Some stories just have to be told: healing and wholeness in everyday life
Author: Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Writing and reading have always been a connector to the world of ideas and a wealth of diverse people. We are all a part of this beautiful, ever-widening web of life. Blogging enables more interaction, which I love!
For thirty years I was an addictions/mental health counselor and also a manager of home care services for elderly folks. I have published fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry and was happily nominated for a Pushcart Prize for an excerpt of my first novel (the book remains unpublished at this time).
I enjoy writing about living richly despite a diagnosis of heart disease at age 51, the healing process of addicted persons and joy and challenge of writing full-time now. Short stories are one of my writing passions but I enjoy sharing my poetry as well as a few of my photographs. In truth, I will write about anything that strikes my fancy!
My hope is that my offerings reflect a profound faith in God and our essential spirituality. I include myself as part of the diverse group of writers who seek, discover and share illuminating and positive experiences amid the troubles that living can bring us.
Let me hear from you when you visit--I would enjoy hearing your responses!
Nothing can be saved but that
we heed the call to our humanity,
take up hearts and minds to
stave off the deafening winds
of disregard and retribution.
Our world has not yet perished.
These lives we carry withstand
errors and woundings, the heave
of grief and swell of need.
But it cannot hoard emptiness
that pretends as if it is fullness or
ignorance as if wisdom, and fare well.
Let not any thought render useless
the import of daily dreams and acts.
Instead create right and good of little,
be amazed, enamored of one another,
find strength in a more willing spirit
and walk with expectancy into that
center where light cannot be hidden.
Nor ourselves, though rent by hardship,
no less valiant, not undone, unmoved.
Nothing can be saved but that
we heed the call of our humanity.
Buoy up, protect heart and mind
then combat this maddening noise
of destruction and revenge.
Be one among the many who hold fast,
remind yourself this is necessary,
it is humane as it is brilliant:
to build the courageous engine of hope
even when hope may beg to flee.
I have long found weather fascinating– amazing, perplexing, harsh and daunting but always impressive. Its complexity, changeability. Beauty, strangeness, danger.
I grew up living along with four seasons: snow-driven winters and hot, humid summers, unstable yet welcome springs and the glorious palettes of crisp autumns. That meant four kinds of clothing for activities: thick woolens, snow boots, hats, scarves and mittens; delicate dresses, shorts, sandals; rain coats and umbrellas; light-to-medium sweaters with long pants. Being prepared for 12 months meant unboxing then boxing back up items just as one became adapted to the current season.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I discovered the novelty of basically two seasons: Rain and No Rain.
The last three days presents me with the giddy relief of this juxtapositioning: woolly clouds bunching up and releasing precious moisture onto cracked and dusty earth. Onto me. Areas of bare skin are soothed by a long-missed pleasure. An extravagant sweep of wind aids me in my walk as autumn leaves spiral then are swamped in puddles and pools, a few overflowing drains. I breathe more deeply than in months; it’s as if clarified air carries its gifts into hungry red blood cells. But even four days ago there were layers of smoke, vert little brisk walking if any. I am so grateful for autumn’s quick start.
Weather affects all of us, now more than we thought it could. Other places have been tormented by hurricanes and earthquakes and my heart cries out for those ensnared by chaos and loss. More temperate weather events and our safety seem less like something we can count on, and so we live in ever more anxious times. Nature does as nature will do, that is clear, and we adapt, experience threats, know great losses.
Pacific Northwesterners meanwhile are working and playing on and around the Cascadia subduction zone, too, and it gives us pause as we consider the projected catastrophic earthquake that likely will someday occur. There additionally are 18 volcanoes in the Cascade Range, most of which have been active, with 7 so far rumbling and spewing in the last 200 years. There was the eruption of Washington’s Mt. St. Helens in 1980 that choked even our city with ash. I can see Mt. Hood, majestic and formidable, when I cross our many bridges or drive east into the Columbia Gorge.
