Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: My Mother’s China

It is a peculiar habit– to possess objects that are excellent, perhaps even valuable, but unnecessary, and thus are shuttered away. I had forgotten about it, this certain thing, like most items I don’t use. I am utilitarian in my habits, I greatly admire fine creative design and enjoy holding a piece of art in my hand, or wearing it at my neck or seeing it upon a gold-lit shelf. But when an object is impractical or secretly disliked or in need of major repair, it is quite promptly forgotten.

My mother’s china pieces fall within the “impractical” category. And then a subcategory I might name “awkward.” What does one do with china that has no real place in one’s ordinary abode? And yet I have kept it, though hidden away.

I have only a distant–often unnoticeable- attachment to most of what I own. I may well like much quite a lot but a thing oddly matters very little if and when ruined or disappeared. The initial bite of loss is felt but after a bit, it seems upon reflection that it held far less meaning in my scheme of life than previously and often dramatically noted. I feel it is all easy come, easy go in the end. It’s good I am this way, and that I don’t have buckets of money. If I see something something magnetically exotic or thrillingly original that I might love, a feeling comes over me that I am not fond of having: a sudden desire to place it into my realm–and covetousness may pounce inside me. So unattractive a characteristic. I don’t mean to want things like that, even the best things. It takes such energy and attention when I need those for other activities. I’ve never even bothered to putting time or cash into properly decorating wherever I live. Nonchalant might be a good description of my style, ad-hoc and eclectic….. If it’s comfortable and has some color with a bit of pattern tossed about, I’m good. No, I am less about details that look good, more about moments that can live well in real life.

But right, my mother’s china. (Or a portion of it–yes, I’m coming to it.) It’s not the sort of item that fits well into this way of doing things, I suggest. It requires the appropriate display and use. It requires a certain kind of event. So I have left it in a box or on high dark shelves ever since she died in 2001. A sleeping stack, gathering colonies of dust mites.

The truth is, it is quite enough to manage what I have. I’m well pleased with small tokens of artistic renderings or gifted lovelies. I can get excited about simple handcrafted items or occasional treasures in a second hand store but I can walk away with no longing, too. Maybe it has been all the practice I’ve had; one feeds and clothes the children, one doesn’t buy art or jewelry. One needs orderly rooms to move about, not extra piles to stumble over. (Alright, I have bought books, too many.) The few artistic pieces that are spread about my home required a lifetime of modest acquisition– none of it would impress anyone. They are not pricey. (I have also been known to cut out inspiring pictures from magazines and tape them to a wall.) Many have been given to me. But they’re cared about for one good reason or another. Usually the experience of finding it, the person attached to it.

Yes, that’s what gets us most of all–by whom or just how an object comes to be in our lives. It resonates of these every time we use it or walk by it or try not to think on it too long. That odd energy of things imbued with an essence of place or time or person–how alluring to mind and senses.

And so this comes around to my mother’s Rosenthal china. The twelve person place settings she bought and had shipped when my parents went to Germany. She had other china, and everyday ware (Franciscan Desert Rose, which I use daily). But this was the one she used to dress the most gracious table, along with crystal water goblets and silver. The dinner plates are pure white and embossed with a faintly, to me, architectural design. Yet I don’t have those with me. The fruit bowls that I have, and love and avoid are decorated with delicate flowers of deep pink, yellow and periwinkle, arrayed atop the raised pattern.

I happened upon them again recently. I stood tiptoe on a kitchen step stool, rummaging on the top cupboard shelf for something else. My hand reached behind a front row, and barely touched the rims of the delicate fruit bowls. That sound they make when moved against one another–a soft, bright noise. I took down two more ordinary bone china tea mugs my mother-in-law gave us long ago (that we use often); a few colored or etched glass candy dishes (a couple from my mother); and a diminutive vase that looks like an old-fashioned gentlewoman with an open-top hat made for tiny blooms. (This I happened to buy in a hospital gift shop after I completed cardiac rehab 20 years ago–it made me feel even better.)

