Christmas, Visible and Invisible

In case you lost track: four more days until Christmas Eve. Of course I want to write something thoughtful, moving and richly authentic, but what I think of this moment is the shopping. I know there is nothing I purchase that will provide true contentment, reasonable internal and external security and well-seeded joy. And yet I joined the hoards and covered a few miles in search of a delightful/useful/curious/unique something or other for each one of 14 people for whom I will wrap gifts. And the average number of gifts per person is about 4. I admit that if I had more money, I’d be in far greater trouble, though I do mind my spending.

I do get a bit tired from preparations even though I’m fortunate to have a lot of energy. I keep saying: this is it, next year I am going to the mountains, I will reserve a remote chalet really early (turns out lots of others like to do the same) and then we’re gone. If any adult children and grandchildren wanted to follow, they’d have to bring sleeping bags and agree to only nature’s or other handmade presents, no television or other technological downfalls. My husband and I might end up alone…

So long ago I faced the truth: I love the Christmas season, even a little hullabaloo, decorating and spit shining the place and then hanging out with all. I do wish we still had a larger home so we could stuff everyone in longer for more fun and food. Because we return to productive, hectic lives fast. This year things will be different as some folks have other places to be this time, too. It may feel more like an “open house.” I need one of those revolving doors so they’ll keep coming and going.

But at least I have the gifts. Mostly. They’re snugged up to one another in bags on the biggest bedroom’s carpeted floor, which now barely peeks out at me. At some point they will be attractively wrapped (well,  hastily covered up with appropriate paper). And I have to bake–my yearly Russian teacakes. That’s it this year, if my schedule holds.

While out there spending money on my family, I wondered how we can be so enthralled with objects; people seemed to move at times as if in an agitated trance. Others fawned over something with an excitement one might ascribe to discovering the one’s grandest desire. Often people trod streets and stores with a stalwart resignation, as if they’d tried their best yet nothing could be done about it. I half-want to sit them down, offer them Epson salts foot soaks and rubs and then a cup of tea as we have a chat. If it is no fun and there is little joy, why overexert yourself?

Clearly, I am not adept at rising above all this. I want to be spiritually minded at all times. I treasure my faith, am possessed by an ineffable love for God. But I have to admit to just enjoying shopping for family and friends, no matter the occasion. It feels good to give, even materially. There were a few times, however, when I had fleeting out-of-body experiences as I looked about and then at myself, whereupon I mused: What is all this? Why? For there is not one item I bought that’s not replaceable or irrelevant in the end. I have no illusions yet still ponder each purchase as if it matters deeply to the recipient. I sometimes think I want to give out happiness.

I know what counts amid all the fuss and anticipation. I am certain that we all do, whether or not our primary consideration is to offer up hallelujahs of praise for Jesus’ birth. Or to support youngsters’ wonderment and the hope in Santa Claus’ dedication to their dearest wants. Or to just pause and take a holiday break on ski runs with friends we’re fortunate to know. For some, it’s just a couple of days off from demanding employment–isn’t all work tiring by end of December?–and a chance to recover a greater sense of wellness. Heart.

Little things count for much. Lighting a candle in memory of those who have left this realm. Reading a good book by the heater or a snapping fire. Immersing one’s self in the melodic swell and decrescendo of favorite music. Holding closer a beloved child, a partner, a best friend. Looking above at vast and brilliant scatterings of stars in the sheer navy-to-black cosmos–where things are happening right now that we do not even know about. (I recently learned that seven newly discovered planets about the size of earth in a nearby solar system may have water.)

How much emphasis can we place on a simple act of tenderness? How many miracles exist in forests, valleys, mountains and deserts; in an operating room where one more life is snatched back to life? At a corner cafe where food is given away and within reaches of an infant’s newly arrived intellect and imagination? One only needs to consider for a moment. And it’s all happening despite the commercial call to us each Christmas and New Year’s.

I don’t know about you, but this life is devastatingly, mindbogglingly breathtaking to me even at 67. I now that’s two long adverbs and a fancy adjective, but really. I don’t need a special season to remind me of my place in the fullness of this universe as we know it. It’s a minuscule spot but still, a good seat. I want it so I claim it. I open my arms to it, embrace the relentless absurdities and suffering, the epiphanies, the rewards.

So I do my Christmas shopping and my whole system responds: very soon, celebratory days will be here. But I also wait on angels who have their own agendas –to some an odd thing to say–but they are patient enough with us to just realize they are near. They often spur me with good impulses, so I can do what is better, not easier or self-serving. (Read orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal’s experience of dying on a kayaking trip and what she learned in To Heaven and Back, for one example; or look for angels in my blog tags. It is not unusual in all cultures to acknowledge angelic presences.) They have their jobs, too, after all; life isn’t just busy for us. Or are we so egocentric to imagine we’re the only effectively operant beings around? Maybe we should look again at the news–then at ancient wisdom of the ages.

So speaking of angels, there was Gabriel’s message and the others’. Those who’ve followed my blog awhile know that I thank God for Christ’s message of unbreakable, endless love. For love was never meant to turn from those in need; he told all that it works to heal torment and deep rifts of all sorts; it does not deny people dignity and welcomes all with a transformative mercy and care. Jesus’ story is largely about liberation through persevering care and kindness, about the strength and courage needed to walk such a path.

We can be that person who loves one another, that person who mines for goodness and generosity despite the prurience and paucity of our times. But this requires that we step forward and offer aid or a true act of acceptance, that second or third or fourth chance at reconciliation, especially when it seems unreasonable.

There is joy on this often reviled, worn down world. I strive to write from the places inside me that, like many rivers converging, often crest and overflow with grateful astonishment; the part of me that yet knows little but, regardless, wants to give much. It is that powerhouse of luminosity that moves and remakes me just as when I was a small child–as we all were and likely felt similar things–its boundless beauty filling me up.

