Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Getting Lost and Finding One’s Way

Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on Pexels.com

I’ve been this way many times but manage to take one turn off too soon. We are heading into city center and a primary destination of Powell’s Bookstore, a favorite place recently reopened. Anticipation pumps up adrenaline. But I am embarrassed and frustrated about missing my turn and try to discern my way within a warren of unfamiliar streets that skirt the area desired. How did this happen? The traffic is moving along at a fast pace; I am talking with my daughter as I drive and didn’t bother with GPS because I know where I am going. Good reasons or not, I know I need to find 10th or 12th Avenues–or any north-south streets, for that matter– then head to east-west Burnside Street. It’s simple, after all; I know this city. Until I get turned around in notoriously puzzling hills in this section of SW Portland.

I shake my head, tell Alexandra, “I don’t know what happened, I do know where I am going!”

Or so I thought, until that glitch. I dislike being lost, truly lost. But I am only momentarily a little lost. I just need to relax and think clearly, but it is as if I am snagged in a quirky, confounding landscape. I turn this way and that and no matter which way I go I start to feel disoriented. What has happened to my internal compass, so accurate 99 percent of the time? Then she maps things out on her phone, calmly instructing me, sorting things out. Is this what adult children do when their parents get older and older? This thought makes me more irritated and impatient–me, a very patient and competent driver who always finds her way. I joke that this is why an exacting paper map to smooth on your lap to survey the whole picture works very well. And I want to defend myself and do, at which point she reassures me everyone gets lost at times, and the SW hills area is a tough one to figure out on the fly. And it is not a big problem to find the route out and get back on track.

She is correct. She consults her phone and shortly we are headed in the right direction, out of the maze and into the bustling city center. And before long we are in NW Portland, by the bookstore and coffee shop and all else with which we are familiar, happy, relieved to find still intact our beloved, recently beleaguered city.

We have a lovely afternoon. How can book hunting amid endless shelves and stacks of books with Peet’s excellent iced coffee in hand not be wonderful? It is akin to release from a year in jail-like isolation to wander down streets and window shop, walk past groups of chattering people, our eyes sweeping over interesting architecture. Smelling pungent scents of new and old books, noting heft and beauty of each in our hands. Add easy laughs and good talk, something we often plan but rarely get to do, just the two of us, anymore. A successful time for this mother and her youngest daughter. A sense of things being just a little more normal in the world–except for the masks, except for much less crowded stores.

And then, on the way home, I somehow fail to maneuver into a congested lane to avoid funneling onto the freeway, so there we are, caught up in accelerating clots of after-work traffic. Luckily, no true traffic jams. Luckily, I know where I am going. All I have to do is take the right exit and I do. This time Alexandra suggests a lane at end of exit ramp that is not the right one, so I am forced to turn another direction. But it is an easy fix.

At her place, we sit in my car and talk, reluctant to end the outing. I am so glad to have a few more moments together; she is animated, articulate, offers some of her daily life stories, then offers suggestions about an outdoor family reunion/picnic coming up. The first family get together in nearly two years that includes extra family from out of state. Masked and unmasked, all of us to gather to safely enjoy a few hours in blazing June sunshine–under the pavilion roof, under a canopy, extra chairs, grill and coolers lugged along. Once it is all coordinated well. More like normal, for once.

“We’ve got this, Mom, I do this all the time for event planning at my job,” she says, showing me links on her phone, talking logistics. I agree, she will help things go right, she has that knack. But she also has an eye on the time. It’s not easy to enjoy short periods of freedom when there awaits a return to a young family, the multiple demands and needs of twins trumping one’s own need to rest, even eat, work–much less play. I recall very well often lingering at the grocery another ten minutes, hiding out during yard work, finding a reason to delay a return to the fabulous madhouse shared with beloved children who eagerly awaited me. It is the reality: loving others fiercely while also yearning to care for one’s own self. But she says, finally, farewell for now.

I feel her leavetaking. The car empties of her shimmering, bristling, compacted energy. I see her in the rearview mirror, decisively making the way up steps to her home. Time for me to go home, too.

I know where home is, of course. I get there in ten minutes and sipping my iced mocha, I sit under the shade of towering, friendly trees and think on the afternoon. How several times I felt as if in a daze, and vulnerable to The Virus, to who knows what in the stores if I had to squeeze by someone. Then came heady joy when walking in the city under that blue jewel of sky, chatting with Alexandra at my side. Such juxtaposed feelings and moments. It is mind boggling how every person on earth continues to live with threats to our exposed human lives. Except those who do not live. We are, of course, as frail as we are sturdy.

And then I feel that accumulating heaviness descend upon my shoulders and mind. I have had a good afternoon, but I can slip right back to the grief-lined, deep well of restless silence. The lingering loss of a spirited granddaughter and her mother’s (another cherished daughter) everyday, secure life left behind, her harshly torn days, unsettled ache of night hours. The trauma a son experiences since hiking in a remote area and coming upon a violent scene of death of a person, that life gone horrifically wrong. The worry over a grandson’s health as he slowly recovers from Covid-19. The imaginings, the questions that run rampant in my head about the rest of my grandchildren: will they grow up brave and full of love and wonder? Will they- oh God please- just stay safe and alive a long, long, long time?

I don’t know exactly how to navigate all this lately. My head is clogged with it. I am dulled by rumination, stunned by all the events. The fallout makes me feel, at times, unwell. How does one avoid the emotional landmines of unexpected loss? Isn’t most loss unimagined? (Seven family members have now died over the last several years; who would have thought it?) But we cannot often sidestep what crosses our path. Or, frankly, never. The pandemic, for instance. And worse. It is enough to make me shudder and reel, despite getting up each morning and tackling or easing into each hour.

