The thing about moving house and home is that past, present and future vie for attention and, mostly, all at once. About the time it’s perceived as inevitable–papers signed, money given, changes of address completed, boxes being filled–the magnetic center of your life is yanking you back to the current abode and security. Then the past nabs you as you shuffle and muse over odds and ends. And presto! -you’re afloat in “what once was,” even dreaming of surprising segments. Then you try to imagine again the new square footage–the very shapes of rooms and placement of windows, even slant and foliage of the land– and how to grossly simply it all. And how to like it, come what may.
At least for me, all this is becoming apparent as I plot and plan with Marc. We are determined to be rational adults during the entire process; we have nearly failed a couple of times already. It has been 25 years here. It is what we know–and enjoy. It is the familiarity which tops the list, I suspect, though vast neighborhood gardens, logical grid of streets and rambunctious style of the city life–these all count so much. Yet circumstances plus a big chunk of family devotion have brought us to this moment. Our current small, well situated building will be sold sooner than later. And one daughter is having twins soon while another is having major surgery. Reasons enough to– having scouted the new domain–compare movers’ estimates.
We have fantasized about moving (once or twice nearly taken action) for…well, at least ten-fifteen years. That is a lot of looking along with balancing pros and cons. There always presented some reason the timing wasn’t right. The kids joked that we’d always talk of it but never vacate.
This time, after months of intensive searching, one of the first places seen has become the one we’ll transform into a den in the wilderness. Sort of. I mean, it sits on a high ridge. The view is fir trees and a bit of valley. Welcome to the southwest frontier, as our son-in-law jokingly said. Not a joke, exactly, as my daily walk will preclude an easy, carefree romp. It will require a trudge to get onto hilly trails–even fetching mail, for that matter, will be a chance to exercise. I have this glowing picture in my mind, though: I am smiling, I am breathing in fresh piney air, arms pumping to generate momentum and blood flow so my brain is oxygenated and thrilled and then thigh muscles sneakily yell at me and lungs tighten– but I am happy, yes! I am moving with grace and enthusiasm as sweat makes a beeline down back and chest and my heart is kicking at my ribs. Yes, made it up another 75 feet! Good for me and all.
Speaking of which, the new place is at 500 feet which contrasts with the current sea level…from the valley to hilltops. It is weirdly–with all the nature about– a more suburban community. But we can still drive to Portland’s downtown in perhaps fifteen minutes if we luck out with traffic.
Truth is, this is one reason we chose the new place: a rich beauty of quietness, trees, views. And it is much closer to the daughters we will see often. The one blossoming with twins I will be with daily a long while as new mothering starts to fit her like a beloved, comfy garment. I am hoping my grandmotherly skills are still up to par–our youngest grandchild is now 13– but some things are embraced in faith, with best intentions grounded in love. We’ll learn by doing, all of us.
For Marc, a drive to work or the airport will lengthen. We don’t speak of that much yet. It is what it is. He was the first to feel more strongly that the place should be our new one. He is worn out by an insomnia worsened by the cacophony of passersby, sirens, homeless rooting for bottles and cans in bins, bar visitors making known their delights and miseries as they careen down the street at 2 a.m. (Yes, it is a “good neighborhood” but it is the real city.) Whereas, I lay there contemplating what stories can come of all that, and watch the night sky that is wondrous even with its city-lit sheen. This is some of what we are leaving. And I concurred with Marc. We have lived in countryside a few times over the decades; this is out of city proper and offers another scene.
And though it has plenty of space for us (plus family meals, friends visits), it’s strangely lacking decent storage, so I must not be self-indulgent as I start sorting. We can rent storage–it seems so many do that these days–but why hang onto what is outmoded, unnecessary?
Back at my tasks, then, I find the past comprises a whole lot as I toss out ancient reading or sunglasses; a hundred sweet birthday cards that just cannot be kept; many articles I should have read, then recycled already; silly scribblings of once-younger grandkids; a bunch of decades-old prom and recital pictures of our five; even yellowing report cards. I like to keep pictures torn from magazines and other colorful paper items… for collages that are sometimes made. My small drawings and paintings- keep or shred? How many pens and paper clips do we need? Old bill receipts? The piles grow. My massive wooden desk is like a magic object: the more I pull out, the more paper/office supplies/miscellaneous expand. And the past beckons me so that dreamy pauses become as frequent as decisive action.
When did I-we-live all this life, gather such stuff? Know all these people (friends, family’s multi-generations, co-workers, acquaintances, also husbands)? I know I took things in hand but the events sure took me in hand, too. I stand up and utter: Gaaack!
