Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Growing up Lost, Finding the Way

(Photo by Joshua Abner on Pexels.com)

When I began my job at the residential youth facitlity, a co-worker immediately coined a nickname. “Hey, Miss Junior League”, she’d say, and I’d have to look twice to see if she was annoyed with me or just being rude. It often was both; we were opposites and we were doing the new acquaintance dance. There was an energy of boldness around her and I knew she likely took charge of anything at all. The tremendous volume of her wavy golden brown hair was enough to give pause. I either laughed or ignored her until she approached me with basic respect since we were equals on staff, more or less. When she sought to entertain people with off-kilter humor in the charting room or office, I obliged her with another snort of a laugh, then came back at her. I knew how to trade jabs that weren’t lethal and saw this was an easy game of sarcasm. I hadn’t expected it to be part of work behavior. But I was new to the workplace though I was not backing down; I needed that job and was there to stay. I understood the odd “Miss Junior League” moniker. I came by it honestly. Well, by upbringing if not by lifestyle. I knew how I seemed, especially in a new environment–we do what is natural without thinking. And then we adapt better and hopefully fast.

She’s been there perhaps a year. And she also “had been there, done that”, as she said, and also got how to handle teenagers that were high risk and full of high drama. I kept quiet and observed her and other counselors the first weeks. The Recreation Coordinator/alternative school’s teacher assistant job was new for me. I’d worked with high risk populations– geriatric and disabled clients. I was a manager in a subruban Detroit, MI. senior center, in addition to other positions. But I was intent on starting over in Oregon–this was the first interesting job available. When questioned as to why I’d want to work with gang-affiliated, drug-addicted, traumatized, often homeless teens, I could only answer, “Because I want to be of service to others–I have a solid history of doing that and I learn fast. I can find and provide good resources. And I can keep calm when things go haywire, usually.” The manager might have sensed I held back much that might impact his decision one way or another. But he took a chance–maybe better a warm body than nobody at all, I imagined. I couldn’t say: I’m desperate to pay my bills and change my life–I have to start somewhere. The work didn’t pay well but intrigued me.

The mistake my co-worker made at first was one we all make: stereotyping based on my clothes (I dressed in nice outfits, pretty flats, not jeans and tshirts…), perhaps my demeanor. She accurately deducted I was raised by white, middle-to-upper middle class, educated parents who provided privledges most of our young charges in treatment had never known. The truth, though, was that I had left that external security with its sense of assumed–if superficial–worth long, long ago. (The nice nice clothes were from old jobs; an articulate way of speaking was taught to me early on, then practiced for moving through the world; my reserve arose from introspection and distrust. My armor and shields.) My new co-workers just didn’t know it, and they likely never would. But they did know I was in recovery from substance dependence, and since I met that job requirement I was included, more or less. If they’d known I had married (for a long year) but was plotting to leave (if I kept the job) a man who was clean and sober, too, but still not kind nor finished with criminalality, they’d have been stunned. I dtill had much to learn about men and being a woman.

But even the kids accepted me based on my addiction and sobriety, alone–in time. Some thought it was a ruse. They had no idea who I was, found me a rule keeper and quiet but with a tad rough edges that began to show up now and then. I could hold a line, was not intimidated by fist fights as well as explosive emotional disturbances. I figured out ways to engage them in learning (like poetry writing); show them new ways to enjoy life’s offerings. In time the greater circles gave me access. I learned how to use my counseling skills with teenagers who believed anything positive or different was another demand they had to resist on principle. Or because it was stupid and irrelevant. They had no reason to believe what I offered was worthwhile. I had to prove it. I was determined to take them to the opera and ballet, museums and nature parks–not just play an explosive game of volleyball outside the facility.

I was naive, perhaps, but I had few qualms so just did it, calling sports event arenas and arts organizations and persuading them to give us free tickets, And no copping out by the kids was allowed. To everyone’s surprise the clients were curious, gradually more open, interested, sometimes well impressed and said so. (Opera became a big hit as was pro basketball.) Most all learned to appreciate experiences outside of former comfort zones, and to reconsider a few suppositions about the world and others in it. They found that something weirdly foreign could be exciting, even pleasurable–while staying sober and clean. They discovered they liked learning, after all–at least at times, under certain conditions. I was relieved to see that. But never let them see it could make me cry a little.

Some counselors shared personal life stories to try to bridge wide gaps between them and clients. I didn’t have that urge. First, I was an intensely private person (back then) and perceived as reserved. Calm in demanding situations, I came to be called upon for crisis intervention. But I also just believed that work was work, my personal life was my own, “and never the twain shall meet.” Let the youth interpret my words and silences. I tried to share some of myself obliquely, responding in ways that said more than language, I thought.

If I had been willing to share my own adolescent troubles with them, they might not have believed any of it. Or perhaps they saw through me in a short time. I caught some looking at me as if they “got it”– that looking and speaking in certain ways didn’t ever mean there wasn’t major hardships. (Though in time I dressed way down, let speech lapse into easier rhythms and it was better to be less conspicuous.) Kids are remarkable in their ability to percieve what we think hidden. They sense things, and those who survive what my clients had also know when you are lying or telling it straight, if you are phony or for real. It’s survival to get the lay of the land right and fast. We managed together moment by moment, even if they sneered at me behind my back or acted out with violence in word and deed as they pushed back at my growing authority. But there were plenty of clients who slowly connected with me–and others–as well.

