Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

(Belated) Friday’s Quick Pick: Hawk Eyes

Spring signs, hawk 034
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What was it you sought,
ecstatic heart pounding,
heroic wings bringing you to earth
amid city’s wilderness?
You wait for the denouement,
crows circling, black wings
cutting into sky with cries that can wound.

I want to be the one to rescue you
but there seems not one way out.
To leave in search of help may
sooner bring down crow strategists,
precise, swift against your loss of power.

Your eyes seek mine as I leave you,
a pawn in nature’s game, beyond my reach
but not without this moment of sudden recognition.

(This is a juvenile red-tailed hawk. I have never been within about 3 feet of one, able to study it, then wait with it. The deafening crows were arriving en mass. I have seen crows harass an owl to the point of exhaustion and one assumes, to death. I wonder what happened to this exquisite bird. The Audubon Society was called; I was too far from home to help it in time and I am hoping the Society was able to send someone out to soon retrieve it and care for it. But I will never forget this encounter.)

Sorrow is an Arrow with No Place to Land

Photo, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.

She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.

Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.

That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.

She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.

She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.

In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.

******

The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.

They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.

Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.

The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.

Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?

Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).

She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.

Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.

A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.

She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.

******

And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.

Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.

“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”

Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the  means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.

Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.

“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”

With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.

“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’

Sophie smiled assent.

“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”

Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.

Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.

The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.

In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.

The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.

And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was  and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?

The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?

The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.

“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”

Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand.  Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.

“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”

They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.

“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”

Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.

“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”

Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.

“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”

Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?

“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”

“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up  and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.

Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”

“Yes, I did.  I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”

Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.

“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”

“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor,  co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.

Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.

“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.

The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”

“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”

Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.

“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve  no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”

But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:

Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.

Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.

 

(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/

If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)

 

Running Away as a Grown Up Solution

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I am regularly tempted to run away. It’s been an impulse much of my life that, more often than not, I’ve managed to resist in the literal sense. For someone whose formative mind was instilled with a strong sense of responsibility regarding duty and other acquired commitments–and who enjoys her life overall–this fantasy appears to be in conflict. Who would abdicate one’s life ties so easily? But I’m not sure it is so at odds.

A fledgling “escape desire” flared by age ten to twelve while reading a few pulpy novels about independent young women heading off to dazzling New York, for an example, to pound on doors of business (seeking an editor’s trajectory at a hip magazine) or theater (an actor’s life in musical theater) or medical centers (a doctor’s or nurse’s career). The adventures they had, the surprising people they met! I can yet recall how the books evoked yearning; it lit within me an ardor that fueled childish dreams. And I did enjoy the story lines that ended with satisfaction after a few hairy trials. Heroines of a sort they were, and they sometimes found love.

Yet a secret desire to escape Midland along a more general wanderlust developed even before then. Each month I poured over National Geographic, as well as Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post. Everyone was doing things far more interesting than what I saw going on in my town, and they were doing it in  marbvelous places. I imagined what it might be to leave my small Michigan city where we mostly knew one another. To leave heartbreaks already experienced, discarding a sometimes stifling atmosphere of a competitive, properly behaved, often blinkered family. And then to embrace the freedom of options that I listed by adolescence. Too few if things went the way they had been.

On my walls I taped discarded posters salvaged from travel agencies–Paris, London, Madrid, Buenos Aries. I studied them and was transported to bustling public squares, colorful outdoor cafes, saw music and dance performances on the street, and soon almost slipped in the picture to leap along turquoise waves. I kept a bulletin board with more visual and verbal encouragements, each a promise to myself that I was getting out.

The truth was, I was also happy to go to Chicago and wander (close to parents) the “windy city’s” exciting streets or even Detroit’s muscular, diverse energy. I appreciated journeying to see relatives in Missouri and Kansas, Texas and Colorado–not just to visit them. I couldn’t wait to absorb with senses and mind the days and nights of varied countryside, decayed or beautiful buildings, window shop in tiny or shiny, mammoth stores, join the parade of passersby on streets, even quiet byways. On other summer trips cross-country all I had to do was gaze out the back seat car window to find cheery roadside fruit and veggie stands or fancy skyscrapers and historical makers amid deep woods, not to mention places too much to even put into words such as the Smokey Mountains or the Grand Canyon: instant, moving beguilement. Stories took shape at each pause, then we were off to the next part. The whole world was rife with oddness, joy, variety, magic. How to bridge the gap between modest reality when back home and that grander one?