And I see it in you and you and you, adding to this powerful energy we can utilize on our earth. It is a wonder when it is harnessed and we choose to deliver what helps and heals.

So I hope that you will have a great time giving out even a few small gifts and sharing a table and singing familiar tunes. Whoever you will be beside and even if alone, experience the time with a whole heart, with soul. Break out the cookies, the tasty drinks or gather at the hilltop campfire and look long about you. Receive the Light; send it out again. It’s what fuels all the good that is still, yes, yet to come. Take a leap and believe in hope, for that is just a beginning.

So, my many WordPress companions, may blessings beckon and follow your every footstep. No matter how taxing it is to keep on, please just keep on. I thank you for visiting my writing one more year. It has been the finest gift to me that you still bother to read what I work hard at creating, spurred on by a lifelong passion to share stories that arise.

Merry Christmas! Be safe ringing in a Happy New Year.

Below: An example of a truly good present. I was born very near sighted, but those foggy, annoying glasses didn’t keep me from hitting the ice at the outdoor rink almost daily each winter, so getting new skate blade guards (at 9) elicited jubilation! And lastly, I am wishing the best to you and yours!

PS: I am taking a blogging break until January 3, 2018. Then I’ll share what my new posting schedule will be and why I am making changes. Stay tuned.

 

A Higher Life

Photo by Slim Aarons

“Oh, I suppose it seemed the theater of the absurd at times. It was the start of their high life, alright. Mom got most everything she wanted and too little of what she deserved,” Maggie said, watching the fire grow with a sudden catch of the dry tinder, then flicked over the logs.

A sudden wave of snowflakes gusted sideways. The cardinal she always looked for had come and gone and not returned but it had instincts and she had to be patient. The scene beyond was a swath of whiteness poked through with bits of green–the branches of surrounding evergreens.

“So she wasn’t happier later? That’d be a shame, all the work she put in.” The soles of Lynn’s feet were held closer to dancing flames.

Maggie pulled the crocheted blanket more tightly about her. “Well, Al was alright. He took care of her in most ways. I mean, they were living the sublime California dream, he a fledgling writer and new producer, she an actress with unstoppable optimism. All those auditions, she was off and running every day. At least she got some calls, acted here and there, finally got a pay off.”

Lynn slipped off her chair onto the frayed Persian rug, eased closer to the fireplace. “Hmm, she looked like Rita Hayworth. She had such ambition, so there’s no explaining things, how they worked out.”

Maggie felt the usual ripple of discomfort in her stomach. This was where she tended to stop talking. Since Maggie had moved to Boise months earlier, Lynn either tiptoed around the topic of her mother or tried to barge right in. Maggie didn’t want to have to manage any psychic fallout. Her mother had already died and too soon. Still, it was just Lynn; they went back forty years.

“There is always an explanation. But that story is long and at points, twisted.” She turned her head to meet Lynn’s eyes; they were curious but warm, like when they were growing up. “You remember enough.”

Lynn tipped her chin to study two golden candles on the mantel and sighed. “I recall that your knock-out mother was friendly. Often laughing. Your stepfather was sort of stern–compared to my father–and corny, and good looking in a quirky way. But they were also just busy adults; we were kids, had our own world.”

“Kids live in two worlds–their own bubble existence and then dips into odd goings- on outside of it. Ours was possibly more fun; theirs, more dramatic. Complicated–how it is when you grow up. But, honestly, it was like they strove to live out their movie-land fantasies right under my nose, not just at work. By the time I was on the an adolescent, we both heard and saw plenty.”

“I guess you’re right. It was just so fantastic, too…I never met anyone else like them.”

Maggie yawned, re-positioned in the armchair, hunkered down–it got so cold here– in the worn green and brown afghan. The only thing her mother had ever made by hand. The wine bottle was close by so she poured a second glass and offered a refill to Lynn. It was dismissed with a wave of her strong yet elegant hand, the hand of a massage therapist. Her surprised eyebrow raised a tad, as well. Maggie never drank as a teen though Lynn did; it was peculiar to see this almost reversed, and she hoped it didn’t get to slurred words. She hadn’t seen it yet but there had been snatches of that at times during her years of odd, inconvenient phone calls. But Maggie was supposedly “over” liquor, at least. And she seemed clear of mind. Well, they all had there challenges.

Lynn had once lived two houses down from the Thornbills’ place in suburban L.A. When Maggie Thornbill moved there at age eight, Lynn was thrilled to have a new playmate who was brave but not reckless, smart but not snotty. They hit it off with their dolls then roller skating, foot and bike races at the subdivision’s park, marathon gabs and games when they had sleepovers every other week-end. The Thornbills’ house was much like theirs, a large, newer mid-century modern house, its light-and shadow-filled rooms made more spacious with high ceilings and big windows. Plus there was the good sized pool. They loved to swim; they switched pools each time. Unless Mrs. Thornbill was paddling around in Maggie’s during daylight with a few friends. But her friend’s mother often swam at night and into  early morning, that’s what she heard from her parents.

But they didn’t have to note that, she was partly visible from Lynn’s bedroom window and she unabashedly spied sometimes. Everyone nearby would hear her at some point. The woman could be a real pistol or a riot after her first drink, everyone agreed. Lynn thought that was true of everyone who drank but it turned into a different thing. Lisa Thornbill became more of everything: ravishingly pretty, boisterous, unstoppable, daring. If she got in the pool with her drinks at hand, Al at poolside and watchful, her very own father would walk over by 1 a.m. and firmly ask Mr. Thornbill to please her rein in, other people had to get some shut eye even if they didn’t. The next day Maggie said nothing of the whole thing and neither did Lynn. Of course Maggie knew what went on, she lived there. But the two families were congenial and besides, it was just the way things were, old news very soon.

