Yesterday Becomes Today and Tomorrow: Intergenerational Living

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

At the park where I power walk, I spotted a few couples comprised of wildly disparate ages. No, they weren’t romantic partners from what I could deduct. Rather, they appeared to be son, daughter or grandchild walking and talking with their parent or grandparent. Or they may have been neighbors or others, good friends. I didn’t want to impinge on their privacy but observing them gave me great pleasure. The energy of spirited discussions which accompanied quick footsteps or the meditative quiet as they strolled–reasons to appreciate their presence. One twosome sat on a bench and pointed out abundant water fowl, naming many, enjoying the water’s painterly reflections. They all appeared glad to be in each other’s company.

This park is, as are all safe and well-kept public parks, popular for recreational pursuits. One side is devoted to basketball, kickball or volleryball or soccer with a busy jungle gym and swings nearby. On the other side of the street the pathways continue in hilly loops around an ample, tranquil pond, then past an off-leash area for dogs and sprawling picnic areas. I can easily spend forty-five minutes there and still be loath to leave. The rich light filtering through old trees changes moment by moment. The park always infuses my spirit with examples of life being lived well. There there are homeless folks, too, who seek sanctuary, as well they might. The lush, varied spaces welcome everyone. People (and dogs) romp, barbecue, read, make music, meditate, practice Tai Chi and sleep. Meet friends and lovers and family. Today I saw a group of role playing older teens in full costume. It’s a fine place to witness generations interacting, particularly parents and younger children.

Yet I do not as often see children, teenagers or younger adults with men and women between the ages of sixty and ninety (or older). These are often previous careerists who are now focused on other activities, whether it’s sitting on a porch crocheting, running a marathon or developing another business. Illness may alter their lives, slow some down. So can loneliness. I wonder how many of our older citizens visit with families and friends enough?

Likely not that many. Much of our culture doesn’t encourage intermixing of young and old. Unless it is already a long-held tradition, reflective of one’s ethnicity or part of social mores, it can be easy to gloss over ties to relatives and other important persons once integral to quality of living. Relationships become transitory with a pick-up-and-go society. We often meet others online or text whole conversations on cell phones. There is so much distraction that we forget the visit, the call, the time spent face-to-face with those we insist do matter.

I don’t want to lapse into sentimental nostalgia. I wonder if my viewpoint arises from having parents who were forty when I was born. As a youngster, I spent time with many silver-haired people (very few dyed their hair) and found them quite nice, fascinating with such varied life experiences. Still, we don’t necessarily cherish great and grand memories of family, neighbors or long ago friends, or at least not without equally impressive hard times recalled. Most of us, however, can yet recall enough occasions of togetherness that were momentous or contented, even happy. Love found its way into those gatherings with a few someones and in time the good will spread out, repeating acts of care.

I recently wrote a post about summer Missourian visits to see my aunts, both lovable characters, and an uncle and cousin (which you can find here: 2015/03/25/summer-trips-the-kelly-girls/). But I had many other cousins and uncles. My mother was one of thirteen children, many of whom were alive when I was born. My father, one of three brothers. Though I never got to meet my maternal grandparents, I did know my father’s parents. We stopped at their place each summer, as well. Many cousins, aunts and uncles had moved to other places, so were less well-known. But they came whenever they could to the common ground or we travelled to their homes, at times.

When we joined forces at relatives’ houses and yards it was entertaining, a bit crazy: lots of kids racing and yelling and playing games; tables laden with a large variety of home cooked food, conversations that veered from updates of life circumstances to detailed health updates to general gossip in lowered voices to worries and hopes about the future of the country and world.

My family was a bunch of talkers; kids could wedge in some words. My elders expected respectful exchanges but they were interested in what I accomplished in school, what I enjoyed doing for fun, who my friends were, what I was going to do with myself when I grew up. And I, in turn, held on to their offerings, sought their affection. They knew things I didn’t. Some had been to Europe both before and after terrible wars they fought in. But even if it was Arkansas, Texas or Colorado I wanted to see the slide shows and photos, hear at least a good chunk of the travelogues.