I remind myself that I have spiritual resources and mental resilience, yet cannot put my hand on a good and useful map. Every time I get lost in this life, I have to reinvent my way in and out of places of the heart, mind and soul. It can be like washing up on an island not even charted. I get off the boat/raft that carries me in and out of place and time, and make tentative footfall. But then cannot find balance enough to not stumble or sometimes plummet to ground. Gravity of earth, how tricky a superior force–and if body and mind are not in sync, it is not easy making one’s way after a long voyage. In fact, it isn’t too easy to roll out of bed, find the stable floor and walk in a nice straight line to the sink to splash water on my face. I am discombobulated. This is not my natural state. It is a state of subdued emergency that lingers.

I have a third daughter who suffered (for a year, to varying degrees) from Mal de Barquement syndrome, dizziness with attendant balance issues after leaving an old fashioned tall ship–a strange phenomenon. Seasickness on land. Or land sickness. (And she is an international traveler, independent, confident–imagine the distress over such loss of orientation.) This is an apt comparison when thinking of events during the last three months. I don’t get “dizzy” during most life crises. I function well, manage tasks, tend to others’ needs. Keep my emotions in enough check for all intensive purposes, though if I must cry, I cry; if I need to swear, I swear–and move on. The brain fires away; I take the steps required for the situation. I cope and cope and cope alright. And then, after things settle a bit more, I start to get tired, adrenaline losing steam. Lose sleep, acquire tension in a problematic neck that triggers big headaches, feel somewhat frayed by ordinary stressors, eat less as appetite decreases (chronic digestion issues flare). Mind and soul feel out of sync, thinking has less directed clarity, and I misplace my usual bountiful hope. Tears erupt and recede often. I forget many things throughout the day, have to remind myself again what it is I intend to be doing next. Time slithers by and I can’t make it behave as I desire. I might check the calendar to make sure what day, in actuality, it is. I ask myself: does it matter what day? People are dying everywhere and here I am, like a lame woman hanging from the curve of the earth, determined to get back on. For some reason.

Well, I am not in the moment, something I greatly value and am pretty good at being/doing. No, I am in the land of the grieving, the land of the exhausted, a place I wander through day and night, seeking a long lasting peace.

I spoke to my son, Joshua, today. We shared how we both feel this way since Krystal died almost two months ago. After his ordeal, too, then his son becoming so ill. I asked how he is doing with it all, how he labors with his commercial and residential painting business jobs while he also takes care of his family and himself. He told me what he always tells me: he creates things, that is, makes jewelry, paints scenes, makes music, rock hunts then cuts and polished them, works on his garden and yard, camps, builds things, like a handmade camper. And he holds onto Light of God.

“But I can’t even rustle up good enough energy or clear head to create much at all,” I admitted. “It can be tiring to even talk to my neighbor lately.” I think: My prayers have become weaker recently, too, as if signals are hampered.

“Yeah, I can’t do as much, either. I work and am at home and avoid seeing people right now; I need to have time alone. I rest more, yet sleep isn’t too easy, either.” He paused; I wondered over the pain kept close inside. He is a very macho guy but has a warm, responsive heart. “It’s the past and future that can throw us off badly. I try to stay in the moment as much as possible. The beautiful moment we have, or can make.”

“Yes, you are right,” I said, “I will try to be here right now more. Thanks, son. I love you.”

“You’ve been a pillar for us, let yourself rest more. I love you, Momma.”

How fortunate to have such a son, such daughters, I think again, even when we each pulse with our hurting. Even with our respective emotional junk seeping out everywhere, at times. The daughter who lost her daughter is going to get a summery pedicure with me. It is such a contradiction, to carry loss to the nail salon, us two sitting side by side, engaged in that pedestrian activity, chatting about nail polish colors, calloused heels. Another daughter shared her new Chaplain/ministerial website with me today, which looks good, and her job hunt for something different than usual is underway. The oldest daughter checks in with blurbs from an important Colorado visit, her paperwork for tenure, art pieces in progress. And Marc–well, he is back at work. At last.

I have more time alone. The buffer and elegance of a profound quietness. So much more time alone, so much quietness, it wraps around me. But he is glad to be working again. I can play my jazz, classical and Latin music all day long, dance anywhere I wish. When I feel like dancing. Sometimes I hum and sway, lift my hands to the universe.

So this is the only map I have right now. To be focused on the present, if possible. To be cared about and to care. But other than that, I may just stand still in this room a spell, sit on that verdant hill, eat this fresh food, read and write another line, speak to my friend about her own journey, greet my neighbor who is stony but talks to me a little. Take five steps forward, then turn, proceed down another rocky or warm earthen path, up the incline to see what is next. If unbalanced, pause. If stumbling, lift up each foot high and set it down firmly. Sit down, breathe in perfume of all the breezes from places unknown. Find a new spot, claim it, share it. I am my own mother, as my mother is not here in body, anymore. I lost may parents so long ago.

Because this is how it can be done, a piece at a time. I have experience with many things attendant to being a human creature. It is not an strange land but part of the process of being alive during seventy-one years. It isn’t just me, either; you are in the bigger story, of course. Even mine. It will take its own time, just slowly enough, this healing of being hurt then hollowed out, the dissipation of fears, the emptying of tears. I will find ways to release and let go, hold what is essential, the helpful truth-telling parts. And then the return of a strong embrace of ebullience can happen.

It is the circle, isn’t it, and we keep on moving with it. Sometimes we have to stand way back to see the whole blasted, masterful map. Other times we have to–at least I have to–get up close and find the identifying dot is and say “Yes, I am right here”–so that the greater picture will come into focus better.

