(Be forewarned: this is real life and not attractive. )
The slate-grey window yawned at me, a near-cavernous thing, a gaping void just beyond which I leaned and teetered, pressed against the cold pane, eyes half-closed. It could have been night or day, either a measure of my sight, my mind, or my disposition. It was 3 a.m., it was 3 p.m., either way it was about to be my undoing, a weak surrender to another gasp of the binding air, a squelched human inhalation/exhalation.
Well, you may ask, how can the very air have binding properties unless filled with smoke or other noxious chemical release of choking minute particulate? But for the time, it felt as if it was, a hazard of living day to day. It was the ponderous curtain of depression, and a deep seeding of unworthiness and powerlessness, and the plaintive sorrow that accompanies it. And it attached itself to me like a second skin that slowly engulfed not only my body but the shrinking core of me. Until a kind of terrible breathlessness came…despite walking, talking, doing as habit bids. Usually. Until an likely imminent failure of purportedly reliable systems.
I have never written for a public readership much of the hardest realities of my life in first person, as nonfiction. The details, even a few that resonate and stick to me like powerful sap. I hesitate. I wonder what can be gained for myself, for anyone. I only know a strong desire is suddenly to, decades later, speak of some things in the way it wants to fall onto the page. Call it a shedding, call it a truth telling, call it a writers impulse toconfess, even self indulgent–that worst of writing which I tend to think serious, difficult soul-baring writing too often is. Nonetheless, I keep writing. And the black letters leap onto the white expanse like spooked deer running for their lives, or, perhaps, running to better grazing grounds….
“Don’t let the past steal your present or future”: this is taped upon my mirror on a scrap of paper. I meant it back whenever and I still do. Practice it like a mantra, like a psalm.Use it like a life preserver.
I have not felt those above difficult sensations nor daily carried such burdens for multiple decades–way back when I was in my late teens, when I finally almost gave up the fight with late-diagnosed PTSD due to damage of unspoken (and ignored by all adults) childhood sexual abuse. Emotional abuse, the kind that lingers as a low drone, unheard perhaps by others but unmistakable. Those times and those stories are not even fit to print, I always think, so terrible was my habitation within them. It went from bad to worse: those many storied, high-ceilinged Gothic buildings with dark, too cold or hot, near-empty common spaces and such tiny sleep cells, one of which I sheltered within at night; the lack of control over any waking or half-sleeping moment, and many patients roaming and muttering or locked and tethered and mostly drugged out of time and thought, and ultimately alone and deeply lost. There were those committed for drunk driving, for drug use. This was not an enlightened place or time. There were no addiction treatment centers, no dual diagnosis help back then.
The absurdity of it, trying to heal within a decrepit mental institution and a system that was a maze of a nightmare, antiquated, more ruinous than imagined at first glance–which was bad enough. The place where I did survive 4 months. But it was so toxic and poorly run that it was closed not long after I exited via power of a court order. True, I had experienced what was called an acute toxic psychosis, brought on by amphetamine and barbiturates with psychedelics tossed in, then subsequent withdrawals and the old PTSD flourishing in the midst of it all. There was more that happened in my young life than anyone ever knew. And I wasn’t soon talking. And a badly run psychiatric hospital would not make me talk, either. I determined to stay alive, endure, day by day, but being there with those issues was like being scalded then nothing but burn and ash, bereft. The body sickened, wounded by being dunked/scrubbed/yanked/detained, magnification of emotional robberies past and present and a team of medical “judges” lined up as I was sat on a small chair on a platform, interrogated, given sentence, told that doing my tasks and trying hard was not enough, I had more time: the internment as I called it felt like being left in far greater peril, with no way out. No one incarcerated thought differently behind high barred windows… unless they no longer could think, at all. One could see why not and crying about it helped nothing.
Then, too late for so many, there it was: that it’s doors and windows had finally to be shuttered was, of course, no surprise to me. That it took that long, too long, stunned.
That sprawling compound where so many had lived for years, not just weeks or months, remained vacant for a long time, perhaps I imagined to be razed to the ground as it needed to have been, or sold for its considerable, pretty acreage. Then, perhaps fifteen years ago, I came across a glossy article about how a resurrection had taken place: that dark castle of horrors had been reconfigured, renovated, reborn as a resort of sorts, a high-end shopping and fancy hotel with spa kind of place. Imagine my astonishment and dismay. To think of people taking pleasure there. It will never be anything other than it was, to me, and I can imagine there roam ghosts of its long and ignominious past. I wish it had been made into a garden or a wooded haven, a nature preserve for birds to fly free, all creatures roaming at will. Space to be, nothing a barrier to what comes easily and with no harm intended.
But I made it through that experience and the grueling times (including before and the aftermath) as I could only hope that others did. I sometimes think of them, recall their faces, the longing and fear. Since I exited through those gates and found greater freedom I learned there were good ways in which to get better, rebuild my life. It required time, stubborn intention and work to leave behind the oddly magnetic pull to give up. To find sturdy “earth legs” again to keep me steadier. But I found despair did not have to commandeer me; there were coping methods that did not involve drugs, either illicit or prescribed. I may have been fortunate, yes, to read the right books, find a few wise therapists, avail myself of friends and other support people along the way. And I had a faith that I did not altogether abandon, a belief that I would prevail with God’s constancy and compassionate guidance one way or another.
That kind of torment, the black well of it, has not revisited me as happened there in that time and place, the late 1960s. And still the impact has not quite left me, though I might think otherwise.