There was an uncle who owned a plumbing business, something so different from my musician and teacher parents that his world seemed exotic. I peppered him with questions. An aunt had a thriving seamstress business. Her descriptions of fabrics, designs that worked and those that did not–even the countless buttons and thread types explained were like a litany of small delights. Witty vignettes about their customers or past spouses captivated me (divorce was not at all good in our religious family but sometimes, it seemed, could not be avoided). One uncle was a high school coach; his daughters were my favorite girl cousins. Another was a music professor, flutist and prolific composer. A grown second cousin revelled in being domestically talented, which impressed me since I had very few domestic leanings. They all did and said things that inspired, intrigued, motivated, and guided me somehow. They introduced me to different ways of being and doing. Plus, lest it seem I am only on a serious note, those Missourians were plain fun to hang out with. Laughter is a constant in my memories and even now when who is left meets. So, too, were the majority of older guests my parents welcomed into their home good-natured.

How fortunate I was to know at least one set of grandparents fairly well. Grandfather Will ran a public school system and read voraciously, wrote poetry and essays, encouraged me to write more. His presence had a leavening effect on my life. Grandmother Ida worked hard in her garden and I followed her around, picking tomato worms off fat red orbs, choosing brilliant flowers for display on the dining room’s lacey tablecloth. It was she who patiently taught me to peel a potato so its tough skin came off in a curl, showed me how to decorate a pie with cuts in the top crust. Her quiet presence was certainly well noted.

They made up some of the best of my life, those adults who fussed at me, corralled my energy, sought my ideas and exercised their considerable opinions in group conversations that lasted hours. The older ones modelled examples of whom to become as a grown up–or not to become. I sensed the deep reach of the past, the connectedness through time and this helped me more fully thrive in the present. Envision my own future better by paying attention to it all. The young adults were like sisters and brothers who had run the gauntlet of adolescence, were powerful in victory and seasoned by defeat. I aspired to their smart decisions or worthy careers. Rooted for them if they backslided. My youngest cousins were some of my best friends. How could I not find pleasure in a fierce family game of badminton or croquet, ghost stories as we huddled under covers, tag played in the dark amid moths and mosquitos and scents of summer? Even for one summer each year. I waited all winter for it.

When children’s lives entwine with a few generations, they learn to better value not only the young and old, but also themselves. The past and present overlap visibly and invisibly. If there is loving involvement in the everyday as well as special occasions, it begins to permeate one’s world view like osmosis. A feeling of belonging not only in the family but in the greater world is more likely to root itself and flourish.

I’m not discounting the failures that happen, the breathtaking losses families inevitably experience. Disagreements that may linger. We have all been through things never imagined, with likely more to come. But for those, there is this: sitting in a circle, passing a handkerchief with cups of coffee or tea, remembering better times and praying for relief. Taking each other’s hands in your own. Later, making phone calls, writing letters that offer solace. When troubles are shared, they become more endurable. And out of that dark time arises the will to go on. There is that net beneath us made strong with the care of all who love us.

We have five grandchildren. One is barely known as he has lived far from us all his life. It has been challenging to stay connected. It may be too late, as he is still at a distance in more ways than one, a grown man. But I still hold out hope. Two others who are older have been in and out of our lives due to parental life changes. They finally moved to our city with a daughter so we have gotten to know each better in recent years. I try to show them my love is real and won’t disappear. They are always my family despite time and space gaps, despite the fact that I have been their mom’s stepmother since she was five.

And there are two with whom we have been more up close and personal since their births. They remain in my life in significant ways. But I wonder how much longer this will be, for any of the four nearby.

I recently took my soon-to-be thirteen year old granddaughter ice skating. We had a ball gliding about. We can shop for hours. We are going to attend a dance concert for her birthday. I feel her start to move beyond my easy reach yet know it is part of inevitable transitions. We still made Easter eggs with her brother. My nine-year old grandson loves to draw and paint with us and enjoys hunting and identifying rocks. We have hiked in mountains and walked seashores. My husband and I play Scrabble, checkers, dominoes and more with them. We attend school events. I correct their manners if they forget because manners make far more difference than they can know yet. They voicalize family complaints; I try to stay neutral. We share many meals with them and the rest of our good-sized family.

I can offer a listening ear and hugs when they are hurt or angry or discontent. And pray for them all, that they might cross through the vast reaches of their lives with a firm hold on honor and dignity, a philosophical sense of things when encountering hardship.

Is this enough to offer as they navigate an increasingly complex and treacherous world? Will they grow up feeling the strength of such love, will they be secure in the knowledge that their families are here? The thought of my leaving them one day suddenly grieves me–not being around for my children, their children and with all our other relatives. Then I remember: I was blessed by previous generations. They followed me into my own adulthood in some way or other. They keep me company, still, as I grow older. I dream of those who have left, and their faces shine. They formed the major part of the foundation of my living. They were so many things to me, strong and resilient, faithful and forgiving, shaped by creativity and good humor. And, too, there were weaknesses and foibles. I have loved them for it all.