How did the kids just…become themselves? Oh, well, it happened despite our interference and attentiveness. Was the child in the bold red gown, Cait grinning from the stairwell, minutely aware she was to be a chaplain helping the aged? How about my tiny preemie, so quiet her hands spoke for her as she built things, patiently created fresh realities… Naomi became a sculptor and an advocate for many. Aimee full of dancing passion and a spirit of justice, still a deep heart whose persistence is mighty. Alex, the one percolating twins, started out life with a rare disorder, is courageous and ambitious, full of quirky energy. Joshua, the firebrand? A born athlete who thinks outside the box, has survived near-death more than once. Of course, these flawed but loving adult children–though not all nearby–are with me always. It is not the stuff they left for me to muse over and organize but their very existence that takes up much room within me. And I am not crowded by that.
The last time a big move was completed it was from a two-story four bedroom house. We dragged all with us, found places to keep it, hide it, lose it. (Will I locate those other socks? a lost earring? that poem?) Now, much will be let go. Material things can be weighty, a superfluous anchor for spirit and mind when both desire freedom. I am hoping someone else will utilize many books, clothes, tools, unloved furniture, those mugs that don’t excite me.
Loves, losses, hardships, revelations and such mundane moments, too –it all comes forth as I riffle through my old writings (and those family members wrote and shared), sort scads of old photos, eloquent letters and quick notes from my strong, thoughtful mother and tender sisters. Examining my father’s signature stamp for his correspondence and instrument invoices, I wonder why on earth I still have that useless thing. How do I rid myself of special Valentine’s Day cards that Annie, my artist sister-in-law, has created for years? Or the sheaf of postcards that Naomi and I sent back and forth, each inscribed with a sentence, poem, dream–a story that we made together with replies? The music mixes Alex made for us, some on which she was joyfully singing. The collection of bells that my mother started and gave me. My cello, asleep in its case.
It gets harder the more I stop to consider it all. Only things, I tell myself, let the life that was lived just be at it’s ease.
And please may my family not have to plow through an abundance of unnecessary stuff when I am gone for good.
Ordinarily, I do not linger in the past–despite the fact that many of my narrative nonfiction pieces revisit the past somehow. It is material for writing within a set time frame; I delve into whatever waits to take its place on a blank screen. My daily life is greatly consumed with the moment, the present needs and experiences–as is true for most, I suspect. And as I get older, I don’t think more of the past, contrary to what an over-60 stereotype indicates. There is far much to yet discover and immerse myself in; such an abundance of moments to celebrate–and work out and share. I think rather little of the future, as well–just enough so I can plan for certain events. But not so much that I become riveted or stalled by what good or ill may or may not occur. It is worth little to me to try determining a life that has created its own wild, then improved trajectory. My decisions matter, yes, but only in part. The rest is up for grabs.
So this is the thing: like a confluence of divergent tributaries, all simply merges. It is powerful, this life making its way and taking me into and along with it. In the midst of more significant change, where past and present and future intersect, I continue to find a new balance as best I can and join the lively movement forward. It is tedious and exhilarating and maddening. But I’m up for it, an hour at a time. Thank goodness I can write about such domestic adventuring. I’ll keep you posted on interesting starts and stops along the trip. And show you my perspective of the terrain I come to know. Here is to uncharted territory and trying to live this life well!
I don’t have major travel plans this winter but I need a break from our saturated, chilly January in the Pacific NW. So, I went in search of sunnier climes with suitable diversions captured in photos of years past. Viola! I found sunshine in one lovely visit to Florida–just the remedy for moderate winter drear, chock full of happy memories, too. Many pictures were taken on Pine Island, a touristy but fun spot. Enjoy!
(And in memory of 2 family members lost to us in 2018: Sherril and Beth.)
It was an odd, fateful accident, all that resulted from that day, and it started with running into George in the middle of the day on Mimosa Pond’s path. She’d been to the bank, going over her woeful balance with a teller. After it was shown to be still in her barest favor, she took time at water’s edge, walking and gawking with deliberate pleasure. There were silken layers of southern floral fragrances in the air that half-spooked her. It didn’t seem quite right although she knew better. Her latest home base in Idaho was under a heap of snow. Tennessee held a different scent altogether.
She needed such moments away from her mother, and to practice experiencing the relief of small pleasures. The past month had not been a choice string of events. Anyone who had lost a job would not fault her for a swear word derailing her thoughts. Even the sweet green light of early spring did little to cheer her. She refused to budge until her mood lightened. Then she might re-enter her mother’s cottage with the evening’s dinner groceries in hand and good news that she was not entirely broke. She endeavored to keep the full and bitter truth from her: it could be a slight month more before her bank balance became a total loss. Unless her art work sold fast.
The footsteps behind her slowed, then stopped. She registered the sound of gravel crunching and the pause of it but was busy examining a duck that looked as if it had mated perhaps with a random crow. Pretty thing. Yet it had a duck’s bill and way of dipping and floating; it had not made a sound yet. It had plenty of company, unlike herself since arriving in town.
