Gifts of Visibility (and Saved by Quick Wits)

My Thanksgiving flowers and candle the day after

The view from where I sit–far east end of the oval oak, heavy claw-footed table–shakes up stereotypes of a “regular” American family. Seated there is an amalgamation of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual traits. It’s a table that’s big enough to hold thirteen if we squeeze in a couple more at each end. And at Thanksgiving it was jam packed with family and food. There was little that was “regular” about what I saw: the variety of lifestyles, skin tones, attitudes, gender preferences and belief systems make up this big, beloved crazy quilt.

It would not have looked and felt this way in my parent’s dining room. My life has morphed significantly since my siblings and I were raised in a small Michigan city. It was and likely is a place where most were Caucasian excepting a very small percentage of Chinese families, a few other Asian and Hispanic families. This was a place where a multinational group of scientists worked at Midland’s major employer, Dow Chemical/Dow Corning. Our hometown was the company’s world headquarters. Yet I grew up in a cultural bubble in very definite ways; racial diversity was not one of them. I didn’t think much of it until I was old enough to travel more, even with my parents, and see how others lived. And I was startled and excited by all that was going on outside my community.

I began to chafe at a few social constraints as I met people beyond our strictly defined realm, and discovered that ignorance was conquerable with education and experience. Eventually, I married “outside” conservative parental expectations (despite my father being a musician, my mother being more open-minded) more than once. As one might imagine, this challenged and enriched my understanding of life.

So, now in my home we verge on being a motley bunch in a variety of ways and I cannot say I am surprised. Our five adult children’s two fathers and I encouraged inquisitiveness, openness, thoughtful risk taking and tolerance. This is frankly reflected at my table during family gatherings. Though it goes way beyond skin deep, I’ll begin there.

To start with, there are some unknown origins represented. My husband’s white mother was adopted and detecting one’s roots was not encouraged in her era; his African American father’s relatives were much less accessible after an early divorce and his father, disastrously, was kept from him. Such was the place and time in which he grew up. So those at the table are clearly not all WASP-ish. I carry the most Scotch-Irish-English-German genes, a tad Scandinavian; I know a lot about my family background. But since my husband does not he has tried to track down more clues as a bi-racial man often thought to be Hispanic or Italian or “mixed something else”–and that can depend on what degree of suntan he has picked up. As he ages he burns more than do I, and that oddly can change perceptions again. But he sees in his daughter’s two children bi-racial coloring and hair; one of our daughters has twice married black men.

Similar questions have been asked of our three adult daughters with their fuller lips, high cheekbones and strong jaws, wavy to kinky hair, complexions that vary.  Then, the family marriages: one daughter is married to an Hispanic man; another, to a Kenyan. Two of my biological children’s father (deceased) was German/Polish/Swiss, so they’re fair skinned and light haired like I am and he was. But my son is partnered with a woman who if of Native American heritage. I haven’t met my oldest daughter’s new guy–may be a Caucasian, who cares either way?– and look forward to doing so at Christmas gathering.

Beyond ethnicity and race, there is much, much more that matters. Each person has a story, like all family members. They are not just my/our children; that was only a beginning. They are not just partners of my children or grandchildren; they bring their own diverse experiences. So there all sorts of histories of accomplishments and missteps, homes and journeying, medical crises and apparent miraculous recoveries (for three), beautiful loves and grievous losses for all. There are tales of migrations and trouble averted and families lost and found.

Our spiritual and political beliefs are not all in accord. These are interesting variances: Mother Earth/ Goddess beliefs, Christianity (some differing views), Divine Dust/Supreme Mind, God Within All, Creator-Spirit. Politics range from quite conservative to moderate liberal to a focus on “a greater universal reality” (including ideas like extraterrestrial beings/systems) to radical feminism to occasional conspiracy theorizing to “Too busy living to worry every minute about this POTUS foolishness; the planet is in giant flux, anyway.” Three adult children as well as my gay sister (also in attendance) have been/are politically engaged and active in some way. They want the world to be more egalitarian, ecologically more sound, safer and healthier, and inclusive of all in some meaningful, practical way.

I get it. As someone reminds me, there was a saying going around in the late sixties when I was out there agitating for better educational systems and equal opportunities: “The personal is political.” I have thought the solutions are sociopolitical while our individual life choices and actions can be a potent force for change for the better. Then I add that spiritual health is, for me, the foundation for all. Generally, the crowd murmurs assent.

But there you have it; we vocalize strong ideas here. We have opposing ideas at times or just have different interpretations of things and get into heated debates. But it’s safe, even when someone gets irked. Every time someone has brought home a new friend or love interest they have been prepared for the reality that we don’t do small talk so well or long at our table; we dive right in, for better or worse (hopefully, not the latter often).

And we don’t have to agree or even accept everything about each other. We just need to love each other. Nothing and no one decrees that family has to be on the same wavelength, with no conflicts or darkly confusing moments, no strained conversations. Those, after all, can be addressed or let go or pondered ad nauseum, your choice. And what sort of family is utterly homogeneous, blood-related or not? Robotic beings, not sweaty, emotive humans. And this is how we like it.

So I look about the table and note how everyone has a variety of talents, skills, passions, quirks and issues. This is true of any family. When we bring it all together, it’s fun and curious what we learn from one another. Three are rock hounds; a couple are amateur naturalists. Two or three are adventurers, ready for nearly anything or anywhere. One is a still pro skateboarder at age forty-four who creates, markets; he sells self-designed skateboards and equipment at various outlets. Another owns a farm in Africa and has developed other businesses. My husband, hard working QA guy/engineer, utilizes his mathematical mind for the heck of it  by solving tough puzzles, or poses odd hypothetical situations to figure out. Plus he has a thing for puns, to my dismay. We both adore words, however, so discuss meanings, usage, etymology–right at the dinner table with some yawning, others pitching in  comments.