I touched the bowls gently once more, hesitant.

I didn’t attempt to bring the them all down. I counted them: twelve, as meant to be. And then–because I suddenly wanted to hold it in my hands–I took the top one off the stack gingerly and stepped down from the stool. I proceeded to wash it with my fingertips and a spot of dish detergent under running water. I grabbed a tea towel. I decided I wanted to use one, perhaps just once. Applesauce, perhaps. Blueberries. Chocolate covered raisins. I visualized a vivid mound of raspberries against the white hollow in the bowl, rinsing it clean.

And then I dropped the china bowl. It lightly struck the quartz countertop, delicate against rock-hard. Only a bare inch from my hand to surface. I snatched it back up. But too late, though it somehow held together in my wretched hands.

You can imagine the bad words I said. How my heart plummeted. Eighteen years well sequestered and then, when once in two years I take one down to clean it, I drop it? Why was I not ever more careful? (My hands are notorious for dropping things. I suffered severe myalgias and weakness after taking statins 13 years; some days grasping strength is still impacted.) I ought to have called Marc to help. And so on.

I examined the bowl more closely in the light. The thinnest telltale line crossed from the smooth edge of rim and continued two thirds to the other side. I expected it to split apart but it did not, so I firmly pressed it tight together so that the line of fracture disappeared, then set it far back from counter’s edge. And then, after showing it to Marc, I thought once more how often my favorite things have been damaged or destroyed. It has happened again and again–and most often it is an accident not even of my doing. (I have come to see it as a further lesson to not hold tightly to things of this world.) I fussed a bit more, then decided if it sat there safely it might be useful, afterall, until I found the correct glue to fix it. If I dared to fix it. I put raisins in it and plucked them one at a time. The next day I put two pieces of chocolate in it and delicately lifted one piece and the other. The next day, a few crackers. It was being used just fine, but I was wary of moving it. I watched it as if it might.

I know I need to fix it soon, and fix it right. I am the caretaker.

The truth is, these fruit bowls are not mine, but are for my daughter, Naomi. The artist. She was originally to inherit the whole set, twelve of everything imaginable. This is what my mother had told me, and what she told Naomi so long ago. My daughter has been to Germany, also, and she appreciates beautiful, well made and interesting objects. She is my oldest child, was close to my mother dearly (so adored, that woman), visiting her and helping her off and on the last few years. My mother’s children had long gone from Michigan. But her granddaughter Naomi stayed with and worked with her father and his side of her family–construction and plant nursery work– many summers when she had time off from university and later from teaching jobs. Gladwin, a rural area where her paternal kin lived, was not far from Midland where my parents, then only my mother, resided. Mom looked forward to Naomi’s visits greatly. They gabbed, watched television and read, walked, did errands. They both loved to sew, to cook. They enjoyed classical music and much more. Later, when it was needed, my daughter helped with more personal needs. I recall feeling burdensome guilt that I had moved far away, that I could not visit Mom often since I lived in Oregon. And feeling deep gratitude that Naomi could, and without any prompting. She loved her dearly. And was appreciated and loved by Mom.

So the Rosenthal china was to go to Naomi, among other things. But things are open to interpretation when an estate comes into question–if some intentions are not signed and sealed. My oldest sister was the executor of the estate and told me after our mother’s death that it was not going to happen. Apparently, Marinell understood things differently; that Naomi got it was not explicit. She suggested that her daughter would like the china at first but in the end, she determined it would be shipped to her home state of WA. And then, to my surprise and for an unknown reason, I was t old the whole lot was ultimately sold.

Yes, I was aghast. Why did that happen, I wondered. It was entirely uncharacteristic of kind, fair-minded Marinell (now deceased or I wouldn’t write of it), the whole thing. She hadn’t taken my word as the truth. It was very disappointing–and she’d not even thought it might hurt us. Maybe because she had many fine things, herself, it didn’t impact her much in the general view of things. But there it was–the china was gone. Naomi and I simply let it go, as one must–it wasn’t worth holding any grudge.