It wasn’t just the provoking illness and addiction, the self loathing and hopelessness that accompanied it. It was those streaked dirty pea green walls and corridors, the cups and needles full of soul-negating “medicines”, heavy thud of steel doors as they slammed tightly shut and even locked, screams and garbled monologues of agonies named and unnamed, the grave mental states so many inmates inhabited–if one can say they inhabited anything but their bones and flesh. Even I felt taking leave of one’s senses was the best prospect for relief, at times. Then there were less mentally or physically impaired individuals who might possibly have thrived if they had lived more safely, been loved well…they so touched my soul. We found each other’s eyes often and spoke less, there was little will for that. But those things I had to do to get by each day, the labors forced upon me since my mind clarified and I was capable before too long. The required mental gymnastics and learned obedience I was put through by people doing what they were paid to do…the rough hands that informed me there was no escaping anything: these can and do haunt. One does not precisely forget. It gets into sinew and cell and those who’ve known the experience keep it hidden in a series of scars, even as the damage is repaired.
One presses on and looks for anything better. For light amid the depths. One scrounges for courage where there is none. Where every breath feels useless and yet one must breathe. This is how human beings are outfitted if we get to be fortunate enough: we are made to persevere beyond all reasonable cause or any evidence supporting hope. We will ourselves to keep on.
How I prayed when crumpled in dank and dirty corners that if God would only release me from that desert of spirit and mind and body, that Gothic nightmare, I would spend my life in service to help others. I wanted to care more for any sort of real life, but was beaten down and beyond caring…and one prays harder when great need presses in, and also strikes bargains. I was entirely committed to such a bargain (and one day would make good on it).
There it is. Words testifying. But I haven’t thought of this story within the greater context of my life nor of that distant past in so long. Perhaps not since my late twenties. So why now?
I have good cause, maybe. The recall may bring me closer to truths needed so I can rally and come back to joy and peace, not mere facsimiles, not only a hope of both. I already know what hell is; I also know what a sort of heaven is that can manifest here and now.
How does one write of shifting shadows and powerful undertow of depression when I still barely understand it in my own life–despite treating others in some way or another for decades as an addictions and mental health counselor? I have easily empathized with others; I have believed their fight valiant and purposeful. I’ve rallied resources, cheered them on, held the line against more loss and for greater renewal. But, really, perhaps I had lost something vital–a conscious knowledge of all that had been placed on a shelf: Something Once Experienced and Done. Like being beaten or or raped, overdosing or having knives thrown at you or being shot but surviving. I have such stories, too, death and life. So it makes sense to me that it was put behind me and I have simply gone on. This is what survivors learn to do, even as we work out the peace we must have.
Not that I haven’t been miserable other times over the decades for a couple hours, for days here and there–quite low, a darker shade of “blue”–even a greater kind of sad for this or that reason, and also wracked with grief for months after losses, but still living in this world better than expected. We cannot escape these repeats the longer we live; it is only human, as it goes. It’s tested me. I’ve felt becalmed, “emotionally inert” for brief times. PTSD affects things a long while and when the triggers arise even briefly I do know what to do. And yes there are the burdens carried about by the wrong decisions made, aching and worn out. But then they are let go.
So—really depressed? More than here and there\ then done with that? I have had no patience for it. I shake my head, say, No, that was back then–this is now. I am so grateful I have not been there again, not like that. Get down? Get back up, it is simple.
But today I tell you: I have over the last few months glimpsed that misshapen, relentless old beast and found it a daunting thing once more. Not as before, no–I am sober and clean of substances. I am not the same age or of the same time, not that same young, mute and bleeding person. I have had years made sweet and sweeter with happy times to encourage, fortify and heal me. I have learned a ton of efficacious coping methods and use them. And I have time on my side, and it teaches and strengthens me each year. At almost 70, I am stronger and better prepared for meeting “life on life’s terms” and more resilient than ever.
But am I? I am re-evaluating a few factors every day and am not so sure sometimes. IT is not the same, it is not even every day I feel run over by the old self abnegation, but it is a fearsome thing, nonetheless.
And the truth is, I don’t sink too low for no reason at all. It is not chemical as far as I can tell, certainly not for eons, if it ever was– not in the classic sense of clinical depression etiology. I tend to feel internally solid, more or less balanced mood-wise and I do know who I am, know what I need and what to do. Sure, I feel and express several emotions in a day, this is h ow I was built for the world my heart a sieve for feelings and impressions. No one ever accused me of not being transparent, either. But my internal barometer reads acceptably warm or cool, or I change it to what works better for the environment.
No, it is always a particular circumstance which I find more demanding and then finally near-impossible to effectively problem solve around, to improve; or a number of those times with weightier cumulative effect. So I have examined many changes in my life and found that they have taken me down without my full knowledge. Little by little. From one sort of confusion or loss or hurt to another. This low time has been 3 or so years in the making. And I have had to look it in the face; I do not like not turning on a light bulb to see what is coming at me, and what I need to work out.
I will not bore you with endless details but will note some major events. (Those who read my posts weekly, please forgive any repetition.).
Six people I loved have died one after the other in a fairly short time, some in a very difficult manner. I’ve had significant health crises and interventions–cardiovascular issues, serious dental problems (dental matters effect heart health, too, FYI), flares of gastrointestinal illness and issues related to inadequate treatment of a previous female health (mis)diagnosis. I had four random injuries due to hiking terrain/missteps as well as a slip and fall; though no broken bones, they suspended my necessary and loved outdoor activities far more than expected. Years of chronic neck pain from an assault at 40 that can steal endurance. and equanimity–I cannot take opioids, nor even ibuprofen (the latter interferes with my heart health). It can get a bit complicated.
My spouse developed a couple of serious and chronic health problems–surprising, scary. Then there were other life crises/financial worries/emotional issues for our children and others at various times, things that have kept me awake at night. And my only remaining sister–an executive director type, a doer and shaker, and one of two siblings left of four–has weirdly developed dementia, perhaps due to concussion from accidents…. but it doesn’t matter how, it just IS. No other members of my birth family now are here excepting this sister. A brother is in Virginia or travelling the world. (Of course, there are three adult children here plus s few grand kids –for that I am grateful beyond measure.)
One dear friend is slowly preparing to move to Arizona in a year; I already see her much less due to our area move. Another has had a major mental health impasse far worse than my current debacle and another (though younger) who is my dearest friend may be dying even as I write this– her medical diagnoses take greater toll week by week.