I stayed in that position for about five years, long after other staff left. It was not the job for anyone who had stars in their eyes or were arrogant about personal power to salvage human lives. It was tough work to just keep the kids going, staying alive, open to change of any sort; it took long days and nights. I loved those lost and sometimes found youths; I liked the work far better than I’d expected. I think my attitude and behaviors spoke enough; I just wasn’t an open book or a bleeding wound with the kids–or adults. I felt that either was unseemly, uncalled for and even unethical. And not so helpful. Sure, I felt my heart open to those kids but lost any naivete fast–it was demanding work shaped by a droning background of impulsivity, resistance, loud eruptions of rage. I was humbled. I became committed to a persistent compassion put to work.

But if they had known any of my truth….For what they had within those simple spaces full of enriching treatment was exactly what I did not have when I needed it.

By age fifteen I was placed in a psychiatric facility in a big city for self harm behaviors. And signs and symptoms of drug use. There were no drug and alcohol treament centers or dual diagnosis programs in the 1960s and 70s. There were psychiatric units for everyone, no matter what the issue was. (Mine, I learned not then, but some years later: PTSD– and, of course, obvious substance dependence.) After that I was to have been placed into a halfway house for youth in Detroit so I could attend a fine performing arts high school and continue therapy. I was thrilled and anxious about such a change. If my parents agreed. They did not. So back home I went, then later was placed in temporary foster care a few months, then got kicked out (smoking pot, not vacuuming or washing dishes enough) of that upright home which I couldn’t bear–put with strangers against my will again. By the time I was almost 17 and still in high school, I was set up in an apartment by a well-meaning or perhaps incompetent psychologist I saw once every two weeks–with a young woman, aged twenty-one, who was deemed responsible and willing to look after me. (I discovered later she was a child of my parents’ friends.) I liked her but we happily seldom saw each other. That lasted until parties I threw included illicit drugs–and police came to our door, took me to the station for interrogation for nine hours. I never made that phone call you are supposed to make. I was terrified and was dropped back off by a narcotics detective at my parents. They stood in the doorway and stared at me, eyes filled with sorrow and heated by anger, their bodies looking as defeated as they felt. Well, so was I. So they let me in again.

They could think of little to nothing else to do with me. I can imagine they did all they could in their way and in those times. They did not avail themselves of family counseling; that was not popular where I grew up. In fact, it was all an embarrassment. I was the source of their embarassment. Deeply held secrets damage people but that was not their view. It was put the best face forward and arry on with denial. But they knew very little of my reality, and seemingly didn’t want to know. They were public people; thy were respected and loved by many. They had talents they shared generously in the community as well as t me and money. I by then understood what becoming mute meant, the essential necessity to all including the threatening perpetrator, even though he had left years before. His threats of family harm, even death, were believed from age 7. (He finally ended up in prison with multiple child sex abuse convictions.) But I loved my parents; they were good people who knew little of things beyond their scope. And beneath that current of frustration and despair, they did so love me. But I didn’t believe it then.

I barely made it through high school-not that my grades weren’t good, somehow I managed–but I profoundly resented having to be there. Except for English class and all arts opportunities. I wanted to pursue my passions in the arts, learn about nature and engage in many outdoor adventures. I was bored to tears. And angry, wounded by the earlier abuse, plus a foiled rape at 14 as I walked one afternboon along city railroad tracks, and fought for what felt like my scarred and yet still valuable life. Someone had to and I beat off the strong teen, who had followed me for blocks, with every ounce of fierceness I had. That took its toll despite my basic enthusiasm for life’s wonders and the goodness still to be found. One begins to think: is there truly any left?

I inhabited a state of clasutrophobic loneliness despite having many friends (and smart, well brought up boyfriends, a requirement of my parents before I brought them by–what irony that was to me). If only I could get out of that restrictive house, away from my provincial hometown. I wrote everything I could, huddling over notebooks or typewriter into the night; read books beyond my depth that were enthralling and wise or confusing; played and created music. Prayed alot, daily, for help. Weeping and praying, singing away at the baby grand as I dreamed of being a composer. Hoping for rescue. What a strange life. The outdoors and and trusted friends helped, not therapy though I did gain a few insights. I held onto nibs of hope for one more day, one more night– with the aid of substances, the lovely escape they provided a time. (I didn’t, surprisingly, drink those years; that came later.) After all, I had a ready pipeline to prescriptions from our family doctor.That’s how they helped people then. It was the time of the tranquilizing, addictive valium; big barbituates for sleep; and dexamyl to wake up. I knew how to get other drugs I wanted. (I also knew I’d figure out how to survive on the street if really neccessary. But I felt I would never do that–until years later, I had to awhile.)

I knew about many coping skills. Study, drugs of various sorts, creative projects in dance, music, art and theater, being outdoors; good friends and falling in love and prayer as I always believed in God, sometimes without seeming reason. (I entirely shied away from sex.) Then, after the foster care and apartment experiments failed, my parents gave me a one way plane ticket to Seattle at 18. My sister and a friend lived in a rusic cabin on Lake Washington. She was happy to have me stay a year and see how it went. I didn’t know her well; she is five years older. But I could hardly believe my good fortune. A geographical salvation, a way to find independence!

Freedom! As soon as I arrived, I believed I’d left the torments of my past and found paradise. Or had I? That year was wonderful with the Northwest’s vast natural marvels and some good times with my sister…then it became a repeat of the past I’d run from: violations, regrets, loss. Falling “in love” with a much older drug dealer who took me places and did things unknown before, and who also gave me lots of drugs. And then a fun but reckless motorcycle guy. Realizing my big sister, a teacher who also smoked pot heavily, was not in such great shape, either. But the dense forests and shimmering, undulating waters of the lake outside our door saved me by virtue of constancy and beauty. I would sit and stare and try to think things through–how to get better, to grow up into a whole human being and at last liberated from negative experiences? How, how, how. But I did learn the value of working at a busy local A and W drive-in, making cash while having a good time. Seattle was a fantastic city to explore. I grabbed a bus ride for the first time, roaming the streets with friends. I also vowed to move back to the Pacific Northwest one day to hike more mountains, make it my home.