Except. I had the fruit bowls.

I barely recall it–perhaps such details matter yet they’re blurred–but they were separate from the rest as we sorted things after the funeral. Or they ended up being sent to me accidentally with a box of other things; either may be the case… But Mom likely used them as she loved a small snack of fruit, cottage cheese, carrots and so on. She had left them out, then boxed them up at some point. But I chose to keep them for Naomi as the vast bulk of china slipped away. I knew she would be happy to eat a little yogurt or ice cream or pear slices or strawberries from them one day. My sister never mentioned missing anything. I felt it was justified, even that it was meant to be. They stayed with me and have remained here– until Naomi can use them.

It is about time, I sense. I am not getting any younger. And I don’t want to break one more. They are a meaningful remnant of a time, place and person for her to keep close.

How much do things matter? Things that may not be used as one hopes or imagines? My mother entertained, happily if modestly, and pulled out all the stops when friends or visitors from the arts and education and church worlds came for dinners and lunches. I was a shadow part of that as a teen. I helped prepare food, set the table just so, laid the silver and the place settings. I served others with a smile and a nod. I sat with them at those extraordinary tables–the loveliness of her centerpieces, the light slipping over crystal and silver– and talked about books and music and a mix of ideas. Nothin earth shaking, but good topics. Music played always in the background. I easily crossed over from inquisitive child to a seeking and also forlorn young adult at that table. Such rituals held us all together.

So, that Rosenthal–“All food tastes better when eaten from it” Mom said, and it was true– was partly mine, perhaps, long after my older siblings departed from home, and still when I came around a few more years when attaining adulthood. I never once needed it for myself–I am a mix-and-match person, a casual meal person. I have a cupboard full of handmade mugs, ones from special places; I hold on to chipped pieces. I had a couple of pretty goblets but they–of course–broke. Mom had a different passion for beautiful things, and worked them well into my parents’ middle class, educated, well travelled lifestyle, the pleasing china cabinet brimming with perfect, shining pieces. Ones she used with ease and often, as if it was always so. She, a farmer’s daughter, with an eye for more diverse beauty.

So that was in my mind when I pulled down one bowl–that I ought to use one now and again until Naomi has them for fond use in her own life. I had rarely done so before. I’ve regularly used her bone china teacups sets and those doomed goblets and many other culinary-related items. I have her LLadro figurines in a cabinet. I wear a couple pieces of her good jewelry. But those bowls… Maybe I felt a niggling guilt for having them, though it’s unlikely as the years rolled by and they weren’t missed–who used fruit bowls, anymore? Mostly I wanted them to stay safe.

You never know what means the most until faced with it’s possible loss. I was mad at myself last week and sad, but it didn’t make me weep. I have blinked back a few leaks over few possessions badly ruined. But full tears come easily for me only when it is a true matter of heart. Like when I awakened the other morning with cheeks wet and I thought to myself, Oh yes, it is April, then comes May, June. These times are full of losing a sister, a brother, my mother. Then, after that, my father. And all this has no shape but fills an amorphous realm of bittersweetness, and not one sharp memory to stun me but a tender and brazen moving picture of long, mysterious, amazing lives, and no heft in my hand or within my arms but the silken air and the puzzling ether beyond.

But inside there is resounding love, far more valued and useful than a fine white and floral china bowl meant for berries. Still, I gaze at and touch that broken bowl with a private tenderness. The line remains invisible, but it is there in the center.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Intersections of Life

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

As I read the email alerting me to the availability of appointments for my first COVID-19 vaccination, I experienced an immediate, visceral loosening of a tension that I barely knew was there. I’ve adapted overall to the pandemic restrictions and found my life still will contain joy, even passing moments. But I’ve been waiting a while for this, as most of us have. The surprise was my palpable relief: it is going to happen, at last. One might think I’d be worrying about side effects since reactions vary widely and can be tough. It’s not that I have no concern about this vaccination; I just am doing it. I believe it crucial to help myself and others to stay healthier and move forward.