But lately here in my valley–between the active volcanic Cascade Range and the Tualatin and Coast Ranges–it has been a burning summer, a crackling expanse of vast place and time, fiery days to nights into days and more nights. My body basked in a fan’s whipped-up air, (even hot air) and the trusty AC in most living areas. At one point, 57 days elapsed without rain and then came a short drizzle, then more weeks of no rain. The average temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit but it hit 100 with no problem. And Oregon’s wildfires raged on with over 640,000 acres ravaged at last count. And this wasn’t the worst fire weather on record though it affected many more people right here. With the arrival of the rains, wildfires in the Columbia Gorge are smoldering, perhaps soon extinguished. Fire season may be wrapping up at last.
Those of us either born in the Northwest or who have lived here some time (25 years for me) know there will be doses of very warm weather with bright sunshine off and on for another month. And then the driving, dribbling and chilling, gusty rain will make itself at home and remain until next late spring. Snow has already fallen in the Cascades; ski season may be excellent this year. Unsuspecting newcomers arrive in droves early to late summer and are overjoyed by our dramatically green, dry landscape and sparkling skies, not considering how much rain will fall the remainder of time. We have lots of bars and coffee houses that are even more stuffed in winter. You have to appreciate cloudiness and accept being wet to put down roots.
It is not hard for me, the rainfall. Darker starts to the day with earlier nightfall gentles body and brain, can challenge with cold dampness and insularity but also delight. It works well for writers or for anyone who digs deep into greater depth and breadth of solitude to ponder, dream, create. And my daily walks do not stop. I only hike less in sloping hills, mountains, woodlands–too much muddy trail and threat of landslides. And after the fires, the earth is far more unstable than usual. But hiking can wait for the eventual drying out.
Rain. Water that sustains and wields great power. I chart a new sort of compositional latitude and longitude, how these movements map the autumnal sky. Rain music lifts on a breeze, sinks with a lull, peaks as water pours down and drums roofs, branches, pavement and dirt. The constancy of it. Syncopation and freshly scored tempo. The misty auras of light that rim a horizon and seep from behind mountains–for sun will come and go as rain accumulates, runs with rivers. It fills me with bittersweet longing amid a bone-deep calm. Moves me as it cleaves to growing things, a sheen on all it touches. Teaches me stillness within the whorls of beauty and motion.
I have had enough of blazing blue sky and relentless heat and sweat that thickens along my spine. Had enough of rapacious fire, daily warnings of more being ruined. Perhaps I am weary, too, of my own unexpected life strife, a summer of high hopes and pointed, hard truths for myself and my family. Love and its fractures. Faith that begs to be tested. Strength that shows at times only a fair resolve. Summer can paint everything glorious even amid weakness or pain. But fall and winter…they offer different architectures of internal and external space, those pops of color alongside greyness imbued with scent and sign of rain.
I welcome the wet season. Can manage the shift, shape it into this or that while long blue shadows spread over my desk. What I thought was cool silence is only a breath between notes of rain…like a skirt that is all hidden pattern until it flares in every direction when its wearer begins to dance. My own dances are formed of gratitude, head bowed or lifted high, soul brimming as rain soothes and charges me. Just Monday spontaneous movement unearthed tears as I watched rain streak the air, a tide of tension coming forward, moving away. And there was a good peace felt as God’s presence. There are days I just trust that whatever comes, life will move me along one way or another, even if carried by angels.
The senescence of autumn, its leading to winter is a kindred state for me. A friendly reminder of who I am and yet may become in the midst of upheavals of many sorts. They can bring us each into bolder maturity, richness of spirit as the miracle of life displays inventiveness. Even as circumstances–and weather–inform and press us to be patient. To hold steady, offer a hand. Attend even the ache of it, and then make better where the good must be done.
Since I have not yet photographed rain much this year, I wanted to share farmer’s market scenes enjoyed well before rain visited. How fortunate to partake of the abundance; I do not forget this as I peruse the options for healthy food, alone.