I can pass on what I have received. We each have the task of sorting and strengthening bonds that matter most, and the opportunity to carry forward the good we have been given. The common wisdom we have is gathered like imperishable riches.

So at the park today it was satisfying to see folks moving and resting in concert with each other, younger and older. I hope they were related by blood, but if not they were connected by interest. Perhaps by the strength of the deeper heart. I could see it in the way they leaned toward each other, how they talked, what they experienced together. This day will be another that remians with them if they remember the details or not. The cumulative benefits will be reaped. We are all on our way to tomorrow. We find our way better with each other.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Being Here with All That Matters

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It can take a lifetime to realize your true worth. Sometimes I still feel I am on the verge of determining what, exactly, that is. Most of the time, despite self-doubts that knock around in my head at inconvenient times, I have a handle on it. For starters: I’m a human being who is glad to still be here. Who is hopeful I can carry out at least one kindess a day. And I love to create. But there are those times when I am not so sure that is enough.

If one has siblings who are super achievers, the weighing in can feel a bit aggravating and arduous. I don’t mean in terms of status and prestige, although it is tempting to oversimplify and stop right there. So, for example, calculation of my life income via nearly thirty years being a counselor and in other human services positions is easy and swift. It indicates my social security is nothing to broadcast but, let’s face it, every bit helps. When I called my sister she responded, with frank sympathy, “I’m sorry.” There was a pause on the line because, in fact, I was thrilled that there was more than a few bucks coming my way. I didn’t know quite what to say next. She knows my husband has done well enough; we will get by. Or figure things out as we go, as more and more do in later life. But this is a person who has made savvy and multiple investments. The fact is, I didn’t manage to accumulate what the rest of my siblings did. I trod different paths. I was busy first surviving and then, relieved at last, paying bills readily, helping out kids and enjoying modest vacations a couple times a year. And being grateful. Once you have been poor, you do not forget blessings.

This came to the fore of my thinking before all four of them (plus spouses and my adult kids et al) arrived for my daughter’s wedding. I looked around our apartment, aghast. I was throwing a pre-wedding, large brunch for our daughter and family. I scanned the main rooms and saw the place again as others must. And felt compelled to buy new curtains and exchange the old, dust-expelling vacuum I’d used for eighteen years for a fancy new model. Cleaning took days, wherein I found lots of things I hoped I would. And hoped I would not. And then I found myself trolling the sort of store I usually avoid. It was a place where you drop good money on decorative items. It was introduced to me by another sister and niece who like to shop there to change up their already gorgeous homes. I had no idea it existed until then.

I roamed awhile before I was willing to part with nearly forty-five dollars for a cake stand, small fabric and painted wooden pumpkins for my big dining room table, fake and colorful fall leaves to spread around them and a ceramic candy dish that looked seasonal. Okay, it was another pumpkin-type, but white, with a lid. Rarely do I purchase things that intentionally reflect the season. I bring things home from the woods, or beach sometimes. But I was about to perk things up in my humble home! It felt so foreign. Usually my idea of decorating is buying new books to stack neatly on and around various tables and a desk. And flowers, always bright ones in interesting vases, with some good art and photos on the walls. And frig. Yes, still, at this age. (I also cut out magazine pictures to tape on the laundry room wall. Something to look at as the clothes spin.) But I was willing to venture into a new direction to spruce things up a bit. To feel better about “entertaining”, such as it was.

All this extra fuss for my own family–which has been here several times over the years, of course. It was a special event, true. But I could not escape that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that my siblings got to where I once expected to end up. But never did. And that it mattered, still. Not like it did when I was thirty or forty, no, yet I was left with a niggling of anxiety. Then I bought and arranged the flowers and set them about and felt…more at home. My cozy spot in the world. I excitedly prepared with my daughters and husband, laid the table with a favorite yellow tablecloth and matching and stray pieces of stainless. I lit a white candle in the glass owl candle holder. Around which were the fancy pumpkins and leaves.

