Channay’s Gifts

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It was nineteen ninety-six, late autumn, raining. The first day she joined our team at an adolescent residential treatment center, it was as if a wisp of a sweet breeze had entered the building. Channay was composed, a bit subdued but soft around the edges, as though she moved in a dream. Her Chinese (we speculated) beauty was startling but she seemed unaware of it, and dressed unobtrusively. Thick ebony hair swayed against her back. Her delicate hands with long tapered fingers and impeccable nails were like birds wafting through the air.

There was a modesty and simplicity about her that vividly contrasted with the raucous, rough teenagers (male and female, different floors) we aided, as well as our toughened team. Many worried she would not be strong enough for the work, that the clients would manipulate and bulldoze her within a week. We needn’t have been concerned; she watched and learned rapidly. She held firm but never raised her voice in response to their heckling of her slight accent or pushing of program limits.

She and I connected easily. Neither of us fit the profile of someone who would work with often violent, abused and abusing, drug addicted, homeless or gang-affiliated kids. Channay was in her late twenties–not so far from my oldest daughter’s age–and not so much older than some of our clients. She had no experience with substance abuse and was finishing her Bachelors degree. She lived with an aunt, uncle and cousins.

At forty-four, I was older than most of our teammates, and remnants of Midwestern suburbia clung to me despite my best efforts. I was working hard to adapt to the environment while deepening my compassion. I had become well defended emotionally and physically. In other words, I was on my way to being more seasoned and had decided to devote myself to counseling. Many people left before after a year. I wondered how long Channay would last.

The months passed. She and I worked together efficiently, updating each other during shift change, and when working together addressing charting, filing and crisis-management (among many more duties). In my groups or alternative school classes, she was a steady counter balance, and always dedicated to the goals shared. The youth came to respect her presence. I saw her self-possession and knew she was much older than her birth age. And wondered why.

Channay was mysterious but it was partly because she valued her privacy as well as others’, I believed. It was a relief. Well-established boundaries and a calm manner meant no high drama, no excuses or infighting with other staff. We had enough of that every moment with the kids. She noted she had worked with youth at a homeless shelter and that was reflected in her skills. Her quick intelligence was a balm. She showed a small smile when I joked a bit, the sort of black humor one adopts when working with daily trauma in others. In time, as things solidified in her job, she relaxed.

We soon worked several grave yard shifts together. There was time to chat as the building turned inward by midnight. For fifteen female clients we were the only two staff so stayed attuned to the dormitory.

“You have children, yes?” she asked me one night.

“Yes, five. My youngest, twelve, is at home. An older son lives here but is more or less on his own.”

“Oh, my, how lucky! Big families make life more, better. I have some cousins here, aunts, uncles.”

“My other three are back east but I hope to see them all together soon.”

“Ah, you miss them.”

“I do.”

Her eyes, dark and large, seemed reminiscent of a wild creature’s: alert, clear. But then they unfocused, closed suddenly.

I finished the last bit of filing, then studied her. The energy had shifted, as though something invisible had entered the room. She was staring at her hands, hair falling over her face, shoulders drooping.

“Channay?” I sat across from her.

She turned to me, lifted her head so that her hair parted a little, eyes searching somewhere else. “My own family–gone long ago.”

The sharpness of her voice stopped me.

“Your parents?”

She nodded. “They died Cambodia, under terror regime of Pol Pot. You know about him?”

I sat down across from her, my breath caught in my throat. The dreaded name flashed in my mind and I nodded.

“They were murdered, nineteen seventy-seven. And my brothers and sisters. The Khmer Rouge stormed our house. My father was a doctor. They didn’t leave professionals like my father alive. They were branded capitalists. This was Pol Pot’s communism. So his men killed them all. Families, too.”

Her face was defined by stillness, her eyes by the sort of agony that cannot be named. I felt myself caving inside. I wanted to touch her limp hands but did not.