Where have so many I have loved gone? Of course this is a not even a sensible question. But it is asked. I count them as they fall and still cannot believe it at times. But we age or get ill, and there you have it.
Earlier in 2019, we moved after 25 years in the same abode to an area quite unlike the old one; I still cannot recall my way around all these crisscrossing, winding roads. One of our daughters had twins (after high risk pregnancy) last spring, and then came unexpected postpartum depression/anxiety with many ripple effects. It was overwhelming for me, too, at first. But she rallied with great perseverance, excellent helps. The readjustments remain ongoing though she returned soon to a good if demanding job. Her spouse has not worked outside home, taking on the household duties and daily child tending for eight months, as well. Money is terribly tight. I have helped out 2 times a week or more for the last nine months.
It has been a past year of unforeseen demands as life just presents us, yes. Communications glitches, ongoing stress with tiredness, expectations not met as imagined. We have all learned things about each other that have been surprising and at times difficult. Not to say soul bruising, now and then, requiring more courage, flexibility, ingenuity, patience, compassion–not all of which operate as well as others or often not all at once for us. We each have had our work cut out for us. But the twins are so worth every single bit of labor and devotion. Their magnificence–who cannot embrace and adore new beings given to our care? We so love them. Still, I think it needs to be said that being grandparents and parents and in-laws all at one time is not so easy-breezy as some would have you think, nor an endless happy celebration day in, day out. There are needs coming at the family all the time, and important. But our delight in those two small girl persons is unending and we care for family so much.
I had a major car accident Thanksgiving Day, not so bad, I made it out okay, overall. But it seemed a tipping point. (I’ve had only one other crash, in 1974; it left me unconscious/leaving body, “jaws of life” employed, significant recovery time, etc.) This was a couple months after my husband also had had an accident. My car was totaled, it was a lengthy process with insurance and finally abating. More expenses, injury to address. It took me a month to stop feeling anxious on busy streets, to stop feeling oddly fragile, and it jarred me emotionally–more than I thought it should. It seemed too much at moments, though it was so small an actual thing in the end. It helped hasten a faster descent; I berated myself for my error of judgment, of being in the wrong place, the wrong time. And the loss of money–a “new” used car, higher insurance rates, etc. when it was needed for more important things.
I have to admit that I have spent more time weeping than in decades. I cry over truly sad stories and real human suffering, but I’m not a sniffler over sad songs, fussy people, flat tire in a downpour, one-eyed dogs, bad hair day, etc.–and not a full-on crier even when life hurts. But I have become one the past couple of months. Not every day, but far too often for my comfort. There have been words: I have heard that I am a person with several flaws. I have never pretended otherwise; there have been shocks. More words, regrets and bafflement.
There has been grief. The grief is what moves me to lay on yielding pillow and moan, press my forehead against a tree on my walk and let tears run. For what? For my losses, for the earth’s losses, even for your losses. It can feel like one and the same, all of us paddling or swimming best we can but too many of us sinking, even drowning. I intend to–I must– at the very least float until I swim well once more. What else can done do? I am far too old to quit and start over. I get up and face the day; truly, some are better than others. But it takes work and risking more hope again.
I don’t know if these things are “enough” to create a moderate to significant depressive state. I call it as it is today for me. I tried to clarify events and my responses. For how I react shows me my perspective and deeper feelings. Why have I in other times been quite able to “bounce back as usual”? Why have I felt more alone than before? Why is it tougher to well protect myself from what feel like a bunch of harder knocks? And why are more sleepless nights gaining the upper hand, and heavier days being distracted by ruminations that net too little progress? I have been stopped by the accumulated life happening this time. One can get weary. I find what works and does not, what to seek that will enable greater well being. And thus, to be a better parent, spouse, grandmother, friend, sister.
I am more a “yo-yo” for the first significant period since I drank or used drugs so long ago. So I attend AA meetings. I don’t want to drink or use but I don’t want to be on a “dry drunk”, either. I want to be better than this. I go and I sit and listen to the group’s collective wisdom and experience. I know no one at these new meetings out here but I need to listen in silence for now.
I go to church at times. I read Scripture and other spiritual offerings. I read daily meditations and find meaning that helps. I pray for whatever it is I need to be stronger, be kinder, more adaptable and accepting. The courage to let things be. A lack of acceptance can be a stalling point for me. I have to yield to life more, even as I stand up and keep moving. And that movement daily takes me outdoors, without which I could not locate a deeper peace amid the storms of living.
I write, I draw, I listen to music and sing and dance about. I know the power of creating, its deeply restorative effects. But some days….even that seems hard. And that has scared me some.
For so long I have thought, Oh, I am pretty good at taking care of myself. And I have a spouse who can be here for me, too, in many ways. I know the methods by which to bolster and keep steady myself. And about effective therapy services, which I am willing to use whenever needed, so seek one now. In the end it continues to be a process of learning and experiments, the daily smaller gains and losses. And it will be myself once more who rescues me, along with the durable core and support of my faith. It always has been. I am not a user of psychoactive drugs even for mental health and it isn’t due to not finding them valuable but because I know from experience what else to do, and prefer to do that, as it has worked. I am open to suggestions. Let it not be said that I am unwilling to gain greater understanding. Or to practice that authentic acceptance which comes hard, yes, but can be done if it is the right thing, the best thing.
The good news is that I am not nineteen, nor in the grips of the kind of acute distress that takes me to such terrorizing darker places. I have lived that, and I am done with that. And I am an action taker; I am not paralyzed. I am thankful for all this. But I remain sad and confounded more than I want to be. I am impatient to become a braver and better person still. I got a bit of decent input from my brain as I wrote, more ideas so there is more hope. We all must keep searching, reaching, learning, and not letting go of hope–it is what is available to us in times of trouble.
If these tears must fall and fall again, well drat and damn it and so be it. I must require a true and hearty cleanse. I will not dry up, I will not evaporate. If I feel hollowed out by it for awhile there will be more amazing and tough experiences to occupy those spots. I am just another person, a woman who will not rest until life is ever fully embraced, its variations of light and shadow attended to–its dignity discovered daily… and its steady shining, shining through the murky gloaming, upon this path of dirt, brier, sand, sweet grass, blossom–and humblest rock, which after all, tells stories, holds secret gems.
Something “once experienced and done” might again shadow your life, my life. It does not have to own it.Take back your unique and inviolable self still deep within you. That is what I still do.
A recent Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of spending hours by myself along the Willamette River. I head to the water when I feel less inclined to tackle significant, frequently ascending and descending trails close to our home. It is not far to the river paths, happily. The deeper truth is that I love bodies of water and this river (as well as the more powerful Columbia River) has drawn me from the day I moved to the Pacific NW in 1992. It is close at hand nearly everywhere I go in this part of Oregon.
I offer these shots from that afternoon of delights. It was cold and windy and partly sunny—perfect for power walking or loitering, pausing to admire various sights. The rolling, changing river as it grazes or gouges the banks of earth pulls me toward it like a magnet. The rushing or slapping sounds it generates; the reflections of light and shadow on its currents; the birds and other creature activities; the interplay of the elements and the people (and dogs) who come to benefit from its restorative beauty year around: a place of pleasure, wonder and meditative opportunities.
I also enjoy public art works and a stop at viewing platforms at the three parks I visited (George Rogers, Foothills, Roehr)
There he was again, that old man with the mid-chest-length beard that looked like a thick grey brier patch. A bristly trap. She was afraid to look at it in case it carried scraps of egg and cheese or something crawled out. She resolved to help pull anything still alive straight out, though–to save it from early death.
“Miss? A coffee?”
“Right, what kind?”
Tree studied the menu board as if to point him to it, like he had no knowledge of their offerings. But he seemed to come in at least every third day, though she’d just worked there 14 days so who knew. He always had a pile of books that he browsed for a good hour or two before leaving. Like he was in a library. Maybe he bought one. But Tree couldn’t imagine wanting to sit with books that long.
Well, it was a bookstore, after all, not just a coffee shop.
Fourteen days,payday, she thought, then looked at him with mild eyes or as best as she could manage.
“The usual, a grande cappuccino, and I do thank you,” he intoned with a bit of a rasp.
He pushed a ten dollar bill towards her. She slid it off the counter, put it in the till with a brief acknowledgement. She got to work as he tipped his wide-brimmed hat and walked away. He never took it off–she suspected he was bald. Too much on the chin, too little on the head, what a weird way to get old. She’d never get so old if she had her way.
She got busy with the preparation, glanced at the clock, four more hours until Ginny came in and she could go.
Maybe she should name the old guy, just for fun, but what?
There was Rusty, hunched over two bright, impossibly glossy pages. She gave her the nickname because of the middle aged woman’s dyed rust-colored hair neatly pulled back each side with tortoise shell combs, and she just looked autumn-like, tawny skin though lined, lips an old fashioned flaming orange. Rusty came in every morning, took a seat along the wall, watched people as she skimmed the magazines. Which had to be gathered up later and made sure they were still clean, usable. Rusty was careful, overall. She didn’t want to get kicked out, Tree suspected. She toted an ancient backpack stuffed full and her jacket and shoes were wearing thin at seams and soles.
Three more lined up and she called out the cappuccino and got back to work. There wasn’t a lot of time to slack off on her shift. Tree had begged for a shorter one, but her Aunt Margery held firm.
“I’m down one now that the university is back in session. I intend on keeping my bookstore and coffee shop humming along. You learned enough at your last barista job. Besides, you have anything pressing to do with your days, Treesa Marie?”
“Nope. Okay I got it. When do I start?” She’d studied her boots, tamping the anger down until it receded to a tiny fox of a growl.
Her aunt wasn’t awful, just bossy. And sneaky, Tree thought–but why did Margery and her parents think this was the place for her? Oh, right, she’d gotten drunk too often, dropped out of high school and lost her first job at a fancy hotel. But a used bookshop? Aunt Margery would’ve taken issue at the adjective as she sold new books, too. But Tree could barely stand the sight of all those books. Dead trees, after all. Sentence after sentence of dulling content, few decent pictures from what she could tell, little inspiration.
“Right now! Ginny, our primo barista, is waiting for you.”
Ginny. Now there was someone who knew what they were doing and why.
“It’s a decent job, you get to know the regulars and meet new interesting ones, and you’re back here where you can eye all those beautiful books. My feet and legs and arms can get tired. Other than that if it paid more, that’d be better, but it’s still a good job. Your aunt and uncle are fair bosses, too. How about you?” She showed her teeth as she spoke, a front tooth willfully crossing over its neighbor, but Tree suspected she easily stunned people into blind submission with relentless positivity and her spunky blond haircut.
“Oh, I dropped out of school and this is my punishment.”
Ginny’s face fell but she offered a bright smile. “Well, listen, I got my GED at 19 and it all worked out.” She paused. “I’m only 23, been here three years, and your aunt is especially awesome.” She reached out to give a reassuring touch on Tree’s arm, but Tree stepped back just in time. “Okay then, welcome. We’ll get on fine. Let me show you the ropes.”
And they did get on fine, Tree admitted, as she made a mocha with almond milk, no whip. Ginny was harmless as people went, had a boyfriend who was studying hospitality, lived with her best friend, a kindergarten teacher. The two of them infrequently overlapped shifts after the first three days of training. Tree had been declared capable of managing on her own four or five hours each morning, five days a week.
The problems with all this were: number 1, she didn’t want to work as a barista (she’d rather sweep cut hair at a beauty salon floor and sterilize combs and brushes, for goodness’ sake) and number 2, she didn’t like books or reading or anything that remotely made her think of her recently ended public education experience.
“A refill, if you please?” It was Uncle Jonathan with their bookstore logo– Page and Bean–mug. “How’s it going?”
She gave him a pleasing glance. He’d sense to not berate her for leaving school. Or he didn’t want to make a fuss. But he only said he’d also struggled with high school–due to battling leukemia. That had unnerved her. Now he was well, more or less–she’d never suspected he’d been though all that. Somehow she felt he was trustworthy. They shared small talk that meant a little more, being relatives.
“Fresh hot brew, coming up.”
He was wheeling about a dolly stacked with new books and he studied the cover of one.
“Ever read sci fi?” he asked as she poured the coffee.
“You know I don’t volunteer my eyes to paper and print.”
“Yeah, just wondering why at times. I thought you might like this new one we got in. Keep up the good work.” He took a sip, raised his mug, went on his way.
Relief flooded her. It was only a little job, barely spending money. But still, he was fair and so was her aunt. Kindly, even. She got to washing some things up, then took four more orders. And there was the old man again, his palms flattened on the counter top.
“Thought I’d have a piece of pumpkin loaf.”
She took his cash, put it on a plate, handed it to him.
“You’re new, I noticed. Staying on?”
“I suppose so.”
“Good to hear. You make excellent cappuccinos.” He nodded his head and the beard nodded, too. He retreated to his spot and she noticed for the first time a beautiful wood cane with brass handle leaned against the chair. Was that new? He didn’t walk so poorly, crooked maybe, mild limp is all.
What did it matter? But she would name him Sir Beard. He read so studiously. And his beard was impressive, like it or not. She checked the clock. Another couple hours she was out of there. She got out her phone and looked into the camera to check face and hair. Could be worse. Her eyes were much less puffy and bloodshot than they used to be. Eyes being her best feature everyone said, tending toward purple end of the blue spectrum. She put down the phone and got to work when a skinny tallish guy ambled up, hands jammed in pockets.
“Not Jimmy Malloy. Why are you here?” she said with a snort.
“I like graphic novels and steampunk,” he said, eyebrows rising then falling. “I like this bookstore. Why are you here?”
“Ugh, steam what?” she said, “I am working.”
“Lucky you!” He laughed, but not quite meanly. “It’s all good, maybe you can get me some stuff on a discount.”
“I doubt it, Jimmy.”
He eyed her from under lowered lashes. She was smart, she was cute, so what was she doing here? Oh, yeah, can’t hold her booze, left school, too bad.
She served him a double shot of espresso and thought, This will get back to school and then I’m done for, they might drop in, I’ll have to be nice. Or get even tougher. But what do I care, anyway?
Rusty sidled past her, set her empty mug on the counter and stared right at her, not a cold stare but not a warm one, more like trying to figure the girl out. Then she raised and lowered shoulders with an exaggerated movement and kept on. She walked with feet turned way out. Jimmy smirked as he watched, then slouched off to another area.
She had to admit: what sort of place was this, all these weird people milling about a sea of books? Tree could drown in those rows, they made her dizzy just passing through. But it was money and it was keeping her parents off her back. It was something to kill time until she knew what to do next. It did not include going back to finish 12th grade. That much she knew. But that didn’t make her feel as giddy as when she quit going. Who was the joke on? But why did she give a care about that, anyway?
Treesa Hallaway’s parents were professors at the university. They lectured on differential geometry, infinitesimal calculus and Renaissance art and literature, respectively. Linguistics was a secondary passion for both. And their son and daughter were thought to be academically gifted from the start, they admitted to others, and should be happy with the pursuit of learning. As they were for a few years.
Then Trevor was outpacing his sister in school by middle school, but he’d always longed to be a veterinarian and sought to prove he could do it. He’d just last year begun the higher education required. Though he and Treesa got along well enough when they weren’t surreptitiously fighting, he did not understand why she hated school. All she ever said was that she found book learning boring and she’d rather be doing anything at all outdoors or maybe helping their dad repair things or hanging out with friends in the park. Later, it became more hanging out in Wexford Woods, the party spot.
“You drink too much,” he warned her each bleary week-end morning.
“You think and talk too much,” she retorted.
“You better watch it, you’ll end up being and doing nothing.”
She had slugged him when he said that–he’d tackled her and screamed at her to “grow up!” Luckily their parents were inside while they were on the big hill behind the house. They separated as they fought, rolled down the long bumpy descent. When they landed against a line of bushes, he sat up and stared aghast as she retched.
“Serves you right. But you need help.”
Tree didn’t respond as she lay back and closed her eyes, hoping the world would stop spinning and he would leave.
“I don’t think Mom and Dad even know how bad this has gotten, Tree. I found a pint of rum under the seat of my Fiat last night. Empty. You can’t just drive like that! In fact, you can’t ever drive my car again.”
“Sorry, I know it is sacred, hate to leave a mess…”
He hung his head, felt his pulse rise, that scared feeling he got when he saw her out with her silly, mad drinking buddies, or thought of her getting in another car loaded or coming to school so out of it. Once she kept trying to get open the wrong locker–she was sure it was hers, she’d said–and finally broke into it open by kicking and beating it, causing a huge scene. She was asked to leave for the day, their parents called and they were humiliated. But they offered excuses along with reprimands.
Trevor was going away soon. Who would know what was more seriously happening–unless he told their parents?
“You have to stop this, Tree, please. The guys talk, you know what I mean.”
She groaned, turned over. “Leave me alone. You’re an idiot who knows nothing about me, you are allied with them. Drinking just…helps.”
“Helps you fail classes, miss events and possibly screw up your health at 16? You look bad, sound and smell terrible, and you’re falling down the rabbit hole!” He wanted to make her see, but she was so hungover he knew she felt his words only rush by her like a bad wind.
“Goody! Maybe I like it! Back off, genius, live your own beautiful life!”
So he did, but not before he brought up her increasing alcohol abuse at breakfast the next morning. Their parents immediately assessed the additional dire facts and presented her with one option: alcohol and drug outpatient treatment. That plus grounded for a month, at least.
And so she gave in and went, barely got through three months of outpatient addictions treatment. And finished that year at school without failing. But she had a rough summer trying to stay sober, trying to be okay. Tree quit school the following fall, her senior year.
What she wanted to know was, what was the big deal with formal education? Did it really change anything in the rotten world? Did it make you a deeply better person? Did it mean she could do whatever she wanted without chronic criticism regarding whatever she did not well enough? Who benefited most from further educational endeavors? Her parents and their smug sense of success?
Trevor, their golden child, was long gone. He’d be set up nicely one day, administering to dogs, horses, his beloved llamas. Good for him. All Tree liked was being outside, even raking the leaves, or skiing on the mountain or climbing forest paths, but her parents thought there was no payoff for that direction unless she became an environmentalist or oceanographer or anything but a backpack or ski bum. How would that make a living? And it was all so purely physical.….
Tree stopped going to school because she’d suffocate if she had to spend one more hour listening to adults drone on about things that mattered to them but little to none in her life. That, and she was considering becoming a hermit if all else failed.
Her parents, wanting to seem more progressive than they were and terrified of losing her completely said, “Then stay sober, get a damned job and demonstrate some sort of measurable responsibility for your actions. And we’ll revisit this arrangement in four months.”
Why four? But that was her father; he’d determined that number was right, it met his requirements for a workable equation. And they would arrive at a solution, he was sure of that.
Tree slipped trough the revolving door and waved an acknowledgement of Aunt Margery and Uncle Jonathan at the front of the store, bypassed a clot of readers around the “new nonfiction” table and slipped past a woman and her service dog and on to the back. She donned her blue apron and took up her station. It had been over a month at the coffee shop and all was moving along. She still did not read the books. She did like an outdoors magazine on her break.
Rusty was waiting and got her regular brew, the cheapest of the lot, and looked hard at her again. This was her routine: getting her coffee, seeing if there was any day old bakery goods (usually was) to eat, giving Tree a stare that might have said something if only Rusty would add a couple words to it, and then she hid along the back wall.
This time, however, Tree had something to say,
“I can get you a bag of scones or something at day’s end for nothing of you come by then.”
Rusty pulled herself up taller–she had curvature of the spine so this wasn’t so easy–and said, “Well. I pay for what I get. But if you’re just going to toss it…”
“Yeah, I know. Check in with me after 8. I’m working a split shift today.”
“Ginny has never did this–you sure?”
“Yep. And do I care if anyone agrees with my new policy?”
Rusty wiped her nose with a large pansy-decorated handkerchief, gathered her worn face into a more pleasant expression and shuffled off. She studied Tree awhile, as if she was seeing a different girl.
It had gotten busier. Her aunt and uncle had had three readings and book signings by area authors recently who were deemed “up and coming”. They’d improved the lighting in a corner lounge area where six chairs and a love seat were positioned around an antique wood stove. It had gotten colder so more customers came in and stayed longer. And they were buying, too.
Tree had to admit she liked the smell of wood burning. At her house her parents rarely took the time to use the fireplace, they were either in the study or cooking up a storm together or gone. Tree had used it more once but now all she had to do was go to work, enjoy the crackling fire close to the little coffee space.
Ginny, it turned out, had started to think about doing other things. In fact, she was taking an esthetician course.
“I care about healthy skin,” she said, “and yours looks good.”
“I don’t do anything to it, just wash and go. I’m outdoors a lot.”
“Hmm.” She put a fingertip to her cheek and tapped. “Maybe it’s the fresh air and healthy lifestyle, plus you’re still so young.”
Tree gave a short laugh. “I doubt anybody would say I’ve had a healthy life.”
“Why is that–you seem good to me!”
“Well, I don’t sleep enough, I haven’t been on a good hike for over two weeks, I skip meals in favor of coffee and for three years I used to….well, what the hell, drink hard.”
Ginny’s eyes widened a bit, then she slapped the counter with her towel. “I knew we had something in common! I used to, too!” She looked about and lowered her voice. “I got help last year, AA meetings.”
Tree was surprised by this and yet not, then she noticed a man waiting at the counter. “Huh, no way! But that’s not for me.”
“Never know,” Ginny replied and took off her apron. “Off to my class–see you!”
The rest of the day Tree off and on considered the uncomfortable idea of AA but each time she rejected it. Who at seventeen went to AA? That was for serious alcoholics, not her short-lived issue–right? Plus she didn’t drink anymore. So far. For awhile.
She kept her head down,nose to the grindstone and everyone was happy for the moment. Not too hard to manage.
It had been a good idea to work at the bookstore cafe. Having the set hours of work and a casual atmosphere and regular customers was nice. Having her aunt and uncle around, she had to admit, was not a bad thing. And her parents were full of words about how conscientious she’d become, how glad they were to see her making changes, they were starting to believe in her again. It irritated her last nerve, and some days she’d want to drink again or worse, just quit the whole scene and wander wherever the wind took her. The Hallaways were such products of and captivated by the rarefied atmosphere of their ivory tower of higher education. Superior in attitude, she might add, even though she knew they were not intent on disparaging her, and even loved her. Didn’t they?
“Well, Miss Hallaway, there you are.”
She lifted her head, then stood up from the low cupboard she was sorting out. Sir Beard.They had gotten to know one another a little. Even if they didn’t talk, it was as if they were friends, in an odd way, the way an interesting, intelligent old guy and a smart-mouthed young woman could be.
He was in a wheelchair.
“Hello…? Way down there somewhere.”
He put on his glasses, peered at the baked goods. He tapped at the glass with his cane, pointed at a pecan sticky bun. She got it out and started his cappuccino.
“Treesa, I think just decaf today if you have fresh brewed.”
She spun around. “Sure, if that’s what you want.”
“It’s better for me. I already will be filling my veins with refined sugar in that roll. And I have to wean myself, better for the heart, you see.” He leaned into the counter, hands on the ledge. “Hip surgery soon.”
“A letdown, huh. The regular coffee and the hip thing.”
“Blast it all– that’s what I have to say about it.”
“I meant the coffee change mostly, sorry. Like a most reluctant deceleration on an uncertain descent… ” She held up her hands as if to say, What can you do but roll with this? Trying to lighten the mood.
Sir Beard frowned at her, then let out a belly laugh. “You do have it in you after all!”
“A firing intellect and humor!”
He wheeled himself over to a small table and waited; he smoothed his beard, then folded his hands. She took him his coffee shortly, hesitated, then jumped in.
“I’ve wondered. Do you write or something creative? Or were you–are you–a teacher? You read a lot every time. Take notes, too.”
He held the steaming mug to his nose and inhaled deeply, then took a sip. “I have written a bit and given lectures, if that’s what you mean. About mountains and forests, that sort of thing, and living off the grid. And I enjoy research about those things.”
“Really?” Tree felt a shiver of excitement. A naturalist or a forest service man or something good like that!
He sipped again. “Been a few years since I was living in wilderness, though. So it goes, we all wear out.”
“I think–oh, more customers, have to go back–that is amazing.”
He tipped his hat, then took it off and smoothed his hair down for the first time that she knew. And she was wrong. He had thick wavy white and steel grey hair on his head. And he didn’t put the hat back on.
As Tree waited on people, she kept glancing back at Sir Beard. She had to get his real name sometime. Who was he?
In a few minutes, an official looking man dressed in a charcoal suit came up to the old man’s table and sat down, his back to Tree, and she couldn’t guess what they were talking about. Was he his agent? Publisher? A medical consultant? That would be weird… Maybe Sir Beard had a business proposition going on, like a new wilderness survival invention.
It was getting to her. This job.
Not eight weeks and she was becoming part of them, the world of everyday people. Workers and some schemers. And booksellers. Not a reader yet, but even that was funny, how her eyes drifted to this or that as she wound her way through the aisles. No one had even asked her to read. No one had bored her to tears with their reviews of favorite books. Her aunt and uncle hadn’t once mentioned that she come to a reading or help them put books on shelves, even. She worked in the coffee shop, that was all they expected and so far it had worked out. Margery had even told her a customer or two had sung her praises: she was fast and efficient, polite. Ginny was a bit slower to get things done as she was quite chatty.
“Ginny is a good person and I hope she keeps her job, she really makes the place.” Tree had defended her though she knew things would change without her input. Ginny wanted to serve people with skin needs, not book needs.
Uncle Jonathan had said as Aunt Margery attended to the next stack, “Well, she coached you well if she does go,” as if they knew what was happening, anyway.
Rusty left the building. The mysterious man in the suit left. Sir Beard finished his coffee and read. Jimmy Malloy came in on lunch break with a couple of his friends, including Riley, the one girl she’d disliked the most in English class. She was a know-it-all and a self-avowed snob.
“Hey,” he said.
“Yeah, and make it on the rocks!” the other guy–Evan the future lawyer with a Tesla, no doubt–offered.
Riley slapped her thigh and giggled as if this was the most clever thing she’d heard. Tree got the espresso, then filled a plastic glass with ice, ppoured the espresso over it, and served it with two straws. She handed it to Jimmy with a big smile.
He looked at it, shook it up.”What the—-you think this is funny?”
“He needs his money back plus a new free drink,” Evan said in all seriousness.
Riley stepped up. “Just a joke, can’t you tell the difference? Take that back and fix it. And I will have a grande mocha, a latte for Evan.”
Tree was about to say something in return when Aunt Margery glided by.
“How’s it going, kids? Nice of you to say hello to your old classmate, I gather. Anything else we can do for you?”
“Yes, you can–“Riley began.
But Jimmy elbowed her so they found a table and turned away from Tree. When she called out their names for the drinks, Jimmy came up.
“Sorry, being stupid, I guess.”
Her lips fell into a little moue, then she shrugged. “Who cares? I’ll make you the right drink.”
“No, it’s fine.” He backed away, then went to the table.
At the end of the afternoon, when she was about ready for a break, Sir Beard beckoned her over.
“It has been two months since you began here. You figured it out or dare I ask?”
“Whatever you’re working out.”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think you’re heading in the right direction. You are adapting. All creatures adapt as needed to survive. And it works out fine most of the time, certainly better than if they had not.”
“But they can just make a choice to leave the pack, can’t they?”
“You mean like a lone wolf, for example, or one rousted? Harder that way. But sure, that can be an option, another kind of adaptation.”
His eyes met hers and she didn’t shy away. His were tired eyes, soft, damp eyes, though all about them were bunches of deep leathery lines and they lit up when he was attentive to things or people.
“I know…you must be a wilderness expert, or a guide.”
“That’d be about right. And, have to mention it again, author. That is how I make most money these days.”
“You are…hmm, I’m not sure. But I love the outdoors more than anything.”
“Well, I’m a white-bearded loner of an old man, my heyday was years ago and you’re young. I’m Dale Everly Nelson.” He stuck out a beefy, still powerful hand.
She took it and they shook.
“Dale Everly Nelson… I do know that name, somewhere–maybe from my dad’s bookshelves, he’s into math and science. I would love to hear your stories.”
“That would be nice sometime. Or you can read them.” He tapped one of the books he had. “I figured you for one of us nature nuts after a bit. You’re hearty, different-minded, you seem like a fledgling–forgive me for the pun– trail blazer to me. I hope you climb mountains and paddle down strange rivers one day, too.”
“Dale, I see you have met my niece.” Uncle Jonathan stopped a moment. “She’s a good barista, right?”
“Indeed. And so interested in the great panorama of nature.”
“She is that. She might do something interesting like you one day,” he said then continued on his way.
“I want to ask you–did you go to college, sir?”
“Well, I didn’t, then I did. I spent years backpacking around the world and such, learning nature’s ways so closely, then decided to study botany and wildlife management. But it didn’t work out so well. I left after two years in. Bored stiff. I went back out and became my own kind of expert, eventually made a bit of a name for myself. I did alright, Miss Hallaway. But I had the best time of it for more than fifty-odd years.”