There was a time when I was ashamed of what I failed to accomplish. That I wasn’t a professional musician, too–or just a bone fide, high-paid professional with the Italian leather heels and smart suits to prove it. That I hadn’t finished my Bachelor’s degree. I had one and a half more years to go but it never seemed feasible. I was swamped with raising five children under the age of six while my husband advanced his career. He was often gone so I learned quickly to take care of household and children, adapt to one more town after yet another company transfer. I struggled with chronic health issues not yet correctly diagnosed. My friends were the mothers who dropped off their own kids before hurrying off to jobs. I grew up in the sixties and became a mother in the seventies–this was a time to be breaking waves, Doing Something Important! And I, feminst and rebel that I had been before marriage, was now a housewife, raising a bunch of fascinating, mischievous, fussing kids.

So I labored over self-improvement in smaller ways. Tried to bury the disappointment in myself. Found solace in nature, the kids on their own treaure hunts. Still, I developed an alcohol problem after a few too many of this and that to ease me into dreamless sleep or numbed busy-ness. That was not a good learning experience but learn I did, in many hard ways.

I did return to college a few times. One more class, a few more credits. Many more classes and trainings for my eventual paid jobs. But there was usually a more pressing need of our money or my time. As I organized the house or ferried the children to one activity or another I was haunted by my father’s voice from years past: “You’re really not finishing college?”

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But I dreamed. There lurked, still, that fervent desire and visceral need to create something, a book of poetry, a painting, a dance, more music. Even a noticeably better world, yes, please God. Between laundry loads that were completed by one a.m., errands tightly scheduled and child rearing, little stories made their way from mind to paper. I was struck with sudden melodies and lyrics that I configured and sang when the house was empty. And one of the happiest of winters was when I took a correspondence course on writing for children and youth–and got thorough critiques and encouraging feedback. Yet somehow, deep down, the confidence I’d enjoyed as a child and youth did not return with enough force. I tried to stop hungering for artistic pursuits so deeply. To no avail. Making crazy fun art with the kids was a joy, dancing and singing up and down the stairs with them was freeing for us all. But too often it was like I had lost my one great love– despite all the other wonderments in life.

As parents know, it can be quite demanding enough to get food on the table and children safely tucked into bed. Add also: to guide, corral, hug, discipline, instruct, reassure, cheer on, nurse and hold them up with an underlying and undaunted spiritual faith. All this counted to me, every moment. I hadn’t planned on being a mother but when it happened I felt like I’d hit the jackpot with five. Especially since two of the children were little ones my husband had started to raise and the three others had arrived despite my being informed they would never happen. Does anyone need an immediate lesson on altruistic and undying love? With kids as both students and teachers, you must dive in and swim, making certain they’re close by at every turn and dip. Your frenzied focus becomes adoration in no time without your even realizing it. You also discover how much courage can be summoned.

So it went. There are countless untold stories of women–and men–who’ve had dreams that seemed to drop away. Who so gave to their families yet also craved what called them creatively, artistically. Who look into themselves and fear there will be parts of their souls missing sooner or later. That they may even disappear. Tragically.

Well, the truth is: this is nonsense. Such a potential fate seems suitably dramatic when you are younger. Long before you endure the grief of unexpected losses and live through real life nightmares– yet also unearth resources within and without that you never once suspected would be there. The secret answer to the dilemma of “everyday life versus art” is that you just do what matters most, for whatever reason you choose. And it can all become holy. It is in how you see it, become it. I have primarily loved my children–first. It wasn’t hard. Loved life, itself, which sometimes felt harder. But nothing has been left out, not laughter or tears, not designing ways to solve tenacious problems or being surprised by miracles. It remains each day lived authentically that has mattered. This moment-by-moment creative act of becoming a full human being. Taking it all in. The beautiful, boring and unattractive; the sweet, spicey and bitter. And making–or letting–all the unknown or noteworthy things happen.

Who I was became who I am, a person with diverse interests and skills, talents and limits. Not once have I regretted hurtling myself into happy curiosity. Or nurturing a passion for mercy, a belief in kindness. Persistence. Faith in that power of Divine Love even when it seemed the distance between God and myself was so great I had to shout for help. Those, I would have not forgiven myself for failing to claim. It’s certain my life has been marked by failures. Yet what I didn’t learn from well has come to matter much less as time goes by.

Where did this post begin? Oh, our front door kept swinging open. My husband was finishing up the eggs, bacon, sausage. My family brought top-notch scones, pastries, muffins–of course. I got coffee brewed. Orange juice filled my mother’s old, pretty pitcher. The place vibrated with chatter and laughter; there were hands extended, chairs added to make the circle bigger.