It was not the very worst of years but it was a bold departure in a way. But I was too clueless in a much wider world of “regular” life with its temptations and perplexities. I revelled in options at first. Except they didn’t differ enough to improve my life…at all. Freedom suddenly unlocked is akin to releasing a devilish genie out, at long last. It all finally defeated me when a young man, charming and friendly saw and followed me on the road fall the way home. Then he later broke into the cabin when I slept alone. Afterwards, I felt it a miracle I ended up only a little harmed. But it was the final straw.

I returned to my parents determined to begin college. That went well–I was good at learning from books– except…I had over the years become addicted to barbituates and speed, knew pleasures and perils of smoking peyote and opium, had farily often dropped mescaline and LSD. I could not stay clean that year. I could not control the damages of addiction. In time I ended up in a huge, gothic, ugly, prison-like institution for four and a half months. I turned 20 there, and deeply wished I might die.

There were others of us there who were able to think much straighter after goping trhough withdrawals and staying clean of drugs (except for thwta they pumped into us). There were also pot smokers placed by angry, distraught parents. Alongside us were severely mentally ill people who’d been there for years, decades–whose empty presence brought me to tears as I tried to talk with them. Some of the most nighmarish experiences I’ve ever had happened there. The stay consisted of a kind of slave labor provided by lucid patients, surprise harsh treatments and various humilations every day. (I still cannot share those specifics, as well as other things from the trying strangeness of my past.) But treatment for PTSD? Compassionate aid? Those months compounded pain and fear, were felt as punishments every moment. I learned to leave my body, and my imagination flew me to scenarios that could make my life sweeter someday. I could close my eyes any time to see the Northwest mountains, and breathe again. And I learned to ally myself with others who could still walk, talk, speak and make sense–when we were rarely allowed to gather and speak. I held on.

I maintain that no person should have to endure such a place. It was closed a few years after I left. I wept in gratitude for all who avoided its terrible power, a hell of badly treated souls, the imprisoned who had lost all bearings, their eyes empty, their mouths slack, silenced forever.

Yet it was there, in a small corner of a dark room, that I prayed with fervor for God–wherever God was–to help me survive it all and leave one day intact somehow. To be miraculously released. I was afraid I would never walk out, nor stay quite alive any more time there. So I made a bargain: someday when I was able to do so, I would help others, anyone God guided me to help with courage and compassion–if God would only get me out of there. And I felt a little peace stir, lifting my spirits just enough. I wasn’t certain, but I thought for the first time it was possible to survive, to escape.

It happened within two weeks. I didn’t know my parents were working with a lawyer. I was put on a chair, upon a raised platform and questioned at length by a half dozen “experts” for what seemed many hours but must have been a mushc shorter time. I kept my wits about me; I spoke out clearly and thoughtfully. Whatever it took I was going to persuade those who’d offered me nothing of help, nothing of simple respect or kindness. And it was decided I was fit to leave. I got sprung, and the world seemed bright, fresh–and intense and changed. It was I who had changed, had lost more, but I would recover. It was enough to be able to walk in the world at liberty, to not live in constant fear and loathing. To be among bees and flowers, to warm under the glow of sunlight. I had been placed there in mid- April. It was early August and the summer sang out. I stopped taking any medication and felt finally awake, aware and coherent, my mind clicking along again. I behaved reasonably and felt more at ease than I had in aeons though it took awhile to get in sync with society and other people.

I went on and lived a life that became more and more ordinary, with no drugs in my system, though trials still came as they do (and had to conquer late onset drinking later, by a simple surrender to God’s direction again). I had returned to college, worked some, had surprising children and after more time welcomed stepchildren. I had married, divorced, married and so on. Relationships are not a fluid thing, not so comfortable at first for abuse survivors, yet they are possible. I kept trying. I would say well, I liked being married so I did it alot… (I’ve now been married for decades to the same guy.)

But I was restless as my children grew up; I missed the old dreams of a more creative life, apart from mothering. I felt useless in the old, deeper way– so I relapsed after many years sober. A wise therapist told me in no uncertain terms to stop whining and get a job, preferably helping others–to get out of my hothouse of a brain. It made no sense at first–what could I do?– but was fired the same day I applied to work at a large, bustling senior services center in Adult day Care. In months I was promoted to the Home Care department manager for elderly and disabled folks. I provided services to 350 clients at the center and in the community; I enjoyed training and hiring about 150 home care workers. My liquid nutrition program for the very ill homebound garnered a Presidential Point of Light Award, It was a surprise that such work fit me and I, it –that I enjoyed it so much. I kept at it until I left Michigan once more, after another divorce, and planned to return to the Pacific Northwest. I had gained health and confidence, but I was still not able to enjoy a well-rounded, solid marriage.

I had almost forgotten about the bargain I’d made at the end of my teen years. It was going to come back to me soon.

It wasn’t until I was truly sober for more time that things changed completely, and for the long haul. I moved with two teenaged children to Oregon at 42 and applied for a position working with youth at a mental health and addictions treatment facility. At first I thought it absurd to even try, but I could find no job comparable to the one I had left in Michigan. I had minimal qualifications for Recreation Coordinator/Teaching Assistant. Still, it struck me: this may be it, this might be what I promised God to do with my life decades ago…. Though I emotionally resisted it even after I started work, that job got me going in a career that was stimulating, challenging, creative, satisfying. I’d found my calling in service to others alright, to those lost in ways I intimately understood.

