I get the itch to take off for other places by late February-early March. Despite my appreciation (on the good days) and acceptance (when the drear feels too murky and confining) of the insular winter months of Portland’s chilly rainfall, it gets a bit tiresome by then. And Marc is also ready to take a break from work once more (since his yearly one at Christmas). We make our first travel plans for April or May, as I have gotten in the habit of celebrating my birthday (and/or Mother’s Day) by travelling. We usually choose a place where 1) it will be, if not warm, at least brighter with cheerier, more interesting landscapes than drenched city blocks and muddied emerald lawns; and 2) we can travel via car and explore for 7-14 days out.
We are about to embark on another trip–this time flying to San Diego, California and surrounds, a first time for me if familiar territory for my businessman hubby. I started to get excited while checking photos of past trips. I was perusing those of a satisfying, gorgeous exploration of southern Oregon in 2006. It was pleasant to take a short virtual hop there so thought to share pictorial impressions.
We first headed down to Ashland, OR., located 16 miles from the northern CA. border. It is the home of Southern Oregon University and the well known Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We did see a play but I regret I can’t recall what it was though it was a fine performance, no doubt! I do oddly recall the OSF theaters and campus area were very attractive. The college town is a lustrous gem within rolling hills and a backdrop of the Siskiyou Mountains, a part of greater Klamath Mountains.
From there we drove to the border of OR./CA. and on toward Mt. Shasta and the redwoods. Mt. Shasta is within a southern part of the Cascade Range, which stretches across Oregon to British Columbia. This particular mountain is considered sacred by Native Americans and is one of the Pacific Basin’s “Ring of Fire” volcanoes. It is an awesome presence to behold at 14,179 ft. and covered with a brilliant crown of snow. At first its peak was obscured by a topknot of clouds but as we got closer, it appeared for a short time like magic. I felt humbled being as close as we were.
There are many other decent shots of this longer trip but these are some I like the most from the first leg. I may post other photos later. I was less engaged with digital photography then; almost all shots are landscapes. There are two of our charming accommodations and its back garden. I also included one of Marc and myself for the heck of it. How times flies–we both have changed (he got bigger… and works even harder while I got smaller as I began more creative endeavors once retired; we both got greyer over 12 years). But our love of experiencing interesting places and people has not altered–perhaps this has even grown.
In a couple weeks I will be posting pictures and musings gathered or formed while in beautiful, dry southern California!
I listened closely and yes, it was for certain her hands on those ivory and ebony keys. Then her speaking voice. I pushed “play” on my iPhone’s voice memo files again. And again. Marinell, my sister, was playing an old standards song, “Stairway to the Stars”, on her lustrous grand piano. It took up a living room corner in one house, then inhabited its own room in another–and was sold, to my private dismay, before she and her husband moved to Texas.
The song was a little slower, more richly nuanced than it is often played or sung (Ella Fitzgerald did a more chipper version), and that was part of her piano skill with popular music, a more languid, casual, endearing coloration of notes. She had her own brand of soul stirred and shined up by a certain frisky but sweet touch as such a song as this deserves, if not requires. It lends a gorgeous sound, warmly so.
At the end of the song, she laughs–that light yet expressive sound– and says it wasn’t so good, but I shout out a muted exclamation of “Yay!” It has long been a favorite of mine and we long shared this love of standards.
As a child and youth I learned to sing whole collections from this era at Dad’s or Marinell’s elbow on the piano bench. I once thought this could be the music I’d sing for a living with luck and more hard work. Thus, the genre gives me uniquely good sensations as much as does classical music, my first old love and later, jazz (only a hop and skip away from the standards). I’ll find myself humming or singing snatches to myself even now when no one is near. I could only sing out with my sister’s accompaniment, though, as years passed. I trusted her, felt at ease making music with her.
To hear this, then, nearly three years after her passing from pneumonia and multiple heart attacks far from me in Texas is an unexpected treasure held close. Those simple and good times we had at her piano! And when more of our whole family gathered it made for a booming, harmonized chorus. She sometimes sang along as she played. I wish now I’d recorded the rare times we were all together.