“I am so terribly sad for your family, for you,” I mumbled, and begged my tears to recede. Out of respect, I prayed for calmness.

“I escaped. I cannot say how. Ran away so fast…” She took a breath that originated from the deepest regions of her being. “I was later brought here by aunt and uncle.” She picked up a pencil, smoothed it gnawed edges. “I wanted you to know. I trust you  with this.”

There was nothing I could offer. “Thank you.”

She nodded, her mournfulness a thing I could nearly hold in my hands like tears, like blood. Instead, I let my palm graze her shoulder when leaving the room to attend to a railing youth. Another soul with other kinds of nightmares.

One morning Channay came in earlier than usual. Her hair was still damp. I was surprised as she was always readied for work, and told her so.

“Oh, I usually take baths every morning, but usually have time to dry my hair. I slept in a little! Luxury but basic, my bath. I don’t think I could go into this world without a twenty minute bath. It calms me, makes me ready.” She smiled. “I burn candles. Sometimes there are flower petals in the water and I watch them float, smell their sweetness. Such peace. You must try it, Cynthia!”

I appreciated her quiet whimsical side as well as how she valued such simple things. How she smiled from a place of shyness. Her adeptness at handling angry, forlorn youths. We were now friends; the confession of such tragedy cemented our bond. We never spoke of it again but after that night she shared readily about her extended family, the American culture she couldn’t get fully accept but enjoyed after ten years, the traditions she and her family still practiced. Her loneliness and hopes. She did not have the freedom she wanted. She was bound by duty to do as her elders required. She gave much of her money to aunt and uncle. I listened and tried to understand, to accept her lifestyle and encourage her.

Soon after the bath conversation she told me she would be leaving her job. I knew she had been under pressure to marry a man in Seattle, an arranged marriage that her aunt and uncle felt was excellent. She had met him twice. Now the wedding had been arranged. She would marry and go to his home–“a lovely house, he has a great job; I am old to wed, Cynthia”–and there she would be his wife and care for his aging parents, who lived with him. It was a successful match for her family. It was the least she could do.

“It is our tradition. I must go.” Her eyes moistened. “But it will not be easy. Hard work lies ahead. I can do it.”

What about her education? What about her dream of being a youth counselor? I asked her. But she shook her head.

“Maybe one day,” she smiled, then turned back to her work.

I felt her unease in every breath, but her shoulders were squared, strong. I knew she would go, would smile, would do well.

The day Channay left I dreaded the end of her shift. We went outdoors for a few minutes. The sunshine was silky, warm on our faces; spring was ready to envelop our city. We spoke of the time we had spent getting to know one another. Our futures. We promised to write one another. I gave her a card with a poem I had written, which she read, then held close to her heart.

“I have a very small gift for you,” she said.

I opened the box. There were two small mugs with flowers on them. They were designated for the months of May and June, as noted on the bottoms. They were different than what I owned, graced with such delicate designs.

Moved, I murmured my thanks. How could she leave her dreams behind, take from us her generous spirit? But she had more to give elsewhere.

“Now you will remember me,” she said. “You have been a mother and friend to me. I have many good memories to keep with me. Thank you.”

We embraced a long moment and our tears, oh, how they came.

Channay left for Seattle and I stayed on at the treatment center for almost three more years. But I didn’t hear from her. Without her new address I couldn’t contact her. I searched for her name online but didn’t locate her. I wondered if in that other life–beyond what I could share–she had a far different name, something musical on the tongue. Complex. But I also wasn’t surprised she vanished. She went where I couldn’t follow: the way of the traditional Cambodian wife.

One of the mugs sadly was lost long ago but I treasure this remainder, keeping it safe at the back of the shelf. It has pink and white peonies and columbine and is framed in a vivid berry tone. It fits in my hands. It speaks to me of a woman’s courage, her love of others so less fortunate, her unrelenting respect for life. Her haunted soul was a symphony of grief and longing that imprinted my own. Her heart, a deep and shining bowl that held so much with room for more. Her good mind a beacon for others who admired its strength. I was honored, happy to be invited in.