As they arrived, I completely forgot most of them are better educated (well, my children mostly are, too), have made more money, have owned more real estate, have travelled the world many times between them and, thus, speak more languages (in more ways than one). My siblings and I may not have so much in common besides blood ties: large, blue or softly hazel eyes and musical ability. I guess I should include a mulish stamina despite physical and other challenges. And a manner of speaking that reflects our upbringing, growing up within a culture of, well, culture–it can seem rather too civilized, perhaps. And then there is how we take over conversations, insinuating there is a fascinating story unfolding (often true). How we can shrug off everyday ridiculousness. And, come to think of it, a concern for the well being of others. But our defects of character? Don’t tempt me. Loyalty forbids I divulge too many secrets tonight. For that, there is fiction to write!

It looks like we are more like family than not. You can see how I love them, bottom line, even after all that has changed, even distanced us. They are valuable and deeply valued. And so am I.

So we hugged, gabbed and ate our fill and the daughter about to be married felt great that her extended family came from afar to celebrate with us. Me, too. Thank You, Lord, for such good moments and more to come.

 

 

Processional: I walked my daughter to the altar and her groom; her father played guitar as she walked.
Processional: I walked my daughter to the altar and her groom; her father played guitar as we walked.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Tools for Life

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This isn’t about the game often played by kids. But it is telling that these are important enough materials from which to create a game. Value, even power, can be found in the simplest of objects. It can be easy to overlook them, yet when desired they need to be close at hand. Several events the past couple weeks have made me reaffirm their good and various uses.

My eyes are resting on split “thunder eggs” my son brought back from rock hunting in eastern Oregon. Broken open, they reveal lovely mineral crystals. Josh is an outdoors pilgrim, someone always alert to and in search of earth’s gifts, attuned to the power and complexity found therein. His interest in rocks and minerals has gained momentum the last couple of years. He talks of them fondly as he spreads them out on a cabinet, arranges a few on his mantel. In his hands they become more themselves as he explains what he sees and what he’s learned. His children camp, hike and nature hunt with him. My grandchildren can identify and hold forth on quartz, slate, granite, mica and jade as if they were common household goods. The grandson safeguards them in little cloth bags. But mostly they just love to touch, look. Prismatic minerals wink in the light and reveal an aged beauty.

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My husband gathers river stones; he carries one in his pocket. I have a revolving group of agates from Oregon’s beaches that have a place on my bookcase. I admire them each time I get a book or dust. Rocks fortify me. They make indoors and outdoors landscapes more inviting with their sculptural applications, multiple textures and geological history. People build with them–houses and fireplaces and fences. Or towering cairns within tide pools we frequent. You can smash things with them. A smaller rock, a venomous insect that looks like it wants to keep house with you, a nut or seed that has interesting innards.

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Stones and rocks belong to us as much as to the earth. The dark forms beckon from watery homes. Rest beneath us on a forest floor, line paths and roads, roll from hillsides and mountains to our feet. As children we find them endlessly entertaining–to throw at trees, skip across water, to build small designs and mark hopscotch numbers on asphalt (more rock). They can calm us, snug in our palms when nervous. We contemplate one found in the path as if meant for our eyes alone. There is nothing quite like a stone in hand if cool and smooth, shaped to fit right there. Our earth can be carried with us and that is no small thing.

Paper. I almost am afraid to speak of it! People recycle it which is fine, but don’t want to give you receipts or bags at the store. There is talk about how it is disappearing as if trees weren’t replanted, clearcut areas not being reforested. I live in the Pacific Northwest–we have trees galore. We sometimes hug them here. So I try to be thrifty with paper but I like to have it around to use.

Physical books are taking up less room at the big chain bookstores. Our home is dominated by books, mostly used ones as I do want to participate in the recycling bit. And there is paper everywhere in the form of prints, paintings and drawings. There are gifts from family and friends made of paper products. I print things from the computer that are useful, often filed away. Paper in my hand is still important–to see it, handle it, smell it.

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What do my grandchildren want to do when they arrive? We draw with pen and pencil. Cut and construct things from paper. Paint with my watercolors on paper. Erect small buildings from geometric shapes and fly planes made of it. We use cards made of paper, keep score on scorecards during Yahtzee. We play checkers and Scrabble on cardboard game boards. Decorations are created from colorful sheets as well as chains, crowns, birthday cards. Paper defines many activities. I always have plenty of it around. I scibble lines of poems dreams, or ideas in notebooks when awakening in the dead of night. I shudder to think of the art that would not created if not for everyday yet extraordinary paper. Last week I sketched an old building I saw when visiting my daughter in New York and it was restful, quite happiness-making. Ah! paper!

