Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Move to Something, Somewhere

The photo is deceptively personal, full of the sense of a certain communal peace, an idyllic setting most would love to insert ourselves within even for a short time. It is my home, so I should know. Or, rather, it is not my actual property; I do not live on either side of those river banks. But it is within my territory since we moved from the close-in city neighborhood to the current spot. And it is much like this–green-treed, near water, seemingly far from the constant din of city life heaving itself into consciousness. Here, the conscious mind is alive with nature and at a distance from much else, and this results in a stunning quietude.

But it has felt like living a small mystery, being here, and every day when I first look out the large opened windows or take walks along serpentine pathways that surround acreage, I am surprised.

For one thing, it is a wealthy enclave. Let’s call it Lakemont. It is a city set apart from the Portland metropolis or other suburbs. And we are not wealthy, so it may seem odd that we are here now. We do alright, could’ve done better if we’d planned differently (if life hadn’t thrown curve balls, if the economy hadn’t nosedived in 2008–if-if-if!)– and will likely manage when we’re fully retired. But we certainly don’t aspire to occupy the manse-like or maybe a bit more reasonably classy homes that characterize the city, each nestled within ubiquitous trees. I like to look at them–I enjoy such variety of architecture– but we’ve been apartment dwellers awhile. And so we now appreciate our spot within green, birdsong-infused expanses.

It was a joke that I even looked here as the deadline pressed upon us beginning in January. The goal was to vacate the old place and inhabit the new by 1st of March, in order to be much closer to one daughter undergoing a hysterectomy (so we could have here with us to support recovery days after the move), then another giving birth to twins 6 weeks later (so we could help daily). And, too, my husband was leaving for a long business trip within days of relocating.

So it was with urgency that I searched for something affordable–not at the top of the limit, not too cheap–and roomy and comfortable enough, with walking areas close by, too. I wanted to get to all within five minutes. There was little to be found anywhere within five miles of them. Places were way too small, worn out, lacking in sidewalks or parks nearby, or way too expensive.

And then an advertisement on a website caught my eye. What– in Lakemont? So fancy, no way! But I kept going back to it–looked at the square footage, the prices, rooms. And that location. Under 7 minutes drive, depending on traffic, to the daughters.

The decision was made after a visit and a long drive about the neighborhood. When sharing that, people we knew couldn’t believe we’d choose to live there. Far from our city’s fab bustle, for one thing, which we’ve enjoyed decades. Wouldn’t we be lonely? And Marc and I are aging hippies, still working on living more simply. Moderate, overall (but I am still well in more liberal zone), in lifestyle and ideological choices. Far more invested in various intellectual pursuits and nature’s delights/activities than money or–really, just forget this–status. Those simply do not cohere with who we are–and would not , still, if there were greater means.

And yet. This apartment felt like home even empty, like it would be the best place when all was said and done. We called the movers. I was ready to go. Now, each morning we open our doors and windows to refreshment of mind and body.

Today, after visiting my new, more pricey dentist, I reflected on the costs of that choice. I do think of money some, though I cannot deny one tends to get what is paid for. How much more do I get? Well, the solitude and tranquility of rolling woodlands, for one. Every time we step onto the long, deep balcony–a treat–we are inspired by towering trees, bird watching, bright summer skies; the lack of fire/police/ambulance sirens and not-infrequent night-time gunshots and late night revelers weaving home from bars around the corner. Our old area was pretty well heeled, but it was deep within big city stuff. Which we were comfortable with, overall. And which, strangely, we no longer miss much. We can always get fast into the city to attend a concert, visit the huge farmers’ market, stroll amid colorful jumbles of humanity and events.

It, though, sometimes feels as if we are living a charade–even though this matters much less than proximity to family now. No, I do not drive a Tesla or Mercedes; yes, I adore my worn Teva sandals; and we enjoy sandwiches and Italian dishes and chicken/veggie/rice pots with a seltzer water, not rare prime rib or fancy French cuisine (okay, a French bakery for week-end brunch) with fine wine or whatever else is eaten and imbibed here.

As I drive about, I grow more accustomed to circuitous streets, aged woods, cleaner parks, valley and mountain views, lake and rivers. It is a sweet relief on tough days, a sudden happiness on easier ones to enjoy these.

I watch the other women at church, at the library, on the trails or on quiet streets and wonder who I may meet, who I might become friends with here. I don’t care how much money is made, who you know. I care how you act. I smile at all; I often enjoy a smile returned, a hand raised in greeting. I look for graciousness, a friendly sort. I hope at least some are genuine… as well as basically accepting of varieties of persons, genders, statuses, religions, races–or at least courteous, kindly. Do I ask too much? Though I am short on time and energy, anymore, I think of ways to reach out.

It is true that Lakemont is known as a mostly white community; I was looked at askance for moving here by some since we do have an interracial family. And an extended family of eccentrics, creatives, and those challenged in varying ways, most all of whom are generous and can be zany fun. Maybe a few of our friends forgot what matters most now: to be closer to family, with a room enough for all to gather; to be situated within nature’s bounties–walk outside and find peace as an antidote to a multitude of life stressors. We’ve lived in well over a dozen places and a high priority has generally been to stay close to nature. Now, again, we are. So we embrace change even as we learn to adapt.

This afternoon I seriously muse on this feeling of dislocation–is this the right choice made, can this be a true home for us, at least awhile?–that may be closer to resolving as each week passes. We are intent on making it so but I wonder what really lies ahead. For it is not just new housing. It is an emotional and spiritual territory that is different for us. The birth of our daughter’s twins was not an easy event. It still is not but rather a most intricate dance, a breath-taking journey, and a time of consternation, too.

I remain restrained in what I share here but this has been a period of upheaval and worry and of deeper, broader love. A daily laboring toward better but healthier times. Prayers are said every busy day, and in the still deep cup of night, there come tears. Yet pitching in to help a new mother is standard labor no matter what comes. We hold those new ones so close, helping feed and diaper and soothe them, usher them toward better slumber, a gentle security. Tapping reserves as we go, and finding, too, small cheer here and there, moments of victory. Things will get better in time, always it takes time, we tell each other and offer love songs to the grand babies, these heartbreakingly wonderful ones.