It is almost twenty years since we said farewell. My dearest Channay: wherever you are, I will not ever forget.

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For more information on Pol Pot and the genocide in Cambodia, please see http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~amamendo/KhmerRouge.html

Acquisitions

DSCF3895Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.

She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.

“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”

“Did it go well with the cake?”

He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”

“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”

Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.

The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.

Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.

He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.

bank-mit-pflanzen-44421287528590gV7W“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”

“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”

He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.

Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.

The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”

“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”

“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.

Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.

“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”

“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”

As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.

“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”

“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”

Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”

Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.

“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”

His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”

Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.

Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.

Tryon-Public Lands Day 9-25-10 061One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.

“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”

Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.

“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”

He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.

“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.

He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”

Sela stirred but did not get up.

“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”

They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”

“What? I couldn’t possibly…you’re my teammate! Why on earth are you doing this?”

“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”

Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.

“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”

But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.

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The Great Unknowns

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Ever get the feeling that something is about to happen but it isn’t going to be an event you desire? Something you cannot even imagine? Or you can, and that’s the problem, or will be sooner or later.

Your throat tightens as though a vise has gripped it, your breath is  squashed by the fancy architecture of your ribs. What was once your important and strong core, i.e., your diaphragm, is now a puddle of bad jelly. Your heart? It has its own agenda and it is not listening to reason. Your autonomic system is responding to a three alarm fire and you can’t even see the smoke. Then you realize what is happening but it leaves you quaking anyway: anxiety attack! If only there was somewhere to run for cover.

Or perhaps it is a malingering you feel, a daily burden, a sensation that nothing is ever quite right or something will go wrong no matter what is done. A deep sense of unease keeps you company, heightened by some circumstances, lessening a bit in others. But it is like your shadow, never vanishing once and for all.

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue noted in the U.S. At least eighteen percent of the population suffers enough to seek help according to one report. I can testify to how widespread it is after counseling clients for over twenty-five years. I estimate that seventy percent of my clients have anxiety. They have said it is the primary reason (grief and loss is second, tied with depression) for abusing drugs and alcohol. And they also complain that they’ve developed a host of symptoms related to anxiety (and the stress and tension it brings) from insomnia to nausea to migraines; avoidance of the company of others; and becoming blocked in achieving lifelong goals. It can kick-start depression. Anxiety can stop you from going out the door for milk or to a holiday party.

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Anxiety is the buzzing static in your head that is louder than a city at full-tilt. It makes things feel harder. Relief is the goal for those who know its redundant tune. Anxiety can hold you hostage. And all you want is freedom, if only the very thought of it wasn’t so anxiety producing.

But my disclaimer: this post does not offer a perfect panacea. There are already good ways and means to address anxiety disorders if that is what you experience and need professional help. At the local bookstore are a wide variety of books on how to manage anxiety. There are physical and spiritual practices (meditation and prayer, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, and so on) that ease symptoms. Therapists have skills that enable them to treat anxiety in all its manifestations; they make a decent living due to so much need. Pharmaceutical companies profit from designing and selling medications that may or may not help.

What I want to talk about is that it is possible to de-fang and de-claw much of our anxiety. I don’t even think much of that word; it lacks even a utilitarian flair. I am certain that decades ago “nervousness” was just another emotion to experience and cope with; now it has become a major diagnosis. But it is here to stay, it seems. So this is an essay about how I have increasingly avoided an emotional stutter that forces a time out from life. Because that’s what anxiety feels like to me: going into a corner, facing a wall for more than a tolerable few minutes. As long as anxiety can breathe my breath for long, I’m not living the life I need to live: full-on, intrigued by what comes my way and how I get to respond. What I get to next create.

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I’m not easily thrown by challenges though I’ve had some doozies. But I learned a few useful things along the way. Painful events are equal opportunity: we all get to experience them, first off, because we’re born with human bodies. Bundles of nerves and powerful chemicals that create chain reactions set the stage. Each emotional nuance helps us to better know ourselves and others. Our potential and limits. Sometimes we get into something we didn’t foresee at all. Or too late. And it has sudden impact.

