Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: This Body Talks: Self Acceptance

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It was the heat, which had soared to new heights, then settled at an acceptable glow (punctuated by random sizzles) on the skin, and that swimming pool before me. They brought me thoughts of summer and body, confidence and a little uncertainty, a big dose of happiness. I witnessed the last before me: daughter, Alexandra, held close one toddler twin granddaughter (encased in a life jacket that bobbed at chin) and in they went. Splashed, squealing, as they sank into so-blue water (painted concrete a tropical hue) with bursts of gaiety. The other twin looked on, a finger to lip, head at an angle, wandered back to a chaise lounge, then back to check the water with tentative toes. I desperately wanted to jump in but was fully clothed so contented myself at the edge, feet dangling in soft, clear, cool water. Alexandra had been suddenly moved by the spiking temperature and inviting water when I’d visited, unprepared. But the duo in the pool radiate delight, voices raised in summer celebration. Soon those little girls will learn to swim.

So I need to order a new swimsuit. I have an older one that I used when enjoying pools at hotels when tagging along on business trips with Marc, or on vacation. I’m ready for something comfier and fresher, admittedly perhaps done with a suit that displays greater jiggly parts, even the nicer ones. Though I stop to consider my older body less than the ageless spirit: just let me in that water, let me slice through it but gently. I have enough confidence to jump right in. I want to do a breast stroke, side stroke, back stroke, then float from one end to the other. I’d even dive in if I could.

I am not great at the simple crawl–partly, no doubt, because I must keep half-opened eyes above surface if I want to keep contact lenses intact, yet also see. I need prescription swim goggles if I take to water more. Still, swimming is not my best athletic activity. It might be one–I am a water lover from way back when we kids and adults all jammed into old Central Park swimming pool. But I’d need a pool more handy. If there also was no pandemic to beware. For now I need to find place and time where I’m able to swim without being bonked on the head with sudden flailing feet or a crocodile floatie. My own neighborhood pool is likely re-opened; part of a recreational center, it is indoors only, however. I want sunshine bathing arms, chest, face, legs–not a glare of overhead fluorescent lights.

I watch twins and daughter and decide I will buy a new suit, pronto. I will swim, too. Even if the thought of my flesh exposed gives me a a very minor pause. What can I tuck away, what can be freed up? Does it even matter to me? I go home when the fun is done and recall how it has been thus far to romp about in this body. It has been pretty much a blast.

Wasn’t it, isn’t it?

Overall. The higher points making up for the low, and far more often than not, anymore.

******

Okay, let’s get the hard part of the story over with. There are pictures of me I wish were never taken; many have been torn up and tossed. We all have those, of course. But for me they reveal several years of telltale signs of a life unwell. The sharp truth of things. I look into those bluely hollowed eyes and ask: Where were you? Who took over? Yet it was me, all along, only hijacked here and there. Taken leave of a full array of senses at times. Hungry even if unaware of it, often lonely, unfortunately rather angry though trying hard not to be, and tired. I often seem grim even when trying to smile, as if I begrudged anyone daring to snap the shot. And see the reality: Cynthia, surviving but struggling.

I was far too thin. I don’t think I knew how thin until I saw the photos. So thin that I had trouble finding clothes to fit without checking the youth section–finding a women’s size 0 or 00 was almost impossible. This is not preferred when you are an adult. Not when everything hangs from your spare shoulders and bony hips, as if you are a mannequin. Yet, how often other women remarked they wished they had such a “problem”… I must emphasize: it was a terrible way to live. I weighed perhaps 100 pounds, often less. I know this not because we had a scales; I mostly haven’t had one, at all. But my doctors weighed me every time w ith a shake of the head, and remarked on it as it dipped, fell and then rose a tiny pound or two–and it left me without much fat on my bones. I dreaded those scales.

I look, in those pictures, emaciated. I look, during those times, haunted. Exhausted. I’d be awake until 1 or 2 am, doing laundry, ironing, planning for the next day’s schedule for five children’s activities. Writing a bit. Then up by 6:30 am.

Which would have been alright in my twenties and thirties except that I could barely eat. I did sleep, wiped out each night. All young parents get tired. They just have more fuel than I had to get up and do it all over again. I was chronically ill but didn’t yet know how ill.

I had been diagnosed with colitis at 21, and the years following was given more related diagnoses. They all meant the same thing to me: challenges to overcome. A body that sometimes seemed to hate me as I grew up, one I have needed to love and care for. We had been in happy cahoots so long…not so much, anymore. I tried to be as strong as I needed to feel. It worked as long as I could act as if all was alright.

But I also sometimes drank too much; it took less than you’d imagine to do the job with little fat on my body plus a history of substance abuse as a teen. Two or three stiff mixed drinks gulped when everyone was gone, a quick shot in the shower. Believe me, even a few weeks of this impacted my life–and using up a great deal of energy. It didn’t improve things though it numbed part of the pain awhile. But not all. There were marital problems, kid worries, money challenges–all the time, all those years. Digestion problems had been in my life since childhood and then alcohol did more damage to my system.

I ate what I could manage; eating had long and often made me sick as if I had flu or food poisoning. It was a challenge to enjoy any entire meal that I prepared daily for our family. I ate a few scraps as I washed their plates. And a lot of bread with butter, jam, a dab of peanut butter as that usually settled okay.

Gastroenterologists gave me medications that were frankly addictive. I ended up in the hospital for substance issues and was seriously informed I was beginning to starve. It wasn’t pretty, it was first another ER and then writhing in bed feeling caged and too ill. I had severe gastritis, and the colitis had worsened. It was a shock to me, the near-starving part. I didn’t drink a lot, not as much or often as others; I took my prescriptions and had found them difficult to cut back, stop. The fact was, I ate the best I could and never could keep any good weight on. I smoked Newport cigarettes and drank too much coffee and I only learned later that these added to the problems.

At some point I thought I’d get stronger, enough to keep on, and so drank protein drinks once a day as well as a very ight meal and engaged in body building at the gym 4-5 times a week. I developed much better muscle and better peace of mind, but my 5 ft. 4 inch body was basically all muscle and lots of obvious bones…No one helped me with nutrition those years, and I knew too little to sufficiently address my needs. I had tried to trust doctors so turned to them again: Find me safer drugs, I have a busy life to try to manage! Eventually I got a bit better. Again, shuffled drugs to maintain some semblance of eating.

This went on so many years it was just life, the weight up and down–105, 100, 95 lbs., lower. (Once a little boy asked his mother if I was a boy or a girl when at the swimming pool. I was wearing a bikini but was so skinny it was apparently hard to be sure…) Because I was in chronic pain when I ate, but in chronic pain when I didn’t. It could fell me, bring on gritted teeth and blinked away tears and send me to the emergency room. I tried to hide it from the children, even hid myself until it passed; I did not complain unless it was too much. I had to keep going, that was all. It was just colitis acting up, it wouldn’t kill me I had been told. (At 21, when married the first time, I sipped on a bottle of paregoric gotten in an Appalachian pharmacy during our honeymoon. It was needed to keep on and eat at all; we were camping, I wanted to be alright. Six months later I was in the emergency room seriously ill with much blood loss but recall nothing of the week there except IVs and being nauseous when offered real food again.)

In any case, I had attended university and a decade later believed I needed to accomplish far more. So I got a nice job that started my human services career. And took care of the growing kids as my husband travelled more, climbing up his ladder of success. I exercised and worked on staying alcohol free and staying off prescribed drugs that were still problematic (being narcotic- and barbiturate-based). I was successful much of the time although that made the s symptoms harder to bear. Discouragement dogged me. One doctor suggested a partial colostomy as a final option. Or just live with it. I left in tears, yet was determined to find another way.

But how? It was what it was, and I did know it could be worse. I was not terminally ill as long as I stayed sober and clean. I still found much to appreciate in my life. It just took some work–except for my children, whom I loved beyond reason. For whom I so wanted to be well.