A husky voice made murky by duck squawks and a riffling waterfall came through her reverie. She stepped aside as if used to being in the way when others approached. A bad new habit since her humiliation.
She looked up because the person said it right, the “Mari” syllable not mispronounced as “Mary” which strangers inevitably said, but rhyming with “far” as it should be. She was “Mari” to friends–but this man couldn’t be one of the two or three holdovers from twenty years past. Could he? They’d all moved elsewhere, as had she.
Mari blinked; her eyes slid over his face. “I am. And you are?”
“George,” he said, “George Hartsell.”
A frown rippled over his tan face then vanished. Maybe it was a few day’s beard growth that darkened his jaw and cheekbones, an almost swarthy look; he was not recognizable. He looked taken aback that she didn’t know him right off and rocked on his heels a little, studied the ducks, waiting.
But Mari remembered enough. Her second best friend had been chummy with him and so they’d all done things together from time to time. Rita wasn’t serious about him–she was serious about no one. George was always in the background, though, and brought about when she was bored. Mari thought her capricious and a little mean but he didn’t seem to mind. Studious, with a quick wit, he was nice to her–that’s what she recalled. He’d been slight, a tad awkward, and companionable enough.
“Oh, George, sorry! I think we maybe ran into each other at the ten year reunion? Nice that you remembered me, and from a distance. What a surprise!”
“I wasn’t there, sorry– in Italy at the time, I think. It’s okay. But you don’t look so different. Same auburn hair, tall, lanky. A bright presence, overall, still.”
His lively look held her gaze a moment–he had certainly gotten tall somewhere along the line, too– and they smiled at each other with some embarrassment, which she could not decipher.
“Well, so how funny–here we are. I’m back …to tend to my mother. She had a bout of cancer and is on a slow mend. Never thought to find myself back in Tennessee. Just here a short time to make sure she is healing and doesn’t feel too alone. Though she has doting friends and, of course, the church.” She picked up a stick, tossed it into the water where it floated away with no destination. “I don’t know, guess duty called.”
“The same for me,” George said and squatted, long black coat sweeping over dirt and rocks as he studied the water fowl. “My uncle is about on his death bed. He was like a second father to me when I was a kid. Haven’t seen him in well over ten years, so my father called and asked that I come. Of course, I also wanted to see him.” He tossed a rock with some force toward a land mass that mimicked a miniature island. It hit solid ground. He stood and brushed his hands off. “It’s sad, seventy-nine, he’s been very ill. No doubt you and I have other obligations. But, you know, blood family is, first and last, family.”
“Right.” She sighed. “Terribly true despite our best efforts…”
He snickered. They began to follow the path together, despite her desire to be alone before once more being immersed in the hothouse tenor of her mother’s place. But he seemed at loose ends.
“Mind if I tag along? I have nowhere else to be right now.”
Mari shrugged. “Tell me what you ended up doing, then. You were good with numbers and played the…trumpet?”
“Yes, to both. I’m in business, worked for an international company and still travel a lot. And I still play the trumpet for relaxation.”
“Not a big surprise. You were–are–good at all you did.”
“Thanks for that.”
She had forgotten how and where she had heard him play, but she knew Rita, a drummer in a garage band, said he could be a jazz musician one day–he was that natural a musician, so creative. That was one reason she hung out with him, that tie with music. Not that Mari was averse to it. She just had had little satisfaction pursuing piano so quit at twelve.
“You know Rita became a nurse, married a dentist and moved to Atlanta.”
“I didn’t, no. Hope that worked out for both.”
“It did, I suppose,” she said, deciding to not tell him she had no idea what had happened since 2010. Losing track of old friends happened so fast. And now how to tell him the state of her career?
“I am or was part of a large, booming gallery–the director. Boise, of all places. But I have long been an artist. It just didn’t pay my rent.”
“You are or were a gallery director?”
She stole a glance at him but he was staring across the pond so she kept on, uncertain how to answer. His arms were swinging, matching his long stride; they moved in sync when his right arm brushed against her left. Instantly, a mini-shock of warmth, that tingle of one person touching another. George touching her, accidentally. He slowed a little, turned back to her, ready to hear her story.
“I am, but I’m on leave. It’s a long saga. Not too interested in telling it. I am re-evaluating.” A laugh came out too loud and hard, bounced around a thicket of trees.
“We’re never interested in spotlighting tough times, just remarkable ones, right? I’ve had my share. I cannot imagine your not being a fine artist, Mari. You have such talent.”
There, he said the more familiar name. It sounded good to her. “I was sure aspiring to be one. Making work much less these days.” She turned and put hands on hips. “Okay, none in four months.”
They had looped around the entire pond and stood near the parking lot. He took out car keys. His alert grey eyes held hers more than a moment, and there it was. An unmistakable recognition that went a little deeper, barely. A tentative, unexpected connection. o, she was imagining it, wasn’t she?