Like the one I stumbled into when almost fifteen.

I was walking by a city park, above it, actually, on railroad tracks. The sun beamed down on all. I loved trains, being in them or not. I’d once jumped one for a slow ride as it came into town, hanging on with one hand, the wheels’ rhythms travelling up bone and sinew. So I kept my eye on the far point and my ear attuned to a mellow whistle. It was Indian summer in Michigan. There were children down below playing, adults sharing a last barbecue, and their shouts and laugher drifted up the hill. No train made itself apparent. I wasn’t worried if one did start barreling toward me as I could easily scramble up the incline to the street. There, just out of reach, were gracious homes with broad lawns that overlooked the Tittabawasee River and the park.

I was thinking of little when I heard them. Footsteps. They  closely matched mine but fell heavier, then a bit faster. I threw a glance over my shoulder, thinking it was another like-minded person enjoying the day, waiting for a train. But no. He was not much older than was I, maybe younger, wiry with dark hair and no smile. No words. He felt…wrong. Discomfort did not creep up on me; it hammered me with a surge of adrenalin that was critical. I started to run; my legs chose how fast.

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Not fast enough. Hands grabbed and I was down, blows catching my chest, face. I kicked and hit back and when my jeans were tugged I bit the hand that tried to silence me. I screamed at him. He wasn’t giving up easily but I was raging. My only defense was words because below me in the park no one could or would pay attention.   I said exactly what I felt with a force that shook me.

“Who do you think you are? God is more powerful than you and He will get you for this! Stop!”

He pulled back, stunned, eyes wide. He went a little slack so I  shoved him off. He fell over and I dashed up the hill and into the street. I heard the train whistle, that low, full-bellied moan that builds into a forlorn and beckoning call. I could not stop running running running. I did not tell anyone what happened but said I had fallen hard and split my lip. Telling that sort of truth was not encouraged in my mid-sixties town.  I pondered if I made the error, wrong place and time. I decided it might not be the best place to walk alone but nothing was my fault. Yet,  self-doubt lingered. Anxiety found a way in, cutting me off from the known world, weakening my confidence.

I survived that attack; in the future even worse would waylay my life. But countless people can and do survive terrible things every day. Living is a complicated ride where treachery and wondrousness can share a seat. Large and small tragedies make us ask: what is safety, really, in the end? We come into this world with hearts and spirits ready to be dazzled and they are. But they’re also turned inside out.

How does one live beyond the bruisings and wounds? Was I to be dogged by paralyzing fear whenever I left a familiar sidewalk, town, country? Would I battle nightmares the rest of my life, only to enter each day expecting the same or worse? Did I fashion an armor so fail proof that I was distanced from others? How to find a way back to ease? It was imperative to learn how to thrive in altered territory, both interior and exterior. It took time. I patched things back together with help, same as anyone who desires to live better. Anxiety, which is a gnawing worry over loss of control in our lives, was not my real problem. I already knew I could have control taken away, with pain left in its stead. So my thinking had to change so I could “live life on life’s terms” (as AA informs recovering folks). Peace was the prize I coveted.

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So facing up to the fact that our lives are unpredictable but resilient  helps. Safety is, in actuality, often relative, fluid and shaped by our viewpoint. How do I determine not the future but the way I will greet it?

So we can adjust our perspective. As a youth I tried to ignore spurts of anxiety (why feed something I didn’t like?) with some success (denial can give us a break). I tried blotting it out with substances. I distracted myself with work, achievements, loved ones. I was busy first and last, being constructive in my life. But nothing yielded good results until I found another way. It was imple acceptance. Of the real sense of uncertainty. Of randomness and sudden changes in the scheme of things. Anxiety accompanies our living; nerves are conduits of information to apprise and use all our systems. Without some adrenalin I’d not move from a chair, after all. I had to make a friendly alliance with anxiety. And, sad human creatures that we sometimes are,  we also need great, unswerving compassion. I give you and myself full permission to heap this on ourselves whenever we feel small. Vulnerable. Then go out there; walk in  kindness.