Junie sincerely hoped this person, this Guy, wasn’t going to fall for either of them but just in case, she was prepared for it. She had a handy store of diverting one liners, sizzling retorts. After weeks of correspondence he wrote he’d be passing through to pick up his cousin, Dale, and then they’d both be back to college. So, he said, wouldn’t it be good to at last meet in person? Junie supposed it just might. Her sister, Marta, could have found herself indisposed but no, she’d been excited. They had only been writing each other this last month of summer. It all started after her sister’s friend mentioned him; she knew Dale, the cousin Guy was picking up on the way to Hartford College. They were both enrolled, it seemed. Guy was supposed to be “awesome” per Shelley’s descriptions and also Dale’s. It was complicated info thus, unreliable.
Junie was unmoved but it was Marta, anyway, who was informed about him. She was the one who intended on writing him from the start.
“But my handwriting is atrocious.”
“You could just type a letter, that’s the best way, more distant at first,” Junie said, tapping her fingers on the Olivetti’s worn keys, pausing midway in her poem. “You’re a very good typist.”
“You’re much better. And you form a convincing sentence so well….”
Marta gave her that easy-breezy smile she put on to sway someone yet undecided. It was her persuasive beguilement. Junie had practiced that look but her face just came across silly and insipid in the mirror no matter how much practice. She guessed it was because it was unnatural, a false presentation. Marta was her big sister if barely a year older at 18, but you’d think Junie had been a stray they took in to give Marta a toy or victim, depending on the older girl’s moods. It was absurd; it was Junie who had the common sense. Even a dash of flair all her own. But not the flashing, blinding lights of charismatic looks.
“No.” Junie walked out of their room. “Get another lackey.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about… I always have you!”
“Not for much longer–then what’ll you do?” Junie muttered.
But she became intrigued by the creative possibilities of composing improved–no, fake letters–to an unsuspecting male using a nom de plume. Well, using Marta’s name.
So it commenced. Marta dictated the bulk of each letter, Junie would type it on the onion skin paper she loved, and later after the first read and approved it Junie would go back and write a new and amended letter, soon more accentuated with her own content. She could not restrain herself. She edited her sister’s essays and term papers so felt this was much the same: a happy improvement of basic, boring text.
This is the third letter in two weeks! Thank you for writing me back, it was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–such fun! I am not the water fan I could be, I suppose.
I got up late today, then played tennis with Shelley and I won. I like to compete, do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club, water cress salad and sliced fresh peach for dessert. I love fruit, it’s sweet and does no harm. I even picked strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. The only think I didn’t like was the dirt that got into everything. But worth it!
Anyway, do you play tennis? It’s one sporting event I have liked as spectator and player since childhood.
This week-end I am going to the movies with Shelley. Some action flick, not sure what it’s called. Bet you’d like it–lots of cars in it. You do have a car, don’t you? I drive my mom’s at times but we’ll see what I get when I graduate next spring.
Hope to hear from you soon!
Your friend, Marta
Junie’s edited letter:
This is the third letter in two weeks; thank you for writing back. It was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–that sounds far superior to what I’ve been up to in the ‘burbs. I ride my bike, jog. I’ve always wanted to learn to fish, but my father says I have no talent for fly fishing. I need to learn more, even give it a whirl on my own. Where do you go and what do you catch? What sort of bait do you use? Is there a special rod you use? I’d be grateful for tips to get started.
I got up late today but played tennis with Shelley and won. I thrive on competition–do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club where I ordered a chef salad topped with tuna and for dessert, a double chocolate brownie. I am fanatical about good chocolate, it’s a weakness I hear, but I contend it’s the perfect reward for any job well done. I did pick healthy strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. Then I dipped a dozen in chocolate. But I love getting out into nature, availing myself of its bounties. Even the bugs that flit and creep about are extraordinary to me.