“I have to get going, but why not join me for coffee tomorrow?”
She wanted to say: what about a wife, maybe I have a partner, too; what about keeping it formal or maybe just keeping the heck away? But she felt that he was alone. They both wore a lean, wan look tempered by surrender to their chronic but comfortable solitary state. They had stopped expecting anything to work out. They were savvy and they had also given up. They were fine like that. Mostly. She was almost broke but that was another issue, more or less.
“Alright, why not? About ten?”
“Jana’s? Where we once sucked up too much bitter black coffee-before it became so terribly gourmet and pricey!”
That brought forward memories of forbidden cigarettes, heavy white mugs of rancid coffee in shadowy back booths. But she already had misgivings. As he found his sporty car she realized he was attractive in a slightly asymmetrical, curious way and carried himself with easy confidence. George had grown right up, become a man of the world, a doer of things. And she was tired of that sort. In fact, she was steamrollered and worn out by all men. And George was just another, albeit one with a fine woolen overcoat and light beard, and an attentive, affable manner.
The door jingled its small tarnished bell just as it had all those years ago. Assuming it was a newer bell, but maybe not. She surveyed the scene. Jana’s Side Street Cafe had new charcoal tiled flooring and rich blue walls but otherwise seemed the same. The booths were still dark red but sported upgraded fabric.
Mari had told her mother she’d be a couple of hours and would bring home her new medicine. Tammy’s breast cancer had responded well to treatment; most of her chest was yet intact but this was the second bout and at sixty-three, she had been forced to retire from the library after so many months lost and too much weakness. Even if she had reported to her desk, it was time to take back the life she had left, she had told her daughter. She’d worked there thirty-four years.
Every time she looked at Mari she was filled with gratitude. This made Mari cringe with shame at the secrets she was keeping from her, and the fact that she found it hard to be there more than a couple weeks. They had not been very close during her youth; they had not become any more intimate with the passage of time. But Tammy was even more the optimist now, oddly, so kept trying to pull her closer, while Mari retreated more. For every kind hour there were those prickly with irritation, the subtle and often mutual criticism they tossed at one another. They had changed in opposite ways, it seemed. It frustrated them yet they never spoke of it, just carried on, each in their proscribed roles. Only now Mari was a caregiver, not the one aided. So far. She wanted to keep it that way. She liked her independence, her lifestyle. Still, her mother was her only mother. She loved her.
George waved at her from a sunny side booth; the favored back ones were filled with college students from the Baptist college. You could tell from the studied neatness and serious gleams in the eyes.
“Hey there,” she said and slid into her side. “You look more normal today, I have to say–and rested.”
Henodded. “I was getting over jet lag. Came from Columbia, then the Bahamas.”
“I see, tough life.”
That was an actual tan, then. He was clean shaven, wore a green T-shirt under a jacket with lots of pockets, safari-style. He smelled unusual, like cedar or the sea or a mix. Mari felt overdressed in tailored black slacks, high heeled boots and a teal cashmere sweater. She had met with a gift store manager earlier, giving her a sales pitch.
“I had business, forgive my cultivated look. I tried to push my nature prints at Nance’s Art and Knickknacks. I am trying not to cringe as I say that… hard to explain.” She felt her face flush so signaled a waitress.
George said nothing; he appraised her with eyebrows raised as cups were filled and cream brought.
“It is just that I have to keep making money on the side. I don’t know how long will be here and the job–it won’t tolerate my absence for long, and I have bills still coming in and–“
“Any good success at Nance’s or did you hightail it out of there?”
The vowels had relaxed already, just as hers had; the south was creeping in enough that they’d have to watch it or get sucked in to old habits of speech and behavior.
“Yeah, actually, she took four prints on trial. I hope they sell. I sell online, too, if you ever want to see what I do.” She played with her spoon, poured a heap of sugar into it, dumped it in, stirred. Her heat rate bumped up; she felt breathless. She just could not fake it to someone she had enjoyed and respected once.
“Hey, George, enough bull, alright? I was fired. I had an affair with the owner’s son and that was considered not acceptable as Joseph–the son–oversaw all accounts when his father was out of state. Which was at times for weeks, months. Charles Meier considered it overt favoritism and double dipping on both our parts when Joseph pushed my work at customers. I wasn’t even showing there, of course. Although business happened outside our gallery walls. And Joseph saw to it I got paid quite a bit and he got a nice commission and…well, not okay to Mr. Meier. So I was finally flat-out fired.”
“I see, you were both hustling.” George put an index finger to upper lip and pressed the indentation. He tried to not smile. “I guess it was a sort of ethics issue. Why didn’t he recommend you to another gallery or someone who could help without entanglements?”
“I don’t know. Laziness? He may have loved me?”
“Ah. Did you love him? Wait– that’s too frank a question, sorry. But I get it, he believed you deserved success. Plus he was smitten.”