Last week I was scrolling through ancient voice memos–all the way back to 2012 (I keep my phones a long while and obviously memos). When I came to two dated 4/16/13, it was a shock. I had forgotten I’d recorded her playing. I have some CDs of cello performances, a couple other recordings of her playing piano as she was a professional musician. But these were quieter personal moments in her home. In time, there were infrequent sessions due to her health issues and I was barely singing, anxious to not display how rusty I had become. Yet perhaps I worried that there would soon be no more live music and thought to record the songs her long, thin, strong fingers produced as they flew over the keyboard.
It seems appropriate timing to find that mini-recording. I have been wanting to talk to her but of course can’t, exactly. (I do communicate with her in the ways people do who miss their loved ones.) I needed to hear something good, reassuring. I wondered if she was still keeping an eye on things down here, along with our parents– both gone, too…if they understood what I felt.
Two of my other older siblings have been wrestling with life challenges as they age. It has been like gripping a seesaw most days the past few months, and tossing and turning at night as I contemplate their lives, who they have been to me and others and what may be ahead–for us all. Time finally takes us to task, demands we face mortality. My only living sister has an unfortunate penchant for accidents–has all her life, with many broken bones–and has more often fallen this past year at age 73. Many times she also has endured car accidents and now deals with memory glitches due to concussions. My oldest brother is a lifelong, die-hard performer, a jazz musician, playing until six months ago though he is now 79. But now he has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and is not well and has significant mental health issues to manage. My husband works furiously hard at a demanding position and suffers wear and tear the last years before retirement. I have felt often sad, picking at the problems, making them more noxious and sore while not having any brainstormed breakthroughs for healing solutions. Then I turn them over to God’s wisdom and grace, hoping for better. And this is just how it is to be the youngest of a large family, I remind myself. I may just lose them one by one–this, although I also have heart disease. But we cannot know–perhaps for the best– what lies ahead for certain.
So I’ve needed to call up Marinell and have one of our heartfelt, no-nonsense talks or better yet, visit her (I’m in Oregon, she lived near Seattle with–also deceased–her spouse). But that isn’t feasible. Hearing her play and that brief measure of laughter–our sharing a few comments–is the next best thing. It felt like a small hello from her. I have this to listen to any time. Without that voice memo I might have one day forgotten the manner is which she played, along with the heartening energy of her laughter.
Sometimes a most efficient and satisfying way to recall the best of life is by revisiting the past with our senses. It often these days is by way of fast-posted photographs or silly-good videos, yet think of the variety of scents associated with people and places; the tongue’s recollection of tasty foods; the feel of something we touch that is so familiar as well as sounds galore.
I had a butterfly dress when I was perhaps seven years old. Whenever I gather and smooth between my fingers a highly polished cotton fabric it brings the dress back to me and how special I felt, My mother made it for me. The cotton gave off a soft sheen (or it seemed) and I was enthralled by those colorful butterflies flitting across a white background, and the attached belt that tied in a floppy bow at the back. There was even a soft tulle underneath so that the skirt puffed out. I felt like a butterfly-swarmed flower of a human kind, swanning about in that beautiful church and party frock. I still find myself looking for butterfly decorated fabric, seeking a way back to love of my mother, that elated moment when I tried it on at first.
I appreciate all types of sensory cues, but it seems to me that the audible captures can be especially vivid, a gateway to memories of certain kinds. At least for me. A family can compile a history of valuable data or personal stories via recordings. I have been mindful of this option. Having sounds attached to facts and visuals is enlightening at the least and satisfying at its best.
I began recording my writing years ago on tape recorders. In 2012 when walking or driving I began to use the voice memo feature on my iPhone to record ideas–first lines, titles, a paragraph here and there. It is a handy help for writers. I’ve composed whole poems dictated from short memos. I have written, then recorded and posted a couple of poems on WordPress but haven’t yet perfected the process so it sounds really crisp and true. It can be helpful to my creative forays to record and replay a piece–the rhythms of words, pacing of line lengths and the internal and ending sounds of language in orderly sequence–it is all magnified, for better or worse. With music that value is self-evident, so useful for critical evaluation, a way to hone in on the faulty notes, a diminished execution or lack of emotive power.