But did I really want to do it? I hadn’t once longed to work in counseling services and certainly not with the addicted, homeless, criminal and traumatized. I had had quite enough of all that, I told myself, and the messiness of human struggling, the breathtaking heartbreaks. But, of course, too, the heroics of those who had to choose between grueling emotional work and giving up. I took a leao oif faith.

It has always been a rich if arduous process. I have been allowed to be a witness to many hundreds of tender and tough lives. It was the right thing to engage in a profound give and take between human beings searching for spiritual wholness, emotional health. And God, I have no doubt, was there watching over me and all others, just as is true now. I didn’t ever save one person. But I have to say: I have felt God’s mercy, God’s light moving through me as the young people there and elsewhere (and later, scores of adults) learned how to save themselves bit by bit. If they did not make it, then their valiant attempts still counted for something good in my estimation. Those hearts and souls–what an immense risk taken. What a dangerous thing to dare to have hope. And yet people do it every day, taking a chance on life. On themselves.

If I could have shared anything with those youthful clients of mine, what would it be? I’d have said I undertand some of who you are but even if you do not believe my story, the main thing is to just fight for your freedom–from abuse and from fear, rage and pain, from long shadows of sorrow. The fight is really a smart surrender; it goes far easier if you let love in to walk with you, if you put fists and bitter words down. Anything can be endured in this life if you learn that love is everything, the only thing. You then are never entirely alone; it reveals a path out of the ruinous maze. It will guide you in all work and play and connections.

And some of those kids tool the new ideas into them enough that their whole way of being started to alter. Did it last beyond treatment? I’ve lost many who tried but could not stay alive or avoid old ways. I’ve run into clients who remember and who have gone forward. In most cases, I will never know. But that was not for me to worry over. I could only do what I could do. I have been given the gift of journeying with each, in any case.

Was I actually caring for my own youthful self when I took that job? Perhaps, in part, that is what pople do when they suffer through something–they might help heal others of similar wounds. But at the center of my committment was fulfilling a promise made all those years before in a corner of a terrible place and time. Freedom informed by compassion requires patience and accountability; it is a responsibility. I was still learning how to live well. And it continues. We can never stop trying, will never stop growing when we take chances to break open our minds, hearts and spirits and discover greater possibilites.

This is part of the story of an abused and addicted life. I claim it but there are countless others out there who have lived or still endure these sorts of travails. But it is not the end of my story. Much good came to me incrementally and also in generous amounts. I write about those times and the present peace I enjoy, too.

I bet you wonder about my old co-worker readied for barbed exchanges–the one who nicknamed me “Miss Junior League”. She’s still around, feisty and outspoken and funny. That mane of hair still waves about her like a brazen flag in the breeze as she walks and talks with me. She became and remains one of my closest friends. Thirty years of us learning and living through stuff. Though I retired at 64, she’s ten years younger and continues to work even with health issues and other demands–in a women’s prison treatment program. I continue to admire her insights and courage, her golden soul shared with the unloved, weary and lost. She has become alot softer. I have become much happier. We still butt heads at times, and share hugs and tumbling laughter. As she would say, we’re not amateurs, we’ve got this, all and all–and it’s always worth it no matter what seems to be coming at you.

Monday’s Meander: Daydreamy Travel, a Weekend at Edmonds, WA

Today I’m returning to a Pacific Northwest community I immediately loved. Revisiting from the comfort of my home is not the way I’d like to do it, but the times are what they are. Edmonds, Washington, is a community 15 miles north of Seattle, comprised of 40,000+ people. In October 2017 I attended “Writers on the Sound”, a writers conference. My husband and I had ample time to explore after workshops were done. Though I learned a few writerly helps and enjoyed being with other writers, I was, honestly, more deeply impacted by the area’s natural wonders– including Olympic and Cascade Mountains and Mt. Baker, as well as waters of Puget Sound. (Some are more invigorating than others; some years they are just more useful to me, also.) But the walks and visual beauty provided me with with plenty of inspiration. And the boats! I love to be on a good boat, any size… a rowboat, canoe, sailboat, ferry– or a medium-small yacht. (I will try to locate old pictures of a 2001 family trip on the last sort. We travelled through the beguiling San Juan Islands for 5 days and made fun stops along the way.)

I offer some glimpses into enchantments I discovered that weekend. I plan on returning in person, of course. I suspect you will see why as we spend a few hours around Edmonds and its waterfront along Puget Sound, within 60 miles of the Pacific Ocean.

As the sun lowered, its vibrance charged the lands’ contours, the water’s undulating surface and damp autumn air with sunset’s energy. Such peaceful, awe-inspriing magnificence prevailed.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: After the Party, a Respite and Rewind

(Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com)

It was not a restful night. I awakened fuzzy, trailed by difficult dreams. So I spent more than enough time reading a fashion magazine, the sort you don’t have to absorb so much as scan–the words and pictures. The greater emphasis is on pictures. (A few fashion magazines highlight essays, interviews of powerful women, the latest socioeconomic or political info, and health and beauty.) But I am not so intellectually or ethically elevated an individual (well, in my fantasies, likely) that I can’t enjoy a fabulous fashion shoot.

