Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Writing as a Way of Being

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Marc said, “Writing is your therapy, I guess.”

I thought about that a moment. It rang predominantly false.

“No, that’s a whole other thing. Of course I journaled for decades, starting with little, gilt-edged diaries as a child that I could lock with my own tiny key… I doubt it was helpful in a significant way; I was noting very little, the day was three sentences. By adolescence, maybe all the scribbling out feelings and events was semi-therapeutic. I had a private place to share the reality of my life. But was it writing? No. Not to me even as a teen. It was dumping emotional excess at its best and obnoxious perseveration at worst. True therapy exists in another realm.” I thought a bit more. “Maybe there is some crossover. But I think I write best when there is much less emotional excoriation…and more inquiry and imagination.”

Marc nodded. He knows better than to expect an abbreviated answer when he brings up writing. And I do like to talk, if not as much as I do writing.

We agreed that all sorts of creative action can be therapeutic. It certainly is a lifeline in troubled times, as well. And I have always liked to make paintings, collages and drawings to clear and liberate my mind. For decades I made music via guitar and cello, and wrote songs in small part because it was an emotional outlet…and dancing, acting and so on, to a degree. Because creative activities do help people expand intellectually; move past emotional blockages; explore more modes of experience; interpret worlds around and within; recover from woundedness; clarify needs/wants; gain self esteem; develop a deeper sense of soul. It figures prominently in wellness regimens the world over.

But a strong creative urge is primary in and of itself, and can be far removed from therapeutic intent or result. It is an energy, a movement that comes from a deep wellspring, from passion for what is undertaken. It is the moment-by-moment action that draws me, not the finale. It includes the design process, but it is the act of writing and seeing where it goes that is most powerful viscerally, intellectually, spiritually.

Writing, then? This is just what I do. It has come first as long as I can remember, back to early childhood. Music was the most important creative mode in my family but for me, despite my adoration of music, writing won out. It was such a strong urge that it started my day and ended it before I entered. I wrote little plays for the neighborhood gang and poems for fun. I wrote on scraps of paper, in cheap spiral-bound notebooks and on clean white paper on the ancient Remington manual typewriter. In school, my writing was often pointed out; a poem I wrote in third grade was published and presented at a state conference on children and creativity. I found it funny my teacher would do that. It had nothing to do with my desire to keep writing.

I had no clear sense of whether it was “good” or not, and even now don’t think it is worth the effort to try to rate it. I write and rewrite and write some more, then see how it stands up to my own interest during more reads and rewrites. It is necessary to improve but not for someone else–for myself, for the work I labor over. Being self-critical is necessary as I delve into exposition of a piece. It spurs me to design sentences that better deliver ideas and experiences. I can do this for long hours and do it alone. Marc’s voice is unheard or jarring when he speaks to me as I work. My dinner goes cold; other pressing duties fade. Time disappears; the written words engulf me.

I do, however, miss face-to-face interaction with other writers–conferences, workshops, writing sessions/sharing with one other writer, talking with editors at presentations, participating in public readings. These educational and fun events help me grow as a writer and as a human being. Both roles benefit from redefinition, willingness to learn. And I am not reluctant to get down to business.

I was having that earlier conversation about writing because I have been thinking about writing an ever greater amount of time. And this blog. I’ve noticed recently that though I have over 15,000 followers–a deceptive number, who knows what that quite means?–I have very few views, overall, in comparison to other weeks, months, years. There are also much fewer “likes”. Especially in the last weeks. This has not been the case, generally. I have had high numbers and moderate numbers and low ones, all. But 6? And practically no one comments–and is likely telling…of something. What is the data worth to me? Not that much, in the end. It doesn’t stop me from posting thus far. But I am curious, since I have had better statistics much of the past eleven years.

Yes, that’s a crazy long time to have a blog. Do I write here because it is not truly as rigorous as writing for other venues and platforms? If I even ask that, it must have bearing. Yet, I clearly am hooked; I enjoy myself.

But back to readership: the lag of viewers may mean people don’t relate to topics I am writing about lately. Or, as one reader says, many pieces are longer than most blog posts–I guess that can turn people off. It might mean followers just got tired of my blog–there are countless fascinating blogs to check out. Or it could even be the quality of my offerings has been in decline and I’ve failed to see it. I naturally consider that. Whatever the reasons, it gives me something to mull over.

Ultimately, it is about keeping on writing. I think it, dream it, wake up in the middle of the night and do it, phrases and characters run about my brain in the shower or store, while driving or walking, listening to people talk or seeing them play or work, when hearing music or sitting outside watching leaves shimmy, reading something else–any time at all. I take small breaks when feeling emptied out of good words or distracted by events in my life. There are times I feel like what I write is lacking oomph and just needs to be dumped. But there is always another concentrated attempt, and a fine word comes to me on the next wave of language rising, unfurling on a page. I can’t not write for long, even if it is a quick phrase on an envelope or receipt.

I have notebooks of listed ideas, many starts and stops. And mounds of sticky notes plastered on my desk with notes on reference material, titles that come without anything attached to them, quotes from other writers, literary mags to check out. And print outs of articles that demonstrate fine wordsmithing. I can’t keep up with it all but it isn’t daunting, it’s invigorating. It inspires me. And I am not a writer who stares at the screen or page a long time. I like prompts to get started for fun, but don’t need them. For some weird reason, I can sit and begin immediately; I write fast for a first draft. The deeper, better writing comes with revision. That takes much more time, is harder. A great deal harder. Even for this blog, I am often writing at midnight–and still miss necessary editing.

So it is not that I want to stop writing–I cannot imagine it–or even take a break. (I had some of those with the death of our granddaughter…and car accidents, illness, vacations, etc.) It’s about what I want to do with it next. I believe I must make changes. I don’t spend enough time revising my posts, and my proofreading needs attention. I easily spend 4-6+ hours working on them but I should clean up more. Including any photographs demands more time and labor. The truth is, I might make many improvements, even the design of my site; maybe readers would appreciate that, come back more. Or maybe not.

I also think it would be fun to start a new blog under a pseudonym. What, exactly, I’m not yet sure, but it would be entirely different than this one…Maybe satire. Maybe vignettes of real people whose names are changed, or stories of the most harrowing or spiritually intense moments in my life.

But beyond writing for the blog three times a week, several hours a day, what else might I want to do?

~I love to write poetry. For decades that was my genre, my preferred way of being and doing creatively with words. I write free verse but have written other kinds of poems. I can spend months on a poem that pulls me in and shine it up. I have published more poetry than anything (and under various names due to marriages). I quite like its economy–perhaps surprising for me, who tends to verbosity–and potency. Its elegance and truthfulness.

~I love fiction writing. I fell for fiction as a kid but felt intimidated by writing it until I kept working at it, reading and learning more, trying things out. In time I came to understand it better. It still is a form that seems complex and demanding, yet I love stories so much that I pursue them to the page, anyway. It is more like a story arrives, grabs and takes me to the page. I enjoy all the walking about in unknown places with strangers who become friends or curious bystanders or witnesses via the written word. It fulfills me immensely to complete a decent story. Or a series of short stories; I’ve written one grouping that takes place in a small northern lake town with many recurring characters. It is a collection I love to work on.

But then arrives the question: which genre would I like to explore next besides dabbling in mainstream, literary or women’s fiction? Psychological suspense? Fantasy? Old fashioned mystery? And flash fiction intrigues me, too. The only one I can’t get excited about is popular romance. Maybe a different angle on romance would be interesting.

Then there are novels. I have written two but only one may still have a drop of lifeblood. But I would rather begin a new one than return to those that I have worked half to death. I have ideas that come and go. If there is a really good idea it sticks– so far nothing has stuck well again. But this doesn’t mean I won’t begin another novel. Maybe not just today. I am stimulated by the work on very long projects. They require discipline, stamina, optimism, ruthless editing, and deep faith in the story–as with everything else, I suppose, but for much longer periods of my life.

~ Nonfiction, including memoir, is newest to me. I began working on it more seriously as I wrote for this blog. Then I published a couple pieces in collections so was encouraged. It was a challenge I enjoyed tackling. I appreciate its brevity requirement–though I have much to learn about that! I like to ask questions, search for answers whether a factoid or greater history or a recollection in family history. It moves quickly– or should. Succinctness is something I crave to master…and keep working on in nonfiction especially. I also love that it offers truth in a very direct way. The more stripped down the better; it generates more power.

~This is an addition since I initially published this post: I also have written (and published two pieces) young adult and children’s short fiction. It was also a pleasure taking months of classes on writing for children and applying more skills; I had the bonus of a children’s author providing great critiques. This genre remains of interest to me.

I have so many choices, that’s the issue. I have profound attachment to the written word, and respect for the value of language well crafted. But there is not enough time to do all I want to do, even in retirement. I need to heed these questions about what I will write further. There may not be another ten years left for me–or perhaps there will be, but time is not endless on earth. Some days I have a stronger tug to submit my work again for possible publication. Other times I want to dive right into that story collection, revise and polish until it is finished–then perhaps submit it. Or get back to more serious poetry writing, just because it is a beautiful form and it speaks to me with such grace and comfort. And it is good to know life most vividly, tp draw closer to God and maximize my compassion for the earth, the world–poetry is a good way to do all that.