So I will get there. Get back to my sharper and brighter, hopeful and grateful self. But if you ever wonder where I am when I don’t show up on this blog, or question the rambling words I write, it is only this: I am working and breathing and trying the best I can with a yoke of life’s sorrows about my shoulders. (I know you have yours and are doing the same if not today, tomorrow.) But I do know my way back home. It is following my heart, nourishing my spirit’s yearnings, placing my feet on the trail and my vision on mountains and rivers, the wild things, ocean and trees and the rest. Those close to me whom I care for more each day. And those not yet met. This is where I live, inside an awesome mystery. Today, I am where I am on the intricate map of the living, and I cannot help but feel for us all, even ghosts roaming this world and beyond. I am tired so need wings to carry me above the fray. But what I see, I wonder over; the unseen is simply unseen at this moment.

Monday’s Meander: Into Springtime Meadows and Woods

I am getting the itch–like so many others–to travel farther than a couple hours from home. But I admire both field and woods, and when you add a ribbon of river flashing here and there a simple amble is irresistible. Though we have many such areas to explore nearby, each displays a special character. This one is comforting and delights my eye with the many textures and shadow and light. Champoeg State Park was closed since a catastrophic ice storm in mid-February. We drove out in hopes of finding it re-opened (the website was confusing). We weren’t sure what we’d find, as forested land everywhere has suffered losses. And the ice not only immediately felled thousands of trees (one upon my car…), but did enough damage that they continue to crack, then suddenly break apart. So off we went and were pleased to find it open. Our last visit–with a post created–was in November 2020, right before winter’s chilling rains were steady and daily.

There were many trees down, with gaps that created enlarged new portals through the woods. There were broken branches here and there but most damage was cleaned up. We’ve seen bare spots in other natural areas…and often huge mounds of chopped trees near the trails. But this was not so at Champoeg–they’d trucked broken and shredded branches and downed trees elsewhere (look for one picture with the fence and see a few piles in the distance). We could gawk at the river more readily. The meadow, dense with waving tall grasses, seemed broader and brighter than during last summer’s visit.

Since our granddaughter passed away April 16, and a grandson has fallen ill with Covid-19 (thankfully recovering after 12 days), we’ve needed greater restoration of spirit and body. Perhaps you will enjoy this look about as I have. It encourages happy thoughts every time we visit there!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Rattail Lake, 1975

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

It was a summer marked by complex relationships, steamy weather, trips to lakes near our Midwest college town. Ned, my first husband, was completing a Masters in Sculpture. I was knee-deep in mothering kids (one twenty-six months and one seven months) and chores. And writing even a few lines a day at the table in the dark (the overhead light cast a dim yellowish tinge), linoleum-floored dining room. Infant Joshua and toddler Naomi made a world near my feet. Naomi scribbled with every crayon on butcher block paper, played with puzzles, built block towers. Josh chortled, worked on crawling and blew bubbles with milky spit. It was a messy nest of humans. I tried to keep it intact while Ned came and went.

My best friend Betty Jo and her spouse, John, also had a baby boy. We swapped breastfeeding info from the Le Leche League that I seldom used–my milk ran fast. We commiserated, congratulated each other on mothering naturally, hippie college-educated parenting. And I struggled with no longer being a student, restless and dreamy while doting on my children. I stood in the doorway, one on my hip and the other stuck to my ankle and looked up and down the street, at the green arching trees. How they shook and shimmied in the June wind, a duet of mysterious movement. The greenness was big enough to blind or thrill me with delight. We walked to the park with stroller bumping along,

I felt too often alone, but I was not alone. Most of our good friends lived on Pine Street or a couple blocks over in ramshackle two-story houses that students claimed with their communal lifestyles, Or as young families like us. It was good fortune to rent the green house on the corner. It had tall windows and decent sized rooms; worn, creaking floors and stairs; a grassy lot for a hibachi cook-out or to string the line for wet clothing and endless cloth diapers. The children reveled in the comfort and safety of lush grass. But it was July and getting too hot, and I wanted to get away. Get out awhile. I persevered through thunderstorms and mosquitoes and flowers bursting open and wilting. Then August came to a close and there were intimations of fall, the air crisper, the leaves drier. I was about ready to rethink nursing, a bit tired of milk saturating all, breasts almost too heavy for my slim length to carry. His big hunger which fattened him up, powered his engine to rev up more.

That sonn-upon-us winter was long. It carved an ice cave for my creative urges and I took shelter as I could. I wrote, danced with the babies, played my cello, dreamed of spring and another summer. I thought of lakes I adored as a youth, and my longing held scents of wildflowers and damp stones. I met with women friends to discuss feminist literature and plot how we could be the solution to inequities. I wrote poetry and taught the children songs, made art with them and romped, built igloos with packed snow, and melted tender flakes on our tongues.

The saving invitation didn’t come until the start of next summer, before we moved, close to when Ned got his Masters. Betty Jo invited us to meet up at Rattail Lake and was eagerly accepted. It was her parents’ property, a childhood haunt she shared at times. The children stayed with grandparents that 2-day week-end, a gift that surprised. Betty Jo’s and John’s son Jarrod was going along. I carefully packed bottles frozen with the last of breast milk, favorite toys, books and summer togs. As if it was a long trip. I looked back at them as we drove away, at their large blue eyes.

It was a private lake. Despite the name–I disliked rodents a great deal–it was a haven. A handful of family cabins nestled deep into woods surrounding the water. All were isolated. It was a closed community of fishermen and fisherwomen, of hunters, of solitary souls, of hardy people. And it felt like I had stepped into a foreign land.

Although I’d spent parts of countless summers at northern Michigan lakes, it was much different. Often crowded and more noisy than not: speed boats and water skiers (my self included), kids shouting as they let loose on the shores or dove from floating docks, dogs barking. Or plenty of organized activities, lots of fine arts. I loved all that. But this was another experience. Full of pine-tinged shadow that fell across bumpy dirt roads that meandered into nowhere to be seen. Chains across private drives, silence broken only by birdsong, the sounds of someone chopping wood, an occasional gunshot in the distance. It was a land where no one ruled but those who came claimed their piece. All others, beware–or, at least, step carefully.