Becoming a neophyte mother is a monumental transformation, perhaps more so when a bit older–and so is becoming a new father. Why does modern society insist it is roses and moonbeams and laughter from the start? Or gloss over many variations, including those of endless confounding, exhausting days and nights, plus the hugely unexpected? There is such judgement, so very high expectations, and there even seems a lack of empathy, at times. Birthing into this world is a risky venture for every parent and that each infant undertakes–in this case, two–and for some, more so than others. A risk but additionally opportunity to discover ways to thrive. To become one’s self more profoundly– as the little ones will do, too.

My daughter asks questions I cannot answer well enough. I sit with her, work beside her. And there is a well of silence as she summons courage to sort it all out. Her husband is stalwart, stressed, yet I witness their bravery every day, am overwhelmed with respect as well as love. I feel the ache of things paired with beauty of the twins’ lives, and want to obliterate any harshness that dares to impede the rooting of happiness. They are resourceful adults, are so conscientious, and will prevail. Rather, commitment to parenting will; it is that mammoth push that initiates movement in right directions.

Being a 69 year old mother and a grandmother is no walk in perfect weather, either. It is accepting the storms and waiting for transparent, lush rainbows. It is having faith when faith is pummeled and the bones are hurting, tired. And one wonders if one did the best thing or the worst; if one was a smart young mom or a foolish one way back then, if too misguided, impulsive. We can only have done what we did and let the past be past. I have this one day to carry on with my life tasks and missions, even if insignificant to others. I also stand right beside or protectively before my family; that will never change.

Those of us who have lived longer lives know what that stone lighthouse means as it prevails, shining and defiant, amidst all weather. There is a print of such, right above the bed. I look at it each day, then I pause on my balcony, scan branches for juncos, hummingbirds, chickadees, stellar jays, listen to wind song and squirrels scrabbling. And I do know why I am here: we were blessed to have been led to this haven. In truth, I knew it was critical to move as close as possible to this part of our family. The reality is that these are very hard and beautiful times… and here Marc and I can gather sustenance like blooms of light.

We are never sure of well being in this world–so why do we persist in believing life is so finely wrought, a story brilliant and bursting with wonder? Because it is this, too, whether we can perceive it or not. Because we can make it so if we become open to such, and realize persistence in becoming a more compassionate and courageous human is key. How can we live well without these as guidance? To be brave we have to put one foot in front of the other, not win awards for major heroics. And seek a helping hand as well as offer one. We must not attempt this life alone, not for long.

We arrive here with expansive heart and eternal soul, a calculating mind and so well-outfitted body; we have been given excellent tools. Thus, we carry on, with even thinnest of hope as a tether and perhaps a plethora of fears striving to sink us. We create ways to celebrate what small gifts are found and shared even as we know that, yes, it is true, once again tears will come. I am too well acquainted with grief, as sooner or later all of us are. Yet I will corral potential for better and brighter, within and without. There is no other worthy choice than to reach for and grab hold, then get on with it. Whatever it takes. This has aided me well for nearly seven decades. So often we must simply stand firm when shaken, take a first step when we can. And I count Divine Love as my most constant companion for those endeavors. My truest compass is God.

We each sooner or later make a move for something more or different, to somewhere else. To find out what’s next. We are just travelers in one way or another. May we make the move count. Make it wholehearted. I am taking it all in, creating my story while mending ripped portions and weaving in new pieces with many others’; then, the whole of it is richer. Heartier. May it be, oh God, enough, as I praise this life that yet allows me to live it with opened hands: let me have every, I mean every single moment.

Bravehearts, One and All

Photo: Man on balcony of Biltmore Estate by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of bravery. It intrigues and impresses me. I haven’t looked up the definition since elementary school, but I’m confident of its core meaning. It is generally equated with being willing to face and cope with unseen or unwanted challenges, to persist in holding steady or going forward despite strictures, opposition or hardship. It is about nurturing hope despite a current reality that serves to quash hope. Bravery involves finding reserves of strength though feeling weak, harnessing courage in presence of fear, and taking meaningful risks when one might be cautioned otherwise. It is standing up, stepping out, going forth because one must. Or one determines it more desirable. To do otherwise would be harder to live with even if there is reasonable chance of failure. Bravery calls for a deep moral fortitude, for a tensile mind and will.

Often it seems we don’t even know we possess these until we need to use them. They come to us at our command or perhaps with assistance. Surprised, we revel in new prowess it can afford us.

Then again, I may be kidding myself. How much do I know about the need of truly mighty bravery? It’s true I’ve had diverse experiences through which to assess such qualities in people, either first or second hand. But neither do they include the full spectrum of circumstances by which people develop then utilize an almost mythic bravery. I am not a trauma nurse or doctor, disaster aid worker, war veterans’ services provider–those who surely see this firsthand. But I am a retired alcohol/drug and mental health counselor. And I have been witness to a lot of true stories that caused my heart and spirit to lurch and weep and experience great joy for lives lost and found again.

But I don’t have to go to work to see lives being lived despite many perils. There are examples of this even on streets I traverse, places I go.

For months homeless men have made their shelter in a cement entryway of a nearby church. The doors remain locked but this area is free to use. In bone chill of rainy winter they huddled deep into worn sleeping bags or tattered blankets. Sometimes a radio could be heard. Sometimes they’d be talking with one another–perhaps two or three as if there was a limit–or sharing a hot or cold drink. As the seasons morphed into warmer days and nights, they’ve been there less. But mostly they are there, belongings piled up on carts or in plastic bags. They–or others–rummage in our garbage for salvageable food or cans and bottles to turn in. And when it’s a decent day for one reason or another or weather is more amenable, off they go. I rarely have seen them arrive or leave; they just are there and not there. They, like thousands more, live a nomadic life in our city. They are tough or get toughened in every way to just go on living.

They are brave urban street survivors. They endure so much of what we will not ever have to, if we enjoy better fortune. By that I mean we have adequate income to cover our needs, adequate care and medicines to help treat illnesses of all sorts, none of a variety of addictions (gambling is perhaps the worst) that plunge us far over the edge with little help of rescue. I’ve had many clients who lived in city’s forests, along streets in tents or boxes or in relentless heat and cold of the open air under the freeway overpass. Their feet get weary and wounded from walking–from poorly fitting shoes, no socks, no shoes. They live with hunger despite a free warm meal once a day and handouts. They get lonely except for a stray dog they feed scraps and then give a name to only to know it might be taken or die or run off, or a buddy or two they trust this week. They suffer from maladies that they just ignore or cannot get treated. Fight to keep what little they have from those who rob them, and suffer attacks from stronger and angrier people.