The other inescapable facts were that Mrs. Thornbill was fairly talented and gorgeous yet so were a few thousand others. She was lucky to get a smaller but recurrent role in a popular soap for ten years. Her husband’s promotions in the industry didn’t help speed up her career. But you’d think she was famous just to see her walk across the street, “natural grace lit with a preternatural fire”, her own mother had murmured once to a friend. Lynn had to look up the last adjective but she didn’t get it for years. When she did, the idea seemed right.

At sixteen, Lynn was forced to move to Illinois when her father got a transfer with bigger bucks in the advertising business. Her own life went downhill until she married and left home at nineteen, though she went on to college a bit late. Not like Maggie, off and running from the start and now at least regionally famous and her reputation spreading. She might be in Boise that long.

That was so long ago, Lynn mused, three children and five jobs and two husbands ago. It was fortuitous, she so wanted to feel, that Maggie had recently moved to Boise, Idaho where Lynn had lived the past half decade, single and with only one teen left at home. They’d lost touch but there they were, catching up. Lynn watched the leaping flames and  shook herself a little.

“You know, Mom called me almost every day after I graduated from Mills College and started teaching music,” Maggie said. “She had to admit she was proud of me, finally. She wanted to know everything–gosh, questions never ceased! I finally had to stop answering her calls much. She got the hint, always good at intuiting things if at times rather late. Her health by then had developed glitches–a bleeding ulcer, days long migraines, signs of early arthritis–but otherwise she seemed better than I imagined she’d be at forty-five. You would never know she lived through so much… still seemed nearly perfect. Looks can sure lie.” Maggie lowered her eyes as she gave a short laugh, sipped her wine then licked her lips as if satisfied. “Almost our age, weird, huh…” Her lips curved into a careful smile, eyes still dark with escaped anger. Then came a welling of relief. “But she could not endure more disaster.” She glanced at her friend. “I’ve outlived her, haven’t I,” and she smiled again.

It was unnerving to see that smile juxtaposed with the statement, as Lisa Thornbill had drowned during a boat trip in South America with her third husband. It was not likely an accident and her spouse was not to blame; he’d tried in vain to revive her.

Maggie’s face opened up as the edges of her anger softening, becoming satisfaction laced with mischief. And there it was: Mrs. Thornbill’s lively, charming presence stirring within Maggie. She finally saw that even Maggie’s features held many attributes of her mother. Or, perhaps, the mother’s own hopes had more fully come to bear fruition in her daughter.

Lynn plunged onward. “I remember the last Christmas we were still there, do you? We were busy packing and cleaning; we were to leave the day after New Year’s. Remember how I came over and cried on your shoulder for hours because we didn’t even get a Christmas, it cost too much, was a hassle and Dad had left for Chicago already? I thought that was heartless, it felt so cruel.”

“Well, it was, Lynn. But our parents often forgot we were still kids who actually needed them.”

Lynn wasn’t sure she wanted to fall into the pit of sadness that underlay Maggie’s words. They couldn’t tiptoe around it as they did as kids; everyone knew soon that Mrs. Thornbill was an alcoholic. It caused all manner of pain even then though she was–as when she was sober– most often a vivacious drunk, the hostess whose list everyone wanted to be on even if they knew something might go spectacularly wrong (“untoward”, her mother said) by the end of the event. Likely that was why some came.

As for Al Thornbill, he was a man with sublime equanimity and manifest ego. He was neither fazed by his wife’s antics nor her daughter’s snappish intelligence or growing sulkiness. He possessed a decisive manner, taking charge of any situation. Lynn wondered by the time she was a teen if he took charge a bit too much, unlike her own father who proudly proclaimed equality for all and seemed overall unperturbed which Lynn thought at times cowardly, also neglectful. For example, he scolded her for drinking up his scotch and made her pay him back for it but he never forbade her or monitored his bottles or her week-end drinking with friends, leaving hard experience as the teacher, too many times. She had to make up her own rules and she was still struggled to find what worked the best. But alcohol had lost its spell for the most part.

But Maggie seemed to have been born with a set of directives propelling her, many that didn’t match her parents’.  Her friend should have been a composer, perhaps–she thought up wonderful tunes as a kid, learned to write them down as a teen– not just a music teacher, a good thing but limiting, she thought. But Maggie had become a musical theater company director.

Maggie reached for the near-empty wine bottle, then pulled her hand back. “It was the holiday no one forgot in Belmont Estates.” She swept her dark, silver threaded hair into a long ponytail and slipped it in an elastic scrunchie. Her flecked amber eyes glowed in the firelight. “Of course, it was the tree that started it, the fact that dad didn’t want to wrestle with a real one again and Mom wanted a gold metallic and I was trying to convince them that only a real one would do, it was a tradition, they couldn’t change tradition. We didn’t have all that many, this one I needed.”

“I know, who among us wouldn’t need a tree? But us girls, especially, it was a tough teen-aged year. And I came over and we sneaked into the hallway to hear that argument your parents had.”

“We did? Well, Mom had begun an early cocktail hour by then, no doubt. But Al–Dad–ended up siding with me, well, maybe he just wanted to oppose Mom. The next day the two of us went out and found a scrawny tree that cost so much he almost took it back when it tried to fall off the car roof, but we got it home and into the yard. And Mom said, ‘What do you intend to do with that? It’s far and away too ugly to deposit in my living room, it must go!’, her manicured finger pointing somewhere into the distance. But he later wrestled it in, set it up with your dad’s help. Then Mom kicked it.” She looked at Lynn incredulously, shaking her head.

