Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Musical Family, Ensemble and Solo

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As wildfires in our county (in Oregon, so many places) threatened our safety, I got emails from two cousins I hadn’t heard from in years. They were checking in on me with concern and care from their homes in New Mexico. Shortly after came a package from one of my cousins. She’d found CDs from the 1950s and early 1960s of my hometown high school orchestra, which my father taught and conducted. I am not on the recordings; this was before I was an adolescent. But a couple of my older sisters’ cello and bassoon solos are noted. There is Gershwin, Dvorak, Bach, Mozart; pieces from Bizet, Handel, Tchaikovsky and more on the playlists. I haven’t listened yet, just gazed at them. I know the orchestra will sound very good–it won a fine reputation all over Michigan from the fifties on. I played my cello in Midland High School orchestra in the mid-to-late sixties. First seat, then second, then…well, I stopped rigorously practicing and competing with others by my senior year. And I was singing more and more.

What the CDs did, nonetheless, was reawaken memories of my family’s commitment to and love of music, the ways it shaped us. Though I don’t know Randie or Sally well now, I once did know them better–to love them was to love the music in their lives, too. My extended family enjoyed many reunions in Missouri where our fathers were raised as I grew up. Inevitably there were swapped music stories, and soon people played–just as we did in our homes if in different states from very early ages.

Randie has been a professional violinist and teacher all her adult life. Her sister, Sally, has made a career as a professional cellist. Their father, my Uncle Ralph, was a flutist and a composer with many published works, and a university professor. There are other musicians in the family–an opera singer and professional choir members, many instrumentalists who have played professionally. Nieces, nephews and on and on–we all played or sang, even without monetary reward. It hardly seemed we could shift the central focus from music. Not that folks wanted to, anyway; it was a major fixture of life.

So I am glad to hear from my Uncle Ralph’s daughters once more. Sally played cello in Bergen, Norway’s symphony for many years, then she played in New York, LA and who knows where else. Randie lived in Seattle, (where my cellist sister lived til the last two years of her life, so they were in touch often). These cousins seemed bigger than life when I was young–and, in fact, are six feet tall as were or are my uncles, father and brothers. (I am 5 ft. 2.5; perhaps I was 5 ft. 4, once…) But they were lovely and smart, as well as very talented.

We, as happens as kids grow up and move, lost touch. A childhood memory I have is of convening in my Grandfather and Grandmother Guenther’s white house with its back garden and front porch. We shared blankets on the living room floor at night, giggling and talking quietly, ran about and played games for a couple of days, music a bit less compelling under age 10. Our fathers made music; Grandfather shared thoughts and books(and sometimes his writings with me, an honor) and our grandmother cooked huge meals that we ate around a crowded dining room table. The last adult memory of my cousins and I together was for my Uncle Ralph birthday in Seattle. It was his 90th birthday, and Sally and Randie played a fine duet for the celebration. Elegant and aged Uncle Ralph sat quietly listening in a wheelchair, and he was so pleased we all came that could. (My Aunt LaVonne, his wife, was an excellent pianist.)

Musicians, then–even in my home town where most of my friends played instruments or sang–informed much of my life. Performing issues or goals, discussions of music-related topics, time filled with this passion and the increasing accomplishments. All four of my siblings played one or two instruments and later made money at it. Dad was a violinist and violist, an arranger of music, a conductor and teacher, piano tuner, instrument repairer and appraiser, and more. He was a man who was intimidating even as I found him mysterious at times and charming. I watched him often, head bent over a book or a musical score he studied for an upcoming performance. It was clear he had much on his mind, more to accomplish every day. He was certain about what mattered to him: music, providing for his family and God being highest on the list. In fact, that may have been the list despite having diverse interests.

One of Dad’s “side jobs” was repairing musical instruments, a fun thing for me if work for him, though he seemed more relaxed doing it. He specialized in violins, violas, cellos and basses, but it was not an unfamiliar sight to see woodwinds propped up–or, as the others, lying rather lifeless on a long table in various states of repair. Occasionally, a brass instrument showed up; his expertise reflected instruments he knew how to play, which were various. Dad counted string instruments his favorites, as far as I knew. But he also played trombone and saxophone in dance bands long before I came into his life–a revelation in my early teens. He even played them once in awhile for certain entertaining performances he participated in, like the City Band he conducted or a high school show which allowed teachers to also perform, called “Rhapsody Rendezvous.

One of my favorite things was to follow him down to the basement. It was like entering a country unto itself, populated by musical devices both beautiful and broken. I would stand at his shoulder. The not unpleasant odor of special glue he dabbed on seams of wooden bodies permeated the cubbyhole he called workshop. The overhead, flex-armed light illuminated a concentrated circle for close work. The room’s corners were swathed in friendly shadows. I sometimes fingered the instruments, admired their shapes and sounds. He got to it but with patience and precision but added very few comments, and mostly to himself. He knew I was there; he asked for pliers, brushes, clamps, just as he asked for tools when he worked on our cars in the driveway. He appreciated both kinds of work and I could be a helper if he needed it. And it was music-related without being music performance.

I loved being with him when he fixed things–it might also be a toaster or a lamp–because he was more accessible, down to earth, then; he could show me interesting problems to be solved and teach me things that weren’t lofty or important in the arts world, but in everyday life. More usually he was a man deep within himself and propelled by clear visions. I used to joke with friends that he seldom knew what I was up to–as long as I practiced my cello (my sister and I both played) and voice lessons, got excellent grades and was respectful, he didn’t notice much unless there was a huge crisis that he could not ignore–Mom took care of those, usually.

It is a gift growing up in a musical family, a joy that in time one realizes is not actually everyone’s experience. And it also could feel like a burden with its mandates to perform and do very well all the time, made more so when Dad intoned and thus imprinted on my brain: “It is a sin to not use a talent.” I doubt he meant to threaten or shame, but to remind me of the blessing of music and other innate abilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” he might also say in his Bible study voice. But it still landed hard. Otherwise, he was the quintessential gentleman, a dreamy-eyed musician and amateur scholar of history, sciences, classical music and the Bible, a competitive player of many games, and possessed of an inventive bent–but there was no mistaking what he believed and expected. He worked so hard; he expected all of us to do the same, and to excel. To find fulfillment as he sought and often found. To use all the potential we could.

Music was so vital to my life that it truly directed and drove me, enriched and comforted me–and wounded me. I adored the cello my father and I bought together, to my utter surprise, when I was 12. I was moved by its large body pulled close, its resonance and ready responsiveness to placement of fingers and a strong bow across strings with sweeps of channeled emotions. I felt at home with it in my arms and greatly extended by its eloquent speech.

But it was singing that held me captive even more. Opening my mouth and throat and letting sounds smoothly, happily flow. How they could be shaped b y the body and mind to make all the difference in expression. I sang in every theatrical production, choir, and single event that I could. I performed with a trio and a couple of bands. I sang while trying to compose at our baby grand piano– but I dreamed of being a jazz singer, not a classical soloist. Jazz was not much played in our home, and never discussed as an option for us kids to study. Every fiber in my being woke up when I sang; life seemed much better embraced and interpreted. Decoded, even. It was also fun when much of my teen life was not. Human life was somehow magnified, cherished, given infusions of hope and joy with song. Music was, after all and no matter what, the purest form of love. So I believed.

But jazz, folk or pop music certainly was not what Dad planned for his children. He found these largely inferior forms, perhaps even inauthentic musical genres and only now and then did he grudgingly admit that there was other music that could be exceptional. There was one great music and it was classical–despite his playing in dance bands as a college student.

So I was bewildered why he agreed to play piano to accompany me when I sang–or he might even join his voice–old standards. But that was recreational, a relaxing downtime, not something for the finest musicians. It was like we shared a secret admiration of songs like “Stairway to the Stars” and “Embraceable You” and “Spring is here”. He smiled as I sang out, but it was understood that these didn’t quite count in the end, no matter how well I sang. He never deviated from the idea that classical music was meant to enlighten, challenge and enthrall while good popular music was “entertainment”, thus dismissible. I never knew why it had to be that way for him. I kept practicing my art songs, resentfully.

My mother–not a musician but a visual artist/creator/maker– all those years stood at the edges of our intense music making. Yet she watched, listened, intuited much–and gave out quiet praise, applause, was in attendance at all our concerts. She is who made Dad’s career in music reach a higher state. She is who believed in us always when we did not.

One of my bothers did manage to successfully move in another world to play jazz the rest of his life. Gary had a college plan of becoming a psychologist and he was for a few years. But jazz took him with it and that was that. I was thrilled to hear my gifted brother play sax, clarinet, oboe, flute, piccolo with bands in Portland after I moved here, and he sang, as well. He asked me to sing with him a few times–he was convinced I’d do well–but I always declined. By then I was 40, a newly single mother and recently moved to the NW. I hadn’t sung in a very long time. I did not want to disappoint him. Or myself. And, too, I was a little afraid I would fall back in love with singing. I could not afford to trod that route–and he played in bars while I was not about to drink again. I had to get serious about making money to support myself, a daughter and son–to just take care of business.