The ones who came to me for help desired a safe place for their own, even a very small room. Or a  corner under an awning or camping in bushes with no one bothering them since being in open air offers freedoms, too. Sitting in my comfy office I knew they came partly for respite a while, for dryness or warmth or air conditioning. And to talk and just be heard. To get help with an opiate, methamphetamine or benzodiazepine addiction; or bipolar  or psychotic episodes or recurrent depression with crippling anxiety. To find a way out of the particular rabbit  hole they found themselves in despite once dreaming and working for a far different life. No one expects to be homeless, after all.

Not often did they admit to being brave but they knew they coped with things a great many others cannot. And endurable and enduring street life is predicated on one’s wits, physical and psychic strength–being able to engage in fully operant survival mode. Some might say “dumb luck” also played a part in staying alive. Still, I’d remind them that basic bravery was a prime asset among internal  and external resources that worked on their behalf. That dipping into even a piddling spring of hope one day to the next enabled someone to not throw in the towel. Because often all appears lost to the mentally ill and physically debilitated, the addicted and traumatized. There is powerful value in this tool for survival, this bravery. To keep on until a better answer is found. And this often did bring them to my door, seeking change. Renewal.

Their sort of bravery works for them. It is not a choice often, but more a requirement. It is far different to have to deal with harsh realities and try to make a change than to choose to face fear in order to do something new that is engaging and meant for one’s own satisfaction.

Bravery is a potent quality for us all to use, however. There are people who stand up for basic human rights despite any backlash from naysayers. Those who sacrifice personal security or even their lives to help or defend others. People determined to generate improvements in quality of life despite opposition branding them variously as budget busters or out of touch with real communities or having too radical an approach to make viable change happen.

Then there are the rest of us, perhaps at first glance ordinary people, no celebrated dragon slayers. We live our lives quietly, industriously, but often with fervency, a sense of expectancy. We are visited by lesser and greater life problems. Our strong bodies get busted. The love of our life finds then marries someone else. A best friend behaves like an enemy, or worse yet drifts away without a backward glance. Our talents fail to bring us the supposed glory we envisioned. Our good education somehow prepared us for a mundane job. We fail our children in small ways that will haunt us or in a big way that is never beyond shamed and pained attention. Our lives can be dolorous, frayed by restlessness, thinned by loneliness. Tried in seven variations yet discovered wanting again.

But we prevail, anyway. We chose to continue tromping on our way. We’d rather try again–if nothing more than because we wonder what else is out there. Trying emphasizes seeking or finding opportunities; it implies better possibilities. Ones that are preferable to the present circumstance.

All that bobbing about on the river of life, or being impeded by rock, branch or uncharted, unnatural dam. All the re-routing we must make. It takes stamina, too. We do not get to live by instinct alone but also must engage brain and soul power.

When once I was struggling with my own upended life, a person of authority told me something that stayed with me ever after–but as an example of what was an untruth. She said, “Trying isn’t close to enough and is not the point here. Only victory over your trauma symptoms will be enough, but that’s unlikely.”

I was a teenager in a psychiatric ward where I was sent to “get over” a damaged childhood. I had had about enough of adults’ ignorant ways. I looked at the psychiatrist to see if she was joking. She was not.

I retorted, “Victory is right in this terrible trying I do every day and night. Don’t you tell me trying doesn’t count. I’ll succeed because I’ll try hard enough and long enough to figure things out. Get better, get out of here and go on.”

With her words to fight against and my stubborn pushing forward, I began to think of myself as someone who might rise above. Who could change things even if they needed to be done alone. I loathed that place with its high, narrow windows and guttural sounds all night long and the mind-numbing pills I rarely swallowed. I began to alter my internal life story from one of fear to a tentative then quiet boldness. I did not feel brave but profoundly longed to be. So I started to act as if I was. Increments of courage propelled me. I learned to endure a dim and haunted place where many seemed to be fading or forgotten. To feel their ruinous grief within echoing walls while sorting out my own. To scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush when I broke a rule. To float beyond it all while trying to block out someone screaming in the night. I would not succumb. I found even an approximation of bravery cast enough encouraging light to offer refuge until the real thing kicked in.

Of course more challenges lay ahead. But I saw a light and parsed out some of what might work to better reassemble the pieces.

That was an experience long ago lived. But today’s post has another, far happier genesis.

I was on the East coast last week and got to spend time with my oldest daughter, a sculptor who teaches at a university. Naomi (Falk, not Richardson if you look for her on Instagram) was buying rather esoteric and expensive items for an upcoming sailing trip to Greenland starting in July. (Rubber boots, dry pack, super dark sunglasses that cost plenty, special socks and other clothing, etc.) She made an iPad purchase and was been talking with the salesman about how she needed certain video editing capacities and waterproof features for a trip. He inquired about it further so she shared more. He “high-fived” her and peppered her with excited questions. A Hawaiian, he’d been following the return of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe after three years at sea with navigation via only stars, wind and waves.

That conversation was a first and fascinating to hear. After two days with her I’d seen a different reaction. This man got it entirely. Usually when people asked and she shared the basics, they responded with mouth hanging open. Incredulous. Or they blinked at her blankly, repeated her statement but as a question, to make sure they heard right. She said something like this:

“I’m going on a trip in a fifty-one foot sailing vessel with a small crew and a few others for an artists’ residency. But it’s also about examining environmental issues, climate changes and how they’re impacting glaciers and Greenlanders. Yep, sailing up the East coast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then to Greenland’s western coast. ”

And she’d note: “I know only basics of sailing, but may not need to use my limited knowledge. I’d like to, though. I hope to scuba dive at some point.”

Or she would say: “Why am I doing it? Well, it’s not something I’d be expected to do. It interests me, the whole experience. I took a boat around and to the Faroe Islands last year, had an artists’ residency in Iceland before that– I can do Europe, for example, any old time. In fact, have gone and will go again.”