The last question I ask myself tonight: do I keep on with this blog? Have I said all I have to say here? Does it matter if anyone reads my posts or not–or is it primarily an exercise in creativity, as so much of what is meaningful is to me? I do care about writing for others though I have written in solitude all my life, for the sake of the writing–that is what most writers do–and for myself, also. I need to write. I am entirely in love with the process, even during uncertain and self-doubting times or days of stalemate, or when I am fed up with the grinding work of eliciting the best words so they will cohere and open new doors… that I can walk through and so, too, the reader, into the next ones.

But it matters to me that I can send out my voice, and the voices of characters, and believe they may be heard. To be a small conduit of creative energy, of discovery. That I can offer up my vulnerability and then readers may open and connect more fully to themselves and others. That what I offer in words has meaning, even though fleeting. And that human language once more gives the gift of expression, that tool of powerful searching and finding, giving and taking, hoping and healing. Because language speaks the story of humankind. That is what matters to me, for this is what we all offer: astonishing stories of magnitude. So whether I write here or elsewhere, the stories will guide me faithfully. For this, I am grateful.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: An Unexpected Summer Crush

I fell in love today with a stranger. I don’t have a clue where this one came from or the life history. I’m not sure why I looked over my balcony railing and there appeared a gorgeous vision that captivated me at once. But sometimes these things happen even to me, an older woman well over the rocky pinnacles and swampy lows of random, entrancing romance quite some time ago. I don’t go looking about. But this experience occurred, anyway. That is, the creature looked up when I let a sigh escape. The noble head raised and ice-water blue eyes flicked to mine–then resumed studying the treed, ivy-strewn slope, engaged by more interesting happenings than a human gazing downward. I was more than happily surprised by my new neighbor, a Siberian husky. My favorite dog in the world, more or less.

There is at least one human who moved in with the dog. In fact, she strode out once to check on him/her and then disappeared. And when I got my camera out–I had to shoot a quick one for my kids, who understand these things about their mother. But I forgot that it was still on the timer mode, so it beeped and beeped then took multiple pictures, beep beep beep beep click click click click. ( I must turn off that shutter noise, too!) Of course, the dog finally looked up again and I heard the woman come out. A bit panicked, I stepped back from my balcony’s edge. I didn’t know if I should give a shout out or not… This will likely not endear me to the new woman–somebody taking furtive pictures of her canine companion.

I wasn’t even wondering about a new resident this morning. I was reading, then looking about the trees, sitting at the table. Then got up, stood at the balcony railing and had a casual glance downward.

Now I really only think of her dog. It was taken inside or it was hungry or bored. When will it be let out again?

The small apartment below us has been empty a couple of weeks. I have heard the trucks and the hammering and whirring, sometimes smelled their supplies’ signature odors (one of which about knocked us over as they repainted a tub just below our first floor bathroom). The workers have about renovated the entire thing but I half-expected it to go on, like blurred background noise on the radio or television of an old neighbor to the north of us. I didn’t give one thought to a new neighbor. The last tenant lived there a couple of years, recently moved to Arizona, per another neighbor. She was very young and usually gone; I waved if we crossed paths. (As it is with most people here: we’re at work indoors or went back to the office or are again avoiding contact due to the pandemic’s unpredictable, unsafe trajectory.) I live in my own world, I suppose, too–frequent family engagements, I write or read a great deal, take daily hikes or walks, make a bit of art and do lots of photography, listen to music, do random things like a crossword puzzle or writing real letters. And always the usual tedious household business. Oh, I have a husband. So I am fairly busy.

Others appear to be, as well. But I do see them get out with their dogs, some urging them to finish their business, some leisurely walking and enjoying their company. Oregon is a big dog place and Portland may have more dogs than people, a joke but perhaps not really. To know your neighbors is to know their dogs–sometimes the latter first and better. One of the few people I know by name (besides one across the front entryway who sneaks in and out with few words; another who never acknowledges people and walks his dog like they’re both training for a marathon) is quite a bit older and very interesting. She has given me glimpses of her smart, energetic personality topped by a good if subdued sense of humor, talk laced with a slightly cynical view. She has had several different professional lives that intrigue, moved from California (as many do). She has marvelous skin and gleaming white hair. That’s it-what I know now. She’s not very open so we briefly catch up–though I shared that our granddaughter passed away as she happened to catch me in shock and tearful; a few weeks later she told me she was looking forward to sharing old photos with her own granddaughter when she visited and that was okay– when she walks her Pomeranian, Cocoa. Cocoa likes me fine and vice versa. The way they are together, I suspect they will be warmly connected until the end.

Anyway, here we are generally congenial, sociable strangers. A wave and a smile, an inquiry occasionally. So–another person gone, another moving in, that’s all. It’s not cheap to live here and people leave in summer; some of us stay a long while. And some have dogs that I hear and pleasantly note as I live my life amid mountains, hills, trees and water; stories; Stravinsky with dashes of Marian McPartland and her jazz piano. FedEx deliveries too often for my own good. Just lessen that hammering and shut off the leaf blowers, it’s summer! Then the movers come and it’s a new person with another dog below. Will it bark or be cool and calm as when it glanced up at me, unperturbed by a lowly human being?

I just got up to look over the balcony edge once more. The gorgeous animal is still not laying there. Maybe tonight we’ll both be listening to crickets in twilight. Will he/she know I am up here? Will I peek down to seek at its furry outline? Will it be agitated if I make noise? I often sit outside at night, listening, watching, smelling the night air. Marc is to bed early as a working man still, so it is moon and stars and me and any “singers” beyond.

It might help to explain my fascination with dogs if I tell you I didn’t grow up around them or other animals. Well, the cats. My older sister had a penchant for cats, had a small number. I was under age ten and had only the right to watch her play with them and occasionally pet them. I was surprised we had any. My mother didn’t like animals in the house–she grew up on a farm so four legged and other nonhuman creatures belonged outdoors, perfectly fine in the wilds of nature–otherwise, they had to work for their food. (She was interested in insects and birds, however– outside.)

Cats lived outside and were great mousers, was what she said. Thus, when the first ones arrived I knew my sister Allanya was the favored one, as she got what was forbidden.–I mainly recall her cats died a lot–we lived on a busy street–but she’d get another one until it was hit on the road, too.. Her abundantly loud weeping got me; I couldn’t comfort her adequately. I liked her cats but they were hers so did not cry much. When she left for Michigan State University, no more cats. But I must have pleaded for my turn as I got two goldfish; they swam happily but too briefly in a bowl with a floor of colored stones, a perfect tiny castle and a couple of seashells. I loved decorating but overfed them. I got two blue bright parakeets who likely didn’t like being in a cage–they died in a couple months. I didn’t appreciate cleaning the cage so was not that dismayed. After that, I was done. I left the care of animals to others.

But what of dogs? It wasn’t even a topic that came up. No one secretly professed a desire for a dog. My father certainly never had interest in pets, and no time. He was home an hour or two, then gone most days of his long and productive career. Mom simply created time for things other than daily work, in or out of the house. But she decreed there would be no more pets, not even one camping in the back yard (a turtle, it died, too). As she noted, we had a yard full of nature’s critters. I loved the ants that had little sandy hill homes; they scurried back and forth along our walkway out back. I studied their industrious goings-on for long periods. The slinky worms that magically rose from the ground when it rained hard. Graceful butterflies and chorusing, chattering birds that alighted all around. But as for pets–I had access to various sorts at friends’ houses, and was fascinated by the dogs and cats, hamsters, a horse, a couple of canaries, a snake, an iguana and salamander and so on. Those dogs would often be in the middle of the fray, racing, leaping, romping along with us, and also interfering.

But my favorites were at Julie’s house: huskies.

Julie was one of my best friends and lived on my street several blocks down; she went to Eastlawn Elementary as did I. I believe she also went to the Methodist Chinch and it would be natural we’d become friendly there, too. We didn’t share studying classical music but she liked to read as much as I did. We didn’t have in common a passion for ice skating, swimming or foot races; she had polio as a baby so walked rather slowly with crutches that clamped around her forearms. I found it curious, perhaps sad but irrelevant to our easy play and good talks. No doubt we enjoyed playing with dolls, made up scenarios for them, and played board games and hung out on the front and back porches. She was a smart one, warm hearted, readily amused. I can still see her standing in her yard, crutches just an extension of her arms and legs in a way, very useful–short strawberry blond hair tossed back as she laughed at something silly.

But perhaps another reason we got on was that her parents had huskies. And I came to adore them. I believe they bred, trained and sold them; there were always a couple around and new puppies from time to time. The house was big but every room seemed defined by the presence of a big dog, its fur and toys.