Years passed. There came a more committed sobriety, a couple of divorces, a move to Oregon, a new battery of doctors. Food intolerances, I was told, were the big bad extra culprit. I could learn to help myself more! Discovering I was severely lactose intolerant was a revelatory experience. It wasn’t the entire answer, but a major change in my well being. I learned about other foods I tolerated poorly. I discovered that it was a kind of genetic Achilles heel–most of my birth family had similar or the same diagnoses, I discovered when talking more with them. (Also, my children have coped with this to some degree.) I began to eat more healthily, a diet I could better live with, and began to gain a bit of weight. Even if I had the same diagnoses, I learned how to manage all more effectively.

I was in my early forties before I knew all this. For a short time I bitterly asked God why I had to lose so much time, be sick so long along with all other ordeals. But that attitude got me exactly nowhere fast except in a pit of self pity, as usual, so I looked forward to better times.

One day my young adult son told me after a big hug “hello”: “This is how my mother should feel when hugged!”

It stunned, perhaps hurt a little at first. Then I knew I had done some things right. We may not know what family and friends truly think, how illnesses widely affect them. They accepted me as I was, yes–they loved me. But they had worried a long time, too.

It took what it took. I figured out how to avoid some foods and cautiously eat others, and feel safer about food, in general. I have had ups and downs with this; I still have digestion illnesses to manage. But in time I began to add more pounds, and discovered more energy. I was excited about often being outdoors again–hiked, walked and more. Daily. I quit smoking. I got better jobs, went back to college. I learned to steer clear of abusive relationships. Soon I embraced my life in the Pacific Northwest and became more resilient and at peace as I enjoyed a healthier lifestyle. I was opening to more happiness. It took redoubled efforts if I failed my goals, a stubborn faith, and the peculiar dance of time. I still have to intelligently oversee health problems– there are a few at 71, but none I can’t recover from, so far. But I am not thin, anymore. I am closer to an average sized woman. I am so relieved and glad of it.

Close to thirty years ago, people began to tell me I was changing, even looked different. Some from my twenties and thirties told me they didn’t recognize me, at first. My face and body changed, yes. But I had long been such a serious person and a person who kept her head up even when it hurt to raise it, and walked hard with shoulders squared to keep from feeling beaten down and falling over. But I had begun to soften around internal and outer edges, smiled more readily. Laughed. And tears were not swallowed.

Well, I said, I am healing up…I got through some stuff. And I watch what I drink and eat–I never eat dairy that has lactose– and I hike!

Long, long before all this, I was a child and youth at ease in my skin, my body filled with energy and my mind confident of much. Enthralled with life’s offerings even with hard times coming and going. I was engaged in a variety of physical activities. So here I was about to enter middle age, and I’d begun to think I was undewrgo8ing a true transformation. It seemed a bit like a return to that more whole part of myself. Step by step, prayer by prayer, more knowledge each day.

I was no longer anxious about seeing myself in a photograph. I looked in a mirror on tough days and felt compassion–for the woman I had been and the one I was becoming.

******

I early on felt I was born fortunate, given a life to live that had a plethora of opportunities and good times. My parents taught me gratitude, about being humble; I learned it also at church. Counting blessings was something done every night during prayer around our dinner table. And I was thankful for people in my life, for different kinds of abilities, for opportunities to enjoy learning and wondering–and in a pleasant city. I deeply appreciated our yard and fully utilized it, as if it was a few acres for continual exploration, not just a moderately good city yard. It was one of many spots I grew up with a basic optimism and my “companion” of curiosity.

And I sure didn’t think one thing or another about how I looked or came across to others. I wore glasses by the second grade as I was very near-sighted. I may have been teased a bit about the thick lenses, but it rolled off me. I was average in size, perhaps leaning toward thinner, and nothing special. My mother sewed most of my clothes–expertly but, still, they were seldom bought until I was a late teen. Everything seemed okay, good enough. Mom rarely said anything about my appearance– except that I ought to keep my bangs off my face or get them cut short so she could see my eyes and I could see the world. One of my sisters teased me at times about being thinner than she was, as she liked to eat more than I did (I’d already had a few digestion concerns), and carried some extra weight. But to me she was just my closest sister– until she explained how that was for her years later. What I knew as a kid was that she was a fantastic softball player, a good musician, sometimes hard on me but often fun.

I loved to engage in creative pursuits from a young age (a family proclivity)–music, art, dance, writing– but I was equally passionate about getting physical. Riding my bike, swimming, tree climbing, running races, playing “Kick the Can” at twilight, ice skating, sledding and tobogganing, croquet, badminton, hopscotch and jump rope, baseball and basketball, water skiing and snow skiing, volleyball, tennis, a little boating–well, you name, I’d try it. My parents didn’t like to fish or seriously hike (though we camped in a pop-up) or I’d have done those, too. They were a bit athletically inclined: Dad played tennis, loved to cycle and enjoyed sailing; Mom was on a girls’ basketball team in school (unusual for the mid-1920s), had terrific energy and stamina. By the time I was born they were forty years old, far too busy to play a game with me often.

I got a charge from the slow mastery of skills with new active endeavors. That sense of gradual confidence was powerful and pleasing. Plus, it was fun, even thrilling to feel muscles stretch and grab, the heart pump, senses sharpen; to reach new goals, to help a group win a competition. I didn’t feel inferior to other girls or boys I knew and don’t recall being harassed for being a girl on any team or for “playing like a girl” in its negative connotation. I played hard, worked to gain better skills and had a great time doing it. A competitor at heart, it was easy to get in there and push myself.

I had a basic physical confidence. I simply had the drive to move (even when playing my cello or writing or drawing). Despite not always feeling well. Despite wearing glasses until I was 14–when I became a cheerleader at school, why not? (Despite childhood abuse, which hadn’t quite caught up with me.) Over the years I studied and faithfully practiced figure skating, and ballet and modern dance. There were times I thought I wanted to be an athlete–or a worldwide adventurer–or at least a dancer–when I grew up. There was simply not enough time to do all of what brought me joy. I wanted to fully inhabit the pleasures of strength, competence and power that came from moving within my body, with purpose, for fun or serious goals.

Being alive struck me as a fantastic chance to do and learn more, human senses vibrant and responsive to all. Every nerve woke up with me as I awakened and stood up: a new day. It was pure magic to smell the flowers beneath my window, hear the babble of voices downstairs mingled with music, see the honeyed light fall across my toes. It was youth, it was being present in flesh and soul. It was simplicity of ordinary happiness.

None of that had much to do with what society thought of me, how my body or face were viewed, what I wore, how I fit in with the rest. What mattered was learning well and then doing. And just being me, living among the great span of humanity, feeling part of and also accounted for in the infinite universe. I believed in myself even if someone doubted me. I felt I could do things and so I got started and did them. My parents supported this spirit–usually.

Yes, I know I was born fortunate and that made a big difference. And I continue to enjoy discovering opportunities to embrace new skills, expand my limits, experience something from another perspective. Pushing the limit. Heart disease? I’ll walk faster, longer, harder. Gut troubles? I’ll take the pill if I must and step out in the sunlight, go on the best I can. I am relieved to be able to welcome life. To live it also amid heartache and hardships. To do this, that and the other as attentively as possible. And I have learned to accept, too, the reality of limitations when it is clear they are to be heeded. I can gain focus and restfulness by sitting out a hike or swim or dance, as well. Patience brings insights, more peace….as long as I go along with the natural rhythm and order of things. The mind and soul remain active. We have this time to take it in, accept some assistance, and give some back. And soon I am back on my feet, one way or another.

Hopefully into a new swimsuit and into the water. I want to play in the pool with our fabulous twins, help them learn to float. I want to abandon all and drift upon the lulling surface, dive to the bottom and rush back up. So I have a bit of weight on me these days, my hair has streaks of white and ordinary scars and lines map my face and body with human travels. I am not impressed one way or the other.