I only recently have begun to have dreams of people doing ordinary things–grocery shopping, for instance–and no one has masks on. That was not the case in many dreams the past year when, if someone did not wear a mask in a group, my overlooking consciousness was entirely perplexed–and even worried as I came to a wakeful state. It has become the way things are, how we live in this world. Yet nothing is static or, at least, for long.

Yesterday I began to consider how things will gradually change for society as “herd immunity” is met. For my family, for my friends–just for humanity. It was as if a door that was bolted shut was unsprung enough for me to glimpse in my mind and heart how life can become safer, freer, better. The realization of possibilities happened the moment I made my appointment for the shot. I’m not a foolish dreamer, more a practical one–I sure don’t expect fast, 100% improvements to gleefully restore us to carefree days. (I’m not convinced they were that carefree–there is always another pathogen about, other health events, the grind of financial stresses or relationship complications to surmount in life.) But these new images were beyond my control: full gatherings with others wafted across my mental screen off and on. A group about my table. I thought: I will be able at last to step into my family’s and friends’ physical bubble, just as before. We can share an animated conversation and home cooked meal, both indoors or out. I can visit with neighbors without uneasy wariness. Hike without stepping off a trail as another walks by, masked faces fully averted. And return to outdoor markets and other stores as needed–and desired. And perhaps, by next year, travel to places I have sorely missed or even new destinations can even happen.

Visiting in-person with faraway daughters and a grandchildren will be amazing. The very thought elicits excitement, energy jumping up and down inside me, squealing in joy. How much has not been readily shared! Phone calls, texting and messaging have not been enough even as we’ve told ourselves they are; we do it oftener. The weekly video calls that were so important the first year began to dwindle. It was tiring to keep up, and hard to meet with our five kids all at one time–they all kept their jobs, luckily, and were busier than Marc and me. And let’s face it, virtual interactions cannot meet the great need we have to be face-to-face, hand-to hand. And I am a natural hugger, as so many are. Yet being essentially okay with reality’s strictures, living in this bare bones manner satisfied just enough. That is what I’ve told myself. After all, I’m an adaptable person–we all are, aren’t we; we’re human beings so can and do perform mental gymnastics to get through trials. And I have long been used to lots of relocations in my life, health issues restricting my interactions and more–but I had never lived through a pandemic as my parents had to do (polio, influenza). Adaptability does not preclude a need of others. It just means to survive or make progress, we learn how to make things work.

The one constant has remained a deep desire to spend ordinary spend time with those I enjoy and those I dearly love. I do appreciate time alone, with interests and passions that keep me well occupied. A requirement for me is being among nature’s wonders via daily walks or hikes. I still have chafed against our societal mandate to distance… too much isolated time can undermine equilibrium and, maybe, stamina. Even seeing people walking beyond my balcony makes me feel lighter. Hearing children yelp and whoop in play immediately heartens. Laughter wending its ways through open windows makes me want to laugh along, get in on the happiness. Seeing my twin granddaughters toddle-run across a grassy field sends me over the moon. Yet, it is all from that remove; it is not full-on mingling among the living.

I learned long ago that a good life trick is to not demand that things be only what I desire them to be. Rather, it is my intent to fashion a daily process of give and take, to be open to surprises, seek the best in others while giving my own best self if at all possible. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in being present in life and availing myself of it. When I have trouble with those precepts, I brainstorm while praying like mad for help; I don’t like having poor insight or no applicable answers.

It seems my life has been shaped by a critical need to be brave, no matter what. I’ve had practice, with enough reasons to shrink back amid circumstances that arouse great fear. Accessing courage or even acting brave always brings me more courage and strength. Shakiness is transformed into sturdiness by virtue of bravery’s inherent core (ability to face or endure danger and difficulty); I am asked by this living to stand strong. But to me it also means knowing when and how to seek resources, find new ways to lift myself up, and take care of my whole self with good habits long established– even if feeling about depleted. Connecting with others increases this sense of sufficiency. I can only do so much alone. And I know for a fact that a greater mix ideas and caring make for a better human being.