It made me tremble inwardly as daylight thinned then vanished in jeweled hues beyond treetops. The foreignness sank in deeper; soon, it thrilled me. Ned was at home there; he had grown up in the country on open land and woodlands close by. I had grown up in artsy or church summer camps–and a town set apart by well cultivated charms. Betty Jo and John were at ease as they had hunted and fished often, knew the acreage. Jarrod ran around half-naked; his parents seemed unconcerned about voluminous insects or his peeing on leaf piles (no potty training that week-end) or his bringing wild berries squashed in chubby palms. It all spooked and beckoned, then soothed me. It was the nature I admired and needed, and wilder than many places I had been. We tramped through trees, watched for fish as John tried and failed, sat on the dock and kicked our feet in green-blue water, stirring up the murk. The first evening was spent cooking over a fire, singing along with John’s guitar, growing drowsy under dome of night as embers glowed.

I thought of the children more often than expected–how they would be mad about the wildness, too, I imagined. But the elixir of freedoms made me warm, and anticipatory of more.

The next day was hiking (Jarrod in baby backpack, as we all carried our youngest ones into nature), eating simply at a splintery picnic table, walking barefoot on the beach, lying on holey blankets in sunshine, talking, laughing, sharing a drink or a joint. Our friends offered familiar fondness and thought provoking conversation. Out in the rowboat, Ned smiled easily, arms and chest flexed with muscle as he rowed, attitude confident. Calm. I liked looking at him; he knew that I did. My turn with the oars unleashed surges of energy. The wooden boat carried us over the light chop of water’s surface and into a dazzling sphere of sunshine. I felt our good fortune, wanted to seal it inside me: we were young but not too young, strong of mind, will and body, and brimming with life. And I couldn’t wait to sit at my typewriter when I got home–to keep it all close.

But nothing prepared me for the gift of the night.

I pressed my nose against the screen door. The moon rose, and as it showed its fullness it gave off a luminosity I had seldom witnessed, the dense blackness of night a-shimmer even at blurred edges. Waves slapped at the shore in an uncommonly fine rhythm; my ears awakened to its ethereal symphony. Inside the cabin was thick with food fragrances and woodsy heat and voices. Everyone was finishing fresh apple pie Betty Jo made because that’s what she did, earth mother doing it all. She was putting Jarrod to bed; he wasn’t having it. Ned and I wandered outside but John held back.

We didn’t speak, just sauntered down to water’s edge, stood with bare feet submerged in the lake. Admired the sky with starry maps of the universe, his arm around me. It had been some time since his arm had come to rest around my waist so tenderly. He was a man of action, of iron will, of few words, a lack of sentimentality. He cared within silences and touch.

Then, with nothing other than a look crossing the dark, we began to peel off jeans shorts and t-shirts and all the rest. Flung them on the shore. I had not ever skinny-dipped; he had, as if it was nothing. It was not nothing to me. It was moon madness and I surrendered, mesmerized. The water was a wash of cool silk as we jumped in and submerged, swam out further, laughing. I dove deeply many times, propelled myself up to the surface, Ned following, finally tagging my foot with his grip. The soft bottom of the lake cushioned my feet and made me think of fantastical creatures. We rose together. His face, I thought, was truly wonderful, at times heroic, his wiry body divine. His eyes were clear and in them was that old flame of love; it flashed under moon’s illumination.

How could I not have married and had children with him? We lived like that: we swam side by side into deeper water, separated, then came back to one another. We forgot at times what we had; that night, we knew without doubt. We recalled who we were apart and to one another. Together.

John called out, then Betty Jo; soon they, too, were all pale flesh and splashing, laughing and hooting. And so four of us were swimming unencumbered, happily foolish, unmoored by power of a summer-owned night, and so it was meant to be. Yet we were mindful of respect for one another within the hour’s freeness. We were beautiful creatures in that lake and knew it, bodies and spirits loosed of demands, constraints of necessity. A brief plunge into what was left of our youth, perhaps. But almighty moon let its rays lay upon us as stars sparked and winked. It divined something more for us. The air was a whisper and the wind near-unbearably sweet. It was critical magic. A rescue from our times, the outside world with its wars and hatreds and pain wrapped in the earnest guise of protests and riots. Our children were clasped to our hearts as we carried on with each day–but sometimes we had to have arms for one another, too. Room to think and be, anew.

A part of our ambitious lives had been rent and we swam through it into appreciation. Into a joy sorely missed. To have friends such as those was to cross a sturdy bridge from one side of living to another–from hardships to promises of greater plenty, from separateness to continuity of love, from faltering young adulthood to a richer personhood for us each. We wanted to succeed out there, but we needed to know wholeness. To become human beings worth our words, worth the sacrifices.

It was a night I began to reclaim some of my own self. So, too, Ned and our friends. We could go on after that, stronger and better. We visited the cabin on Rattail Lake in autumn’s splendor and winter’s snowy paradise. But it was one short weekend that remains one of my clarion bells after forty-six years, ringing with an upwelling of hope, fresh delights. Lake enchantment.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: My Mother’s China

It is a peculiar habit– to possess objects that are excellent, perhaps even valuable, but unnecessary, and thus are shuttered away. I had forgotten about it, this certain thing, like most items I don’t use. I am utilitarian in my habits, I greatly admire fine creative design and enjoy holding a piece of art in my hand, or wearing it at my neck or seeing it upon a gold-lit shelf. But when an object is impractical or secretly disliked or in need of major repair, it is quite promptly forgotten.

My mother’s china pieces fall within the “impractical” category. And then a subcategory I might name “awkward.” What does one do with china that has no real place in one’s ordinary abode? And yet I have kept it, though hidden away.