She was generally grinning while speaking, yet her essential equanimity always struck me. But that is Naomi. She gathers much information, cogitates, makes a decision and goes forward, even if there are more questions to be answered. She trusts her process and gut. She takes calculated risks, ones that many would not consider much less do. I consider her brave in more ways than one. Born at two and a half pounds, two and a half months early in the mid-70s when such preemies were not often expected to live much less fully thrive, she seemed pretty brave from the start.

“My brave and foolish daughter, dear Naomi,” I teased as we headed back to the hotel laden with her purchases, and we laughed even as I gulped a little.

And then I thought more about those words.  It’s not that she feels no trepidation. It’s that she does/creates/investigates unusual things, anyway. Isn’t that what it takes in life to keep the wheels turning? I mean all the wheels–the wheel of invention, the wheels of learning and time and creativity, of us becoming adaptable, goals being met and life being lived? We need common sense; I’m a huge proponent of the homely quality that withstands many stressors. But we need to take risks, too, that teach us what we are made of and what we may need to know. Lessons and insights that can connect us to more than our claustrophobia-prone, exclusive ways of being. And it takes bravery to take the first step away from all familiar toward something imagined but not wholly known. It requires visionary breadth to position ourselves in a scenario far different than what we know in this moment.

Whether life is terribly hard and wounding or safe yet empty of curious impulses, we cannot forge any new path without resurrecting our waiting bravery. And to do that may mean being a little foolish at times. Conjuring and planning what may not seem to make complete sense but which triggers a compelling sync with who we’re meant to be. Energy of anticipation. Magnetism of secret dreams unveiled. A sense of embarking on a finer adventure. Being true to our best selves.

We all are capable of being brave. In fact, I believe we are born to it. Perhaps we just forget in the morass of daily duties what bravery is, how it feels. It feels vibrant. (Even dauntless, not so foolish a thing to feel as we stumble–it’s like having a burly staff for balance.) We would do well to call it forth for ourselves and others, then do more good and be who we long to be. Call it forth even more under the press of worldly burdens and losses. There are days when opening the door requires a mantle of bravery for an emboldened step beyond the threshold. Find the heart to claim it and take a chance.

Naomi posing good-naturedly at McColl Center for Art+Innovation, Charlotte, NC

Make My Resolution a Double

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This new year of 2017: the phrase has a certain heft to it, a vaguely momentous ring. Is it that I like the number seven? It is soon to be the Year of the Fire Rooster according to the Chinese, and that image is fantastic and lively, rife with speculations, bordering on gaudy in my mind’s view. Everyone is taking note of a series of troublesome, even devastating events, wondering what on earth is to come next. How does one prepare for a purely speculative future?

The more usual response in January is to gird yourself with knowledge as well as embark on a serious personal makeover. But to what lasting effect? Transformation is a process that requires patience–but first, willingness. And the process can be an altogether different thing than expected.

I, for one, am resisting the tiresome spectacle of earnest change-making , of planning a noble siege upon my own life. Yes, I am being the odd woman out. Scads of folks scramble to conjure new or bigger goals; the ole inner critic nags anxiously until it’s done. Or perhaps you are not-so-subtly being encouraged to get on it and shine things up– for the betterment of those around you, too, one might gather. Either way, nothing like a team effort when it comes to change. Get out the megaphone and pom poms!

Hold on. What if you want to opt out of the New Year ritual? Say, coast along until a truly superior thought alerts you to a finer scheme? Or you feel the biting burn of discomfort and it finally behooves you to seek an alternative to the usual, even deleterious habits? Or just the annoying daily grind? Isn’t this the way we tend to address changes and if so, what’s wrong with that? Just a “take it as it comes” sort of program.

I’m  honestly of two minds: take charge or let go. They both sound good. On one hand, I’m not keen on this year being a repeat of last year. There were tough enough times I’d rather not have to revisit–it seems many I’ve heard from feel that way. So, like the others, I do imagine what might be done differently, consider how to begin a quiet repair here and there. A few inklings and options intrigue me, but I’m not overly impressed with my plans. I tend to gather odds and ends, borrow ideas, encourage inspiration any way I can and then dump it all in a grab bag to sort out as I go. I try to find likely places for a host of ideas, then test their usefulness. If they are intrinsically good ones, things click into place– more or less.  Of course some get trashed. I plan but can release those plans to a whirlpool of the fates. This is coming from a woman who used to schedule each moment hour by hour while raising five kids and tending to an often absentee husband/father. Who wasted not on second at work, driven by the need to do something more. Even occasional coffee breaks got penciled in. I admit I yet keep a daily planner but it’s primarily shaped by a few probabilities, more maybes with flexible timing. That is, other than walks and writing hours, which are firmly set and almost never altered.

I am at last old enough to grasp that life often morphs, takes switchbacks, carves new avenues without my barest judgment–or interference. Random events can have a remarkable and at times fearsome power. I would note much of what happens daily, anyway, is a result of much that’s out of my hands. I am rarely not surprised by one thing or another. Overall, despite shenanigans and hardships that may arrive, I wouldn’t edit out such randomness. I much prefer to call it life’s spontaneity. My willingness to embrace it makes a vast difference. Either I am digging my heels in, yelling “My way! My way or none!” as life tugs or yanks me along, making myself miserable–or I am hopping into a proverbial life boat or even raft, perusing the views and engaging with the experience. For the most part, the last intends to be the better choice and I am not one to dicker with good outcomes.

Much more fruitful to make peace and not war with human doing and being, if at all possible.

I sought out a lauded poet for more wisdom today. A famous poem written by the esteemed Alfred Lord Tennyson is entitled “In Memoriam.” I’ve noticed people like to offer up a few of its stanzas when bidding the previous year farewell. More popular parts of the lengthy offering go like this:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

   The flying cloud, the frosty light:

   The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

   The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

I well appreciate this masterly poem; its entirety spans a great deal more than you may take time to finish reading. Tennyson addresses all manner of human ills and yearnings but also an abiding faith in God. It speaks to me, to a deep longing for a global plan of improvement that is built around concepts of enlivening harmony and a stable Golden Rule and basic dignity for all–those lofty principles that vast numbers of people fervently hope and work for, anguish over.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

   For those that here we see no more;

   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

 

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

   And ancient forms of party strife;

   Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

   The faithless coldness of the times;

   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

   The civic slander and the spite;

   Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

 

There is yet more, every bit worth admiring as entreaty or prayer as well as poem. It’s heartrending as I carefully read each line from start to finish; I blink back tears. Alfred Lord Tennyson lived 1809-1892. It would seem we have quite a way to go.