Though not noted in the title, I must mention tape. I was at the post office yesterday and needed tape to secure the envelope carrying a gift to a daughter. A last eight of an inch was ripped from a roll left for customers and when I stepped up to the window, the employee didn’t have any, either. I had a moment of concern.

“No tape? I need this envelope better secured; there’s a good book in there!”

The woman smiled patiently. “Yes, that tape disappears before you know it. Even if it isn’t crucial, people have to use it. But I’ll find some before it’s mailed. No worries.”

Easy for her to say. My little parcel was likely the least of the office’s concerns. And I am certain sturdy tape helps packages make their way intact. As it should; that is its design and function.

I have packed up households many times over decades and thank goodness for cardboard boxes and tape, otherwise my things would end up in shabby piles, leaving a path from room to moving truck or van. Dispossessed. But that isn’t the only function. Try making papery things without it–a sailboat, a hat, a baking soda and vinegar volcano, decorations. Think of all the pictures on the frig that fell down due to cheap magnets: tape to the rescue. I used to roll out butcher block paper by the yards for our kids to draw on, tape it on the wall and let them have at it. Voila, a mural.

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Anything that doesn’t want to be stapled or paper-clipped requires tape. Wrapping gifts, repairing torn book covers, fixing a loose hem in a rush, securing a spare pink shower curtain to a bedroom window before you have found the right curtain or rod. Nothing is safe in the home without tape at the ready. On the other hand, I have seen my kids and grandchildren tape each other’s mouths shut or fingers together; tape can be used for surprising things. I once affixed my car’s sagging bumper up with heavy-duty electrical tape until it could be repaired. I would never have made it this far without tape. I like to peruse it in the hardware, all the colors and variations feeling like creative stimuli. I won’t run out of tape.

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Before we had scissors we had knives or very sharp rocks (see: rocks, again). Although box cutters and utility knives are handy for some jobs, scissors can be required. Very sharp ones are preferred when something needs to be divided into various lengths. I used to love watching my mother cut fabric with her worn Wiss scissors or the nice Fiskars. She had eye-hand coordination that I deeply admired. She looked a second, then slid those scissors across wafer-thin, even fragile material with nary a catch. Velvets, corduroys, taffeta and woolens required more careful cutting but edges always were clean and exact. She knew how to wield that cutting tool.

I use various scissors to open food packages, trim nails, slice open heavier-gauge envelopes, refresh flower stems, cut up meat, tame thorny bushes, size wrapping paper and curl ribbon, even up wayward bangs, remove pictures from magazines for collages I keep planning on creating. But mostly, I wouldn’t consider raising a family without scissors anymore than I could feature that without tape and rocks. How would we make paper dolls or tiny boxes? Exquisite snowflakes? Mobiles or booklets? Cheery Christmas trees and floating planes?

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Sometimes I think we have become too sophisticated and trendy in our wanting and acquiring. There are more gadgets than I will ever use out there. I was recently at a store that was full of customers laden with things I hadn’t known about. Or didn’t need. A garlic smasher? How about the flat side of a knife? Boxes of bright, many-sized metallic clips for chip bags? How about using big paper clips–how about tape? I’m not against progress, investing in a tool that works far better at a reasonable cost. But it is the simple things I find myself going back to and appreciating.

It is what those basic tools can do for us–for less hassle and cash–that I enjoy. They create avenues of exploration. Solve problems. Take care of an emergency. Make something beautiful or silly. Create a way to say “I love you” and “thank you”. Take us into a world enlivened by constructive activity, help us use time in a leisurely fashion. Make it curiously satisfying.

My parents were educated folks yet I can recall my father re-hairing a violin or cello bow, scissors and glue at the ready. Above his workbench was an array of tools that helped make damaged things new. And I can see my mother with several straight pins held between her lips as she folded a hem, and hear her instructing me to cut the thread so many inches, then try my hand at it finishing her work. 

I well remember how I cut out and taped pictures on a large poster board of Grecian islands or Alaskan wilderness I wanted to visit, of admirable people or fashions. There were poems I was compelled to write with colorful letters snipped from magazines. The posters were hung above my desk. I frequently changed the exuberant or moody creations. My youth, my thoughts and dreams, were plastered there thanks to all the basic tools.