Still, I use this ploy in everyday life. I have recorded nature sounds: from crickets to trickling streams and roaring oceans to bird songs and wind in a number of trees– so much more. On a hike I once desired to record a mother bear’s “huffing” sounds after I heard her cubs and their interchanges but became too anxious about proximity to pause a long moment. Drat that lost opportunity but I recall it well. I’ve recorded my children’s and grandchildren’s laughter, playful banter, music making. My husband’s twelve string guitar compositions as he played (valued more as he doesn’t play now). My youngest daughter’s soprano ringing out at concerts, belting out during performances with her old bands. I have on tape, also, a 1997 community radio broadcast of me reading my writing. It was fun and instructive. I am pleased to have it.
My father’s concerts were recorded by others often enough. Even though I can’t hear him conducting, I can in the sense that I visualize him standing on the podium in his suit or “tails”, nearly dancing as he moved toward the orchestra/ symphony musicians and then a leaning away, lifting and turning and pulling the music up to crescendo or quieting it with his gentled hands and carrying the music through space with his body and the slight conducting baton.
Last year when my oldest daughter, Naomi, and youngest, Alexandra, were visiting, I put on a very old tape cassette for them to hear. I wanted them to hear just how real was real my love of music was. I’d stopped regularly singing (and playing cello) right before I had children. That is another sort of story that has little to do with them, but it is also true I’d determined to be a present and engaged mother– I ended up rearing five–and free time was scarce. Of course, the children knew I had passion for my instrument and for singing. They’d heard me sing at home, usually for/with them when they were little, sometimes as we listened to popular radio or other music. And of course, singing hymns at church, the one time I let loose. But as a youth and young adult I had often performed and had embarked on a path to become a dedicated, skilled songwriter. So, when they were together and our home was otherwise vacated, I got out one tape I’d found in a box of miscellaneous others. They sat on the floor as I got it started in our stereo equipment. I briefly explained: me singing, something I’d written long ago but taped when 28 for my parents’ Christmas present. (I had inherited it when they passed.)
Soon my voice and guitar could be heard rounding out the room’s edges. I looked at my hands, the floor, the wall and speakers, as inside I was trembling. This was a great risk for me. I didn’t want to see deeply into their eyes, not too soon. Did not want to find dismay or disappointment. But when I stole glances near the end, I got far more. They were staring at the speakers with looks I cannot quite describe. Maybe disbelief. And yes, love. Maybe surprise and real pleasure. They seemed to hold questions, too. I closed my eyes, let the strength and tenderness of the song “Workers of Light” move through me, each note familiar as if I’d written it yesterday. My elastic and bright, emotion-imbued younger voice.
When it ended my youngest spoke in earnest. “That was so beautiful–and you’re saying that was your song? You wrote it, even played guitar? Why didn’t you keep writing and singing, Mom? I had no idea!…”
Her face registered deep surprise and eyes were gleaming. I looked at my other daughter as she turned her face away. But I saw her though her hair covered her eyes. She was trying to not shed tears. I let her be; she is a private person, does not always offer words for her feelings. I was afraid I’d start to weep, too, if I closed that intimate space between us. How to answer Alexandra or Naomi? How to explain leaving what I so profoundly cared for that it tore me up as I turned my back and walked away? I could not. Sometimes dreams are replaced by other pressing needs and they become frail as wisps of smoke. I didn’t want them to think of my loss when they heard me singing but hear unadulterated passion for music and my surrender to it, a music rooted in resilient, undying love.
“I just wanted you to know more of what it was to me. Will always be. Now you know there is at least one recording to play sometimes after I’m not around here anymore…!”
Alexandra protested–she doesn’t want to contemplate that I will leave this flesh for other realms. Naomi, who knows things about life and death in a different way, smiled wanly. We went about our day but a deeper knowledge had passed from me to them. Then back to me. They knew the truth of their mother more than before; I was glad to have shared it more fully.
This experience demonstrated to me again the importance of keeping record of certain moments–in this case, by virtue of captured sound– lived by those we love. Of what matters to us, whether human or not. And I for one would like to leave something for my family. It will unlikely be much, if any, money. I don’t have a precious stack of family recipes, either, or pricey heirlooms. It will instead be reams and files of my writings (which they may toss when I’m gone, no matter), recordings of some music and writing, a few videos of me dancing about the living room (they know nothing of those, but have danced with me) and happy family gatherings. Photos of places I’ve visited and people I’ve known or just seen along the way and found curious and fascinating. Drawings in a sketchbook. Cards and letters, too, handwritten and sent to them just because, like ones my mother sent me (some of which I still read from time to time).