Coping with trouble also elicits an urge–lets face it–to escape or deny situations awhile. If I take that time for respite and recharge, these are useful tools, not barriers to health as people suspect denial really is. Certainly it has been a go-to in the past year when I, like others, have read even more, listened to music and watched online entertainment more, dragged out old games, sat and daydreamed, etc. The point is, when faced with hardships, we can always do more to live our lives better. I refuse to see less than; I see more than. And it is a choice I make during times when that feels less natural. Coping with these difficult times with someone else–even if 6 feet apart–helps further more often than not.

I do seek solitude (or a time of escape) for calming rejuvenation, but afterwards I want to engage again with others, a little or a lot. How do I keep doing that when we are in this in-between time, when it will slowly become safer for us out there yet we still should live within safety’s rules? And with whom will we choose to practice this return to living more fully in the regrouping of diverse and curious human beings?

The truth is, over the last few months things have changed within my more intimate circle. Mere social acquaintances are nil except when chatting via social media. (Plus, I’ve caught up with several old high school classmates.) My closer relationships are impacted in various ways and have been different. And I’m not even writing about my several children and grandchildren this time…”way too much distance, how weird this is” is the number one complaint from all of them. And me.

Eileen, one of my two closest friends, moved during last Halloween. One moment she was planning on retiring and moving to Arizona to be closer to family. I almost didn’t believe it would happen despite her resolve from the start. She had loved and lived in Portland for 40 years. Before the move I visited her briefly and saw she was about finished packing. Then she was putting her house on the market, and at one last visit when she gave me an afghan she crocheted for me while I gave her a pretty carp windsock from the Japanese Garden. And then she was gone. I didn’t even see her take off in a plane. We called each other often at first, texted daily. I sent her pictures of Oregon rambles; she sent me pictures of austere desert landscapes. We swapped stories of life with eccentric family members; she updated me on a new house search while she lived with a brother. The house she bought there is strikingly similar to the one she sold. But no grass for a lawn, only rock and sand. The back of her house opens to a spiky mountain range and more desert; she so misses her old lush garden. We’ve lately spent less time talking and texting although (or because) she’s homesick for Oregon–she has almost moved back twice. But she is still settling in.

I don’t expect things to remain the same for her. I do expect we will stay close, in this changed manner. Later, when things are safer, Eileen will go swimming three times a week, go to the neighborhood country club to poke around. I know her; she loves to meet people, do new stuff. It will be so good for her (even though I don’t get the draw to retirement communities). When we do talk, I feel the allure of her new place sinking in, grabbing hold; she will put down new roots. I know it’ll take a couple years to get more comfortable. Yet, though I hope she will be happy there, I miss her deeply and often, as her presence in my life has been inestimable joy and comfort for decades. We’ll visit each other; she tells me all the time she can’t wait for me to fly down, how much fun it will be… Her eruptions of laughter are prized, as is how we can talk arts and sciences, politics, spiritual matters and people all in one rich gabfest. And those shared bear hugs… Maybe next winter? I will plan for that.

Another dear friend, Brenda, is here– but not quite fully. I just talked with her tonight on our cells and it was, after an hour, still not enough.

She has multiple, hard-to-manage health problems, so is very high risk for contracting the severe form of COVID-19. Long ago she could have stopped working and gotten on disability, but she has no interest in that. She loves to be of service to others in the midst of life’s chaos and beauty. Since last March she has worked at home, virtually (until last week), for a women’s prison treatment program, counselling inmates. Today she reminded me she has been there 11 years. It seems impossible. We met in 1993 and worked together with gang members and other at-risk youth; we finally worked as part of teams at three agencies. She recently returned to working in the prison. Everyone on staff has been vaccinated and,as well, many prisoners. Brenda feels safe enough so I must trust that she knows her limits and the situation. In the past year we were able to meet in parks or for coffee outdoors every 10-14 days. In the middle of wintry rain it became harder to do. (She also helps her 91 year old mother and a 9 year old niece. Talk about bravery.) So we update and support one another on the phone mostly. We’ve started planning how we might do this and that, how great it will be to be more spontaneous. Maybe we’ll even attend another Bonnie Raitt concert or go music shopping at Music Millenium before 2022. Some things are long and hallowed traditions for us.