I think of what has been endured thus far, how my human trajectory across time has been punctuated by divine interventions, beautiful surprises. I have taken–dragged, lifted, tolerated, ranted at, had mercy for— this body with me for the long haul and it, me.

And I am not ashamed of, or embarrassed by, this loosening fleshy envelope within which I live my life. It was given to me as a grand opportunity to do what I could and still can. I have treated it much better than when I was still uneducated. fearful, lost or too ill. And my body has served me with a certain flair, and has granted me grace more often than I can count. So even with the pain: I thank you, my earthly transport across time, for carrying me still. We’ve got this–so let’s swim!

Photo by Juan Salamanca on Pexels.com

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Gift of Caring and Learning to Receive

I am learning something new the past few weeks. I might not have to be quite as alone in my life as I crawl past the sudden death of a granddaughter. And worsened chronic illness, a year of my spouse’s unemployment, various troubles for five adult children here and there. And, yes–the pandemic, how can I note that last? The toll it has taken on humanity. On us each. That there might be care and aid for this woman–me, Cynthia–is amazing to me even after a fulfilling career offering help of all sorts to others. In truth, I was considering calling a therapist but put it off each week, waiting things out. You know…I can do this, it all takes time, I will get through this and be alright, I can tread water a lot longer….I know how grief fans open and closed and open…that sort of putting it off.

If you would, then, look above: the photo provides a semblance of what solace can be and do for me: losing self by creating an interesting scenario; meditating on curiosities and life’s beauty; being still; listening/watching/feeling. I could insert a photograph of the sea or mountains or a path winding through dense forest. Nature is clearly a focal point but not always. It might be playing favorite or new music or letting my own sudden singing flow; making a bit of art or dancing on my twilit balcony, hidden by trees. It might, then, be two lanterns, a solar kaleidoscopic sphere, and a flower. Sitting in the darkness as light sifts through it, seeing varied shapes amid softening colors. Birdsong in tiny bursts about me quieting at end of day, while the owl resumes its part with haunting calls. These cover me with ease, the simplest things. That presence of divine creation flows to and fro. I take it in, nourishment for my great hunger. I feel fuller, better.

Solitude–literally, figuratively–has been a close companion of mine for the duration of my life. Its arrival can be bittersweet, but first and last familiar, so an overall welcome state. Sometimes warm and cozy, sometimes cool and detached, it is like a second skin, a delight yet protective and flexible, as much a part of me as the blue myopia of my eyes.

I don’t think being solitary is completely a choice but an ingrained manner of living. A habitual behavior. I don’t readily stop to enumerate all options– and those that do come to mind are often due to being taught other ways. That one can have solitariness and connection with others–even though we are, of course, all by our human selves ultimately. But I apparently don’t have to expect always to be left to my own devices. A novel idea when first informed of it, and not quite accepted as truth. I am still working on it at 71; it seems that with age comes a bit of wisdom then greater leaps of learning.

Don’t get me wrong, solitude is a good thing much of the time; it appeals to the creativity I nurture, the writer and musician and thinker that stirs daily in me. I am at home with it in a myriad ways and for different means. And I was trained how to behave in the public at an early age, to interact with people in a civil, appropriately warm manner. It was a good thing. But solitude and being so much a solitary person–alone–are not quite the same, either.

Solitariness ceased being an action taken consciously–that drawing deep into self, figuring out how to endure then flourish alone, perhaps later with others –when I found myself alone as a child and desperately needed protection. But didn’t get it. Ever. Not even when my mother–a good mother but a mother constrained by societal expectations and her circumstances, her own fears– knew I was in need. I fended for myself and played my roles well enough. But then it was on to a turbulent and risky, oftentimes dangerous, youth and adulthood. Walking on a knife-thin edge while trusting my own intuition and sense of balance didn’t 100% pan out. Still, I developed survival instincts that, if not always physical rescues, were more emotional and spiritual saves. At a price. Surviving comes with a price one must be willing to pay. I have been willing. And able. That or give up, and never give up, I used to counsel myself, so outwit the victimizers, the everyday charlatans. Find the path through the world that allows you to stay alive, keep moving and keep sight of the Light.

I noted as a mental health/addictions counselor that such attitudes and behaviors are common for those who experience crushing, life changing events. If it soon is clear there is no rescue, no aid of any sort, clients devised creative ways to cope and survive. Or gave up. PTSD is brutal until it is understood and managed but in truth, there may be more harshness or (real or perceived) “punishment” and repercussions to cope with; life brings us a wide array of experiences. People can judge wrongly.

It takes arduous labor to move beyond this, years of praying (for me) and identifying markers or warning signs both within and without–to identify actual reasons for self defense and let go of misperceived experience. Then there is a pull back, and then construction of new coping skills. It is largely practical, not just emotional change. It becomes more natural to choose the healthy versus the unworkable response. And a person develops healthier perspectives, better decision making, freedom from past reactive or self destructive behaviors. It can be done, is being done by people every day. They learn to trust step by step–themselves first and, slowly, others.

If I know all this, why the persistent belief that I need to deal with life’s eruptions, twists and random barriers primarily alone? Habits are hard to change at the root. And they can seem comfortable, even when not the best. Change can be jarring, confusing, but it doesn’t tend to kill us; bad habits can and do. What can we do to save ourselves? Can I–can you–take new risks required?

Or, somewhat more complicated, can I actually “wake up” enough once more to see that I am being offered simple aid? We may think we are alert and smart enough….Consider how I had to pay attention anew, let go of old belief and practice other behaviors. It has just begun to sink in the past few days. The immensity of its impact has been worth musing over.

I shared this briefly before in a recent post, but there is a greater point to it. Skip this part of you need to but continue if you can…

I was grocery shopping on June 17 at 2:58 pm. when my phone dinged and showed a picture of my daughter, Naomi, standing on my front porch. I thought it was a weird joke she was making. I brushed it off and kept shopping, but my heart started to race. In a few moments I went outside to look at hanging flower baskets. And then I responded to her with disbelief: Is this real? Because Naomi lives in S. Carolina and only recently had driven to Colorado for the summer, where her guy lives–and I am in Oregon. When she affirmed she was standing on my porch, I nearly lost it. I raced home and found her and we hugged and hugged and I would have bawled if I wasn’t so excited. And then a bit worried about Covid-19, though we are both vaccinated. (That anxiety passed; we have been safe enough.)

Let me tell you something about her–besides that she is a sculptor, an award-winning educator, an international traveler, a brilliant woman (a talented/gifted-identified kid by 9, flew through college SATs at 11) who could flourish in any number of careers. Of course I am proud of her, as I am of all my children. But who she is can seem a true mystery and was from the start. Who creates block designs and buildings for a few hours without stopping, no distraction at just over two years? Then you get to know her more…although she explains almost nothing abut herself….And when she knows and cares for you, her loyalty is deep and wide. She has heart far bigger than her 105 pounds can keep to itself. She has soul, the kind that is hitched to the stars but swooped down here to see what she can learn and offer. She has a dry, quirky sense of humor, can offer lightning speed solutions to many conundrums, can be so quiet you have to look for her nearby. Is a workhorse when it comes to interests and passions. Self directed; don’t try to deter her. She shares characteristics with her equally individualistic–we are not so much a moderate or ordinary… if there is one of those–sisters and brother. But Na is, well, Na. (Those who know, understand this statement.)

So if she sent me a picture of herself smiling at my doorstep–“just in the neighborhood, thought I’d say hi”— it could be a digital joke, a forecast of the future, or a dream come true.