“Yes, I remember, she kicked it twice, a high heel was scraped and her big toe hurt. She hobbled off to their bedroom but we decorated it ’til late, stringing popcorn all of which we ate and I stayed over. I remember her high heels because they had pointed toes, spike heels and oh, that chartreuse green! I coveted them…”

“Yeah, heels were a serious need of hers. Then the next day we woke up and Mom was at it again, saying real trees dropped needles and looked such a mess, it was the ugly tree of the year and no one would be allowed into their house for their annual holiday party if it stayed there! She wanted gold! I was disgusted by the whole thing and told them I’d go get my own tree for my room, they should sort it out.”

“And your dad, usually so unruffled by her told us to go play at my house.”

Maggie unwrapped the blanket and got up to resposition falling chunks of embers, sparks jumping and spitting, wood sizzling. She turned to check out the snowfall beyond the picture window. “This endless snow. I still miss California sometimes.”

“Not me. I miss nothing but those good times we had. I’m so glad you called before you moved again, I never expected to be neighbors at this age. But you know I never wanted to leave, then.”

“It about defeated me to see you go, Lynn. But that day–a few days before Christmas and the usual party–was a fantastic way to wrap up things, right? We got up late and had our peanut butter slathered pancakes, I think…then I decided to check out Mom and Dad, see what they’d done. And what I saw as I rounded the corner of the house…”

“You ran back to get me and when we came up to the swimming pool, we went bonkers, just screamed!”

“My incredible, crazy mother! There she lay on the floating raft in all her glory and at the end of the pool bobbed our tree! Our decorations messed up, but still standing tall. I don’t recall how he rigged that up but it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. Those cheery bulbs bobbing in the warm blue water. Good grief!”

“I thought your mother was amazing, lying there in the buff, and that tree sparkling in the hot sun.”

“Was not naked! She had on her pinkish underwear –those impulses can still make me cringe–but at the same time it was sure something. The whole tableau, in some terrible, awesome way.” Maggie was surprised her throat constricted around the last words.

Lynn stood up then and put her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “What a party they threw. And no one was very embarrassing. You and I had fun, too, and your mom was great. She came up to me as we left and told me that she’d forever be grateful you and I got to be friends, that it was heaven-sent when you found a best girlfriend and to not let it slip away. Did you know that? It gives me goosebumps thinking of it, as here we are now.”

Maggie patted her hand and peered deeper into the fire. She felt so much  younger and older that she did at the start of the evening, as if she was caught in an accordion of time and hadn’t established her own spot in this new story, this new musical line yet.

“I think she was lonely, for all the so-called friends she made. Your own mother was much more domestic than she was, worked at the phone company part time; they didn’t have much in common. She didn’t easily let people in, it just looked that way I realized later, and when she did, they were taken with the physical beauty, not who she was. A woman who was a romantic at heart, a little lost, I think. Even scared. It was a time and place that made it so hard on women if you didn’t play the game. She wanted so much more, to be on the stage, not television. This is what she admitted during later talks we had. By then she was more sick than she let on but I didn’t want to call Dad… that is, my stepdad, but he was good to me. He had long  joined the ranks of Hollywood’s big fish.” She sighed. “We catch up every few months but, no,” she said to intercept more questions from Lynn like, was he finally rich now…”I don’t go visit him, anymore. It’s too much razzle dazzle mess for me. He told me he’s proud of my work. That’s enough. He can come visit me, if he likes.”

They sat down in their respective chairs, each lost in the past moving with its phantoms in and out of firelight. The silence had deepened as snowfall had thickened and begun begun to pile up

“Are you not going to get a tree?” Lynn asked.

Maggie chuckled. “I’d thought of it, then I didn’t get around to it, the current rehearsal schedule is killing me and then there are eight performances in one week. I’m alright with not having one. I mean, I’m alone here, who’d I share all the trimmings of Christmas with?”

“Me, of course, Maggie, who else? My son might even come if we whipped up a nice meal. I have no big plans for Christmas this year, just my usual New Years’ Eve party which you’re attending.”

“Well. A tree…sounds like some more work.” She stretched luxuriously, back arching, shoulders up to her ears, hands clasped together over her head, then she let it all drop into a slump. “But I’d do it. I do have a few acres out there.” She gestured out to a dim, snow-blinded view, nodded her head. “You two want to cut down a little tree with me tomorrow morning if we can slog through the drifts? I have the requisite snowshoes.” They hung on a back wall of her well-aged cabin and she got up to show them off to Maggie. “I’ve used them twice–got a small distance but I’ll get the hang of it.”

“Yeah, you’re a quick learner. I like that idea. Let’s do it!”

“Good. A Christmas tree is good.”

Once more they fell into quietness, a deeper cushion of comfort, the ease of an old familiarity resumed. They could hear snow being blown up, down and around by frigid winds, dashing against windows. Maggie wondered about her cardinal, if it would show up when the weather was spent of some of its power, when the snow lay sparkling like a stole upon sleeping earth. Somehow, that small red bird’s meanders among the proud trees, his stops at her bird feeder and his zigzag flybys past her big window meant more than she could say. Without those flashes of poppy red wings, she wouldn’t feel very at home in this frozen place; it was another stop on the road to a bigger career moving fast. The cardinal and often a mate had been there from the start and greeted her daily.

Come, red bird,” she said after Lynn left. “Don’t disappear.”

Maggie stood in the open doorway, arms pressed to chest, her hand then rising to cup a few snowflakes. As the wind shushed, a brilliant flash materialized from beneath trees to sweep through darkening and pristine air, his strong wings just missing her fingertips.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Wintering Waters

dscn1424
Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The river greets me at this gateway hour
as it slinks through twilight like a secret
receding into netherworlds, its depths
shielded by arrival of night’s perplexities.

Within its quietude, creatures are mudbound,
await to be swept up by flicks of wind,
to spiral into its sleek rocky blueness.
Wintering currents roll through dirt, by trees
that receive with whispers. Sky reconciles
past with present, lays its tenderness
onto the low-slung back of river now
moving toward me on the watch point.