I have always liked aspects of fashion–its visual abundance; the process of transforming inspiration into an array of materials and designs; the performance aspect, no matter where it is shown to the world. It’s ordinary or glamourous impact counts; it’s startling at its best, an accessible sort of theater. It ventures into experiences that most only observe and consider, not engage with beyond the looking. But it somehow can matter a bit. Maybe it gives a jolt to creatives in odd ways. Like the designers whose work reminded me of old Lily Pulitzer designs plus the artist Miro’s paintings. It made me want to get out my own box of paints or collage scraps. It made me, decidely not domestically skilled, want to sew a bit more.

Let’s face it, though: a fashion mag is brazen escapism. I imdulge in this recreation as needed, a simple prescription for discouragment, physical unwellness, worry, even anger. It’s one little coping skill learned as an adolescent. After crying/praying/working hard/helping others, or heavy speculation about a future so like a maze, I take twenty minutes and go through a breezy fashion portal. Fashion also interprets and broadcasts societal goings-on–but from a distance that is safer. Me, I go straight to the easier stuff first.

I read more challenging magazines. I enjoy piles of physical books, delving into a chapters each day and night of fiction, poetry and nonfiction. I study coffee table tomes at my leisure–dragonflies? Pottery? Old maps? Check. I can be enchanted and frustrated by the smorgasboard of materials, the time factor. And then: choose stimulation of mind and spirit or of the eyes, perhaps the heart? Today has been a day for perking up weary eyes and brain cells. A leisurely taking in color and texture and style. And what about the photographer’s interesting ideas? (Oh, uh, I can name admired fashion photographers, old and new. I’ve read these mags for decades, you know.) I dive right in and float awhile in those inventive tableaus.

Of course I enjoy clothes, the looking and wearing of comfy, fun or classy ensembles, and unique, handmade jewelry, a brilliant scarf. But that’s another sort of personal essay, me and how I use or disuse things–closets I have known and choices made. (Did mention I also just enjoy clothing? Or at times, these days. So I wore velveteen emerald green pants and an apple green sweater on Christmas Eve… and a fuschia cashmere with navy pants Christmas Day. And navy wool felt slippers both times. In case you wondered.)

But today I fell into the shiny pages because I am still–after nights of decent sleep (also poor)– sluggish following kaleidoscopic activity of the holidays. The time passed feels a long way away in some regard. I mean Christmas, really. (We watched a show on house renovation New Year’s Eve, then read, then to bed. I heard fireworks going off: 2022 and I lay awake a long time.) The leading up to the Season, then various experiences of the Eve and Day. And a daughter and her partner staying a few more days since they had flown quite a distance. Four out of five adult kids, their honeys and children! I have video of some of the happiness I can replay now and then.

Then at the end of it all closing the door against a wintry mix of weather, turning on the new electric fireplace from our son, sitting and sighing. Imagining how those adults were once kids in other houses with fragrant trees chopped down and decorated to the max. On January 1st we began the tear down and clean up. Which took three days. There are still two boxes that need to be stacked up somewhere in the garage.

How is it that the weeks leading up to Christmas were such fun and now I am still feeling the aftereffects of socializing and eating and gift wrapping and exchanging and ….well, the whole lovely, blurry, fast-action experience. I had shopped like personal shopping was my full time job, a smart and happy shopper, rooting out items on lists, triumphantly spotting options. It felt good to know that the money was there this year, as it was not so much last year after my husband’s lay-off. I headed out on foot but also online, family members square in mind as I got to it. Because this year we planned on as muich family gathering as possible at our home. (Only one daughter was not, and her son, our grandson; she is a minister far away, he works in another state, too.) Between testing, vaccinations and masking, we could make it happen.

And we did, thankfully. It was amazing to have most children and grandchildren at our table, then circled about glimmering, gift-laden tree. But at times I felt as it was a dream. Being much more isolated for nearly two years, it was a rare experience to be in the middle of such abundance. Our unique, adored family. Overwhelming at moments, perhaps, joyful for the time we shared. Love disseminated with words, looks, laughs. It seemed almost too good to be true since life has been defined so often by turmoil, unease and sorrow. One can become leery when so much has been torn from normalcy; foreboding can creep right in. But we seemed to vibrate with pleasure, nonetheless.

Christmas was a mixture of secular and religious/spiritual energy. It has been for a few decades. Sometimes I think it’d be better to separate the two experiences. Or skip gifts altogether. (But: toddler granddaughters…) Or set aside greater time for faith traditions–much harder to do when in a pandemic. No candle lighting service in a sanctuary stilled by respect and full darkness, believers with hands raising brilliant candles aflame in that dome of darkness. The singing of hymns and carols.

Well, no actual church for us but we had family, and cause to cautiously celebrate completion of a difficult year. Though I admit: I forgot the prayer at dinner, our hands holding each others’ hands. No, the truth: I was afraid I would break down due to the invisible but real empty chair…our oldest granddaughter suddenly died in April. How do you pray with gratitude when someone has fast exited the circle? Everyone would weep, there would be tears covering us, grief’s mask with its heaviness. I thought her mother, our daughter, would no longer be able to embrace beauty of this Christmas, only heartache cracking it into pieces. But she had tried and she had done it, enough. So I let that prayer go and proceeded with my husband into the wonders of the time. We wept later.

All that. All the good a tonic, a reprieve, a break in many onerous days and nights… until even coping seemed barely enough. So each moment together was necessary for me, for us all. It wasn’t perfection. We are not all in accordance about everything, not at all, and are opinionated and expressive and smart. It was great human hope and a penchant for more goodness that brought us closer again, and it was seen, heard and held. We wanted to be normal. More caring. And it was further shaped by the eternal presence of Divinity; no matter how people practice their beliefs, everyone knows it, acknowledges it. At our old oak dining table, God has the best seat, the one in the center of the show. And we are family forever, amen.