They were playful, yes, but seriously trained in obedient behaviors. If one jumped up on me–and I felt it like a wooly body slam with often muddy paws–there was a strict command and correction issued by Julie or her parents. But I was not fearful of them, and they were not suspicious of me. Their dogs sat with big feet planted and head at ease as I petted and hugged them a bit, and got a drippy lick on the chin in response, those blue eyes bright and perceptive. Their size and the dense coats and captivating eyes and intelligence–everything about them grabbed my attention. I had never been around dogs so big, fast and agile, smart and good natured–yet also capable of peacefulness. I knew they got out of hand, at times and witnessed antics wherein objects, especially shoes and purses, were but sad, chewed remains. And I heard they loved to chase down cats…not good.

It was efficacious that Julie’s house was large, the yards larger and fenced. And that they were gentle with her, as she moved with an awkward gait, clutching her crutches, from space to space. A few times I watched a husky pull Julie in a wagon or on a sled in winter–they were sure footed, enthusiastic, strong.

When they moved to another city, huskies and all, I felt the losses keenly. Whenever I thought of Julie, I thought of her warmth, good cheer, our easy friendship. And those luxurious Siberian huskies that could knock me over–did a few times–but always welcomed me. I wondered if they had been meant to protect her, too. Because they did, being always at her side or nearby, ready to come to her.

It occurs for the first time as I write that this may be when I fell in love with huskies. As a kid on Ashman Street, playing at Julie’s house. How could I not have seen it?

I always stop when I see one, openly stare. Pat and talk to one if allowed. Their power and grace in motion, peaceful alertness at rest: these are premium four-legged creatures. Proud, dignified and very playful. They work hard, especially in North country in winter as they pull their massive sleds with cargo and driver across frozen land for many miles. Heroic, that’s how they seem to me. Maybe, too, because they likely did look after Julie and she did, them, in all the ways she could.

Since I do admire dogs, in general, I think of getting one, but there are reasons why I have not for many years invited any to stay forever. It has to do with loss, in part, and also with practical circumstances. I feel dogs are healthier and happier in roomy houses and outdoors, in yards, like children–and I don’t know that I’ll ever have a house again. But maybe that is not altogether true; perhaps they can be happy in smaller spaces and on leashed walks, after all. Still, I worry that as I get older my health matters may someday interfere with caring well for a beloved dog. I read about the different breeds. recall ones met and liked out there. I enjoy them from afar–and can play with a friend’s dog when I see them.

In the meantime, there is the new four-legged neighbor. I wonder if it is a male of female, what the name is, how it behaves, who takes care of its needs and wants. I will have to content myself with a small yearning to know this new creature from my balcony. It will be hard to not give it a shout out and a big wave, or to go knock on the new person’s door so I can get a closer look.

“Welcome to our lovely neighborhood–and, oh my, you have a husky!”

She might hopefully offer a smile–but then step back and say,”Hey, wait–were you taking pictures of my dog when I moved in?”

“Ah…guilty, so sorry…You see, I had a special friend as a kid and she had beautiful huskies…”

I need to be patient, time things right so she knows I am friendly toward dogs and also decidedly not a dog nabber. A distant adoration of her Siberian husky will just have to do for now. Then I might suggest she walk the area’s miles of trails with me sometimes–with her dog, of course. My secret doggy crush will come to light soon.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Loving and Learning to Live with Cars

Before you get too excited, this post is not about classic cars though I admire them greatly. I visit the local Matthews Memory Lane, a vintage car business, about once a year with my brother, sister-in-law, and sister, who also feel as I do about fine vehicles. I would not mind snagging one of these shining works of design and function if I could afford such a car for sheer fun.

It is about a short history of my cars, and their untimely demises.

But I really wanted to post a video of my 2 year old granddaughter to demonstrate an early fascination with them. At the park there was an abandoned toddler-type toy that nabbed her attention. She pushed the somewhat-lame, plastic red and yellow child-sized car way down a bumpy, narrow gravel pathway. She got in it once, but it was useless on gravel with a bum wheel. Plus, she was a bit too big for it and it went too slowly for her taste.

So, she climbed out, got behind it and shoved and pushed it all the way to the end–then turned it around–no help, Grandma, she batted my hand away–and pushed it back the other direction, one hand holding onto the car, the other partly on steering wheel. When it veered off the pathway (it was often as it drove badly), she stopped to straighten it up, then got right back to work pushing, guiding it along.

“That’s the spirit, Alera, keep those wheels a-rolling!” I shouted, clapping at her success.

She grinned, kept on. She displayed such curiosity and an attentive, pleased attitude required to become a true car appreciator. The mechanics of the thing were a magnet as she tried to help it perform better. What a marvelous time she had. I had to tear her away from it.

Oh dear, another one in the family…a natural car nut. Where will the car loving, the mechanically inclined/engineering instincts take her one day?

I love cars enough to stop and walk around an interesting or sporty vehicle along the side of a road, then take numerous pictures. I ogle them at stop lights and parking lots. I go to car shows. I try to name cars running on the street from a distance by simple recognition of body style, the distinguishing features that differentiate it from another nameplate with the same or a similar platform. I am pulled in by sensory input of its design, curiosity of what is inside and what it can do, and the imagined scenario of getting in, firing her up, and taking off for a long drive, the power of the engine carrying me to another destination, another state of mind… Car passion. What a wild invention!–Even now, when we worry about emissions and efficiency and safety matters far more than we once did, there is this magnetic attraction..

I have respect for cars, how they intricately work for us, not just for how they look. I have long enjoyed driving, especially on lazy country roads where I can feel the car almost slink down and adhere to curves and take on hills and ease on down to flatter land once more when the gas pedal depresses and we fly together…. (Full disclosure: I fantasized about becoming a race car driver for a short time and like to watch races.) But routine errands as well as trips are also good. It’s relaxing, mostly; I scan the fleeting closer-to-ground views of people and the higher places. Turn on tunes and it can be even sweeter. Riding the roads over mountains, to the sea. Freedom’s bliss, and I am in control. Or so I think.

Well, maybe not so much in city traffic at rush hour. When living in the Detroit area I assiduously avoided freeways even when it took longer. It was like playing chicken; you had to drive 15-20 mph hour over the limit and stake your claim to all your space. Each time you took a car on the road it was a gamble. I don’t miss that; when we moved here, traffic congestion was mild to manageable, and the drivers were so laid back and polite it could be confusing, at times frustrating. Not so much anymore. Marc and I occasionally still say, “Time to get my Detroit on!”–which in our case means being clearly assertive when moving from point A to B successfully. Not preferred, and so I still seek innovative side street directions.

But I still appreciate driving experiences, overall. Even after being in too many car crashes, and truly missing all my lost personal vehicles. Yes, always mine, despite the accidents not being my fault…And I have had only one traffic ticket in my entire life so it’s not as if I am not careful.

My basic car romance started early with my father’s fascination with small foreign cars but also any regular sedan. Although a classical musician/teacher/conductor, he loved to tinker with most anything, especially cars–and motorbikes and bikes. He seemed to have a knack for fixing things, knew his way around things mechanical and made of mysterious parts, a talent I found magical. As a kid, I’d tag along on a Saturday afternoon, studying him as he about-disappeared under the hood of the current vehicle. I stood on tiptoe to see what he was doing in there. And ran for tools and whatever else he wanted, then handed them to him as requested, a very important part of his work, I felt. And riding in a tiny, front-opening Isetta– or even a Fiat– was a blast–even with sputters and trouble starting as much as it revved up and went.

I’d also while away time on our porch watching cars zip or meander down busy Ashman Street, learning the distinctive shapes of cars at an early age. Soon I could name the makes, models and years of increasing numbers of vehicles. If my older sister sat with me, we’d make it a competition to see who named more.

Whatever my teenaged dates drove to pick me up just fascinated me, whether a dented but sturdy GM truck or a flashy new Mercedes with leather seats; a sporty green Triumph Spider or a chugalug black VW Beetle. Let me admire it, settle in and away we go! My favorite was the turquoise 1964 Mustang that a boyfriend drove. Once we drove all the way from Midland in mid-Michigan to Detroit on the freeway and I was ecstatic, the wind blowing my hair about, his driving quite good, the beautiful car taking us far away. I may have fallen in love with the Mustang as much as with him…

I didn’t get my own car as many friends did in high school, but I enjoyed every one they had, and looked forward to the one day I’d have the pleasure of driving my very own, not just my parents’, and rarely. Yet I didn’t get a driver’s license until age 19–I saw no use for it when I got rides, just biked or walked. I didn’t possess a car–there was a truck in our lives when I married, which was fine though I got to drive it very little–until age 24. That, too, was shared with my first husband: an Opel Kadett, brand new and powder blue.

And that’s just when the trouble started. The accidents, the lost cars. It isn’t a tale of fancy or fast cars, but of cars that served me well and that I felt attached to–yes, enough to name a few. You might think I am a poor driver, but that wasn’t the case. I was a fine driver and still th8ink I do well. No, it was always an event beyond my control that happened to the car and anyone inside it– most often, me.