I glimpse my reflection; it is reconfigured
as it is taken elsewhere on the icy edge, into
gradations of light and darkness, light redux.
Riding these waters, I become a simpler woman,
unfettered, unafraid. Welcomed into a wilder fold.

Dry (!) December Walking=NW Winter Pleasures

Dec. Irv walks 016
All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Walkers of all landscapes and weather, I just got back in, my heart is content, my face smiling in a cold leftover glow. I am more than ready to get back to work. What an excellent thing to have life and limb, to be able to exit the door and return with a fine satisfaction, full of invisible gifts.

As most know, I am a devoted walker, one who ramps it up and keeps the pace for an hour or so daily, if at all possible. And for over a week now, the sky has been an essential blazing blue. Temperatures have hovered between upper thirties and mid-to upper forties (Fahrenheit). No rain to speak of, maybe a few drops here and there.

This dry spell is almost unheard of in December; it should soon be raining, perhaps hailing or sleeting here in the Willamette Valley with rumors of flurries that make it down the Cascade Mountains to us. The drizzle is on a brief hiatus. Of course it is a certainty that rainfall will reappear, do its duty of keeping our vast forests and lovely yards emerald green–likely by end of week or so. Wetness then will slicks faces and hands, grow familiar, even feel like a transparent second skin; we are half amphibious after a couple of months, and for another four.

Meantime, it has been a wonder to be out and about in crackling bright gusts. Rarefied air. The clarity of everything out there is dazzling. So you would think this  a superior time for joggers, walkers, cyclists. Instead, there seems a scarcity of people. I am not entirely alone on my jaunts but I can state there seem fewer than on usual rainy days. So I power walk–and pause to snap pictures– with impunity, now free of skateboarders, runners and cyclists bearing down on me (though we adapt well to one another, usually). Less likely to have a dog dash in front of me, yanking the owner along with Herculean effort.

The thirties registering on the outside thermometer is close to riveting Northwest cold, true–cold enough to make my cheeks feel like pop sickles after a half hour. When that East wind blows, all parts of my face wish they might take cover beneath a wool mask. I am not such a fan of hats–I pull up the hood on a sweater (or on my rain jacket if it’s a drencher) but I’ve popped my old cashmere cap with the little moth hole onto my head more often or not. My nose runs and runs–sorry for that mental mage–and often I am out of tissue halfway through. My damp, half-frizzy hair is useless now but since cutting it to chin length-another post, perhaps–I care even less, smash it down. My eyes sting when attacked by biting gusts. And I have Raynaud’s, a condition that makes my hands (and often, feet) soon unbearably cold below 60. For safety and comfort I put on moderately insulated gloves as soon as it dips, and heartier ones for chillier conditions. (Indoors I wear finger-less gloves part of the year, especially when typing.)

As I write this, I am uncomfortably aware that Northwest winters are a breeze compared to Michigan’s, to Maine’s or Alaska’s, to those in Canada or Iceland and beyond. I do know the depths of winter. I do know and relish the memories of  being buried in snowdrifts before popping up and throwing snowballs. The romping about like a wild thing in it and doing fun sporting activities. And I recall the dangers and the inconveniences.

But this is here and now. It is my winter, Oregon’s months of pungent, wet earth and green shadows all about, of rampaging icy rivers that take my breath away with their beauty and snow-encompassed mountains above that call with singing winds and sleek, glittering mountainsides.

But given all that and the good and not so good here in the valley, what do I love about walking in the winter? Nearly everything. Discomforts are not that trying. This time of year is as chock-full of pleasant surprises as others. And being Christmas season, decorations are eye-catching additions to places and landscapes. I like the zing and zip of the cold as long as I am adequately dressed, and the body warming up so kindly as activity continues. How it feels to pull in piney-fresh, cool air. Even the reddening of cheeks feels cheery. The landscape shines differently in weaker winter sunlight, and shadows take on textures and shapes missed in other seasons. Maybe being raised in northern parts, I still sense mysterious earth’s re-tuning, its settling in for a long haul. I feel deeply at home outdoors. I am rejuvenated by sights and sounds, scents, tactile experiences–but also non-material ones.

Nothing quite impacts me as does nature no matter where I am. The ease of body through space, of mind given free rein to cultivate peace is priceless. It is a wellspring that nourishes and reshapes me into a fuller human being. This is happiness in its simplest–but not too simple–form. Taking care of myself in this way aids me in caring for others, and it provides greater resources from which to create. Writing ideas arise constantly when I walk–first lines, characters grabbing my attention, whole plots, a poem that lodges within. Problems present potential solutions. Spiritually there is no better antidote to being worn out or threatened by melancholy about the state of my country and our world. And of course, my overall health is rewarded and my cardiovascular system thanks me first, then the rest. I haven’t felt so terrific the past month–it is this or that as we age, let’s face it–and yesterday I was flattened while. Today I had to get back outdoors as walking unties body’s knotted spots, sweetens a stewing mind, and sets the spirit on a smoother course.

As I walked there came a conviction that I am in preparation for something lovely. Undeniably, winter brings hibernation for much and for a writer this is a benefit  as restful solitude, that cocoon of introspection, can well fertilize the brain and greater being. And I sense my winter will pare me down closer to the essence, bring forward truer needs and desires. I will make ways to call forth what is necessary but potent and, hopefully, more valuable to my writing and daily living.

I was recently surprised to discover I have written three posts a week for nearly seven years! Can that really be over a 1000 pieces written, pictures often additional contributions to the whole? I started with three blogs, each a separate genre; this continued on a few years. Those morphed into one–Tales for Life–that encompasses fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry (plus photography thrown in) on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I am grateful to have had this obliging spot on WordPress so long. I plan to stick to it albeit with some upcoming changes. More on this later.