Mari was stopped by smitten, how old fashioned it was and Southern it felt. “No. I mean, perhaps I was, but in the end it was more about the art…I didn’t separate the two very well. Love, art, men, business, work, art, love, life. It gets jumbled at times. It is not easy out there in the great art world, believe me. My prints and paintings are very good but so are plenty of others.” She lowered her face to the steaming mug and then looked up from under her eyebrows. “I took advantage of his contacts and interest, I admit it.”
He leaned back with mug grasped in both hands. “I understand some of this. I buy art.”
Her head jerked up. “What? Well, you make good money at your work, I can see that, so it must be great art you hang. What do you do? Your turn, George.”
“I’m an entrepreneur. I started out as an investor and did well fast, worked further in international banking and made a lot more money. Some years ago I got sick of working for others. I took my money and invested it in cutting edge tech industries of various sorts. Now I invest in others’ projects, businesses. “
Her mouth had dropped open enough that she made herself close it casually, sipped more coffee as she gathered her composure.
“Well, George Hartsell, we all thought you’d make it but more like an Ivy League mathematics professor or a ground breaking environmentalist, perhaps. I guess an entrepreneur is okay, too.” She let out a snort. “I mean, if you love it, why not?”
“It’s not a dirty word, is it? ” He smiled but his bright clear eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t a plan to take over the world or anything mad. I just had this knack. I took serious risks.” He looked out the window. “You know, most people don’t recognize me in my old hometown. I get the urge to extend my hand but they look me up and down, pass by quickly. It is the smell of money, I suspect, and a foreignness I seem to carry now. It’s a weird feeling. My parents are glad to see me, of course, and had a dinner with a few of their friends last night. But no one seems to know what to make of me. I want to say, ‘I’m just George–I love numbers and innovation, that’s all! It also made me money!'”
“No one knows me, either, George. Or, rather, they know me but aren’t interested. I think they all know I lost my biggest job, anyway. And I make art, after all. Most of it is not the sort they’d hang on their walls. The nature prints are one thing–and I love doing those, too– but the rest…I mean, what is art to this town?”
“Maybe a primitive painting of a farm scene? Not that that is not worthwhile.”
“Yes, likely so and I agree. And the quilts my mother and her friends make are beautiful. But I am not a success in the typical way, not like you. And now I don’t know quite what I will do next.”
“Make more art, Mari.”
She checked his expression to see if he was teasing or being downright snide, but he seemed serious. His demeanor was even gentle.
Kayla the waitress– no one they knew– brought more coffee but they had had their fill and grew restless. The sun streamed in; they were drawn outdoors.
“Let’s go to the park,” he said and guided her out by her elbow like a gentleman well raised.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “you do need to create so you can’t stop now. I need to create, too, just with different materials, using different avenues. I love the way the human mind can imagine and devise an vast assortment of ideas. I had my own dreams as a kid. I’m holding onto them as long as I can work it right. You can do the same. Should do it.”
They’d walked around the shimmering pond. He’d mentioned he was divorced for over five years and she’d said good for him, he was brave–she’d never even tried a marriage. He’d told her he was tired of travelling and had two houses, one in Wisconsin on a lake and one in L.A. and “a modest apartment in New York” and he’d like to stay put awhile. She wondered how simple or small ‘modest’ meant but just having three homes seemed entirely excessive. A bit interesting. They’d talked about art a little, what he had bought and who she admired and what her next project might be.
“I know. I’m not giving up. I just am taking a break and really have to make money soon.”
“Okay, you know what? I can likely help with that. Now, don’t start being negative or suspicious until we talk over some things. I have a week to hang around; we’ll come up with ideas, think it over well.”
He leaned against a tree and reached out to push a stray lock of burnished gold hair from her eyes. She found the act lovely and natural. They both sensed there was something more underneath it all. They weren’t just two buddies passing the time of day to stave off boredom, catching up on old times, swapping stories to impress or garner attention. It was happening fast, but that didn’t negate the existence of something more stirring between them.
They liked each other’s company, had begun to click, even started to understand the direction and content of their thoughts before all the words were said. It was as if they had always known they might trust each other–when they were seventeen, more captivated by Rita’s boisterous energy?– but had put it aside and so now they resurrected the actual possibility.
Mari took a step backwards, then came forward once more as he carefully opened his arms. They stood there in the warm breeze, hip to hip and chest to chest, minds clarified, their hopefulness magnetic. Like they’d been needing such a moment a long while, and now they were meant to fit.
“Hey there! My gosh! Are you for real? Is that Marietta Masters and George Hartsell from the good ole, bad ole days? I can’t believe this–twenty-five years later!”
Mari said into George’s ear, “Good grief, that’s Tommy Jenkins, isn’t it! Balding and slouchy but no mistaking him!”
