An Afternoon of Art and Conversation

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

I know what they think, the two of us gliding through the art institute, his hand on my elbow, my eyes a bit dreamy, pearls swaying with each confident step. He is bulky and tall, his hair streaked with silver and wavy, and his heavy coat which he wore as though it’s a royal cloak, well, it’s cashmere, isn’t it? Of course they think those thoughts. I am too young for him. We’re not even friendly in a way one would expect family. I wear, I suspect, a look of slightly tarnished yet studied elegance. Do they think I don’t know what effect I can create? It’s in my blood. An actress mother; a composer father. We design everything.

I call him Samuel and he calls me Galinda, our ruse in case someone should hear or spot him and then proceed to detain us with an intrusive chat. He is well-known. I am nobody despite my attempt to appear cosmopolitan. Bored, perhaps above it all. Samuel bends over from time to time to inquire after me, to offer knowledge or astute criticism. I try to enjoy this tomb full of artistic endeavors. The places they put art! I have never visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why would I? I’m not ignorant. I just live in Kansas City. Or, I guess, did.

After we fill ourselves with a smorgasboard of classical works and outrageously modern pieces that make him squirm and me giggle, we sit in the courtyard. It’s chilly so he offers me his suede sport coat across my legs, considerate, a rather intimate act. I need a smoke. He offers me one of his, and the gold-plated lighter makes the barest flicking sound, not like my blue plastic Bic. I nearly choke; they’re French cigarettes. I suppress a cough while he looks away politely. He doesn’t really want to be here on a Saturday afternoon. I am his wife’s niece. He just married Portia a year ago. He wants to please her while she’s at her office.

Everyone said it was for her glamour but really, it was for her wit. I have seen them together enough to know how much he admires her. And she him. Portia is much like my mother, Eleanora, but absolutely intact. Her cosmetics business thrives.

My mother is in a place no one wants to mention. My father, Abe, distracts himself by playing piano all hours of the day and night. He won’t eat my cooking. He doesn’t like to sleep alone in their satin-covered, sway-backed bed.

This is how it was, act 1, scene 4:

“Why do you bring me chicken and peas at eight o’clock at night? Can’t you see I’m working? No, no food. Remove the tea, as well. Coffee. Please.”

I stand in the doorway, holding the too-hot china plate, then pick up bright green peas one by one and pop them in my mouth. The chicken is enveloped in mushroom sauce that even I loathe.

“Must you eat that way? Don’t we have a dining room table, silverware? Let me work now. I have to get this completed for the publisher.”

How can I blame Abe? Eleanora is the only one who has mastered him. Coddled him. I am the result of idealistic passion that has begun to erode from the sharp edges of life.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, darling. Come and sit.”

He swivels on the piano bench and holds out his hands to me. But I am already finished with the peas and my fingers are slippery with the last tablespoon of butter. I leave the music room. The silence soon iss stuffed with allegretto and appassionata and a moan of misery as he stops again and again. He huddles over his score. I feet his loneliness like an arctic wind. I can’t evade it no matter how hard I try.

Eleanora has always been absorbed by acting–live theater–and has done well enough to have her name on a half-dozen major Midwest marquees many times. But things change. She is now not the type they seek. Age creeps in and her flirtatious nature becomes a little sad. Or she stumbles over her lines more often. Prestige can’t be easily bargained for or bought. I’ve watched her slip away, into odd reveries, into sleep and finally into a dark corner of her mind but cannot tell you exactly why. My mother still can hush every room she enters. She has such flair and is so quick one has to work to keep up with her. But we are helpless. Well, I haven’t been home for four years but I saw it coming even before I left.

Fade to black, scene change. My own dubious future.

I think sometimes creativity can contort things. It can turn you inside out and then where is the refuge? I’ve noticed that everyone I know who adores creating risks adoration of their own feelings. It’s like a mirror they fall into if there are not enough other images to divert their attention and energy. Or simply not enough spark to illuminate something greater.

Eleanora and Abe would scoff at this. I am just a twenty-two year old college graduate with a new job. No matter that I pay attention. I am nothing if not a neophyte. I have not become absolutely amazing, something they desire with all their hearts.

So, Aunt Portia. She found a place for mother to recuperate from life. She offered me a room in their suburban Detroit home that could accommodate three families so here I am. I work at Metropolitan Estates for now, crunching numbers, attending to people’s wills and all. That’s right, as glamorous as all that, but when I tell people I’m quite interested in wills and inheritance taxes, they act as if I’m somewhat a genius, at the very least clever. But the word I most often hear? “Spunky.” How spunky of me to move here and take this job right out of college in nineteen sixty-seven. I think, how crucial to survival now that I am on my own.

“You enjoyed the art?” Samuel asks with interest.

His name is really Arthur Minhausen III. He owns so much commercial property in this city you about trip over it just walking down the street.

I exhale as he stubs his own cigarette out.

“Some beautiful paintings, of course. But I like living art, not entombed, untouchable.”

Samuel smiles, a crooked front tooth adding a certain flair. He brings his coffee cup to his lips, hesitates before drinking. “Example?”

“How about gardens? Aunt Portia’s is outstanding. Or public sculptures that seem in short supply here but abound in Europe, I hear. People can touch them, enjoy a summer breeze as they sit and gaze at them with serious intent. Or not. Art for the masses, all sorts. Or art you can wear, we certainly need that, too!”

“Ah, now you sound like Portia,” he says. “You should travel more and then tell me what you think. Explore different cultures, enjoy other visions.”

I look away to hide the fact that I don’t believe that will ever happen. My life doesn’t include windfalls. But I see a couple staring at us, the woman whispering to her companion. Arthur is high-profile, a local celebrity. He fundraises. He is a toastmaster about town, a gad-about that everyone likes to rub shoulders with. He looks as good as he talks and his wife is even better.

“Well, I made it to Detroit. That’s a start.”

He leans toward me. “A bold move, I must say.” He inclines his head. “Lizzie, you share your mother’s and aunt’s gifts, you know.”

My actual name spoken is a disappointment–shhouldn’t I go by Elizabeth now?–but I flush. Too often I’ve heard I have my mother’s and aunt’s looks and it gets tiring. I have known this new uncle for about a month. “Meaning?”

“You’re a creative thinker, practical. Smart, personable. Independent. You will do well. It won’t always be Detroit. It may be New York or Los Angeles. Public relations, as you hope. You’ll make your way.”

It seems extravagant to me, all this praise. Arthur/Samuel is lighting another cigarette and handing me a second, which I refuse. His smallish eyes are clear and steady. I open my mouth and close it. He nods to encourage my response.

“You forget I might have gotten a serious genetic load of melancholia. I may be doomed to swooning too much or crying over how unfair life is. Worse, collapsing under my own emotional weight. My own mother finds her life less than she desires and what happens? She dives deep into the cave of her bedroom until we have to search for her and send her away for reconstruction. I’m sometimes fearful if I stub my toe I might decide I can’t even walk!”

I’m embarrassed by my frankness, how easy it is. And my anger. Surely I can be kinder. But there it is. Meanness where there should be tenderness. She is my mother, after all. My father could do with more goodness from me, too. He wept as he told me it was best I go.

“It happens. We think we know how to manage and then find out we have a deficit that needs addressing. Or there’s a change in the weather, whatever! We might need help. Everyone does, sooner or later.”

“Not you, I’m sure.”

Arthur inhales and holds it too long, as if the smothered smoke keeps his thoughts in place. I imagine a boat coming to port, the thoughts ready to disembark, waiting for a signal. The he exhales and words tumble out.

“Why not me? Is my ambition separate from the rest of my living? It all comes from the same source: ourselves. Dreams and failures, achievements and losses. But there are our plans and life’s plans. We make ourselves who we need to be, and it works or it doesn’t. I tell you, I haven’t always had it this good, and I don’t mean just materially.”

I sipped my Coke, then held it with both hands to cool myself. “Okay, wait, so my mother chose to be nuts? And I can choose not to be? Just like that.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes, but it’s also how we deal with what is dealt. Everything we do is a risk. Like my business. Like you coming to stay with us. Even your mother’s choices, Lizzie.” He reaches for my wrist and his hand is dry, firm. “She will rebound, Portia believes, don’t you? People start over. And you are not to feel guilty about any of it, if I may say so. Just live your own life and see what happens.”

I am about to tell him he has a lot to say and I’m glad he took me here. But someone is fast approaching us. There is a camera held high. Arthur takes my hand–“Galinda? Shall we?”–and we stand up, turn, walk briskly away.

He leans and whispers. “Let’s call Portia and meet her for a Greek dinner. This way, my dear.”

We leave a gallery of eyes behind us. I know how we seem. An older man taking charge, his arm about me to shield me from the press, a man who knows what he wants and gets it. Me, a stranger to Detroit, too young to know what she is doing, full of high-spiritedness. A certain sophistication she only copies from her mother, aunt and many others she admires.

But as we walk into the brashness of afternoon sunshine I feel strength of my own. He has let go of me. I can manage just fine. I only have to step forward. Tomorrow I’ll call my parents. Let them know I do love and miss them though I’m glad–delirious, really!–to be here. Cue the curtain. I have much more to actually live, darlings.

Photo courtesy of DIA
Photo courtesy of DIA

Dina on the Verge

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She had been impressed by far less than this. A petal from a wildflower blown onto damp earth. A horned beetle inching its way across her path. Her old tiger cat leaping for a moth. Even the songs of the wind aroused her interest easily. But she felt strangely intimidated by this and unmoved. She stood at the end of the room and turned to meet their faces illumined by candlelight, registered their cheers. They found her worthy of attention, believed her success amid their failures was a boon for them all. Or so she guessed. It all seemed like someone’s else’s story.

Two years ago she was just the girl who could be seen found sitting on the back porch of Harper’s Inn rather often, sipping a lemonade in the harsh glare summer. She worked at Harper’s Inn as a hostess at the dining room and when she had ten minutes she escaped, ear cocked for the brass bell that customers rang when they arrived and the desk was unmanned. Her disappearance was tolerated because when she was at her post she was good.

It took exceptional good humor and flexibility to greet people for eight or more hours, to inquire of their well-being and offer them a distraction if the wait was long. Most of the girls had quit after six months. Too many diners treated you like you were their servant, like you weren’t smart enough to do anything else or too pretty to be doing such a job. So they said. It was true you got propositions and complaints and you had to smile, nod, write names down as though it was a king or queen needing assistance.

But Dina made it seem a privilege that they found Harper’s Inn.

“My, what a long trip. I hope we don’t to wait more than fifteen minutes!”

The woman was halfway through retying her scarf when she dabbed her perspiring forehead with the blue and white checkered fabric. It looked neater against her white shirt. Her companion had his lips set like an unbroken horizon. His face was pink and veiny and reminded Dina of raw shrimp.

“Why, I can get you iced water while you wait,” Dina said, reaching for a pitcher. “And there’s a place on the bench. Have you been on the road a long time?”

And from there things would move along, the woman enthusing about her new grand-baby, the man stating his opinion about Iowa, both relaxing under the light touch of Dina’s congeniality. She welcomed people. She brought what mattered most to them at that moment. It wasn’t just food or drink. Mostly it was about getting and staying comfortable in an inhospitable world. Or so Dina felt it must be. That’s what mattered to her. And people commented on how nice an atmosphere Harper’s had even though it was pricier than a place on the other side of town.

So when she ducked out back for a few, putting finger to lips when she passed the kitchen, no one complained. Kenneth, the manager found her there after a few days and was about to complain when he heard voices at a table in the garden.

“How about that Dina? She moved here to finish her senior year, then must have gotten stuck here. She should get out. Such a good way with people. Classy but down to earth. Well, Harper’s needed that touch.”

Dina had looked up when Kenneth touched her on the shoulder.

“Hey, just wanted to let you know you’re doing a nice job here.”

Dina shrugged. It was bread and butter money. It helped out at home and in time her measly paycheck might contribute to a better guitar. Because that’s what she thought about out there. Her songs. They skipped about in her brain even when customers were talking to her. People often inspired her. One might have deep forlorn eyes and place a protective touch on a child’s head. A man would wistfully look at the black and silver matchbooks in the little silver bowl as though they reminded him of some place or someone. She saw the expensive women’s footwear and was drawn to high heels even though she didn’t like them for herself. They seemed barbaric. But tasteful. How could she sing about that?

Every person who came in had a complicated history, held close their desires and dreams, had been places she had never seen. So she took them home in her head and got out her guitar and paper and pen. And the best part of her life began. She had written more than eighty songs by the time she was eighteen, some forgettable, many that were better or getting there, a few that stood the test of repetition so far.

Marva, for one, liked them. She was a waitress at Harper’s Inn but knew Dina’s mother. She had heard Dina play and sing up in her room, so asked her to come join them on the porch swing and serenade the neighbors, too. She did so, but quietly.

“Why on earth have you not been promoting this child? Why, she has a voice to rival Dolly’s.”

Dina winced. She hadn’t meant to sound that country but there it was–it sneaked in from southeastern Missouri where she was born. The place they had left.

Helen, her mother, laughed. “Yes, she’d going to make a mint and take us all to Paris! Marva, don’t encourage foolishness.” Her face turned hard, the way Dina knew it to be in general. “She’s a damned dreamer, this child. She sings rather than cooks or cleans and I don’t know what to do with her since I don’t have the money to send her off to the state college.”

“Well, our little music maker,” Marva winked at Dina, “stay late on Saturday night and sing a long with Max and the crew. We have some good times.”

Helen rolled her eyes and rubbed lotion on her hands that smelled of slightly rancid lilacs. Her mother feared things, like getting old, but acted otherwise.

So that’s how it started. Marva had come from a bluegrass family; her great-grandfather had taught his children banjo and tunes and it just kept going. Her friend Cap was a piano player and played nearly anything on week-ends to entertain the guests. Carter and Phil were singers from way back, on the other side of thirty, itching to go to Nashville, just four hours from there. They needed more money so they could survive awhile, they said. And more nerve. Far greater pitch would have helped, Dina noted silently.

The first time she sang with the gang her reservations dissipated. It felt good to blend into a group. She’d waited to sing with them for weeks and here it was. A few songs in, Dina closed her eyes and harmonized awhile, then wove back to the melody, letting her voice establish its place while the others filled things out. They quieted down after the third verse and let her have the room. She didn’t notice at first, the piano playing so good and happy, her guitar releasing rhythmic chords like they were scrappy creatures set free.

And then she stopped in the middle of a phrase, confused.

“What are you all doing here? Trying to embarrass the heck of me?” A look of  horror passed over her face and she covered it with a free hand, letting the plastic guitar pick fall to the floor.

Marva clapped, then the rest joined in and hooted and whistled.

“I told these boys how much you had going for you. That was primo singing!”

Marva gave her a hug, bosom squashed against Dina’s thin frame and taking the breath from her. But she joined the ragtag group every Saturday night after work, eleven to midnight. And finally, after a few months, she sang for customers a little, and dared sing a few of her own songs.

“Walk a Winding Path” was one of her favorites, about a boy from Missouri she’d left. She had practiced it a long time, adding here, erasing there, til the chorus sounded right:

I can’t find the sweet end of day
without your hand fitting mine;
you roam the far ends of this world,
and I’m lost without your light.

She knew it was simple but really, life was. She hadn’t hit twenty yet but knew from watching though not completely experiencing it that it about boiled down to love or at least lust, loss, pain, joy, and hope. And God. Everybody needed God sooner or later. Simple.

It was the tune that hooked them, she saw, well, maybe the way the words crowned the melody. They were twins of inspiration. The full room cheered her on. And she sang the next week and the next. Things just happened until she made more money singing three nights a week than hostessing so she quit hostessing.

It all added up to this. Leaving to make a record. A producer had stopped on his way to Nashville and liked what he heard, came back for more and offered her a contract. It was ridiculous, really, how songs made on her bedroom floor, in the empty basement, on the porch swing could be important enough to reveal to the faceless many. Maybe there would be nice money and Paris. But she wondered what would happen to her songs. If they would hide away from her. If it mattered how many people heard them. Harper’s Inn was one thing, a country another. Far less had beguiled her and it had been enough. Sunrises from a hilltop and iced tea with her mother on a balmy afternoon. But her music had found its way out there. She was going to have to follow it all the way. If things fell apart she could come back. Welcome guests. Make more songs.

The Beauty of Another Country

yo30097-breaktimehudsonriver1973 Taking a break Along the Hudson River, NYC by Wil Blanche

(Photo by Wil Blanche, Break Time Hudson River, 1973)

The river flowed as if it had a plan, deliberate, strong-willed, slathering the banks and concrete retaining walls with dirt and detritus. Heat-powered scents were redolent of city life combined with ground beneath concrete and brick. Cass had biked there. She wished for a strong breeze. But it was a miracle to be resting, sunshine so easy on sore arms and legs. Honeyed light soothed her. She let go of a twig she had picked up and watched it bounce away on the Hudson.

Cass worked hard at the cabinetry shop her dad owned. The business was even better than last year. She knew how to do things that men older than she did not. There were four other women there, two in the office, two laborers. He liked to think himself progressive, but they were paid less than others. Only Cass made what the men did, with top overtime allowed. That was due to thousands of hours she had clocked since age twelve when she was a “go-fer”. Unpaid labor until fifteen.

Lately she had thought about talking to him about moving on. Making it on her own. She watched seagulls wheel and dive. There was a loud girl chatting up one of the road crew; their talk leaped over the sound of barges. Cass shut her eyes tighter. She wanted to forget all the people who acted so special because they were desperate; the shop and its demands; the endless traffic din. It was the countryside she tried to conjure.

She had last been there three years ago. Hills were burnished with the glow of autumn. Emerald grasses, cows lolling and red weathered barns all seemed to her a part of a living art museum. Trees like bouquets of copper and jade. As a kid she had studied such scenes in a heavy library book of photographs and felt a stirring but to visit it was always like seeing a foreign land. There was a family reunion every five years at Great-aunt Dinah’s farm until she passed. She and her dad and brother had gone to her funeral, something her dad hadn’t wanted to do; it was an obligation. Cass didn’t recall the viewing (other than her hair, white as snow drifts against deep-lined skin) or the funeral (except for a cousin swearing he’d never put on a suit again no matter who died, the idiot).

Later, she’d sat on Dinah’s creaky back steps and drank in the openness of vast acreage. It was like drinking fresh water when she was parched inside and out. She had been needing something, She hadn’t fully realized it until then.

In the city there were weeds that struggled through sidewalk cracks and little parks bounded by streets crammed with people and vehicles. It gave her a headache. Their shop had a break area, a patch of dirt with a wobbly, splintered picnic table that Cass finally fixed up with a blue-potted ivy and a yellow checkered plastic tablecloth. No one said anything except for the office girls who liked looking at it from the second floor window. Her dad saw the modest improvement; he said so when she asked. But the workers often took a smoke and coffee break at the side door, ate lunch down the street.

Great-aunt Dinah had left her farmhouse to her son, Howard. He’d leased it and one hundred-fifty acres, then week-ended in a house he’d built on a pretty spot a few years previous. It was really a cabin, as though he’d dreamed of remote forest living. The majority of land was sold off. Howard was an ancient history professor. He liked to go to read and write, take long walks, he’d told them during a recent visit. He’d retire there soon.

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                    (Photo courtesy of Discover New England)

Howard had some business in the city, so called to see if they wanted dinner at the Zenith; he’d pick up the tab. Cass enjoyed his conversation as well as the food. Her dad, less so. They only saw each other two, three times a year, Howard’s idea.

He said, “You two should come out for a long week-end. There are beds in two rooms upstairs. The master is downstairs. It’s a nice refuge. People enjoy the peacefulness.” He cocked his head, raised his grey eyebrows. “Time is fleeing; family should gather.”

Cass recalled how comfortable it was and the gentle land. She had looked at her dad with anticipation but he shrugged and lit another cigarette off the butt poking from his lips.

“Not likely, Howie. Got a business to run and Cass is my right hand. Started to make great money again. Can’t risk taking time away. Thanks just the same.”

Howard wiped his lips neatly with the white cloth napkin, studying her. “Well, Cass, you’re twenty-one so decide for yourself. Savor some time away. Bring a friend, too!”

Her dad had grunted as though a) Howard had no business extending such a grand offer to his kid; b) Howard was too high and mighty–like he didn’t work for a living, too; and c) Cass wouldn’t consider a three-hour train ride for a week-end marred by “eau de manure”.

“I might do that,” she had said. But she had one week’s vacation, saved for Atlantic City with her best friend. Still, which sounded better?

The girl by river’s edge shrieked with laughter. Cass’ eyes flew open. She watched a man trying to grab her so he got smacked. They roared as if this was hilarious.

The strong waters churned but Cass imagined reclining on a pontoon, holding an iced drink. Coming to join her might be someone tall like her, with wiry brown beard and longish hair, a guy who appreciated women who knew machinery and wood and had a mastery of both. Who had some savings and a dream. They would sit and watch the world drift by. He’d also like a horizon far enough away that you had to travel a long time to feel any closer to it.

Cass’s shoulders slumped. She needed more beauty in her life, hard-core awesomeness, the kind that multiplied with each season and is valued for all time. Trees, bugs and creatures, dark rich earth, flowers among vegetables. The weather seen coming from the distance. The strange music of birds in the morning. She wanted kindness, enough so her hard work and restless nights finished well with interesting talk and a kiss that meant something. Her long, muscled arms stretched above her, soaking up sunshine.

Then she said aloud, “Dang, I want my own carpentry shop. Sooner rather than later.”

Wanted to leave this city, sit on grass by Howard’s cabin and learn about the things he knew. Figure out how she could start her own true life. She felt a frisson of energy slide upwards. That’s what she was going to do. It was amazing how easy it was to decide once she was ready.

As she rode her bike back to the shop, she looked long at the girl with pastel bell bottoms and bare shoulders, the bottle blond hair. It was not her destiny to be that way but she raised a hand  in greeting. The girl stared back and Cass wanted to call out, Don’t take what you can get, find what you want, but peddled on.

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Eyes to See

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The morning was bleaker than it had been in weeks. Fog had arrived in a villainous blur, then crept through the blinds. I glanced a second time at the clock, then yanked the quilt over my head. Tiredness clogged my brain; it begged for a longer time out. I drifted and awakened, drifted, awakened. I was trying to get comfortable on the tightrope between waking and dreaming, to put off the inevitability of daylight and its requisites.

Then dangerous thoughts erupted: No reason to get up; dreams are preferable; besides, you are getting older every second and what do you have to do? In fact, what is there to show for all your efforts up to this moment?  I enumerated chores and errands as well as writing goals ahead of me. They seemed insignificant. Why even write? Who actually cares? What are you DOING with your life? The taunts brought forth an overpowering urge to do…as little as possible. I peered between the blinds and found the fog in communion with the black hole of my ruminations.

Well, almost. I looked again. Billions of chilled molecules of water gathered pallid light and illuminated air from inside out. The fog being hovered, mysterious. I opened the window a half inch and smelled the delicious cold. Then vacated the warmth entirely.

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Another day to greet if not welcome with open arms. Enter here but be forewarned. Remnants of negative energy trailed my footsteps. I thought briefly of ODAP, the acronym for “Our Devilish Alcoholic Personalities”, widely known to those familiar with AA. How ODAP can sit on one’s shoulder, dispensing sabotaging directives.

Not going to a job every day can be sweet but harbors pitfalls. I have to be mindful of booby traps, like those in old jungle movies: if I am not paying attention I can end up dangling upside down, on my way to a snake hole. Other than accepting that there is no paycheck for my toil and isolation is more familiar than it has been for years, I am supposed to be having fun. And awakening with a lovely sense of few-and-far-between pressures. A lack of critical usefulness to which, finally, I am entitled. But time has shown me that, to paraphrase Pogo the possum, “I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me.” I forgot I knew that before. But I had been too busy working, with family and managing a household for forty-five years to dissect who I was every single day.

There are times in our lives when we need a full inspection, to root out the weak spots and shore up the mightier ones. In early recovery I was instructed to take a personal inventory daily to become truly honest with myself and others. It wasn’t easy but not so taxing; I still practice it in some form. I’ve long been enamored of introspection and self-analysis. Raised to be responsible for my actions, I knew how to track the good, not-so-good and unacceptable aspects of my life and personhood. In fact, I thought too much for my own good, so my mother noted. It was a luxury people could ill afford if they were engaged in achieving something. She was right in that, though a dreamer at heart, action made me happier. But I didn’t quite get it as a youth. Many years of being introspective to the point of burn-out clarified her statement. What she really meant was self-analysis can border on self-obsession, which comes to no good. Such as selfishness, or narcissism in therapeutic language. I didn’t want that.

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I thought of these things as I struggled through the internal charcoal palette of the morning. “Blue” it was not; blue implies a tinge of bitter-sweetness. This was not that. By noon I had concluded I had little good to offer and nothing decent I might yet accomplish. How can one get to my age and not have blazed trails I envisioned at sixteen? All this, partly resultant of a year of mini failures added to unforeseen challenges. Dissatisfaction with little successes. But it also came with the transition into another stage of life. And having way too much time alone. My head was a neighborhood I needed to vacate more often.

So I went to the park. There is almost nothing a good walk cannot alleviate and I walk daily. I took my camera and started to shoot, as usual. I felt peace elbow out the dis-ease. Creatures both human and otherwise cavorted and chattered. Rested and worked. I watched sunlight melt away fog and reveal colors of the Northwest in winter. There were kids practicing for track and couples arm in arm. Trees presided over all with stolid strength. Green shoots broke through dirt. Everywhere were stories of earth’s old ways and lives being lived.

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It may seem rudimentary but suddenly it came to me that I have these eyes to see. Not just to record, but really see life. They are one of numerous gifts of the body that can create and bridge whole worlds. Sensory data enters the brain’s alchemical laboratory and informs me. But my eyes also are a bridge from my own internal world–my particular ways of observing and responding–to the greater world with its moving complexity. What if, I thought, we are also given vision–and our other senses–in order to profoundly align us with all that is is just outside our skin and, thus, to save us from scrappy egos that meddle? To keep us closely attached to the earth we share, this planet we call home. So we can more often stay out of our own way. We can then forget our aloneness, recall our universality. Remember the compelling qualities of life that we  often want to divide and compartmentalize. Try to control. Personalize and dramatize when it isn’t remotely necessary.

I speculated what it would be like to have eyes that looked only inward and shuddered. The walk lasted over an hour and gratitude for sight increased. I wondered what it would be like if my vision one day fails me. I suppose other senses will come forward more, to the rescue. Our bodies are made to fit our needs. At least I have been blessed with basic operational requirements, if they’ve sometimes sputtered and paused.

Taking action is what I can do to change my life daily. Once more my vision scanned the horizon, allowing healthy escape and refreshment. It was opening a window when spiritual suffocation was threatening. My walks take me out of a cramped habitation–this mind that can stir up trouble–so I discover conduits to finer wonders again. With these eyes, I can see but what and how I perceive is a choice. And without fail, there is God within and without, my sure compass wherever I go. The path again clears.

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Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)