Come along for now and see what I have seen recently. Enjoy a few random Portland (rain-free) winter shots and have a peaceful rest of  the week.

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A Way Back Home

“Life hurts more in this city, it shakes its fat fist in my face every day. I can’t take it,” he said, glasses reflecting the phantasmagoria of the giant tree’s lights. They beamed onto the brick and cement urban park, “the Square”, but he was blind to that.

TC knew what he meant, but she couldn’t entirely agree. It was pretty there. They could view the 75 ft. tall Christmas tree decked out in its glory, gather with others in the Square each morning with their maximized paper cups of coffee and a warm  croissant with butter or a cranberry scone. They could watch the shoppers mill about with brightly bulging shopping bags, study folks on lunch break as they lined up at food carts–oh, those savory aromas of hot food drove them nuts. Maybe they’d manage to get a bite to eat later. If she sold enough of her leather jewelry to tourists trying to be tolerant, or city dwellers trying to show good will, they’d get by another day. Harley didn’t think the way she did, though; he needed a drink by noon and then he went from bleakest to medium bleak.

“It’s too pretty, unlike reality, a total sham,” he insisted and took off his glasses, put them in his pocket. Something he did when his eyes hurt or he was just weary of seeing things. He frowned at her, deep brown eyes going darker. “What do you see in it all? It’s just another city where we half-starve and are too cold and wet–or too hot and dry. I’ll take too much heat over this. Let’s go back to California, baby.”

“It’s better here. I like Portland. I feel some real good energy here; just let yourself feel it, too, Harley.” She tamped down the  irritation in her words but it was like a bubble, it sneaked up to the surface.

He got up and winced, then bent over to grab fifteen bucks from her little box before she could stop him and ambled down to the Plaid Pantry. A beer, smokes, a small package of beef jerky.

There went their decent lunch. TC sighed and smiled at the same time at passersby who glanced her way. Her hip bones and rear hurt; her big jacket was barely long enough nonetheless and the sidewalk got harder by the hour.

The light drizzle had been wetting scenery along with people in fits and starts all morning. No one was much bothered. TC had pulled her burlap scrap laden with jewelry under the corner awning of Lil’s All Natural Bake Shop. They had been overlooked by the owner for two days and they hoped for a few more. But there were countless stores and offices, about as many awnings, so they’d just move on. It had been this way for about seven months, ever since she had lost the baby and he had lost his job due to being drunk too many mornings. Harley had argued he was just hung over but if anyone had taken his blood alcohol level he’d have had to cave and admit he was rarely sober. He had things on his mind and his fiancée had had a bad time of it. Two miscarriages in a year. Well, he was sick and tired, too, and out of decent luck. Maybe she was the luck killer, he wasn’t sure.

Fiancée. TC had said that word a few times in her mind. It had first felt luxurious in her mouth, like caramel and dark chocolate or salmon with creamy potatoes. It had shaken her up, given her a small thrill that he’d asked her to marry him a year ago. That was when he was still working at the factory and she’d had a part-time job waitressing. But she’d had her doubts back then, too. Harley wasn’t easy to be with; he wasn’t pleased with anything for long. He reminded her of her father, really, who’d been miserable enough about his circumstances that he’d exited her and her mother’s life early on, then later turned up dead behind an Alaska cannery. Her mother and she hadn’t gone up to his funeral even after his current girlfriend called, hysterical. It had been three years since he’d skipped out by then. They’d not missed him much; it was sad but understandable her mother reassured her.

TC was eleven then and she already had the notion that men tended to be thin-skinned, slow to change, hard to coax love from; she found real life matched those ideas that over the eight years. After the miscarriages, she ought to have struck out for better parts but she was determined to not do as her father had done.  Look where it got him. Her mother just swore and threw up her hands the last time TC had met with her, told her to lose that boy.

Now here they were. Lacking a home and broke and Harley going from bad to worse. She worried about his alcohol problem every minute. She wasn’t able to make one whit of difference.

“Those are cool,” a teenager said as she touched a pair of earrings with their fine leather leaves. “You make these designs yourself?”

“I do,” she said and held them up to the potential buyer. “Thanks!”  But she knew better. This was a teen with little cash, less real interest. The girl fingered the earrings, put them back, made a peace sign and left.

Someone will come along and buy five pairs, TC told herself in a sing-song way. It was like a spell she said often. It could mean at least fifty dollars, maybe seventy-five if they got the fancier ones. She got scraps at the leather supply store and she had had the tools for years, so her profit could be decent.

If only they hadn’t lost the apartment in Sacramento, but when Harley got going all the money was poured down his gullet or wasted elsewhere, she was never sure how. And she had been unwell with the pregnancies, then miscarriages. It got too hard to get up each day and try to hold things together while Harley was out there ripping and roaring with buddies. TC hated being a loser, being unable to pay her way, giving up when she had a very strong will. her will didn’t do her much good when she made bad decisions. Yeah, she had weak-willed herself right onto the streets along with dealing with Harley past the expiration date of their relationship.

So much for being a fiancée. And how to will herself off these streets, nice as they seemed? She knew she might be kidding herself when she filled up with hope but it mattered to her to believe, anyway.

Before the sun had peaked and then started its way back down, TC had made three sales, enough that she could eat even in the morning–maybe share with Harley if he hadn’t gotten food. She stood more often, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing her gloved hands together, blowing her nose on extra toilet paper she had taken and stuffed in her pocket earlier. She had to go to the bathroom now, but she’d learned how to wait and wait and wait, if necessary. When Harley came back, they’d go into a store for a while to warm up, use restrooms. Meanwhile, the towering Christmas tree was so beautiful TC stared at it again, then counted the bills and felt much better.