Another person is bringing arts and recreational events to a broader community but side passions are vintage clothing and records. Several make crafts or create contemporary art or compose/perform music and record it. A handful have traveled internationally and across the US. One is an amateur Biblical scholar, another a Chaplain for older people. I am an inveterate reader (I even read pharmaceutical inserts, ingredient lists, tags on bed sheets…) and a writer, a lapsed musician who loves world music as well as classical and jazz, and an outdoors nut. I collect visual art and any sort of pictures for collages. Grandkids like to solve brainteasers, draw/paint, play bass clarinet, horseback ride and snowboard, sing and dance and make videos, cook vegetarian meals, research astronomy, camp in the mountains. I knew little about many of those topics until they shared with me.

My gaze is caught by something on my son’s neck. There is a new tattoo on it, an eagle, “his” bird as he says. This is probably the fifteenth tattoo he has gotten, arms and hands (and now neck?) decorated with them, many of them wild creatures which he loves. This is the son who was bitten multiple times by a hermit spider which left oozing wounds that made him terribly ill–yet he has a prominent spider tattoo on his arm, feels no fear of them–rather, feels he was taught  things. I don’t entirely get all this but just accept it as his way–just as I accepted that a daughter dyed her hair green or violet, wore mixed pattern clothing as a teen. She still leans that way–funny how some of those choices became fashionable!– and may do so again. One never knows in this family what may come next.

I observe other daughter’s Kenyan husband as he eats our American food, food that cannot be easy for him to relish but he is trying and he smiles back at me, touches my arm. He talks in densely accented sentences of a rich music, and conveys feelings between words I don’t always understand–but I think I do the feeling. He speaks five languages. He thanks us voluminously for the feast, being included in the talk. I ask for him to bring some food at our next gathering.

A granddaughter is laughing at something her aunt is saying, eyes sparkling. She had a rough teenage year or two but now is rebounding. Her presence emanates her more natural calm and there is also quiet ebullience we long missed. She encourages her shyer but brilliant little brother, no longer chastises him when he gets things so fast and misses other things. They put their heads together to share a confidence–how gentle are their words as they sit with us. A lump forms in my throat.

My sister comes late with her granddaughter (who knows my granddaughter) and we hug long and well. She has had memory issues the past year and I worry.–she was once Executive Director, of several agencies. She is still a master conversationalist and knows how to reach out to others with curiosity and kindness; they respond easily. I am more than thankful for the one sister I have left.

But my eyes rest upon my youngest daughter again and again, the once-violet hair gal. A. and her spouse had arrived before the others to hang out and help. We were talking in the kitchen, eating a few before-dinner snacks. I was chatting away when a small piece of cracker caught in my throat. I coughed harder, coughed more and then could not stop coughing. The others paused to glance my way but continued to gab. My throat seemed to close, my mouth went dry. I was choking. No air in, no air out. I kept coughing, trying to pull in a tiny bit of oxygen, my eyes streaming, chest burning, throat constricting further. My chest did not move much, lungs got almost nothing.

Then my daughter really saw me. “Mom! Can’t you breathe? Should I call 911?”

My husband was frozen in place with our son-in-law. “Try a tiny sip of water?”

“Do you need the Heimlich, Mom?” A. yelled.

I could not answer, coughing, coughing and retching and then nothing and I tried to reach for her. Light seemed to be exiting the kitchen, I was loosening hold of body and mind as I doubled over the sink… then she put her arms around me and with her clasped hands pressed hard against my ribs and upward until something small but terrible seemed to be released. Not a pleasant sight, face flaming hot, eyes stinging. I still felt it there. A minuscule waft of air entered mouth and sore throat; body felt misaligned; head felt empty, eyes streamed. Her arms were still around my chest but gently.

“Mom? Better?”

“Can you breathe now, Cynthia?” my husband asked, stricken.

I nodded, barely, barely as the light came back on, as legs felt wobbly. I breathed in, out shallowly a little more. I could not quite stop coughing; no words. I took a sip of water to cool my throat and chest, finger held up as a signal that I was likely coming ’round.

Gradually I breathed without diaphragm spasms or sharp pains and stood up straighter. After a moment, I automatically started to do something in the kitchen, and smiled a little to reassure them. My husband put a hand on my arm; A. put both of hers on my shoulders.

“Please come with me and sit down. Rest awhile.”

I sat there and felt as if the world had dissolved and was coming together and into focus again. I could see them looking at me, concerned. I felt tired; my head began to ache badly. I closed my eyes, pulled sweet coolness of air in and out of me. Arms encircling me: my daughter hugging me.

“I love you, Mom!”

“Thank you so much…!” I whispered.

A. had recently trained for disaster preparedness for the city, with essential emergency medical triage skills. She behaved in a calm, clear-minded, fast manner. She said she had not yet learned the Heimlich maneuver. But whatever she did worked. Her presence of mind, a certainty that she must help me made the difference, along with the intervention tactic.

By the time the others had arrived, I felt more normal, had gotten busy though my head still hurt, requiring a pain reliever. I had nearly put aside the incident and didn’t care to mention it further nor did the others.