A note: I admire all kinds of vehicles, and require just a basic mode of transportation. I have never owned or wanted to own a really fancy car. I may stare at your Maserati, lust over the vintage turquoise Thunderbird, even secretly pine for a red Mazda RX-9 but really, I want something reliable, comfy and pleasing for daily use.

Accident #1: Driving along a quiet Michigan secondary road to a college class one dusky summer’s eve, I breathed in warm fragrances, admired very tall corn in fields lining the road. Suddenly out of nowhere (a simplistic definition of accident), came a car plowing into me (it was a preacher, full of remorse). He had missed a stop sign at a crossroads, but I knew nothing. I lost consciousness and came to looking down at my body in the speeding ambulance, wondering why I was lying there so still. I knew it had been “close”; I heard the EMTs say so. Our pretty new Opel Kadett was totaled. I had bleeding gashes and a concussion. Whiplash caused significant neck and head pain. I still have neck problems. I still have scars on my forehead–and scar tissue affects how aging skin lays above my eyebrow –and my right knee, as well as that knee gaining a slight weakness. Using crutches for weeks was not easy with a new baby at home. And I no longer drove much for a year. We didn’t replace that car–there was the truck. The scar with pale horizontal stitches is visible about 50 years later; no one remarks on it. But that knee gets crunchy and sore–in fact, has been more so since the last accident though there is nothing to see there–but that old wrinkly scar.

Accident #2: The metallic bronze Buick Century with buff leather seats was driven by one of our teen-aged daughters. She was crashed into while out and about one night. Someone hit her hard as she was joining the traffic flow on a main street in Rochester, MI. Totaled it. She was, thankfully, alright. She did not drive our cars a long time afterwards.

To replace that one was a new Saturn sedan and it lasted about 10 years, a good and dependable car–and was it never in an accident other than a bump or two at parking lots!

To take its place– when the AC didn’t keep working and it burned some oil–was a new Buick Sunfire. It was my son’s initially, but I quickly took it over when he lost a job.

Accident #3: The car of my dreams! My white jazzy Pontiac Sunfire was driven for 12 years. It still ran like a charm. I was looking forward to several more years with it. I loved its sporty lines, fuel efficiency, how it purred just a bit. Another daughter was driving this one on a busier Portland street. As a car merged from a turn, it ran into her and…it was totaled. Daughter walked away intact. I felt quite sad. They don’t even make this car, anymore. I called it Sunny-it always cheered me driving it.

Accident #4: The metallic blue Hyundai Elantra I purchased after the Sunfire was, like most of my cars, purchased for fuel efficiency, excellent safety record, and a quite moderate price. It served me very well, and as with all cars I pay off and keep driving, I liked it more each year and soon gave it the name of Bluebird. I had it so long–12 years– I thought it’d be my last as it had not once been in a shop for repairs. But it was– of course it was– totaled in a crash. I was on my way to ick up a grandson for Thanksgiving in November, 2019. I was tired and had a headache so perhaps I failed to think as fast as I would have otherwise. I made a U-turn and an SUV sped off a highway exit ramp underneath an overpass– and I didn’t see it coming soon enough. The policewoman said we were both at fault and, oddly, did not give tickets to either of us. Perhaps because it was Thanksgiving… Both grandson and I were okay enough, though I suffered a mild concussion and significant whiplash that left my long ago damaged neck in pain for weeks.

I was sorry to say goodbye to my Elantra. So I got a second one.

Accident #5: A trip to the beach for my husband’s birthday gift–as is usual–last week end ended up being a bust. The first day and a half were wonderful in and around Yachats, OR. But it ended fast as we returned to our lodgings following a hike above the ocean. From behind a passing vehicle passed one car and then barreled into my white metallic Hyundai Elantra (the “Dove”) just as we began a turn. After the sickeningly powerful impact on the driver’s side where my husband sat, we heard screams and crying beyond. He and I were very still, Marc saying, “What happened? What happened?” The double air bags had deployed against the left side of his face; he had trouble hearing, his face burned. I could barely breathe. I unclipped my seat belt. My chest and ribs hurt badly, my neck…I thought I was having a dreaded heart attack.

We both were taken by ambulance to a city 30 minutes way, as well as passengers of the passing van that hit us then flipped and landed upside down in a ditch. Six hours of CT-scans, X-rays, blood and urine tests, and then good news: no heart attack (the seat belt must have pressed very hard against me…); no ruined eardrum for Marc; no significant concussions, so we were released. Apparently the other people were, too. I never saw them. But when I understood they had fared okay, I wept. It was an astonishing occurrence that we all walked out of that hospital ER.

The good managers of the cottages where we stayed drove at 11:30 pm to pick us up, as we had no way to get back. We had one more night at our place. They brought us blankets, water, pillows for the ride back. We also were allowed to wait at another empty cottage the following afternoon until our youngest daughter drove over three hours to get us. The managers offered calm words and acts of generosity–their kindness will not be forgotten.

We stopped to find my car at an impound lot that was more a junk yard, or a cemetery of ruined, dead cars. It was not a pretty sight but we took pictures, cleaned it out, got more information from the owner.

I am in need of a new car now. I barely can ponder it after four days. Still, my mind is clearer and sleep better than it was in 2019 after the last accident. Well, soreness increases but mentally I seem less traumatized. Saddened. Weary of our various troubles over the last year and a half and now this. But if truth be told–why not us? Things happen all the time to others that are worse. I count the ways we’ve overcome, celebrated any new ray of light. We were spared this time. I feel especially fortunate once again.

Perhaps I am more at ease because I wasn’t the driver, a position which often carries with it regrets, anger, self-doubt and attendant anxiety. Marc has never been in a high speed car accident as I have, and understands now that it impacts all systems, not just visible flesh. And soon arrives random teariness, shakiness; flashbacks, sleeplessness. It takes time, patience, support and medical aid to recover well from inside out.

My love and respect for the attractive, innovative four-wheeled machines that carry us from one place to another has not decreased. However, I’ve wondered if I might just walk most places from our home as I am a veteran walker, anyway. Or get a bike. But we live in a landscape that is informed by steep hills, not a flat grid. I’m perhaps not as energetic or strong as I was at forty so it would require training for me to take a bike to these roads. The last few years I’ve longed for a moped, a zippy scooter. I sometimes ride one of my son’s down his quiet road, what a blast that is. (I once rode motorcycles, what a treat.) Perhaps a sunny yellow Vespa for this older woman’s forays into the wider world? But my husband declines to support this desire, convinced I would be at risk of another debacle, sad to say. He would have me drive a Hummer or, more to the point, a Humvee.

He may be right. The traffic has continued to worsen in Portland metro. And there are frankly a tremendous number of cyclists on the road, as well. It can be a task to doge them safely, as well, amid all the honking and lane crossings. Twenty first century hurdles. I may be better off on foot, on sidewalks. Or taking a bus or train–the train is especially useful here but not a pleasure in a pandemic.

In any case, we will get over this and go on. And be more alert, driving ever more defensively. The reality is, though, that accidents simply happen, random events that alter, damage or even end a life. In my case, the damage has been such that it can be lived with and worked with over time. We well eluded death’s snare…so thankfully.

But just now came a phone call from the car rental agency. My car is available tonight and for the next month if needed. And it’s a new Mustang convertible. Can you believe it? I’m all in!

Hold on, I may want this one–a car that is forever cheery!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: This Body Talks: Self Acceptance

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It was the heat, which had soared to new heights, then settled at an acceptable glow (punctuated by random sizzles) on the skin, and that swimming pool before me. They brought me thoughts of summer and body, confidence and a little uncertainty, a big dose of happiness. I witnessed the last before me: daughter, Alexandra, held close one toddler twin granddaughter (encased in a life jacket that bobbed at chin) and in they went. Splashed, squealing, as they sank into so-blue water (painted concrete a tropical hue) with bursts of gaiety. The other twin looked on, a finger to lip, head at an angle, wandered back to a chaise lounge, then back to check the water with tentative toes. I desperately wanted to jump in but was fully clothed so contented myself at the edge, feet dangling in soft, clear, cool water. Alexandra had been suddenly moved by the spiking temperature and inviting water when I’d visited, unprepared. But the duo in the pool radiate delight, voices raised in summer celebration. Soon those little girls will learn to swim.

So I need to order a new swimsuit. I have an older one that I used when enjoying pools at hotels when tagging along on business trips with Marc, or on vacation. I’m ready for something comfier and fresher, admittedly perhaps done with a suit that displays greater jiggly parts, even the nicer ones. Though I stop to consider my older body less than the ageless spirit: just let me in that water, let me slice through it but gently. I have enough confidence to jump right in. I want to do a breast stroke, side stroke, back stroke, then float from one end to the other. I’d even dive in if I could.