There had, in fact, been no dreams of being a singer since I was 20– right before my first marriage. I had learned long before how to not tell secrets. Leaning how to not sing was as hard, but just as doable. But to not want to sing? Incredibly hard.

It was a mystery to many who knew me why I left music almost entirely after a childhood and youth of being utterly immersed in it, and also having successes. For awhile I was baffled, but it was easy to blame various circumstances for not supporting easy access to music making. I sang to my babies or when teaching them songs; when alone outdoors; in the shower sometimes like everyone does; and when playing recording artists–comfortable favorites of 1960s, 70s and 80s like Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell; newer jazz singers such as Diana Krall, Eliane Elias, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and even–dare I say it–the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whom I still so revere. I was happy when I sang at home in those days still, but alongside the pleasure was sorrow. It was becoming clear that there would be no good opportunities as I became daily more domesticated, less engaged in the arts as I lived out my twenties. As I struggled with more trials and a hope of some victory over demons of abuse and substance use.

I rarely sang for either of my husbands–the first liked my voice but didn’t encourage me; it felt embarrassing to even spontaneously sing out. He was a sculptor; for some reason he enjoyed my occasional cello playing more. Otherwise he liked quietness, didn’t talk much–so liked that I wrote–some poems were used in multi-media shows we did. The second husband liked to sing and play guitar, but he preferred doing it alone, both at home and in coffee houses back then. He didn’t have a desire to sing with me, and it shocked me that even though we worked on good harmonies when he did agree to let me join in, and when we wrote a song or two together, he still wanted to go solo. It didn’t take long to stop trying since my voice was an intrusion on his musical domain. It was fine that I played my cello, again–that was another thing altogether.

It is possible that people give up what they love because they get worn out by failing to get what they want or need. I can’t blame my spouses, really. But once married, I didn’t often live where musical options or performances were well accessible. And soon there wasn’t time with a growing family and husbands often gone for longer and longer for work. I stopped singing even at home as children kids grew up–they’d sing over me as kids do without thinking anything of it, or cover their ears when wanting to hear something they desire. I put on their music and sang with them then.

But, really, I began to let go of singing by age 20, when it all got difficult. When it hurt more than gave me happiness. It felt foreign but it was how it was. I was gradually losing the joy of my cello, of song.

Traumatic events can cause people to go mute. Cumulative trauma may have caused me to lose the natural capacity to sing–certainly to be pleased and fulfilled by singing, and finally to believe in the transformative, positive powers of music in the way I did as a child, then youth. Violent or disturbing experiences kept happening one after the other. For me it meant that music–the golden power and instinctual ways of it, the inspirational wonder and bold stories it offered–leaked away from deepest self, my very breath, so that soon I no longer wanted to or even could produce music from my lips. A few years later, when I tried, I wept and so gave it up again. Even in church when I sang familiar, pretty hymns. Maybe I recalled my father told me that to not use a talent was a sin; maybe that haunted me.

It was just as likely I no longer felt worthy of singing. I left music as I had known it because it’s immense mystery and passion had seeped away as I battled with life, learned how to be tougher, to survive alone. It felt like gorgeous, lively waters eroding and then abandoning a riverbed, to leave it it empty and useless. It was a hollowing out.

I sang almost nothing (“Happy Birthday” to loved ones, a holiday tune with others) for over a decade, not when alone, not even a little humming along with songs. It was not in me. My family of musicians made their music, and my children made some music and I listened and was glad of it. But I was no longer a part of that major experience, that special tradition. I was adrift like a castaway, and I steered by sheer instincts more than with my heart. And I got to where I needed to go, finally, one step and a day at a time.

Life went on. Then when I reached my mid-forties there came the day when my youngest daughter, who did sing with a lovely soprano, decided she wanted to join a women’s chorus. She asked me if I would, too. Terrified, I finally agreed. I figured I might be able to sing very quietly if there was a large group. So each week I practiced with the group as I attempted to loosen up, to remember the techniques to sing correctly, as well as enjoy the songs as my eyes scanned musical notations I had only half-recognized, anymore. It got a bit easier each time and it pleased us both that Alexandra and I were singing together. But my throat–my whole body– felt constricted, even sore after each rehearsal. I wanted to sing louder and better, but it was hard to stand there and hear the music, to encourage any sound to come out. I thought, well, I am trying.

Alexandra took voice lessons. I wondered if the right vocal teacher could show me how to recover my lost singing voice. If someone could help heal me. But the usual excuse was that there was not enough money for that, other things mattered more. I was writing as I had always been able to write– stories, poems and memoir. And I was publishing here and there, had found good writing groups. Maybe written language was truly enough–I’d loved stories my whole life, perhaps as much as I had loved music. But more like words and I were kindred spirits/ comrades. Music was…different. After so many years of disciplined effort and a deepening devotion, perhaps I could say I loved writing more. Perhaps. Why then reopen the wound of music? I did try to sing alone, now and then.

But when my mother died (Dad had passed years before) whole songs came to me out of the blue even as I grieved a long while. It was distressing and wonderful that I opened my mouth and they were right there, and I found it a liberation. Why? Maybe the wound was turning to scar tissue at last, and so pain was losing out to joy again. Maybe I was letting go of the burdens and opening my hands to more possibility.

I didn’t become a singer, I didn’t join a fine choir. I just sang a little more. There may not be a clear end to this story. I did sing with another community chorus or two; it became more pleasurable each time. But I learned to sing more in church–the times I don’t want to cry during the moving hymns are more frequent. I did not take voice lessons. I have sung a little at home when alone, along with a CD or the radio, but not often, and not loud. I have sung to my grandchildren. I do not sing with my second husband, who is with me and still sings alone. But–progress. Taking more chances helps incrementally, though my voice sounds rusty to me too often, and songs need to be cajoled and teased, enchanted out of me. I often choke on words or certain notes escape me just enough that I have to stop. But I know I might start again, even if it is in my living room or in the woods.

I am remembering more how it was. In my late teens I stopped competing with others and working to be a classical vocalist. Instead, I let my body move to music and my soul tell a story and tunes welled up to take me with them, then out to the listener–it was for awhile that easy to sing and know happiness was mine fully. And the memory is good, even if the talent was forsaken, the passion turned off for later survival. Sometimes it is better to leave what one loves the most than to slowly starve from hunger for it, the terrible relentless longing. It was what had to be done, I know now, to get on with my life at 19– after another rape, a breakdown and addiction, slow recovery, then a marriage. Discovering the miracle of being a mother and the salvation of putting one’s self quite aside for the sake of beloved others. It could be done, living for good moments, for love again. I found new goals, explored other creative impulses and was glad of remaining passions I have been fortunate to enjoy.

At 70, I have made more peace with what was not and with what is. I see the great benefits of forgiveness of self and others, of overcoming hurdles and striving onward. I can see a wound as a particular kind of reckoning with self and the world, and its healing as a process of surprising renewal. The spiritual warrior and seeker in me has better implemented clarity and found more bravery. As with all things that matter, it is a fact that I left music, but that doesn’t mean it ever left me. It waits and lets me find it as I can, to experience it as feels right.

I feel sometimes that I may sing a little more, be more okay with what comes out in spurts and pauses, with breathlessness, even if made slippery with tears. But I am aiming for lighter music, simpler fun tunes, melodies for the grandbabies–and perhaps some small sharing with others if it ever comes up. My three biological children happily make and share music in one way or another, and so do their children. I asked Dad when he lay dying, as I sat with him awhile, if he thought my youngest should keep singing more seriously. I don’t know why I asked; he just knew so much about music, though he hadn’t heard her voice in quite awhile. But he said: “If she sings like you have sung.” It was the first time he’d acknowledged what was left behind, and also told me he always did value my singing, no matter my style. No matter if I loved jazz and pop and world music and blue grass, and all the rest–as well as beloved classical (which still often fills hours of my time).

This is some of what it is like to be born into a musical family, and given a musical inheritance. It is a love story of many sorts, a madness and and a celebration. I cannot be untethered from my DNA, nor divorced from my true loves. I will likely sing whatever songs will have me and I, them. Even if no one is listening.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: From Fall to Winter- My Initial Plan for Adaptation

I walk into clear sunlight, but the morning air lightly frosts hands and cheeks. It isn’t really cold, yet the fall sunshine is less rosy, warm. I grab a jacket and think: the layering of clothing is begun. This is not such a complaint, though gloves are required by October’s end or my hands ache outside (indoors I’ll wear fingerless woolen gloves). Before long I’ll pull a rain jacket over a sweater, pocket my fleece cap.