I have only a distant–often unnoticeable- attachment to most of what I own. I may well like much quite a lot but a thing oddly matters very little if and when ruined or disappeared. The initial bite of loss is felt but after a bit, it seems upon reflection that it held far less meaning in my scheme of life than previously and often dramatically noted. I feel it is all easy come, easy go in the end. It’s good I am this way, and that I don’t have buckets of money. If I see something something magnetically exotic or thrillingly original that I might love, a feeling comes over me that I am not fond of having: a sudden desire to place it into my realm–and covetousness may pounce inside me. So unattractive a characteristic. I don’t mean to want things like that, even the best things. It takes such energy and attention when I need those for other activities. I’ve never even bothered to putting time or cash into properly decorating wherever I live. Nonchalant might be a good description of my style, ad-hoc and eclectic….. If it’s comfortable and has some color with a bit of pattern tossed about, I’m good. No, I am less about details that look good, more about moments that can live well in real life.

But right, my mother’s china. (Or a portion of it–yes, I’m coming to it.) It’s not the sort of item that fits well into this way of doing things, I suggest. It requires the appropriate display and use. It requires a certain kind of event. So I have left it in a box or on high dark shelves ever since she died in 2001. A sleeping stack, gathering colonies of dust mites.

The truth is, it is quite enough to manage what I have. I’m well pleased with small tokens of artistic renderings or gifted lovelies. I can get excited about simple handcrafted items or occasional treasures in a second hand store but I can walk away with no longing, too. Maybe it has been all the practice I’ve had; one feeds and clothes the children, one doesn’t buy art or jewelry. One needs orderly rooms to move about, not extra piles to stumble over. (Alright, I have bought books, too many.) The few artistic pieces that are spread about my home required a lifetime of modest acquisition– none of it would impress anyone. They are not pricey. (I have also been known to cut out inspiring pictures from magazines and tape them to a wall.) Many have been given to me. But they’re cared about for one good reason or another. Usually the experience of finding it, the person attached to it.

Yes, that’s what gets us most of all–by whom or just how an object comes to be in our lives. It resonates of these every time we use it or walk by it or try not to think on it too long. That odd energy of things imbued with an essence of place or time or person–how alluring to mind and senses.

And so this comes around to my mother’s Rosenthal china. The twelve person place settings she bought and had shipped when my parents went to Germany. She had other china, and everyday ware (Franciscan Desert Rose, which I use daily). But this was the one she used to dress the most gracious table, along with crystal water goblets and silver. The dinner plates are pure white and embossed with a faintly, to me, architectural design. Yet I don’t have those with me. The fruit bowls that I have, and love and avoid are decorated with delicate flowers of deep pink, yellow and periwinkle, arrayed atop the raised pattern.

I happened upon them again recently. I stood tiptoe on a kitchen step stool, rummaging on the top cupboard shelf for something else. My hand reached behind a front row, and barely touched the rims of the delicate fruit bowls. That sound they make when moved against one another–a soft, bright noise. I took down two more ordinary bone china tea mugs my mother-in-law gave us long ago (that we use often); a few colored or etched glass candy dishes (a couple from my mother); and a diminutive vase that looks like an old-fashioned gentlewoman with an open-top hat made for tiny blooms. (This I happened to buy in a hospital gift shop after I completed cardiac rehab 20 years ago–it made me feel even better.)

I touched the bowls gently once more, hesitant.

I didn’t attempt to bring the them all down. I counted them: twelve, as meant to be. And then–because I suddenly wanted to hold it in my hands–I took the top one off the stack gingerly and stepped down from the stool. I proceeded to wash it with my fingertips and a spot of dish detergent under running water. I grabbed a tea towel. I decided I wanted to use one, perhaps just once. Applesauce, perhaps. Blueberries. Chocolate covered raisins. I visualized a vivid mound of raspberries against the white hollow in the bowl, rinsing it clean.

And then I dropped the china bowl. It lightly struck the quartz countertop, delicate against rock-hard. Only a bare inch from my hand to surface. I snatched it back up. But too late, though it somehow held together in my wretched hands.

You can imagine the bad words I said. How my heart plummeted. Eighteen years well sequestered and then, when once in two years I take one down to clean it, I drop it? Why was I not ever more careful? (My hands are notorious for dropping things. I suffered severe myalgias and weakness after taking statins 13 years; some days grasping strength is still impacted.) I ought to have called Marc to help. And so on.

I examined the bowl more closely in the light. The thinnest telltale line crossed from the smooth edge of rim and continued two thirds to the other side. I expected it to split apart but it did not, so I firmly pressed it tight together so that the line of fracture disappeared, then set it far back from counter’s edge. And then, after showing it to Marc, I thought once more how often my favorite things have been damaged or destroyed. It has happened again and again–and most often it is an accident not even of my doing. (I have come to see it as a further lesson to not hold tightly to things of this world.) I fussed a bit more, then decided if it sat there safely it might be useful, afterall, until I found the correct glue to fix it. If I dared to fix it. I put raisins in it and plucked them one at a time. The next day I put two pieces of chocolate in it and delicately lifted one piece and the other. The next day, a few crackers. It was being used just fine, but I was wary of moving it. I watched it as if it might.

I know I need to fix it soon, and fix it right. I am the caretaker.

The truth is, these fruit bowls are not mine, but are for my daughter, Naomi. The artist. She was originally to inherit the whole set, twelve of everything imaginable. This is what my mother had told me, and what she told Naomi so long ago. My daughter has been to Germany, also, and she appreciates beautiful, well made and interesting objects. She is my oldest child, was close to my mother dearly (so adored, that woman), visiting her and helping her off and on the last few years. My mother’s children had long gone from Michigan. But her granddaughter Naomi stayed with and worked with her father and his side of her family–construction and plant nursery work– many summers when she had time off from university and later from teaching jobs. Gladwin, a rural area where her paternal kin lived, was not far from Midland where my parents, then only my mother, resided. Mom looked forward to Naomi’s visits greatly. They gabbed, watched television and read, walked, did errands. They both loved to sew, to cook. They enjoyed classical music and much more. Later, when it was needed, my daughter helped with more personal needs. I recall feeling burdensome guilt that I had moved far away, that I could not visit Mom often since I lived in Oregon. And feeling deep gratitude that Naomi could, and without any prompting. She loved her dearly. And was appreciated and loved by Mom.