But when we all sat down to the big table and took each other’s hand as is our tradition, I was asked to say the prayer. This is what came out:

“Lord, I thank you for all who are with us and those who are not. Fill us with Your peace. Fill us with divine compassion.” I paused, out of words for once, only to rush on: “And thank You so much and the angels, too, for helping my daughter save me tonight!”

Of course, I began to cry a little and then had to explain. Everyone was duly impressed with her skills, relieved I was okay. I got more hugs all night.

“I did what seemed instinctive,” she murmured as if surprised, herself, by her actions.

I knew I was far gladder than they. Gratitude does not express enough what I felt. Just to breathe unobstructed was fantastic. To fill out the picture with the rest was nearly too much but in a positive way–delectable food, family together and the love therein. I began to think of how much each person means to me and was imbued with a moment of extraordinary joy and serenity. Those long gone felt near to me, as well.

I suddenly saw again that visibility is an invaluable thing–to truly know a person and to be known. To patiently learn more of another, to stay and abide with each other until the bigger picture is revealed here and there. I hope to never forget that to be seen and being willing to truly note others is of more than simple, average importance. I’m honored I get to know my family as I do, as well as those brought into our home. Human beings need to feel worthy in the sight of others, to be accepted for who they are beneath trappings and niceties. Cared about, regardless of differences or similarities or changing circumstances of life. It is a gift that never goes out of style or loses its value. To not be invisible, to not be overlooked or discounted is one genuine wonder.

How I’m Seeing It Today

My head is full of pictures, those recently snapped as well as those saturating the media. Additionally, there are those arising from music heard and night dreams, from daily walks and greater journeys. I fill my head with images in magazines, from photography shared by others on blogs and elsewhere, from the spare art work I design in my mind and at times on paper. More visual than some, less than others, I am apt to think in images at some point even as ideas are swapped in live conversation. Yes, language is the tool that build foundation and habitation within which writing works and thrives. Words are conduits that provide emotions, postulations and hard facts the heft of expanding life. Yet intellectual inquiries, stories or poems do evoke pictures, unleash mentally constructed scenarios. I as well as others read books, in part, due to that very expectation. We want to be taken into another place or time for a rich experience, another life or few with attendant differing viewpoints. Open a book and discover stages being set and soon you are absorbed by narrative, each act and part played out as you become them as well as an invisible figure within an unfolding scene. Yes, miraculous words.

But it’s clear we are animals that rely heavily upon visual data. This begs the question about what we truly do see and also store in our memories. It also asks us how it impacts each person from that moment. How do news images provoke and shape the tenor of our days and nights, our very thoughts? How about films and television, art and even live theater? There has been much debate about the violence in our country and it is most distressingly hypnotic when we see it on a huge screen.

The Las Vegas massacre was horrific beyond any imagining, the latest in mass murders and worldwide terrorist attacks. Firearm-related deaths are increasingly numerous the past few decades in the U.S. There have long been protests about the entertainment industry depicting vicious and deadly violence too often. Sometimes I go from the news to a television show and find there are disturbing similarities. How did this come about and why isn’t it being responsibly addressed by scriptwriters and producers? I find it hard to believe that an everyday man or woman longs to be engulfed by such shows. I promptly change the channel or just turn it off. There is less and less I care to watch so carefully choose films or a series. Even then, I can be bamboozled by first scenes and finally have to give up.

This is the point when I face my responsibility for my own well-being. And for what I create, both for me and any readers. There are topics I write about frequently, things that have mattered to me professionally or personally. Not easy subjects at times, they center on physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness or its ruinous lack. I evaluate how healing has occurred and how to continue to take care as well as how others might improve their lives. And since violence personally has impacted my life, I do not seek it though I do note its worldly presence. I may have been a counselor who remained very calm when faced with a bitter, aggressive client but inside I was swamped with sadness, compassion; weary, too, of the pain and misery I witnessed.

The powerlessness we often feel when catastrophic events occur can be paralyzing. The overload of images and reports can become numbing, even take over sleep, then intrude on wakefulness. If we actually live through such events, it is magnified a thousand fold, encompasses everything. For the rest, it’s natural to note increased stress and even depression when indirectly immersed via the news. We may worry daily about the state of things. If we are prayerful, those prayers become more intense and frequent. Yet we have choices–to take action, to help improve the lives we inhabit as well as others’. How best to do that besides donating money to various charities or causes, or being politically more active?

An editor and author I know and respect, Jessica Morrell, shared on social media and also in her essay that those who write need to keep writing, to not let the world’s debacles, crises and sorrows mute our voices (http://jessicamorrell.com). I agree and  commented that “to not to write is to signal giving up.” We can use pain and worry to fuel worthy artistic responses. To fashion greater commitment to change while mining more hope. To feed the life-renewing energy even one beneficial action can instill. A powerful state results from being present and practicing empathy in daunting times. It is critical for me to maintain an internal and external balance by instigating positive creative activity. It is at the core of my being, this urge to care as well as create in an often bedazzled yet beleaguered life.

Decades ago, a therapist I met for a first session looked at me long and hard, then said, “You’re carrying the grief of the world inside you.” It first startled me–that she’d easily found vulnerability, that pulsing kernel of love and also of despair. In the quietest places inside it rang out as true. Tears suddenly flowed. The larger world spun within me, yes, because what I had experienced countless other people already had for centuries in one way or another. And what was not yet experienced I could imagine, connect to in the nerve center of who I was. There had to be an outlet for all that, one that didn’t any more destroy me (as addiction had nearly managed).