Now the days go on in their pedestrian manner. Catch up on chores. Catch up with a few not here. More time to read, write, walk, consider creative projects and stat one, call friends, other family (my remaining sister, who has dementia, did not join us but I saw her a few days before).

But, too, harder news: one member who came on Christmas Eve became infected (via an acquaintance) with Covid-19 several days following our gathering. She was vaccinated. She is slowly recovering after 5 days. A daughter that visited from the east coast is now in Colorado with her partner, trying to cancel her flight back. Because she got shingles. And major airports are madness, short staffed, and there are many cancellations with travellers stuck. Snow may complicate things. That Omicron variant is speeding its way across America every moment. It is strange–science but still strange–that something invisible to the naked eye has made us captive to it…

It is back to living more like a solitary soul, with greater cautions– despite being vaccinated and boosted. A virus has its ways. I am suddenly ordering food and essentials for delivery again. No more fun outings unless outdoors and apart from people or picking through a bright mound of tomatos. It is not so bad; I deal with it, as we all must. Being a daily walker and a hiker when I can do that works magic. I can get through most things with a decent walk and a prayer.

The point that came to me after Christmas was how holidays bring an avalanche of real-time love, a release of pent-up energy, the sudden waterfall of happiness. And then the possibility of so much loss. It is enough to make my heart swell and skip too many beats.

How long shall we plod on?–who knows? We have held on, have practiced acceptance, and those of us who’ve been able to have gone on day by day–with courage and adaptability. We gain from greater introspection, become more self-reliant. Are we stalwart enough to keep on fighting discouragement, perhaps loneliness? There have been good dashes of hope; it has been enough for me. Now it’s the wait and wonder part– whatever time will reveal.

And so, then, moving into 2022 from one hard year to another made of primarily unknown qualities. I could tell you how many years have been that way in some iteration. Much if not most of my life. So one more can be looked in the eye.

And hence, the fashion magazines. Not The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin that awaits me a mere five inches away. I admit that more frivolous diversions seem so frothy that it is embaraasing to mention but, hey, we do what we can do to alleviate the odd mental dizziness tensions can create these days. And I have done more foolish or worse, that’s for sure. It’s not a drink or a drug or, goodness forbid, a man captivating eye or mind. It’s just good ole Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren; The Row; Dior, Chanel. It’s Bulgari or Van Cleef and Arpels or Paloma Picasso. It’s glossy pages, fast reads. I soak it all up with a flick of the pages, chocolate and strawberries in a time of so many radishes and turnips.

In the midst of challenges that lack few certain answers, problems that want for full resolutions I can find random moments of respite, even insignificant and fleeting. The mundane has its curious nature; a simple thing can offer an illumined moment. It doesn’t all need to be more lofty, though that may be a preference. A fabulous fashion photo by Annie Leibovitz or David LaChapelle interests me immediately, as does a Vivian Maier or Paul Nicklen photo. Then my attention flits to other matters. After all, these are not deep clues to more purposeful questions. Not the core of peace I build upon.

So I stand up, stretch, and discover a refreshed, jauntier viewpoint. I have had a break from a pressing immediacy of reality. I spin around, arms opening to whatever comes. The dryer stops so gather a warm bundle of clean laundry. Then send a quick check-in to two daughters. I’m up to more substantial business, creative explorations. Like a little song writing, power walking, poem making. Blogging my way into 2022. It takes everything–the tinsel and the constancy of the North Star.

Wednesday’s Words: Nonfiction/Christmas Celebrations and Strength of Enduring Hope

I haven’t set foot into a church sanctuary since the pandemic shut things down. The above photo was taken at a church we attended a couple of years– First Presybyterian Church, solid but exquisite, built in 1887. A city center church community, it is lovely architecturally. And I miss it at times. Though some restrictions are eased, I’m not so sure about singing and praying wiith densely grouped humanity just yet. The Season naturally beckons me to join in and sing out from heart and soul.

Still, I am waiting. Even if safety seems more relative than ever. Marc and I can choose–have over the past two and a half years, ocasionally–attending online services. We share our own spiritual inquiry and read Scripture aloud to one another sometimes. I have a daily practice of reading the Bible and other sources of wisdom. The truth, is my faith is not tied to a building or a congregation. I have been a praying person since I was a tiny child, and God is to me both omnipresent and personal. However, I grew up in the First United Methodist Church in Michigan. My family was engaged in education classes, music and fellowship. I played an angel in the Nativity story, sang countless carols and hymns during this season, and harmonized with my family enscounced in (left side) the pews. Our sanctuary was decorated to add to the gentle beauty; the sacred music was transporting. And there were sweetly tantalizing cinnamon buns made in the big church kitchen by a work force of cheerful youths and adults.

But that was my childhood and youth. Since then, I have attended many churches (and other places of spiritual sustenance–including AA and NA). I have had a few painful crises of faith when life seemed unendurable. I have left more churches than I have stayed with…yet the traditions stay with me as well as the belief. I respected my childhood church, counted on its constancy. I was accepted despite any rebellions, my struggles, though it wasn’t easy to feel often prayerd for, to stick out at times. I still think it was exceptional, mostly helmed by good men and women. I have yet to discover another I love half as much. Much music that imbues my adult life was rooted in classical (and sacred) music as well as old familiar hymns that dominated services. (Our father led the adult choir for years, oversaw music programming.) They brought tears to my eyes as I sang, even as deep joy rose up. I still cannot sing those songs, even at home, without feeling a bit weepy; it is part of my experience. They speak to a more gracious life filled with a greater puprose. And illustrate a courageous, kinder humanity who can be more deeply aligned with the Divine Creator.

