How to Soften Without Weakening

 

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CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. ”

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

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The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

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Power of Place

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When I leave behind the congestion of the city and move into country stillness fills me inch by inch. There is an alertness coupled with serenity that blooms in my core. As Portland subsides with its array of tantalizing offerings and entertaining moments, it is like a long-held breath released, mind emptied of scattered thoughts, lists, a vagary of wants and needs. I begin to be at ease within the world again, and feel gentler towards self and others. Countryside affects me profoundly.

This is common for me and likely many people, though I have met those who prefer city’s jangle and jumble, its towering paeans to human progress and folly. They rarely leave it. I can’t imagine such reluctance. If I can’t find my way to less populated land regularly I feel less than content, full of longing. I am lonely for nature’s balm and beauties.

Place holds strong energy for me, be it human or not, constructed or deconstructed. I believe they are infused with remnants of past or present inhabitants’ and events. Buildings, houses, neighborhoods, parcels of land, anywhere there is or was life feels benignly neutral, compelling or repellant, with shades in between. I have felt this way all my life, impacted enough by it that my daily decisions are informed by it. I find it as natural a way of perceiving as with physical senses.

People are influenced, even if unconsciously, by intuitive responses. Think of real estate shows and how often folks reject or appreciate a house based on how it “feels.” It is a conscious experience for a great many people. Throughout our years of moving, I have chosen housing based on my internal perception of it far more than outward appearances. I intensely feel aftereffects of violence that has occurred, when great sorrow lingers, or if those who have inhabited it harbored various destructive behaviors. At times it seems like people have inserted their personalities and are still there. There have been many occasions I have driven up to a place and immediately left. Or knew instantly this was the place that would be home. I do not second-guess; I’ve learned it’s not worth it.

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I also am attuned when hiking, detouring when I feel unusually close to wild and possibly threatening creatures. There was the time in the Columbia Gorge that I knew bears were very near and I lagged behind my spouse. A few moments later I heard soft huffing sounds of cubs. Of course their mother kept an eye on things close by; they exchanged communications. I told my husband it was time to leave. And once hiking in a city forest something had created a wide swath of flattened grass and weeds where I was walking. My feet suddenly would not budge another step. I wasn’t certain yet what was near, only that it was wild, large and perhaps guarding or enjoying a meal. Despite my spouse’s stating it might be something but likely nothing, I turned and walked away, quietly calling him. At the nature center we were informed of a cougar’s recent sighting. Would we have been harmed either time? My instinct said “beware” and I don’t regret it.

We all have such guidance if we pay attention. It could be an angel or God or our own animal nature or all. We cross a street or become more guarded when we feel ill intention attached to a passerby. We have strong first impressions before we even know someone well; later we recall that first response. It isn’t the physical world we respond to but the inner one, the soul’s intention radiating outward. It is the measurable, palpable life energy of who we truly are. We can be as enchanted by one another or by a place as we are not. If warnings are given us, so are calls to come much closer.

We know people can inspire and draw us. So, too, places can move, heal, awaken and strengthen us. Think of a time you needed respite and found a spot where you felt deeply relieved, energized or calmed. Or when you needed hope and an experience of place gave you opportunities to release pain and embrace joy anew. Some people claim a spot and return to it always. Others search and discover them worldwide, like my family who regularly follow the call of unknown roads and the wilds.

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Just last Sunday some of us headed out to a Christmas tree farm. We had chosen a place new to us. As soon as we left the tangle of cars and houses and entered a misty, hilly terrain we knew we were onto something especially good. Foggy patches opened and closed about us, yet afternoon’s golden light brightened everything as though from inside out. The acreage stretched far and wide; the sky opened. We inhaled deeply the redolent, chilled air: damp earth and evergreen scents permeated all. The lots were overseen by a tall, burly man who was laughed readily, was helpful and liked to chat amiably. He seemed the quintessential lumberjack but he has a day job behind a desk. He loves this work on the side.

It took less than ten minutes to find what we wanted: a rotund, sturdy Douglas fir, straight of trunk. Nearby were equally lovely Nobles and Grand Firs. Every tree looked healthy and strong, showing off their needles of rich emerald or bluish-green. They cost a fraction of what we usually paid, as well. Our son cut it down quickly and his Noble, as well.