Therapy can be helpful but I had to keep writing poetry and prose and songs, dance, make art, explore and use as a wellspring the lavish complexities of nature. That and more often reach out. There is nothing like helping others to hew a healthy path away from our own self-centered issues. We identify with others or at least empathize when we have shouldered burdens and grappled with our own monstrous moments. There are many ways to accomplish this. We each have leanings, talents and yet-hidden resources we can develop. We just need to make opportunities to try our hand at something useful or beautiful or honorable.

I used to worry about being of real service. Sometimes I still do, feeling what I now offer can never be enough–this pecking away at the keyboard and letting the sentences float into a virtual atmosphere. This amateurish taking of endless pictures, this offering up of my vision as single moments of an embracing faith and wonderment. But it’s largely what I can do in this world. It is the joyous challenge that propels my life.

Once when I was in my twenties a former in-law asked if I would “ever learn decent domestic skills–can’t you even darn socks? Can you only write poetry?”

“Yes, that’s all,” I answered, hurt and embarrassed (it was mostly true, I had little talent for those duties) yet felt fierce as I held my head up. “Because I am working on being a poet, not so much a housewife.”

I learned how to fix torn and broken things in all sorts of ways eventually, how to make roast chicken dinners and can fresh tomatoes, plant flower seeds and split wood, make a lasting fire from old furniture when every pipe froze and the good wood was gone. But I wrote poems as much as I could and anything else so moved to write. It didn’t occur to me it wasn’t at least as necessary to nourish heart and soul as it was to feed the stomach–and this is what I taught my children from the start. It is important to make something from nothing, to recognize and create beauty for its own sake, to delve deeper for truths. To use time and abilities on endeavors that may not ever garner worldly rewards. Because we are not just bellies and brains, sinew and bone.

What I do will in fact never be “enough” but I don’t have to be the only one trying to do anything. All over this world there are scores of others forging creative roads into new territory right this moment. Sharing inspirational stories in print or around a warming fire. Negotiating peace or demonstrating revolutionary lives, perhaps with potent essays. We cannot live well if at all in the world without these flares of hope. And so I keep on writing, taking pictures of all that moves me, whatever might have some value. I join each day a vast community of doers and dreamers. Now more than ever, we must take action.

Remember the images I spoke about at the beginning of this post? It seems as if I focused more on writing yet each sentence has been accompanied by an image in the multitasking brain. Still, I also took a lot of photographs over last week-end in the three-dimensional world. Let me share some of what I saw–a small offering, a little balm. (And please click on each circle to see full photo.)

Peace to you, wherever you live and strive and love.

 

Behold What the Eye Can See

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It happens to me often and here it was again as we moved through the scenery. Beguilement.

Expansive views of the acreage of Asheville, North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate (built in 1895 and owned by the George Vanderbilt family known for their shipping and railroad empires) are majestic and bucolic. They thrill the eye, the sweeping views evocative of tranquil order, supported by nature and hidden human industry. I absorbed each vista with breathless anticipation of the next bend we would round. It wasn’t so much being impressed by the property as being impacted by the changing scenes. Each bigger picture was mesmerizing in breadth and scope. I could have looked and looked and never been satiated. Such plenitude of detail that at moments I could hardly absorb it all. Even withstand it. That’s just how it is for me. I’m certain it’s the same for others, especially those who have a passion to observe, to know more intimately what they see.

Not that it was overwhelming in a deleterious way. The copious beauty was varied and intense. There is something within me that, though filling up to overflowing expands further for more. I feel hunger for it all, want it imprinted within. And to partake of any wisdom moving beneath the robust and delicate scenes. For what my eyes see, ears hear–they teach me things. Our senses are gifts, conduits to greater understandings, not just of a moment but of complex universal designs. I follow my eye and instincts to discover an abundance of intrigue.

But I need to dismantle it a little. I take camera in hand and as all who love visual arts, focus on separate tableaus with their telltale clues, delights. Eye/mind/soul zero in on minute parts, look into shadows. Seek one cloud’s shape within greater configurations. Each piece is cohesive in its specificity, sometimes even more so than the extended view. They all have value; I am drawn in by a propulsive curiosity. I want to see well the exterior but also find an interior liveliness that is like a secret. It’s a treasure hunt for mind and senses. Any moment can harbor possibility and that is the real magnet that draws me. I can define an object before me , but what does it mean? How did/does it function in space and time? What matters or mattered about it within a garden, in a room, a life?

This is what attracts me in daily living: about everything. Put another way, what exists in this present can well hold my attention, but what has captivating potential–and everything does–is a series of magic doors I seek to open. If a glimpse offers a story, even a tiny one, I have been granted access to a journey that leads to challenges, a certain enchantment and most often, fulfillment. I can’t really lose. All of life is a story within another story within another, like Russian nesting dolls or better yet, a puzzle that is partially solved while added to over time.

I used to pretend being a reporter when I was a kid. I sat at a child-sized roll top desk with cubbyholes, took notes of various household and neighborhood goings on, filed them away in their slots and  folders. Diaries to detail more thoughts and experiences were required. I wrote and produced plays with neighborhood buddies and tried in vain to charge admission. We attempted full make up and ragtag costumes and hung a sheet for a curtain. We had decent turnouts. And then there would be a brief song on the radio which evoked extemporaneous movements–lo, a dance unleashing its tale. There was always something to hear, see, smell, taste, touch–and to read! and a cohort to do things with!– that jogged an expressive impulse. Take the navy, wide brimmed hat with sheer white and pink flowers at the ribbon my mother made with her own hands. It settled onto her silvery hair. It had presence all its own as she wore it; it did things with her. Another story idea.