Living has always seemed very hands-on to me even though I often camp out in my brain, too. Doing, making and fixing things brings knowledge and satisfaction, and that is worth every effort. I hope others still often well celebrate the humble rock, paper, scissors. Pick one up. Discover something surprising. Develop something fresh for the heck of it. Fix an error. Make something whole again. Let something unexpected and fun happen before you forget the simplest things.

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The Moon’s a Silver Balloon: More Musings from a Somewhat Reluctant Adventurer

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After arriving at the airport at four-thirty in the morning, checking my over-packed bag, saying farewell to my spouse and settling on the plane, I waited for nervousness to expand and conquer. The plane ascended and my eyes soon found the rim of the world in its dawn beauty. I had barely enjoyed two hours’ rest the previous night. I fell asleep. Five hours later a flight attendant’s clarion voice announced an imminent landing at Washington Dulles. The sudden report snatched me from slumber. This was the trip I wrote about in “Becoming Bolder: Disclosures of a Somewhat Reluctant Adventurer” that would later become Freshly Pressed. I was thankful I had been deposited on the other side of our land without incident.

I did wonder how I’d locate my daughter within moving clots of people crowding baggage claim. Via her well-timed text, of course. There Naomi stood waving at her blinking, unseasoned traveller- mom. Her wave and smile were enough to encourage easy forward movement. So far, everything bode well for the coming days and nights. Until we stepped outside and August humidity pressed down on me like a heavy dampened wrap. Reality check: not in the Northwest anymore.

After a good, quick visit with my older brother and sister-in-law in near Washington, D.C. we proceeded to the town where Naomi had lived and taught for five years: Williamsburg, VA. Historical, stately, dominated by the College of William and Mary (second oldest public college in the U. S.) and the grand tourist attraction, Colonial Williamsburg. We arrived at the Alice Person House, bed and breakfast accomodations. We had reserved an attractive suite for three nights since Naomi’s old apartment had been packed up weeks earlier, after which she’d attended two artists’ residencies. Now there was the business of moving to complete. And warm farewells to friends and colleagues. I knew she had a running list of “to-dos”. I would not be an impediment but a cheerful support. I had come without expectations, on a whim because she had asked me to come.

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The next days are a kaleidoscopic memory. We completed tasks or, rather, I accompanied her on errands. But we had relaxing hours as well. A favorite time was walking at dusk in Colonial Williamsburg, the authentic old shops closed and streets nearly emptied of others. The evening was a symphonic presentation of cicadas rasping, tree frogs chirping and crickets fiddling. Bats swooped like dancers in the twilight. Plainly designed, wooden and brick seventeenth century buildings were imbued with remnants of people and events. It was easy to imagine life there so long ago. We talked quietly, mostly observed the surroundings. Fireflies cavorted, a sight that made me giddy. The sky showed off clusters of stars. Horses nibbled at grass. We felt peace. I loved walking with my daughter. We both walk rapidly, with an appreciation of how all the parts move in concert, minds emptying and absorbing at once, a meditation.

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I was inserted into her world in ways that had not occurred before due to the distance between us. I met many of her friends, big-spirited artists. We shared meals, enjoyed easy, thoughtful conversations. Although welcomed, at times I felt at a remove, as if watching film gaining definition as it develops. There was a gradual, startling awareness of a whole life utterly separate from my own, a history that did not include me. Naomi’s friends and experiences enriched a world that had been beyond my realm for years until these moments. I heard her congenial but rapid discourse, her quicksilver laughter, her humorous sound effects. I observed her lovely, strong hands create eloquent gesticulations. Her vigor and warmth flew outward and it landed, then boomeranged. Her friends gave her love. This grown up person was something, I had to agree.

Born a two and a half pound infant, far too early for this earthly atmosphere, she preservered from the start and surprised us. I felt charged with caring for an almost otherworldly being, she was so new. A naturally shy person, it was years before she ventured from the profound introversion that governed her thinking and doing. One of the memorable events of her early life occurred when she was just two. Naomi began to sit for hours and build with blocks, silent, absorbed, happy. Carefully she placed each geometric form, then scrutinized and changed configurations. She wasn’t speaking more than a few words–her favorite was “moon” which I, a young poet, suggested was a “silver balloon”. She always sought it in evening skies, blue eyes riveted. But words weren’t needed to create things that foreshadowed a future as a sculptor.