Today as I write, however, I am listening to Sting. His atmospheric, almost melancholic album playing is “If on a Winter’s Night”, a collection of traditional songs, lullabies and carols from the British Isles. It takes me to much older times and places, to valleys and mountains that have existed foreever, and the moors Sting must know well…to shadows and drifting light, to silent midnights and slow, solitary sunrises. It harkens back to an elemental part of my humaness, the spiritual energy that lives throughout time. I am very moved. Maybe it’s my maternal grandparents’ Scottish-Irish-English bood in my veins, but I lean into this music. And tonight this music pulls me into winter’s delights and mysteries even more.

A time of turning inward, more often resting, seeking clarity of mind in the increasing cold, and sorting out things–literal and otherwise– as life-giving rain pours down on tall firs and bony trees outside my door in the Northwest. As Christmas nears, I seek more coziness and ponder the ways and means that have brought me to this time. A quieter, softer state.

No matter what is going on, I instinctively look up as I move with expectancy in daily life. I don;t want to miss what is about me, what is coming, But I have no hesitancy of bending my knees, seeking God’s succor and guidance. Perhaps I tend toward being an idealist, even a romantic–I don’t regret it–but I’m willing and able to face reality’s stunning trials, its insistent lessons. As a person who follows Christ’s teachings, I believe in the healing and liberating powers of a revolutionary compassion; authentic engagement with others; and the possibilites of hope which strives to do whatever good is needed. To forgive, to be generous despite my failures and flaws. To humbly accept a small place in the universal design.

It is, though, difficult to claim my faith openly at times. In this part of the country–which I so admire and defend as well as can take issue with–the act of stating I am Christian can seem like stepping into a fight ring. Or being almost shunned, derided. I am not who those folks instantly decide I am: “judgmental, hypocritical, closed minded, far right wing, uneducated in world religions or tolerant of t hose who do not believe in a God.” It is strange to be made to fit a preconceived notion.

So I know what it is to be stereotyped as other groups are. I don’t argue. If my behavior and manner are not enough to offset those prejudices in the end, I need to work on these. But then so be it, I can change no one–nor they, me. I am on my own path to improvement with alot of help from others–and wisdom and strength of my faith. We each will follow our own calling, attach to beliefs we choose. I, then, study a true social and cultural radical’s teachings that includes acknowledging and practicing a higher love, first and last–and wonder how much of what was actually taught was lost or destroyed– and his name is Jesus the Christ.

I admit that institutionalized religions are more a strange puzzle to me than not. I do not understand formal religions’ power struggles and wars, the historical political maneuverings, the various social restrictions. Sexism. (Jesus welcomed women to praise God and seek truth along with him.) The horrific genocides. (Jesus spoke angrily about those who hated others unlike themselves.) I am breathless when I think how, at times, religion’s greed and condemnations can harm us, too. What can it mean to profess compassion–but then harm others? This world is dangerous and harsh as it is, scarred by outrage, hopelessness and suffering. We need more care and courage. We need to rise up in Light.

I go about my quiet search for truths. I keep it fairly simple and to the point. I sense God, seek to discover God– and God finds me in everyday life, in nature, through people of every sort. And this is the source of any courage, strength and hope that has centered and deepened me in all the ways I need it.

I didn;t grow up wearing a cross or seeing crosses in our rooms. But I’m pleased I don’t have to hide my Celtic cross in public. For decades I worked in places it was deemed unacceptable to note one’s religion or politics, especially if they happened to just be unpopular. So today I wore my cross out on my sweater as I ran errands–as I do more often since retirement. Plus, it is the Advent Season so it has meaning to me. (Even though I don’t necessarily think Jesus was born this time of year. Sources indicate it was likely June since it is said his parents, Joseph and Mary, were going to register to be taxed in Bethlehem.) I value it; it was also given to me long ago by my husband. It speaks of a welcome to God, meant to offer peace, wholeness and universal, everlasting love. At least, that is how I see it. It gives inspiration to meditate when I see it. I remember I am part of God; God is part of me. And you. I wear it respectfully as a Christian symbol, as others wear symbols of their faith or other beliefs.

We can each become wiser, I am certain of that. Or we can try to act as if we have decent insight and see if we gain smarter, better ones. We can be more charitable, that is for sure–whoever we are, wherever we live. Motivation for acts of consideration are within our grasp, as are the good outcomes. Charity, the seed of which lives within us, is a celebratory act any day of the year, I remind myself. I lately think of it more as I searchg for unique gifts for those I know well– or donate money or needed items to those I don’t know and likely will never meet. We all do our bit and how easy to give to another.

Well, Sting’s CD has ended. I am appreciative of his creative wealth shared; I’ve listened to him for years. But now traditional Celtic Christmas music plays on. Carols of another place delight me. It is that sort of night, one of shdaow and light. A touch of mystery in the air. I study our small fake tree–we will not cut down a real one, anymore, it seems. I may miss the pungent piney scent. But this is pleasing, too, as it’s now decorated with white lights twinkling and decades-old ornaments, some of which I decoupaged at 24.

I sure hope–there’s hope again, carrying worries, dreams, my whole messy self–our family can come Christimas Eve and/or Day. I keep acting like it will happen. No matter what we do, I’m here and grateful for that. Ready for more joy. We have missed some holidays, just being together. I think most people desire good times with beloved families.

I can’t wait to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” though “Jingle Bells” is our twin granddaughters’ favorite right now. Sugar cookies and more. Gift swap. Dinner, brunch and laughter. To gaze at their faces, hear their voices more.

May you and yours enjoy–or create–meaningful traditions during the coming holidays.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Eleven Years/Thanks Giving

Eleven years.