Later, I did run away by skirting limits, then breaking rules and half-submerging myself in a shadowy world of drugs (an escape that ends up as hell), living a double teen-aged life. Not running towards what I’d hoped but trying to get away from much, I was a teen with potential but also issues. By age 15, I was placed in a foster home for a few months; it was terrible, ended disastrously though I learned better to depend more on myself. At nearly 17, it was arranged that I share an apartment with a “respectable” twenty-one year old woman who was working long hours and needed help with rent. That, too, was not any good dream fulfilled but a chance to use more substances, and try to avoid the law. Overdoses, breakdowns, then finally being given a one way ticket to live with a sister and her friend. Now that was something, a log cabin on Lake Washington, freedom, nature surrounding us, new people, a wild boyfriend. But one cannot run from one’s haunted self and eventually I returned to the old hometown, then began university studies at last, feeling defeated but determined to move on and out of there. I didn’t know there were worse hurdles to come. But I vowed to one day return to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with its creatively charged cities (which took me twenty years). The wanderlust had set its tender roots deep within.

But I became an adult in fits and starts as I got clean. Before long I committed myself to being a mother, a wife, a worker bee. I had not well considered being a wife nor had I expected to become a mother due to diagnosed fertility problems. Thus, my learning curve was steep but i am nothing if not persistent, for good or ill. Once setting a goal, I am all in or I admit defeat and try another path. As a mother, there can be no selfish foolishness.

Thus, I determined at last that pockets of daydreams were fine for long pauses but not so useful in everyday life. Daily life held exceptional moments but required diligent attention, sweat, sacrifices. It was time to stop desiring another life. Get on with it, get busy attending those new needs. Escapist fantasies were for selfish people or perhaps cowards.

But you know, it is hard to stop wanting what one feels is needed, yet cannot have. In the long afternoons when rocking beautiful but squalling babies; when tallying up the income, outgo and what little food was left on the shelf; when the night wrapped itself about me in a sometimes too-empty bed; and when more devils of illness and heartache came, that old longing whispered in my ear: ah, to leave this hurt/poverty/backwater place/man and begin anew, to search out happiness, to be gifted with possibilities like dandelion fluff that floats into open palms, seeds for new growth landing in my eager grasp. At such moments, the recollection of old hopes is strong, bittersweet.

I got up in the night and wrote. A song, a story, a three line poem. I sat in the pearly glow of moonlight spilled onto living floors or danced a few steps in dew-spun grass out the back door as my family slept. There was an empty spot within that slowly burned, called out for more. As much as I gave myself over to hope and prayer for a life that filled up the wells rather than readily emptied them, I shouldered a burden of shame. Why wasn’t love of my children and their father utterly enough? It was the 1970s, then the 1980s. It was a far throw from the restrictive fifties into which I was born. Yet I was more often the one in a room full of women without the big career, with little to show for my perseverance to stay fully alive, just to daily do the decent thing. I did own a passport that held stamps from only Canada while my second husband traveled often and farther (and still does).

Of course, life was transformed many times over. I moved to other places on the worn paper U.S. map I spread on the floor to show the kids where to next, our fingertips tracing blue, red and black arteries that crisscrossed the country. I was excited to move again, to meet new people, explore new scenery, thought of myself as a roaming soul. I lived in pleasing houses and raised more children. I went back to work, had a career I appreciated. From time to time, however, I still imagined running away though I knew it would not happen, not the ways I’d once invented. And never unless I took the children with me, for I adored them. (This did occur a few times.) They’d become as much the anchor bolts of my life foundation as my faith in God. Still. The urge to escape, to extend my reach further, was part of my self just like my loyalty to family. I could get restless. I tried to be more content. It could not be denied that there were many golden moments to find. The children and I had delicious adventures and men I’ve loved also have inspired times both life enhancing and fulfilling.

There was, however, another way of transportation to other realms. Not surprisingly, it was what I both felt and learned as a young person: becoming ever better at tuning into both inner and outer worlds; and acting in creative ways in response. By paying attention and loving what and how I chose to see, then letting myself be moved to make something of it–this becomes a door cracked, and then it springs wide open. It is being in the moment and doing any sort of creative work.