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We walked up the muddy road to the house and pole barn where attractive, fresh wreaths and coffee awaited. On the way we met sheep who mildly gazed back at us. Their thick wool, random voicings and gentle faces cheered us further. I gazed at the tree line against an alabaster and robin’s egg blue sky, heard brisk birdsong and wings caressing air, sheep baaaing and my family softly talking and laughing. A thick mist began to spread around trees and fields. We had stepped away from all the world and its worrisome matters, through a portal to a place where work built muscle and was valued; kindness thrived; peace prevailed. Though the cold increased I felt steady warmth gather within and around me.

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We met the owners, Tom and Harriet. They chatted easily with us. They had bought the land and house over twenty years prior; it called them. The older gentleman worked in the forestry service and worked the tree farm on his “off” hours. Impressive in their knowledge and congeniality, they are people one would like to have as neighbor, break bread with on a cold winter’s eve. We praised his trees and shared our city-folk love of their land.

“Every time I leave the city and country rolls around me, I feel all is aligned in the universe, and I’m happy,” I told Tom.

He smiled warmly. “Yes, that’s it.”

I was reluctant to leave. We all were. This was more than an exceptional business, it was a place of power, a spot of land where people, creatures and earth conspired to support and tend life together. Its magnificence was there long before it was settled but it had been respected and loved. It is still appreciated for the blessing it is. And it was shared with us, a gift we thankfully took home.

On the way back I saw the nearly full moon through a vaporous veil of fog and thought of Bethlehem. I wondered over the manger where animals surrounded an infant Jesus and his parents. The Wise Men and shepherds had travelled far from home to be part of a place and event of sacred power. What did they feel as they witnessed all? What was it like to stand beneath that star’s radiance as it fell upon them, obliterated darkness for a short while?

I hope for each of you that you claim your special place and moments of power are found this Christmas. Then share them with others. Count yourself fortunate to be able to be still and present, to acknowledge the perfect glory of God, the gifts of life now and through eternity.

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(All photographs taken by the author; please ask before using. Thanks!)

Little Dove, In Abstentia

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(Landscape Under Snow-Upper Norwood- Camille Pissarro)

Poppi was hosting Thanksgiving this year. Carter’s birthday was two days before Thanksgiving and he was happy to have it there. Although it wasn’t as spectacular as a birthday right before Christmas, it brought a bonanza of attention and a few goodies. He  looked forward to the family traditions. Carter was turning nine; he thought that was a decent age. It was closer to being less a little kid, yet not so close to being grown up that he had to act it all the time. And between the spread on the table and his very own lemon zest cake (they also had the usual apple, pumpkin and pecan pies), his belly would grow at least two inches in a matter of an hour. He’d measured it once.

He got gifts, of course.The real important ones came on Christmas morning so he’d keep smiling when he got another pair of wild socks from Aunt Rosa and a used book he wouldn’t read from Uncle Phil. They flew all the way up from Texas so were forgiven. He usually got a little money. This year he’d asked his parents for a black ski hat, a half pound bag of gummy sharks, a Polartec hoodie (pine green) and gift card for the movie theater so he and his best friend Lou could go see a new movie during school vacation. And a pillow. The pillow was important; his was squashed to the point of no return and smelled of popcorn and dirty hair.

It was likely he would get most things or a surprise or two. But first: the feast.

It usually alternated between Carter’s house and Grandfather’s house. Every one called him Poppi. Grandmother had died when Carter was six but he still remembered her like she was a regular visitor. His mother said maybe she was, but also knew Carter had an exceptional memory. He was the only one who noticed she had moved the cactus garden from the middle of the buffet to left after dusting. He knew what the meals had been the last umpteen months if not years so his mother consulted with him on menu ideas. Everything he’d read–Presidents’ names, major world events and their dates and so n on–all the people he’d ever met and music he’d heard with full lyrics: right there when called on. There was no end to it, he was afraid.

In school, of course, this made him a sore thumb. Schoolmates called him a show off and worse. They also liked to pump his memory right before tests. It wasn’t that he was so smart; he just didn’t forget. It could be annoying. Like the day Carter had skidded into someone on the ice rink when he was five. He couldn’t get up until they lifted off a short, round woman. Carter’s stomach flip-flopped even now at the thought of how she’d smelled, spicy mixed with damp wool and bad breath. He could still recall her plumpness pinning him to the freezing ice and her soft curls tickling his face. She had pretty angel earrings.

He remembered Grandmother’s hands, the veins like little vines under white skin, her long fingers gentle on his face. The rattle of pans and squeak of drawers when she was in the kitchen, like a cooking band. He remembered how she walked with long strides, shoulders just so. She read him stories and sang him songs, Carter sitting on her lap.