I am not great at the simple crawl–partly, no doubt, because I must keep half-opened eyes above surface if I want to keep contact lenses intact, yet also see. I need prescription swim goggles if I take to water more. Still, swimming is not my best athletic activity. It might be one–I am a water lover from way back when we kids and adults all jammed into old Central Park swimming pool. But I’d need a pool more handy. If there also was no pandemic to beware. For now I need to find place and time where I’m able to swim without being bonked on the head with sudden flailing feet or a crocodile floatie. My own neighborhood pool is likely re-opened; part of a recreational center, it is indoors only, however. I want sunshine bathing arms, chest, face, legs–not a glare of overhead fluorescent lights.

I watch twins and daughter and decide I will buy a new suit, pronto. I will swim, too. Even if the thought of my flesh exposed gives me a a very minor pause. What can I tuck away, what can be freed up? Does it even matter to me? I go home when the fun is done and recall how it has been thus far to romp about in this body. It has been pretty much a blast.

Wasn’t it, isn’t it?

Overall. The higher points making up for the low, and far more often than not, anymore.

******

Okay, let’s get the hard part of the story over with. There are pictures of me I wish were never taken; many have been torn up and tossed. We all have those, of course. But for me they reveal several years of telltale signs of a life unwell. The sharp truth of things. I look into those bluely hollowed eyes and ask: Where were you? Who took over? Yet it was me, all along, only hijacked here and there. Taken leave of a full array of senses at times. Hungry even if unaware of it, often lonely, unfortunately rather angry though trying hard not to be, and tired. I often seem grim even when trying to smile, as if I begrudged anyone daring to snap the shot. And see the reality: Cynthia, surviving but struggling.

I was far too thin. I don’t think I knew how thin until I saw the photos. So thin that I had trouble finding clothes to fit without checking the youth section–finding a women’s size 0 or 00 was almost impossible. This is not preferred when you are an adult. Not when everything hangs from your spare shoulders and bony hips, as if you are a mannequin. Yet, how often other women remarked they wished they had such a “problem”… I must emphasize: it was a terrible way to live. I weighed perhaps 100 pounds, often less. I know this not because we had a scales; I mostly haven’t had one, at all. But my doctors weighed me every time w ith a shake of the head, and remarked on it as it dipped, fell and then rose a tiny pound or two–and it left me without much fat on my bones. I dreaded those scales.

I look, in those pictures, emaciated. I look, during those times, haunted. Exhausted. I’d be awake until 1 or 2 am, doing laundry, ironing, planning for the next day’s schedule for five children’s activities. Writing a bit. Then up by 6:30 am.

Which would have been alright in my twenties and thirties except that I could barely eat. I did sleep, wiped out each night. All young parents get tired. They just have more fuel than I had to get up and do it all over again. I was chronically ill but didn’t yet know how ill.

I had been diagnosed with colitis at 21, and the years following was given more related diagnoses. They all meant the same thing to me: challenges to overcome. A body that sometimes seemed to hate me as I grew up, one I have needed to love and care for. We had been in happy cahoots so long…not so much, anymore. I tried to be as strong as I needed to feel. It worked as long as I could act as if all was alright.

But I also sometimes drank too much; it took less than you’d imagine to do the job with little fat on my body plus a history of substance abuse as a teen. Two or three stiff mixed drinks gulped when everyone was gone, a quick shot in the shower. Believe me, even a few weeks of this impacted my life–and using up a great deal of energy. It didn’t improve things though it numbed part of the pain awhile. But not all. There were marital problems, kid worries, money challenges–all the time, all those years. Digestion problems had been in my life since childhood and then alcohol did more damage to my system.

I ate what I could manage; eating had long and often made me sick as if I had flu or food poisoning. It was a challenge to enjoy any entire meal that I prepared daily for our family. I ate a few scraps as I washed their plates. And a lot of bread with butter, jam, a dab of peanut butter as that usually settled okay.

Gastroenterologists gave me medications that were frankly addictive. I ended up in the hospital for substance issues and was seriously informed I was beginning to starve. It wasn’t pretty, it was first another ER and then writhing in bed feeling caged and too ill. I had severe gastritis, and the colitis had worsened. It was a shock to me, the near-starving part. I didn’t drink a lot, not as much or often as others; I took my prescriptions and had found them difficult to cut back, stop. The fact was, I ate the best I could and never could keep any good weight on. I smoked Newport cigarettes and drank too much coffee and I only learned later that these added to the problems.

At some point I thought I’d get stronger, enough to keep on, and so drank protein drinks once a day as well as a very ight meal and engaged in body building at the gym 4-5 times a week. I developed much better muscle and better peace of mind, but my 5 ft. 4 inch body was basically all muscle and lots of obvious bones…No one helped me with nutrition those years, and I knew too little to sufficiently address my needs. I had tried to trust doctors so turned to them again: Find me safer drugs, I have a busy life to try to manage! Eventually I got a bit better. Again, shuffled drugs to maintain some semblance of eating.

This went on so many years it was just life, the weight up and down–105, 100, 95 lbs., lower. (Once a little boy asked his mother if I was a boy or a girl when at the swimming pool. I was wearing a bikini but was so skinny it was apparently hard to be sure…) Because I was in chronic pain when I ate, but in chronic pain when I didn’t. It could fell me, bring on gritted teeth and blinked away tears and send me to the emergency room. I tried to hide it from the children, even hid myself until it passed; I did not complain unless it was too much. I had to keep going, that was all. It was just colitis acting up, it wouldn’t kill me I had been told. (At 21, when married the first time, I sipped on a bottle of paregoric gotten in an Appalachian pharmacy during our honeymoon. It was needed to keep on and eat at all; we were camping, I wanted to be alright. Six months later I was in the emergency room seriously ill with much blood loss but recall nothing of the week there except IVs and being nauseous when offered real food again.)

In any case, I had attended university and a decade later believed I needed to accomplish far more. So I got a nice job that started my human services career. And took care of the growing kids as my husband travelled more, climbing up his ladder of success. I exercised and worked on staying alcohol free and staying off prescribed drugs that were still problematic (being narcotic- and barbiturate-based). I was successful much of the time although that made the s symptoms harder to bear. Discouragement dogged me. One doctor suggested a partial colostomy as a final option. Or just live with it. I left in tears, yet was determined to find another way.

But how? It was what it was, and I did know it could be worse. I was not terminally ill as long as I stayed sober and clean. I still found much to appreciate in my life. It just took some work–except for my children, whom I loved beyond reason. For whom I so wanted to be well.

Years passed. There came a more committed sobriety, a couple of divorces, a move to Oregon, a new battery of doctors. Food intolerances, I was told, were the big bad extra culprit. I could learn to help myself more! Discovering I was severely lactose intolerant was a revelatory experience. It wasn’t the entire answer, but a major change in my well being. I learned about other foods I tolerated poorly. I discovered that it was a kind of genetic Achilles heel–most of my birth family had similar or the same diagnoses, I discovered when talking more with them. (Also, my children have coped with this to some degree.) I began to eat more healthily, a diet I could better live with, and began to gain a bit of weight. Even if I had the same diagnoses, I learned how to manage all more effectively.

I was in my early forties before I knew all this. For a short time I bitterly asked God why I had to lose so much time, be sick so long along with all other ordeals. But that attitude got me exactly nowhere fast except in a pit of self pity, as usual, so I looked forward to better times.

One day my young adult son told me after a big hug “hello”: “This is how my mother should feel when hugged!”

It stunned, perhaps hurt a little at first. Then I knew I had done some things right. We may not know what family and friends truly think, how illnesses widely affect them. They accepted me as I was, yes–they loved me. But they had worried a long time, too.

It took what it took. I figured out how to avoid some foods and cautiously eat others, and feel safer about food, in general. I have had ups and downs with this; I still have digestion illnesses to manage. But in time I began to add more pounds, and discovered more energy. I was excited about often being outdoors again–hiked, walked and more. Daily. I quit smoking. I got better jobs, went back to college. I learned to steer clear of abusive relationships. Soon I embraced my life in the Pacific Northwest and became more resilient and at peace as I enjoyed a healthier lifestyle. I was opening to more happiness. It took redoubled efforts if I failed my goals, a stubborn faith, and the peculiar dance of time. I still have to intelligently oversee health problems– there are a few at 71, but none I can’t recover from, so far. But I am not thin, anymore. I am closer to an average sized woman. I am so relieved and glad of it.

Close to thirty years ago, people began to tell me I was changing, even looked different. Some from my twenties and thirties told me they didn’t recognize me, at first. My face and body changed, yes. But I had long been such a serious person and a person who kept her head up even when it hurt to raise it, and walked hard with shoulders squared to keep from feeling beaten down and falling over. But I had begun to soften around internal and outer edges, smiled more readily. Laughed. And tears were not swallowed.

Well, I said, I am healing up…I got through some stuff. And I watch what I drink and eat–I never eat dairy that has lactose– and I hike!