This week-end I’m going to the movies with a couple of friends. Some action flick. It is full of car races, yes! I dream of becoming a race car driver after I see those movies and when I get my hands on Mom’s car… Do you have a car or at least like to drive? I might get lucky one day and get a sports car. That’s a goal, actually.
It’s excellent that you made it through the first college year, but what are you studying? Liberal arts or sciences or a mix? You write well. I haven’t decided where to apply but not likely Hartford–too close to home.
Look forward to hearing back.
Your friend, Marta
This went on for over seven weeks. Now he was due to arrive. Junie thought she’d done a good job at appealing to him, getting his curiosity stoked. She could not have left all that up to Marta, she had the imagination of a squid. She had other strengths than Junie. Guy–with a name like that, he might be be insufferable–seemed pleasant enough and smart given his brief but emphatic responses, a little macho but not so you’d refuse to hang out to see what else was there. It might work out for them. In the meantime, she was having more fun that she thought possible. Junie decided she ought to find a couple more pen pals and correspond for real next time.
But she did feel an odd stab of guilt: she had, of course, overstepped. She worried about Marta’s capacity for dealing with Guy’s once he was here in the flesh. But Marta had a way with people that made them want to follow her anywhere.
And physical attributes some might pronounce as spectacular. of course, Junie had seen her at her worst and knew how hard she worked at being a five star dazzler. Junie allowed nature to take its own course, let things fall as they may. It hadn’t hurt her much, it just hadn’t advanced her. Since she was reasonably intelligent, it didn’t aggravate her except for moments here and there during her whole and entire seventeen years when people met them and without fail leaned toward Marta and gushed about how pleased they were to finally meet her, she was so beautiful, what a popular gal. As if they had been waiting to see her in the flesh with bated breath for eons. Like some movie star when it was only the big fish in a small fishbowl phenomenon.
Sometimes they didn’t even notice Junie standing there. Still, that made it easier to observe details as desired, then get back to more worthwhile activities. Like writing in her journal the countless petty, moving, surprising, infuriating details of life so far.
Maybe she felt sorry and pleased at once about these letters because she knew this was one area Marta had not peaked. Might never do so. There was an art of exchanging words, uncommon value of incisive communication. Letters were gateways to intimacy especially if one also had a willingness to say this is who I am, warts and all. Well, not that but at least being a less contrived person. Not so with Marta. It was necessary to present the best if most shallow front at all possible costs; it cost her in more ways than one but she didn’t see it yet. But Junie wanted to believe there was a deeper Marta who would be willing to show an unpolished toe in the light.
But did all this give Junie the right to alter her sister’s words drastically? Was it fair to be sneaky? To play a hoax on an innocent man? It was, in fact, underhanded. An entertainment, honestly. And what if he got mad at them both, figured out something was haywire? Then Marta would have her in her sights, too.
And Marta was already down on the porch, swinging her feet on the bench swing. It didn’t occur to her to wait, then casually answer the door. She was primed and ready to meet the latest prince who might sweep her off her feet. Junie’s face was pressed against the screen of their bedroom window and from this vantage point she would just see the approach to the house. She could hear well enough. Their plan was, if it all seemed a wash, Junie should come down and interrupt their conversation.
At half past one, Guy’s car rolled up to the curb. It was a blue 1983 Lebaron Coupe with a huge dent in the front fender. Junie clucked her tongue but Marta now arrayed herself along the banister in anticipation. The driver door opened and out popped Guy as if on a spring, trim and of average height, brown hair a pleasant shagginess, energetic stride taking him to the house. He held out a hand as Marta descended. She welcomed him with both of hers like a hostess, chatting gaily, when he looked up as if distracted or he was expecting someone else there. Junie stepped away from the window.
“Guy! Come on up. I’m so glad to meet you at last, sit with me,” Marta said with all the warmth she could muster. Guy obliged.