But Harley didn’t come back. TC decided to not run the streets looking for him; it was getting late and unsafe. He might show up later, he might not. That was, finally, how she felt.

******

It was dark  by 5:00 so time to head out. After she used the restroom, washed up a little and ate a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (and saved the turkey jerky, a fair protein source), she warmed up as she sipped fragrant hot coffee. Harley was nowhere near from what she could tell. She got up and checked out nearby shelters, but they were already full since December was spewing icy darts of wet. She walked to a nearby residential area. Her feet were starting to ache with damp and cold, the old leather seams of her boots letting in water; she tried to avoid puddles. She knew of a small apartment building; its second floor cement balconies were big enough that she could stay mostly dry beneath one. There was a spot by a casement window where she curled up with a fleece throw kept stuffed in the backpack. The spot  was still available; she hunched down, knees to chin, blanket about her, thick navy cap pulled down to her eyes. The trick was to become invisible–not the tenants as much as roaming street people. So far it seemed she was alone.

It took a long time to doze off to the dull rhythm of rain on cars, trees, gutters and roofs, that balcony but when sleep came it gave her five or six hours, to her surprise. She’d been dreaming of Christmas  as a kid, and she was about to open a box she shook it but it sounded and felt empty. TC straightened up, the aching stiffness making her feel old and half-sick, Her legs were cramped up so she stretched them, only to get a direct hit from raindrops. TC yanked her soiled blanket tightly about shoulders and chest. Her cheap cell phone indicated it was almost midnight. She should move, find a doorway even more protected.

“Hey,” a husky but feminine voice called out. It came from above. “What’re you doing there? It’s freaking pouring ice chips and it’s about my bedtime so I step out for a smoke and there you are, shivering underneath my feet!”

TC stood up fast, crammed her blanket in her pack, started across the muddy spot.

“Hey, hey, hey, girl–I’ve seen you here before. I was going to offer some help this time.”

TC hesitated, looked back, rain flooding her face. She then pulled the cap down to her eyes and struck out.

“Hey kid, I’ve been there!” The woman lit a cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the weak light of her balcony. “I’ve done the street thing, suffered the price and now have a place.” She coughed. “This weather, what can you do? I have a couch you can use tonight, no deals needed, no ulterior motives. Just a chintzy dry spot.”

TC hunched her shoulders. The rain was biting at her skin now, it was closer to sleet, and she was shivering in spite of her strong will to be okay, to deal with it. She’d heard the stories of street people dying of hypothermia, getting vicious lung infections, being killed. This woman of about fifty with reddish hair stood on the covered balcony in sweatshirt and sweat pants. Waiting as if she was willing to be patient. What was there to lose? Maybe she would attack her, maybe she would do worse, her nightmares come true but she carried a knife, everyone did.

With Harley she had felt safer even when she wasn’t, really. Why did he disappear again? But it was freeze or hopefully get warm.

“So you know, I’m Eve Marker and I live with my terrier, Pearl. I’m a singer but she is not. She doesn’t bother to bite unless I am scared. I’m not a bit scared, and neither should you be, dear. I’m cold and I’m going in, are you coming?” She tossed her cigarette into the sheet of rain. “And you are, if I might ask?”

“I’m TC.” Her skin was starting to get goose bumps from the temperature. “Okay, yeah.” Did she know the name Eve Marker or was she just wishing she did? A club, maybe, near where they hung out. Not that it made her feel very reassured.

“Smart kid. Go to the front door.”

Animal comfort just won out. She ran to the heavy door but it was locked so she, stood under the eaves until the older woman came. She followed her upstairs. Eve wasn’t as old as she had first thought; the woman gave her a lopsided smile and her face softened.

“Hello there,” Eve Marker said.

“Hi.” She wondered if this was the biggest mistake of her life but no alarms went off in her. She knew how to sense danger and avoid it if at all possible. This was just different, even if peculiar.

When they entered the apartment, and Pearl the terrier lifted her head from her bed and then put it back down on front paws, TC was filled with a small relief. It was a small, cramped place–Eve said it was one bedroom, that was all she needed–but no matter, it was dry and there was small fake, decorated Christmas tree; a candle burning that smelled of cinnamon; and a tiny kitchen revealed a late night snack of half eaten toast and peanut butter nd a mug on the counter. TC dropped her backpack, took off her shoes by the door, then lay her wet jacket on top of the rest.

“Nice manners, TC, you were raised good. Want some tea?”

TC looked about her. She felt calmer, now she was inside the pleasant rooms, soon to dry out. “Sounds nice, thanks.”

Eve leaned against the kitchen counter, hands on thin hips. “I don’t know why I let you in. You could be a madwoman! But I just thought, I’ve seen you a few times down there–I’m an insomniac, everything gets me up and going–and tonight the spirit moved me.” She smiled that sloppy smile at TC. “And like I said, I’ve been on the street. Once, long ago, for nearly a year. I got behind on all my bills and one things led to another. Those were the bad ole days when I was below thirty thinking life owed me and I drank to silence the whiny wail of self-pity.”

She laughed a throaty laugh, eyes half-closed, and waved her hand as if to dispel the past, faded red hair fluffing about her delicately lined face. She filled a mug with hot water, dunked a peppermint tea bag into it–Eve thought she’d like chamomile but no matter, any hot tea was a gift as she dried out. “What happened, TC?–and what’s that short for?”

“It’s just TC.” She pulled her hat off and shook matted chin-length brown hair. Put her nose close to the bright scent of mint.

“Alright, then, you from around here or what?”

“Are you?” She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t about personal questions yet. “You said you sing?”

“Yes, born and bred. I’m at L’Heure Bleue Club four nights a week, you know it? Jazz club at Twelfth and Main. Tonight is a night off.”