Not everything needs to ring the alarm. It can ring a small bell. There can be silence. Times can feel harrowing but others are  tender, exquisite. Battling old or unseen adversaries–phantoms on the railroad tracks–keeps the bloody fight going. It took the spunk out of me, which I refuse to allow again. We cannot reasonably fight the unknown. I can learn how to be a dragon slayer, just in case, but why? Surprise is a valued element in my life story as well as acceptance. I do have trust that I’ll keep on walking to the end of this road. That it will stay lit up by ordinary and Divine Love and the next turn will proffer extraordinary things. I am, simply put, allied with my humanness and with my faith. I have surrendered so that I can dwell in my personal power; fear will not own me. And if it gets to me anyway, I remind myself: I am like a sieve as emotions flow through, morph and retreat, rise then fall. Things change once again.

I open the door wide. I look around as my animal senses pay attention. This is automatic and also prudent. I step out and breathe lungfuls of fresh air. Today it is chilled and rainy; I welcome it. Tomorrow? Who knows how the winds will blow? I’m as ready as I can expect to be. There is not time or inclination to give the vast unknowns so much attention. Life calls to me, even the world, and I am enthralled. I just get on with it. You can, too.

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Being Let Loose

Yachats11-10 040“Do you always sit this still?” the physical therapist inquired. “Your head doesn’t move much at all and your shoulders seem frozen. You do walk off balance which is why you came. But you look…way too still somehow. How and why do you do that?” She sighed.

That took me aback. I laughed, a bit embarrassed. Nothing like being told that my muscles were knotted, my posture askew and my neck like a post.

“Well, I was paid to sit at attention for most of my counseling career, about twenty-five years. But now I’m not working for money. Maybe it’s time to loosen things up more.”

I explained that I had sat in an office chair every day. I always leaned forward a little, hands folded in my lap, every sensory avenue tuned to the client who sat before me. Attentive listening it is called. I became so adept at not influencing or distracting clients as they spoke, so calm in the midst of anger, fear, pain and grief, that I would lose sense of my own physicality. I was intent on discovering what their true energy was, where the maze of thoughts and feelings took us. They were demanding puzzles, but shared stories that broke open their insides. And mine, though quietly.

Intuitive responses arise partly from complex and minute informational bits that people share, less with words than with their bodies. What they do not say. I watched and heard. And after a time my feet might get tingly, my hands cold. Headaches geared up. Yawning could creep in by late afternoon; my brain could feel buzzy and empty at once. I realized my circulation wasn’t so great. In between clients, I would shake out the kinks and stretch a little, but  client turnaround time was often five minutes or less. Lunch hours were very short at the desk. For ten or more hours a day I paid attention. I was trained in the art of hearing and enjoyed listening deeply, responding with support and interventions. The rest of the ten to twelve-hour days was spent on documentation via computer.

It was the educational and therapy groups that saved me from becoming immobilized. I enjoy public speaking and sharing new ideas with others, so stood at ease before a crowded room, challenged and conversed with people. But the real bonus: I finally got to move like a human being. I felt free walking back and forth before the group, covering the chalkboard with diagrams and key points. I could let my hands speak; they flew about like happy birds.

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Still, I would return home desperate for a walk and a massage. Just simple relaxation. At eight thirty each night I would walk with my husband or alone if needed in the rain, wind, the sun setting or long set. Then I was returned to myself and my mind would slowly clear, become transparent. Awake but meditative.