He was, Junie knew, not quite right: average nice looks, a bit short, slender, not tan enough, not jock enough, not magnetic enough. Junie suddenly felt terrible. He would fall for her sister in sixty seconds then be deflated by Marta’s quick dispensing of things: a crash landing.
She debated whether or not to go down. If the staircase didn’t descend right in front of the front door, she’d tiptoe down and eavesdrop in the foyer. Oh, why not? She’d do it, walk right outdoors to get her own view, give input, save Marta. Be a decoy so Marta could beg off.
“Hello, hello, who have we here this auspicious afternoon?” Junie stepped out the door, turned, put hands on her hips and flashed her teeth, which were good.
“Why, it’s my new pen pal, Guy Alton, you remember, don’t you?” Marta was smiling but her eyes warned her to tone it down.
“Of course I do, a pleasure to meet you, Guy. I’m Junie, her sister.” She sat between the two, pressing Marta over with a quick shove of her bony hip. Guy smelled sort of tangy, maybe Old Spice. No, better than that, green leaves and sweat. “You’re the friend of Shelley’s cousin, Dale, correct? Now that’s clear, what do you think of my sister? You’ve been the mystery man a long while– the tension has been killing us. Me.” His jittery thigh touched hers so she moved it, scooted closer to Marta.
Guy snickered as he cast a hand over his forehead, then left it there as he propped his head up, elbow on back of the swing. “Junie. Well, I’m a bit confused. Dale said–”
“Confused about what?” Marta widened those maple brown eyes, pouty lips curving upward. “Dale said what, I’d like to know?”
“Yes, tell all, Dale said what of which of us? Or was it Marta, my gorgeous sister?” She couldn’t help but turn to look him in the eyes. Clear deep blue, like inviting summer pools.
Guy shifted uncomfortably. Perhaps better to get away from overbearing sisters, one pretty as noted, the other really curious. But he stayed put.
“Well, Dale did say and so did Shelley that Marta was the goodhearted life of any party and lovely while Junie was talented, outspoken. Different. I mean, you two ladies were different.”
A hum of uncertain silence met his words. Junie crossed her arms across her chest, suppressed a smile. He was so close she could hear the soft wheeze of each inhale and exhale of breath. Marta pushed off the floor with a sandaled foot, making the swing move.
“That’s the truth, we’re like night and day,” she said. “So can we start over? Tell me about your trip down here and if you’re looking forward to more college and so on. I feel we’ve just picked at the outer wrappings.” She elbowed her sister to get off and leave.
Junie about said she knew Guy better than that and she shared quite a bit but just caught herself. It was too late to fix the thing, Marta had fluffed her feathers a little, shown interest, and he was not missing much so far. Best to disappear. Let things take their course. It was more fun than she’d had in awhile but it was over and done.
“Yeah, that’s right, she’s the hot shot, I’m the lowly caterpillar of a scribe who’s not yet come out of her voluminous cocoon. I’ll let you two get on with it. But I have to say I’m pleased I got to meet you, anyway.” She slipped off the swing, cocked her head at him.
“Yeah, me, too… but I’m trying to figure it out.” He sat forward, forearms on thighs, hands clasped together and stopped the swing’s motion. “Who actually wrote the letters?” He looked back at Marta, then at Junie, who was at the door, hand on the brass pull.
Marta let loose her silvery jangle of a laugh. “Who do you think? I wrote you! I was interested in knowing you better and found it sweet to send and receive letters–wasn’t it? She just tidied and typed them for me! Credit where credit is due, of course, but I wanted to meet you. Not her.” She pointed at her sister as if accusing her.
Junie froze. Narrowed her eyes.
“I’m not so sure. I think it might have been her. Junie, you talk just like those letters are written…what’s going on?”
Marta’s mouth fell open and she stared at her sister. “Oh, no.”
