Love, Fight, Work, Learn: If a Dog, would I be a Siberian Husky or German Shepherd?

 

This essay is not truly about dogs so don’t be disappointed if you read on. I, rather, was thinking of finding or creating a quiz: when a person has such and such traits, what sort of animal would they be most like? Or would they want to be like if you asked them? We do at times compare people to non-human creatures, let’s be honest–either due to physical characteristics or their natures. We may even feel pull to a certain animal, or a connection that moves us. Although I noted dogs in the title, I’m not sure I would be one if there was a choice but sometimes I do feel the desire to yelp, pounce, bark and growl, act funny and be tricky, hide, sneak and bite–rather, those human equivalents.  Not every day is a cuddly kind of day, to say the least.

At times I think a wolf is closer to what I imagine choosing to become. Yes, I know, that has nearly become boring; most people have a thing for (or against) our resurgence of grey wolves. They are majestic: intelligent strategizing, fine physical prowess, loyalty to the pack, team predatory skills and beautiful songs.

But on the other side of the fence, so to speak,  there are black panthers with their trademark grace and sly ferocity, nocturnal sensory equipment and precise hunting skills. Who cannot admire such stealth and power, the wondrous design of their sleekness? Plus, they even live in the Amazon, a place I have been drawn to all my life.

What draws me in the end–how do I connect to them? Mysterious and wild (so different from me) and strong, smart, spectacular to watch and hear. So I consider both wild canine, wild feline. I could be more creative in choices but these two mammals have long fascinated me. Among others…I seem to feel a tug to many. I am easily mesmerized by other beings in the world. Birds, insects, ocean life of all sorts and so on: I have a wide ranging passion for Mother Nature and her critters.

So I want to note that the other day there was a familiar piercing/whistling call in a neighborhood park. I looked up, stood riveted for a good fifteen minutes. I had thought at first they were ospreys. Oh, to be a bird! My eyes were trained on treetops as people passed me by. But a couple stopped; we watched three beautiful, powerful birds fly back and forth far above, calling to one another. A park staff person later corrected me–they were Cooper’s hawks, which excited me even more. They were nesting in our park? I had only seen them from afar in the country. Amazing. But it seemed similar enough to an osprey call that I looked up them up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. To my delight, I discovered it was a specific call heralding food delivery to the nest.

Yes, I might wish to be a bird, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk.

Still, have been thinking more about dogs since caring for daughter’s very young cat a couple of months. I sometimes daydream about finally getting another dog. Still, I don’t currently have a dog as I believe domesticated animals are happier outdoors rather than indoors or at least both. I live in an apartment. Maybe I’m projecting my preferences…but my last was a Brittany Springer spaniel, twenty-five years ago.

I do like cats overall despite being allergic and disliking being scratched. I’ve lived with a few. The last was a temperamental (are there any other sorts) calico the same daughter chose as a young teen. Mandy-Cat was lovely and irritating, not so affectionate but intensely loyal. My current guest cat, Hyundai, named for the car under which it somehow hitched a 45 minute ride and emerged without a scratch, is a feisty and possibly feral male of perhaps five months. He likes to skitter up  to the top of a balcony screen door and sniff about wildly; run ramrod over couch and chairs at midnight; make capturing a tea towel from the refrigerator handle into a Herculean challenge. He takes possession of one nylon shopping bag as if it were his perfect prey or a comfy abode, whichever he deigns to make it.

I might not choose to be this cat. On the other hand, he is imbued with a grand spirit of adventure, a certain charming meow, and we chat with one another throughout the day with a few positive results. Perhaps it was Hyundai who has inspired me to think again about the nature of people versus the nature of other animals. And what all that means, after all,  since I am not an animal behaviorist, just a mere retired human mental health clinician. So it is natural I examine my personal attitudes and actions, ferreting out why I am who I am–and how humans are so unlike one another despite sharing so many traits. (Likely other animals are also more alike than different but a zoologist would likely prove me wrong.)

I love what dog shows call “the working dog group”. I admire huskies because they are hard working, energetic and alert with superior endurance and stamina, friendly and playful and smart as well as being furry-attractive (lovely eyes, too). They’re team workers, fleet of foot, eminently trainable and love to do a great job. I also admire German shepherds for similar qualities as well as others, though perhaps they might be less readily sociable I have high regard for their capability of working within dangerous situations, their intelligent behaviors. They’re very loyal, thus excellent guard dogs. They also can certainly attack and bite. I imagine all dogs do at times–fear being a trigger and territoriality–but it appears that huskies are far less likely than German shepherds to react aggressively, according to statistics about serious dog bites (they are perhaps third or fourth on lists I’ve read). Still, they can make fine companions as do huskies. They are simply different dogs.

So what does all this have to do with my musings? Its about reactions to stimuli in part. Other animals seem to be more straight forward about things, do exactly what they need to do and are clean and simple about it. I would like to be more like that some days. To the absolute point but smarter about matters, especially complex ones….a human debacle.

I’ve been mulling over a few situations the past months wherein I responded with feelings and words that were not altogether comfortable for me. Nor, I suspect, the receivers of those responses. I have instincts like any other animal so can sniff out any danger, find weak spots in my life, seek to minimize unnecessary discomfort and maximize well being. I am protective of those I love; work hard to seek and maintain the aspects of life I welcome and enjoy; adapt to the randomness the best I can and try to learn well from it. People have called me courageous, intimidating, loyal, dominating, compassionate and nonjudgmental, insightful, powerful when angry and intense if distressed. I am unable to lay claim on any of these without scrupulous, ongoing self-examination. But I do know many of my weaknesses as well as some of my strengths and a few ring a bell.

We all have our “hot buttons.” I suspect that something perceived as an intrusion into the hallowed realms of family or friends is close to the top of the list. Another would be when we feel attacked at an emotionally vulnerable place (and, of course, physically unwanted touch). Yet another might be when we feel our basic dignity is being disregarded. And also if we feel betrayed by someone well and long trusted. Misunderstandings of various sorts come and go; tempers are sure to flare a bit. But deeper woundings are harder from which to rebound, and certainly to manage well with the wisdom of tact and consideration. Fairness may go out the window. It is just harder to move past differences, to forgive and forget when whatever occurred hurts greatly, whether or not another can understand the why or wherefore of it. But a lack of understanding or a respect of one’s viewpoint makes the dig even deeper.

I am first and last a student here, learning new skills to deal with my and others’ most human hurts. It is trickier when a conflict and resulting skirmish seem avoidable. How to soothe the scratches and gouges well, help them heal up right? Isn’t it in part connected to an initial reaction to those first irritating words, boundary crossings, oversights? The greater surprise and harder the fight, the harder and faster the fall.

I should know this by now. I learned early on to protect myself. I had to be quick of mind and foot. We all find ways to take care of ourselves when we meet up with bullies or hecklers, those who practice criticism as a prime activity or seek to do any sort of injustice. (Just being a kid and a youth can seem to put one at risk, especially in these times.) For me, it was critical to learn how to be brave, to become self reliant, perceptive and quick witted.

By my twenties I was developing a diamond-hard carapace about my core being that was rarely removed. I walked and talked like a person who was carrying a sort of weather flag denoting a “watch” or a “warning”: be wary/mess with me at your own risk. I knew how to be gracious, to talk a good talk and underneath it all was a sincerity and, oddly, confidence that authenticated my behaviors. But I was always in command of myself, my jobs and surroundings, my life as much as possible–even when my life was unmanageable, I rallied and tried to commandeer strength out of sheer stubbornness. right or wrong.

I was often told that when I walked into a room and down the street, people took immediate notice…it was the surety and hardness of my footfall with confident strides, squared shoulders and head high. But these also caused folks to pause, to assess if I would be an alliance or enemy. I’ve been not always embraced, more often respected. (I wondered the same about them, truth be told.)

Back then I knew how to labor hard, to be counted upon, to fight for what I believed in. And, I  think, how to love with ardor and steadiness–that is, when a serious trust was tested and proven. But as time passed I discerned better how to use armor when most needed, to relent when it was helpful, to soften responses so my presentation changed, reactions were subtler. It felt as if it came at some personal cost until I fortified myself with better counseling, deeper prayer and acceptance of God’s abiding care and presence in my living. I tinkered with this and that, tossed out more irksome, useless bits. In time I found my life a synthesis of better aligned spirit, body, feelings and intellect.

Still, there remains the conundrum that though I long to be a finer human being, I am flawed so much more than hoped. The right circumstances with the wrong statement made to me and I can strike when I should remain restrained. I snarl when I should be silent; I jump up when remaining sitting down is a better course to take. I snag and grind a resentment when releasing it could be as mere breath floating from my lips. I want to be a good human creature, expectant of joy, civilized and stalwart and caring. I just cannot seem to  always succeed in the follow through. I have to pause and rethink some occasions or better yet, take a big step back and let everything be. I don’t have to have the last word in all scenarios; I need to pick times it can retain most value. In fact, it can be more useful to seek a truce. And then comes an experience more satisfying, the enlarging graciousness of deeper peace.

I try to imagine what it would be like to be more a husky than a German shepherd. Oh, I know the second breed is very clever, dauntless and fierce and loyal. But I am more and more interested in being a full team player as well as brightly independent, one who can go to utmost limits but then is rewarded with rest as adjunct to rambunctious fun. One who will never forsake those I care for but who is more than happy to meet new neighbors–all with little to no threat of biting from either side. Well, other animals might say I make too much of it; they must find life more simply defined: birth and survival, play, hunting, mating, eating and sleeping, more family, hunting and survival, aging and death. Strength and wiliness must win out.

I think I hear a distant woof and howl.

I’ve determined I would most happily be a husky (or a grey wolf in the wild), perhaps not a German shepherd…but then, how can I know for sure? Depending in the end on what works  best and what would be required of me. Depending on what was offered for work and love–as well as mealtime and play. And shelter and safety. Or is all that rather too human?

The moon and open spaces are calling. Later.

 

Those were the Days, the Nights

It was a brisk, golden autumn in 1971. Our apartment was on the top floor of a weathered four-plex, a sure upgrade from the barely renovated chicken coop we’d called home, with sharply slanting roof and tiny spaces allotted for bed, couch, bathroom and kitchenette. It was a very primitive version of popular “tiny houses” that ecologically minded persons now herald as a radical solution to land hogging and indulgent square footage. But since we’d been married 6 months and were still university students Ned and I went bigger and better–out of the country, into a “student ghetto.”

The floors were real (scarred, creaky) wood. The ceilings were high (a few cobwebs, bubbling paint in spots) and the ample openness captured echoes of footsteps and even whispers. There was a large living and separate dining room, bedroom, a full kitchen and a back porch with attendant steps to the yard and alley. And a small alcove, nearly a cubbyhole, right off the dining room.

I claimed it for my own–not to write, but to paint ever larger canvasses that I made with my own hands. I had intended on majoring only in English and creative writing; somehow an art major crept into the mix. Perhaps it was part of my intent: I had left behind a provincial (read: stodgy, to my hippie sensibilities) hometown and high familial expectations as well as a complicated emotional legacy. I married a man with piercing blue eyes, a deep well of vibrant silence, and a talent for sculpting abstract forms from wood, brass, plastics cement–whatever felt and worked right. He had left behind a factory life, the life his father, a supervisor, lived, thought most reasonable. We were rebels of a sort in a time when “the personal is political” was just gearing up.

In that apartment I was industrious, set up my easel and oils and acrylics. I jumped into my new art classes and did well, learning  as I took a chance with design, color, form. Sometimes we revved up the Bultaco motorcycle for street and wooded trails to let off steam. Ned also worked on  his art and on “chopping” his second hand Harley Davidson. There were poetry readings to attend and participate in, music to make with my voice and guitar as well as share with other student musicians, art events to co-create and view.

I was happy in that apartment with its narrow windows that stuck and overhead fans that only swirled the last of Indian summer heat, a bed that sagged to bring us even closer, the sound of his booted feet clomping up worn steps. I made tuna curry and brown rice, salads and eggs, cheap food that filled us along with tea and coffee. They were days and nights made of adventures and love.

Alright now, step back–hold on a minute! Bring those stage lights back up, take another look. Was that the life I led at 21? Or am I indulging in…sigh… a pastel drippy scenes of nostalgia?

Or was it richer, still?

Let me regroup as I think this over, before I am in danger of drowning in a syrupy pit of nostalgia.

That oft-repeated phrase “oh, those were the days” lands on my ear like the annoying buzz of a gang of mosquitoes. That’s what I’ve always thought and tend to still think: out of the mouths of the very aged or the bows and ribbons type–that is, the inordinately sentimental. Likely both. A belief in greater attributes of the past rather than the present or future seemed like sheer hyperbole, undue adoration of what was quite finished. Who can enjoy this thinking? It seems shortsighted at the least to imply that what has gone before is better than the current moment and beyond.

My motto for years was “don’t let the past steal the present.” It remains stuck on my bedroom mirror in case there is a lapse of lucidity and I hearken back to said “good ole days or the bad.” They were, in truth, often peppered with miseries, roughed up by heartache but why dwell on the either the fabulous or dismal? Much of life has seemed accidental; it can leave us limping, with hidden scars. The good ole days? Is that viewpoint sold with rose-colored glasses? The hard-bitten part of me begs to differ. What price is paid for wistfulness for the past, the longing for it? Others surely led a life different from mine.

I believe there is a wealth of matters to attend to, here and now. We have power to see it as we want; then it, as well, becomes memorable. Sentimentality strikes me as the most superficial form of nostalgia, a surfeit of displayable emotion that glosses over rather than enables the deeper self to reflect on what may have been delightful or bittersweet. May I assiduously avoid the first.

Yet. There are moments when I heed that call to longing. How to avoid the lure? It’s magnetic, the past as we can recall it, truthfully or not (for we know memory can trick us, as well). It is, I imagine, an essential feeling we return to and feel a need to bring closer. Poignancy of tenderness, joy or passion has great pull. A sense of security pervades recollection, even if loss occurred. It settles about us, familiar, a comfort even as it flees us again. Like any pleasant feeling, it pumps up serotonin, the “happiness hormone.”

It may be good news that there is increasing evidence nostalgia is good for us, according to the esteemed Scientific American magazine. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-nostalgia-is-good-for-you/) Nostalgic recall bestirs warm emotions, reaffirms life was (and may be once more better) good and special in a certain time or place or with that person. It creates a bridge from one period of life to another, gives us a sense of firmer footing within the morass of human endeavor.

Unbidden, scenes from the past revisit so easily. I don’t go in search of the past without an automatic and real resistance. The last half of my life I’ve preferred to exist in the present moment; there are enough treasures and puzzles to note, pursue, mull over. But I am writer. Much glides and rushes from past to present to future. It overlaps levels of consciousness amid the process of creation/recreation. We are constantly storing up scenes from life, adding them to that vast kaleidoscope of memory. And we forget, too, then recall once more.

As I awaken or fall sleep or as I gaze upon a certain landscape, hear a measure of music, smell a potent fragrance–all those trigger another memory. We are captivated. Time disappears. Recollection is a conduit to experiences etched in our cores. They have parlayed time lived into an essence, slipped it right into present states. Such texture and heft, such reverberation, all those intrinsic meanings.

When the past carries with it the promise of pleasure or peace, our hearts open further. We find room once more for what we thought was boxed up, tucked away. Perhaps feeling nostalgia provides ready access to a long afterglow of distant happiness. We get it in our sights, zero in, then net it with our minds. Ah, the way it was back then.

Today I awakened remembering that above mentioned college apartment Ned and I inhabited. The bottom of a dark wood staircase on the first floor as I closed the heavy front door with its frosty glass, then racing to top of the steps and bursting into a brilliant expanse of open rooms: I was there. And he was just out of sight but waiting.

What brought me to this?

It may have been the grey, heavily textured ceramic jug I saw on my son’s fireplace mantel recently. He said he was going to put some of his father’s–Ned’s– ashes into it after he found a suitable stopper. I recognized the ceramic piece; it was made by Ned. Though not the most finessed of potters he was, however, a remarkable maker of many objects, of houses and furniture. A fine sculptor with calloused hands, broad-palmed and long-fingered. Exacting, capable hands.

It may have been the watercolors I was studying the other day in American Art Review. How I often glance at my art toolbox on a book shelf, with its paints and  brushes, pencils and erasers and pastels and so on–thinking this is the day I will paint a small rendering of something. This day I will buy an easel. This year I will find a watercolor class and register and attend and learn.

I remember all my paintings carried from place to place for ten years. Some had a place on changing walls. I finally removed them from their frames, rolled them up for easier moving and storage. Eventually they were all lost in the flooding of a renovated carriage house where my children and I lived. I opened the first floor door and water poured out, and with it most of the saved past. This was after Ned and I had separated. I did not paint again for decades unless it was with the children. Finally, as I entered middle age I made a few private, terribly small attempts. Each year passes; the barest of strokes crisscross sketchbooks along with various writings and collages, much like the ratty scrapbooks I kept as a kid. I keep thinking I am ready to work at it harder or, rather, enjoy it more.

It may also have been a recent solitary walk in the woods. There was something about that August breeze, how it carried the scent of warmed pine needles and ruffled my hair. I gathered the tranquility. When I opened my eyes there came to me in intense fullness the soughing wind and whispering trees, the greens of leafiness, the blues of sky between branches: I ached so for the beauty. I recalled my first times living deep in countryside. Walks along the marsh marigold-framed creek, twilit deer snorting softly and eating our corn, two tow headed children we adored running about as their father split a cord of wood and I made batches of fresh-herbed tomato sauce for winter pasta meals.

I felt Ned’s presence; I felt what had begun earlier on in my life, it’s long ranging impact.

Yes. It was a brisk, golden autumn, 1971. The apartment pulsed in streaming light that slipped though tall, narrow windows. The rich fragrance of oil paints prickled my nose as I uncapped small tubes, smeared a few hues on a palette, readied the turpentine, linseed oil. I stood before a stretched, primed white canvas and began. He called my name then came to survey the first strokes, kissed the top of my head. I answered with a laugh. Happy. Welcoming of life, ready for everything, grateful for what I had. This was so despite rough times already lived and a vague sense of those to come. It was a brief sheltering time that made me stronger, broadened my capacity of love, filled me to overflowing. We made art.We acted foolish. We were brave, brash and tender, wise enough to know we knew little though we pretended to know more. And maybe we did know a few, after all.

Ned, father of my first two children, is no longer in this gravity-dominated world. But many moments shared live on for those who knew him.

So, I ask you as well as myself: is nostalgia to be sought out or avoided? I think we cannot avoid it. Nor should we. Sometimes it may be what saves us from a difficult present. Or inspires us to retrieve what mattered most but what was lost or to rediscover the common threads that make us lively and ready to move forward. It is true I used to think it a waste of time and effort to revisit what was done and gone, much mine the richness amid rubble. I strove to keep hidden the past within a more successful and contented present. But it was only when I gave myself free reign to explore all scenarios that I salvaged the beauty attached to the wreckage. Rebirth begins in the midst of endings and failures. From a rotting log arises abundance. Not everything is light and loveliness but we might welcome it, anyway, then appreciate the entirety. And in memory preserve it for further viewing.

As a writer of fiction, poetry and memoir, I find myself going internal (and external) places I’d not intended to go. But I follow that tug more often than not and hope it is not a superficial reflection but one that reveals finer things. It is a human thing, this nostalgia for the linking moments that best uphold our continuity. And from time to time we long for whatever the heart taught us well.

Remember with good regard, then have at those fine moments. It turns out it’s even healthy for you. May nostalgia not obscure your view but broaden it. And bless you and those with whom you share those times.

Ned Falk standing with one of his award winning sculptures, 1973. (Be at peace. See you later.)

Life is One Long Storytime

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Scenario 1: A parent settles against a pillow propped on a bedroom wall next to his young son, now curved about the warm bulk of his father. Readied for a visit to a marvelous world, then sleep, dreamtime. A worn book is drawn from a jumbled pile on the nightstand and opened. The first well-thumbed page is gazed upon, soon given life as the father reads beginning paragraphs of a familiar, always  beloved tales of the Berenstain Bears. They’re family tales of daily living. They include a small adventure with a moral that teaches three cubs a lesson or two about ordinary but challenging scenarios: a visit to the dreaded dentist, a not-so-predictable fishing trip, going to school even when you feel unpopular, or how to manage when mother or dad is sick and how to weather death of a pet or friend. It satisfies every time, these stories, and the boy drifts off after the very last lines which are recited by heart.

Scenario 2: The children lean into the firelight, shoulder-to-shoulder with adult family members. One with a deeply lined face and hardened hands and feet sits tall within the circle. She intones a saga of fears and hardships, of courage and perseverance, survival and joyful victory. It is one that has been handed down for generations, and encompasses spiritual beliefs of the tribe. The ways of community are also inscribed in that tale, the prohibitions, rituals, customs. There arrives humor along with pathos and emotions fill the room as each listens and gains something anew. And takes comfort in the gathering of so much love and learning.

Scenario 3: On a falling down stoop an older boy sits above younger children. He half-playacts a story of the mad one who once lived in the neighborhood. He crept through shadows by day and later roamed the blind darkness, stealing food and even garbage, stealing day and night dreams, stealing light from the moon and streetlamps, leaving a mess of bad energy. There was a gang of kids who found then lost and found again the shadow man. But they got together and took turns keeping food safe and at least one street light on. The dreams, they had to be made up, shared with each other but kept safe from the shadow man, kept for the future.

The story is for children who must trust and depend on each other. Adults are chancy. Kids, it is clear, can adapt, are strong, are fleet of foot and mind, gather hope. They laugh and shiver and huddle together.

 

Stories: we enter the world as a collaboration of new and old story, a fresh new suit to live in, then at long last leave it, letting go of its billowing hem and frayed seams. In between birth and death flesh and soul are torn and banged up, repaired and made anew with stories. Ours and others’. Why are stories so vital in our lives, both youthful and grown up?

They can make or break us with reassurances or new ideas or warnings of worse to come. They can change our individual courses, reinforce what we know, challenge a community’s accepted ways. And they inform us of where we come from and who we are expected to be–or how to be someone unlike the usual, acceptable child, woman or man. We absorb these things before we can read, take a lead in the storytelling. We may even learn it from birth, when we are named for someone the parents value or given creative names unlike any other. They have meaning, our origins, our names, the textured stories woven with others we are told. There are legends with which we are gifted by a country’s long history, by cultures, by family, by friends and lovers.

Do you recall the first stories you were given as a small child? Was it a prayer you memorized alongside a small poem? Perhaps a family tale whether inspiring or unnerving to carry forward. Or a tattered book handed down from siblings. Later there is ongoing table talk, random neighborhood chatter about this person or that, our own individual moments–they all comprise a framework within which to grow, struggle. Every day, circuits of shared language operate within larger story talk. Language provides form and function to feelings, defines hopes and beliefs, strengthens attitudes, disavows what is not acceptable, tallies the truth.

Whatever truth is. Isn’t truth what we are told and at some point what we learn to tell ourselves? Even that blur between truth and lie becomes part of being informed about life’s puzzles and signals as we accessed that lie somehow. It impacts how well we may or may not operate with the personhood developed.

It can be argued that storytelling creates one’s real life viewpoint, values, expectations. It may determine the trajectory of our lives, our personas as well as our authentic, at times guarded selves. We are shaped from an early age by what we hear and see, by what we gather into us. Our families teach us first, those who cared for us or did not.

I grew up with a mother who was, by any standard, moderately verbose. She said it was because she was Irish, was strongly pulled into life with its characters and events. I hung on every word. I just thought she was born a natural storyteller, but perhaps that was one and the same. Animated, emotionally reflective, expressive with her hands as well as language, she could make a walk to the grocery and back an anecdote that entertained.

She tucked me into bed with amazing (to me, a little girl in the city) stories about growing up on a farm, playing tough games of basketball in school, being best friends and then falling in love with my father as a teenager, making her way to college despite stiff odds because she was not going to be a farmer’s wife. She loved talking about her large extended family. It was as if they walked in and out, sharing their own entertaining monologues.

What I learned was that her family was resilient, affectionate, stubborn and a bit rough around the edges at times and could create something from nothing. And that pigs were smart but could be mean. That cleaning a barn was a thankless job and that fresh eggs were the tastiest despite hands being pecked often. That strangers might come to the back door looking for a handout of food if times were hard and be given what could be spared. That Gypsy infants had pierced ears but other children did not get to have them. That losing his good farm in the Depression did my Grandfather Kelly, whom I never met, right in.

I also heard that persistence and belief in one’s self could change a life. Being a strong and athletic girl was a good and fun thing to be. And that curiosity was a near-sacred thing, imagination a great tool but I must leaven both with common sense. Her words reflected a basic bedrock of hope even amid despair. Her life was a vivid series of stories within stories and it seemed bigger than regular life to me–but she said all lives were like that, astonishing.

My father was quiet, some might say so introspective that he was silent much of the time. But his eyes spoke to me: thrilled, sad, angry, bemused, proud, amused, worried. A look from those large light blue eyes took the place of fifty fancy words. His fine grasp of language at home was used when he felt the words would add interest to a topic but felt my mother was better at elucidating matters. Yet I had heard him speak to large audiences when he conducted musical groups, for church affairs, in classrooms, at conferences, for public occasions–and his way with words was succinct while humorous and also wise. He was a born public speaker. He loved a good joke. He taught me pacing, ways to capture attention with that smooth delivery. People listened deeply to what he said, yet he spoke with a humble elegance that struck me each time.

But he also taught me about praying and faith. That riding a good bike well taught me balance and gave me strength, joy and a practical means to various ends. He taught me that learning world history provided a structure for the present and future, even mine. And any sort of travel meant opening a door to surprises that illuminated life in big or small ways. His many actions and fewer words instilled in me the idea that anything can be fixed as solutions abound; that civility is a valuable thing; and I am responsible for my actions. That music was God’s mouth. He told most of his stories, though, by conducting, teaching and arranging music, and by playing musical instruments. Best of all for me, he would play piano for fun, the notes nuanced and light and I would sing jazz standards beside him, his voice chiming in here and there.

Storytelling was a given in my life. It is for most people, no matter time or place. But sometimes one’s story seems not so easy a thing to tell, much less embrace.

When starting out as a mental health and addictions clinician I was given an opportunity to teach–more guidance with teaching tossed in–addicted, high risk, gang-affiliated or -affected youth. One of my duties was to help the actual teacher at the alternative school classroom in the residential treatment center. I tutored and engaged them in various activities as well as planned and facilitated field trips (including ballet and opera, which most even enjoyed). But what I longed to do was enable creative writing experiences. So I did.

Each day young men and women took their places at tables, bored and slouchy, irritated with one more class– writing, at that. My only objective two times a week was to encourage them to put a few words down on paper, then a few more until it might grow to a page full of phrases. Daydreams and feelings welcomed. I wasn’t correcting grammar, spelling, syntax–this was not my interest. The kids were asked to reach in and seize their complicated or simple stories and put them into a form that clarified things for them.

When traditional prompts of opening sentences or magazine photos provoked less than I had hoped, I sought aid beyond the usual box. I couldn’t fill up a whole 45 minutes with my own voice; they wouldn’t put up with that, either. One day I decided to bring in the facility’s “boom box”. I asked them to choose music to play as long as it didn’t center on drug use or violence–a hard thing for them. Then they were to write whatever came into their heads. What they wrote was still bombastic and violent, a loose stream of consciousness. Still, anything was a good start. It was the early nineties so I suggested they put those fragments into a rap of their own. It was poetry class that day in my mind, and in theirs it was a chance to voice their mind’s contents in ways the felt more comfortable.

After they were done–they all seemed to scribble down something–most were hesitant, masking it as usual as toughness and boredom. I picked a guy who had musical talent and he stood up and gave a short intense performance. The group hooted and tried to hurl insults but they responded rather than show their stoniest faces. They relaxed then better participated. Their offerings were vividly descriptive, at times bloody and bitter but each piece was a true creation of what they felt, saw, heard in their lives. Some may have exaggerated–they had to be as “bad” as the others– but the context was honest, feelings raw.

I had to be careful to not start a firestorm of emotion, to be calm and firm. Unafraid of what they wrote. “Just tell it like it is, tell your own story,” I encouraged each time, “no one is getting judged or graded.” As they worked away I stood nearby, answered a few questions, then sat at back of the room as they spoke aloud their words. Haltingly at first, then more expressively as time wore on. And if someone skipped saying parts aloud, that was alright for the moment. It was for their benefit, not mine, I assured them. They were at last engaging in story making and telling.

I tried other routes. I might choose a word or a pair that seemed opposites then put them on the chalkboard. Ask them what song they’d choose to sum up their day and then write additional verses. Or suggest they share what their mothers were like or what their fathers advised them. Or what it was to live on the street, need the next heroin fix, steal for alcohol and drugs or food–but all on their terms. Incomplete sentences was okay. Single words listed one after the other was fine. A rap song of their wars or their loves, the bullets dodged, a knife fight they survived. I asked them to put an object they cared about on the table, write about why they kept it close. A picture of family could free more words than anything despite their running away or being sent away.

It wasn’t fast or easy. But they knew I wouldn’t back down, either. They resisted, they argued, they refused to do much some days. I read them prose and poetry they occasionally liked, sometimes dismissed, also found stupid. I brought in books they might read. I played recordings of poetry slam poets that they enjoyed. And I told a few stories of my own life, not too much but just enough that they knew I wasn’t really Miss Junior League, after all. And I admitted I was a writer.

They didn’t give up on me and the class nor I, on them.

Sometimes a braver kid would lead the way and other times a quieter one would show boldness. But soon I was being regaled with portraits of these youth. Fragmented, harsh, filled with hurt that gnawed at them and too often a lack of hope for better days. They were stories of daily adaptability, of survival, of some good intentions if even they may have failed. One of the most important subjects they wrote of was their mothers. And younger siblings. They said they would die for them, period; death was not the worst they could imagine. But they tried to stay alive for them, anyway, despite a precarious existence.

Some were good writers, a few talented. But they all offered stories that moved me. Helped me think more deeply about who they were. Made me better understand various culture clashes. There were rival gang members sitting near one another, writing poetry or memoir. Most of them began to channel aggressions and pain more effectively–not as often shouting abuse or talking over everyone else or starting a senseless, black-out fight during which police would be called.

Their stories were imbued with greatness: their intimate voices, given some power and heard a better. They began to see writing as a tool to map the landscape of their lives and sussed out some of the whys of what they felt and thought, a dawning of insight and accomplishment. Over time, youths slid up to me after class and said, “I get it now (a feeling, problem, desire, loss) a lot better. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Or I was too freaked out to say it out loud.” In that way, aspects of who they were became parts they could examine and feel, then piece together. This was no small feat for kids whose operative mode was a rage brewed from self-hate. Some decided to keep writing after classes. They had found an outlet, a way to frame their past and present with words. Ideas and possibilities. No one told me the class was worthless. And later in their rooms or in the hallways when some of the kids got obstreperous or combative, I would tell them: “Go write it down.” And more and more often, they chose to do that.

What did they learn about themselves by writing and telling their own stories? If nothing else, they more clearly identified from whom and where they had come and who they might be if not in gangs, on the street, in the drug house, in juvenile detention. There were moments of hope pushing between those fervid lines. They could say things that mattered. Their words were worth being heard. What I gained was deeper compassion. Patience. Greater faith in the creative process. Gratitude to be able to work with them for nearly five years.

I also worked with Native American women in another residential setting. The results were  strikingly similar but powerful in different ways. Many of those women were also wives, mothers and grandmothers; their burdens were heavy with years of experiences. The prohibition against speaking the truth of their private lives was intense. To speak of traumatic things that had happened was physically taxing. Writing was hard, too. But when encouraged to share histories and dreams and fears orally in their own tongue first, sing their songs, dance, they began to speak. And weep. We always stretched and breathed deeply first to loosen the bones, to open the heart. We even danced our own simple line dances, snaking down hallways of the institution. And they began to smile, to even laugh, and to not often cry as if they could not stop. They embraced each other despite having held enmity toward one another due to multi-generational grudges between tribes, or certain members, even relatives. By speaking their truth, they came nearer the next steps needed to rebuild and share their lives. When they went from whispering with eyes downcast to raising arms, stamping feet and shouting out joy, I knew they’d begun to help save themselves with more transformative stories. It was the good racket resultant of thawing out many “frozen” stories. They were reclaiming more of their lives from addictions.

The body holds its stories inside the skin, in heart and mind. Sometimes excavating them is hard; sometimes they come as riding a river to freedom. Other times, in bits and spurts. But they’re waiting to come to light.

What stories do you tell your children, your friends, yourself? Are they true? That is, are they what you really mean? Do they offer something that is valued, that can mark you as who you are or want to become? Is your life story more submerged, floating along or making waves? You can help it speak richly and freely. Sharing your unique and so human story helps you and others live better. It connects one to the other.

My son and I were talking the other day about my lifelong urgent desire to know things, to root out and hold close authenticity in this life. That this is the writer’s way. He immediately understood what I meant. Since he writes songs and loves to orally share stories, I suggested he write them down more often.

“Mom, that’s for you to do and that’s good. I am the story–I’m right here living mine,” he said, then put an arm about my shoulders as he barbecued under tall evergreens in his yard.

That’s what we all do, every day: inhabiting the story we make anew each day. Share yours, won’t you? See what happens.

 

An Accidental Life

It was morning, end of August and blazing hot but humid. Now and then a lesser flame of wind swept in to further melt me. Perspiration evaporated then returned to linger on my pinkening skin. I drove along the familiar country road, elbow hanging out the window, thrilled with our new powder blue Opel Kadett. Heat waves shimmered off the pavement. On the radio Pat Metheny’s guitar was soaring, whining, reaching out to whomever had ears to hear. I was tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, singing with Pat and his band. It was a so-yellow-blue-it-could-blind-you kind of day, the road mostly mine.

I was on my way to an art history college class, my first time back since the precarious birth of my first child in February at age 23. Jubilance filled me, I felt light as a balloon. First of all, tiny Naomi had fought a few battles but thrived despite coming to us two and a half months early. And I was going to be one step closer to my degree. I glanced at a blur of endless fields of corn, dense, tall and begging to be harvested. I missed Naomi even as I enjoyed a small rush of freedom. A perfect day all around.

But then: scramble of noises, painful jolts, car pushed and spinning, crashing forward fast and I was fading even faster. Aching head, breath heavy, pain shooting through every nerve. Car smashed into what, how, where?

“Miss, miss, oh dear God, can you hear me? I hit you, I am so sorry, didn’t see you just the corn! Stay awake now, stay awake!”

All vanished from presence of mind and body, all fell dark. Even the new silence ended as time recoiled, vanished.

Inside a small space I looked down, down, down from its ceiling at two people busy with another, a body that was mine. Wailing sirens, vehicle swaying.

“She’s in shock–lost consciousness again! Check vitals!” The man slapped the wall hard between cab and work space.

I hovered, amorphous, invisible, curious to see such a small creature, limbs flaccid, clothing askew, head and knee bleeding, body so frail. Cared for but emptied. The animal I knew well lay physically below and suffered, nothing I could do, only wait to return or leave. I felt sorry but detached and so very calm as the EMTs got busier. Flesh of me must have been charged with pain, but then more deeply stilled. What was to come of me? I desired to stay alive in that world. The men worked, I watched, waited. A breath and heartbeat called. Movement downward toward my body and slipping into that hardscrabble place of a perishable body. Then nothing at all for a very long while.

I came to amid brutal lights in the emergency room of a trauma center of inner city Saginaw, Michigan. Ned, my husband, and his mother stared down at me, relieved and talking to me, trying to explain things. I could hear so little. Feel surprisingly little; pain medicine coursed through my veins.

“Cynthia,” my husband said. His rough hand went to mine.

“I was watching a movie of me…from above,” I mumbled.

“What?”  My mother-in-law asked, startled. “What  does that mean?”

“You were? Oh…” Ned said. “Not good, but it could be worse. You had a concussion, banged and slashed your knee and forehead. They sewed you up. You’ve been out for hours, between medicine and slipping back and forth…somewhere.”

I squinted up at worried faces, closed my eyes again. I wanted more than anything to sleep a long while more. My whole being and body ached despite pain medicine, as if it had been shoved side to side and I hadn’t caught back up with it yet.

“Good to see you’ve awakened. You’re extremely fortunate, young lady, no internal damage. The nurse will keep monitoring you. I’ll be back in a bit.” A white coated doctor had stuck his head in; out it went again.

“We have to keep you more awake for the next 24 hours or more. I’ll keep waking you every hour to make sure you’re going to be alright–the concussion,” he explained.

I moaned. “Naomi! Where’s Naomi?”

“With Grandpa, of course.” My mother-in-law looked at me oddly, not the first time.

“For a minute, I thought… so glad she wasn’t with me.”

“You were going to class, remember?” Ned responded, worried I had lost track of all.

“Yeah,” I replied, a sweep of relief flooding me. As if I had lucked out to be in the car all alone, that she had been home and safe as needed. “What happened?”

“A man was driving along, about 50 mph at a perpendicular angle to your road and didn’t see his stop sign as he neared the crossroads. He said all there was, was cornfields. He assumed the intersecting road had the stop sign but wasn’t concerned and there you were. He kept talking about there being all that high corn.”

I shuddered: the shocking impact, that barest moment before I blacked out, then awakened then lost consciousness again. And the ambulance ride when I was on the top of the ceiling. But all else before and after those few moments was gone.

“He’s a minister,” Ned went on, “and he stayed for hours after he was looked over, worrying about you. He gave me his card; I said I’d let him know. He’s got a few bruises and small cuts but he had a much heavier car. He’s very sorry and of course it’s his fault. His car T-boned your side of the Opel and it spun around then finally crashed into a stop sign post opposite the one he should have seen. Our new car was totaled. They used the ‘jaws of life’ to get you out… you lost consciousness quite awhile. A pretty bad accident, Cynthia…”

His square, warm hand was one mine as I drifted on the edge of a netherworld, in and out. Our pretty new car, gone. I was alive, no internal injuries or broken bones! But my head and knee were starting to hurt like hell…my neck felt seared by awakening pain and I had on a stiff neck collar. Major whiplash, I guessed.

Did Ned say the man was a minster? I wondered who he was, where he had been going, and then recalled how distressed he was before I passed out.

******

After more hours I was deemed fit enough to go home since I seemed lucid and cognizant of all. I was given crutches. It would be over a month before I could walk unaided on the bashed kneecap–not broken, miraculously, but tissues deeply bruised and a wound across it about two inches now stitched up. On the way home we got stuck in evening traffic in city center. My body was returning to itself more fully; it was so hard to sit, and to bear the roaring of engines, honking and grinding of gears, the passersby staring at my bandaged head or so I thought. I worked at keeping at bay the fear that another car might zoom into us.

And then the full bladder suddenly awakened, too, and demanded attention.

“Oh my gosh, I can’t wait until we get home!”

“There aren’t restrooms nearby and we’re stuck. Everything must have slowed way down when you lost consciousness… If you can’t wait, you just can’t. Let her rip. It’s a truck seat, it can be cleaned.”

“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry!”

“It’s okay!”

I felt betrayed then by that simple physiological function, the body a bit battered yes and then it had to test me further. Embarrassed, even ashamed, I obeyed his suggestion as there as no other choice. He looked away. I began to cry as the seat got wetter and covered my face. Marriage brought many things unexpected and hard.

After that I examined my forehead in the visor mirror. A huge bandage covered the space above my left eye. Ned glanced at me from the corner of his eye, saying nothing, driving the rattling truck on home. Home to our daughter. Home where the back yard spread out like an open field, and wild grasses swayed in sweetest summer breezes, stars glittered and winked, and the moon glowed benignly upon us. We laughed a little as we rolled windows all the way down, tension easing as we moved through city congestion toward the outskirts where we made a life. Back to our miracle baby.

I was awakened every hour. I lay on my  back, Naomi close on my chest, and listened to her light breath, felt Ned’s quiet body gravitating to mine, his words few. The cooling breeze flew into the window, a summer night’s healing. I thanked God for being with us once again.

******

A couple of weeks later the gravel driveway announced the arrival of a car. Ned was home from work; I was tending to Naomi. It was a man’s voice and it sounded Southern. In a moment, Ned ushered him in. He wore a brown, fedora-style hat that he took off as he nodded at me.

I don’t even recall if his name was given though surely it was, preceded by “Pastor.” The name was not the important part to me. His presence was.

Ned looked skeptical but was polite enough. “This is the man from the accident…he wants to meet you.”

He was tall and bony so that his modest shiny suit hung loosely from his frame, a shock of pale hair was receding, and his light blue eyes were full of emotion. He clutched his hat in fidgety hands. He began to speak in earnest, voice soft and lilting.

“I just had to find you, Miss Cynthia, had to know what had happened to you and how you are doing. Your husband told me your names and I found you in the phone book…and here I am. I still feel terrible, toss and turn at night wondering how it could have been avoided. I should have known better; I’ve gone over and over it. The corn was so high everywhere I looked–the country roads…But that’s no excuse. I failed to stop. I hit your car and caused you grievous injury. I’m a Baptist minister. I have prayed every day and night for your good recovery. I hope you can forgive me.” His eyes welled up. “You hurt your head badly–and your knee! Will you be alright? What about the scarring? You’re so young. And you have a little baby!”

“There is really no forgiveness needed, it was a true accident,” I reassured him.  “All will be alright.”

We told him what the doctor had said, what we expected, which was that all would heal up and all should be well. I had barely thought about the scar with its twelve long stitches; it curved in an “S” shape, a deep red tiny snake a bit above my left eye and all the way to my hairline; it was true the doctor had not made an art of his stitchery. My kneecap skin was the same, less stitches but not pleasant.

We talked a little about the crash, but I spared him my details. I didn’t want to cause him more distress. Like being on that ambulance ceiling staring down at my body and feeling there was a choice to stay or go. And the pain and losing control of my bladder.

“I suspect the scars will fade in time. My hair naturally falls over my forehead, anyway!”

“I would pay for plastic surgery, if that would help–you are too young and lovely to have that all your life. And it’s a reminder.”

The very idea stunned me. Plastic surgery never entered my mind. It was simply unneeded. I was far more concerned about my knee so I’d soon have less hobbling about, return to more vigorous activity. There was physical therapy to help out.

“No, not necessary, really. Your insurance has covered everything else. That’s wonderful. And I’m going to be fine, healing up more by the hour. But it was very kind of you to come by and check on me. To offer more.”

He stood there with that sad hat in hand and I offered my hand to him. Then I felt a need to hug him; he hugged me back. We walked him outdoors.

He turned at his car door.”I’ll pray for more good healing. God be with you all. Thank you for seeing me.”

“God was with us both… I made it out alright and you did, too.”

We waved goodbye.

I got better fast. The accident seemed long past as autumn arrived. I never heard from him again. I thought about his compassion, his prayers, at the crash scene and their continuance. His accountability. Good will.

His genuine caring presence has stayed with me all these years.

******

I have written of that good man because I have had cause to remember him vividly again. The old neck injury flared in my early forties in the form of early onset arthritis of the upper spine. There had been a second injury from an assault to compound the matter. By the time I was in my late forties, there were increasingly difficult headaches caused by neck/shoulder muscle spasms and increased stiffness. I kept active and tried to stay limber and continued on. But into my fifties, that burning pain and headache could morph into a ceaseless state, a nightmare, lasting all day and into the next. I refused opiate pain medications and took acetaminophen and ibuprofen despite the latter causing stomach problems. After my heart disease diagnosis and new medications, my cardiologist said ibuprofen was out. I have had a great many physical therapy sessions over the years, chiropractor treatments, acupuncture, massage, have used heat and cold, frequent daily stretches. I love being active and so have done the things I always have loved, as much as possible.

One can certainly learn to live with and beyond even hounding pain without narcotics. I don’t want to use medication I don’t absolutely need to take. But now, occasionally, I do. To just rest, to keep blood pressure down and my heart rhythms happy when it is at that point where it has dug in too deep. It runs right up my neck to my skull, into my brain or so it seems. I cannot think of anything else when it will not let go.

There are far reaching effects of old injuries and damage done. I have been laid flat for parts of days at a time. I have had daily routines impaired, as certain head and arm movements aggravate bone-on-bone friction, those nerves a conduit of sensations not desired. Writing and sitting for long hours can agitate the inflammation and muscle spasms. I can’t turn my head fully from side to side and spinal stenosis is creating other problems. So something needs to be done before greater degeneration of the spine facets occurs. There will be a consult soon with a neurosurgeon to learn of the options.

But this week I think of that gentleman with hat in hand, recall his consideration. Empathy. Despite being a stranger he wanted what was good and helpful for me. Enough to find and see me face to face and offer regret for something that was not truly his fault. It was a freak accident, as accidents often are. My two long scars have remained, paler and softer yet I still do believe God was with us. And his prayers may well have held back the specter of death as I lay in that ambulance looking down at my damaged body, wondering: is it time?

How can this not be possible? Faith and prayer are potent in a world of disbelief, ironic disputes of spiritual matters. But I can tell you that anything is possible.

No, it was not the right time to go. A whole lifetime was yet given to me. I have come close more than once to leaving this world; it was not the first or last occasion to be jolted from my body, watching drama unfold below, wondering many things upon return to flesh, blood, bones–this temporary home we move within. But one does simply hold on if possible though I find it is little more loosely. Life can’t be clutched to love it well or for it to embrace us back. I am planning decades more to explore the gifts of this tilting planet. And to plow through rough spots. Something can be learned, no matter what. And I remain thankful for all chances to live life in its entirety, whatever comes.

I hope that good man has been happy with his chances, too.

Roses and Gunshots: A Tale of My City

The move to the Pacific Northwest from the Detroit metropolitan area was one I had put off for a good twenty years. Now we were headed to the piney-aired, sweeping embrace of the City of Roses. I felt ready for such a momentous alteration of my life, even days negotiating variable weather and terrain, pulling a cumbersome U-Haul. Give me mountains, give me wilderness, give me the wherewithal to welcome the unknowns ahead!

I wasn’t a complete newbie to the area. I had visited Oregon. I had also lived in a town outside of Seattle, Washington when I was eighteen for a year or so with an older sister. In a log cabin on a beautiful lake. It was paradise to me, but a paradise charged with and marred by an excess of youthful adventures and mishaps. It was then back to Michigan. But the mountain peaks, rain forest all about us, that vibrant pioneering city, the hearty, open-minded people stayed with me. A creeping homesickness for that geography and way of life distracted, even haunted me over the following years. It was a part of the country I had to be again, my Shangri-La. If it wasn’t to be Washington, then neighboring Oregon would do just fine.

Every time I drove anywhere down the flat roads of mid-Michigan, I would look at the clouds on the horizon and imagine they were mountains rising up. When I visited northern Michigan along the vast Great Lakes–the best place in the state–I was taken back to evergreen forests of the Northwest, the lake I knew and the wild Pacific Ocean beyond.

When I was 42, I had a chance at last to leave behind a Midwestern landscape and suburban lifestyle of seven years that had left their marks on me. It was a time of transition for me and two of my children, the other three having left home already. I had undergone a divorce and an impulsive remarriage. The new marriage did not last long after the move. But the relocation to Portland, Oregon was to become the joy I had hoped it would be. “Become” is the operative word. The change was not without several other glitches, lean times and homesickness despite my best hopes and efforts. There were moments I believed I had also fallen for an elusive romantic dream of “place”, but made another poor decision. Was it too late to hope for much better, to redirect my derailed life?

It was not nearly too late. And if it was the wrong choice of a mate–charismatic and capable but devious, controlling–it was the right place to flourish. I kept telling my children that as well as myself as I sought better jobs, attended college again off and on. My eighteen year old son took to Portland as if he’d been born to the Northwest but my twelve year old daughter took time sizing things up. She did love the street fashion and creative mix of people, the energetic urban atmosphere. I liked having two siblings here. Countryside that soothed and inspired me, weather I loved. I felt, too, that houses and buildings reached farther in design, painted brighter colors, and people dressed more casually as well as uniquely. What a far cry from fast paced, homogeneous suburbia, from a culture where people were pressured to conform and not question, not color outside the lines. It was wonderful yet jarring to finally take up a spot in this freer environment amid majestic natural habitats.

We initially lived in a roomy, two-story house that was one of a few belonging to my sister. It was a gift to move from a house to a house, since I had no job awaiting. But the first day I saw it I wondered if she’d lost her mind. Wasn’t it supposed to be in a more orderly, a trimmed-lawn-and-hedges sort of area similar to one we’d left? Wasn’t it a bit…well, bland, a bit ramshackle?

“You’re living in the real city now,” sister Allanya informed me.

“What do you mean, the real city?” I asked. “We just moved from Detroit, Michigan!” Meaning: that madly aggressive and industrious and rather dirty, spread out city of millions; the automotive capitol of the world (still, in 1992)!

“You’ve lived in a fairly tony suburb,” she reminded me, “not inner city Detroit.”

“Well, we lived on a more modest street in a one square mile village. I guess it considered a good suburb–it was certainly picturesque,” I agreed.

Now you live in the city with diversity of many sorts. This is close-in NE, meaning close to city center. Our downtown area is not like Detroit’s, if you recall; it’s generally safe. This neighborhood is variable block by block, perhaps, but this block is great. The area is improving a lot; it’s a great investment. I hope you’ll love it inside.”

Allanya bought houses and often renovated them; they were kept a few short years as rentals, then sold. I was getting a discount on rent and was deeply grateful for a readied house. I was only feeling the newcomer, unaccustomed to the ways and means of our new hometown.

The house itself was nondescript outside but, as promised, indoors it was spacious, light-flooded, attractive. It had a living room fireplace, a feature not in our last home. It had an enclosed porch/ sunroom I could use to write. Also a partially-finished basement with one bedroom and bathroom; huge kitchen with french doors and three bedrooms upstairs with bathroom. There was a vase full of cheery, fresh cut flowers on the table. We felt so welcomed. What more could we possibly want? So we lugged our suitcases up the stairs and unloaded the U Haul.

The back yard was good-sized with a garage. It had a weathered picnic table. Was that an alley back there? I peered over a fence, wondering how busy that got. My daughter and I took a walk the next day, down the block and to a busy intersection. We located the stop where she’d get the bus to school if she couldn’t be driven (she’d always been driven to school by me). Not a school bus. A regular city bus, unheard of in MI. as school transport and thus strange to us. I had been told by my sister that most kids took city buses by middle school; public transportation was so ubiquitous that youth and a great many adults went everywhere via bus system. I vowed to get a job that allowed me to drive her. I half promised to learn the bus system.

On the way back we noticed a small box of a nondescript store simply named “J’s Market.” It was a quick-stop sort of place; we were thirsty so went in search of sodas. It seemed a good sign that there was a place so close in case we needed a can of soup or a gallon of milk. We entered  and found the usual fare though it seemed dingier than expected. We browsed and were immediately watched by a hawkeyed older Asian store clerk, who simply nodded at me when I smiled and greeted him. As we checked out, I tried to be friendly.

“We’re new in the neighborhood. Nice to find a store so close.”

“Okay, good,” he said, taking my money.

“We’re from Michigan.”

“People coming all over.” He hadn’t looked up yet.

“I imagine so, it is a beautiful city.”

“Okay, have good day, thank you.”

We gave a little wave as we exited and he finally smiled ever so slightly, nodded again.

“What do you think so far?” I asked Alexandra.

That felt sort of weird. It sure is different here. But I think I like it.”

“Well, new places and people are good. We’re not in the ‘burbs, anymore.”

“That’s for sure!”

“You have a great view from your room onto the front yard. Big trees, too, like home.”

“Yeah,” she said and looked around at the street, stores, other houses, as if looking for something that could become her new inner magnetic North.

The truth was, it felt far more like a city than our sheltered suburb despite living within reach of a major megapolis for years. But day by day we began to adapt. Alexandra felt alright taking the bus soon and met a couple of nice girls. Josh made instant friends within the skateboarding world and got work right away as a commercial painter. I found a first job, then a better job, then was laid off, then found a position at a youth residential alcohol and drug treatment center that would be a springboard for a whole new career as a counselor. But there were things that worried me, too. It wasn’t the alienated, wounded, angry kids with whom I intensely interacted during long hours at work. It wasn’t the brief marriage ending. It was what happened on the streets about us.

We had made our lives comfortable after about a year. Everyone had their routine;  life was navigable again. We were decidedly happy with Portland’s variety of offerings and each of us made some connection to the community and developed promising friendships.

One early morning I was awakened by loud noises, one and then two sudden bangs close together that sliced through the silence. Maybe fireworks? I lifted my head from bed, heard nothing more, got up and ready for work. Odd that someone would be setting those off then. I forgot about it for an hour.

Josh came into the kitchen. “You hear those, Mom?”

“Yes, why?”

“I think they were gunshots.”

Alexandra looked up, eyes wide, then resumed eating.

“I seriously doubt it, we’ve felt safe enough here, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, but keep an eye out. Things can be sketchy at times, that’s what I’ve noticed.”

“Sure, I will.”

“I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful out there.”

I called in late to work and took her to school that day and a few after, eyeing houses and streets, driving with hands clutching the wheel. It wasn’t quite the first time I had heard alarming shots in my life, but it was so incongruous to hear in the morning that it hadn’t occurred to me it was a gun. Where were we, back in Detroit where you couldn’t venture safely past Eight Mile even in your car because scary things can happen in just a split second? I refused to believe it. We loved the house. My daughter’s school was very good, my son had good work and I was back on my feet.

Josh and I talked more than night.

“There’s lately been more gang activity around here, ” he said. “Better stay alert.”

“What? More activity lately? I haven’t seen anything, not really.”

“Maybe because we don’t know what to look for. Someone said there’s a house down at the next corner…” He pointed north. “Stay on our block or just south.”

I thought about it overnight and decided to take a casual drive around the area. I was not going to live on high alert all the time or be scared or teach my daughter to live afraid. But I wanted to know what was going on. The house my son had mentioned could pass as any house yet all  windows were curtained. On the porch were a couple of men with red bandanas around their heads, bare arms densely tattooed, with what I couldn’t make out in a fast glance. But since many youth I worked with were gang-members or peripherally associated, I knew what Crips and Bloods were; the lounging men were likely Bloods.

My heart rate rose. Sunglasses on, I kept my head forward and moved on. When I got a few houses down, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the men go inside. I turned the corner and went around another block and then back home. Sitting in the driveway, I wondered if the shots had come from there or if I was making something of what might be very little. I knew that it was not a good sign to see young men–and women–wearing bandanas of red or blue or yellow or a few other colors with other signifying clothing, depending on the part of the city you were in. Wearing of colors: a bold and direct statement, a warning, a clear sign of inclusion in a way of life, for life.

A neighbor lady with whom I’d  become friendly knew of it all already. “Ignore them or whatever goes on, that’s the best thing, just go about your business,” she advised–or cautioned.

Over the next few weeks there was no unusual activity, though occasionally a random gunshot might be heard ringing out in farther distance. Then one evening on a week-end when I was alone: the unmatchable roar of a muscle car was heard as it streaked past the house and neared the next corner. Shots punctuated the air multiple times; return fire occurred. It was loud enough that my ears recoiled. I moved into the back of our home, adrenalin surging, disoriented. Wasn’t the gang house at the northern corner? What did they have to do with our quiet, family-friendly block? Would the police be called? Shortly I heard sirens and tires screeching and more shots and more sirens. And then that silence which falls all around when something bad has happened. No one came out, nothing was said loud enough for others to hear. I crept up to a living room window, saw the blue and white flashing lights of police vehicles.

It was a long night. I did not tell Alexandra the next day. I did tell Josh and we determined that we should start looking for another place to live even though it might be hard financially. I then found out day from neighbors that every single day my children and I–and so many more—had been walking right by another gang house on our own corner. A dispute had turned virulent. I scoured the rental ads and looked at places but had less luck that anticipated. I took more shifts at work to save more money.

A couple of weeks later my daughter and I were sleeping soundly after a game of Scrabble. Josh was gone as he more often was, nineteen and having fallen in love. It was the voices at first that I heard, muted shouts outside my bedroom window which faced the back yard and alley. Initially I thought little of it though annoyed, turned over and tried to sleep. But the voices got louder and then came thundering feet on the dirt and gravel alleyway, and then came gunshots, two, three four. Then from the front of the house, gunshots, poppoppoppop! Then another back and front.

“Alexandra!” I called out her name through thick, alive darkness.

“Mom!” she shouted back, so frightened I could even feel her heart beating a million beats a minute. Like mine.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Nothing. I lay paralyzed a second as I heard more scurrying and voices giving directions of some sort outside. I began to slip off the bed, inch my way toward her room  when suddenly I realized Alexandra was rapidly crawling along the hallway and then across my floor. Was reaching for me.

“Mom, the gunshots! They went by my window!” She was yelling in a hoarse whisper.”Are they out back now?”

I pulled her down. We lay on the floor, my arm clamping her to the rug.

“Shhh…be still,” I said, lying close.”Don’t talk now.”

I could hear her trying not to cry, trying to not hyperventilate. I felt my own throat constrict, my chest thud as we waited for a long while, what seemed like hours. There was a rumble of sounds and then silence and then more silence, and then babble of hushed voices but it was people out in the street talking, I imagined. I told her to lay still and I’d be right back. I crawled into her room. The front windows overlooked the street, so I peeked around the edge of a curtain. There was a handful of neighbors in a yard across from us and then sirens wailed and police cars. I was tempted to go into the street to find out more but my daughter was shivering on the floor in my room so back I went.

“It’s all over,” I said, praying it was true.

She slept restlessly in my bed that night, a first in many years. We talked about it, how one stray bullet could have hit her from the front street or me from the alley gunfire. We were horrified by the possibility. We remained shaken by our new reality for weeks: we now lived in a place where guns were readily used in the city’s warfare and criminal activity, where what was a beautiful place could be changed to one of fear and trembling. We had left Detroit but had come to this. I felt depressed that I had made this decision. I had brought my children there with promises of good things, happier times.

We moved her bed far away from the windows. But it hadn’t been gang-related. J’s Market had been robbed, and people in the store ran after the guys. It was not the first time and some said would likely not be the last. But the owner would not give up.

We loved that high-ceilinged, spacious house; it was close to my job and most neighbors were kindly. But I started seriously looking for an accommodating apartment in a safer part of the city still close to her school. Josh found his own way after I located a good place roughly twenty blocks away but a whole new world and before long, we were gone. My sister had decided to sell her house, anyway.

That was twenty-five years ago. The old neighborhood is so different from what we knew that as I drove past the old place it seemed I’d made a wrong turn. There are pricey big stores where small crusty shops stood. The streets look sharper, brighter, repaired in all the most right ways. Gentrification is happening all over the city as more people move here and greater services are in demand. I can’t say I like it much; somehow it seems unreal to me, almost like the suburban life seems to me now. I know it has pushed plenty of people far out of their comfort zones, and also their very homes.

But J’s Market is still there, a little freshened but still and worn, busy as ever. I’ve stopped there a couple times and recognize no one, of course.  The Asian owner had ended up being more chatty with us, as we stopped there frequently, and had wished us well when we moved. I wonder who owns it now. I wonder over the fortitude or stubbornness of business owners who have refused to let gang wars or robbers shut them down. Who now won’t be bought easily and thus lose their toehold I on their neighborhood. And it is not lost on me that many who might want to leave a certain place cannot and there are those who would not ever consider it if they could only find a way ro stay. This is only my story; I did what worked for me, and it was not easy financially those years.

I have to be honest, though. We yet do occasionally hear fainter and even closer gunshots from this vantage point, within boundaries of one of several gracious historical neighborhoods. It’s still a densely packed area, “close-in”, and there will always be sirens and lots of traffic nearby and random disputes on the streets even while one admires Portland’s quirky attractions, surprising wonders and the beauties of the Northwest. It’s the actual city, as my sister once emphasized, even if it is smaller than some others I’ve admired. Lots of entrepreneurial energy is apparent, a trademark of our town. The arts and sciences flourish in fascinating forms and nature goes wild even within city limits.

But then I am yanked from deep of night and dreamy slumber: there is a familiar bambambambam, the echoing retort of a gun or two and I wonder what’s happening, what’s next, what should I do. Slowly I release taut breath, wait for emptied silence, turn over. Go to sleep once more. I wouldn’t want to live any place else, at least for the time being. Which is what I say every year.