WordPress informed me this week that it has been eleven years since my first blog post. That seems almost absurd. How can that be? I was sixty years old in 2010. And the passing of time has been a rhythmic flow of minutes, hours, days…starts and stops and this life resuming once again. And so, too, the posts on WordPress.

I recall it feeling like a small, entertaining adventure when I first learned the ropes. I jumped in and charged ahead. I learned through trial and error. And soon enjoyed the process. Yet, who would keep toiling away at a blog that long? Some of us just keep our foot on the pedal and go. It becomes a discipline and a habit, a way to also keep writing juices flowing. And the truth is, it hasn’t been very taxing to share the small theater of my life. We bloggers find pleasure and meaning as we put on pages the images that speak to us; stories that snare us; heartbreaks and recoveries that add up; random encounters that puzzle and move us. Blogging is a method of placing our thoughts and feelings into a more coherent perspective–as it is with any sort of writing (or any imaginative) endeavor.

Perhaps it has become one way to journal–whether the content is travelling, photography, hobbies, personal transformation, commentary on society and the world, true passion projects, deepening spiritual experiences, multimedia endeavors, humorous anecdotes. Or a simple tale of life that presses to reveal itself–and so we–I– obey. We create and place it into others’ hands…those often unknown others who are also moving and resting, chuckling or crying out.

Here: take these words and images and perhaps find me there and then find yourself here and there. Reach to the core of the story. The bare elegance of the view. The soundtrack of night as a woman or man flees wakefulness. The spill of light that flushes roots and limbs of the tree. But connect, be less alone. Peek into another way of living and engage mind and senses with no goal besides learning. And risk being open with moments of sharing. It will pull you from yourself even as it expands your knowldege. It has mine.

When I began this blogging adventure, I actually created and wrote one separate blog for poetry; another for prose; and one for photgraphy. Then I condensed the format (it got a bit much) so it became one blog that spanned three basic genres of fiction, nonfiction and poetry (with subgenres), as well as photography widely interspersed. It has evolved like most blogs do– and I have evloved, I suppose, and thus found my way from one kind of expression to different ones. I could spend more time on design, presentation and so on. (Proofreading more carefully, my apologies; also, there is a physical explanation for my poor typing–but another time!) I might attract more readers, who knows? (I guess I have well over 15,000 readers, but I have doubts about that count.) I lack motivation to experiment with it more, still. Maybe in 2022–year 12?

The bottom line is that I write and photograph because I am a creative person –here among countless others. I so love the process. The end results are of interest, but it is the actual doing whatever I do that magnetizes me, holds me captive until I am done enough. I spend on average 6-8 hours three days a week writing posts, working on the blog. I could do more ambitious things like submit work again, tackle another novel, explore art more seriously, get back to music (my cello sleeps upstairs in a corner; my voice hums very quietly). Some days I suspect I blog so much because I can procrastinate re: taking riskier chances out there. Perhaps, or perhaps not. I keep at this because it is a pleasure to do it, within a parcel of time put aside for myself. A rambling journey that takes me to bloggers and readers. We can all equally exchange our work and thoughts here. An overall democratic platform. I peruse the work of others, then begin once more.

In 2010, I had an active career in the mental health field, providing assessments, doing education groups several times a day, and counseling clients via individual therapy as well as group therapy. I valued and enjoyed my work. But I needed to write more. To breathe more freely, cleanse myself of the trauma and loss of those complex lives that could hover about my being when I got home. I had long been keen on good self-care and did a decent job of it. But that part of me that yearned to be more creative for myself first and last nagged at me. I was hungry and thirsty for it. I looked into blogging for that fun and release, for greater community with others, and another route to creative growth. It worked out nicely. I have been happy to keep my Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule (more or less) for all this time. I am nothing if not a persistent sort, it appears.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I, like many millions, am a bit worn by the anxiety and drear that try to engulf us. I refuse to give in to it. I may weep and gnash teeth now and then, but then I am done–until the next time. I get up from the floor. And not that I don’t know sorrow. I grieve the vanishing of easy freedom and also people. In just the past year my 26 year old granddaughter died. My older and only remaining sister is losing her way in the morass of dementia. My best friend moved to Arizona. I feel the weight of our sorrowing earth–I have a devotion to nature–and of the slouching and redeeming humanity that inhabits it. We are full of our failures and long for wholeness and peace. And I keep striving. I know I am not alone.

So, I am not giving in to any lingering melancholy much less despair now. I have made it this far. I hope to make it at least a bit farther. I am powered by the regenerative essence of life, the leaps of joy in living–if also challenged. I am inspired and invigorated by the peculiar mysteries of love; gifts of encounters with other people; and surprising illuminations of God that I experience in everyday moments. In short, I am grateful, yes. I say so each morning and night. Praying and working to be present and to learn from others and remain aware of a multitude of wonders is edemic to my path.

What is at the root of your creative blogging journey? How do you keep moving forward amid strain of troubles? Where lives your gratitude?

We keep at it, don’t we, and what we find may instruct or thrill us. As one more blogger and writer, I do feel privileged. How auspicious an experience to offer our words, images and more. It is an opportunity to practice what I care about doing without judgement or pressures, and it brings such happiness.

I’ll remain here, then, at least for the time being.

Thank you for reading my blog.

Blessings to you and yours,

Cynthia

Husband Marc and me, 2010, when I began this blog. A little tension around those smiles, perhaps… We both worked too hard and such long hours back then. Careers that demanded much, but all work asks much!
Now retired for 7 years, still dreaming and doing–I thank Divine Light/Love/God.