Junie ran inside, slamming the door shut and then trotted upstairs, down the hallway, out the narrow door to the back sleeping porch. Then she sat on the little folding camp chair she’d kept the last ten years so she could view constellations or storm clouds or creatures in high trees. Sometimes she even dragged along her sleeping bag and lumpy goose down pillow and slept there. Alone, without distraction of sister or parents. This would be another good night for it if it didn’t rain as forecast. She gnawed at a hangnail, anxious about her sister’s reaction and payback.
A half hour later, the sleeping porch door squeaked open and shut. Marta lowered herself on a square pillow she’d grabbed.
“I sent him away. He knows it was you. I read a letter you sent him.” She yawned. “It was a good one.”
The wind rattled tangled branches of oaks and chestnuts. Clouds bunched and scudded across a darkening sky.
“He said to say goodbye and he’d write you when he gets to Hartford. He is quite intrigued by you, Junie. He was a gentleman, honestly. It’s all okay. But wow, that took real nerve, Junie.”
“I ruined it, I don’t know what I thought I was doing!”
“No, sister, he wasn’t someone I could go for but maybe he’ll become yours to figure out.”
“The guy named ‘Guy’, is that for real?…too much!”
They slapped at each other in a fit of giggles.
“He’s kinda old, 19–watch out.”
“My oh my, I will manage, especially with your long experience and nuggets of wisdom to guide me.” Junie grabbed her sister’s arm, squeezed it for emphasis. “My great letter caper, what a bust! I had high hopes it’d work out for you but he got much more interesting. It was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. And then he said he’d take you– me!–trout or bass fishing sometime and that did it.”
“Thank goodness it really is you, not me!”
“You just never know how things will really be–it’s weird.”
She slipped off the camp stool, onto the floor by Marta. They lay back with limbs outstretched when, eyes fluttering and voices screeching, the first dashes and dabs of rain raced through overhanging leaves and made tiny splashes on their warm skin. They let the brisk wetness soak them, such a relief after the interminable, fire-scouring, holding-one’s-breath-for-what’s-next summer.
In the early morning as
visitations pause or fade,
past and future days that
will call upon one’s strength,
all bright wings and brokenness
left to such fading plum blackness,
its comforts, lessened terrors spilled as
sweet water over trespassed body, mind:
Lo, such a beautiful prison of humanness!
This right to wonder, to seek holiness
before hot tea and cinnamon bagel,
waking in shivery autumnal light
that tenders skin and bones and
illumines precious air as soul
nests within, home again,
just one sacred feather.
There were three of them, girls in summer dresses, perhaps ages 6 or 7, and they were aglow with an apricot-and-honey cast of sunlight falling through the tree canopy. They were stepping precisely among broken branches laid this way and that, avoiding the bark as they maneuvered with small bare feet. They spoke in secret voices as they moved, the space between branches a claimed interior space, perhaps their house, or playroom or just a verdant spot that belonged only to them. One girl then gingerly stepped between two long sticks and found herself outside of the loosely defined oval “room”. She hesitated as she came to a narrow space between longer branches as if uncertain whether or not to enter again. A second girl, however, said, “You can come in, this is our door.” The awaiting child smiled and stepped in, as if over a rise. All three again were together, talking and walking the area when the third child left the space. She hunted and gathered two short sticks that fit well in her hands and knocked them against each other with a pleasant thudding rhythm, and began to sing along with the beat.
The scene had stopped me on my park walk; I caught my breath at her song. Sunlight gilding the greenery, the girls immersed in their own world, dresses in a play of motion against the sweeping background, an afternoon so far removed from hurricanes and wildfires and wars that I felt enchantment had cloaked the park. I could have remained there as long as they. The mother/nanny/neighbor sat nearby with an infant lying on crossed legs; now and then she nodded when they looked to her for reassurance. These were beloved children, so content that their peacefulness emanated large and beautiful from their smallness.