Still, I miss Brenda though she’s nearby, unlike Eileen who is so far. I miss her more now, perhaps, because she nearly died from pneumonia not that long before the pandemic began (was it COVID?–she doesn’t know, it was hell), and still has congestive heart failure, Lupus, severe osteoarthritis and more. I don’t know how long I’ll have her though she is just 62 (and I’ve always known her to battle illness). Every time I’m not hanging out with her, it’s a bit like I’m losing more of her–clearly, at least, time spent. Because you never do know, do you–if not a virus, it can be something else. In fact, it will be–we just don’t know when. But I remain reasonably sure we’ll meet up when the weather warms, when she has more time to spare. That prospect is wonderful.

And my sweet, wise older sister, Allanya. Maybe it would be enough to say she has dementia, and it’s getting worse. For a long while it seemed we could navigate around it, be as we’ve always been–best friends, deeply blood connected. So in sync that we knew what the other was thinking. But it’s not quite like that now. It’s touch and go as I visit her in an open air structure next to a fine retirement community in which she resides. I don’t know when we’ll loop back to a topic we talked about just 10 minutes ago. I don’t know for certain if she’ll be in a fog or prone to morose or aggravated thoughts, or cheery as she always tended to be, ready to talk politics, books, art projects, family and the weather. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride but I will get on it every time to be with Allanya. Her general health is good. Her apartment is decent; she shares it with an ill spouse. So I’ll be seeing her as long as it can be done. She keeps telling me it is high time to go out for lunch or shopping at the resale stores she loves–and I tell her yes, I know, soon–when the pandemic wanes and fully vaccinated as is she. And thank God we can look forward to this.

We have lost parts of the year–she has lost even more–but we are both still here, will forever be truest of friends. Sisters of the soul. She once found a huge heart-shaped rock and painted it. Then wrote on it: “Heart of the universe. Love, Allanya, 2013,” I knew exactly what that meant to us both.

I dreamed awhile back of those who have passed on, members of family, A few times they all seemed to have convened to visit me, specifically, and I, them. I could clearly see them moving about and then circling, faces well defined as if they were in the room with me, theri energy as recognizable as when they were sentient. I counted 5, sometimes 6, (so many have died the last few years) but felt the presence of more–elder aunts and uncles very long gone. I heard them speak but cannot tell you now what they said right now. They were encouraging me, with warm smiles and good words. Each time I awoke I felt they were there to help and encourage me to be optimistic, to not be afraid of the future, tired out by things. To be assured I am loved and not alone– that they are near in spirit. They are family, ancestors interlinked with each other and me. Of course they would do that. Despite differences or misunderstandings in the past, we know how much I love them and they, me.

And that’s the thing: it’s all about that most basic yet sometimes the stickiest of experiences: love. If only we saw such caring as true compassion in action and just acted on it. We need a reminder now and again if things are rockier before they get better. The last year has been one tough terrain to cross over. Not, however, the worst time in my life. But one of the most puzzling and mournful, requiring patience and gentle surrender, innovation and faith. I have no doubt there will be more opportunities for happiness as well as times of sorrow as we sort it out. How will we have been changed? What will we pick back up or toss out, realign or welcome? Who will we first spend an afternoon with–in the first-person-miracle of flesh, blood and bone? (How can I get all my kids/grandkids/friends here to celebrate each other and life?) What will become a more sacred ritual; what will be dismissed as wasteful, trivial? We can look to the natural world for clues. The calculated designs of nature display a genius of efficiency. They regenerate wounded parts and aid one another, even those not their apparent own “sort”, as all are part of the whole.