“Oh, no, not today if ever. Let’s get out of here, lady.”
George grabbed her hand and they ran around the bend of Mimosa pond until they came to his car, a vintage green MG. “Let’s head out to the country, what do you say?”
They had managed to leave the town a few miles behind when George shouted into the wind, grinning like a madman at Mari, “By the way, I already own six of your prints and two paintings!”
Mari smacked his arm as her eyes teared up. She wasn’t sure if it was the heady Tennessee spring wind that got to her or the sudden start up of actual happiness. But she did know her mother would forgive her for not sharing the whole truth. She would even cheer her on, then hug the breath right out of her and say, “Told you that all good things come to those who are just willing to hang on and wait, darlin’.”
This is a woman on an unassuming balcony that has served her well for 23 years. It overlooks a peach-colored house and the glittering, rambunctious city. And the balcony will be missed and it will miss her, perhaps. They have kept each other company this long: part of a lifetime.
This is the place she has gathered family and friends, let stories step forward to speak, danced barefoot in a blue skirt to music resonant in belly and brain, risen in the softening wash of dawn, sung to herself. Lain face upwards, hands open, staring at nothing after heart disease got her early and was told she might have a few years more. Which did not undo her, even weighted with fears. Got busy, a kind of salvation for much of human living. Sought to cheer others, another act of mercy for the woman who offered, not only a few others.
She gathered stars as they breathed in the cave of the dark; when did they not see all and give their all, wasn’t it their destiny? Could she aspire to any less in the end? And so she faced matters as they came hand, gave hope more space. Let God keep her, whole or not.
This is where she has lathered and spun two thousand socks and kitchen towels, saved ruby red petals that fell from geraniums in the wake of streaming rain. Where the books have lived clandestine lives and language admitted her to its domain with beckoning phrase and whisper, where her own language circuits rattled her teeth with odd feats and loosened dreaming..and night welcomed her, made garlands around the moon and her shoulders.
This is a place the years have been plumped and embroidered with many hearts, children or grown ones, such hands opened and hands filled with spillage of love and barren with loss, an agitation of wants and needs, a palette of feeling and music that has risen from sky and the dense, sweetening earth.
The ache of being exposed to more love coupled with its miracle and the pleasure of more willingness: she was no longer a victim of anything. Two feet to stand on, two knees to kneel. This was what the place gave her: opportunity to transform, renew.
This was a place that was supposed to be just a change station, a slow, muscular crossing from one aspect of life to another, a temporary platform for ideas and goals to be challenged and completed. And then left behind on the serpentine trail.
But it was not.
It was a steady embrace, a safe abode for time shared–even time given away. A galaxy of small things that startled, the relentless unknowns surrounding what seemed often a small, leaky boat carrying such few tools alongside the rowing woman.
And a larger tale wrote itself from humility’s gentling hurt, then from stillness amid rushes of hope. A revelation, this wide spot in the powerful river upon whose banks she built a life in a long slow reveal. Ordinary weeping, laughing, watching and waiting, simplest doings; surprises of living make their marks, a deepening identity. She stirs and rises to greet more.
And more change so soon. Why resist when acquiescence, adjustment, reconstruction all underlay the physics of living things? Of women and men?
A new home will fit itself about her, a daily insistence of tasks, and faith and patience will illumine. She will reconfigure doubts, smooth out contention, just breathe. Place fresh geraniums and old on a new, bigger balcony. Where can this woman live that some unexpected folly or a plan of victory do not happen? What human cannot make a found patch into a home? Even the beetles, even the moss. The eagles and Arctic foxes. Even those all alone in their wandering do it. The brave young, the tempered old. It is managed each day by greater or smaller so she can do it; it will be completed again.
Every one sooner or later leaves for something or someone else, or migrates due to wanderlust or seeks out of desire. Rebuilds to survive. No being is static, even if they believe it so. Step, pause, leap, slide, turn, hang on, reach, thrive. Create.
Yes, another wayside, a still unknown beginning, but there are these that entice: giant fir trees atop a bluff, wind like a call and response, sleekness of coyotes slipping undercover. More liveliness aroused–two whole new beings from a daughter’s unstoppable faith and petite belly. The work and the play of it arriving with anticipation, unbridled energy. Goodness abounds. The woman will gather bird songs and new slant of light, sigh inside darkness and bring babies’ coos close. Open up that heart, something tells her, let it match more rhythms with this living.
The place will slowly become a home, another way to the center of things. Is not the way of the earth and those who dwell here for this short human span?
That woman: myself. Readying for more. Preparing to learn and adapt, allow these happenings as my soul hesitates and rises. I want to stoke a good fire and create another circle for the hearing and telling of this and that. There is forever another story. May I live it as a willing conduit.
I must remember: Love is the path that makes a way in the wilderness; I am another pilgrim who seeks, is sought; finds, is found. The home I best inhabit is the one I carry within and also beyond.