Long, long before all this, I was a child and youth at ease in my skin, my body filled with energy and my mind confident of much. Enthralled with life’s offerings even with hard times coming and going. I was engaged in a variety of physical activities. So here I was about to enter middle age, and I’d begun to think I was undewrgo8ing a true transformation. It seemed a bit like a return to that more whole part of myself. Step by step, prayer by prayer, more knowledge each day.

I was no longer anxious about seeing myself in a photograph. I looked in a mirror on tough days and felt compassion–for the woman I had been and the one I was becoming.

******

I early on felt I was born fortunate, given a life to live that had a plethora of opportunities and good times. My parents taught me gratitude, about being humble; I learned it also at church. Counting blessings was something done every night during prayer around our dinner table. And I was thankful for people in my life, for different kinds of abilities, for opportunities to enjoy learning and wondering–and in a pleasant city. I deeply appreciated our yard and fully utilized it, as if it was a few acres for continual exploration, not just a moderately good city yard. It was one of many spots I grew up with a basic optimism and my “companion” of curiosity.

And I sure didn’t think one thing or another about how I looked or came across to others. I wore glasses by the second grade as I was very near-sighted. I may have been teased a bit about the thick lenses, but it rolled off me. I was average in size, perhaps leaning toward thinner, and nothing special. My mother sewed most of my clothes–expertly but, still, they were seldom bought until I was a late teen. Everything seemed okay, good enough. Mom rarely said anything about my appearance– except that I ought to keep my bangs off my face or get them cut short so she could see my eyes and I could see the world. One of my sisters teased me at times about being thinner than she was, as she liked to eat more than I did (I’d already had a few digestion concerns), and carried some extra weight. But to me she was just my closest sister– until she explained how that was for her years later. What I knew as a kid was that she was a fantastic softball player, a good musician, sometimes hard on me but often fun.

I loved to engage in creative pursuits from a young age (a family proclivity)–music, art, dance, writing– but I was equally passionate about getting physical. Riding my bike, swimming, tree climbing, running races, playing “Kick the Can” at twilight, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing, croquet, badminton, hopscotch and jump rope, baseball and basketball, water skiing and snow skiing, volleyball, tennis, a little boating–well, you name, I’d try it. My parents didn’t like to fish or seriously hike (though we camped in a pop-up) or I’d have done those, too. They were a bit athletically inclined: Dad played tennis, loved to cycle and enjoyed sailing; Mom was on a girls’ basketball team in school (unusual for the mid-1920s), had terrific energy and stamina. By the time I was born they were forty years old, far too busy to play a game with me often.

I got a charge from the slow mastery of skills with new active endeavors. That sense of gradual confidence was powerful and pleasing. Plus, it was fun, even thrilling to feel muscles stretch and grab, the heart pump, senses sharpen; to reach new goals, to help a group win a competition. I didn’t feel inferior to other girls or boys I knew and don’t recall being harassed for being a girl on any team or for “playing like a girl” in its negative connotation. I played hard, worked to gain better skills and had a great time doing it. A competitor at heart, it was easy to get in there and push myself.

I had a basic physical confidence. I simply had the drive to move (even when playing my cello or writing or drawing). Despite not always feeling well. Despite wearing glasses until I was 14–when I became a cheerleader at school, why not? (Despite childhood abuse, which hadn’t quite caught up with me.) Over the years I studied and faithfully practiced figure skating, and ballet and modern dance. There were times I thought I wanted to be an athlete–or a worldwide adventurer–or at least a dancer–when I grew up. There was simply not enough time to do all of what brought me joy. I wanted to fully inhabit the pleasures of strength, competence and power that came from moving within my body, with purpose, for fun or serious goals.

Being alive struck me as a fantastic chance to do and learn more, human senses vibrant and responsive to all. Every nerve woke up with me as I awakened and stood up: a new day. It was pure magic to smell the flowers beneath my window, hear the babble of voices downstairs mingled with music, see the honeyed light fall across my toes. It was youth, it was being present in flesh and soul. It was simplicity of ordinary happiness.

None of that had much to do with what society thought of me, how my body or face were viewed, what I wore, how I fit in with the rest. What mattered was learning well and then doing. And just being me, living among the great span of humanity, feeling part of and also accounted for in the infinite universe. I believed in myself even if someone doubted me. I felt I could do things and so I got started and did them. My parents supported this spirit–usually.

Yes, I know I was born fortunate and that made a big difference. And I continue to enjoy discovering opportunities to embrace new skills, expand my limits, experience something from another perspective. Pushing the limit. Heart disease? I’ll walk faster, longer, harder. Gut troubles? I’ll take the pill if I must and step out in the sunlight, go on the best I can. I am relieved to be able to welcome life. To live it also amid heartache and hardships. To do this, that and the other as attentively as possible. And I have learned to accept, too, the reality of limitations when it is clear they are to be heeded. I can gain focus and restfulness by sitting out a hike or swim or dance, as well. Patience brings insights, more peace….as long as I go along with the natural rhythm and order of things. The mind and soul remain active. We have this time to take it in, accept some assistance, and give some back. And soon I am back on my feet, one way or another.

Hopefully into a new swimsuit and into the water. I want to play in the pool with our fabulous twins, help them learn to float. I want to abandon all and drift upon the lulling surface, dive to the bottom and rush back up. So I have a bit of weight on me these days, my hair has streaks of white and ordinary scars and lines map my face and body with human travels. I am not impressed one way or the other.

I think of what has been endured thus far, how my human trajectory across time has been punctuated by divine interventions, beautiful surprises. I have taken–dragged, lifted, tolerated, ranted at, had mercy for— this body with me for the long haul and it, me.

And I am not ashamed of, or embarrassed by, this loosening fleshy envelope within which I live my life. It was given to me as a grand opportunity to do what I could and still can. I have treated it much better than when I was still uneducated. fearful, lost or too ill. And my body has served me with a certain flair, and has granted me grace more often than I can count. So even with the pain: I thank you, my earthly transport across time, for carrying me still. We’ve got this–so let’s swim!

Photo by Juan Salamanca on Pexels.com

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Gift of Caring and Learning to Receive

I am learning something new the past few weeks. I might not have to be quite as alone in my life as I crawl past the sudden death of a granddaughter. And worsened chronic illness, a year of my spouse’s unemployment, various troubles for five adult children here and there. And, yes–the pandemic, how can I note that last? The toll it has taken on humanity. On us each. That there might be care and aid for this woman–me, Cynthia–is amazing to me even after a fulfilling career offering help of all sorts to others. In truth, I was considering calling a therapist but put it off each week, waiting things out. You know…I can do this, it all takes time, I will get through this and be alright, I can tread water a lot longer….I know how grief fans open and closed and open…that sort of putting it off.

If you would, then, look above: the photo provides a semblance of what solace can be and do for me: losing self by creating an interesting scenario; meditating on curiosities and life’s beauty; being still; listening/watching/feeling. I could insert a photograph of the sea or mountains or a path winding through dense forest. Nature is clearly a focal point but not always. It might be playing favorite or new music or letting my own sudden singing flow; making a bit of art or dancing on my twilit balcony, hidden by trees. It might, then, be two lanterns, a solar kaleidoscopic sphere, and a flower. Sitting in the darkness as light sifts through it, seeing varied shapes amid softening colors. Birdsong in tiny bursts about me quieting at end of day, while the owl resumes its part with haunting calls. These cover me with ease, the simplest things. That presence of divine creation flows to and fro. I take it in, nourishment for my great hunger. I feel fuller, better.

Solitude–literally, figuratively–has been a close companion of mine for the duration of my life. Its arrival can be bittersweet, but first and last familiar, so an overall welcome state. Sometimes warm and cozy, sometimes cool and detached, it is like a second skin, a delight yet protective and flexible, as much a part of me as the blue myopia of my eyes.

I don’t think being solitary is completely a choice but an ingrained manner of living. A habitual behavior. I don’t readily stop to enumerate all options– and those that do come to mind are often due to being taught other ways. That one can have solitariness and connection with others–even though we are, of course, all by our human selves ultimately. But I apparently don’t have to expect always to be left to my own devices. A novel idea when first informed of it, and not quite accepted as truth. I am still working on it at 71; it seems that with age comes a bit of wisdom then greater leaps of learning.

Don’t get me wrong, solitude is a good thing much of the time; it appeals to the creativity I nurture, the writer and musician and thinker that stirs daily in me. I am at home with it in a myriad ways and for different means. And I was trained how to behave in the public at an early age, to interact with people in a civil, appropriately warm manner. It was a good thing. But solitude and being so much a solitary person–alone–are not quite the same, either.

Solitariness ceased being an action taken consciously–that drawing deep into self, figuring out how to endure then flourish alone, perhaps later with others –when I found myself alone as a child and desperately needed protection. But didn’t get it. Ever. Not even when my mother–a good mother but a mother constrained by societal expectations and her circumstances, her own fears– knew I was in need. I fended for myself and played my roles well enough. But then it was on to a turbulent and risky, oftentimes dangerous, youth and adulthood. Walking on a knife-thin edge while trusting my own intuition and sense of balance didn’t 100% pan out. Still, I developed survival instincts that, if not always physical rescues, were more emotional and spiritual saves. At a price. Surviving comes with a price one must be willing to pay. I have been willing. And able. That or give up, and never give up, I used to counsel myself, so outwit the victimizers, the everyday charlatans. Find the path through the world that allows you to stay alive, keep moving and keep sight of the Light.