Poppi had a good house. It was brick, two stories, not overly large, but with enough rooms to play a long game of hide and seek with the four cousins after dinner. It smelled like pine and burning wood because Poppi lit big candles on the dining table and kept a fire going in the family room. Carter’s house didn’t have a fireplace, just a big back yard with a homemade fire pit.

When it got cold in November, he went over to play play a game of checkers with Poppi. Grandmother brought tea in a big white pot. Carter thought sipping tea from small cups was good if funny but never let on. And ginger cookies came with tea. Carter knew she was pretty, with white hair so bright it lit up a dull room, her grey eyes smiling. When she talked it was as though birds entered the room; her words were like soft cooing sounds that seemed to float above chaos and noise, then land like snowflakes or feathers on Carter’s shoulders. That was why Poppi called her “Little Dove” sometimes. Carter felt good when he repeated the nickname.

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(Voortman House and Park in Snow, 1900 -Albert Baertsoen, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent)

They all missed her. She had been a music teacher, and made music seem a biological need. She would play on the old grand piano after meals and she and Poppi would sing, then get everyone else to join in. No one minded. It’s how their family did things. Carter liked being there most after home, even though it was hard when Grandmother didn’t wake up one morning.

Poppi now had a certain way of making sure she was with them each Thanksgiving and Christmas. He always left her chair empty at the table; he put a place setting there. The grown ups accepted it. Carter didn’t think about it until Lance, his fourteen year old cousin, mentioned it.

“Do you think Poppi will still keep the chair at the other end of the table empty? I mean, Grandmother has been gone for three years now. It’s weird, right? It spooks me. He needs to move on.”

Carter shook his head. “It’s what he does. I don’t know who else would sit there.”

“How about one of our moms or dads?”

That would be weird. It’s Grandmother’s seat.”

Lance flicked him with an index finger. “You’re weird, Einstein!”

So Carter had been thinking about Poppi. He wondered how it was to turn in without Little Dove on Christmas Eve. How he felt when he started to talk to her and she wasn’t there.  Carter recalled odd things about her, like her shoes. She always wore real leather high heels until she was done for the day. Then she put on loose pants and sloppy blue slippers that had tiny white flowers on them. She said they were edelweiss and once sang a song from a very old musical, “The Sound of Music.” She’d sung on stage, he knew, and wondered if she’d wanted to be a star. In college she’d met Poppi and they’d “fallen so deep they couldn’t get out” she’d said with a chuckle.

Carter anticipated his ninth birthday but this year he had a surprise for Poppi. He’d had a half-brilliant idea that the family traditions might be tweaked a little and still be great. He had thought it out a long week before making his decision. He worried Poppi might be shocked at first. Cater didn’t want to cause trouble, but he wanted to add something of his own.

Monet's Magpie                                    (Magpie-Claude Monet)

All of them were seated at the table and Poppi was in the kitchen getting the turkey, carving knife and fork. Carter got up and slipped over to Grandmother’s empty chair. Then he felt under the hanging flap of the yellow tablecloth and pulled up something. He set it on the seat and adjusted it just so. He heard gasps from his mother and Aunt Rosa and Lance snickering. Poppi was coming into the dining room. Carter sat in his seat just in time.

It was a good thing his grandfather had set the turkey platter down in front of his plate or there would have been a mess. Poppi’s hands went right to his heart. Hi eyes widened and his face paled. Uncle Phil and Carter’s dad rose to catch him in case he fainted. Cater felt his throat constrict. He was light-headed. What stupid thing had he gone and done?

His mother stood up, too. “Poppi, I’m so sorry–Carter didn’t tell me what he was up to! Carter…” She gave him a hurt look.

“Shush.” Poppi said and stood still a moment. Then he carefully walked over to the chair where Grandmother had reigned over meals for decades. He stood before the grey and white stuffed husky that sat at her place. It was over three feet tall. Its blue eyes gazed out over the table and a pink tongue was glimpsed at its mouth. One paw was atop the tablecloth. Poppi touched its back, then finally patted its head. He blinked back tears, then started to laugh.

“Good heavens, boy, you invited Oscar!” Poppi smiled so all  his teeth showed, a rare thing since he was a more serious type. “She’d love this; he’s right where he belongs.”