The strong urge to raise my camera visited me, though I rarely photograph unknown children without permission. But it passed. It was their completeness, the perfection of the scenario. How the vibrancy of their playfulness shone. How gentleness and joy tipped some vital balance to make things right and new for a few gifted moments again. I moved on before they did. I didn’t want anything altered, nor my gratitude to lift.
I have thought of those children and their impromptu branch house for days, and of the mothering person, her devotion to those children a certainty. I think she got it right with them. How much time and effort does it take to give a child this kind of freedom, this happiness? Beyond securing adequate food, shelter and safety and steadfast affection–which are so vital most cannot survive without them–what does a parent need to do? And how much can it matter in the long view?
I believe it requires patience and self-restraint to let children be. To just play, let things unfold naturally without interference. I’ve observed kids being directed, cautioned and corrected excessively, as if they cannot create effective ways to open up the gates to make-believe; navigate ordinary conflicts with others; or discard one idea for another to maximize interest and fun.
It is as if adults feel the need to press their own expertise upon children’s improvised alone time, or they worry that they will get into mischief that cannot find its own good solution. Cared-for children are cautioned from day one of countless potential, current or highly suspected dangers. They are taught without ceasing numerous socially accepted behaviors, the how and when to do them. They are urged to do reach for a higher bar, are cheered when they make the mark, are instructed to get back up when they fall down. Children are corralled, disciplined, corrected, warned, filled with information and emptied of many illusions before they even tie their shoes without knotty spots. So why must they also be “improved” during playtime? Children apparently need all those fine art classes, yoga and martial arts, foreign languages, preschool math and reading courses, a library of DVDs, computer-driven tutoring and entertainment to fill up their extra time–and phones so young…all well and good. Or is it?
There will always be overzealous parents, propelled by determination to create “superior” offspring–as if this was even the best they could do for their children. But I am also addressing the ubiquitous availability of gadgets, their unending, expensive “new edition” spawn. The technological manifestations that children have to embrace as they become older are immense enough in number with attendant skills required. How much does a child have to know about anything that requires Wi-Fi to enjoy his or her life before first grade? (I’d suggest age 10 at the earliest if it was up to me.) A child does not thrill to more distraction than contemporary life already dishes out. Nor does he or she need overt cues or flashy music and garish visuals to excite and improve a naturally growing brain. A child can find her own way in realms of play and learning, When there are questions, a supervising youth or adult can offer to help search an answer.
All they truly require are a few sticks and a grassy spot or a few rocks and a stoop, a small corner and a real or imagined playmate. They will, without any doubt, make a game of it. The ability to adapt, create and embrace the simplest pleasures will guide them forward toward their futures. Perhaps even one day save them.
Watching those three girls at play brought back my own childhood. I’m not indulging in any sentimental send up. Of course I know this is not the 1950s; of course our culture has morphed a few times (even gone back in trendy loops) and industrialized civilization is busier and vaster than ever to address notably different needs and wants. The threats to well being seem harder to decipher and predict.
But children’s time apart from grown ups has always been and will remain just children’s play. The beauty of this is the innate simplicity primed with spontaneity. And it belongs to children as surely as their unique rates of growth and language use, their childish ways of reaching and touching our hearts. Even alone, a child can entertain herself for as long as she wishes, with very few material objects to aid her. I say, leave her and him well alone as long as they are safe and within reasonable hearing range. Let things unfold of their own accord. That reaching mind utilizes its fledgling critical thinking skills to work out kinks, follow diversions. Make a good game of life.
I’ve written of my old neighborhood’s outdoor gatherings and family games of childhood days. I’ve stated my parents directed me to “go find something to do” if I dared utter that foul word: “bored.” I had a fairly busy childhood schedule with school and church and the arts–which I adored–but there was “down time” as well. (We did not own a television until I was thirteen–there was not enough time or interest–and even then it was seldom turned on. I found it novel, even strange that friends were wild about cartoons, and just did not feel the tug of it.)