But who hops in a vehicle and drives across the country not only to see her guy Adam–but then her mother? Not for any particular reason, or so it seems at first glance…and without ever telling the mom–me? In fact, tells her she cannot make it out this year, likely. But then tells her siblings (and aunt and uncle who come later) to keep it a secret. Naomi does. But her sisters and brother are in on the plan. Maybe it was the fact the most of my birthdays the last ten years have been impacted by a family member’s death (and some of Marc’s family) and funeral. It happens so often, it is quite peculiar. Or perhaps it was that she heard something in my voice during phone calls she made sometimes twice weekly and daily texts for a couple of months–the weariness, spaciness, tears held back. And, without a doubt, she needed to see her family as much as coming for me/us. She could not make it for our Krystal’s funeral. To hug her sister Aimee beloved mother of Krystal…and share the love with everyone else.

Over the course of about ten days with us, Naomi slept on an air mattress in our living room without complaint. She did so many considerate things, it’s harder to recall what she did not do for me, for us. She made delicious food. She went out and picked berries in heatwave-blazing sun to give to us all though she has very pale, sensitive skin so must slather on heavy SPF to be outside too long. She joined Aimee and me for an indulgent pedicure even though she is not about pedicures. She scheduled and visited her siblings and their kiddos in safe ways (due to Covid). She visited Annie, widow of my brother, Gary; she’s an artist, too, so they caught up about their work.

Naomi also brought me a beautiful handmade ceramic cup; she knows I value unique ceramic mugs and cups almost as much as she does. She wants us to get a dog and kept showing me pictures, offering to go with me to a rescue center (declined, not ready for one–they die). We took walks together. Talked, talked, talked. Debated. We don’t always see eye-to-eye; both of us argue a point well and learn stuff in the process. She brought home a shiny green succulent for no good reason other than it is attractive, and not killable as it’s hard to keep plants alive in our shady home…its name is Bertha or maybe Jeanne, we shall see. She washed up dishes, cleaned some, kept her things tidy. And updated with Marc each night when he got home from work, shared anecdotes and laughter. She can talk to anyone, I think, I have seen it occur anywhere. This from a kid who rarely spoke unless absolutely required. Who hid, and yet has embraced the world and living.

When we went to visit her brother, Josh. It was a good time–we rode little motorbikes, crazy fun, gabbed. She gave him two huge walnut and metal sculptures that their father, a builder and sculptor, made decades ago. (He is deceased.) “The Guardians” are perhaps over four feet tall and heavy, but she drove across country with them in the back of her SUV. And there was a third that Ned, their dad, had never finished; it is now Josh’s to finish. (He makes art, too.)

For all I know, she also gave gifts to her sisters. This is her way, little surprises in the mail or hand delivered.

The night before she left to meet up with her guy in CA. and to explore the redwood forests –he was pausing on a meandering motorcycle trip–she insisted we have an “art party”. I was tired out from having so much fun, and was preparing for imminent arrival of my brother, sister-in-law and our sister, plus a couple of cousins. But Alexandra, her youngest sister, arrived on time as ever, and so we sat down at the balcony table. Naomi got things sorted out for us, then snip, paste, add some color, snip, position and paste magazine pictures on a small piece of watercolor paper. Little artsy collages began to take shape as we gave way comfy quietness with quips here and there. We were at it for an hour, then lined them up. Not too shabby. Yes, it was time I’m glad we shared!

It wasn’t an aching goodbye the next day. I was distracted by planning the casual lunch here with more family the day after. Marc and I were also frantically trying to locate an air conditioner, something we never need in OR. but this June the historic heat wave had commenced with ferocity. (Found a clunky one at a “grow shop” of all places. If you don’t know what t that is….Oregon legalized marijuana.) Naomi noted she and Adam were going up the Oregon coast (he on motorcycle, she in car) and might stop at Cannon Beach where my brother, sister-in-law, Marc and I were soon headed. So, it was a cushy hug but not a last-of-visit hug.

This, then, was the first portion of my repeat lesson in being offered and accepting loving care. But you know how when, for example, someone compliments you and it slides off you until it catches you off guard later? That’s what happens to me. I am continuing to figure out how to acknowledge and be present with deliberate, genuine kindness. To be open to/accepting of love like that–yes, even with family.

The second part of my tutelage was about to happen.

My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Judy–came out to visit Marc and myself, our sister, Allanya, and other family members. Their trip was also cross country but it was planned to include taking photos at scheduled stops, as well as taking workshops with photographers throughout the states. This is one of their true passions, creating great photographs; they excel at it. So it was a first big trip to do that and see family in two years as the pandemic began to wane. They’d spend three days in the Portland area, then Marc and I would share a beach lodge with them for the final days of their visit.

How to describe a brother I knew minimally for 40 years or more? He is seven years older than I am, and one of four older siblings often busy and gone, then off to universities by the time I was nearing teen years. In this brother’s case, college led to the military for about 30 years. Then came marriages and children; we lived in cities far from one another. I didn’t know him at all. I recalled he laughed easily when young and teased me a bit, but far less so for years after Viet Nam. I was very affected by his new quietness and faraway eyes. I wanted to know him, but did not get a chance. He moved elsewhere.

I moved to the Northwest at 42; three other siblings lived In WA. and OR. I felt somewhat close to all three, more so very shortly as I was welcomed. (It was Allanya who persuaded me to leave MI. with two teenaged children and settle here.) Wayne and Judy lived another life back east. It was only when they flew out that we met up. I visited at their home three times: when my young brood and husband visited long ago, then for his 70th and my 60th. And at some point things changed, perhaps when Dad, then some years later, Mom both passed away. It was us five siblings, orphaned. He and Judy visited the Northwest more. They’d travelled the world often but when retired from the military, it became most of every year. So what a pleasure to see them here and there. I felt we got more familiar with each other, stayed in touch more regularly. With the pandemic, there were more check ins.

But I was not prepared for their response when Krystal died. They knew her minimally, for she passed at 28 but did not grow up here, had lived overseas for some time before returning to Portland. They reached out often. It meant so much to hear their voices, their sympathy and concern gently offered.

When Wayne–long before that– had emailed their plans about visiting this June, it concerned me a little. Would we be safe, even with vaccinations? Wouldn’t it be hard to relax inside our home with other people? It was a strange thought–mingling, talking in person! But when June crept up, I was looking forward to it. Arrive they did, first visiting Allanya who lives with her partner in an assisted living facility. She, to our confoundment, has dementia.

It was the day Naomi left and they arrived that I noticed something different. How the distance between us felt smaller. What a joy to welcome them even with the cloud of sadness around my shoulders and brain. Later, at lunch with our sister, conversation ebbed and flowed, food was tasty, the surroundings pleasant in an air conditioned restaurant as temperatures rose ever higher outdoors. Allanya, thoughts shared occasionally, seemed happy, too. They insisted on paying the bill. I thought Okay, next time but no; this continued.

Lesson here: be gracious. Pride is not all that helpful. Accept despite a cringing discomfort. Marc and I have tried always to pitch in, have taken good care of ourselves and family. But sometimes the life’s loads shift. We’ve helped others and this time we may need to appreciate being recipients. So I told myself. ( Marc is recently employed again, things shall improve–amen.)

Following lunch, we visited a classic car dealership with Allanya. She loves to see and touch the old polished, fancy cars–I took a picture of her posing cheerily beside a vintage turquoise Thunderbird. We all have admiration so took more photos. Then we ferried her back home, and fell silent. What can be said of gradually losing parts of a sister in plain sight…it is misery. We love her so dearly.

The following day, our lunch gathering took place. Our house was filled with expressive exchanges–we are a loquacious bunch–with burgers, chicken kabobs, hot dogs grilled and more. I oscillated between tending to needs, listening, smiling and feeling blank, staring out the window at flowers on the balcony as they slowly wilted in the 112 degree heat. Time passed, the place emptied. When might such a meeting of family happen again, all parties present? It went so fast. This thing called time!-it flashes by and before we know it…

Then to the beach–Wayne, Judy, Marc and me. Allanya had wanted to go until she decided not to go…disappointing but, too, she’d get dizzy on mountain roads and it might be too much being away from her partner and their dogs. Not only short term memory is lessening; she is much less apt to get out and go even with me. How fun it may have been, siblings hanging out at a pretty spot close to the sea. She once owned a weekend home on a bay of the ocean…we stayed there so many times. Followed furtive deer. Studied starry skies.