When will the love of truth and right be fully rung out to the world and answered in kind? It gets sticky considering this question though such a worthy goal. We each have our versions of what may be right and therein lies the rub. And yet more far-reaching conversations need to be regularly undertaken, and resolutions made that benefit more than the loudest or biggest or privileged.

These lines, “Ring out the false, ring in the true”, lent a good weight as I read it over a few times. That is what I honestly intend. I might add, intend once again; I am willing to keep at something I believe in. And I’m not averse to change. Whereas, as a youth and then right into middle-age I sought it out, took pleasure in its woolly wiles, the mild to mad delights and a stubborn recklessness too often, I have come to regard it as more a major constant despite my naive attempts to provoke or direct it. Change abides, period. So I surrender to life and discover it provides me with more than enough personal power. Sometimes a letting go of the so-called mighty controls of our lives can render hands free to actually do more. I find immutable control is a tacky illusion best set out to the curb.

If you read my post often, it comes as no surprise that my faith in God is an overarching theme. I don’t expect to have the ultimate say on much of anything. If I thought life to be a finite thing, I might be frantic about finishing every good intention and making a mighty mark for posterity. If I believed that humankind is in its best and final renderings on a perhaps isolated and superior planet, I might not ruminate on the “beyond-ness” of all that’s possible, nor consider how alluring a spiritual journey the majestic cosmos offers. If I believed that hope was mere rhetoric, a vehicle for stultifying the masses rather than a potent state that sets us on a course toward good even amid rampant evil–then maybe I’d just throw in the towel. Soon to be uncoupled from my small clamoring life. But I think and believe no such things. God is my trail guide and eternal witness. And so I claim and try to follow Divine Love’s tender and powerful renderings. To act as if charged with fully caring about life.

(But wait, did someone out there murmur that he or she doesn’t even see God? Look truly at one another; prepare to be moved. Locate a corner of simple earth, a spot of sky; attune to energy or vibration, a presence, even a song scored for each and every intricate thing. You will find what you look for.)

Each year we are asked to appraise our pasts and survey the future. All I can do is consider the preceding times as interesting, bumbling and often worthwhile experiences. Invisible mini-missions of faith. Aspirations of intellect and heart. A series of habits both helpful and useless. It all illuminates struggles with my own deficits and others’. Which, by the way, brings up the question of why I imagine I can change another person? I cannot easily alter who I intrinsically am without an occasional strike or two of lightning. Such events have made major inroads; one can’t just sidestep big reckonings. And always there was a cost to pay for awakening to crucial insights a bit late.

The rest of the time I can follow my personal compass toward what makes good sense. The rest is hard work, little to no crying allowed. I can practice the best of what I know, looking forward to a better result. And also knowing it may not come to pass as expected, at all. Being open to clues or portents or wisdom or interventions all help. But in the end, it is all just faith. I have faith I will awaken in the morning, continue a journey that seeks to render authentic, true and good these days and nights–this life. Until I do not. The calendar I have hung on my wall is just a loose sketch of brief possibilities.

So make my resolution a double one. First: to accept that even unsolicited change is a force to respect and heed. Second: to get done the best I can whatever needs to be done.

I’ll be writing, anyway–on stained napkin, saved concert program, torn envelope; in a notebook or on computer or as a voice memo on my phone while walking. That’s the one thing I know for certain. So far.

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Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts

Music Can Break and Make Our Hearts

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There is nothing that can break the heart quite like music. Or reassemble its jagged, scattered, keening parts. It inhabits such power partly because music is a human birthright as much as it is any other creature’s (or element’s) within nature’s domain. Everything warbles, croaks, chirrups, bleats, bays, whistles, howls–something is offered up. Behold the loon’s peculiar call. The snake’s slither and hiss. The dog’s curious vocalizing. It is inside our voices, runs in our blood. Even the wind-blown grasses, fallen leaves and quieter waters have music to make. And when they do, we listen and it stirs us.

But the human of the species ascribes much more to what might be a simple rhythmic utterance. I know something of this, having grown up in a musical family and having aspired to become a musician the first two decades of my life. I hummed and sang as a little child and a violin was placed in my hands before kindergarten. I sat by family members at the baby grand piano and plunked along when I could. Surely all children come by music naturally, no matter what they hear, sing or dance to. Just watch them.

It becomes a communal state of being when a family is rooted, nurtured, shaped and bound by making music. It is a many-limbed entity that hews a major part of its foundation from vigorous realms of musical expression. Especially if it is classical music. Which means: in our house there was played on the stereo or via our instruments and voices an almost entirely classical repertoire.  The exceptions were hymns, a little big band music and musical theater songs. The emphasis was on quality of musicianship even then. If it wasn’t very well executed, it was not abided.

It’s a topic I’ve written about and around countless times, attempting to clarify its meaning and impact. There is an essential musicality of life, it goes to our cores and impacts all cultures– not just mine. And then there is the breaking and reassembling aspect.

Despite being inundated by it, I stopped my engagement in music before I was twenty. I simply abandoned all this: private cello and vocal lessons, innumerable daily hours after school of redundant, critical practice, rehearsing and performing in orchestras, studying musical scores, trying to decipher music theory and learning music history, memorization of long and difficult pieces, performing in voice concerts and music competitions, attending workshops and music camps, protecting my fingers so they would be strong and calloused for heavy pressure and rapid movement upon cello strings, protecting my voice so it was responsive, resonant, accurate.

There is far more to it than this but you get the idea. The ultimate goal was to be worthy of others’  time and teaching, and especially of a discerning audience’s approval. At least, that is what I thought. Learning to play classical music and play it well is about many things. Strict discipline. Patience. Being able to take and utilize criticism. Seeking or creating nuances of sound even within a single note. Duplicating with exactitude a composer’s complex marks on a page. Becoming mathematically oriented and intellectually awake even while opening profound emotional channels–and all this while practicing the same measure over and over and over, then performing in front of people who may be utter strangers as if it was fresh and personal.