I’m looking forward to seeing what alterations of mind and spirit bring us to new appraisements. But first and finally, may there be generous love, greater charity rediscovered to pass between us. We will find our way better.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

By Michael Gäbler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.

But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.

I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.

I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.

Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.

Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.

Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.

But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.

There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)

The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.

The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.

I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)

Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.

The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.

Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.

Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.

The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.

You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.

And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.

The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.

Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.

I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.

I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Ephemeral Snow v. Midwest Snow

I felt last night that something interesting was brewing as the sun was setting. The radiant orange sky was adorned with a mock bas relief: towering clouds that spread like a fiery blanket over woods and then distant mountains. And the weather forecast also had me sniffing the air for any hint of snowfall. I usually stay on the fence about our changeable weather, and Willamette Valley weather folks are on the fence about snow showers actually showing up at any time. But I live higher than most Portlanders at 800 feet above sea level–it is colder here and lasts longer. Even my car’s temperature indicator pinged at me, indicating freezing temps. It was within grasp on the edge of the breeze, that sharp sweetness of a coming snow.

After all, snow was something to get excited about–we had had none here this winter. The Cascade and Coast Mountain ranges get plenty but I have wishes far greater than reality. My twin granddaughters had already gotten to play in the superior mountain snow, even sled down with their parents and tasted a bunch. Two other (teenaged) grandkids are used to winter’s plentiful fluff in their city, at a higher elevation of much colder central Oregon. But here I was with face to the windows, opening the balcony doors–waiting, waiting.

It took until the next day but it came. Yes, I know, it is clearly nowhere close to being a white-out snow…but it was still a pleasant thrill. It was drifty and soft and bright–it was not, thank goodness, more rain.

That was about it, yet it felt so good, a relief to stand outside and have wispy, sometimes globby flakes land on my face, feel sharper wind as it pressed against more weighted pine branches; they swayed a bit to and fro as if in welcome. There were many grey-on-white foot prints. My hands cupped chilled softness to shape a snowball–it was good packing snow despite the limited amount. I stood on the balcony that overlooks many pines and absorbed a breath-giving freshness of air, the taste of it almost a wintery dessert. For a few minutes I leaned against the house, coatless, arms held close about myself. I wanted to feel the slightest elegant power of snowfall, take deep its lingering quietude.

I shared my hasty snaps of the snow with my five adult kids because they know of the variety of more relentless winter events, the voluptuous kinds that coat everything with its generous displays. They lived many years in the Great Lakes State as did their parents. We traded pictures of their snow levels and mine along with a few memories. It was an immediate reconnection to a different space emotionally. Anyone who lives with snow for months every winter knows how this is, how it shapes your internalized landscape of life.

Today my youngest, Alexandra–one who lives in the metro area–checked in on me. She had earlier sent photos of her 20 month old little girls frolicking in a lot of snow on Mt. Hood a week ago, tasting quite a bit as they played. She asked how I was doing, meaning: how is it going with weather/virus statistics/vaccine roll out pushed back farther for too many/political changes/restlessness, as I like freedom to move a lot/life with her dad being yet unemployed. I answered, “Fair to Midland”, a dumb old gag that originated who knows where. In fact, I grew up in Midland, Michigan (she with her four siblings lived in that city awhile, as well; they’d often visited my parents/their grandparents). So it slipped out, innocuous if truthful. Maybe it was triggered by the snow the night before..ah, yes, Michigan snow…So a “Midland” designation could be pretty good or it might be a slight bit better than fair. I was feeling more the second. Life in itself can be fatiguing.

However, I also had been considering experiences to write about for this nonfiction blog post today. Since we were chatting, I asked my daughter to throw out a random idea or phrase (she writes a lot, too).

She said, “Melting snow–or fingernail painting.”

“Not fingernail stuff, I’d get three lines out of that one today. But snow….snow sledding, snow people and snow houses, heavy pants and coats and wet mittens and snowballs fights, giant snow drifts….”