The next 24 hours were not easy, just as it had not been the previous week. I have been alone so long. Most of us have been. Yes, Marc and I have gone on outings, but mostly he tends to do his thing, I do mine, like any longstanding couple. Now he is employed again and the rooms are empty of other voices. And I can weep, write poetry, read, be deeply silent, leave any time. All by myself. People can be taxing. And they can be wonderful. But life and death, they move with us, like my hands at labor or rest, like my soul and mind.

The lodging was attractive: high ceilings with beams, many windows to encourage drifting sunlight, rooms a-plenty– it was giant cabin. I was still glad to be there despite tension in my shoulders, a nagging headache, a slight loss of internal balance. Did it show too much, I wondered? I had tried to be present for a week with family, even when the undertow of sorrow and exhaustion pulled hard.

So what was the 3.5 day schedule, the agenda? There was none, other than to eat when we got hungry, sleep when tired. Marc and I roamed the beach as early eve arrived half-golden, then blue, then on fire with sunset. The sea’s visual infinity, its music and the sand underfoot buoyed me. I opened my lungs, breathed in the air and wind arriving all the way from who knows where. It helped, but not entirely. Still uncertain of myself, my role somehow–who was I without our other siblings, who are we in the current iterations of life’s flux– we finally slept, fitfully, at a distance. The next day, a short visit from Alexandra, her husband and the twins for lunch–they drove out from Portland to see her aunt and uncle once more. Marc and I walked the beach for miles; knots loosened from my shoulders, head cleared more. And then he left for home for the work week.

I got a clue and conceded the obvious: the whole point was to do nothing. The trip to Cannon Beach was to gather loosely, unwind, take it easy, enjoy whatever desired. Have a respite. To hang out with Wayne and Judy, sometimes do things on our own, other times shared. Wayne offered information about photography and camera functions, nicely gave me items I could use with my Cannon. Judy and I caught up at length; it was lovely getting to know her better. To feel the time, miles and experiences that separated us move aside so more connecting points might be made. They are intellectually stimulating, responsive, accomplished and cosmopolitan–and caring people. More independent and driven than am I, they know their way about the wide, mad world. Yet we are only people trodding the paths; we each have our own.

I slept better, dreaming my way through nebulous panorama of night. Awakened later than planned. It didn’t matter. We whiled away the morning, slipped into afternoon. Naomi and Adam arrived and joined at the table. Joshua (who, days after Krystal’s funeral, came upon a gruesome dead body on a remote hike; remains distressed, in addition to our own loss) and his wife and stepsons joined us awhile. We enjoyed beach time then dug into a decent meal; more talk, then off they all went. We had a carousel of family get togethers over a few days. Naomi and I resolved to see one another before another year passes…and so, farewell, firstborn daughter.

That night I slept as I hadn’t in weeks. Just as I had eaten and savored food as I had not in far too long. Up early the next day, we packed and left and that was the end of that side trip. Wayne and Judy went on to other states, seeing friends and photographing more landscapes and architecture or whatever pulls them in for a closer look. Saying goodbye to two more family members was warm, sweetly sad.

“Sister,” my brother said as he hugged me.

“My brother,” I managed.

The two weeks were a sort of magic. No, more–they were restorative, a start of healing. I had prayed for help and yet everything given me was a surprise, a reveal of mysterious powers of love. I have been paused and re-set–I have come back to my more balanced self a little more. Since I was able to try to accept these gifts, I regained a clearer, broader viewpoint. It took some defense shedding; there have been fewer, though, since mid April. I imagine God has more work to do with my participation, in any case. I am an eager student once more.

For every death of a loved one, there is a doorway that takes us back to all others we mourn and it begins to feel like nakedness in the world, and as if we must protect ourselves more. We are helplessly laid bare in sorrow. We are like children, or like souls whose bodies are useless. So it took more willingness to receive and also give back–attention, trust, time, compassion, empathy.

You might think it would be natural; I do know much about helping others gain human skills and strengthening attributes. But I have limits as we all do. I was struggling before my daughter and brother arrived–with the powerful weight of life amid the subterranean anchor of death, with exhaustion from too much happening too fast. With the strangeness of juxtaposition: beauty and wonder with shock and horror. The day Krystal died was the twin granddaughters’ second birthday. It was a bright and joyous day…and we got the call and raced to her apartment building. Saw the medical examiner at the door. Aimee and Alexandra and I saw our loved one, suddenly gone unbelievably still. It stays with us every day and night. My daughter Aimee struggles with her grief as anyone would who has lost a child, wants to hide away–though she and her partner came to our family luncheon, unexpectedly. I can only stand by, powerless except for my love and that pains me though I understand it.

In my birth family circle Wayne and Allanya and I are who we have now. That ole fast talking, laughing, insightful Allanya we knew best and longest recedes a little with each visit. We have lost our parents, a brother and sister, a nephew, a brother-in-law–there is no pretending things are otherwise. But I have the blessings of my children, the grandchildren still alive including Krystal’s brother, Tyler. Things happen when you least expect it. Yet one greets each day as it comes. We culture our hope like a pearl, the abrasion of living polishing, turning it over. And we aim for goodness in ourselves and others. Open our hearts as much as possible so we can take a chance on love. Even happiness.

I know when I am stuck in that cave made of “I can manage, I am praying, I am greeting each day with a hello” typical of my solitariness, my family can bring compassion, perhaps food, some tears, some laughs. Yes, I can do it alone, find solace in my own company more often than not. I’m a writer, for one thing. But I was taught: chin up, stand tall, always do well. But I don’t have to do it that way. There are others who do care and how much of an unanticipated rescue is that? It can be everything. More so during these times. I will rejuvenate–then be better here for them. For all that I can do.

Monday’s Meander: Sandy River Fun/Time Out

Today I had another great reprieve from difficult times. I enjoyed a couple of hours at the Sandy River with some family–two daughters, a son-in-law and the twins. The river is at the west end of the Columbia Gorge, near Portland, and it is very popular for recreational activities. The Sandy runs 56 miles and begins its journey in the high glaciers of Mt. Hood, and finally joins the Columbia River. Steelhead and trout are readily fished, folks enjoy floating the river, and any non-motorized boating is popular. Hiking along the river and picnicking and, of course, swimming, are among the activities people enjoy. Lush surroundings with woodlands plus wildlife abounds along the running water–I want to explore more of it. It was a quick trip for the little ones this time.

We found an easily accessed spot along the shore with a small bit of shade nearby. It wasn’t the most picturesque or the quietest stretch but we saw other families having a good time nearby. The water was shallower and calmer; the two year olds could safely enjoy a new experience. The water tended toward chilly but didn’t deter anyone–it hit around 98 degrees at one point today. I’d love to share the varied shots displaying all the fun we had (being protective of grandkids) but wanted to share a glimpse. And, to the twins’ delight, a train sped over the river very close to us. They waded a bit and went out further on their mom’s or dad’s hip; threw small stones, played with wet sand, worked at picking up and throwing heftier rocks. One of the girls, Alera, was hugely satisfied when she managed to do so a couple of times, her face suddenly splashed, her laughter peeling out. They had quite a nice adventure. As did we all.

Above, a couple with my oldest and youngest daughters (six years apart). One dark blond, one with dark curls, different but much the same, as well. The one in the wide brimmed hat is the oldest, Naomi. (I realized they aren’t great shots but so it is this time.)

Naomi did an amazing thing last week. She is staying in Colorado for the summer–she lives in S. Carolina. I was grocery shopping last Thursday when I got a peculiar text from her. It said: I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by and say hi!

There was a picture of her standing at my front door.

I stopped in my tracks, then calmed down and thought, Well, Naomi does some quirky things, likes to play practical jokes. She knows I want to see her–but this photo must be from the last time she visited. I didn’t believe it and kept shopping. She had said she might not make it for a visit until next fall or winter as she was swamped with travelling, art work in progress, applying for tenure at her university. Yet there was a niggling thought…

There was not good reception in the store so I went outdoors in the garden area and texted her.

You don’t mean you are here, of course. That’s an old picture, right?

Nope.

What????

You are really at my door?

Yep!

Oh my gosh, no way!!

Yes!

And I about lost it right there among the pretty petunias and pansies, let out a squeal–and cried a little. (The plant guy stole a look at me, then nicely moved on.) I could hear tears in her voice, too. It has been one and a half years since I have seen her. It has been a trying year and a half with several losses. This daughter has called me twice a week or more faithfully, texted me every couple days, sent me little gifts. We are close in a special way, we can talk some foolishness or explore life intricately. This lovely creative person was once two and a half pounds born at six and a half months, a tiny preemie that was on the brink. She fooled everyone. I am always grateful to see her smile and hear her voice.

And there she was, waiting for me. I about skipped to the cashier, restraining myself as my grin widened, stuck across my face. Then I half-ran out of the store. Such a reunion! She had told her four siblings– they had kept her secret perfectly. Amazing to me, the whole beautiful thing.

She is due to move on this Friday. It will be hard to say “until next time”–as who knows when? But I shall be happy, content to have spent each day with her for a week as we shared time with others, too–we have had a few get togethers with her siblings.

In a couple of days, my one remaining brother and his wife–two professional photographers who have driven across the country with cameras in hand–are coming by. We will catch up. Just be together again.

This is what being vaccinated against Covid-19 allows us to do. It is such a gift to see all, to share meals and good talk–and, once more, hugs. As the long shadow of the pandemic wanes more and more, with the safety factors so greatly improved in Oregon and elsewhere, our lives are day by day resuming a more natural pace, and can include a myriad experiences. Not just sitting on my nice balcony, gazing at the woods and sky, listening to the birdsong, dreaming of better times. Not only taking long walks or hiking in drear or sunshine with faces masked, nodding cautiously at others, wondering what they are thinking, how they are doing. I have needed this hope, this improved living that allows expanded opportunities to reach out some, explore and breathe more freely. Everyone has needed a real turning of the corner, the possibility of more change for the good. Affirmation of life even in the middle of the tenacious precariousness of the world.

And because of all this, I am taking the rest of the week off from blogging. Some of us are headed to the beach soon, for one thing. So, until next time–and may blessings be upon each of you, be careful and caring. I can tell you after terrible loss recently that kindness truly heals and helps. Every one of us.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Getting Lost and Finding One’s Way

Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on Pexels.com

I’ve been this way many times but manage to take one turn off too soon. We are heading into city center and a primary destination of Powell’s Bookstore, a favorite place recently reopened. Anticipation pumps up adrenaline. But I am embarrassed and frustrated about missing my turn and try to discern my way within a warren of unfamiliar streets that skirt the area desired. How did this happen? The traffic is moving along at a fast pace; I am talking with my daughter as I drive and didn’t bother with GPS because I know where I am going. Good reasons or not, I know I need to find 10th or 12th Avenues–or any north-south streets, for that matter– then head to east-west Burnside Street. It’s simple, after all; I know this city. Until I get turned around in notoriously puzzling hills in this section of SW Portland.

I shake my head, tell Alexandra, “I don’t know what happened, I do know where I am going!”

Or so I thought, until that glitch. I dislike being lost, truly lost. But I am only momentarily a little lost. I just need to relax and think clearly, but it is as if I am snagged in a quirky, confounding landscape. I turn this way and that and no matter which way I go I start to feel disoriented. What has happened to my internal compass, so accurate 99 percent of the time? Then she maps things out on her phone, calmly instructing me, sorting things out. Is this what adult children do when their parents get older and older? This thought makes me more irritated and impatient–me, a very patient and competent driver who always finds her way. I joke that this is why an exacting paper map to smooth on your lap to survey the whole picture works very well. And I want to defend myself and do, at which point she reassures me everyone gets lost at times, and the SW hills area is a tough one to figure out on the fly. And it is not a big problem to find the route out and get back on track.

She is correct. She consults her phone and shortly we are headed in the right direction, out of the maze and into the bustling city center. And before long we are in NW Portland, by the bookstore and coffee shop and all else with which we are familiar, happy, relieved to find still intact our beloved, recently beleaguered city.

We have a lovely afternoon. How can book hunting amid endless shelves and stacks of books with Peet’s excellent iced coffee in hand not be wonderful? It is akin to release from a year in jail-like isolation to wander down streets and window shop, walk past groups of chattering people, our eyes sweeping over interesting architecture. Smelling pungent scents of new and old books, noting heft and beauty of each in our hands. Add easy laughs and good talk, something we often plan but rarely get to do, just the two of us, anymore. A successful time for this mother and her youngest daughter. A sense of things being just a little more normal in the world–except for the masks, except for much less crowded stores.

And then, on the way home, I somehow fail to maneuver into a congested lane to avoid funneling onto the freeway, so there we are, caught up in accelerating clots of after-work traffic. Luckily, no true traffic jams. Luckily, I know where I am going. All I have to do is take the right exit and I do. This time Alexandra suggests a lane at end of exit ramp that is not the right one, so I am forced to turn another direction. But it is an easy fix.

At her place, we sit in my car and talk, reluctant to end the outing. I am so glad to have a few more moments together; she is animated, articulate, offers some of her daily life stories, then offers suggestions about an outdoor family reunion/picnic coming up. The first family get together in nearly two years that includes extra family from out of state. Masked and unmasked, all of us to gather to safely enjoy a few hours in blazing June sunshine–under the pavilion roof, under a canopy, extra chairs, grill and coolers lugged along. Once it is all coordinated well. More like normal, for once.

“We’ve got this, Mom, I do this all the time for event planning at my job,” she says, showing me links on her phone, talking logistics. I agree, she will help things go right, she has that knack. But she also has an eye on the time. It’s not easy to enjoy short periods of freedom when there awaits a return to a young family, the multiple demands and needs of twins trumping one’s own need to rest, even eat, work–much less play. I recall very well often lingering at the grocery another ten minutes, hiding out during yard work, finding a reason to delay a return to the fabulous madhouse shared with beloved children who eagerly awaited me. It is the reality: loving others fiercely while also yearning to care for one’s own self. But she says, finally, farewell for now.

I feel her leavetaking. The car empties of her shimmering, bristling, compacted energy. I see her in the rearview mirror, decisively making the way up steps to her home. Time for me to go home, too.

I know where home is, of course. I get there in ten minutes and sipping my iced mocha, I sit under the shade of towering, friendly trees and think on the afternoon. How several times I felt as if in a daze, and vulnerable to The Virus, to who knows what in the stores if I had to squeeze by someone. Then came heady joy when walking in the city under that blue jewel of sky, chatting with Alexandra at my side. Such juxtaposed feelings and moments. It is mind boggling how every person on earth continues to live with threats to our exposed human lives. Except those who do not live. We are, of course, as frail as we are sturdy.

And then I feel that accumulating heaviness descend upon my shoulders and mind. I have had a good afternoon, but I can slip right back to the grief-lined, deep well of restless silence. The lingering loss of a spirited granddaughter and her mother’s (another cherished daughter) everyday, secure life left behind, her harshly torn days, unsettled ache of night hours. The trauma a son experiences since hiking in a remote area and coming upon a violent scene of death of a person, that life gone horrifically wrong. The worry over a grandson’s health as he slowly recovers from Covid-19. The imaginings, the questions that run rampant in my head about the rest of my grandchildren: will they grow up brave and full of love and wonder? Will they- oh God please- just stay safe and alive a long, long, long time?

