped with things a great many others cannot. And endurable and enduring street life is predicated on one’s wits, physical and psychic strength–being able to engage in fully operant survival mode. Some might say “dumb luck” also played a part in staying alive. Still, I’d remind them that basic bravery was a prime asset among internal  and external resources that worked on their behalf. That dipping into even a piddling spring of hope one day to the next enabled someone to not throw in the towel. Because often all appears lost to the mentally ill and physically debilitated, the addicted and traumatized. There is powerful value in this tool for survival, this bravery. To keep on until a better answer is found. And this often did bring them to my door, seeking change. Renewal.

Their sort of bravery works for them. It is not a choice often, but more a requirement. It is far different to have to deal with harsh realities and try to make a change than to choose to face fear in order to do something new that is engaging and meant for one’s own satisfaction.

Bravery is a potent quality for us all to use, however. There are people who stand up for basic human rights despite any backlash from naysayers. Those who sacrifice personal security or even their lives to help or defend others. People determined to generate improvements in quality of life despite opposition branding them variously as budget busters or out of touch with real communities or having too radical an approach to make viable change happen.

Then there are the rest of us, perhaps at first glance ordinary people, no celebrated dragon slayers. We live our lives quietly, industriously, but often with fervency, a sense of expectancy. We are visited by lesser and greater life problems. Our strong bodies get busted. The love of our life finds then marries someone else. A best friend behaves like an enemy, or worse yet drifts away without a backward glance. Our talents fail to bring us the supposed glory we envisioned. Our good education somehow prepared us for a mundane job. We fail our children in small ways that will haunt us or in a big way that is never beyond shamed and pained attention. Our lives can be dolorous, frayed by restlessness, thinned by loneliness. Tried in seven variations yet discovered wanting again.

But we prevail, anyway. We chose to continue tromping on our way. We’d rather try again–if nothing more than because we wonder what else is out there. Trying emphasizes seeking or finding opportunities; it implies better possibilities. Ones that are preferable to the present circumstance.

All that bobbing about on the river of life, or being impeded by rock, branch or uncharted, unnatural dam. All the re-routing we must make. It takes stamina, too. We do not get to live by instinct alone but also must engage brain and soul power.

When once I was struggling with my own upended life, a person of authority told me something that stayed with me ever after–but as an example of what was an untruth. She said, “Trying isn’t close to enough and is not the point here. Only victory over your trauma symptoms will be enough, but that’s unlikely.”

I was a teenager in a psychiatric ward where I was sent to “get over” a damaged childhood. I had had about enough of adults’ ignorant ways. I looked at the psychiatrist to see if she was joking. She was not.

I retorted, “Victory is right in this terrible trying I do every day and night. Don’t you tell me trying doesn’t count. I’ll succeed because I’ll try hard enough and long enough to figure things out. Get better, get out of here and go on.”

With her words to fight against and my stubborn pushing forward, I began to think of myself as someone who might rise above. Who could change things even if they needed to be done alone. I loathed that place with its high, narrow windows and guttural sounds all night long and the mind-numbing pills I rarely swallowed. I began to alter my internal life story from one of fear to a tentative then quiet boldness. I did not feel brave but profoundly longed to be. So I started to act as if I was. Increments of courage propelled me. I learned to endure a dim and haunted place where many seemed to be fading or forgotten. To feel their ruinous grief within echoing walls while sorting out my own. To scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush when I broke a rule. To float beyond it all while trying to block out someone screaming in the night. I would not succumb. I found even an approximation of bravery cast enough encouraging light to offer refuge until the real thing kicked in.

Of course more challenges lay ahead. But I saw a light and parsed out some of what might work to better reassemble the pieces.

That was an experience long ago lived. But today’s post has another, far happier genesis.

I was on the East coast last week and got to spend time with my oldest daughter, a sculptor who teaches at a university. Naomi (Falk, not Richardson if you look for her on Instagram) was buying rather esoteric and expensive items for an upcoming sailing trip to Greenland starting in July. (Rubber boots, dry pack, super dark sunglasses that cost plenty, special socks and other clothing, etc.) She made an iPad purchase and was been talking with the salesman about how she needed certain video editing capacities and waterproof features for a trip. He inquired about it further so she shared more. He “high-fived” her and peppered her with excited questions. A Hawaiian, he’d been following the return of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe after three years at sea with navigation via only stars, wind and waves.

That conversation was a first and fascinating to hear. After two days with her I’d seen a different reaction. This man got it entirely. Usually when people asked and she shared the basics, they responded with mouth hanging open. Incredulous. Or they blinked at her blankly, repeated her statement but as a question, to make sure they heard right. She said something like this:

“I’m going on a trip in a fifty-one foot sailing vessel with a small crew and a few others for an artists’ residency. But it’s also about examining environmental issues, climate changes and how they’re impacting glaciers and Greenlanders. Yep, sailing up the East coast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then to Greenland’s western coast. ”

And she’d note: “I know only basics of sailing, but may not need to use my limited knowledge. I’d like to, though. I hope to scuba dive at some point.”

Or she would say: “Why am I doing it? Well, it’s not something I’d be expected to do. It interests me, the whole experience. I took a boat around and to the Faroe Islands last year, had an artists’ residency in Iceland before that– I can do Europe, for example, any old time. In fact, have gone and will go again.”

She was generally grinning while speaking, yet her essential equanimity always struck me. But that is Naomi. She gathers much information, cogitates, makes a decision and goes forward, even if there are more questions to be answered. She trusts her process and gut. She takes calculated risks, ones that many would not consider much less do. I consider her brave in more ways than one. Born at two and a half pounds, two and a half months early in the mid-70s when such preemies were not often expected to live much less fully thrive, she seemed pretty brave from the start.

“My brave and foolish daughter, dear Naomi,” I teased as we headed back to the hotel laden with her purchases, and we laughed even as I gulped a little.

And then I thought more about those words.  It’s not that she feels no trepidation. It’s that she does/creates/investigates unusual things, anyway. Isn’t that what it takes in life to keep the wheels turning? I mean all the wheels–the wheel of invention, the wheels of learning and time and creativity, of us becoming adaptable, goals being met and life being lived? We need common sense; I’m a huge proponent of the homely quality that withstands many stressors. But we need to take risks, too, that teach us what we are made of and what we may need to know. Lessons and insights that can connect us to more than our claustrophobia-prone, exclusive ways of being. And it takes bravery to take the first step away from all familiar toward something imagined but not wholly known. It requires visionary breadth to position ourselves in a scenario far different than what we know in this moment.

Whether life is terribly hard and wounding or safe yet empty of curious impulses, we cannot forge any new path without resurrecting our waiting bravery. And to do that may mean being a little foolish at times. Conjuring and planning what may not seem to make complete sense but which triggers a compelling sync with who we’re meant to be. Energy of anticipation. Magnetism of secret dreams unveiled. A sense of embarking on a finer adventure. Being true to our best selves.

We all are capable of being brave. In fact, I believe we are born to it. Perhaps we just forget in the morass of daily duties what bravery is, how it feels. It feels vibrant. (Even dauntless, not so foolish a thing to feel as we stumble–it’s like having a burly staff for balance.) We would do well to call it forth for ourselves and others, then do more good and be who we long to be. Call it forth even more under the press of worldly burdens and losses. There are days when opening the door requires a mantle of bravery for an emboldened step beyond the threshold. Find the heart to claim it and take a chance.

Naomi posing good-naturedly at McColl Center for Art+Innovation, Charlotte, NC