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Another daughter, Cait, joined us for most of a day and we explored the Jamestown Settlement, caught up on news, shared meals together. Watching them I couldn’t help but recall their early years together. Though unlike each other in nature and work, Cait a dedicated chaplain and Naomi an artist and professor, and despite not being blood-related, they remain sisters at heart. It filled me with peace and pleasure to see it but I so regretted Cait couldn’t stay for the duration. What late night gabs we could have had, popcorn and tea and chocolate times!

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The last morning in Williamsburg we shared a hot breakfast with a chic couple from New York and the garrulous proprietress. Then we packed up and left with the moving van. The drive through Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York was punctuated by anecdotes, long stretches of comfortable and tired silence, music on the radio. She softly sang along as I smiled at her melodious soprano, sometimes singing a little with her. We talked about her flute playing days, the music that’s carried in our blood. We talked about her father’s family. Her missed grandparents. Memories unfurled like magic flags. But, too, stillness comforted me.

The oppressive heat of the Virginias dissiapated as we entered Pennsylvania. The summer countryside was verdant, a horizon rimmed with mountain foothills. I had explored the nearby Adirondacks as a child, leaning out my parents’ sedan’s back window, my head inclined toward trees. But this landscape was languid and sensuous. The blue sky beamed. Hours slid by. Although we were pulling a large trailer stacked with her art work, making the truck sluggish on hills and slow to pass others, I took the wheel. It wasn’t very hard to maneuver. I loved the sound of her SUV as we chugged up and over country roads. We took a break for a otur of caverns that was cheesey but educational. We stopped to visit a New York friend of Naomi’s where I enjoyed Ithaca’s own root beer, a fat deli sandwich, chances for more photographs. This world is full of odd stuff and fascinating people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We arrived two days later at a crossroads. Here her new home awaited. Evening fell about us like a cool tent of fragrant air. Farm animal-fragrant, tinged with wild grasses and scents of water, mineral-rich. We unpiled things, lugged them inside until it was late. From the back yard we could see a moon throbbing in the luminous blackness. The new landlord ambled over to ask if the moon there was different than in Oregon and I laughed and nodded, maybe, yes. It beamed a fine beauty at that moment, a country sort of welcome. A rendering of mystery. Promise of more curious things. Naomi made a camper’s bed on the wooden floor and gave me the luxury of an air mattress in another room. We slept well enough the first night. Frankly, I slept better every night on the trip.

What can I tell you about helping to make a new nest with my daughter? We worked first and last. Scrubbed, unpacked, swept, ordered, tossed, shopped, rearranged. But we also walked old streets and nodded at strangers on enviable porches who would pass the news of our arrival soon. We visited waterfalls and enjoyed a hike, strolled along sinuous rivers. We danced–I more than she–to sometimes edgy, sometimes elegiac music. Hummed and whistled as we organized. I was inspired to sketch a half-empty hotel on the main street; it was fun and looked okay. We admired all art unwrapped, fingered a collection of objects with names she’d given them–a Marlene cup, Todd mug. A pen and ink drawing that recalled her four siblings swimming. Her making of art, her love of it–is sacred to her, I saw more completely. It is full of Spirit and longing and hope, of compassion, boldness and risk. I took a cup she had made and made it safe for its ride home.

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When she took me to her big new office, showed me the new campus where she will teach, I felt satisfied: this would be her landing spot. She will give and grow much. I mused on the coming winter of this territory, something she hasn’t known for some years, how it may blind her with pristine fields, its bitter and sweet starkness, perhaps change her fair cheeks to a rouge-pink. She will trek her way across the landscape. Seek the heart of warmth. Throw snowballs that transform into water again, cook up food and ideas. She is a builder, a person whose vision requires daring as well as a sound center of gravity.

We smiled for our cameras but I don’t really need a picture of us. It’s all vivid in my mind’s eye. I have both of them, Cait and Naomi, right here, hold them close inside my motherness, deeply, deeper than ever. Even as I say farewell quickly at a Canadian airport so I do not cry, pass through customs with a backward glance, I carry them within like secret, priceless cargo.

As I packed up my bags I realized all the things I’d worried about–chancy food, unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, time changes–had had little impact on the big picture. The trip had ended well; it had offered more of many good things. Maybe next time it would be less so, but so it goes.

On the way back to Oregon I gazed out a plane window. I always take a window seat; I want to see where I am going. Storm clouds towered as we skirted them. We floated between two seemingly separate layers of clouds and a bright line of light parted the striations. I loved those clouds, that breathtaking light, even though the ride was bumpy awhile. I will be flying again, somewhere or other. Thanks for the invite, Naomi!

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Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth

 

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It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh
Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

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(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)