The dining room started to fill with sounds of people talking and then clapping, and Lance came over and mussed Carter’s hair. Every one shared memories of Grandmother and Oscar, the real husky Poppi and she had loved for ten years before a truck got him. Carter had decided to give her this stuffed dog the Christmas before she passed. She’d kept it on the trunk at the end of their bed or near her chair in the living room.

When she’d passed Poppi had given it back to Carter; it had been a reminder he didn’t need. Oscar slept each night with Carter but now he was nine. He could share.

Carter went to his grandfather and hugged him tight around the middle. He felt a little shy about it but he felt great that everything was going to be alright. Poppi hugged right back. Carter had missed her so, but maybe they would gather by the fire and sing after dinner again, Oscar warming by the hearth, Little Dove humming along from afar.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving, kind readers, and thank you for reading my blog! Best regards, Cynthia

Raggedy and Jonlyn Have a Chat

IMG_2515Jonlyn’s bleary eyes rested on the last bright spots of color in her yard, then narrowed at the three crows–“the three cads”, she called them–that liked to aggravate her mornings with their carrying on. But no newspaper anywhere. She rubbed her cold hands together, then went inside and pushed the heavy door shut. What was the point of printing papers if they ended up in recycling before they even got read at her table?

She cast a resigned glance over the comfortable living room, pausing at the picture atop a side table. There was her granddaughter grinning, snuggled between her parents like a jewel in velvet. Long dark ponytail, cheeks bright as berries, burnished hazel eyes looking right at her. A smile that reached into Jonlyn’s world. But Iris was living in Brisbane, Australia with her mother, Fran, Jonlyn’s daughter. And her son-in-law. Dennis. The one who took them there, and also watched over them, she admitted.

She’d been there once. Clots of palm trees, traffic aplenty and some good shops, restaurants. Lively enough. The family lived in a small chic apartment then; now they had a house on the outskirts, close to the beach. Jonlyn wasn’t a beach person; all that sand got into places she would rather not have it. She liked forests around her. It was quite exhausting and expensive to fly there. Fran said they didn’t have time to come to the States. Well, years passed. Iris was six now. Fran was forty-seven. That made Jonlyn older than she ever imagined ending up. A trick had been played on her.

As if in assent, the antique grandfather clock chimed. Jonlyn patted it in passing, then got her jacket and gloves. It was Monday; it was nine o’clock on another grey day. With the colder weather fewer people romped about the park across her street, and Jonlyn enjoyed it just as much if not more. She’d experienced scads of seasonal changes on the paths and benches.

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Hammerlin Park was like an extension of their yard, her late husband Ralph had remarked once as he was raking leaves. Only much better since they didn’t have to bother with upkeep. It had been their motivation to settle there, raise Fran. A park was a comfort.

By the time Jonlyn arrived, the dog owners, so possessive of their strip of torn up grass, had about left; the kids were in school. Excepting the ones who got kicked out or would rather skip class to smoke pot. Jonlyn walked by them at a good pace; they barely saw her so didn’t worry about being seen. She had reached that point in life. Somewhere before sixty you start to lose color apparently, finally fading into a surprising ghost. An advantage was that if she didn’t feel like dressing properly or doing up her straggly hair, she didn’t. Another perk was if she wanted to linger and eavesdrop by group, she could; no one expected she could hear much. She’d learned a surprising amount about people this way, though Ralph had cautioned about becoming a voyeur. Big word for being nosey, she’d laughed.

The ducks were quieter than she was. Jonlyn was about to take a seat and watch them glide like plump feathery ballerinas but she’d stepped on something. It was a rag doll with requisite red yarn hair, arms outstretched, a gay smile fixed on its pale face. The dress was a cheerful Christmassy mix of red and green and lit up with some yellow. A bit rumpled but in good repair. In fact, the doll was unscathed, not rumpled at all, as if its owner had just been there and Raggedy had slipped away without a fuss. Jonlyn surveyed the park: no mother and child, no errant strollers or forgotten diaper bags or backpacks. Jonlyn sat, then bent over and picked it up.

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Raggedy remained at ease in her hands, unperturbed by the damp breezes that ruffled her hair and stirred the leaves. The two black polka dot eyes stared back. Jonlyn lifted the arms up and pulled them down, then tried the legs. Sensible black shoes, she noted.

“Silly doll, forgetful mothers”, she said. “If Fran had been given this doll she wouldn’t have let go of it.”

The ducks make a gabbled sound at Jonlyn and headed toward the little island, their rumps bouncing.

“Well, that’s not true, really. Fran never liked dolls much. Planes and blocks. I guess she was meant to be a pilot.” She shuddered. “Those little private planes…fancy and dangerous.”

The doll lay there, either agreeable or held captive by happiness with a red-stitched smile. A bit crooked, appealingly so. The person who had made this toy would be disgruntled it was so easily lost. Jonlyn mused awhile about sewing she used to enjoy, then got up, hesitant as the doll gazed up at her. Should she take it somewhere, the closed clubhouse, the restrooms were there was a wood railing upon which to lay it? She determined it was best to leave it, so she sat her up and left. But she looked back once, twice, and something about that doll pulled at her, made her feel old and sad but tender, too.

“Ridiculous,” she muttered. “I will not be undone by a silly rag doll. It’s just the holiday season creeping up on me. I can’t abide nostalgia!”

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A teen-aged girl who was smoking by the edge of the pond shot her a look, then shook her head. The old woman was a sad case talking to herself like that. Jonlyn felt her dignity pinched.

The next two days she was busy with errands and an appointment but her thoughts kept retuning to the doll. The following morning she hurried across the street and along pathways. It needed to be gone, safely back in the keeping of the one who missed the doll. She saw a hulking man just leaving her spot so approached the bench. Someone, perhaps the man, had picked up Raggedy and abandoned her again with an offhand toss so she’d landed backwards and askew on the bench.

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“Ah,” Jonlyn said and took the doll in her hands, setting it on her lap as she observed the ducks and a lone heron. “A bit messy, though. Not as bad as I expected, however.” She brushed leaf detritus off Raggedy’s feet and noted a smudge on her knee. It gave rise to the disorienting thought that maybe Raggedy had tried to get up and head home on her own.

“I used to bring Fran here every day. She chased the squirrels and wanted to fish the pond.” She chuckled. “But not Iris. She’s never had the pleasure. Maybe next year. There’s always hope, of course.”

The two of them sat there fifteen minutes, watching a couple amble by, a young man execute amazing tricks on a skateboard. A homeless woman, the one Jonlyn often saw, pushed her full cart down the walkway. A child younger than Iris came by with her father, chattering and kicking up leaves. She stopped and pointed to the doll and Jonlyn, heartened, held out Raggedy.

“Oh, here–did you lose this?”

The man shook his head. “She has a baby doll that cries watery tears and does other things we wish she couldn’t!” He laughed. “I haven’t seen one of those for a long time, though.”

The child got a closer look, then took her father’s hand as they moved on, but she looked back.

“You can keep her,” the child called out and skipped away.

Jonlyn set Raggedy on the bench and nodded at her.

“Well, you’re a popular sort. I can see why, despite your maddeningly unchanged expression. You’re soft and quite pleasant company. Wonder if you have more of a name. Tell me it’s not Ann, but something more curious like mine.”

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The ducks paddled away and the wind picked up. Jonlyn left Raggedy seated on the bench and returned to the three cads and a bowl of leftover ham and bean soup for  lunch. Two days of papers had come and she looked forward to reading.

The next day Jonlyn told herself she wasn’t going to check on the doll, and certainly wasn’t going to talk to it if she happened upon it. Parks attracted people like her, a bit aimless, lonelier than she wanted to admit. They were pretty microcosms of the city. Well, she was going dotty from increasing solitude–and the rains and cold were just beginning. It was not attractive to reminisce about “good ole days” that weren’t all that spectacular. Now her daughter was gone and Iris growing up so fast she might have to remind her who her grandmother was before long.

The clock chimed; greyness deepened and spread as the afternoon came to a close. She grabbed her jacket. Rain threatened; wind whipped her coat open. Dogs were running about and people were heading toward their cars. Her long stride hastened her to the favored bench but before she even got there she felt the doll was gone. She edged up to the back of the bench and took a look.

Empty. Raggedy had been picked up by a child who needed a playmate, or some creature, heaven forbid. Or maybe that homeless lady she often saw on her walks. That would be just fine, although she wished the young owner had found her. Who knew? She felt a huge raindrop splat on her forehead and then on her cheeks so pulled her jacket close and headed back. The lamps came on and lit the way around the park. Jonlyn felt relief come upon her and with it, a stirring of pleasure. The air was thick with a damp and leafy perfume, and a sharpness hinted at wintry days and nights. She needed to buy a ticket to Australia. And she knew just what she was making Iris for Christmas.

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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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