What has ever happened to living a quiet life and finding that meaningful? There is such a garish trumpeting about people and events, about what is deemed commendable or abominable and it often drags lives into the grit of the fray, the spotlight of adoration or scrutiny. Conversations are necessary when they make a meaningful impact but the loud voices that promote fame–or infamy–stop me cold. Why this being splashed all over news outlets as if meant to be so vital to us all? How did it happen that people–even youths–crave fame enough that they will go to any lengths to get it? And who said that a visibly higher socioeconomic status equals lasting happiness? All this talk and focus on being a “Somebody” in the world has me cogitating about the value of ordinary human lives. Because there are far more of us out here than the other sort.
Some history is useful as in a far more innocuous way, I once knew the heat of a spotlight’s beam. I did not grow up feeling strictly anonymous, another face in the crowd, invisible, untraceable. Instead, I was easy to spot, quick to name. I was so used to being introduced as “Lawrence Guenther’s daughter” that much of my childish and youthful identity sprang from this shorthand reference. In fact, seldom did anyone need to say that much; my last name covered it. And, I imagine, my large blue eyes–a family trait many of us shared. Not that it was a bad thing, this quick naming. My father never robbed a bank or stole a car or drunkenly crashed one or worse. He was an upstanding citizen, I have to admit. But it felt like a bit of a burden more often than I cared to say.
I knew nothing of how public a man he was until my early teens; he was often surrounded by students and adults wherever we went. He was not overtly gregarious but had a gentlemanly, winning manner. He was sincere and he was smart; there were far worse things than being the youngest child of such a person. My father’s warm smile and expressive bright eyes had magnetic properties, it seemed.
In a town where the name “Dow” defined everything, being known by any other last name was something of note. Herbert H. Dow was a chemical industrialist who founded my hometown’s Dow Chemical, an international company. His son, Alden B. Dow, was a well-known architect. My dad was not famous but he did enjoy a fine reputation across the state and perhaps beyond for his work. Lawrence Guenther was Midland’s public schools’ music administrator, and a teacher, musician and a conductor of an impressive Midland Symphony Orchestra. This may not seem newsworthy at first glance. Yet this town that was marked by pristine, manicured lawns and graceful homes, a top state school system, international scientists, and a plethora of variously gifted students–well, that meant a little something.
Our about 28,000 (when I was ten; it is now 47,000) people greatly valued arts and sciences, so music programs were high on the list for financial and community support. Classes started when students tested well for musical ability. They began in fourth grade–unless their parents had already sent them to private music lessons, which many had (we already had one built in). Dad was an innovative music programmer and teacher with indefatigable passion for his calling. He advocated for the fine arts tirelessly as well as performed and encouraged, with strict expectations, thus exacting from students their best work.
So it came to be that he was well appreciated. And the family name was synonymous with music. My mother, I might add, was a respected elementary school teacher among other things–a substitute teacher after I was born. Plus, a great hostess and supporter of his career. And she was the more innately extroverted. She was not that musically inclined though her voice was a pleasing alto. My four siblings and I were, so we studied hard, practiced our instruments. This led to endless recitals, orchestral performances, church musical events, musical theater, classical competitions, small chamber groups–and small pop groups for me (not as a cellist for once, but a vocalist–what pleasure tat gave after classical music day in and out).
This did not bode well for lasting anonymity in that city and beyond–in music camps, workshops, state competitions. The better I performed, the more it felt as if I was becoming a more public person, too, not only a reflection of our father’s presence and influence. I adored all the arts so participated with enthusiasm. I especially embraced the actual performance part and duly appreciated applause–but preferred to run off right after performances. It was embarrassing to say “thank you” when complimented; I was doing what I was supposed to do, trained to do, enjoyed doing. But I also worried that I might not achieve the best performance each time I walked onto the stage. It would remain a joy to perform but also a relief to exit stages. The problem with having attention drawn to you is that people start to have expectations, bigger ones as time goes by. The problem is then you must please others and smile on and on when you want to take off the finery and walk into a silent, fathomless, starry night.
For me, the fuss became more trying than emboldening. It never occurred to my father that I was not as accepting as was he of this side effect of doing well. He was fairly ambitious and dedicated, yet marked by a humble nature, and so seemed to take in stride being so visible (despite displaying a vastly more introspective nature at home–no doubt he needed major “down” time). And he had no doubt his children could, would and should excel. He was a faithful believer in God and hard work and so believed that a talent must be honed, and that to waste it was akin to committing a sin. I know he meant well enough, yet that alone provided a penchant for a perfectionism that has dogged me all of my life. But it did not produce a stellar career nor a craving for fame. I excelled at enough, but at some cost. I wanted to a place to create–and found it mainly at a renowned arts camps where there were many such youth as myself.