She shrank back. “You aren’t done getting out and about, not yet, are you?”
“Could be,” he replied, and patted the wheelchair. “Old injuries caught up with me. Not all that outdoor living was only a thrill, lots of dangers and issues come up for a human. We’ll see after the surgeries the next few weeks. Best to get out there while you have stronger bones and more resilience, you know! My son seems to think I’m nearly done for–he was the man in the suit, by the way. A finance guy.” He rolled his eyes.
“Oh, really?-I mean, who would have thought?”
“You got that right.”
“I have a questin. Do you go by tree becasue you love trees?” He laughed as he said it, but gently.
“No, not atall. My name is spelled with no ‘e’ after capital ‘t’–Treesa– but it was shortened to Tree as a kid. An omen, perhaps, huh?”
“Anybody manning this coffee shop?” A man with two whining kids waited at the counter.
“I better get back, but thanks for all this. I’m glad we had a chance to talk more. And I want to hear more.”
“Yes, indeed, as am I,” he said and leaned back into his wheelchair, hands seeking the next book to study.
Tree mused over all he had said as she finished her shift that evening. And thought about it in bed that night, as well. Why couldn’t she get her GED, then enter college to study forestry or something worthwhile like that?
To spend her life in the woods among friends, nature’s creatures and like-minded people. It was as if a door swung open for her and she could almost see a wide open vista.
After three days off Tree went in to work. Her aunt and uncle seemed caught up in new inventory so she headed back to the coffee shop. Rusty was there. She got her a grande coffee and took it to her table, a cranberry muffin thrown in.
“Aw, not into cranberry.”
“Well, what then?”
“I can buy it.”
“Ok, what would you prefer?”
They went to the glass case to look the goods over.
“That. A chocolatey cross-ant.”
“One croissant coming up, Rusty.”
“Heh? Rusty who?”
Tree clapped hand over her mouth then made her face calm. “I’m so sorry…I didn’t know your name and you have red hair so in my mind I call you ‘Rusty’ but didn’t plan to say it out loud. Sorry.”
Rusty took a large chomp out of the croissant, slid her five dollars across the counter. She stared into Tree’s eyes, her own brown ones blinking twice as she thought that over. Then she walked away.
“Good name,” she said.
After the morning flew by she started to think about Sir Beard, Dale Everly Nelson. Where he was. If his surgery was coming up soon. If he’d stopped all coffee, though she didn’t know why he had to–but he’d be back on it again, surely.
Then her shift was ending and Ginny came soon shortly to take her place. The esthetician class was going well and she was excited to move forward with her goals. She might even quit in six months, she’d confided.
When she arrived at the coffee shop she noticed Tree was sitting on a bench, staring at the floor. Everything looked fine but Tree did not, really. She sure hoped she hadn’t gotten drunk.
“What’s up? Ginny asked.
“Oh.” She shook her head. “Just thinking, that can be dangerous, you know.”
“Ha ha. Is anything wrong, though?”
“Just wondering how Mr Nelson is.”
“Oh, Sir Beard.”
Ginny was puzzled but started to work.
“The old guy with the long beard and hat, you know? Dale Everly Nelson.”
“Oh,” she said. She hadn’t known his real name, either.
And then Uncle Jonathan was walking through the aisles towards her, eyes on the floor, and Aunt Margery was scurrying behind him, a hand on his back.
Tree stood up slowly. Waited, arms lank at her sides, hands tightening into fists.
“He…he had the surgery, then, right…?
Uncle Jonathan’s face was nearly slack, forlorn.
“He is doing badly? Or…he died? He didn’t, not Sir Beard, he couldn’t!”
Aunt Margery took her by the hand and walked her back to the office. Sat her down in a comfortable chair. Her uncle sat next to her.
“He was a friend of ours for decades, Treesa. He was such an adventurer, you have no idea, and what a writer, what a storyteller! His books sell so well even thirty or more years later, and his last one, in 2018, rose to the top of the indie list in nonfiction. But mostly he was just a big ole guy with a big heart and a fascinating mind and he–“
But Tree didn’t hear her, nor her uncle. She heard Dale talking. About how you could do what you were passionate about. How he had loved it all, it was his life. How he thought she might be like him somehow.
She didn’t move, didn’t blink, not even when they said her name sweetly. The old man had told them she would not be prepared if he didn’t return, that they had to tell her carefully.
“You have to watch out for young ones,” he had said, “their tender hearts beat hard despite their other finely developed survival skills. Everyone feels pain, even those creatures out there. For us, it is the young, and the passionate, and the very old ones.”
Two soft tears wet trails down her cheeks, her unusual violet-blue eyes covered with sheen, her face full of stillness. The tears were moving as if doing their best to be dignified, unafraid, with no regret. She refused to break down here, among books, in the coffee shop.
But she did have regrets, she knew that, and later she recounted it all. For not knowing Sir Beard longer or better. For not being friendlier to Rusty from the very start. For not saying good bye to Trevor when he left for university, not talking to him much now. For making her parent’s lives harder than they should be. And not finishing school–of what was she thinking? She hated school. Of trying to drink away her anger and hurt. But she knew what she had to do now. Well, in a few months. After she had saved more money. Travel, her GED, then perhaps…college.
The next day when Tree came in, she found two books in her locker where they kept their personal things and took breaks. Her aunt had said she had something for her.
He had left her the books. One was about exploring the deep Alaskan wilderness in the 1970s and ’80s, and living off grid. The other was a collection of nature essays published in 2018: “My Views from this Mountain” by Dale Everly Nelson.
Inside the second one was handwritten inscription in spidery script:
Some of us are destined for a life beyond the norm. A life that more diligently encompasses the majesty, ruggedness and serenity that Nature offers those who adore and respect her complexities. It was my destiny. It may be yours. But whatever path you choose to follow, do not give up heart. Believe the impossible, take risks that will lead you to joy, awe and wisdom.
Is that asking too much? You can answer this. But I think it is not.