And the fact was, I adored it, despite the laborious parts or disappointments, tired hands or those failed attempts with a new measure. Music nestled in my bones, directed my dreaming, held up hope and resided in my best places. And I was singing more and more; it was becoming more compelling than playing cello, at times. So on it went, this  life made of music among all the other activities of a child, then youth, those movements through time.

Until I could not do it, not anymore.

For years the drill went as usual, the pleasures were daily; it was nothing extraordinary. Many of my friends were learning instruments at young ages. In our city, elementary schools had music programs, courtesy of my father and others, started when children reached the fourth grade. If they did well on music aptitude test, they were given instruments to play throughout  their education, though many bought their own before long.

Our own house held six musicians who were blood-related. (I often thought my mother might have been one, too; she’d played “a little piano once” and possessed a pleasing alto voice.) There were three cellists (the girls), one of whom deserted to play flute and bassoon. One brother played viola while another played clarinet and saxophone, then flute and more. One of my sisters, Marinell, was a very good pianist but became a cellist who played professionally in symphonies and chamber music groups until her early seventies; she passed on at 78. My other sister, Allanya, played sporadically into her thirties with groups. She also learned how to repair instruments. The woodwind- playing brother, Gary, revolted and only played jazz professionally; he’s now in his mid-70s and still plays often. Our younger brother, Wayne, played viola professionally until recently–also past 70 now–and still sings professionally. Our father played all of the above and knew how to play several more. But other than playing sax, clarinet and trombone in dance bands while in high school and college, he always played violin and viola professionally. That is what he mostly taught others. He also was a conductor.

So you can see how it was. We all played something; it was expected, even imperative. We all sang, harmonizing with one another around the piano as Dad or Marinell played. After we dispersed to other places we still would make music when we got together. This extended beyond our nuclear unit. My father’s younger brother was a flutist and successful composer (Dad was a music arranger, too) and his wife a pianist; my cousins have played cello and violin professionally. We have an opera singer in the family tree, Dad’s second cousin, I think. It goes on…

It would have been hard to back away from this life saturated with music. It never occurred to me; I was committed to being a musician then. I was passionate about music, happy to play classical. Things began to change a bit as I strayed into folk music by mid-teens, teaching myself to play acoustic guitar. I sang all the popular folk songs, started to visit coffee houses where singer-songwriters played. And then I discovered the joy of song writing, performing them as I could. To me, it was that happy union of two creative passions–writing (lyrics being a configuration of poetry) and music. But classical “art” singing had become the priority–or, rather, my father’s. I found it harder and harder to sing with hands clasped before me or at my sides, standing with erect carriage, my body so still. I wanted to move–I danced, as well–to express the music more fully. In community musicals I got the chance, so there was a small reprieve from the more rigid aspects of classical training.

Too, when Dad was home doing nothing much–a rare occasion–he would play the old standards from the thirties, forties and fifties on our piano while I got to sing out like a bird uncaged. And he did approve–just as long as I got back to business later. I understood that was frivolous singing, for relaxation and fun. It wasn’t serious music, important music, not to him. Well, this was no shock, but I resented it more as time went by and further explored genres like blues and jazz–but secretly. It was truly a forbidden world. I was drawn into its human woes and triumphs easily despite my primary allegiance to classical. Not that there wasn’t struggle, victory, comedy and tragedy in classical music–it was just set to another beat, was  given a different sort of platform, had a different life.

It was clear to me that being a fine classical musician was my father’s true calling, and also the teaching of it, the nurturing of the potential of each student. He did what he was meant to do and was lauded and even loved for it. It seemed some of my siblings wanted to follow suit.

But as much as cello held my poet’s soul in thrall, it was singing that had finally overtaken me. When singing I felt like everything in my life was cohesive, aligned. Enriched and authenticated. Freed. I’d had good training and I had a rapturous desire to sing truly well. I performed often at school and community events as well as music competitions. I did well. But it was no longer about singing well to please anyone. It was for the music that I sang, for the precise beauty of each note and the moving, sassy, challenging lyrics. It was singing for life. Its wonderment and aching. By 15, I was struggling to stay alive due to abuse from outside my blood family and then a assault. It was becoming nearly impossible to always keep up a good front, to speak nothing of it. And music kept me breathing, kept me reaching for a better day. Singing was my lifeline in so many ways, as well as my solitary writing.

But it was that singing that I finally let go after a second rape, after the drugs and breakdown they brought, after I could no longer see the point in believing God might seriously protect me in the world. Sometimes life overcomes the very best intentions, even courage mustered once again. Its contradictions consume such energy and effort. I was 20,  and exhausted.

After the grave woundedness and protracted healing, I tried to sing a bit more. Quietly, alone. It came out hard and slow, scraped my throat as if it protested against release of it song. I felt sick when I tried to sing more, as if all that music had slipped away, perhaps recoiled from my living. It left me nothing but a hollow echo and worse, it left me without the easy, spontaneous joy, the passion. It was as if my voice had been snatched from me, the essence squeezed out of it. There was nothing good to sing about or for anymore, not the way I wanted. I had not the stomach for it and, I realized, as many accessible opportunities. It would take such will and work. Each day living with music was both a balm and a bitterness as I felt it slipping away from my destiny.

I had longed to sing so long, so deeply that it struck me soundly with pain when I opened my mouth. So I became more silent, an old way of dealing with things. I stopped wanting it in the same way, then hated ever wanting to sing. It had become a wound that would not give up and close. I was nearly an adult; I had to gather every remnant of strength and move on, leave behind what couldn’t be repaired or reawakened. The life I rebuilt sheltered a tunnel of subterranean anger. It held the fierce resolve to never be caught off guard in the world or in my heart. It would take many more years for that armor to be dismantled. But there were better changes in life direction. I lived another year and then another, grew up despite myself. In time, there were other goals, college, new family. There was love. I sang for my children a little, softly; their very presence somehow made music flow.

Sometimes I was asked to sing but refused. My voice had lain down, made a nest in a faraway cave, wanted to sleep. And a singer who does not truly sing, cannot hope to sing true.