So it was up to me to get in touch with buddies or ride my prized blue Schwinn, create basic seriocomic stories with my dolls and pillows and scarves or the fabulous miniature farm set, build with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, draw (even in dirt with a pointy stick), sketch and paint or attempt crafty things, write a poem, play hopscotch and jump rope, make up a song or dance, give a puppet its own theater, climb the maple tree and survey the intriguing horizon. I liked to watch cars go by, count the models and makes and colors. Play in the sprinkler or water “Plant” a garden while watering with a miniature sprinkling can. Hit a few rounds of croquet acorss the uneven grassy yard–even alone. Heck, I could play everyone’s game, couldn’t I? And win them all. It was for just a bit of fun, after all.
But I loved hanging out in my small hideout in the dense thicket of bushes and trees in the northwest corner of back yard. There was a scarred wood bench to sit on, a table devised of broken pine branches and scrap wood. I could be anybody I wanted. There were supplies kept there–paper and pencils, glass of water, saltine crackers, a homemade slingshot, an dirty hat. Or I’d explore the tree nursery right behind our house, galloping about as if atop a wild stallion, on the lookout for bandits. In winter I dragged the toboggan around in knee-deep snow under a star-pierced sky, and truly felt the intrepid adventurer.
I was never lacking options, only impetus at times, and soon could find something to enjoy. Play–not much supervised or directed– was a pleasurable part of my day.
I did not live in a shielding bubble, however. Not by the time I was eight years old, when over the next three years sexual abuse altered the course of day and night, a violent twist in the flow of a heretofore secure childhood. But one thing that did not change was the escape and rest offered by play time on my own–or fun with friends and family, if desired. Play saved me in broad and deep ways. Yes, rescued me. It taught me to cope with not-yet-understood stress, how to mine and polish more elusive positive moments, how to improvise, figure out solutions. How to keep in touch with hopeful possibilities beyond the silencing, invisible prison of abuse by a man who appeared harmless, trustworthy, but was a menace, one who threatened grave violence if silence was broken.
It appeared that the play and work, the holy and profane existed side by side in a life filled with love of God and family and redefining losses. I felt weakened before becoming stronger. Separate time to be free of fear, to enjoy ordinary moments as well as try out scenarios of a happier day was vital.
As I later suffered consequences of difficult times, I could delve into that short era of innocence and dig for the light still alive in darkness. I had once so easily embraced or created contentment and laughter; thus, it was possible to experience both once more. Had I not been brave and curious, steady in body and mind and open to the amazements of life? It was all still out there along with the harder stuff, and it could happen for me again. I had to recall that childish impulse toward play as much as anything else as I sorted things out on the way to recovery. I looked for more reasons to laugh. Marvel. They were there, waiting to be spotted. If I could rebuild a foundation of trust brick by brick, I could build a better life. Hold onto happiness. And over time, that is how it unfolded.
Nothing turns out just as we think it will be as children. My life has not the story arc once imagined–it has been tougher, often better and very different. I can still re-design much within through creative engagement, enable more good via prayer and work and compassion. But also in simple play. Because I was long ago encouraged to explore the “what ifs” and “just try its” mode of operation, and learned to do it pretty well. Just grant me a little space. A few minutes. I’ll come up with something that will lead to more fun.
I recall when counselling those in addictions treatment, especially, asking one question over and over: what have you done today that is safe but also fun? And ending group sessions reminding them to put back fun in their lives. Because the ways to enjoy and care about life are like a veritable smorgasbord of surprises. Try one; find out what happens. It will stir up those mood-altering hormones we already possess to boost well being. Think back, I’d suggest: what gave you a great feeling as a smallchild? How can you recreate that again? We are wise about wonder and delight when starting out in life–so reclaim it.
So play on, little daughters and sons, conjure new worlds into being at a touch, a word, a dream, all right within this one. Pick up that stick and beat the drum of earth and leap through invisible doors. Practice your own robust magic. And do not forget.