But not quite yet. The air is still dry as overturned dirt and redolent of a faint summer fragrance, semi-sweetly rich, a tinge of mustiness. Squirrels are gathering nuts by the bunches. Crickets still sing out each evening. Flowers remain abloom as if determined to stave off any greyness that may creep above the horizon. I watch a redheaded, pileated woodpecker working for a good meal, then move on, hands in pockets.

This time on my brisk walk, crisp leaves twirl, then skim my hair, one landing on my head, and crunch as I scuff the path, that brief crackling sound as pleasing as when I was a child. But now I know that it means they are dying, are dead, and will carpet grass, break down in the soil until spring’s uprising. With a pause and gaze at their diminishing vitality, it rises upward in me: that strange meld of emotion that equals “bittersweet.” I linger on the wooded path, then stand in a meadow and something in me wants to stay there. To set up camp, make a circle of rocks and lay a fire. Not budge until the rains become relentless, and even then, shelter in a tent until birds’ nests fill with new eggs. At least I will be close to the earth’s innards and the great trees.

I realize now that I am not welcoming winter this time. Not a bit. I want the summer to extend itself a little longer. To go back and pick lots more berries, to lie on daisy-strewn hills and stare at the open face of the sky. To visit with family or friends across a picnic table or under a huge old oak, share an iced mocha to cool off, our foreheads damp with a glaze of heat. Our eyes full of summer wonders, our minds nourished by a reparative earth.

As I rest under the big maple tree that shelters so well– this tree must be a hundred years old– it’s easy to recall these pathways inundated with rain, then more rain, and skies weighted with thick slate clouds. But another good feature of living in primarily woods in rainy season is that I’ll be protected some from downpours as I walk, off and on–such huge branches offer their arms as coverage.

I turn and take in a wide stretch of mossy rocks and meadow with its still-dry gulch, the bronze leaves thickening into piles, the wild grasses brittle and bent. I listen for Cooper’s hawks, but they are silent while jays and crows keep up their prattle. There is suddenly a longing for what is present, but will soon pass. It puzzles me, this reluctance to leave behind what always must be left, the sharp heat settled into greenery, the high blueness of the heavens. I have never worried about the rain, nor dreaded Pacific Northwest winters. But today head toward that state a bit.

Winter was not soggy where I grew up, Winter was bitter and glittering and welcomed as I grew up. I lived in places–excepting a brief diversion in Texas– until age 30> It was a blazing showcase of autumn that transformed into bold silver tones of winter, hardened by very low temperatures. The air rang with cold. Soon, the straight lines of landscape were scrubbed by icy wind, made voluptuous with heaps of snow. It was a natural progression. I didn’t find any fault with this pattern–the four seasons were a comfort, reliable.

A deepening cold that settled in the parents’ bones meant heat got turned up or woodstove fires stoked, and blankets were unfurled and hot tea and chocolate sipped, fingers warmed about mugs. One’s nose and cheeks were reddened for months. But as I left my youth in Michigan and moved South, West and Northwest, I lost the special taste for snow, its sharp purity on tongue and in the blood. I took with me, instead, two chronically (if not badly) frostbitten hands from ice skating with no mittens for years–they encumbered me, I had no need of them– hands which finally could not retain much warmth below 60 degrees. Still, I tucked away a stubborn happiness for snow and winter, though any snowfall heaped and then melted as I came over miles of slick mountain passes and found the verdant valleys of Oregon. It all became an extended, inventive performance of rain.

I swing my arms in concert with my feet as I tackle steep inclines that mark the southwest hills, muscles in thighs and lower back pulling and softly burning, then the body cheering as another peak is reached. And then another series of around and up and down commences. I smell the fecund leaves that fly past. Cool gusts skim my skin. The light is amber, not brash like it can seem in summer–it is a light that burnishes, and no scalding. I am suddenly pleased more than sorry and want to sing out.

It is, I know, not the weather changes, not entirely-even this confounding year. I adore the outdoors any way I can experience it, usually. It is a primal comfort and joy, a way of gathering peace and generating healing–full of minute and amazing revelations that render a teachable holiness. I have seen four wooly bear caterpillars and their bands instruct me about it not being such a cold or long winter, if one believes folklore (I often do). The weather may, gratefully, be a reassuring repeat after the shock and hell of wildfire storms.

Yet, a remnant of melancholy tries to take root for other reasons, not due to leaves floating from host branches, the winds sharpening.

It is so many episodes we have had to face despite initial resistance: the deadly, omnipresent pandemic; the US chief commander’s failings; the vastly scorched west/northwest forests; global warming on the rise; worldwide economic crises; the loss of face-to-face contact with friends and family as we once knew it. What seeming luxuries we’ve enjoyed in our lives, it now seems. They talk of “pandemic fatigue” in the news, but also feels like “reality fatigue.” I am pressed into weariness some days, as we all must feel.

But in the summer, it was more surmountable for me, or at least manageable. Stepping into nature has been a liberation from constraints we’ve all had to adopt every hour of each day in some manner, whether disinfecting groceries and our skin or masking up or being bombarded by new data and graver concerns, and anxiety about every cough and sniffle.

And I worry about my twin grandchildren not being able to play with other little kids seen in the park or next door; not enjoying various playground equipment (they’ve never tried); not being able to nuzzle their faces against mine or hang out in their clever cardboard box playhouse with grandparents and all other “outsiders.”

Outsiders… we, the grandparents–it has come to that onerous state. We meet them in parks, stay 6 feet apart as much as possible even with masks. My arms ache for them, my heart longs for them but I banish sadness and laugh at their antics, touch their beautiful hair, grab a chubby, strong hand–which will be sanitized as we part… Oh, farewell, sweet pea and sugar plum, until next time. Once a week we usually see them an hour or two, and I am so glad of it, knowing others may have far less access to families.

I do yearn to see the rest of my flock, the entirety of five adult kids in my living room–or outdoors. There is a daughter in South Carolina who will not be here for Thanksgiving this time–nor will anyone, likely. It has been nearly a year since Naomi visited us–and most of her family–in OR. And another daughter (who was estranged from the family for 2 years) cannot come to visit now that things are gratefully back in sync and all is well. The youngest daughter and mother of the twins works full time–at home, somehow. A fourth daughter is in a deepening relationship and works many hours. My son works even seven days a week; his painting jobs diminish in winter months. It is not as easy to get together now, that is for certain. Other grandchildren either live elsewhere or are working full time, too. (That they all have jobs is a blessing; my husband still sends out resumes as he seeks a new one. It has been a 6 month search.)

But even Thanksgiving or Christmas are not what will be most surely missed. We can’t cook up any old pot of soup together and share crusty warm bread just fresh-baked, nor put on the kettle and bring out apple pie with ice cream, nor sit around our big table and talk and laugh as time rolls by, our motley crew brought together by love.

Isn’t this the hard thing that sticks under the skin like a relentless thorn? How does one get rid of the deeper sting even if the thorns can be more or less managed?

This autumn feels like that long wave of farewell, ’til we meet again, my dears-– waving to the beautiful days and nights we’ve managed to hold c lose since the start of the pandemic, despite such a variety of challenges. It was less terrible in some ways than expected, but that is only because I daily could (and yet can) step outside for an hour, even if it is on the wide balcony overlooking woods and toward the not-so-distant Coast Mountains. I am not a creature well contained indoors; I crave movement and open air, with plants and animals all about. I am fully alive when finding my place within nature. There is a heartbeat that is not only mine. There is a sky that covers all of us, everywhere. There is a wild mountain range that gives way to an exotic desert, an emerald valley that reaches to forest, rivers that connect to lakes and to seas, and flax- colored plains that go on and on and are being trod by someone or something else out there. I meet myself there but lose myself, too, in the enormity of this planet and universe. Life makes sense to me more than usual. I am alone but not ever truly lonely; I feel the connection to all as surely if we were each a silken thread in the fantastic web of life.

This year it was a relief that, though we’ve had COVID-19 around every bend, we–if fortunate enough to avoid the virus; so many suffering thousands have not–were given a bit of kindness in weather. There was spring, summer and fall within which to engage in daily lives, perhaps even to play a little. We have been now warned that winter will be rougher with such close, stuffy indoor time, and fewer chances to be with people safely. It pains me that we step back from one another routinely now, that we are afraid of others despite wanting–needing–to come closer.

And yet, I know I can get through this winter– if I have the good fortune to stay well enough. I want to make it as positive as I can and the simple determination carries a strong impetus. And, anyway, one does as one must; we all have to put one foot in front of the other as before, for whoever knows what can come next?

But I will miss the bright green days and running through the grassy hills with the twins and our loose gatherings with family we occasionally have enjoyed. I need to locate covered pavilions, as many places as possible so we can come together if only for a half hour in wet, chilly weather.

That I will walk daily is a given. I do it for well being, as humans do all over the globe, and also out of necessity. It is then my head clears and I find my footing in both the interior and exterior design of matters. Any leftover detritus I can give to creative activity, and to prayer.

Rain, rain–we need it. It is a part of everyone’s/everything’s life cycle, especially here. It is second nature to become waterproofed–to take precautions for a deluge. It can be a time of hibernation, seizing opportunities to get cozy, or delve deeper into depths and unearth even better creations or finding new forms of labor, exercise and entertainment. I may feel bittersweetness coming on here and there, but I am not without curiosity. What will be learned in the months to come? Nothing is beautiful all the time, and hardship can make us heartier as long as we have the will.

I will leave my window open a crack to hear, smell and watch rain showers, thunderous deluges, damp winds off the churning rivers, a dazzle of light snowfalls. It is part of the rhythm here. It is what I choose to embrace in the valley, in the hills. Melancholy may come as a visitor. It will leave, as well.

And I have bought two pricey pairs of insulated rainboots for the twins so we are ready to get out there. The next thing: looking for a waterproof canopy to rig up for our wide, deep balcony. We can fit a few under that when it pours, after all.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Making a Stake in Reclamation

The raindrops pelted me with snappy wetness; wind was gusty and chilled just right. Ah, an early autumn downpour, crispy leaves scuttering about, the earth emitting its scent of greenness devolving into decay and fallowness in the weeks ahead. Not yet winter and not fully fall, this transition period will display fickleness–one week a bright balminess again, the next, an earlier darkening horizon with clouds gathering water to disperse.

My upturned face ran with raindrops, my jeans grew soggy, my breath was taxed by steep paths, then I found my pace along the terrain. And every step brought to mind singular words or phrases, as is so often the case. This time: cure, curative, restoration, claimant, clearing, rejuvenation, reclamation. Act of reclamation. Then only the quietness of woods and steady beats of my feet.

By the time I got home I asked myself: claimant of what, exactly? A cure, of what kind, for which sort of malady? Clearing… of smoke, land, people’s minds, clearing away of debris? Rejuvenation of our fire-hollowed million acres? Reclamation: that has been the urgent word for a few days. It first conjured up a picture of people standing up tall, a solid force and laboring to make right what is wrong. Our people in Oregon. The American people.

Still, my brain scanned examples of reclamation and came up with a mediocre plot of land that lies in sad shape. Someone passes by and sees it is disused, or poorly used or even overused. He/she is challenged by the task of rehabbing it, considering something better, different. An insignificant spot altered so that people may come to enjoy. That person asks for help. Flowers or vegetables are planted, a bench or two installed, an old wooden table set in the shade of a revived apple tree whose white blossoms glow in the sunlight, and the fruit ripens, is picked and well enjoyed. Soon others gather to swap ideas, share food, play dominoes or chess or cards.

I consider the art of mosaics, how often they are created by jagged pieces and slivers of glass or ceramic or rock that have been broken and then salvaged to construct a work of art, utilitarian or an object of beauty to gaze upon appreciatively. The useless pieces were reclaimed, refashioned into something of value to the maker–and maybe others. Something that might have gone to waste since deemed useless has been reclaimed.

I consider these images that unfurl like stories, and then people I know. How do we restore our lives in response to the stresses and worries of these days and nights? Or is a basic restoration the wisest goal, with so many influences intent on determining otherwise? Restore to just what, now?

I keep hearing from friends and some family that they are beyond weary of it all. The novel coronavirus’ demands and restrictions and continued loss of life; the historic wildfires of the West/Northwest; the ever increasing political turmoil; loss of jobs and homes–that they have begun to feel more impotent each day. I hear the telltale flatness of their sentences, a symptom of depression, and worry. I call them, text them. Daily there are articles about people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being so long ill from COVID-19 or working brutal hours helping the critically ill; from losing all to the fires out West or to hurricanes; from worry over, or participation in protests to address racism that can turn ugly and get way off track. And reported erroneously–as so much seems to be, more and more– in the media, as well.

How do we manage, then, monumental stress and uncertainty? It is no longer just one thing or another, but a number subsequent events–depending partly on where one lives– that have us tied up in knots. We know to try to stay better connected to one another even if virtually (who could have imagined this–like sci fi come to the fore–main mode of connection just 7 months ago?) and getting enough rest, exercise and eating decently despite lessening appetites; and taking time to enjoy whatever we each may find. Taking time to be together, even if six feet apart-but even that seems harder, at times. We are just tired.

Recently some friends and I had conversation about how people can reckon with painful, sometimes sudden, alterations in their lives. After the initial shock of a negative life-changing event lessens–which may take weeks, months or longer–individuals embark on various courses. They may do nothing, unable to find motivation enough other than to survive. They may engage in more group activities (even online) to help stay the profound sense of loneliness that can accompany the sadness. Or they may take up a project that fully engages, whether building something or repainting or repairing the house (hardware stores are doing well). Or some may lessen tension by enrolling in a Zumba class, running a few miles a day, doing yoga. Therapy is an option and if it is good, people can learn how to cope with stress and fear, and with PTSD triggers to then minimize overwhelming feelings of helplessness, deal better with nightmares and intrusive thoughts or images of the trauma. Or sessions can help one learn how to grieve more fully, then finally begin to live without the loved one who was lost, or the job that was taken away or the health that is undone–and finally, one hopes, go on, day by day.

Others might retreat into solitude and prayer or other meditative activity. The person seeking relief may choose to work longer and become the last one out of the office–or be very late turning off the computer if working at home, one’s partner calling out to “come to bed, please.” They also could engage in addictive behaviors that may temporarily induce a numbed disconnection from unhappiness they push away. This can occur even if they were not originally given to problematic drinking/gambling/sex/shopping/falling into love affairs– to name but a few.

It all comes down to rooting out some relief from realities that plague people. But a foundation of healthier ways needs to be built somehow if life is to be improved beyond a short tie. When there is psychic or physical damage, repair is needed. To reclaim something can mean to save from the refuse, to gather remnants left and make anew from ruined bits. It might mean the person needs to move away from haunting errors made with a change in locale or leave a toxic person. And it requires getting perspective and some control of conflicting parts to remake a life so that it works better. This, rather than you being worked over by it. Because unless a life is essentially habitable, it becomes a kind of prison or worse. And little can feel worse than to feel caught in the same bad place, helpless.

I have actual experience with all this, both as a counselor working decades at mental health and addiction treatment agencies, and in my personal life. Client after client came to see me with complex, weighty issues. They were at wits’ end and worn out and often on the brink of giving up entirely. Some had arrived after being near death for a few reasons— or had met death and then returned unhappily to the living. And the circumstances were far more varied than one might think.

One person was desperate to meet, with bad injuries still healing after a private plane trip that resulted in a crash. Yet this person continued to see the pilot, the love interest, who was untrustworthy, abusively dangerous. My client had developed an addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs in part due to the availability from the wealthy partner. The client’s well bred family had given up and from the hospital sent the person right to treatment.

Another person who was homeless with addiction and mental health diagnoses was finally getting substance free, yet still had the problem of where to live safely with a mangy but beloved dog. Housing was severely limited; there was no income until disability was applied for and gotten, which took a long while to obtain. There was no care for the dog without money. So we had to cut corners to secure pet help and temporary housing,

An adult was the only one left alive after her family was murdered by nephew in alcoholic black out. A teen grew up in a home with “routine” domestic violence; she had became a runaway and a dealer, lost in every way and angry. Another client was raped but no one believed the truth; he started to drink 7 days a week and dropped out of college-he was hoping to become a doctor.

I listened to human tragedies every day. How could I help them recover? Show how to rebuild their lives for the short and long term? Because the reality is, I could have used every therapeutic tool in the book, shown compassion and patience for months, but if the individual was not prepared to do the tough work of changing his or her state of mind or circumstances, I was not going make the difference I desired. Being ready to change was equally a key, perhaps even more than gaining new choices and life skills. This sounds harsh but consider what happens when one does not want to heal, to change: more of the same, or nothing.

It might surprise some how not ready people can be when you get down to the bottom line, despite their pain. But I understood this. The more life errors or trauma experienced, the less able a person feels to hang on for the long run, to start to recover and move forward. It takes exhausting and mind boggling efforts when already feeling on empty. So when there was any spark noticed in a client–that they realized life could still be worth living and there was hope despite the rawness and bleak view, I was holding out my hand, carefully but surely. I felt that when someone at last took it, he/she was willing to give a different way of living the barest chance. And we all know one spark can make a fire, and a small, well tended fire can do much needed good, especially when you are not truly alone.

From an early age, I was given some challenges. Those who have followed this blog know I experienced childhood sexual abuse. My mother, who suspected it, did not protect me nor tell my father or anyone of her fears. I was cautioned to stay away from the perpetrator at 9 years old. So it continued 2-3 years until my beloved oldest sister divorced the man she’d so hastily married wasn’t right for marriage (and she learned afterwards was a pedophile–and heard of my abuse when I was 35, she was 48.). It was like being caught in a corner with no way out and no one to call for help. Everything boiled down to survival and I knew so little about that then.

But that was just the start. If someone is abused and no one acknowledges it or helps, more trauma arises from that terrible error. In fact, it may be the worst of it. The secret was kept; the adept pretending that all was fine increased; feelings of worthlessness, failure and loneliness increased year by year. And behaviors tried out to lessen the relentless discouragement, confusion, and fear were increasingly unhealthy. Abandonment in dire crises is a hard one. I just had to learn how to swim in a vast stormy sea.

And then what came happens when life is lived as if stumbling through the dark with clumsy bruised feet. More victimization from various assaults; drug use both legitimate (our family doctor prescribed my first tranquilizers at age 12 due to not being able to sleep) and later illegitimate to dull the pain; the drug-fueled, PTSD-laden breakdowns at 15 and 19; and much later, alcoholism and treatment centers. Retreats from death.

Less positive choices for a life path was made harder by being a magnet for a dangerous boyfriend and later unstable/abusive/neglectful husbands (and, occasionally, “friends”). Including a criminal who took whatever dignity I had somehow redeveloped, as well as what money I had. And for most of that relationship I was sober; I had naively thought he was different deep down… Clearly, I hadn’t righted my life yet. I did not have the corrected map or enough wherewithal to traverse the right roads. There was no sure reclamation going on until the two teen children still at home left secretly with me. This was, for me, about the worst it could get. I was devastated that the work I had put in was still not my salvation. But I would not give up.

After all of that and with more therapy, I had enough. I sometimes wondered if I was one who might not recover, never make my life whole. It was either create a different life or get off the planet. i abstained from relationships for years. When I was out of money awhile between low paying jobs, out of nowhere came the gift of work I then believed was not for me. I could pay the rent and buy food (my19 yo son helped out); that was enough.

But there was rapid skill development and a surprising passion for the work even as I resisted the encouragement to become a fully certified counselor. The work was with addicted, emotionally ill, gang-affiliated, and homeless youth. Even as I said no, I returned to college. My work got better. I healed faster with more help. Still, for six years, I was one of those who worked every hour I could–to pay the bills but also to keep well occupied–and attended classes and studied. But when home I withdrew from the world. I prayed, wrote, walked daily, danced–took care of my self, tended to my children the best I could. Parenting demanded I be involved and responsive, enabled me to yet love deeply. In time, success seemed more reachable in the ways that mattered. After that, another marriage and there came decades more working with vulnerable adults and youth.

I found more and more happiness, despite difficulty. I stopped feeling terminally unique, too. A deep relief that was.

The point is, reclamation of life can take awhile. It can demand you give more, to make good on tentative promises to yourself and others. But it does come to pass.

I found it a long journey; I remain on the lifelong path to greater understanding and well being. It is alright; I enjoy learning immensely. But I had to build up endurance. Had to keep searching for the light through shadows, sketchy twists, off-road forays. I transformed the old feeling of being a maimed person with mostly deficits into being changed but not ruined. To being able to regenerate were injuries had slowed it or stopped it before. To having a capacity for problem solving and adaptability. I kept giving the pain to God, and it works. I gave my more tender self to creative work that improved. It happened in bits and pieces but each time there were clearer insight or better choices made, there was progress. And I was grateful for any small step forward.

Reclamation of life: we can do this for ourselves. Likely you, too, have already done it many times but perhaps didn’t know how potent a thing it was. Then hindsight showed you how much it was you undertook and overcame. A fighter for good, a creative force, a change agent–yes, you.

I came back to the core of who I am–as valuable as others, a capable person. Someone worth respecting and caring for. It was first hard to believe. And strong, as I found I can endure many harsh surprises, losses. I have, with encouragement and care from many, retained a heart for life and for others. An “optimistic realist”, I will hold up hope, but give me the full facts. No excuses or white lies or fudged numbers. Give me the truth, first and last, as it is best known. I am not good in the dark even if I can manage it. Turn on a spotlight– or at least a homely candle burning orange and yellow in the maze of life.

So, back to the conversations I have had lately about how one deals with all these crises that millions are trying to cope with these days. I can only think that we can do it, because it has been done before. We do have what it takes. We all suffer; we learn how to persist. People have the remarkable characteristic of resilience and when it is coupled with concern for others as I have seen in Oregon since the wildfires devastation, this is true power being witnessed.

I know at any time conditions can change in a flash. Meantime, I am going on despite trials making my own sort of reclamations as follows:

*Remember we are each part of the infinite and eternal design of the universe. –I had to get this one out of the way, because it informs all I do and believe. It helps me keep things in a more reasonable perspective. Maintaining my spiritual life just makes the difference. (Others may not agree–I try to always respect this.)

*Assess the situation based on facts as they are known. Do not close a blind eye when both clear eyes open is what is needed.

*Develop a plan for longer range goals (even a day, week or month beyond this current moment) by brainstorming options; be open to thinking outside the box and hearing others’ ideas.

*Proceed with caution but take even a small action– with expectancy of a some good progress to be made within one’s own life and potentially within a community.

*Use common sense. Sometimes humans overthink a problem or situation to the point of dead-end idiocy. Trust the gut; we were all born with instinct and intuition. (I should have done so long ago…)

*Exercise compassion, even when–maybe especially when– angry or confounded. Pause to pray or meditate, and that one’s perceived enemy to be truly blessed, not cursed.

*Stand up. Be heard. Claim your space and change one little thing. Make right what can be made right in your sphere, and work to support others who endeavor to reform what is unjust–that is, whatever stymies human flourishing. And may we keep out planet alive with more people fully caretaking of–not wasting–its vast gifts.

*Hold on. Some things cannot be rushed or altered at the moment. Timing makes a difference. Patience can mean everything. But then go boldly.

*Find worthwhile meaning in small moments, too; praise them all. What we have after we lose something or someone is ourselves, and some faith in what we cannot yet see but hope for, and anything we can salvage to begin again.

*Remember: no matter your pain, it has been felt before. No matter your grief, it has been mourned by another. No matter your aloneness, you are still part of humanity and someone cares. Ask for help; be found. Then help others who seek aid.

*If you can laugh despite the tears, give that to yourself and others. It shakes free some heaviness, lets more light in, brings relief.

*Create something. Anything you like. Give it away if the spirit moves you.

*Go and sit under dancing trees or move through fields or mountains or walk by water or rest among cacti and watch for coyotes. Open a window to the sky and listen, smell, touch, see. This is much of the wonder of life, given to you.

We can be well enough restored–as long as we have breath and our hearts beat–even in these times. It is not so likely it will be the reality we have known before…but nothing is static. Living can still be embraced and improved upon. It has been done before. The world has suffered in some terrible way, always. We being an adaptable species have managed to go on thus far amid devastations. We fail at times, but we also are compelled to try once more. We will wake up each day to see what is going on, and we will participate in the unfolding by being present and accounted for. I have gotten to 70; so also can you carry on the best you can.

I believe we are meant to be like angels for one another while we walk this earth. We are meant to illuminate the pathway together. We are meant to see goodness in one another, make compassion the rule. May we, then, comfort and help one another as we navigate rough waters and no matter what lies ahead.

(Note: those referred to as clients are composites of people I have known over many years of counselling positions.)

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Simple, Safe Dwelling in the World

Shelter: home. It informs my dreams, attracts my eye everywhere I roam, and pulls me to books, websites and magazines that focus on architecture and design. Then add surprises of outdoor spaces, no matter how humble. Between my interest in public green space and city buildings, tall or small apartment complexes or different types of houses–I am frequently awash in dreamy, impassioned (if casual) learning. It’s all about various living spaces for humans (and their critters). Habitats matter to everyone, and for different reasons, the first of which is basic shelter.

I feature them in my fiction writing; a character’s surroundings can be powerful at most, or help provide story impetus. The lifestyles often reflected by his or her dwelling and territory, their choice to be inside or out, to be in one room or another or to leave familiar spaces altogether–all this helps move the story, flesh it out.

It is likely I was born into this area of interest, as I grew up in a small city where architecture was important. Midland, Michigan gave us several illustrious citizens, not the least of which was Alden B. Dow, a well-known architect. The son of Herbert H. Dow, founder of Dow Chemical Company based in that city, became an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed 600 projects of many types throughout the US. and 130 were built in Midland. His ideas were considered progressive, even daring–the buildings were glass, stone and wood-informed in newer ways at the time, to fine effect. He sometimes brought nature indoors with water features and trees. There was a strong respect for surrounding land, how the whole integrated when this was not commonplace. His philosophy was “A Way of Life CYcle” and based on his belief that every individual is creative, and that making a structure that is harmonious within and without it is paramount.

I had ample opportunities to enjoy these buildings–civic centers, libraries, business offices, churches and temples and schools, as well as houses–each day. Some of my friends lived in them; I attended events in others. They drew me in. They were beautiful in their organic simplicity, their integration into nature and simple functionality. Alden B. Dow’s own home and surrounding gardens and other acreage is idyllic (which may be accessed on line–check out https://dowgardens.org/). I often visited; you will see why if you choose. So, perhaps the seed was sown for an abiding curiosity about architectural/landscape design as a youngster–my eye observed deeply, my heart and mind followed.

This morning I perused photos of a lake house with flat rooftops on which grow wildflowers and grasses, and felt happy to study them. I sent the images with my daughter, Naomi, who has a great eye. The contemporary one-story has an interior filled with natural textures and there is so much glass a nearness of trees and water is seen at every turn. My sort of house–well, one type, since I have several favorites. Clean lines, brightened by sunlight and muted by shade; nature in evidence; environmentally sound. The patio seemed higher, and the stone of floor and fire pit was substantial. I can imagine meals there, wind ruffling my hair. What a handsome design it is.

As I was looking it over I told Naomi, an artist, that she’d make a very good architect, and she went along with that. She’s a working sculptor, and utilizes many modalities. (She’s also an art professor working hard to figure out best ways to teach 3D art online at a university now.). Like her father, also a sculptor, and her brother, a “maker of things”–even both sets of grandparents, in a few ways–she possesses that innate grasp of visual art. And has an extra sense regarding a material’s potential. Naomi possesses a scientific mind and a highly developed aesthetic view, in my (motherly) opinion. Add a wide ranging curiosity and persistence that seems crucial to being an artist. Passionate about layers of meanings, yet dispassionate in execution of ideas–I get that, too, as a writer.

So, then…I can see her building houses and other structures–the scale would suit her well. But she is doing what she does. For example, she has been making fascinating cyanotypes (a photographic printing process); she also has been working with with indigo dye on various fabrics. Additionally, she and her brother also grew up learning some construction trades, as their father had his own business. (To get an idea of her work, check out Naomi J Falk@invisible sculpture)

It excites me to see what my children are creating-they become the teachers, I am the learner. Josh recently mined fire opals with his wife in Southern Oregon; they make jewelry. He never is idle, always making new things. And I, too, want to create more, while being a wordsmith remains my primary method of giving substance to ideas. I sometimes wish it was more, or different.

People like Naomi or Josh possess some of the wherewithal to cast a net further for more building/designing possibilities. Of course, to become a working architect usually requires a degree. (Myself—not so much. Though I have the love of visual arts and architecture, but not training–does studying painting 3 years in university count?) Yet I wonder if we might come up with a plan that’d translate into a reality.

Josh and I talk of it as well as Naomi. He lives in a pleasant house with a big yard that has a crazy mix of a trampoline, small pool, huge vegetable garden, projects of all sorts (new skate ramp being built of cement and wood, furniture refinishing, cutting/smoothing rocks/crystals, starting seedlings, painting/drawing, designing skateboards, making small Buddhas out of plastic or wax, plus he often is fixing something broken–I can’t keep track of the heaps or ideas.) But he wants to buy land in the country, build his own house, then one for Marc and me. We’ve discussed tiny houses, dome houses, yurts–more manageable. I once showed him a sketch of rambling, connected pods that made a sort of “compound.’ It seems practical.

We appreciate a variety of spaces; the many we’ve experienced help inform a future plan. We may well never live together as some cultures do encourage. It is all shared with love. My family knows I miss living in a house, at least some days, though the townhouse apartment is lovely, in the woods as I long desired.

Habitats…one’s personal domain in an often too-cramped world. We all want one. Need something no matter how humble. And in these times, that often a dire need carries more weigh emotionally. I consider where I live…and where others live right now. And the fact that scores have lost or are about to lose housing due to COVID-19 and the financial cataclysm it has caused. Oregon has put a moratorium on evictions for another several months. But eventually they will have to pay back rent. Or may lose houses for good due to to missed mortgage payments.

I was headed to another part of our metropolitan area when I came upon block after block lined with makeshift dwellings. Temporary–i.e., easily movable–dwellings made of cardboard, tarps, plastic bags cut apart and taped together, odd bricks or wood scraps crisscrossed by fabric or towels. There were not that many there just three months ago. The conditions appear miserable, barely tolerable. Those who seek help have increased. As I waited at a light, I saw a man in the middle of a four lane road with his dog on a tight leash; he was feeding his pet companion bits of croissants–sharing his scarce food. His cardboard sign pleaded for money. How much can I give? I look, nod, smile, give what I have on me, later to another charitable organization. But it’s never enough. I can’t give a safe home, or meal after meal. Every person should have a spot to claim as one’s own, and not along noisy, often dangerous, fume-filled streets.

Homeless needs have been a concern in our city for decades. My mental health and addiction-impacted clients were frequently living on the streets, so I came to understand hardships faced–and the hearty resilience it takes to survive extraordinary stresses daily. Navigating the social services system was often fraught with frustration that could plunge them into despair–or a return to cynical resignation. Now how many unsuspecting folks are forced to evacuate homes and take up a tent or sleep on an abandoned couch at roadside, or find an empty business doorway? Underneath highway overpasses becomes a place to live, or an empty parking lot as more businesses are closed. A vacant lot, under a bridge, along side highways. And we have forests surrounding our city, within which people do manage to live awhile.

It is a huge crisis, though Oregon has done a lot to help, building pockets of very affordable micro housing units and tiny houses, more subsidized apartment buildings. But the people they house often have mental health problems. There are also many women fleeing domestic violence, often with children–this violence is on the rise since the virus showed up. Much of this I can empathize with, having had brushes with similar issues once upon a time. More than you might believe, there isn’t such a great distance separating one from security and safety, ending up poor, homeless.

And this has remained a fear of mine, I admit, even at age 70. I do not know–nor does anyone–what the future may hold. I live my life smack in the middle of the present but am not foolish enough to ignore any possibility since Marc was one who became unemployed due to his company downsizing due to lost business resultant of the roaring virus. This, despite a great career, despite planning on retirement in a few years. As has happened all over the country, the world.

One of the reasons (though not the primary one) I consider the beauty and function of a good house is other than just a fascination with design of structures, uses of land space and a sensitivity to environment. I have moved more times than I care to count; I recall telling someone 18 times, but that was decades ago. Between raising a large family–first I had two, then three children, then welcomed two non-biological additions–and costs for various basics as well as unexpected medical needs–and more job transfers for Marc and my lack of a completed college education (when it still meant something), financial downturns in the US economy with attendant losses…well, not easy to afford a house, then. We put it on the back burner. Time flew by. My life–my life, perhaps–could be encapsulated via its history of houses/ other dwellings. I left my parents’ stable two-story home at 18, the age many do.

I do not expect to buy a house now. I still considered the idea but with all that is happening in my country, no. Not everyone in the USA can manage to buy a house much less continue to buy others. In fact, millions do not.

I have to backtrack to say we did purchase an attractive, big-family-sized, A-frame house (with a few leaky windows) on an acre in in Tennessee when I was in my early thirties. It was not our plan, as Marc worked at that plant for about two years. But we got it for a good price in a seller’s market, then sold it later in a buyer’s market–so about broke even. I loved that house, was loathe to leave it. We discovered that a decent family home in our new area of transfer was not affordable. “Riskier than usual” is not a way to live when you have a family of seven. Years passed; we found houses that worked well enough, if not for keeping.

Years later when they kids were grown I received an inheritance. I determined to buy another house. However, I had also just had a heart attack and was not working, though Marc was. The real estate people told me that since my health was not good at such a young age, I might never be able to work again. Read: perhaps I should seriously reconsider. I was flabbergasted by this. I had not thought of myself as being unable to to add to our joint income again. Everyone around me seemed to agree with this weird idea of “wait and see.” And since the first houses considered were not to my liking, anyway, I became discouraged. No one supported me with a “go for it” cheering on– I confess it was needed right then. I felt very low about my goal not being met. Still weakened and in cardiac rehab, I simply gave up, one of the few times I’ve caved spectacularly. That money went to more places than I expected over the next few years. And it did take me nearly three years to work full time again, though health never stopped me again. I simply retired after many more years.

I never imagined this dream would utterly fail. Do I regret it? Yes, I do. I think how much my mother would have loved me to purchase a place–with her generosity. Then, too, there was that niggling subterranean humiliation–how could I not own property when my siblings all had for eons? Didn’t everyone else I knew, also? I mostly ignored the sting of it, while admitting another spacious yard and house to bring over family and friends would be my big wish come true.

But I also know how to make a home out of any place: by being welcoming and positive, upping the cozy factor with love not necessarily things (or not expensive items). So if it has four walls, I can manage fine–and also count myself fortunate. If I’ve not owned great properties, I’ve had ways to make many work for us well. And I feel less attached to all material goods. You may have security one day but not the next. And if you don’t own something beloved and fantastic, the impending loss is much less vexing.

My sister, Allanya has bought and sold a dozen or more places and rehabbed as many (often for investment, including two century old homes to turn into commercial buildings). She now lives in a well appointed and staffed retirement community with her partner. It was a wrenching decision to give up their house on a corner lot overlooking Portland. It was peaceful, gazing towards distant mountains, all the lights twinkling below in city center. We had many family get-togethers with lots of food passed around in the colorfully-decorated rooms, or on the deck enveloped by tall trees. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t like her new digs much, though she’s adapting more or less. Nor the idea that since she has dementia and her partner has increased health problems, an assisted living unit decision is likely to occur soon.

I know her dearly and well–she’s always been spirited and adventurous, a woman living in the center of her power, a woman of faith and strength made for expansive living. Ultimately, she will be alright in a smaller apartment with more care. But I see how it hurts her, and I am sad for her.

So I don’t like to jog her memory about where we live, nor do I bring up the past houses, the fun she had renovating. I don’t want to unearth sorrow when she still laughs easily, and there is life to be lived as kindly as possible. But I hope to bring her to visit once more when our world is safer from this disease. How pleasurable to serve her iced mint tea from the blue butterfly-decorated, Swedish pitcher (that I bought for our mother decades ago, used daily), a plate of fresh maple pecan scones and a dark chocolate for each–favorite treats she now rarely gets. We’d pass the day on my balcony overlooking firs and maples, surrounded with plants and flowers. She once was a camper, told a tale about meeting a bear…But we’d speak of much and little, making snarky comments as we debated politics, sighing or laughing over nothing important.

That is my idea of a home–rather ordinary, really, similar to an experience shared by people everywhere. Marc and I share our current habitation with much appreciation. Even in rough times–or especially.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter, Alex, is saving for her family’s first home…and we keep swapping ideas and pictures. A house for toddler twins and their parents–exciting prospect to look forward to again!

The (even modest or old) habitats I pour over–they will call to me always. Craftsman, ranches, bungalows, log cabins, saltbox, Federal, Georgian, Cape Cod colonial, Victorian, adobe, Mediterranean, contemporary and industrial–the list goes on. I like features of them all. When I read and observe them, I become transfixed, enlivened, investigative about the how/what/ where and, of course, try to imagine the “who” that dwells therein. I sink into those worlds, fill up with expansive inspiration, then tuck it all into my brain. For the joy of it.

And, too, revisit in slumberland as I wander strange hallways and floors, seeking a route to somewhere I am always looking for and perhaps oddly expect to find: an even better, more tantalizing place amid landscapes in this world. And beyond. Doorways to foreign and exquisite vistas; a sturdy stoop or grassy hilltop to sit upon, to think and dream, to gather wisdom and love. To offer a true welcome. And a window sash to lower when a storm stirs up, then to open when the wind sweetens and is tender again.

Though I did not become the architect I, in youthful exuberance, dreamed of being…I am not unhappy. Find me grateful once more.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Am I My Mother’s Daughter, and How Much Does It Finally Matter?

I think of all we are experiencing now, then of my parents. Specifically, I have thought more of my mother. The charming Edna Kelly (later marrying Lawrence Guenther), likely 19 or so, is on the left. I am on the right. Do we even look related? I once more wondered about her life after my niece, Lila, posted her photo on social media. I thought of my own. I am now at the age she was when I was just 30. She was born in 1909 in Blackwater, Missouri, and died in Michigan, 2001–where I was raised. (Her heart and the rest gave out; a few months later I had a heart attack while hiking.)

At times when studying my mother’s more youthful photos, I often wished I looked like my oldest sister, as she looked much like our mother. I felt I had come into our family not quite akin to Mom, nor quite Dad. It may have been untrue, but it felt like that a long while. I don’t often look at old photos, though they are gone; the family is fixed vividly in my memory. Lila, the family historian since my mother and aforementioned sister passed, also has features more reflective of theirs.

The other day I once more considered how much of who we become is inherited–or not. And how much we can understand of our relatives and heritage, beyond bare facts.

Perhaps this is especially of interest since my daughter had twins last year. My mother had twin baby sisters who died in the flu pandemic; she would have been so pleased to welcome twins again into our family. They are not identical. One seems to take after her father; the other, her mother. And their personalities are already coming to the fore with strong intimations of their future selves. We will see who they become, week by month by year. It is exciting to be a part of it as their grandmother.

It’s a big question, of course, that folks have well debated: nature v. nurture, genetics v. external experience. I gather social scientists and other experts agree it is both. Each of us enters the world with complex brain chemistry and other physiological mapping regarding health tendencies, personality markers and potential, strengths and deficits, talents or lack thereof. And this reaches back into genetic banks of ancestry–most of whom we never knew or heard of. Yet they remain present within us in many subtle or exaggerated manifestations. A mind expanding thought–with so much conjecture.

There are definitely physical traits that came through my mother, though I more resemble my father’s side with large blue eyes (her’s: smaller, grey -toned– and often mischievous), a much less “patrician” nose and fuller lips. My mother, of hearty farm stock, had a perfect straight and near-pointy nose, thin (often smiling) lips and ivory skin. She was of Irish/English/Scottish decent. Thus, so am I. And German, via both of my father’s parents.

I inherited my mother’s shape of hands, even her fingers; her hair, as mine until a few years ago, was a plentiful auburn brown and it’s become more more wavy; and perhaps–if I might say this– her nice figure, though I am slimmer (like Dad) than she was most of her life (I like food less than she did). I think we share eyebrows and for certain our foot shape and size–she lent me beautiful high heels for years when I dressed up. That made those shoes doubly worth the money she spent, she once said. She enjoyed fine clothes (those she didn’t make herself, excellent creations) and good accessories for bargain prices– but wasn’t shy about paying whatever was necessary, if it came to that, either.

Edna Kelly was athletic, playing basketball in school and roaming the country roads, working on her parents’ farm. (She was kicked by a horse and ever after had chronic lower back pain–she saw no doctor back then.) Appreciative of the great world of nature (loved botany, geology, ornithology and etymology–and studied these some in college) she shared her knowledge, went camping many times with Dad and me. I also love sporty activities and have enjoyed figure skating, hiking, any water sports, volleyball and other ball games (baseball with our 5 kids- basketball, too). Just running about or bicycling kept me going for hours. Nowadays, give me a gym for pleasure and exercise, sure (I was a body builder for a couple years), but the outdoors calls to me far more. Mom used to say she was a bit of a “tomboy” and I loved that–she had excellent physical endurance and stamina, was known for her reservoirs of energy almost until the end.

I found her naturally beautiful–she rarely wore more than a dash of pale coral lipstick and only when going out. I was born (last of 5) when she was 40, so only had pictures of her younger self. No matter: with shorter graying hair and glasses she still radiated loveliness, a sparkling essence. And when she dressed in jewel-toned, long gowns for concerts my father conducted or played in (or other events), she seemed breathtakingly so, that wavy white hair a-shimmer as she aged. Her skin? Smooth and unblemished. Dad often hugged her, saying “she was quite the catch”– even though he was, as well.

Add to these external traits the fact that she was talented domestically and turned out handmade creations (with the discerning eye of an artist). And was also a fine elementary teacher. Little of which I can claim, though I adore art, have painted and sketched off and on. (And I suppose I did provide education when counselling my mental health/addiction treatment groups.) She had it all, I thought. And felt the lack.

In certain ways we are clearly mother and daughter, though our faces appear less alike. In others, our shared genes may appear unlikely. What of our personality traits and greater interests? Were those characteristics passed down or learned?

I felt from early on that my mother was near the pinnacle of success as a person and woman, and by the time I was 12 years old I saw I would never reach standards set by either parent. Yet I had their examples to aspire to, and I tried hard off and on all my life– until I hit my early forties. I knew who I was very well and that was that, with much room for improvements–and at heart I was not so different than I was at 12, I thought. Just older and surely some harder; hopefully kind, perhaps more insightful…

So if I had little skill regarding domestic chores, also far less interest than many. Food’s primary purpose, for me, was to provide fuel so never understood why it elicited such labor and excitement. Housekeeping was a simple necessity so dust didn’t fur surfaces of furniture and rooms with their various possessions were orderly enough, in a pleasing way. But it took too much time some days. (We had 7 people in the house, at least as many musical instruments, frequent visitors for everyone.) I didn’t sew well or happily, nor create my own dress patterns although there was much instruction from Mom as she stood at my shoulder. Still, despite my humiliation, I don’t think she worried about it much. Our parents insisted we all secure a fine education, go into the world armed with degrees, honed talents– plus kind hearts. No difference if male or female: achieve, that was the byword. She would shoo me from the kitchen with a command to study or practice my cello or sing or write (or maybe anything to get me out of her way). But I still felt the sting of having nothing decent to show for my (minimal) efforts, otherwise. I wanted to garner her approval in all things, have every good life skill. At least I managed to help entertain their guests–greeting and chatting with people, carrying out food, cleaning up at the end and chatting with Mom. I liked people, talking, listening–and gathering more info for writing.

In time, there were serious ways I would let my mother down. If I did have abilities that brought happy successes, there were also matters that took me farther from acceptance. I grew into a rebel without truly intending to be one. I had big ideas of my own; I also had a lot pain; and dreams that began to diverge from a family legacy of either useful teaching or work in mighty realms of music. (Though why I left music is a much harder story.)

In time, things came apart bit by bit. I maintained high grades and performed on stages and showed a face that was for awhile better than I felt: I stayed out too late; used illicit substances; wrote death-defying poetry of longing as I contemplated the specter of suicide; wrote folk songs that were often more bitter than hopeful; dated boys that lived on the thin edge while pining for the one I could likely not win because, as Mom told me: “You must be more the girl he wants.” Implying I needed to be…better. Different. Not like me. It cut deep. I was who I was but desired to be more– yet, not an idealized, proper, rule-abiding- at-all-costs girl. (Though, I have to say, that boy did not truly want that and we were in love–but his parents did. In the end, he went to a faraway college as I fell further from grace.)

Maybe that is the kind of thing what she believed when she and my father were growing up together, then attending college, then finally marrying. That is: be who a man needs you to be. Still, I find it hard to accept. My mother was deeply engaged with life, independent-minded and opinionated, given to bossiness, multi-talented and smart (I often felt she was under-utilizing her intelligence) as all get out. But for me, what she suggested wasn’t even possible. I was afire with passions of many sorts–not just sensual but creative, spiritual, intellectual. I was hungry for more, more. As a teen I was reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (lofty but a Catholic!–we were Methodists) Herman Hesse and Anais Nin (scandalous), Kahlil Gibran, poets Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser, e.e. cummings. I was listening to cool jazz, folk music and swing on the sly (we almost always heard only classical in our house). I longed to be a modern dancer despite sweating out ballet exercises in my room, and a jazz singer despite my proscribed art songs polished. My cello? Could I play it electrified? But I did not dare do that.

It was the 1960s, as well. The lure of loosening middle class mores shaped by heavy constrictions; protesting of social injustices and archaic ideas regarding women versus men–it was powerful stuff to this 15-19 year old, dreamy-eyed, wounded by years of non-familial, silenced child abuse. I wanted so much to rise right up even as I was falling down. Feminism was a bright flag waving high above a movement made of empowering women as never before. I thought: we can be real potent trail blazers. I, too, can make myself heard and make a good difference.

So it was: student-empowered politics mixed with substance abuse–and rebellions fomented by hope for a more inclusive, improved society. An odd combination at first glance but there it was. My deeper desire was to do more, become more, contribute in a creative and compassionate way. And that took action, not just talk. The fact was, I reminded my parents, I was raised to be a critical thinker–despite a sanctioned conformity that ultimately ruled at dinner tables, schools, churches. My voice had gone weary of being quieter, so civilized–which seemed then like being made blind, deaf and mute.

They did not accept my arguments. They had lived through wars and pandemics (flu, polio and more) and the Depression. Why couldn’t I– along with my friends–be satisfied with what was so much better than what had come before us? I needed to settle down, stop agitating or challenging life. Act more civilized

But I grew up faster than planned. In short order, survived more severe trials than I had expected. Finally had children, dropped out of college many times to raise them and so my spouse could get his Masters degree, then we later divorced, and, ultimately, I married three times–unheard of for a long while.

Was this any of what my mother hoped for? Did it reflect her sorts of choices? Did it reflect on my heritage? No, no, and often likely not. Except I was a creative person, had a capacity to care deeply and an abiding faith in God. These saved me from utter failure, and I believe kept her hope burning for me.

Still, I got stronger, learned to live better. I could look her in the eye more often. I built from nearly scratch a career in human services–it was God who guided me there, at start–and spent the rest of my life counseling folks who lived fast and hard and paid for it and needed a renovation; or wandered precariously near the edge of the world and needed acceptance and hope. They gained new coping skills as had I. And I cared deeply for every person who walked through my office doors. I had learned to do what mattered most, felt glad to join the ranks of countless others who do this work every day in the wide world: serve others.

What, if any of this, is like my mother’s life, her beliefs and actions? What did she teach me about being a person, a woman? She offered a lot, and I have, finally, carried a good portion of it with me.

Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman with backbone, one who did not give up when she believed in something or someone. She made her opinions known, at times in ways that seemed minor but were major with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a gasp or quick laugh, a gentle touch on one’s arm, a forefinger tapping her lips. She was expressive with hands and voice, was a natural storyteller. She could share anything that happened in an ordinary day, elevating the moments in the very emotive telling. Entertainment was living life, sharing it a part of that. She appreciated all kinds of people even if she didn’t always understand or even approve; she found people enriching and puzzling and generally good. She had, as they say, heart.

In her mind, there was no problem that didn’t have a solution; it was often the simplest. There was no such thing as boredom, only a lack of intention and action. If you witnessed a dispute, don’t let anyone damage another–yet don’t keep anger too quiet if it needs to be the alarm. And one should mend what was broken, even if it hurts some in the process. Forgiveness, then, is paramount: compassion is the thread, the glue that binds together the pieces.

My mother wanted to be a writer, she said once, looking out the kitchen window with dish towel in her hands. She kept journals of her travels to foreign countries and whenever crisscrossing our country; she was a frequent letter writer. She watched me type away on the old Remington for years, knew I wrote by longhand deep into the night. She read what was offered to her; she approved, cared to note glitches, upheld my burning passion that still courses through my blood and fills my soul. And after she died and I despaired and longed to have her close, her spirit came to me with this: You must write. And my whole self trembled, then was profoundly calm.

She read a third draft of a long-developed novel a couple of years before she died. It doesn’t anymore matter that it has been pushed aside. It matters that she said it was “a page turner, I loved it.” So if I am like my mother in any way–and most of all this way, always telling stories–I am humbled, honored. But what I think is that I simply became somehow more the person, the woman, she knew I was so long working to reclaim and set free. Not that similar to her, perhaps. Nor quite like my sisters, beloved aunts, grandmothers. But we have shared a spark, a link, a look that says we live from the center of things, from the reaches of our souls, messy or not.

And we are one for the other, and all of one, in the end. And my toddler girls, the twin grandchildren, will carry on a legacy of vibrancy, inventiveness and perseverance underscored with hope if they can. And, too, our imperfections, our quirkiness, our weak points–and add to their repertoire their own uniqueness.

The biggest question for me remains: who actually was the person of Edna as a youngster, a college student, then wife with babies, a woman with a career, then a woman growing older? Who else might she have been, what more could she have explored? Was she as happy, ultimately, as she seemed, even amid weepiness that came and went with remnants of losses creeping in…? Her breath catching in her throat as she spoke of tender or difficult things? I saw and understood. As she gave of herself here and there all along the way, I watched and learned. But– I knew her so little.

After leaving home we were close only when we talked on the phone or wrote, or enjoyed quick visits at different meeting points in the country. Only a small part of what we shared was fully presented and treasured more than any gold; the rest was a delicate, tentative search for more. We know our mothers too little, even if we think we know more. We may be unwilling to blur boundaries in fear of…what? What shall be lost in knowing more fully the one who gave us birth? Can we not suspect it is less than enough that we share before the chances are over?

I wager Mom was feisty, diplomatic, dramatic, or deeply intuitive long before any of us took hold of her. There was more, I could feel it when we talked or didn’t talk, when she shared her vivid dream-infused nightly adventures and then listened to my own; showed me how to make good poached eggs and Waldorf salad; stood watching out the kitchen window as I ascended to the top of the maple tree to sing, to write, to cry, to plan. There was a pressure of diverse energy in her, even at rest; there was much left unsaid as she spoke voluminously. So most of her story remains a mystery.

As for me, I may once have thought I risked more, dared more, took my knocks and got back up but, honestly, I knew her life was harder than what she told. It was in the depths of her gaze, in the response to others: she knew about great love, about piercing sorrows; she knew about pain and healing and faith. About just going on. I suspect she even knew I would manage alright, too.

Her own complicated tales were carried home with her when passing into what and where she believed was a more liberating, illuminating experience than all she’d experienced on earth. And that is another thing we had in common. But when I consider all the aspects of our lives, I do realize that we each were on our own life journeys. I still am making my particular way through this grand and strange experience.

Mom and me after she was given my novel draft a couple of years before she died.