I will keep recording events to share either now or later. It’s part of a broader history, too, small threads of the far-reaching human tapestry, everyone’s common domain; I can contribute in a minuscule way. Mostly, I want the kids and grand kids to be able to recall how riveted I was by the magic chorus of crickets while walking in the warm evening. To realize that to move the exquisite body to music is to feel it all, exalt in life–in case they forget or need to find more joy. That their mother and grandmother is still singing to them, here or elsewhere, a song just for them. Such mementos can connect us intimately across time and distance. Just as Marinell yet plays the piano for me when I shall play that voice memo–a chance gift of good cheer, a succor when I need it.
And though he and his band have several CDs (the Kung Pao Chickens) out, I have made my own videos and iPhone recordings of my brother Gary playing his saxes, clarinets and flutes; of his playful, strong voice slipping around, under and over many great swing tunes at his best venue, sounding, well, entirely wonderful. Just in case. And yes, for posterity. For the family.
Whenever there is a hole or other opening within an ancient tree trunk or stump, or when a huge crooked root beckons, I try to fit inside or under, compacting my smallish frame smaller so as not to get snared by slivered wood or unknown bits. It’s best to avoid massive spider webs but unlikely that I’ll avoid their creators as I wedge myself in. After all, they thrive in Northwest forests, as well as scores of other bugs (very few mosquitoes, however) –and ubiquitous slimy slugs. I am on neutral terms with arachnids, though I’ve been bitten and at times not appreciated results. This happens least often when I am rambling about woodlands. I fit myself in with a peripheral awareness of other creatures and fill my nostrils with the powerful pungency of wood and loamy earth.
I crouch down, hands on thighs, and look about. It is semi-dark. Snug. The light above or beyond the tree and me is caramel-toned in fall and summer, a grey opalescent in winter, and green-yellow in spring. Birds seem livelier, brightly chirping and serenading as they flit above and around, or my ears hear better from the center of a tree. At this size and from this angle, I feel less intrusive there. I may rest in the insects’ hollow and this gives me pause, that I am so much bigger than they. I rest on spongy earth where mushrooms dot the landscape, garter snakes slip by and bees swoop and squirrels freeze then skitter off with their chittering. My breath is still, heart is quiet. I can stay this way a long while: at rest though alert, awake to this world even while captivated by powers mysterious, immense even if not always working in my favor. A big shiny black beetle trundles past my feet. The forest air rests on my tongue–savory, sweet-sour. I feel moved by the abundant density of life. It is beautiful and warm here, in this tree, in this solitariness, under canopies of leaves and sky.
Until I can see two feet and a long knotty branch used as a walking stick. Marc, my spouse, has waited long enough. Am I going to get up and out of there? I rouse myself and half-crawl out, then unfold myself, brush off the crumbs of dirt and pieces of wood, the webby coating on a sleeve. He thinks I am slightly daft–this obsession I have for smaller spaces in the outdoors, or for climbing beneath or up onto a big root or branch. I even sometimes ask for photos. I can’t say just why–I just know it gives me pleasure to recall being in those lovely spots, to feel that much closer to nature’s ways.
But it all started when I was growing up, this interest in discovering a unique spot, making a nest of my own, holing up in smallish spaces.
In a house full of people–seven of us in a two story, three bedroom place with one bathroom plus a half-finished basement–being cramped for space was a way of life. I saw friends’ bigger houses (some of my friends even had their very own bedroom, not one they shared with one or two other sisters, swimming pools and so on) but ours was homier. In fact, it was cozy and attractive to me, filled with interesting objects as well as persons. (Not just family or an occasional neighbor but Dad’s music students or customers who needed him to appraise and sell or repair instruments and people from church and my parent’s bridge partners and good friends or visiting musicians or school teachers there for luncheons/dinners and siblings’ friends as well as mine–well, it got tight, alright.) The doorbell and phone were forever ringing. Music took up residence in the rooms and talk floated about heads and people moved around furniture or sat in it or pulled out a chair at the long dining table so it got crowded, too.
In winter, when I was indoors more, I escaped under our baby grand piano in the corner of the living room. There I could watch people come and go but also read a book, trace a picture, make lists of names for characters in my plays, hum a new tune I had learned, play with dolls, make tents and houses for them with scarves with the aid of books, listen to those who played piano and watch their feet work the pedals, the vibrations entering my bones as the piece reached a crescendo. I also listened in on more private conversations, a favorite activity. (Or took a nap until age six or seven.)
Less satisfactory was the area in front of a heating register; it was on the wall behind an armchair. This spot did meet dual needs–warming as well as half-hiding me. But it was easy to get in the way as it was by a door leading to stairs so there was foot traffic; I could also get squashed if someone moved the chair back.
The best resort was the outdoors. I’ve written before of the giant maple tree with our regular swing and a rudimentary trapeze; of its sturdy branches which acted as steps that carried me aloft, one sturdy stretch of leg at a time to the very top. Talk about a fine look-out. I could see way across the small tree nursery behind our bush-and-fir-lined back yard, past the Benfers’ huge vegetable and flower garden, over the rooftops of another two-story house, a small medical office and beyond to the pretty subdivision on Richard Court and Manor Drive. And that Michigan sky!–much greater than one might imagine and full on goings-on with chameleon clouds, moveable light and later, glints of a trillion tiny stars. The cars I spotted on Ashman Street swished by, oblivious.
There was a certain crook made of two branches that held my weight well so I wedged myself there. Despite a need to shift every few minutes, I was content. Undisturbed and nearly invisible. Surrounded by robins, a cardinal or blue jay, wrens and sparrows all came and went as they pleased. Freedom felt democratic there. I could just be, dream of anything, imagine myself anywhere–a tall ship was a favorite. My world was full to overflowing within the natural intimacy of a tree’s branches, as if I was made to fit. I just belonged there.
And also in the northeastern corner of the yard’s bushes and pines. I had a couple of weathered, handmade benches–one like a table, one a chair– made of 4×4 wood remnants from the garage. There were variously dolls, notebooks and novels, art supplies, a ukulele, tea sets, snack and lunch detritus, a weak magnifying glass, a miniature flashlight, thermos of tea or water, forbidden matches, a stained old toss pillow and a cast off sheet for a makeshift door or more “seating” for buddies. It could hold maybe three if they pressed into undergrowth. The hideaway was full of branches that had to be tied back to enlarge the space and to be kept from poking out eyes. With all the pine needles on the ground, the place was so heavy with their perfume that I could smell pine for days on my sweater and jacket. Damp pine and warm, layers of fresh or old pine. It would get shadowy and then darker long before the outside darkened. Quieter than anywhere else on the property. There was the advantage of also being able to slip out and hightail it right across Stark Nursery’s land if I didn’t want to stay put or was eluding siblings who came poking about. There I would pretend I rode horses or carried on epic battles or slipped into a netherworld. My hideout was my fort of safety when pursued by ghosts or intruders, those either imaginary or real.
I tried to make another private cubbyhole at the end of the front porch. Alas, it was too noisy with nearby streets, people who stomped up and down the steps with annoying regularity. Plus, there were red juniper berries there that my mother was worried I’d eat like a scavenging explorer. I did pick them; I never ate one, certain I’d die. I also would make a mess behind those ample bushes; that wasn’t going to happen in our front yard. But I still sometimes hid there to watch the world between branches, especially during winter when it became igloo-like with snows. (I’d also make snow caves alongside our street after the snowplow made towering drifts.)
Often I roamed the 24 acre wooded park, Barstow Woods, a couple of blocks from our house. The winding trails and creek offered plenty of nature to examine, a whole territory to explore or to play hide and seek in with my friends. I was as at home there as I was on my own city block; it was a safe place back then. And I learned much about trees and animals and plants each summer as a “day camper” with other kids and adult counselors.
The northern parts of Michigan were visited often, and there I was just as accustomed to running wild on dirt side roads and trails, playing in the light-dappled woods and finding my way back, moving according to sensory input. And dwelt in happiness all those places.
Since those days of fearless play I have lived in the country a few times though never long enough. But I have always been drawn to it, awed, enchanted and daunted by it. Sometimes as an adult, I can become afraid of sounds and shapes I can’t identify and unexpected events that occur no matter the time of day or weather, no matter if I am alone or not. (Like the unseen cougar I learned later was in the area but that I felt along the trails.) Generally, I am secure in my instincts and there are many spots that accommodate me. The open rolling fields of the Midwest and its northern woodlands; the dense, humid hothouse of the South; the tinder-dry, quirky vastness of the Southwest, the rainy wilderness, mountains and high desert of the Northwest: they have each called to me. And I have found my place even in the hardest life circumstances. There is always a hollow near a waterfall or a gaping hole in an aged, giant tree. A river bank that offers green bushes where I can kneel, watch the current carry leaves and twigs, ducks and stones. And Pacific Ocean beaches with huge driftwood piles to sit on and within, and headlands with caves to settle into.
I live in the city but I am never far away from landscapes other than densely packed blocks. We have Forest Park. At over five thousand acres and stretching eight miles on hills above the Willamette River, it is one of our nation’s largest urban nature reserves. And other city parks and wildlife preserves are varied and well kept. A mere twenty-minute drive takes me to the Columbia River Gorge, a designated National Scenic Area where wildlife, waterfalls and rivers and rocky buttes flourish amid the Cascade Range, miraculous with beauty. When multiple wildfires ravaged that vast acreage last year I wept, sick at heart. This summer I will finally venture out into it once more.
Every one of us needs a place to find serenity, to be at ease apart from the world’s pressures, its craziness. And we are animal beings who need our comforts, spiritual beings who need deeper sustenance. For me, it is more often than not in the welcoming outdoors, within nature’s arms. But I am told that even in sleep I pull close the blanket and quilt, up over nose, to or even over shuttered eyes, making a little tent. Please don’t awaken me; I am a creature well nested and deeply at peace. Nurtured yet freed. I will emerge restored and bright eyed when good and ready.
Apparently I think I have daredevil blood in my veins, if perhaps not seriously like stunt persons or Indy race car drivers (though I felt the attraction in younger years). Or maybe I entertain the idea that I’m quite a skilled athlete. Both read as faintly ridiculous–neither is close to the truth, at least not at this stage in my life. Well, maybe the first sentence is still true. I do have impulses to undertake some stuff that many people I know do not, even if they’re a decade or so younger. And I act on those most of the time. Risk taking doesn’t often seem such an unreasonable choice to me– physically, anyway. I trust myself, my animal instincts.
But I had an injury this morning that gave me pause. I had completed the task of changing a light bulb above the bathroom sink. As usual, I then jumped down from the counter. Except I didn’t land perfectly on my feet as I have a hundred thousand times in many situations over the years. My stocking feet slid just a bit, I lost balance and listed; gravity fast took me to my left. My arm and hand searched to find something to break the fall but all I found was the side of the tub, then the damp bottom that my hand slipped rather than grabbed onto, say the shower curtain or the rounded edge the bathtub. Thus, my left side crashed against the rounded edge of the tub even as my body loosened and recoiled from the crash. I felt my ribs press in, move out. I caught my breath, waited a moment, considered that I’d likely develop a bruise–I take aspirin for heart disease, so bruise rather easily. No body alarms rang out, though, so I got up. With nothing awry except a small sore spot on my side, I counted my blessings. I did feel a bit shocked by it, tried to figure out just what occurred. I rarely have fallen in any circumstance, and tend to end up embarrassed if anything. It has been a sort of a family joke that if I start to fall or even drop something, fast reflexes are my good luck, saving me each time.
So I decided to go on a walk after a bit, as the sunshine was amazing and no rain clouds in sight. The temperature was in lower to mid fifties: more almost-spring weather! I admit I also wanted to see if I was okay enough to move about more. So I strolled along for once, snapping photos, checking out blossoming trees and bushes, even a first perfectly white tulip. I called my sister to share my story; she was surprised, too.
That fragrant, lovely walk was a mistake. By the time I got halfway home I was aware of pain. I put an ice pack on it and decided it would be wise to call the nurse advice line.
“Any swelling? Big bruising? Sharp pain when you breathe in and out? Can you move about generally okay?”
“Well, I can’t turn or bend to my left. How do you mean, like a knife or a side jab or a grating pulling sensation? It hurts when I laugh much–I was laughing earlier as I told my sister how very un-catlike I suddenly felt today…more like an unwieldy hippo in a downhill slide. It is spreading a bit but no, I’m not in agony when I take a deep breath. It just sure hurts along my left side now.”
“I imagine! Keep icing, take pain relievers. Come in tomorrow morning to be checked further. There are no openings today but if things worsen later, call. But just so you know, it will hurt more as time goes by, will be worse tomorrow. Just keep an eye out for serious pain, swelling or bruising in the next few hours as that requires attention much sooner than later.”
“I feel like a real idiot, stupid how I lost my footing, ” I mumbled.
“Naw, listen, people get injured all the time in odd ways. We all do things we expect will be fine, then they aren’t.”
At least she didn’t say: why on earth was a 67 year old woman standing atop the bathroom counter, then thinking she could just jump down to the floor?
That would have upset me more.
I expect this body to do better for me. I have counted on that a long time. It has been happy to oblige with fortunately excellent balance, some decent core strength and sure-footedness, generally limber movements. I guess it has been a source of pleasure plus a bit of quiet pride. I so love being physical, believing this vehicle of flesh and bones will do as it is supposed to. This despite having chronic and sometimes emergency health issues. What’s a medical challenge here and there?–they do keep us on our toes. We all have our hurdles; mine have been fairly manageable thus far. I still crave being active and so get out and about. I long ago learned that lots of movement pumps up general well being, is required for bodies to work at optimum levels despite our glitches. (Kids clearly know all this without thinking; we adults can forget.)
Okay, not that I am one of those older women who backpack thirty miles into the wilderness with a fifty pound backpack–finally to sleep upon stony ground under an wide and possibly storming sky. My camping days have sadly faded away (though I’m definitely open to buying a pop-up camper; maybe if we save and then cash in all our extra change when hubby retires). I admire those who do this after 65 or 70–even at 50–and what a beautiful thing to have what it takes.
In fact, I do far less than I’d like. I could find excuses but why bother, I just haven’t done all I want to do yet. I seriously want to rent kayaks and canoes again as well as try tubing down a river, hike much farther and higher, swim at least twice a month, ice skate more, take up regular cycling after not riding a bike a couple of decades, and try more dance classes. (I had to quit flamenco due to a sore foot from hiking two years ago). I’d also like to go rock climbing, parachuting, horseback riding, cross-country skiing–some of it new, some not.
But I power walk an hour a day which is perhaps 4-5 miles, depending–more and faster when the weather is good. I dance and exercise at home, have enjoyed working up a sweat in Zumba classes. I hike often when the trails aren’t too muddy (recently we did eight miles at the beach, in the coastal forest). I wouldn’t mind weight training again. I haven’t decided to join a fitness club again; I always prefer the outdoors. But weight training was a thrill when I was forty; maybe it’d be fun now.
I also am more apt than my husband, bless him, to do physical work around our place–it’s my nature to hop to things, get them done. I used to love splitting fire wood and doing all the yard duties; I just like such work. I’m not the most daring or active a person can be but neither am I a shrinking violet when it comes to pushing my body some.
When I was a kid, I used to dream about was being a trapeze artist. It was likely after I saw a performance of Ringling, Barnum and Bailey Circus. I imagined over and over what it would be like to have such perfect timing and such strength and grace to swing back and forth and grab another swing or the hands coming toward me. It was mesmerizing. I wanted to be far up there, to feel the flight that occurred with such letting go, to sail through the air. So I rigged up a trapeze in our big old maple tree in the back yard. I’d swing and hang from that thing endlessly, as if I was really doing something. And when the trapeze broke, I put op a heavy rope from which to swing and catapult myself up onto the bigger branches. That tree was like a mountain, something to be conquered and then to rest within, a feeling of triumph filling me with happiness.