So the Rosenthal china was to go to Naomi, among other things. But things are open to interpretation when an estate comes into question–if some intentions are not signed and sealed. My oldest sister was the executor of the estate and told me after our mother’s death that it was not going to happen. Apparently, Marinell understood things differently; that Naomi got it was not explicit. She suggested that her daughter would like the china at first but in the end, she determined it would be shipped to her home state of WA. And then, to my surprise and for an unknown reason, I was t old the whole lot was ultimately sold.

Yes, I was aghast. Why did that happen, I wondered. It was entirely uncharacteristic of kind, fair-minded Marinell (now deceased or I wouldn’t write of it), the whole thing. She hadn’t taken my word as the truth. It was very disappointing–and she’d not even thought it might hurt us. Maybe because she had many fine things, herself, it didn’t impact her much in the general view of things. But there it was–the china was gone. Naomi and I simply let it go, as one must–it wasn’t worth holding any grudge.

Except. I had the fruit bowls.

I barely recall it–perhaps such details matter yet they’re blurred–but they were separate from the rest as we sorted things after the funeral. Or they ended up being sent to me accidentally with a box of other things; either may be the case… But Mom likely used them as she loved a small snack of fruit, cottage cheese, carrots and so on. She had left them out, then boxed them up at some point. But I chose to keep them for Naomi as the vast bulk of china slipped away. I knew she would be happy to eat a little yogurt or ice cream or pear slices or strawberries from them one day. My sister never mentioned missing anything. I felt it was justified, even that it was meant to be. They stayed with me and have remained here– until Naomi can use them.

It is about time, I sense. I am not getting any younger. And I don’t want to break one more. They are a meaningful remnant of a time, place and person for her to keep close.

How much do things matter? Things that may not be used as one hopes or imagines? My mother entertained, happily if modestly, and pulled out all the stops when friends or visitors from the arts and education and church worlds came for dinners and lunches. I was a shadow part of that as a teen. I helped prepare food, set the table just so, laid the silver and the place settings. I served others with a smile and a nod. I sat with them at those extraordinary tables–the loveliness of her centerpieces, the light slipping over crystal and silver– and talked about books and music and a mix of ideas. Nothin earth shaking, but good topics. Music played always in the background. I easily crossed over from inquisitive child to a seeking and also forlorn young adult at that table. Such rituals held us all together.

So, that Rosenthal–“All food tastes better when eaten from it” Mom said, and it was true– was partly mine, perhaps, long after my older siblings departed from home, and still when I came around a few more years when attaining adulthood. I never once needed it for myself–I am a mix-and-match person, a casual meal person. I have a cupboard full of handmade mugs, ones from special places; I hold on to chipped pieces. I had a couple of pretty goblets but they–of course–broke. Mom had a different passion for beautiful things, and worked them well into my parents’ middle class, educated, well travelled lifestyle, the pleasing china cabinet brimming with perfect, shining pieces. Ones she used with ease and often, as if it was always so. She, a farmer’s daughter, with an eye for more diverse beauty.

So that was in my mind when I pulled down one bowl–that I ought to use one now and again until Naomi has them for fond use in her own life. I had rarely done so before. I’ve regularly used her bone china teacups sets and those doomed goblets and many other culinary-related items. I have her LLadro figurines in a cabinet. I wear a couple pieces of her good jewelry. But those bowls… Maybe I felt a niggling guilt for having them, though it’s unlikely as the years rolled by and they weren’t missed–who used fruit bowls, anymore? Mostly I wanted them to stay safe.

You never know what means the most until faced with it’s possible loss. I was mad at myself last week and sad, but it didn’t make me weep. I have blinked back a few leaks over few possessions badly ruined. But full tears come easily for me only when it is a true matter of heart. Like when I awakened the other morning with cheeks wet and I thought to myself, Oh yes, it is April, then comes May, June. These times are full of losing a sister, a brother, my mother. Then, after that, my father. And all this has no shape but fills an amorphous realm of bittersweetness, and not one sharp memory to stun me but a tender and brazen moving picture of long, mysterious, amazing lives, and no heft in my hand or within my arms but the silken air and the puzzling ether beyond.

But inside there is resounding love, far more valued and useful than a fine white and floral china bowl meant for berries. Still, I gaze at and touch that broken bowl with a private tenderness. The line remains invisible, but it is there in the center.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Intersections of Life

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

As I read the email alerting me to the availability of appointments for my first COVID-19 vaccination, I experienced an immediate, visceral loosening of a tension that I barely knew was there. I’ve adapted overall to the pandemic restrictions and found my life still will contain joy, even passing moments. But I’ve been waiting a while for this, as most of us have. The surprise was my palpable relief: it is going to happen, at last. One might think I’d be worrying about side effects since reactions vary widely and can be tough. It’s not that I have no concern about this vaccination; I just am doing it. I believe it crucial to help myself and others to stay healthier and move forward.

I only recently have begun to have dreams of people doing ordinary things–grocery shopping, for instance–and no one has masks on. That was not the case in many dreams the past year when, if someone did not wear a mask in a group, my overlooking consciousness was entirely perplexed–and even worried as I came to a wakeful state. It has become the way things are, how we live in this world. Yet nothing is static or, at least, for long.