“I’ve heard of it.” She had passed it many times; it was in a more ritzy part of city center.

“Well, it doesn’t pay like I used to be paid but it’s a gig and I’m glad of it. Music is my only love these days!”

TC sipped and when she bent her head she could also smell sweat and the dirt and despair and anger of the streets on her. “I make jewelry, that’s how I try to get by. Harley, he– oh, never mind.”

“I know, he’s here and there, huh? I like the sound of handmade jewelry. Maybe tomorrow you’ll show me.”

“I don’t know if it’s any good. Just made a few bucks. But Harley’s gone, maybe. Just has less patience and sees the worst in everything. I guess I should find him.” She looked back at the door, as if thinking this was a mistake and there was time to get out fast.

Eve watched her face close off emotion, saw her mind drift and so she yawned dramatically without apology. “Listen, TC, I am going to try to get some shut-eye. The more we talk, the more wide awake we’ll both be.” She rose and pointed down the hall. “Bathroom is there, feel free to shower, warm up. I’ll get some pajamas if you want. If you need anything else, holler.”

TC’s eyes flickered with anxiety despite a deep desire to be calm. The lady came closer and TC could not avoid her eyes without being rude.

“Hey,” Eve said gently. “You’re safe here. I get it. Still, we may as well be as nice to one another as we can. I know you’ll hightail it out of here early morning. It’s okay. Eat something. Take food to go, I don’t care. I can give you a few bucks, I’ll shove it under my door to the hallway, you can just get it, no worries. ”

TC shook her head. “No, I won’t take anything–maybe I should leave, I shouldn’t be bothering you and I’m not sure– I mean, why?”

Eve ignored the question. “And let me know if I can help otherwise. You can look me up at the club anytime. Tonight, though, I’ll put clean flannel pjs and undies in the bathroom if you want to use them. Toss your clothes in the washer, dry them tonight –there are stackables in the closet by the kitchen to use.” She gave a quick but sad smile, eyes quiet as her voice. “Night, kid. Take care.”

She turned and went to her room. Pearl trotted after her mistress with the slightest glance at TC then gave a small yelp as she disappeared after Eve.

TC sank into the lumpy couch, smoothed the worn wooly blanket on it and gazed at the blazing Christmas tree. Sleet slid onto, then pummeled roof, street, trees. She thought of Harley squeezed in between the dozens of other dirty, tired, hungry, angry and tough and longing men at a shelter. Or drunk under one of the many bridges, too cold for living long. New fear and hurt threatened her fragile hold on her oddly improved night. She looked toward the hallway. What luck she had found under that balcony,  being told she could come up just like that.

But a stranger, she was in a stranger’s home and no one knew where she was; no one really cared. Even her mother had gone off the radar the past month or two, caught up in her own dramas (husband number three) and pressing needs. His house was overrun with two bratty kids and three crazy cats, she’d said. No room for TC.

TC entered the clean oh-so-private bathroom, not a mildewy group shower, and stripped off soiled damp clothing. Held a sweet-smelling, soft green towel to her face. Her feet had raw blisters, more cracked and itchy spots. When she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror she shuddered. How had she gotten this miserable and worn out? Where was her basic good nature, the hope? Was it all an act for Harley, and to kid herself so she could go on?

The shower was turned on; she stepped into a generous spray and let it run over chilled flesh a long while, relishing the moments, the fresh smell of the soap. Heavenly. This woman must be a genuine angel–was that possible in these times? She giggled at that and let out a deep sigh. She’d have leave in the morning, of course, but at least she would have another good memory.

Eve heard the shower and lay with eyes wide open. The girl would leave at dawn and keep on running, no doubt. She knew how it was. No good place to claim as one’s own, no one to care for you, no reason to keep trying after a while. Or was she like herself, more stubborn, and willing to get out of her own way, let the man go and start to better grow up? Get a life together again?

The water flowed a long time. Eve imagined how good that steamy air felt to TC and recalled how it had been for her when she had been drifting in a haze of boozey illusions and days without food or good hygiene. But she drifted off, anyway, and began to dream of her little sister when she was still alive, of the music she adored and sang by heart every set, of other rains sweet on her lean body in a faraway time, a different country.

A triple knock at her door brought her right back so that she sat bolt upright, her quilt pulled to her chest.

“Who…?” Oh, the girl again.

“Eve?”

Her whispery voice didn’t sound right. She must have been crying, that was it.

“Yeah, what is it, TC?”

“Can we…talk a little more? I’m sorry to bother you.”

So Eve got up in the fine veil of darkness and sat on the couch. The Christmas tree threw a multicolored prism of light across the humble room, on a bunch of white and yellow mums in a second hand blue vase set upon the coffee table and the art prints on walls The leaf print overstuffed pillow on the floor was taken by TC, where she slouched, looking at her hands.

“Shoot,” Eve said. “We all have stuff we need to tell.”

“My name is Teresa Christine…Keenan.” Her voice almost disappeared but she began again. “I grew up in L.A after my father left my mother and me and then we got by on her hairstylist’s earnings–she’s good– but it was not a piece of cake. Though back then I thought it was all good, I was glad to wake up in my peach bedroom with its narrow bed and a handmade Raggedy Ann doll and my library books, hearing my mother yelling for me to get up, come down already, it was late, and she made me frozen waffles. I believed if I tried hard enough, things could be better… but things got worse off and on. My mother says all this is just more life, take it for what it is and don’t complain. But now I have to change things. I just can’t accept my life like this.”

Eve heard her voice as if it was the sea rolling in and out and she sensed this lost young woman might be ready to find her own balance for the first time. She might even stick around a bit. Pearl jumped up to listen on Eve’s lap, ears cocked, and they sat that way even after the heedlessness of winter rain failed to wreak greater damage and just gave up. Even after TC fell into the relief of  good sleep.