Let’s take dolls as inspiration. Owning some of the first Barbie dolls was a blast.  I became stage manager and director of their adventures. I’d get the big square floor pillow–brown corduroy–and then cover a matchbox with a handkerchief for a couch or bed, bring in rocks, twigs and grass for a yard, sneak my mother’s fancy scarves to create exotic wardrobes and floor covering. The finishing touches were always changing but each mattered in that moment.  (I know, it’s not PC these days to say I enjoyed playing with Barbie and gang. She did not do dishes and Ken did not mow lawns. It’d now likely be demoted to mere play therapy as well, sadly.) Barbie et al and I got all sorts of events going; those dolls unlocked ideas and enlarged experiences like crazy. They led lives with fine sensibilities but had a talent for spontaneous fun. Or I should say it seemed they did but I was the supposed director.

It took very little to have a good time. From seemingly nothing could come anything at all. A sunny spot by or even under the scarred baby grand piano was a world to be reckoned with, mine to develop and claim. A starry night and a blanket. A cozy camp out within evergreens.

The back yard, with its shade trees and pines and bushes made a great stage but so did various living rooms and bedrooms, a porch or park or back steps. I didn’t even have to make much up, though. Tall tales unfolded all around me as life was textured and colored with people, places, events. I was charmed and mystified by myriad scenes, found them dramatically provocative of ideas and emotions. There still might arise an urge to embroider it–seeing an abandoned plaid, overstuffed chair or a cafe umbrella shading a person at a table whose single booted foot and “talking” hand were seen. Something had already happened, was happening or was about to happen. And I wanted to know, even if I had to fill in the gaps.

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This capacity for probing with problem solving–the urge to learn–is an attribute we all enjoy. It has been a powerful driving force in my everyday life. And because of this, I am never bored. Entertainment is within reach at any given time. There is endless mystery. I am duly humbled by how little I yet know and understand and experience a thrill from ongoing explorations. Even the momentary, least noteworthy ones. Or perhaps those are the best, at times.

It’s all in the details, that was what I was thinking on my power walk today. Walks are interrupted frequently as I pause to examine something. I spot a teal green gate at the side of a rambling house and above it is a heavily leafed branch; amber light is streaming through treetops. There is a soft splash, cat’s whiny meow, breath of wind. Leaves on trees shimmy, almost singing. How all this transfixes me… there is a sense of prescience. But of what? Of life happening and about to happen. Of  intricate connections, from behemoth tree to blades of grass to wooden gate to all creatures to crown of sky and beyond and to this moment. I am flabbergasted by the wonder of it. It is an intimate place in which we live and learn.

I am not naive. I have not lived a breezy, protected life. Surely no one truly does, for so much of what we do and hope for is a grab bag, like it or not. The very beauty that we need to love can hurt beyond measure when we’re vulnerable or anguished. As a young teen I still recall a moment when I experienced the unbounded extraordinariness of just being alive yet also felt  bereft. I stretched my arms around a favorite oak tree and wept. Later I wrote a poem, a terribly adolescent poem, and there is a line that’s stayed with me over 60 years: and yet beauty bites the bleeding heart. I loved so much and easily and still was rent by life’s bitter parts. As we each are.

But nothing is wasted in life; we experience it and let it go or keep it close, even recycle it sooner or later. We reinvent ourselves any way we can and need to do. It is our story to make happen. There is much to be unveiled as breath enters, nourishes microscopic cells, exits the miraculous lungs; while this fist sized muscle of heart beats its tireless rhythms for me. So I listen and watch, reach out, seek more. Wonder visits me like a loving old friend and we root out bits and clues, celebrate even when I get worn out and crabby. I do not want to be careless with the  bounties offered, nor dismiss the grace of moments I am allowed to inhabit. Big picture or small, the scenes of life are ours to unveil.

My visit to the Biltmore Estate gave me a renewed appreciation of my life situation, the assortment of whims, choices, dreams and labors. I left with a more vivid view of settings and circumstances within which the Vanderbilts conducted parts of their lives. The estate might have fleshed out the family more with traces of their individuality, remnants of yearnings. (George man loved books, that was encouraging, and hopefully the women did, as well. ) A visible legacy other than only wealth, with signs of daily interactions, musings and matters of the heart that roiled, pacified and beguiled–those underpinning and perhaps secreted away from such power and industry. I have more investigating to undertake. But I couldn’t help but think of them traversing the stone steps, gliding across endless rooms, seeking solace or joy in the gardens as they spoke in hushed tones. Can we have Act 1 outlined and set up, please?

Then again, maybe I will move on to fleeting moments of lives being lived, scenarios created this very second. Wait, see how the summer light moves across the grass and street? All it takes is observation plus a dash of imagination, same as it did as a kid.

A White Attire Matter

Are they happy because it’s finally, after a grueling, claustrophobic winter, going to be SPRING? Then summer!

I’ve been considering the somewhat peculiar realm of white duds lately. It has to do with the faint possibility of spring. Of Easter coming up already. But it began when I took a long moment to consider my closet’s contents. What I beheld was an impressive spectrum of dark to darker colors that complement Portland’s steely grey weather, which is standard beginning November, ending sometime around late May; the city refuses to show off until then. I guess we tend to dress in sync with our environment except for rain gear, which needs to be vibrant, even garish, in order for us to be seen as we head out and about in the drenching downpour.

My current shirts, pants and a handful of skirts embrace respectable black/charcoal grey, muted berry tones and a faded red that gets ignored, deep purples/blues, a handful of piney and dark teal greens. There’s something fiery orange in there that must be a leftover from August or just a stray that should be recycled. Then hanging near the end of the wooden pole is a spot of white. Two spots. Why no white, even off-white, save for a shirt and a light tunic-type thing (got on sale, haven’t worn yet)? I’m not counting my old white (well off-white now) Gap long sleeved T-shirt for layering.