Yesterday I began to consider how things will gradually change for society as “herd immunity” is met. For my family, for my friends–just for humanity. It was as if a door that was bolted shut was unsprung enough for me to glimpse in my mind and heart how life can become safer, freer, better. The realization of possibilities happened the moment I made my appointment for the shot. I’m not a foolish dreamer, more a practical one–I sure don’t expect fast, 100% improvements to gleefully restore us to carefree days. (I’m not convinced they were that carefree–there is always another pathogen about, other health events, the grind of financial stresses or relationship complications to surmount in life.) But these new images were beyond my control: full gatherings with others wafted across my mental screen off and on. A group about my table. I thought: I will be able at last to step into my family’s and friends’ physical bubble, just as before. We can share an animated conversation and home cooked meal, both indoors or out. I can visit with neighbors without uneasy wariness. Hike without stepping off a trail as another walks by, masked faces fully averted. And return to outdoor markets and other stores as needed–and desired. And perhaps, by next year, travel to places I have sorely missed or even new destinations can even happen.

Visiting in-person with faraway daughters and a grandchildren will be amazing. The very thought elicits excitement, energy jumping up and down inside me, squealing in joy. How much has not been readily shared! Phone calls, texting and messaging have not been enough even as we’ve told ourselves they are; we do it oftener. The weekly video calls that were so important the first year began to dwindle. It was tiring to keep up, and hard to meet with our five kids all at one time–they all kept their jobs, luckily, and were busier than Marc and me. And let’s face it, virtual interactions cannot meet the great need we have to be face-to-face, hand-to hand. And I am a natural hugger, as so many are. Yet being essentially okay with reality’s strictures, living in this bare bones manner satisfied just enough. That is what I’ve told myself. After all, I’m an adaptable person–we all are, aren’t we; we’re human beings so can and do perform mental gymnastics to get through trials. And I have long been used to lots of relocations in my life, health issues restricting my interactions and more–but I had never lived through a pandemic as my parents had to do (polio, influenza). Adaptability does not preclude a need of others. It just means to survive or make progress, we learn how to make things work.

The one constant has remained a deep desire to spend ordinary spend time with those I enjoy and those I dearly love. I do appreciate time alone, with interests and passions that keep me well occupied. A requirement for me is being among nature’s wonders via daily walks or hikes. I still have chafed against our societal mandate to distance… too much isolated time can undermine equilibrium and, maybe, stamina. Even seeing people walking beyond my balcony makes me feel lighter. Hearing children yelp and whoop in play immediately heartens. Laughter wending its ways through open windows makes me want to laugh along, get in on the happiness. Seeing my twin granddaughters toddle-run across a grassy field sends me over the moon. Yet, it is all from that remove; it is not full-on mingling among the living.

I learned long ago that a good life trick is to not demand that things be only what I desire them to be. Rather, it is my intent to fashion a daily process of give and take, to be open to surprises, seek the best in others while giving my own best self if at all possible. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in being present in life and availing myself of it. When I have trouble with those precepts, I brainstorm while praying like mad for help; I don’t like having poor insight or no applicable answers.

It seems my life has been shaped by a critical need to be brave, no matter what. I’ve had practice, with enough reasons to shrink back amid circumstances that arouse great fear. Accessing courage or even acting brave always brings me more courage and strength. Shakiness is transformed into sturdiness by virtue of bravery’s inherent core (ability to face or endure danger and difficulty); I am asked by this living to stand strong. But to me it also means knowing when and how to seek resources, find new ways to lift myself up, and take care of my whole self with good habits long established– even if feeling about depleted. Connecting with others increases this sense of sufficiency. I can only do so much alone. And I know for a fact that a greater mix ideas and caring make for a better human being.

Coping with trouble also elicits an urge–lets face it–to escape or deny situations awhile. If I take that time for respite and recharge, these are useful tools, not barriers to health as people suspect denial really is. Certainly it has been a go-to in the past year when I, like others, have read even more, listened to music and watched online entertainment more, dragged out old games, sat and daydreamed, etc. The point is, when faced with hardships, we can always do more to live our lives better. I refuse to see less than; I see more than. And it is a choice I make during times when that feels less natural. Coping with these difficult times with someone else–even if 6 feet apart–helps further more often than not.

I do seek solitude (or a time of escape) for calming rejuvenation, but afterwards I want to engage again with others, a little or a lot. How do I keep doing that when we are in this in-between time, when it will slowly become safer for us out there yet we still should live within safety’s rules? And with whom will we choose to practice this return to living more fully in the regrouping of diverse and curious human beings?

The truth is, over the last few months things have changed within my more intimate circle. Mere social acquaintances are nil except when chatting via social media. (Plus, I’ve caught up with several old high school classmates.) My closer relationships are impacted in various ways and have been different. And I’m not even writing about my several children and grandchildren this time…”way too much distance, how weird this is” is the number one complaint from all of them. And me.

Eileen, one of my two closest friends, moved during last Halloween. One moment she was planning on retiring and moving to Arizona to be closer to family. I almost didn’t believe it would happen despite her resolve from the start. She had loved and lived in Portland for 40 years. Before the move I visited her briefly and saw she was about finished packing. Then she was putting her house on the market, and at one last visit when she gave me an afghan she crocheted for me while I gave her a pretty carp windsock from the Japanese Garden. And then she was gone. I didn’t even see her take off in a plane. We called each other often at first, texted daily. I sent her pictures of Oregon rambles; she sent me pictures of austere desert landscapes. We swapped stories of life with eccentric family members; she updated me on a new house search while she lived with a brother. The house she bought there is strikingly similar to the one she sold. But no grass for a lawn, only rock and sand. The back of her house opens to a spiky mountain range and more desert; she so misses her old lush garden. We’ve lately spent less time talking and texting although (or because) she’s homesick for Oregon–she has almost moved back twice. But she is still settling in.