I don’t know exactly how to navigate all this lately. My head is clogged with it. I am dulled by rumination, stunned by all the events. The fallout makes me feel, at times, unwell. How does one avoid the emotional landmines of unexpected loss? Isn’t most loss unimagined? (Seven family members have now died over the last several years; who would have thought it?) But we cannot often sidestep what crosses our path. Or, frankly, never. The pandemic, for instance. And worse. It is enough to make me shudder and reel, despite getting up each morning and tackling or easing into each hour.

I remind myself that I have spiritual resources and mental resilience, yet cannot put my hand on a good and useful map. Every time I get lost in this life, I have to reinvent my way in and out of places of the heart, mind and soul. It can be like washing up on an island not even charted. I get off the boat/raft that carries me in and out of place and time, and make tentative footfall. But then cannot find balance enough to not stumble or sometimes plummet to ground. Gravity of earth, how tricky a superior force–and if body and mind are not in sync, it is not easy making one’s way after a long voyage. In fact, it isn’t too easy to roll out of bed, find the stable floor and walk in a nice straight line to the sink to splash water on my face. I am discombobulated. This is not my natural state. It is a state of subdued emergency that lingers.

I have a third daughter who suffered (for a year, to varying degrees) from Mal de Barquement syndrome, dizziness with attendant balance issues after leaving an old fashioned tall ship–a strange phenomenon. Seasickness on land. Or land sickness. (And she is an international traveler, independent, confident–imagine the distress over such loss of orientation.) This is an apt comparison when thinking of events during the last three months. I don’t get “dizzy” during most life crises. I function well, manage tasks, tend to others’ needs. Keep my emotions in enough check for all intensive purposes, though if I must cry, I cry; if I need to swear, I swear–and move on. The brain fires away; I take the steps required for the situation. I cope and cope and cope alright. And then, after things settle a bit more, I start to get tired, adrenaline losing steam. Lose sleep, acquire tension in a problematic neck that triggers big headaches, feel somewhat frayed by ordinary stressors, eat less as appetite decreases (chronic digestion issues flare). Mind and soul feel out of sync, thinking has less directed clarity, and I misplace my usual bountiful hope. Tears erupt and recede often. I forget many things throughout the day, have to remind myself again what it is I intend to be doing next. Time slithers by and I can’t make it behave as I desire. I might check the calendar to make sure what day, in actuality, it is. I ask myself: does it matter what day? People are dying everywhere and here I am, like a lame woman hanging from the curve of the earth, determined to get back on. For some reason.

Well, I am not in the moment, something I greatly value and am pretty good at being/doing. No, I am in the land of the grieving, the land of the exhausted, a place I wander through day and night, seeking a long lasting peace.

I spoke to my son, Joshua, today. We shared how we both feel this way since Krystal died almost two months ago. After his ordeal, too, then his son becoming so ill. I asked how he is doing with it all, how he labors with his commercial and residential painting business jobs while he also takes care of his family and himself. He told me what he always tells me: he creates things, that is, makes jewelry, paints scenes, makes music, rock hunts then cuts and polished them, works on his garden and yard, camps, builds things, like a handmade camper. And he holds onto Light of God.

“But I can’t even rustle up good enough energy or clear head to create much at all,” I admitted. “It can be tiring to even talk to my neighbor lately.” I think: My prayers have become weaker recently, too, as if signals are hampered.

“Yeah, I can’t do as much, either. I work and am at home and avoid seeing people right now; I need to have time alone. I rest more, yet sleep isn’t too easy, either.” He paused; I wondered over the pain kept close inside. He is a very macho guy but has a warm, responsive heart. “It’s the past and future that can throw us off badly. I try to stay in the moment as much as possible. The beautiful moment we have, or can make.”

“Yes, you are right,” I said, “I will try to be here right now more. Thanks, son. I love you.”

“You’ve been a pillar for us, let yourself rest more. I love you, Momma.”

How fortunate to have such a son, such daughters, I think again, even when we each pulse with our hurting. Even with our respective emotional junk seeping out everywhere, at times. The daughter who lost her daughter is going to get a summery pedicure with me. It is such a contradiction, to carry loss to the nail salon, us two sitting side by side, engaged in that pedestrian activity, chatting about nail polish colors, calloused heels. Another daughter shared her new Chaplain/ministerial website with me today, which looks good, and her job hunt for something different than usual is underway. The oldest daughter checks in with blurbs from an important Colorado visit, her paperwork for tenure, art pieces in progress. And Marc–well, he is back at work. At last.

I have more time alone. The buffer and elegance of a profound quietness. So much more time alone, so much quietness, it wraps around me. But he is glad to be working again. I can play my jazz, classical and Latin music all day long, dance anywhere I wish. When I feel like dancing. Sometimes I hum and sway, lift my hands to the universe.

So this is the only map I have right now. To be focused on the present, if possible. To be cared about and to care. But other than that, I may just stand still in this room a spell, sit on that verdant hill, eat this fresh food, read and write another line, speak to my friend about her own journey, greet my neighbor who is stony but talks to me a little. Take five steps forward, then turn, proceed down another rocky or warm earthen path, up the incline to see what is next. If unbalanced, pause. If stumbling, lift up each foot high and set it down firmly. Sit down, breathe in perfume of all the breezes from places unknown. Find a new spot, claim it, share it. I am my own mother, as my mother is not here in body, anymore. I lost may parents so long ago.

Because this is how it can be done, a piece at a time. I have experience with many things attendant to being a human creature. It is not an strange land but part of the process of being alive during seventy-one years. It isn’t just me, either; you are in the bigger story, of course. Even mine. It will take its own time, just slowly enough, this healing of being hurt then hollowed out, the dissipation of fears, the emptying of tears. I will find ways to release and let go, hold what is essential, the helpful truth-telling parts. And then the return of a strong embrace of ebullience can happen.

It is the circle, isn’t it, and we keep on moving with it. Sometimes we have to stand way back to see the whole blasted, masterful map. Other times we have to–at least I have to–get up close and find the identifying dot is and say “Yes, I am right here”–so that the greater picture will come into focus better.

So I will get there. Get back to my sharper and brighter, hopeful and grateful self. But if you ever wonder where I am when I don’t show up on this blog, or question the rambling words I write, it is only this: I am working and breathing and trying the best I can with a yoke of life’s sorrows about my shoulders. (I know you have yours and are doing the same if not today, tomorrow.) But I do know my way back home. It is following my heart, nourishing my spirit’s yearnings, placing my feet on the trail and my vision on mountains and rivers, the wild things, ocean and trees and the rest. Those close to me whom I care for more each day. And those not yet met. This is where I live, inside an awesome mystery. Today, I am where I am on the intricate map of the living, and I cannot help but feel for us all, even ghosts roaming this world and beyond. I am tired so need wings to carry me above the fray. But what I see, I wonder over; the unseen is simply unseen at this moment.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Rattail Lake, 1975

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It was a summer marked by complex relationships, steamy weather, trips to lakes near our Midwest college town. Ned, my first husband, was completing a Masters in Sculpture. I was knee-deep in mothering kids (one twenty-six months and one seven months) and chores. And writing even a few lines a day at the table in the dark (the overhead light cast a dim yellowish tinge), linoleum-floored dining room. Infant Joshua and toddler Naomi made a world near my feet. Naomi scribbled with every crayon on butcher block paper, played with puzzles, built block towers. Josh chortled, worked on crawling and blew bubbles with milky spit. It was a messy nest of humans. I tried to keep it intact while Ned came and went.