I have always had at least one wrinkle-free white blouse or shirt–the first being, I think, more form-fitting and maybe with an embellishment such as a discreet ruffle; the second being clean lined and tailored as possible. It’s what most of us include in our wardrobes; it’s a classic staple. Yet for me it tends to peek out from under a sweater or jacket, to complement a look. It doesn’t seek to bring attention to its own regrettable lack of rich pigment. Unless worn with excellent dark blue jeans or black slacks, sleeves rolled up to three-quarter length. Or with, say, artisan-made cuff links–then it becomes classy, not just an endurable classic, I suppose. At least, that’s what I see in fashion magazines. I’ve tried to be that woman at times; it takes a decided dash of panache, like an aging French actress who still dares to leave top buttons undone and glorious hair tossed about. But I wouldn’t know, anymore, just what I can do with it. It’s remained mostly uninhabited since retirement, before which I really dressed, and generally enjoyed it. I should throw it on to recall what it’s like to feel pulled together, refreshed with flair. Things have gradually gone south a tad. (Though I do still wear earrings and a favorite bracelet, tend to match things up–even when just at home. I mean, why bore myself? I enjoy even the facsimile of verve.)

But white is not something to play with when you’re a pale-to-sallow-skinned person like me; it can make me appear like death has one foot in the door. It actually gleams on someone with a warm color to their faces and eyes. Thus, it scares me; a little can change a lot, whether you are painting a picture or dressing. So much light bounces off of it so that there is a dual impact of innocuousness and dazzle. And am I supposed to accessorize it to add a bit of jazz or let its elegance or sportiness speak for itself?

Which brings me to the other thoughts about this wardrobe choice. I’m no fashion historian but I saw somewhere that the color white began to show up more in the 1930s, when the wealthy started to wear it in warm months, especially during leisurely activities. I conjure up a rousing game of croquet on a vast emerald lawn, or an outdoor court replete with tennis whites worn by attractive athletic couples. I imagine perspiration didn’t show on crisp togs. Finally by the fifties the wearing of this color trickled down to the middle class. Another few years white was just another color, take it or leave it, but stay mindful of that seasonal rule.

The more I think of it the more I realize white has tended to be a class marker as those who’ve worn it from the start were more likely (in this country) to be the “leisure” class– certainly when it first came in vogue. There are the whites that indicate summer or vacation life with sailing or outdoor games and sports, luncheon-and party-throwing. White has tended to more often be reserved for formal occasions– for women, at least (though men don white tuxes in warmer climes)–including grand dinner clothing or debutante gowns. I have heard that winning beauty contestants wear white more often. Formal attire and the color white do seem made for each other; you expect to stay clean for such events. The Navy has its dress whites. And let’s not forget brides who for an eon donned only a white wedding dress inspired, of course, by societal and moral expectations of “purity”–unrealistic or not.

White fabric, especially more expensive types, can mark a uniform so that it denotes a certain status, generally professional. The clothes of a doctor or nurse, dentist or scientific lab employee, chef, barber–these have traditionally been white fabric. (Why, I have wondered, given the various types of matter making their way onto such a pristine canvas? White collar workers came from the shirts (and suits/skirts) professionals in offices tended to wear for a few decades.

Generally white is a color one avoids when planning on getting dirty. Outdoors workers rescue personnel or police/military employees and various manual laborers–all have traditionally worn darker clothing, if not also uniforms of some sort. It makes most practical sense. Someone working on a construction site, engaged in gardening or putting out fires or doing field work tracking cougars or trumpet swans tend to get dirty. Their clothing gets messy without revealing wear too soon–then can be washed repeatedly without undo damage. My father didn’t work on his cars, the yard or even fix musical instruments in white clothing. (Though my son is a painter and wears white pants that quickly become an abstract painting…there must be a reason for this choice.) I don’t generally hike in the mountainous Columbia Gorge wearing my one pair of white jeans and have never scrubbed my long-ignored kitchen floor in matching white socks, shorts and top.

But when I began this post I was thinking a little of Easter. Wearing white meant it was the time to get fancy when I was a child. And the best occasion for this was Easter Sunday. My whole family spiffed up to the “nth degree” for church during such a time, and there was usually some white going on our bodies. The men in freshly pressed white shirts, the older females in perfectly white high heels and faux pearl-decorated gloves. Perhaps it had something to do with Jesus’ resurrection being equated with our own rebirth, but it was also–after an interminable wintry season–spring heralding nature’s glorious rejuvenation.

My childhood Easter dresses were often bright florals to reflect the special occasion. My favorite had a white cotton sateen background with large butterflies of blue, yellow, purple flitting about, and a belt tied in a big bow at the back. I was excited to put on white anklets with lace at the edges, paired with white patent leather Mary Jane shoes and topped off with short white gloves and often a small white bonnet with a small flower on it. I felt like a, well, a kind of princess. I wouldn’t dream of messing anything up before getting home where I changed for Easter Bunny time outside.

The notion that, as a general rule, white should not be worn before Memorial Day nor after Labor Day was ironclad most of my life. It seems particularly important in the South where my parents grew up; it just wasn’t done and I didn’t dream of making the gauche error of breaking of that rule. I suspect it had as much to do with the weather as anything, as everyone knows warmer months mean lighter clothing in both weight and coloration for comfort. Where the temperature rises into eighty or ninety degrees Fahrenheit and certainly above that, it is wisest to allow for even, rapid cooling of the body. In desert climates, people typically appear to cover themselves fully and loosely in lighter colors, more often white. Sun’s punishing heat is not so readily absorbed.

Fashion rules have been altered endlessly since my youth. And the rules for wearing white have, too. More women have gradually worn white and ivory woolens or other heavier and textured fabrics as autumn and winter months come and go. I’ve noticed white in shoes as well in all seasons for at least dressy affairs. I can barely keep up with what is in or out but I think it’s great styles have evolved into far more mix and match. It’s more playful, evocative and outright creative than in the more tradition-bound days. I can see fashion as an expressive art more and more, not just a whim or a necessity or something that denotes status. I have tended to feel less was more; my fashion-loving daughter and sister have had to nudge me toward more experimentation and I still swing back to a more classic style, certainly more casual. She’s in the forefront of these things; I am one standing middle of the road or the background, and that’s alright. Since not working for money, if I can’t wear it long hours writing, reading or making a little art or dancing about or working up a sweat outdoors, it doesn’t interest me much.

But I did buy that tunic-type, three-quarter-sleeved, white top not long ago at a great sale–maybe it was last year’s style. It’s a light linen blend and can be worn outside in the heat of summer’s day on a walk or dressed up with a long elegant necklace and shiny earrings or rich-hued scarf. For Easter, I’m thinking. That’s not really early and even so I’m wearing it, maybe with a pair of coral pants and goldish flats. Not so keen on white gloves or hat. But rainy chill or not, it’s time to liven things up around here, reawaken that warm weather brio, share a splash of sunshiny zest, add a good dash of elan. It seems white duds have their place and can even inspire, after all.

 

Elemental Changes

Partway into a hike at The Pinnacles National Park.
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There are people who vigorously embrace life and if necessary, make it happen when odds seem against them; their vibrancy spills over. Others feel life is a fight they seem meant to lose, become embattled and embittered until giving up. What makes the difference? Who not only survives but can flourish– and who may not discover their potential or even the sudden beauty of living? We already know–don’t we by now?– that it isn’t money, although it makes a difference in obtaining necessities. Health can surely tip the balance at times.  It may well be love–partner, family, friends– that colors a life which overcomes hardships and setbacks.

Or might it be something more? Consider two people I have known.

He was a soldier once and it gravely altered things. There were times when I wasn’t so sure who he was, anymore, but that worry is long passed. He kept putting one foot in front of the other and worked it out in time. He regained the trademark warmth that signals extra kindness on offer.  He’s in Costa Rica now, then will be off to Germany, then to India, then Dubai and Australia and that is not the entire schedule for 2017. This itinerary despite having serious heart events in the past year, with more recent emergency and surgical interventions just weeks ago. He verbalizes little to no anxiety about expansive travel plans regarding health challenges. Rather, he shares the usual enthusiasm, a growing excitement that is leavened by decades of travel experience. He is also a photographer (as is his travelling partner/wife) who once took pictures for his leisure (as do I), perhaps also for documentation in military and private sectors. But he is far beyond that, having won several awards and exhibiting as well as selling many photos. Every trip, small or major, he expects to be a part of fascinating events happening in animal, mineral and vegetable worlds. His curiosity pulls him forward; he expects events to go well, despite hazards of travel off the beaten path, despite tough-to-treat heart disease. Despite knowing well how cruel the world can be. And he could be out of reach of medical help or even die. But he will not give in to health risks nor ease up on his passions. He forges ahead with anticipation of the good to come. His photographs will be rich, detailed, compassionate: full of the human (and other) life he so loves. Full of his determination to thrive.

He found the wit and will to carry on. He found the way to burrow through the ills and hardships and hew another door and then another where before there were few sound ones or none. The work of it–that is what kept him going, and faith in a greater scheme.

The woman was in treatment with me (I, her counselor) for a DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants) but it was more than that. It was a result of too much pain. She often needed to bring her autistic son who wailed, kicked and growled if impatient or bored, tired, hungry and just because that is what he did. She managed the tantrums resultant of sensory overload and what she could not name with soothing words and firm arms about him. She gritted her teeth, blinked back tears as she dodged more flailing. It was tiring. She worked long nights; he got just fair care from neighbors. Her rent was increased too much so she had to move–again. She was tempted to return to an abusive ex-husband but finally admitted she’d live on the street with her son if needed just to avoid it. That choice was circumvented by cousins, not her favorite family but they had space for awhile. She and her son squeezed into a cramped room, made it their tiny new kingdom. There was the question about how much longer she could bear working the bar life, making drinks for men there for the strippers. This work and all that preceded it had made her brittle, eyes glittering with anger even when she forced a smile. I worried she would not find a way to open to the healing of being cared about even in treatment. But she dreamed of being a dental hygienist or an x-ray technician. If she could make it through this day intact. Which she just would. Her son needed more help so she worked double shifts here and there to pay for his needs and costs of her DUII. But she didn’t drink or use drugs. Showed up to all appointments, listened, shared her hard truth. Worked day by day to develop ways to heal, to strengthen. She completed that program, hugged me, told me she’d strive for a long term healthy lifestyle. Happiness did not seem so illusory to her: “I’m making it happen–for me, too, not only my son.” Later she called. She was looking into funding for college.

What makes various individuals go forward rather than stall out–and finally give up?

Hope has something to do with it. If one cannot begin to envision any positive future, even if it is the next hour or day, it is terribly hard to muster a shred of strength to hold on. That extremely tender seed of hope can generate more roots to keep a life upright but is at risk of withering without nurturance.