I hadn’t lost my belief in Divine Spirit, but gradually there unfolded a profound renewal of my Christian faith which had been hibernating, only awaiting my return. God had not abandoned me, never would; I had mistakenly abandoned God’s wisdom and succor, inviolate compassion and mercy. I realized again that though the world has few welcome mats for a loving, transformative God, I can still live as though God walks with and among us, in the midst of all the chaos and terrible disregard and grief. I can open doors–mine, too– to what is true and good, still, and work with and share what I yet have left.

But I didn’t rekindle that potent spark of desire needed to sing–really sing. I may have given it away without fully understanding it– to weariness, to a leave-taking of youth, to old scarring that no longer meanly defined me. I remember walking away from my music and singing, as if from a dearly beloved. As if it was a terrible love that could not break through the heartaches. I chose to give it up in the end, to not do whatever it took for my voice to return. Even though it broke the believer, the dreamer within more thoroughly. Even though I was, in spirit, a ready warrior, last to go down, rising up for one more challenge.

It was something I could not, would not, speak about other than the barest reference.

The decades brought what marriages and children, fulfilling experiences and new places, trials and more loss, happiness, work, sharing my life. I sometimes got out my cello, its soulful sound billowing in the room, giving me goosebumps and peace. But it was hard to keep up skills without practice, without performance.

I did not sing except for my little ones, then less, then nothing came.

Until something astonishing came to pass.

In 2001, after my second parent died and my heart attack in the forest at 51, I worked hard to recover. I took three years off work to find ways to sturdy healing and a longer, happier life. Prayed and meditated often every morning, read and studied. Briskly walked an hour each day. Wept more easily, began to laugh more. Created peace and found gratitude. Made it a priority to have a little fun every day. Traveled a bit more and reached out. Started to make art and take photographs. And I wrote and wrote, wrote a novel and more. That sort of thing–the good stuff we can forget or just put off. Until it’s clear you can’t put it off, not one more second.

One morning I awakened with music full blast in my head, songs I hadn’t heard in decades. I barely had my eyes open when I began to sing, still in bed. They were the old standards I used to sing with my father, at first. The songs just slid out between my lips. I was sure they would disappear but no, I got up and they kept coming. I sang right out loud in the shower as if I had never stopped singing. My voice didn’t hurt, it wasn’t strained, it was on key. I was no longer a soprano but an alto–that was alright. I kept on, not laboring over notes, not trying to remember more songs. The songs arrived like they wanted to be sung. I was entirely happy with this, to have so much music rise up and be freed. To know it deeply again, to feel that rumble of air, recognize notes intimately as they swirled about and rose from my innermost being and then–that sharing of light and life. Oh, Lord. That perfect melding of heart, mind, body and soul given sound! And I knew I was all put back together. The old terrible things were just ghosts that had no songs of their own but now my music was back.

Music, it has always seemed, is God’s mouth.

I didn’t go on to become a fabulous singer in my fifties. Those lovely songs lasted for a few months. I find I can sing more easily at church whenever I attend–I had been used to feeling breathless and constricted. I also joined two choirs but the repertoires–classical– weren’t what I wanted, anymore. I enjoyed the seasons but did not return.

I believe, though, that the sudden gift of singing made serious repairs in my physical and emotional heart. It opened wider and then gentled and fortified my soul. That late-coming, magical time of having an easy, rich voice came to an end as mysteriously as it began. Now I hum about the house. I am a quite good whistler. Half-sing along with snatches of music I enjoy. I might even put on a CD and let loose when I’m alone. But more often I do not. There is a small empty room  inside me, that holds my singing. I keep it well tended, but the door is barely cracked.

I don’t make music with my family members now. I might, but it’s alright like this. They’ve been living their musical lives and I have lived mine in my way. We are ever attached soul-to-soul by inherited abilities and adoration of music, by the ways we yet make it and inhabit it. Or to it. For this alone, I love them well.

The result of all this is that not singing as I once sang (and hoped to sing) doesn’t hurt nearly so much. In fact, it doesn’t reduce me to tears, anymore. We all make choices whether we grasp the truth of it or not. Things get left behind. Or certain manifestations of our dreams slip away. It was likely that all that music played and created and sung was enough–for that time, for those needs.

My cello now reminisces in its case, is stained with the lost heat of my fingers, the sweat of my chest. My singer’s voice sneaks out now and then and sometimes startles me with its vivacity. And I attend great concerts performed by others. I hear music daily on the radio and computer, play my stacks of CDs. I listen to two primary genres: jazz and classical. Anything that catches my attention I will give a serious listen. Love a little soul and bossa nova, flamenco and Celtic, indigenous, experimental, singer-songwriter, electronic–but that is another post: such myriad music I adore or seek. I would, I admit, still like to compose music.

But classical music….its complexity and dignity, its swell and flow, the mercurial shaping of notes and rhythms; its fractious and buoyant nature contained within the bounds of deep structure, like an elegant sound architecture in wilderness…It yet serves me well and has my devotion.

But I would have sung jazz if I had found my way to it.

Here’s the thing: music is everywhere, moving us. That is its power and mystery. Its gift to us mortals. How can we all not hear it in our waking or sleeping, in our plodding, seeking lives? It is a primal connection to all. And I don’t have to even sing it to stay alive, anymore. It will go on within me or without me; it sings me–and surely you–through each moment. Will do so until eternity where there is surely an extravagance of music.

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For my sister, Marinell,

And for my father
and my dearest father

A Master Key to Contentment

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Seeking serenity is a way of life for me, a nourishment I cannot live well without. It may have been intensified by troublesome times as a child and young adult but it has nonetheless been a natural impulse as long as I can remember. In any case, it is a powerful key to a kind of magic guidebook for living richly. Why wouldn’t I use it all the time?

It’s being attentive to the harmony that is coexistent with discordance, locating symmetry that hides inside the apparently off-kilter. My belief is that there is order in the messy jumble of life, and renewed creation stirring in the design of every universal interaction. Like pebbles tossed into water, nature’s actions and reactions are a demonstration of exquisite unity and symbiosis. And in human connections–slight as a fast second on the street or ongoing as a long partnership–there are various manifestations of energy exchanged, networks of coexistence revealed.