My best friend Betty Jo and her spouse, John, also had a baby boy. We swapped breastfeeding info from the Le Leche League that I seldom used–my milk ran fast. We commiserated, congratulated each other on mothering naturally, hippie college-educated parenting. And I struggled with no longer being a student, restless and dreamy while doting on my children. I stood in the doorway, one on my hip and the other stuck to my ankle and looked up and down the street, at the green arching trees. How they shook and shimmied in the June wind, a duet of mysterious movement. The greenness was big enough to blind or thrill me with delight. We walked to the park with stroller bumping along,

I felt too often alone, but I was not alone. Most of our good friends lived on Pine Street or a couple blocks over in ramshackle two-story houses that students claimed with their communal lifestyles, Or as young families like us. It was good fortune to rent the green house on the corner. It had tall windows and decent sized rooms; worn, creaking floors and stairs; a grassy lot for a hibachi cook-out or to string the line for wet clothing and endless cloth diapers. The children reveled in the comfort and safety of lush grass. But it was July and getting too hot, and I wanted to get away. Get out awhile. I persevered through thunderstorms and mosquitoes and flowers bursting open and wilting. Then August came to a close and there were intimations of fall, the air crisper, the leaves drier. I was about ready to rethink nursing, a bit tired of milk saturating all, breasts almost too heavy for my slim length to carry. His big hunger which fattened him up, powered his engine to rev up more.

That sonn-upon-us winter was long. It carved an ice cave for my creative urges and I took shelter as I could. I wrote, danced with the babies, played my cello, dreamed of spring and another summer. I thought of lakes I adored as a youth, and my longing held scents of wildflowers and damp stones. I met with women friends to discuss feminist literature and plot how we could be the solution to inequities. I wrote poetry and taught the children songs, made art with them and romped, built igloos with packed snow, and melted tender flakes on our tongues.

The saving invitation didn’t come until the start of next summer, before we moved, close to when Ned got his Masters. Betty Jo invited us to meet up at Rattail Lake and was eagerly accepted. It was her parents’ property, a childhood haunt she shared at times. The children stayed with grandparents that 2-day week-end, a gift that surprised. Betty Jo’s and John’s son Jarrod was going along. I carefully packed bottles frozen with the last of breast milk, favorite toys, books and summer togs. As if it was a long trip. I looked back at them as we drove away, at their large blue eyes.

It was a private lake. Despite the name–I disliked rodents a great deal–it was a haven. A handful of family cabins nestled deep into woods surrounding the water. All were isolated. It was a closed community of fishermen and fisherwomen, of hunters, of solitary souls, of hardy people. And it felt like I had stepped into a foreign land.

Although I’d spent parts of countless summers at northern Michigan lakes, it was much different. Often crowded and more noisy than not: speed boats and water skiers (my self included), kids shouting as they let loose on the shores or dove from floating docks, dogs barking. Or plenty of organized activities, lots of fine arts. I loved all that. But this was another experience. Full of pine-tinged shadow that fell across bumpy dirt roads that meandered into nowhere to be seen. Chains across private drives, silence broken only by birdsong, the sounds of someone chopping wood, an occasional gunshot in the distance. It was a land where no one ruled but those who came claimed their piece. All others, beware–or, at least, step carefully.

It made me tremble inwardly as daylight thinned then vanished in jeweled hues beyond treetops. The foreignness sank in deeper; soon, it thrilled me. Ned was at home there; he had grown up in the country on open land and woodlands close by. I had grown up in artsy or church summer camps–and a town set apart by well cultivated charms. Betty Jo and John were at ease as they had hunted and fished often, knew the acreage. Jarrod ran around half-naked; his parents seemed unconcerned about voluminous insects or his peeing on leaf piles (no potty training that week-end) or his bringing wild berries squashed in chubby palms. It all spooked and beckoned, then soothed me. It was the nature I admired and needed, and wilder than many places I had been. We tramped through trees, watched for fish as John tried and failed, sat on the dock and kicked our feet in green-blue water, stirring up the murk. The first evening was spent cooking over a fire, singing along with John’s guitar, growing drowsy under dome of night as embers glowed.

I thought of the children more often than expected–how they would be mad about the wildness, too, I imagined. But the elixir of freedoms made me warm, and anticipatory of more.

The next day was hiking (Jarrod in baby backpack, as we all carried our youngest ones into nature), eating simply at a splintery picnic table, walking barefoot on the beach, lying on holey blankets in sunshine, talking, laughing, sharing a drink or a joint. Our friends offered familiar fondness and thought provoking conversation. Out in the rowboat, Ned smiled easily, arms and chest flexed with muscle as he rowed, attitude confident. Calm. I liked looking at him; he knew that I did. My turn with the oars unleashed surges of energy. The wooden boat carried us over the light chop of water’s surface and into a dazzling sphere of sunshine. I felt our good fortune, wanted to seal it inside me: we were young but not too young, strong of mind, will and body, and brimming with life. And I couldn’t wait to sit at my typewriter when I got home–to keep it all close.

But nothing prepared me for the gift of the night.

I pressed my nose against the screen door. The moon rose, and as it showed its fullness it gave off a luminosity I had seldom witnessed, the dense blackness of night a-shimmer even at blurred edges. Waves slapped at the shore in an uncommonly fine rhythm; my ears awakened to its ethereal symphony. Inside the cabin was thick with food fragrances and woodsy heat and voices. Everyone was finishing fresh apple pie Betty Jo made because that’s what she did, earth mother doing it all. She was putting Jarrod to bed; he wasn’t having it. Ned and I wandered outside but John held back.

We didn’t speak, just sauntered down to water’s edge, stood with bare feet submerged in the lake. Admired the sky with starry maps of the universe, his arm around me. It had been some time since his arm had come to rest around my waist so tenderly. He was a man of action, of iron will, of few words, a lack of sentimentality. He cared within silences and touch.

Then, with nothing other than a look crossing the dark, we began to peel off jeans shorts and t-shirts and all the rest. Flung them on the shore. I had not ever skinny-dipped; he had, as if it was nothing. It was not nothing to me. It was moon madness and I surrendered, mesmerized. The water was a wash of cool silk as we jumped in and submerged, swam out further, laughing. I dove deeply many times, propelled myself up to the surface, Ned following, finally tagging my foot with his grip. The soft bottom of the lake cushioned my feet and made me think of fantastical creatures. We rose together. His face, I thought, was truly wonderful, at times heroic, his wiry body divine. His eyes were clear and in them was that old flame of love; it flashed under moon’s illumination.

How could I not have married and had children with him? We lived like that: we swam side by side into deeper water, separated, then came back to one another. We forgot at times what we had; that night, we knew without doubt. We recalled who we were apart and to one another. Together.

John called out, then Betty Jo; soon they, too, were all pale flesh and splashing, laughing and hooting. And so four of us were swimming unencumbered, happily foolish, unmoored by power of a summer-owned night, and so it was meant to be. Yet we were mindful of respect for one another within the hour’s freeness. We were beautiful creatures in that lake and knew it, bodies and spirits loosed of demands, constraints of necessity. A brief plunge into what was left of our youth, perhaps. But almighty moon let its rays lay upon us as stars sparked and winked. It divined something more for us. The air was a whisper and the wind near-unbearably sweet. It was critical magic. A rescue from our times, the outside world with its wars and hatreds and pain wrapped in the earnest guise of protests and riots. Our children were clasped to our hearts as we carried on with each day–but sometimes we had to have arms for one another, too. Room to think and be, anew.

A part of our ambitious lives had been rent and we swam through it into appreciation. Into a joy sorely missed. To have friends such as those was to cross a sturdy bridge from one side of living to another–from hardships to promises of greater plenty, from separateness to continuity of love, from faltering young adulthood to a richer personhood for us each. We wanted to succeed out there, but we needed to know wholeness. To become human beings worth our words, worth the sacrifices.

It was a night I began to reclaim some of my own self. So, too, Ned and our friends. We could go on after that, stronger and better. We visited the cabin on Rattail Lake in autumn’s splendor and winter’s snowy paradise. But it was one short weekend that remains one of my clarion bells after forty-six years, ringing with an upwelling of hope, fresh delights. Lake enchantment.