I noted as a mental health/addictions counselor that such attitudes and behaviors are common for those who experience crushing, life changing events. If it soon is clear there is no rescue, no aid of any sort, clients devised creative ways to cope and survive. Or gave up. PTSD is brutal until it is understood and managed but in truth, there may be more harshness or (real or perceived) “punishment” and repercussions to cope with; life brings us a wide array of experiences. People can judge wrongly.

It takes arduous labor to move beyond this, years of praying (for me) and identifying markers or warning signs both within and without–to identify actual reasons for self defense and let go of misperceived experience. Then there is a pull back, and then construction of new coping skills. It is largely practical, not just emotional change. It becomes more natural to choose the healthy versus the unworkable response. And a person develops healthier perspectives, better decision making, freedom from past reactive or self destructive behaviors. It can be done, is being done by people every day. They learn to trust step by step–themselves first and, slowly, others.

If I know all this, why the persistent belief that I need to deal with life’s eruptions, twists and random barriers primarily alone? Habits are hard to change at the root. And they can seem comfortable, even when not the best. Change can be jarring, confusing, but it doesn’t tend to kill us; bad habits can and do. What can we do to save ourselves? Can I–can you–take new risks required?

Or, somewhat more complicated, can I actually “wake up” enough once more to see that I am being offered simple aid? We may think we are alert and smart enough….Consider how I had to pay attention anew, let go of old belief and practice other behaviors. It has just begun to sink in the past few days. The immensity of its impact has been worth musing over.

I shared this briefly before in a recent post, but there is a greater point to it. Skip this part of you need to but continue if you can…

I was grocery shopping on June 17 at 2:58 pm. when my phone dinged and showed a picture of my daughter, Naomi, standing on my front porch. I thought it was a weird joke she was making. I brushed it off and kept shopping, but my heart started to race. In a few moments I went outside to look at hanging flower baskets. And then I responded to her with disbelief: Is this real? Because Naomi lives in S. Carolina and only recently had driven to Colorado for the summer, where her guy lives–and I am in Oregon. When she affirmed she was standing on my porch, I nearly lost it. I raced home and found her and we hugged and hugged and I would have bawled if I wasn’t so excited. And then a bit worried about Covid-19, though we are both vaccinated. (That anxiety passed; we have been safe enough.)

Let me tell you something about her–besides that she is a sculptor, an award-winning educator, an international traveler, a brilliant woman (a talented/gifted-identified kid by 9, flew through college SATs at 11) who could flourish in any number of careers. Of course I am proud of her, as I am of all my children. But who she is can seem a true mystery and was from the start. Who creates block designs and buildings for a few hours without stopping, no distraction at just over two years? Then you get to know her more…although she explains almost nothing abut herself….And when she knows and cares for you, her loyalty is deep and wide. She has heart far bigger than her 105 pounds can keep to itself. She has soul, the kind that is hitched to the stars but swooped down here to see what she can learn and offer. She has a dry, quirky sense of humor, can offer lightning speed solutions to many conundrums, can be so quiet you have to look for her nearby. Is a workhorse when it comes to interests and passions. Self directed; don’t try to deter her. She shares characteristics with her equally individualistic–we are not so much a moderate or ordinary… if there is one of those–sisters and brother. But Na is, well, Na. (Those who know, understand this statement.)

So if she sent me a picture of herself smiling at my doorstep–“just in the neighborhood, thought I’d say hi”— it could be a digital joke, a forecast of the future, or a dream come true.

But who hops in a vehicle and drives across the country not only to see her guy Adam–but then her mother? Not for any particular reason, or so it seems at first glance…and without ever telling the mom–me? In fact, tells her she cannot make it out this year, likely. But then tells her siblings (and aunt and uncle who come later) to keep it a secret. Naomi does. But her sisters and brother are in on the plan. Maybe it was the fact the most of my birthdays the last ten years have been impacted by a family member’s death (and some of Marc’s family) and funeral. It happens so often, it is quite peculiar. Or perhaps it was that she heard something in my voice during phone calls she made sometimes twice weekly and daily texts for a couple of months–the weariness, spaciness, tears held back. And, without a doubt, she needed to see her family as much as coming for me/us. She could not make it for our Krystal’s funeral. To hug her sister Aimee beloved mother of Krystal…and share the love with everyone else.

Over the course of about ten days with us, Naomi slept on an air mattress in our living room without complaint. She did so many considerate things, it’s harder to recall what she did not do for me, for us. She made delicious food. She went out and picked berries in heatwave-blazing sun to give to us all though she has very pale, sensitive skin so must slather on heavy SPF to be outside too long. She joined Aimee and me for an indulgent pedicure even though she is not about pedicures. She scheduled and visited her siblings and their kiddos in safe ways (due to Covid). She visited Annie, widow of my brother, Gary; she’s an artist, too, so they caught up about their work.

Naomi also brought me a beautiful handmade ceramic cup; she knows I value unique ceramic mugs and cups almost as much as she does. She wants us to get a dog and kept showing me pictures, offering to go with me to a rescue center (declined, not ready for one–they die). We took walks together. Talked, talked, talked. Debated. We don’t always see eye-to-eye; both of us argue a point well and learn stuff in the process. She brought home a shiny green succulent for no good reason other than it is attractive, and not killable as it’s hard to keep plants alive in our shady home…its name is Bertha or maybe Jeanne, we shall see. She washed up dishes, cleaned some, kept her things tidy. And updated with Marc each night when he got home from work, shared anecdotes and laughter. She can talk to anyone, I think, I have seen it occur anywhere. This from a kid who rarely spoke unless absolutely required. Who hid, and yet has embraced the world and living.

When we went to visit her brother, Josh. It was a good time–we rode little motorbikes, crazy fun, gabbed. She gave him two huge walnut and metal sculptures that their father, a builder and sculptor, made decades ago. (He is deceased.) “The Guardians” are perhaps over four feet tall and heavy, but she drove across country with them in the back of her SUV. And there was a third that Ned, their dad, had never finished; it is now Josh’s to finish. (He makes art, too.)

For all I know, she also gave gifts to her sisters. This is her way, little surprises in the mail or hand delivered.

The night before she left to meet up with her guy in CA. and to explore the redwood forests –he was pausing on a meandering motorcycle trip–she insisted we have an “art party”. I was tired out from having so much fun, and was preparing for imminent arrival of my brother, sister-in-law and our sister, plus a couple of cousins. But Alexandra, her youngest sister, arrived on time as ever, and so we sat down at the balcony table. Naomi got things sorted out for us, then snip, paste, add some color, snip, position and paste magazine pictures on a small piece of watercolor paper. Little artsy collages began to take shape as we gave way comfy quietness with quips here and there. We were at it for an hour, then lined them up. Not too shabby. Yes, it was time I’m glad we shared!

It wasn’t an aching goodbye the next day. I was distracted by planning the casual lunch here with more family the day after. Marc and I were also frantically trying to locate an air conditioner, something we never need in OR. but this June the historic heat wave had commenced with ferocity. (Found a clunky one at a “grow shop” of all places. If you don’t know what t that is….Oregon legalized marijuana.) Naomi noted she and Adam were going up the Oregon coast (he on motorcycle, she in car) and might stop at Cannon Beach where my brother, sister-in-law, Marc and I were soon headed. So, it was a cushy hug but not a last-of-visit hug.

This, then, was the first portion of my repeat lesson in being offered and accepting loving care. But you know how when, for example, someone compliments you and it slides off you until it catches you off guard later? That’s what happens to me. I am continuing to figure out how to acknowledge and be present with deliberate, genuine kindness. To be open to/accepting of love like that–yes, even with family.

The second part of my tutelage was about to happen.

My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Judy–came out to visit Marc and myself, our sister, Allanya, and other family members. Their trip was also cross country but it was planned to include taking photos at scheduled stops, as well as taking workshops with photographers throughout the states. This is one of their true passions, creating great photographs; they excel at it. So it was a first big trip to do that and see family in two years as the pandemic began to wane. They’d spend three days in the Portland area, then Marc and I would share a beach lodge with them for the final days of their visit.

How to describe a brother I knew minimally for 40 years or more? He is seven years older than I am, and one of four older siblings often busy and gone, then off to universities by the time I was nearing teen years. In this brother’s case, college led to the military for about 30 years. Then came marriages and children; we lived in cities far from one another. I didn’t know him at all. I recalled he laughed easily when young and teased me a bit, but far less so for years after Viet Nam. I was very affected by his new quietness and faraway eyes. I wanted to know him, but did not get a chance. He moved elsewhere.