Still, the thought of being well known–of being recognized as I walked down the street or shared a coffee and occasional forbidden smoke with a friend at a cafe–became less and less appealing. I needed more emotional space. For one thing, I was a young person with secrets due to childhood sexual abuse unknown to my family, and I planned on keeping it that way.
But I was also a dreamer. That state of being requires solitary time to develop and nurture ideas, to embrace with intention each act of creating, to seek an abandonment coupled with unwavering focus. As much as I liked dating as a teen, I was often loathe to leave a new poem or song, a dance or art project–to vacate my busy mind–to meet someone at the front door. My major fantasy by age 12 was to become a well-published, well-read writer (or singer) but to remain primarily anonymous amid any success. It seemed a more comfortable and natural fate. Did I imagine being interviewed? On the phone, perhaps, once or twice. Did I want pictures of me circulating? I didn’t expect that would be to my advantage. Then more people would recognize me and I would have to duck into bushes.
How different these times are–our personal data quickly accessible. I am at moments startled to see my own image despite having gone along with the trends. But I wonder: how much does that add to my life or anyone else’s? I think very little, even at best. My writing–I do hope that matters some, but the fact is, I will still writing. No fancy byline or authorship would lessen the muse calling and my need to create with language. Or maybe it would. Now I have freedom.
Despite an avid interest in others, enjoying meeting new folks and entertaining from time to time, I embrace solitude, still. More than mingling face-to-face with people, generally. I feel satiated in most ways while burrowing into my writing space or reading chair, engaging with an activity even with spouse nearby. We have our own routines and rhythm, like all older married couples. And I have noted before that I seldom mind when he has long business trips. I do what I do still at 68 because I am daily motivated to create, to gather new information or try out new ideas, to pray and meditate, to take care of myself and, I hope, others. There is no applause as I complete a task or challenge. There is a gentle sense of self-fulfillment. And I can guarantee you that I have labored hard for this peace of mind that anchors my living even–or most–in more arduous times.
Yet, sometimes all this almost–if not quite–makes me nostalgic for the sort of intense in-person contact after a performance, or after poetry readings that were part of my life once. Or even the career I undertook of counseling broken people. The field of mental health and addictions treatment even in a city like Portland is small enough that others in counselling know who you are soon. One’s reputation, for good or ill, precedes one. I was as known then as I would ever be as an adult, and I was satisfied with that. It was not the yawning ego but the work that mattered so dearly to me. Just like youthful performing, itself, mattered most–the reaching and connecting to others via music. As a clinician it was listening with an open heart and being steady n the face of crises, offering solace and new skill sets. It is not about winning accolades or making big money–heaven forbid–but simplest caring.
It all–this anonymous v. public business–comes down to what I believe about God. If there is any light within me it can be shared, and by sharing it, that persistent light is freed like ripples in a clinic, on a stage, in a neighborhood, even perhaps the world as it is passed person to person. Creative work and any useful human-focused work are spiritual conduits, each a way to enable the blossoming best in everything, everyone: to bring forth the regenerative energy of miraculous, abundant life. We are given souls to greet one another as allies and helpmates. Minds to share constructive problem solving. And bodies to celebrate genius of a cosmos mimicked in our cellular make up.
This expansive yet essential anonymity has been the formative factor of my life, after all–not being publicly known by many, at all. I did not end up living the life my father expected of his offspring. Family members became expert in their fields (including music), some of their names quite known. It is true that I had dreams of “making good” in the music business as a singer, and also as a writer, but my life trajectory took another route after marriage in 1971. It became more isolated and a quieter life made of more mundane events than overtly extraordinary–or so those judging types out there might state. I redesigned my criteria for a life of success. And I have experienced amazing people, beheld more than a few wonders.
I was relieved at a crucial level within to be no longer only “a Guenther” but to incrementally become myself on my own terms, and with a husband here and there. Even if all that fell short at times, I began to claim my life fully as mine. I devised it, I tested it, I rebuilt it and God redeemed it many times with an effortless love. I found that, in the end, what matters is what happens during unnoticed years of countless small actions undertaken, and with the ones I get to love, and any goals I can bring to fruition, whether or not others admire them. There are those who won’t know what matters to me as I attempt to manage a few true and valiant things while I have the breath; they are, after all, busy with their own industrious lives–I could reach out to them, too. But many more may not deign to care about my talents and deficits beyond my quick actions or chatter, as I am not “important or accomplished” enough to discover at a deeper level. To them, I have failed to win the awards or money games–while I keep mining the subtler riches of what I have, will yet discover.
I have learned that the most important acclaim comes from inside. And as long as I recognize my basic (if flawed) integrity which upholds a reasonable self worth, I am alright. Just important enough to those who care. No accolades are necessary. This anonymous life is still a life. I am pleased to be working on it and relishing it, day by day. And surprisingly, I suspect that would be alright with my parents, too.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson