Gifts of Visibility (and Saved by Quick Wits)

My Thanksgiving flowers and candle the day after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom? Better?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Mom!”

“Thank you so much…!” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Trip Ends: North Country Roads to Fishtown

Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 279
All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It turns out my head is still trying to be on vacation this shivery, rainy day in Oregon–one that will be repeated almost daily until spring’s reprise. I was perusing photos from the last leg of our northern Michigan jaunt and lo, there are more moments of rich color and curiosity to share with you.

Jutting north along the western side of Grand Traverse Bay (part of Lake Michigan), Leelanau Peninsula may seem a repeat of beauty that has been encountered before.  It gave me pause to consider that about 10,000 years ago, three different lakes were tiered here and there, at different levels. Now they are an invisible part of this far reaching Great Lake, one among the five whose basins were carved out by glacial ice sheets 14.000 years ago. Leelanau Peninsula, then, was geologically layered by that powerful glacial activity.

These forested lands are part of widespread color tours in the U.S. each October–some say Michigan has the best, who knows for certain?– but this terrain is easy on the eyes with vibrant yet soothing vistas (did you know oaks turn color later than maples?). It had not quite peaked when we were there. This is a prime area for artists to congregate and thrive, as well as excellent earth in which orchards thrive and many vegetables flourish. Lots of migrating birds arrive or pass this way. Once again bodies of water beckon me beyond low-rolling hills to that vast undulating cobalt blue. The five interconnected Great Lakes comprise the largest body of freshwater on earth, six quadrillion gallons, and is the longest freshwater coastline, as well. Lake Michigan alone is 22,300 square miles of water. However, there are also over 11,000 inland lakes, as well.

This peninsula, a popular scenic area, gives rise to much tourism which calms down a bit as temperatures and leaves drop—but then ski season opens and hearty wintering folks head up north. It may not be the Cascade Range (so near where I live) or other majestic peaks, but downhill skiing in northern Michigan is nonetheless a big draw, as are snowmobiling and sledding, cross-country skiing, ice skating and more. For there is nothing quite like the northern Michigan winter that will soon arrive–ferocious, pristine and also playful.

We stopped by Lake Leelanau to look for more good stones and admire the clarity of water. We cruised by tiny Suttons Bay and surrounding lands. Our intended destination was Leland, on the western shore. Northport is near the tip of the peninsula; the slideshow below offers a glimpse at that lovely village and farm land. We also paused to enjoy Lake Leelanau’s musical sloshing waves, water so clear you could see the bottom.

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Relaxed and full  of visual treasures, we drove contentedly along in the breezy, sunshiny day.

After perhaps 45 dreamy minutes, we entered Leland late afternoon. I has been long known for art galleries, higher end shops and the historic Fishtown. Leland has been an operating fishing community since the 1850s (far longer when considering the fact that Ottawa Indians resided there until Europeans arrived). It still has a distinctive culture and is considered one of the last working fishing districts on the peninsula. One can visit old fishing shanties, smokehouses, canneries and walk the weathered docks, note the fish tugs. I thoroughly enjoyed poking about. The shops were soon to close so I saved a good deal of money, I’m sure.

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And so rounds out and ends the seven day tour of “up north” Michigan, a first trip after decades having been gone.

The mystique of many waters, and the pleasure boats and boats with fishing aficionados as well as working fisher persons…the delicate meat of tasty fish (planked whitefish, the best)…the great swaths of deciduous forest mixed with towering pines and the slim, short-lived birches and rustling poplars…the flattening land and open skies…the sweet tangy wind of the great and small lakes. It is an alchemy that makes me dream of cabins and night music and finding love and gliding in a canoe under a silvery, beneficent moon and tender-hot sun. It is all still there.

 

 

 

How I’m Seeing It Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Separate State of Being: Childhood Play

Granddaughter with Wolfie; Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2009

There were three of them, girls in summer dresses, perhaps ages 6 or 7, and they were aglow with an apricot-and-honey cast of sunlight falling through the tree canopy. They were stepping precisely among broken branches laid this way and that, avoiding the bark as they maneuvered with small bare feet. They spoke in secret voices as they moved, the space between branches a claimed interior space, perhaps their house, or playroom or just a verdant spot that belonged only to them. One girl then gingerly stepped between two long sticks and found herself outside of the loosely defined oval “room”. She hesitated as she came to a narrow space between longer branches as if uncertain whether or not to enter again. A second girl, however, said, “You can come in, this is our door.” The awaiting child smiled and stepped in, as if over a rise. All three again were together, talking and walking the area when the third child left the space. She hunted and gathered two short sticks that fit well in her hands and knocked them against each other with a pleasant thudding rhythm, and began to sing along with the beat.

The scene had stopped me on my park walk; I caught my breath at her song. Sunlight gilding the greenery, the girls immersed in their own world, dresses in a play of motion against the sweeping background, an afternoon so far removed from hurricanes and wildfires and wars that I felt enchantment had cloaked the park. I could have remained there as long as they. The mother/nanny/neighbor sat nearby with an infant lying on crossed legs; now and then she nodded when they looked to her for reassurance. These were beloved children, so content that their peacefulness emanated large and beautiful from their smallness.

The strong urge to raise my camera visited me, though I rarely photograph unknown children without permission. But it passed. It was their completeness, the perfection of the scenario. How the vibrancy of their playfulness shone. How gentleness and joy tipped some vital balance to make things right and new for a few gifted moments again. I moved on before they did. I didn’t want anything altered, nor my gratitude to lift.

I have thought of those children and their impromptu branch house for days, and of the mothering person, her devotion to those children a certainty. I think she got it right with them. How much time and effort does it take to give a child this kind of freedom, this happiness? Beyond securing adequate food, shelter and safety and steadfast affection–which are so vital most cannot survive without them–what does a parent need to do? And how much can it matter in the long view?

I believe it requires patience and self-restraint to let children be. To just play, let things unfold naturally without interference. I’ve observed kids being directed, cautioned and corrected excessively, as if they cannot create effective ways to open up the gates to make-believe; navigate ordinary conflicts with others; or discard one idea for another to maximize interest and fun.

It is as if adults feel the need to press their own expertise upon children’s improvised alone time, or they worry that they will get into mischief that cannot find its own good solution. Cared-for children are cautioned from day one of countless potential, current or highly suspected dangers. They are taught without ceasing numerous socially accepted behaviors, the how and when to do them. They are urged to do reach for a higher bar, are cheered when they make the mark, are instructed to get back up when they fall down. Children are corralled, disciplined, corrected, warned, filled with information and emptied of many illusions before they even tie their shoes without knotty spots.  So why must they also be “improved” during playtime? Children apparently need all those fine art classes, yoga and martial arts, foreign languages, preschool math and reading courses, a library of DVDs, computer-driven tutoring and entertainment to fill up their extra time–and phones so young…all well and good. Or is it?

There will always be overzealous parents, propelled by determination to create “superior” offspring–as if this was even the best they could do for their children. But I am also addressing the ubiquitous availability of gadgets, their unending, expensive “new edition” spawn. The technological manifestations that children have to embrace as they become older are immense enough in number with attendant skills required. How much does a child have to know about anything that requires Wi-Fi to enjoy his or her life before first grade? (I’d suggest age 10 at the earliest if it was up to me.) A child does not thrill to more distraction than contemporary life already dishes out. Nor does he or she need overt cues or flashy music and garish visuals to excite and improve a naturally growing brain. A child can find her own way in realms of play and learning, When there are questions, a supervising youth or adult can offer to help search an answer.

All they truly require are a few sticks and a grassy spot or a few rocks and a stoop, a small corner and a real or imagined playmate. They will, without any doubt, make a game of it. The ability to adapt, create and embrace the simplest pleasures will guide them forward toward their futures. Perhaps even one day save them.

Watching those three girls at play brought back my own childhood. I’m not indulging in any sentimental send up. Of course I know this is not the 1950s; of course our culture has morphed a few times (even gone back in trendy loops) and industrialized civilization is busier and vaster than ever to address notably different  needs and wants. The threats to well being seem harder to decipher and predict.

But children’s time apart from grown ups has always been and will remain just children’s play. The beauty of this is the innate simplicity primed with spontaneity. And it belongs to children as surely as their unique rates of growth and language use, their childish ways of reaching and touching our hearts.  Even alone, a child can entertain herself for as long as she wishes, with very few material objects to aid her. I say, leave her and him well alone as long as they are safe and within reasonable hearing range. Let things unfold of their own accord. That reaching mind utilizes its fledgling critical thinking skills to work out kinks, follow diversions. Make a good game of life.

I’ve written of my old neighborhood’s outdoor gatherings and family games of childhood days. I’ve stated my parents directed me to “go find something to do” if I dared utter that foul word: “bored.” I had a fairly busy childhood schedule with school and church and the arts–which I adored–but there was “down time” as well. (We did not own a television until I was thirteen–there was not enough time or interest–and even then it was seldom turned on. I found it novel, even strange that friends were wild about cartoons, and just did not feel the tug of it.)

So it was up to me to get in touch with buddies or ride my prized blue Schwinn, create basic seriocomic stories with my dolls and pillows and scarves or the fabulous miniature farm set, build with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, draw (even in dirt with a pointy stick), sketch and paint or attempt crafty things, write a poem, play hopscotch and jump rope, make up a song or dance, give a puppet its own theater, climb the maple tree and survey the intriguing horizon. I liked to watch cars go by, count the models and makes and colors. Play in the sprinkler or water “Plant” a garden while watering with a miniature sprinkling can. Hit a few rounds of croquet acorss the uneven grassy yard–even alone. Heck, I could play everyone’s game, couldn’t I? And win them all. It was for just a bit of fun, after all.

But I loved hanging out in my small hideout in the dense thicket of bushes and trees in the northwest corner of back yard. There was a scarred wood bench to sit on, a table devised of broken pine branches and scrap wood. I could be anybody I wanted.  There were supplies kept there–paper and pencils, glass of water, saltine crackers, a homemade slingshot, an dirty hat. Or I’d explore the tree nursery right behind our house, galloping about as if atop a wild stallion, on the lookout for bandits. In winter I dragged the toboggan around in knee-deep snow under a star-pierced sky, and truly felt the intrepid adventurer.

I was never lacking options, only impetus at times, and soon could find something to enjoy. Play–not much supervised or directed– was a pleasurable part of my day.

I did not live in a shielding bubble, however. Not by the time I was eight years old, when over the next three years sexual abuse altered the course of day and night, a violent twist in the flow of a heretofore secure childhood. But one thing that did not change was the escape and rest offered by play time on my own–or fun with friends and family, if desired. Play saved me in broad and deep ways. Yes, rescued me. It taught me to cope with not-yet-understood stress, how to mine and polish more elusive positive moments, how to improvise, figure out solutions. How to keep in touch with hopeful possibilities beyond the silencing, invisible prison of abuse by a man who appeared harmless, trustworthy, but was a menace, one who threatened grave violence if silence was broken.

It appeared that the play and work, the holy and profane existed side by side in a life filled with love of God and family and redefining losses. I felt weakened before becoming stronger. Separate time to be free of fear, to enjoy ordinary moments as well as try out scenarios of a happier day was vital.

As I later suffered consequences of difficult times, I could delve into that short era of innocence and dig for the light still alive in darkness. I had once so easily embraced or created contentment and laughter; thus, it was possible to experience both once more. Had I not been brave and curious, steady in body and mind and open to the amazements of life? It was all still out there along with the harder stuff, and it could happen for me again. I had to recall that childish impulse toward play as much as anything else as I sorted things out on the way to recovery. I looked for more reasons to laugh. Marvel. They were there, waiting to be spotted. If I could rebuild a foundation of trust brick by brick, I could build a better life. Hold onto happiness. And over time, that is how it unfolded.

Nothing turns out just as we think it will be as children. My life has not the story arc once imagined–it has been tougher, often better and very different. I can still re-design much within through creative engagement, enable more good via prayer and work and compassion. But also in simple play. Because I was long ago encouraged to explore the “what ifs” and “just try its” mode of operation, and learned to do it pretty well. Just grant me a little space. A few minutes. I’ll come up with something that will lead to more fun.

I recall when counselling those in addictions treatment, especially, asking one question over and over: what have you done today that is safe but also fun? And ending group sessions reminding them to put back fun in their lives. Because the ways to enjoy and care about life are like a veritable smorgasbord of surprises. Try one; find out what happens. It will stir up those mood-altering hormones we already possess to boost well being. Think back, I’d suggest: what gave you a great feeling as a small child? How can you recreate that again? We are wise about wonder and delight when starting out in life–so reclaim it.

So play on, little daughters and sons, conjure new worlds into being at a touch, a word, a dream, all right within this one. Pick up that stick and beat the drum of earth and leap through invisible doors. Practice your own robust magic. And do not forget.

 

Lessons from Cottage Life

Coanes’ Cottages, the faded wood sign indicated, a dingy white arrow pointing the way. After a long car ride from mid-to-northern Michigan, I was ready to tumble out and gallop down the dirt path to the lake shore. Dad opened the trunk as Mom gathered up a few stragglers in the back seat. I deposited my suitcase at the door of our rental cottage and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Coanes emerged from their own cottage, dressed in the usual matching plaid shirts, greeting us with a flurry of welcoming talk. I said on cue, “Hello there, nice to be here, thank you for having us” and was thus briefly released from other required social duties.

I ran through long-limbed, shady trees and dry grass stubble, arms flailing, legs reaching, breath rushing though me until there was the same old dock before me. The lake spread out from the shore, a shimmering mirror on surface, deep and clear just below barest green-blue waves. It was rimmed by deciduous and pine trees standing close to one another, tight against gusty storms that often swept off mammoth Lake Michigan a few miles away and Canada beyond that. The calendar had already been turned from August to September so it was far quieter than summertime’s high season. A few diverse trees on the other side bore leaves in process of transformation, green to gold, red to orange. Just the way I liked it.

It was the time we tended to visit the Coanes’ Cottages,  after their busy vacation season ended and kids were back in school. I vaguely recalled them from church; my parents had known well when they had still lived and worked in our hometown. And then they retired from “good jobs” as Mom indicated, and part-time pleasure became a full-time business. By early to late fall we could stay in an unclaimed (I guessed free to us) cottage which to me far better fit the description of a cabin. It seemed a kind of luxury to me to be there though I had stayed at other lakes, for other reasons (performing arts and church camps, friends’ summer homes). The homely but decent-sized cottage, cheerful fire in the fireplace when nights turned cool; the old log walls and wood floors emitting the musky smoky scent I loved–it was a fall reprieve from our already hectic city lives. The decor of the habitat was primitive and basic to me even as a young teen, but its simplicity soothed me, reassured me with its longevity and sameness.

My parents weren’t so much true outdoors people so much as general science lovers and nature admirers. Even Dad didn’t fish or boat much (he liked tennis and bike riding) though most other people came in droves to catch abundant bass, rainbow trout, perch,  pike, whitefish and more. And also to go boating, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, to name a few. And that was only in summer. Winter held plenty of attraction with fun activities like ice fishing and ice boating.

I understood that the Coanes were different from my parents’ other friends, and also my friend’s parents. They preferred a pared-down sort of life, in sync with the outdoors all year, a far more rugged life. Mrs. Coanes held me in thrall as I shyly observed her. She exhibited such energy and strength, a pervasive independent attitude. Though this was a bit like my mother, Mrs. Coanes routinely fished with success (we’d eaten the catch many times) and even hunted deer; she tackled the same heavy work as did her husband. They had ruddy cheeks and calloused hands. Mrs. Coanes didn’t fuss with make up or bother calming her curly, silvery-brown mop of hair. I thought it curious that she and her spouse dressed about the same–long sleeved, plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans or old khakis, laced leather boots, even in summer. From a distance they were nearly interchangeable when they had their caps on. They seemed to be perpetually in a good mood, easy to be around and full of stories about game or fish they got, the customers they had met, the changing of the seasons–and good books they had read.

They also played bridge and knew much about science, art and history. After dinner we often hung out at their cabin or they came to ours. I skimmed my novels or the cottage’s crossword puzzle magazines while the four of them played bridge or Michigan Kitty or Scrabble or checkers (I might  join in the last two). I listened to conversations about our town versus the lake life as well as my parents’ various engagements and our large family. They didn’t have children, an noteworthy fact to me, the youngest of five. I learned that they both had worked at Dow Chemical Company–it was the main employer of in Midland, Michigan and though they’d enjoyed being company scientists, they loved this life more.

I tried to imagine my parents owning such a place and failed–surely not Dad with his tuxedos as conductor for concerts or playing in string quartets, and Mom with attendant elegant dresses or her work as an elementary schoolteacher. But they had other sides to them. Mom had grown up on a farm and was not at all averse to physical work–her energy seemed indefatigable. Dad loved to tinker with cars and repair things. They both camped for many years with a pop-up camper and enjoyed the relaxation it brought.

But during lake visits and while staying with the Coanes, I saw them anew at times.

I learned Dad greatly enjoyed the water and loved to sail. He put on swim trunks and joined Mr. Coanes on the small sailboat buzzing with excitement.

Mom shouted after him, “Put a lifebelt on! You could capsize and drown! Don’t go out too long or far away– I want to be able to see you!” Her nerves were not hidden though her face appeared calm soon–or taut with anxiety just beneath the surface.

Mrs. Coanes tried to reassure her but it didn’t do the trick. Mom would jump up from her camp chair, walk along the muddy shoreline and flatten a hand against forehead to shield her eyes from sunlight. She tracked the sailboat’s progress.

I’d swim awhile, dog paddle deeper and be carried out by chilly, lapping wavelets to the floating dock. There I’d dive off the buoyant wooden square again and again. Pungent scents of lake; the sweet, crisp air of early fall! And Mom wasn’t worried about me. I was close enough, she knew I was a strong swimmer. But Dad was disappearing around a peninsula with Mr. Coanes, off on a small adventure.

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

It heretofore hadn’t occurred to me to ask. She was in her fifties and I somehow had assumed that, like most women of the times and that age, she just didn’t want to get into a suit and be sopping wet while in full view of the public.

“I don’t like water,” she said, scanning the distance. “Never have.”

I thought about that. She daily took baths, of course, fast ones it was true but she never had mentioned a dislike of water. She washed things, she watered the garden, she bathed us kids when we were little. Did she mean she didn’t actually like getting right into it awhile? Hard to avoid when bathing. I thought this most peculiar. And one thing I liked about being close to her was that she was the sweetest smelling person I knew, even her breath.

When Mrs. Coanes had gone elsewhere I got more nosy. “So–why?”

“I just don’t like how it feels, being doused. I never take showers, you know, a quick bath in tepid water. Or a sponge bath–don’t look at me like that, that is how it often was growing up! You recall I get up before you all do to get ready, and there is a line when I get out.”

“Well, so you feel you have to hurry?…but is there one real reason why? I mean, did something happen that was scary?”

“That’s the reason why: I don’t enjoy water,” she said with quiet exasperation and got up to pace the shoreline again, hands stuffed into pockets of her attractive Pendleton wool plaid jacket. I noted her sturdier casual shoes beneath a lighter tweedy skirt.

It made no sense; it bothered me. How could a person not like the way water slipped over skin, soft and smooth and refreshing? A bath was one thing but a lake….they were full of fascinating life. Viney weeds could suddenly wind around legs, true, and blood suckers met in the muck were gross. But toe-nibbling fish were okay. I knew Mom had a real appreciation of earth sciences, had studied them in college and often talked about geology and etymology. But she had never included water life in her enthusiastic fact-sharing, either. And I still didn’t quite know why.

“Hey Mom, stop worrying, Dad is a good swimmer and he’s with a veteran sailor.”

But she had to be afraid of water; she acted worried about his safety. I tended to find my mother fearless. Even if she hid a few anxieties, she tried to faced things head on. Perhaps that was what she was doing by letting him go ahead on the little boat each year, just staying watchful rather than becoming a little hysterical. My mind wandered–did someone she know actually drown? Did she come close to it? Did she get doused with water from a farm hose by one of her many mischievous, maybe sometimes mean brothers?

I felt as if I was seeing into their lives from a different angle, with more open eyes. And I also felt somehow less confined to childhood’s real with the bits of new knowledge. What else didn’t I know about them? I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for much more.

Mom shrugged off my words, then tossed me a tolerant smile, as if I couldn’t begin to understand such things. Mrs. Coanes returned so I grabbed a towel, happy to get off on my own, to doze and dream, get a decent tan. Then Dad and Mr. Coanes edged back into view so I sat up again. Mom waved and jumped about as if she hadn’t seen them in days. I sat up. Dad was at the helm; he was sailing the boat by himself. Yes, it was a small boat but there was something about his hair ruffling in the wind, the honeyed sunshine on his elated face, arms and back strong and that easy joy so apparent. My father, set free awhile. Free from endless labors, from even family, from public expectations. It was Dad in the midst of water and wind as the boat skimmed the brilliant teal blue lake. He brought it in nicely.

Mom restrained herself as they finished up. She gave Dad a beach towel to dry off. He was alert, excited–my often taciturn, tired father was a joyously revised one. I congratulated him on his outing and Mr. and Mrs. Coanes noted what a natural he was at sailing. Mom, smiling easily once more, slipped her arm through the crook of his and they walked back up the small hill to the cottages.

I knew what I was going to do the next day: get my chance out there on that sailboat. I had had a taste of sailing at camps and longed to sail more, like Dad.

But that night as the adults played cards, I went down to the lake and sat on the end of the dock. The waves slapped against earth and dock in the sweetly comforting way I never failed to miss when back in the city. Frogs and crickets and birds sang and chirped. I listened for loons, those strange beauties. And an entire sky opened itself to me like a magic kingdom, moon like a beacon, even a harbinger of very good things to come. If I felt a passing pang of loneliness, I imagined another teen sitting across the water doing the same as I, feeling the same tender thrill, that sweet anticipation of an entire life ahead.

Those early autumn stars stirred and settled themselves in the swaths of another night and I imagined them like pinholes into heaven. I propped myself on forearms and tilted my head back to observe them in their true glory as twilight gathered more darkness. Such a perfect, confounding universe, so many questions to ask and answer. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that nature was my companion and would be my inspiration and solace my whole life long. I would never feel entirely bereft or lost with nature all about me.

I understood some of why the Coanes left our small city far behind, and why Mrs. Coanes simplified her life. Looking back she was a quiet pioneer, forging her own path in the early sixties when many women wouldn’t have dared–except perhaps, other outdoors women or athletes. How fortunate I was to have known them and to have enjoyed their hospitality. To learn a little about water’s powers and that far off country of grown up life and marriage.