It may not be a person who affects the difference, or not direct contact. Sometimes reading something by one you admire clicks and you become connect the dots for yourself. Books helped profoundly sustained me while growing up and beyond childhood abuse, whether it was fiction or nonfiction (drawn as I was to philosophical or spiritual writings as well as good yarns and poetry) or even choice children’s’ books (a too overlooked go-to–try Peter Speirs’ picture  books or Shel Silverstein’s tales of fun and wonderment). Or it may be a teacher or boss who becomes a mentor, an ordinary neighbor who never fails to be interested in how you are, or a dear friend who supports you by just showing up with love. Many can offer us good doses of strength or hope without fully realizing it. We need to be ready to accept it, even when doubtful.

They all cannot likely save us, though the poet Rilke offered me more bravery with one short line. We learn we alone can only truly save ourselves, that’s what he meant–even if/when God is called upon and we are certain we’re at last heard. Our necessary labors are distinctly human; we are charged with handling a great deal. There is no better way through life than staying alive, anyway, taking stock and going on and rooting out the beauty. Because it is everywhere if we look and see.

Anything that augments healthy possibilities and inspires us can provide more impetus to stay with small or large goals, whether just getting up in the morning or addressing a tenacious problem or designing bigger dreams. I find music, nature, walks, spiritual teachings and prayer, family members and friends can make a fine difference in helping me sustain a good attitude and better energy. They are hope inducers. Yet there are times when hope may seem a kind of foolishness, a teasing concept that cannot be applied to complex and critical needs. And then what is the doable choice?

I maintain even when there is not nearly enough hope or inspiration, not a wealth of support or wellspring of handy resources, still the human will can accomplish wonders. Yes, a most basic human characteristic. (Better, in my opinion, coupled with the Divine.) We were given such an iron tough and resilient will for good reasons. What else comes to our service countless times? What enables us to endure when all else seems impossible, irrelevant? We don’t have to live only by basic instinct, by fleeting intuition and feelings that come and go. We can be decisive, make a choice to keep on despite the odds. To attend to the need of each moment and be open to options, no matter how far fetched they may seem. And if we also offer and welcome a little cheer, we might, too, have more hope replenished as we go. There are those pesky birds that sing for one another and us at dawn, the caring that arrives in a surprise card or well-timed compliment, a moving scene in a film or story that opens us to loftier thoughts and hearts that re-engage. But even without those luxe moments, we share a common denominator of a human status: that sometimes unattractive yet awesome might of a deep internal urge to just persevere.

Our will. To hold on. To go on.

As an addictions counselor, it was interesting to see who could and would make needed changes–that is, who would stay clean and sober and who would succumb to the siren call of substance abuse and dependence even while in treatment. Or, shortly thereafter and return to services again. My teammates and I would wonder over clients, try to tailor treatments to match the Stages of Change. Developed by Prochaska and Di Clemente, two psychotherapists who developed the model in 1977 to first address nicotine dependence. It remains a useful model, a guideline, regarding many sorts of behavioral change.

Were my clients “Precontemplative”, i.e., yet unable to even see the problem? Were they in Contemplation, aware but not interested in commitment to change? Was the client in Preparation, now planning to take some kind of helpful action? After that, perhaps in fits and starts, Action begins, when one is engaged in the work of altering problematic behaviors. By the time someone manages to land in Maintenance, new habits are taking hold. Both behaviors and attendant attitudes are visibly different. But without a person’s considered moment of decision to make a choice for something different, there can be no contemplation or planning, no action, no ultimate difference in lifestyle or mental health. It was my challenge to provide opportunities for insight and–I hoped–resultant change, to help the person come to that critical point. However, in the end, it was always the individual’s will to change or not to change that made the actual difference. When the stubborn will is engaged, so much can begin to occur. The process of healthy change is a wondrous thing, a human architectural feat of light and flesh. Believe me.

The original question posed was: why do some gird themselves and go forth to seek solutions to problems and embrace life wholly–while others quit? I posit that it is finally our will to go one way or another, our choices to make the helpful or harmful difference. Wanting things to be different doesn’t do much–we can desire change for all sorts of motley reasons (even specious ones) but in the end we often really don’t want to go there.

It is up to us to determine what we most need and then what we are willing to do–what sacrifices are acceptable to us, how much suffering can we endure if required? Because this living is full of those matters; no one gets away with blithely slipping through their time here. There will be matters of heart and spirit, mind and body that will charge right into our tidiest days and nights; losses that will empty us of grief more than once; circumstances that we never planned, that care nothing of who we are or what we have. But if we possess the will to endure, greater courage will build. If we foster that will to hang on, better possibilities can unfold in time. If we have that will to say yes to this life rather than no–even with heartaches and what is unfair and far worse–the strength to stand up and live in more hope will grow more than might have been imagined.

It may take time to pause and sort it all out before choosing. The essential decision to hold fast or just let potential opportunities slip away has to be made. That turn of mind will generate momentum that may radically change your life; it can also just keep it moving right along no matter delays or hurdles. Like my brother, a still-undaunted, big-hearted traveler who meets each challenge; and that good if toughened woman I think of with chin up, stride strong and vision more clear and bright. Many came through my counseling office and returned to the world with lives salvaged: they hurt and struggled and they persevered.

The two people highlighted here take a firm hold of circumstances and determine choices which have greater value for their aspirations, ordinary or grand. And they reach beyond themselves, strive for some greater good. As such they remain two of my everyday, unique heroes.