I don’t expect things to remain the same for her. I do expect we will stay close, in this changed manner. Later, when things are safer, Eileen will go swimming three times a week, go to the neighborhood country club to poke around. I know her; she loves to meet people, do new stuff. It will be so good for her (even though I don’t get the draw to retirement communities). When we do talk, I feel the allure of her new place sinking in, grabbing hold; she will put down new roots. I know it’ll take a couple years to get more comfortable. Yet, though I hope she will be happy there, I miss her deeply and often, as her presence in my life has been inestimable joy and comfort for decades. We’ll visit each other; she tells me all the time she can’t wait for me to fly down, how much fun it will be… Her eruptions of laughter are prized, as is how we can talk arts and sciences, politics, spiritual matters and people all in one rich gabfest. And those shared bear hugs… Maybe next winter? I will plan for that.

Another dear friend, Brenda, is here– but not quite fully. I just talked with her tonight on our cells and it was, after an hour, still not enough.

She has multiple, hard-to-manage health problems, so is very high risk for contracting the severe form of COVID-19. Long ago she could have stopped working and gotten on disability, but she has no interest in that. She loves to be of service to others in the midst of life’s chaos and beauty. Since last March she has worked at home, virtually (until last week), for a women’s prison treatment program, counselling inmates. Today she reminded me she has been there 11 years. It seems impossible. We met in 1993 and worked together with gang members and other at-risk youth; we finally worked as part of teams at three agencies. She recently returned to working in the prison. Everyone on staff has been vaccinated and,as well, many prisoners. Brenda feels safe enough so I must trust that she knows her limits and the situation. In the past year we were able to meet in parks or for coffee outdoors every 10-14 days. In the middle of wintry rain it became harder to do. (She also helps her 91 year old mother and a 9 year old niece. Talk about bravery.) So we update and support one another on the phone mostly. We’ve started planning how we might do this and that, how great it will be to be more spontaneous. Maybe we’ll even attend another Bonnie Raitt concert or go music shopping at Music Millenium before 2022. Some things are long and hallowed traditions for us.

Still, I miss Brenda though she’s nearby, unlike Eileen who is so far. I miss her more now, perhaps, because she nearly died from pneumonia not that long before the pandemic began (was it COVID?–she doesn’t know, it was hell), and still has congestive heart failure, Lupus, severe osteoarthritis and more. I don’t know how long I’ll have her though she is just 62 (and I’ve always known her to battle illness). Every time I’m not hanging out with her, it’s a bit like I’m losing more of her–clearly, at least, time spent. Because you never do know, do you–if not a virus, it can be something else. In fact, it will be–we just don’t know when. But I remain reasonably sure we’ll meet up when the weather warms, when she has more time to spare. That prospect is wonderful.

And my sweet, wise older sister, Allanya. Maybe it would be enough to say she has dementia, and it’s getting worse. For a long while it seemed we could navigate around it, be as we’ve always been–best friends, deeply blood connected. So in sync that we knew what the other was thinking. But it’s not quite like that now. It’s touch and go as I visit her in an open air structure next to a fine retirement community in which she resides. I don’t know when we’ll loop back to a topic we talked about just 10 minutes ago. I don’t know for certain if she’ll be in a fog or prone to morose or aggravated thoughts, or cheery as she always tended to be, ready to talk politics, books, art projects, family and the weather. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride but I will get on it every time to be with Allanya. Her general health is good. Her apartment is decent; she shares it with an ill spouse. So I’ll be seeing her as long as it can be done. She keeps telling me it is high time to go out for lunch or shopping at the resale stores she loves–and I tell her yes, I know, soon–when the pandemic wanes and fully vaccinated as is she. And thank God we can look forward to this.

We have lost parts of the year–she has lost even more–but we are both still here, will forever be truest of friends. Sisters of the soul. She once found a huge heart-shaped rock and painted it. Then wrote on it: “Heart of the universe. Love, Allanya, 2013,” I knew exactly what that meant to us both.

I dreamed awhile back of those who have passed on, members of family, A few times they all seemed to have convened to visit me, specifically, and I, them. I could clearly see them moving about and then circling, faces well defined as if they were in the room with me, theri energy as recognizable as when they were sentient. I counted 5, sometimes 6, (so many have died the last few years) but felt the presence of more–elder aunts and uncles very long gone. I heard them speak but cannot tell you now what they said right now. They were encouraging me, with warm smiles and good words. Each time I awoke I felt they were there to help and encourage me to be optimistic, to not be afraid of the future, tired out by things. To be assured I am loved and not alone– that they are near in spirit. They are family, ancestors interlinked with each other and me. Of course they would do that. Despite differences or misunderstandings in the past, we know how much I love them and they, me.

And that’s the thing: it’s all about that most basic yet sometimes the stickiest of experiences: love. If only we saw such caring as true compassion in action and just acted on it. We need a reminder now and again if things are rockier before they get better. The last year has been one tough terrain to cross over. Not, however, the worst time in my life. But one of the most puzzling and mournful, requiring patience and gentle surrender, innovation and faith. I have no doubt there will be more opportunities for happiness as well as times of sorrow as we sort it out. How will we have been changed? What will we pick back up or toss out, realign or welcome? Who will we first spend an afternoon with–in the first-person-miracle of flesh, blood and bone? (How can I get all my kids/grandkids/friends here to celebrate each other and life?) What will become a more sacred ritual; what will be dismissed as wasteful, trivial? We can look to the natural world for clues. The calculated designs of nature display a genius of efficiency. They regenerate wounded parts and aid one another, even those not their apparent own “sort”, as all are part of the whole.

I’m looking forward to seeing what alterations of mind and spirit bring us to new appraisements. But first and finally, may there be generous love, greater charity rediscovered to pass between us. We will find our way better.