In this way, I have found it is not so hard to slip the confines of life’s various conundrums and prisons. I am not speaking to experiences of those who have suffered far worse but only to my own experiences. There are readers of this blog who’ve read of harrowing times, the worst of which I haven’t shared here and some of which have been fictionalized. The point is, in my own strenuous circumstances, there has been a way to get out, to slip the bonds of everything from obnoxious boredom to terrifying events. It is all accomplished by power of mind and strength of soul. And if you have a few extra bucks in your pocket, a road trip always makes the mix more engaging. A brisk walk around the neighborhood can even be a start, for some of us, anyway. The same potential for wonder can blossom in unassuming ways.

I find it rewarding to embark on armchair travels as well, via reading or watching documentaries. I’m good with a trip to our far flung coasts or a hike in nearby valleys and mountains. And my husband and I go on a jaunt to Canada now and again. I avail myself of others’ offerings, such as a brother and sister-in-law mentioned before in posts who travel nonstop and take fine photographs. I just listen to their experiences, thumb through their websites. I am expanded, enlightened more. It’s not being there, but it counts. Interestingly, when my parents returned from European travels after I’d left home, I felt that same tingle of excitement. They shared slide shows and I loved every minute, even my parents’ verbally meticulous notations of each scene.

Most of all, being in possession of an imagination is a powerful tool for all. Sometimes I think this century has lost sight of its most basic operational sense. Do we need to always be entertained by speedy, sometimes shallow offerings, by endless media distractions splashed across screens? Because I’m in my sixties, I didn’t grow up with these things so got used to utilizing my own resources. I know technology does aid us. But we have our extraordinary, DNA-designed “imaginarium”, the human mind. The more it is used, the more finely attuned it becomes and the better it serves–for entertainment, yes, but also to problem solve, to explore strange unknowns, to empathize with others, to engage in a spectrum of possibilities from artistic expression to humanitarian services to entrepreneurial plans. To fashion, then immerse one’s self in a fulfilling life. Spiritually, it is just one step further and forward. For in my view, soul and mind are part of a vast continuum, a powerhouse combination leading us to grander interconnecting, cohesive designs. It all fits together nicely.

Truth be told, I more or less run away multiple times a day. I write something, read widely, dance, sing, listen to music. I make pictures, attend films, plays and concerts. Enjoy talking with other people often, listening to conversations on the street and in cafes, observing from the windows as humanity ebbs and flows past my home. And of course there are daily walks  and weekend hikes that are never uninspiring, but both balm and surprise. Escapes like these replenish. Perhaps they are, rather, more of an augmentation of our humanness, enriching and resettling, so that we gather strength and stamina and clearer minds for whatever is to come. So we can better act in accord with our higher selves. Mend our broken spots. Buoy the tiresome moments of life.

But my husband told me once that he doesn’t quite get how I can be so satisfied by simply looking at visuals and reading about places, people, things. It surprised me. I thought everyone felt that way. If I can imagine it, I can claim an experience that is still  powerful.

“See that chalet on a Swiss mountainside?” I asked and pointed at a picture. “I can begin to see a life being lived there and I can zoom in and imagine being there, even that it is mine a moment if I choose. It is mentally entering a new country, crossing over into another time or kingdom. I do not have to get on a plane to do that much. It is the cheapest route to exploration!”

There is a last grand escape (not counting leaving the human body) idea for which I do sporadic research: where to live when my husband retires, maybe in five years. Surely not in this traffic-ridden, burgeoning city where housing costs are skyrocketing monthly. I’ve been musing over Boise, Idaho for the grandeur of the mountains and four more defined seasons, and most important,  a lower cost of living. Then I am attracted to San Diego, California with its wonderful weather and ocean side living–but a frail pipe dream as we don’t have the budget required. And I have always wondered about the Mediterranean–isn’t there some island we might make a life upon? Say, magical, monastically simplified life on Santorini? Next week it may be Norway or Ireland that I’ll investigate. Or, okay, perhaps upstate Washington, always an area we like to visit.

On the other hand, I can’t take my children from their work and so on, can I? Of course, they’re full grown adults now, plotting their own fun and important ventures. But a few live here and grandchildren, too. We will have to give it a long, hard think. There is more than one way to book a good place and time in this life. We’ll see what happens. Right now I am becoming lost in a recording by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and I am somewhere wonderful that time will reveal, perhaps in the next poem I’m moved to write. But later–when Marc gets home from his Mexico business trip– there is another trip to be planned for a pause in our daily duties. Yes, a small and happy escape.

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View from the Olympic Mountains, Washington from a good “escape trip”