It is often a sudden point of acute awareness that brings me a sense of serenity. I recognize myself in others’ humanness. I see my place, another soul passing through the byways of human life, a series of trudges and leaps through a breathtaking if also spoiled paradise we share. There are lessons everywhere, light that seeps through the sieve of our often deliberate blindness. But I want to know what is there; I want to reap the rewards of paying attention. The weeping as well as the laughing. The sheer authenticity of life rewards me with a deeper peace in the end.

It’s hard to be disappointed as serenity reveals itself in transitory events or ancient, sweeping vistas. It was in tiny drops of light among azalea bushes as I walked this morning. Released from Samuel Barber’s heartrending “Adagio for Strings” for at least the hundredth time yesterday. My city balcony brings me deeper inside the majestic dark, where I am reassured the North Star and Big and Little Dippers yet demonstrate a purposeful design well placed in a vast cosmos. But even cutting up a nectarine or tomato elicits a smile–the very idea of seeds! The purity of fruit fleshiness. And such tart sweetness savored.

There are other paths to experiencing serenity, of course. For me, engaging in a variety of creative projects fills a predominant need. Spending time in prayer and meditation is essential. Spontaneous dancing frees a joyous tranquility. Whistling (I’m an inveterate whistler) favored tunes–classical or pop or jazz or my own–does, too. Reading brings mental relief as well as stimulation, both kinds of peace. Sitting and talking with loved ones–or chatting with a cashier. Attending a symphony concert, visiting art galleries. Ice skating and hiking. Chopping zucchini for a succulent green salad.

There are endless choices for participating and observing that bring me to that fine, still point of serenity. I prefer to let go of cares I still pick up–as if my carrying their cumbersome weight will solve the problems when in fact, I more often tire and stumble. So I back off, give space to thought and feeling, fling wide the knotty nets of perseveration and emotions. Just be more empty and then open in that way a rippling span of a wild meadow is: all life working together, with time enough for work and rest. I am welcoming of gifts that arrive from everywhere.

It’s a numinous life we are born with and into, and its mystical ways seem to me at once ordinary and exotic. All we have to do is turn around to see evidence of a stupendous wisdom. Deep beauty. Even when there is tragedy to throw us off. Even when there is rancorous pain that wars with a need for kind relief. I think of the juxtaposition often, perhaps because I was a counselor so long and know the price people pay as they thrash about looking for peace, longing for a life to cherish and feel cherished by. But also because I have been acquainted with difficulties. When seeking serenity amid the waste of disregard or rougher antics of living, we can bound toward the healing touch of wonder to rescue ourselves again. Find the inherent peace that is there, waiting. Just listen, watch. Be patient. I trust it to reveal itself, open like a tender, stalwart flower in the midst of the odd wilderness of humaness.

Love, the most basic human compassion and appreciation, is part of this peace. It seems love attracts more tranquility. A charitable act is enough on its own but may bring a return of the same. A smile elicits another smile or a jaunty nod. But who it mostly transforms, I think, is ourselves. When I view life from a place of acceptance and care, I see more clearly, as if mind and heart develop magnified views. Then comes more clarity. Just as the imperfections of a hand thrown ceramic vase provide unique qualities, so do our quirks and defects. We’re made of marvelous whole cloth as humans; that cloth is rendered durable if perhaps a bit spotty by the mysteries of DNA. And gradually life leaves marks within, and those we leave upon it and others. But we are working our way down the road and its byways with help from the powers of physics and presence of many people, some we don’t ever truly know. And, for me, God and heavenly guardians.

A key to my ability to rebound and regroup, to stay in the present while also moving forward is this innate need for peace and tranquility. The life we lead requires it. It is sustenance, regenerates body and refills soul. I sit at my computer desk and hear the sonorous tones of chimes one of my daughters gave me a decade ago. And robins and crows among others. Earlier I listened to cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s album “Obrigado Brazil”. He’s a musician, a cellist I have long adored not only because of his extraordinary talent. He harbors grace that seems to vibrate, and an enthusiasm for not only a large variety of music but for life. He transmutes his experiences of harmony and delight into the miracle sound.

The months of April and May are not lately my most favored. I do enjoy the lessening of the cold rains and the profusion of flowers that take over all but it is also a time of sad remembrance. My oldest sister died right before my own birthday (one year ago) and my mother passed and was buried on Mother’s Day (fifteen years now). I miss them, still, though the ache is not overwhelming. And this year, my husband became acutely ill and was hospitalized. So I seek more serenity as it is needed. Sadness can be a beacon if you become fully open to it, for beyond the tears flow more love and gratitude.

I began this post thinking I would share only a few pictures along with a line here and there. Oh dear, words carried me along their willful current, as ever. But now to share a few places or moments I have found inspiration and the treasured balm of serenity. I hope you also will be moved to seek more each day. Don’t put it off; the Grand Mystery of Everything awaits you!

Taken at a favorite cottage and beach on the Pacific Ocean:

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M., my husband, recently survived multiple blood clots in both lungs. This peaceful though short vacation was a good healing time.

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M. rock hunting, guaranteed to bring serenity. Me, breathing salt sea air, mesmerized.

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This is a city park where I power walk and also enjoy the pond with ducks and a heron, towering trees, flowering bushes, people relaxing and exercising.

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I  find peace and delight at the farmer’s market on the week-end.

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The forest saves me. I often hike in woods within our city and elsewhere and last time watched a barred owl for several moments!

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One of the best paces in the Northwest: Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge In Washington. We love the Cascade mountains, glimpses of Columbia Gorge, open meadows, marshes, birds.

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I look forward to any ferry ride, especially when heading out from northwestern WA. for Vancouver Island, BC. Serenity, every time.

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Easy: simple fun creates contentment along the lively waterfront in Victoria.

I also seek out Portland’s Japanese Garden frequently. It was the place I needed to be following 9/11, and go when I want to be filled with beauty, yet also emptied.

A fine place to go for countless infusions of serenity.

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But I love walking in my own historic neighborhood; it provides me with ample doses of happy surprises and peace–and an abundance of flowers, without which life would be much less joyful.

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Serenity waits. Go find the magic. Fill up; share the abundance.

(Please note: All photographs are mine. Please share but attribute to me. If you’d enjoy seeing more visual posts let me know.)