And I could be as tough and capable as any boy, often outpaced them, endured longer bike rides, climbed higher than most all of them. (This was more important as I got older rather than less. Strength, agility and stamina were crucial to my confidence and feeling safe in the world. More than once those traits literally saved me.) I also liked to practice bike tricks for hours in the medical building’s empty parking lot near our house. These required standing atop my bike seat, sticking out one leg behind me as I drifted about the parking lot. Or lying with abdomen on bike seat and chest on handle bars, then letting go of the handles. How about jumping on and off, hanging form the side as if the bike was a bareback trick horse? The fun was endless. Of course I fell, got a few cuts, shed a tear now and then. That was simply part of it.
I was athletic as a child and youth but more importantly, I was in love with human locomotion. I also wanted to see how far it was possible to push myself. I had little fear and lots of curiosity. I dearly longed to be a National Geographic explorer and journalist (besides a trapeze artist, dancer, figure skater, etc.)–that wonderful magazine inspired me far more than most tomes in our home.
I hope this lovely zest for life doesn’t subside much any time soon. But some days I wonder just a little.
Along the coast of Oregon are plentiful pockets of tide pools, many of which are among massive basalt rock formations. The sea crashes against the rocks sending up towering spray, waves surge and land in mighty thrusts of energy. You have to be careful out there and not many want to even venture farther than a few feet from the shore. My husband will go down to the rocks with me aided by his walking stick so he can search for stones and starfish and anemones. After a bit I go on my own way, closer to the edge and the crashing waves. I always want to climb until I get a grand view out over the ocean; if there are peaks to scale that is where I end up. I know the dangers. I know not to turn my back to the sea, and to keep my distance from the slick edge where waves break high.
Yet…I want to get as close as I can to the swirling depths, to the action–just as a rocky outcropping or a steep hillside calls to me to climb to the top. Just as the towering maple and oak trees and the trapeze called me. It is hard to explain how it feels, all the right muscles clenching and stretching, feet reaching and finding a next toe hold, sense of balance finely attuned. Everything working together, the heart pumping happily, rich air filling up the lungs, bones ringing with the joy of it. I take chances because it is worth it. I know onlookers on the high ground likely think I have lost my mind but I am not concerned with them, only the moments when I am free, exhilarated, full of the mystery and beauty out there: mentally, spiritually, viscerally alive.
Only one time I slipped on wet mossy rocks and my hand found purchase to help me get my balance again. A slight scrape on my palm got infected; it was one of the worst I’ve ever had thanks to all the bacteria in the sea, on rocks frequented by an array of wild creatures and microscopic matter. It hasn’t kept me from going out there though I’m even more aware of how and where I step. I respect the ocean’s powers and defend myself against its beguiling, ferocious waves. Several people drown at the coast each year because they underestimate the danger. I do ask my body each time: can I still safely go out to explore? So far, it has been a yes.
Whew, right now, my left side is crying a bit, pain radiating out and I can’t easily think of leaping about all the fabulous earthy places I admire. It’s taking some effort to type all this. I need to ice more, rest awhile. Still, it was the day to post my nonfiction piece and suddenly there was a topic I’d not foreseen. Besides, I need to write as much as I desire to be outdoors, maybe more. My two loves, though.
Because we never know. I’ve found myself unexpectedly very close to death a few times. This is a far cry from that but even little accidents can make one re-evaluate the order of things. One tiny tip of the balance, one alteration of the physics at work, one second miscalculated and we find out how vulnerable we can be. I can’t say I appreciate it much right now. Body messages and common sense or intuition do keep us going, keep us moving through life. Did my body feel a bit sluggish this morning? I think so…and then was not so smart although other times I’d land just right. Live and learn the hard way, I guess.
When I heal I’ll likely climb and hop off another counter or rocky abutment until my instinct warns me not to do it–and I will listen better. And expect a good outcome. But not while wearing my darned slippery socks, without better consideration of all factors.
More hiking to do this spring and summer!
What fluke accident have you had? Did it make you more cautious? Or do you have a slight daredevil tendency, too, and you just want to get back out there–and without real worry? I’d love to hear about it as I heal!
At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.
I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.
When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.
The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.
Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.
I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there” so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?
You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.
When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.
Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.
It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.
By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.
Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.
The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.
You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.
When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.
The piano is in the formal living room and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.
We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.
Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.
You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.
We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.
I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.
But now you are not here.
You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.
This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.
Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.