I moved to the Northwest at 42; three other siblings lived In WA. and OR. I felt somewhat close to all three, more so very shortly as I was welcomed. (It was Allanya who persuaded me to leave MI. with two teenaged children and settle here.) Wayne and Judy lived another life back east. It was only when they flew out that we met up. I visited at their home three times: when my young brood and husband visited long ago, then for his 70th and my 60th. And at some point things changed, perhaps when Dad, then some years later, Mom both passed away. It was us five siblings, orphaned. He and Judy visited the Northwest more. They’d travelled the world often but when retired from the military, it became most of every year. So what a pleasure to see them here and there. I felt we got more familiar with each other, stayed in touch more regularly. With the pandemic, there were more check ins.

But I was not prepared for their response when Krystal died. They knew her minimally, for she passed at 28 but did not grow up here, had lived overseas for some time before returning to Portland. They reached out often. It meant so much to hear their voices, their sympathy and concern gently offered.

When Wayne–long before that– had emailed their plans about visiting this June, it concerned me a little. Would we be safe, even with vaccinations? Wouldn’t it be hard to relax inside our home with other people? It was a strange thought–mingling, talking in person! But when June crept up, I was looking forward to it. Arrive they did, first visiting Allanya who lives with her partner in an assisted living facility. She, to our confoundment, has dementia.

It was the day Naomi left and they arrived that I noticed something different. How the distance between us felt smaller. What a joy to welcome them even with the cloud of sadness around my shoulders and brain. Later, at lunch with our sister, conversation ebbed and flowed, food was tasty, the surroundings pleasant in an air conditioned restaurant as temperatures rose ever higher outdoors. Allanya, thoughts shared occasionally, seemed happy, too. They insisted on paying the bill. I thought Okay, next time but no; this continued.

Lesson here: be gracious. Pride is not all that helpful. Accept despite a cringing discomfort. Marc and I have tried always to pitch in, have taken good care of ourselves and family. But sometimes the life’s loads shift. We’ve helped others and this time we may need to appreciate being recipients. So I told myself. ( Marc is recently employed again, things shall improve–amen.)

Following lunch, we visited a classic car dealership with Allanya. She loves to see and touch the old polished, fancy cars–I took a picture of her posing cheerily beside a vintage turquoise Thunderbird. We all have admiration so took more photos. Then we ferried her back home, and fell silent. What can be said of gradually losing parts of a sister in plain sight…it is misery. We love her so dearly.

The following day, our lunch gathering took place. Our house was filled with expressive exchanges–we are a loquacious bunch–with burgers, chicken kabobs, hot dogs grilled and more. I oscillated between tending to needs, listening, smiling and feeling blank, staring out the window at flowers on the balcony as they slowly wilted in the 112 degree heat. Time passed, the place emptied. When might such a meeting of family happen again, all parties present? It went so fast. This thing called time!-it flashes by and before we know it…

Then to the beach–Wayne, Judy, Marc and me. Allanya had wanted to go until she decided not to go…disappointing but, too, she’d get dizzy on mountain roads and it might be too much being away from her partner and their dogs. Not only short term memory is lessening; she is much less apt to get out and go even with me. How fun it may have been, siblings hanging out at a pretty spot close to the sea. She once owned a weekend home on a bay of the ocean…we stayed there so many times. Followed furtive deer. Studied starry skies.

The next 24 hours were not easy, just as it had not been the previous week. I have been alone so long. Most of us have been. Yes, Marc and I have gone on outings, but mostly he tends to do his thing, I do mine, like any longstanding couple. Now he is employed again and the rooms are empty of other voices. And I can weep, write poetry, read, be deeply silent, leave any time. All by myself. People can be taxing. And they can be wonderful. But life and death, they move with us, like my hands at labor or rest, like my soul and mind.

The lodging was attractive: high ceilings with beams, many windows to encourage drifting sunlight, rooms a-plenty– it was giant cabin. I was still glad to be there despite tension in my shoulders, a nagging headache, a slight loss of internal balance. Did it show too much, I wondered? I had tried to be present for a week with family, even when the undertow of sorrow and exhaustion pulled hard.

So what was the 3.5 day schedule, the agenda? There was none, other than to eat when we got hungry, sleep when tired. Marc and I roamed the beach as early eve arrived half-golden, then blue, then on fire with sunset. The sea’s visual infinity, its music and the sand underfoot buoyed me. I opened my lungs, breathed in the air and wind arriving all the way from who knows where. It helped, but not entirely. Still uncertain of myself, my role somehow–who was I without our other siblings, who are we in the current iterations of life’s flux– we finally slept, fitfully, at a distance. The next day, a short visit from Alexandra, her husband and the twins for lunch–they drove out from Portland to see her aunt and uncle once more. Marc and I walked the beach for miles; knots loosened from my shoulders, head cleared more. And then he left for home for the work week.

I got a clue and conceded the obvious: the whole point was to do nothing. The trip to Cannon Beach was to gather loosely, unwind, take it easy, enjoy whatever desired. Have a respite. To hang out with Wayne and Judy, sometimes do things on our own, other times shared. Wayne offered information about photography and camera functions, nicely gave me items I could use with my Cannon. Judy and I caught up at length; it was lovely getting to know her better. To feel the time, miles and experiences that separated us move aside so more connecting points might be made. They are intellectually stimulating, responsive, accomplished and cosmopolitan–and caring people. More independent and driven than am I, they know their way about the wide, mad world. Yet we are only people trodding the paths; we each have our own.

I slept better, dreaming my way through nebulous panorama of night. Awakened later than planned. It didn’t matter. We whiled away the morning, slipped into afternoon. Naomi and Adam arrived and joined at the table. Joshua (who, days after Krystal’s funeral, came upon a gruesome dead body on a remote hike; remains distressed, in addition to our own loss) and his wife and stepsons joined us awhile. We enjoyed beach time then dug into a decent meal; more talk, then off they all went. We had a carousel of family get togethers over a few days. Naomi and I resolved to see one another before another year passes…and so, farewell, firstborn daughter.

That night I slept as I hadn’t in weeks. Just as I had eaten and savored food as I had not in far too long. Up early the next day, we packed and left and that was the end of that side trip. Wayne and Judy went on to other states, seeing friends and photographing more landscapes and architecture or whatever pulls them in for a closer look. Saying goodbye to two more family members was warm, sweetly sad.

“Sister,” my brother said as he hugged me.

“My brother,” I managed.

The two weeks were a sort of magic. No, more–they were restorative, a start of healing. I had prayed for help and yet everything given me was a surprise, a reveal of mysterious powers of love. I have been paused and re-set–I have come back to my more balanced self a little more. Since I was able to try to accept these gifts, I regained a clearer, broader viewpoint. It took some defense shedding; there have been fewer, though, since mid April. I imagine God has more work to do with my participation, in any case. I am an eager student once more.

For every death of a loved one, there is a doorway that takes us back to all others we mourn and it begins to feel like nakedness in the world, and as if we must protect ourselves more. We are helplessly laid bare in sorrow. We are like children, or like souls whose bodies are useless. So it took more willingness to receive and also give back–attention, trust, time, compassion, empathy.

You might think it would be natural; I do know much about helping others gain human skills and strengthening attributes. But I have limits as we all do. I was struggling before my daughter and brother arrived–with the powerful weight of life amid the subterranean anchor of death, with exhaustion from too much happening too fast. With the strangeness of juxtaposition: beauty and wonder with shock and horror. The day Krystal died was the twin granddaughters’ second birthday. It was a bright and joyous day…and we got the call and raced to her apartment building. Saw the medical examiner at the door. Aimee and Alexandra and I saw our loved one, suddenly gone unbelievably still. It stays with us every day and night. My daughter Aimee struggles with her grief as anyone would who has lost a child, wants to hide away–though she and her partner came to our family luncheon, unexpectedly. I can only stand by, powerless except for my love and that pains me though I understand it.

In my birth family circle Wayne and Allanya and I are who we have now. That ole fast talking, laughing, insightful Allanya we knew best and longest recedes a little with each visit. We have lost our parents, a brother and sister, a nephew, a brother-in-law–there is no pretending things are otherwise. But I have the blessings of my children, the grandchildren still alive including Krystal’s brother, Tyler. Things happen when you least expect it. Yet one greets each day as it comes. We culture our hope like a pearl, the abrasion of living polishing, turning it over. And we aim for goodness in ourselves and others. Open our hearts as much as possible so we can take a chance on love. Even happiness.

I know when I am stuck in that cave made of “I can manage, I am praying, I am greeting each day with a hello” typical of my solitariness, my family can bring compassion, perhaps food, some tears, some laughs. Yes, I can do it alone, find solace in my own company more often than not. I’m a writer, for one thing. But I was taught: chin up, stand tall, always do well. But I don’t have to do it that way. There are others who do care and how much of an unanticipated rescue is that? It can be everything. More so during these times. I will rejuvenate–then be better here for them. For all that I can do.