Being quiet and still all those years did me no favors. It is against my nature, possibly against all human nature. Let me enter the woods and hike, indulge in long meandering walks. Let me do simple physical labor to ground me, loosen me. I just swept (with a regular broom) and tidied our lengthy sidewalk and parking area today because I wanted to. My landlord could do it and I know more leaves are falling. I felt enlivened and comfortable with the rhythm of sweeping. The crackling bright air filled my lungs. My mind rested and writing ideas came forward, prayers were released, worries made more powerless.

Like most kids, I grew up in full motion–running and swimming, ice skating and tobogganing, bicycling and skipping rope, playing volleyball. I danced every day. I swung from and climbed up trees. I drew pictures, acted, played cello and sang on stages. I was even a cheerleader. Never did I imagine I would sit still for a living. But as a youth when I had to keep my body quiet for, say, one of my father’s concerts, it felt unnatural, hard to pull off. I wanted to use every sense and breathe fully, be spontaneous in mind, spirit and flesh. Move.

It has been many months since I resigned from my last position. I am a woman without a title. Still I sit. I roll my shoulders up and back as I type. I write five to seven hours daily, five to six days a week. This, after all, is the main reason I am home: I have a core-deep, focused, lovely passion for writing. But I am learning once again that I need to get up, do a few exercises, turn on the music and dance around. When I have an anemic poem or a story that mocks me at every turn, outdoors I go. If I’m lucky I hike, but a turn around the neighborhood will do it.

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If it is really storming, then I get busy doing anything. Sometimes all it takes to get blood racing and brain recharging is a simple activity. Vacuuming, for instance, or the orderly folding of laundry.

Earlier this week I decided food would be useful; I tend to forget meals when I am absorbed in something. I pulled out the requisite items: lettuce, tomato, onion, bread, sliced turkey. Tried to shake off frustration about the short story I have revised several times. Realized I should clean the kitchen, so made a swipe or two. Heard my characters yakking in my head, giving directives to each other and me. I got out the mayo and Dijon mustard, then spread each on  bread. And then I put the bread together.

Meantime, I could clearly envision my story’s protagonist, Jasper, sitting on the hillside in his splintery Adirondack chair, gazing at the psychic artisan’s house below. The woman he finds on the far side of strange but likes a little, anyway. He is going to help her out, but how?

And then I figured it all out, what he would do next. Energized again, I took a big bite of my sandwich–Ha! Now for food!–and put it down again. I talked aloud to myself: “Well, that was absolute idiocy!”, with a swear word as exclamation point. It had nothing on it but lettuce and condiments. I had lost track of the physical world a few seconds… yet the very act of moving and doing something so pedestrian had shaken loose the next decent line of the story.

My number one therapeutic intervention to restart creative momentum is walking. Then I get somewhere fast inside my head. The rhythmic swing of legs and arms, heart pumping harder, taking in sounds and colorful sights, finding an array of scents: my mind is loosed. I hear words come alive within and they tell me things I did not know before. They travel from my soul to dodgy (aggressive coronary artery disease) but determined heart, to rapid-firing synapses and back again. I feel and become stronger, opened up, realigned in body and mind. Other creatures don’t think it all over; they just get into gear. So why do I deliberate each time?

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Many situations have been imprisoning in my life. We all know that dark corner feeling. There have been times I have felt like a hostage, emerging with scars and a jaded view. Others have enlightened me more than I imagined at the onset. But if our earth-bound sensory lives can damn us, they also can save us. Just as I must keep my spirit primed with thanksgiving and love of the Divine, I must also give my body opportunities to fully appreciate itself. We are each made all of one piece. We create from fullness and paucity, from expansiveness and the narrows of our lives. Our bodies need us to experience wonders and we need their wisdom. I am a person well acquainted with physical pain yet still I find it so.

And since I am not working for pay, next on my real life list is this: a couple of hours each Friday for a few weeks I will step far away from the desk. I am finally going to take flamenco classes. Flamenco is music and movement that shakes me up and shares life with me. I know there will be good stories and poems arising from this willingness to dance. I will let life and limb loosen more so I can journey deeper into its essence.

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Staying Alive: an Interview

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“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

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