“Wait, are you writing about snow? It has to be snow melting.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay then, snow melting right before spring with green shoots underneath, or the demise of snow in the greater world, or watery snow in ditches that become creek beds and mountain rivers rushing from snow melt. That crappy moment the sled won’t budge because the runners are gunked up with mud taking over the once-snowy spots. But–a bit sad?”

She quickly responded: “The snowperson feels her own face slowly disappear. Her eyes first, an escape from the stare of an angry sun. Her nose, a frozen lump receding, and with it scents of earth and wet. Too late to yell out, to petition the clouds to dispense more of the clay that builds her bones: snow…” She paused. “But, anyway, mud sledding sounds sort of fun.”

I was quite taken with her melting snow lady scene; it was an entire story in a few sentences. I was hoping for more. “Oh boy! Can I quote you on that?” Meaning: can I use this for today’s post or better yet, will you write it for me?

“Sure–but I’m kinda depressed so not the best storyline.”

“We all have been kinda depressed off and on. Fatigued, worn out by it all. Anyway, I love you.”

She gave me her love with hugs and got back to her now-virtual work duties. I got my hiking boots on–I had to get outdoors. Rain–for months now–or snow, daylight or dusk: moving beyond my front door and into the world and nature’s domain is a ritual I well keep. A routine, an opportunity for discovery and more good moments. It’s praying on two feet moving, with all senses attuned. And maybe I’d still find a bit of snow.

So I went on a trek in search of snow, up and down hills, pinpointing evidence of yesterday’s flurry of frozen rain. There was pitiful little. The air held a steely edge as I wove in and out of treed areas, the sky grey and weighted as pewter, damp breezes sliding over hair and face. The temperature had risen overnight to 43 degrees Fahrenheit; snow had about all melted. My thick sweater and LLBean jacket with a hood encouraged heat and sweat as I tramped winding walkways. But there was a whisper of it, tiny clues here and there that snow had landed and stayed long enough to entice, to make me remember the lavish and treacherous, the magical snows of my youth.

The creeks were burbling and rushing downhill, pleased with increased wet volume. But trees and earth looked a little forlorn, not dressed with leaves nor with snow, caught at an in-between stage. I know they wait patiently for all that comes, live on in anticipation of matters and happenings they know far better than do I, and so I bid them a good day and kept on.

But as for the snow of my childhood and youth that is not here today…That kind of snowfall provided an entry into a differently populated, newly designed world. Everything lost its edges, was rounded, gave off a bright sheen. The earth with its plant kingdom and humanly created structures were refashioned into ghostly or gaudy versions of themselves, depending on laydown of any light. Before the snowfall, all that was ordinary and reliable transformed into magical and mysterious.

How many routes were carved through heavy snow? Year after year. Around our two story yellow house, forging the deep path with my heavy boots– into the front, side and back yards, about the juniper (and sleeping forsythia) bushes, back to the big maple and circling the bloomless cherry tree, then turning finally toward Stark’s Nursery that went on forever behind our bushes and pines. Each venture was a new exploration. I felt brave and hearty as I trudged into the howling center of winter, dragging my wooden sled behind me, face to snow’s kisses. I’d gather small branches and pine cones to be settled on the sled for delivery elsewhere, or carry a pyramid of snowballs for surprise battle with my sister if she roused herself (or any other who dared challenge). Or, too, my doll–dear Lady Jane, a beautiful walking doll, my favorite–warmly protected and wrapped in Mother’s dress fabric remnants or an old woolen scarf. It was the elements and us.

I could have headed to a good sledding hill with my sister and brother, as often I did. I might have gone to City Forest to enjoy gargantuan toboggan ice runs constructed high up, the rides down a fast rattle and flash with a sprawling crash into packed hard snow. I might have skated more often than anything; it was a passion. Good ice (shiny smooth if possible, free of snow) or bad ice, it made no difference. (Figure skating required and provided other things–the best clean ice, hours of hard, happy work with thrilling small successes.) I occasionally went skiing with a friend whose family did that sort of thing–mine did not–and when I made it down “bunny hills” without falling, I fell in love with its speed and athletic delight.

But in childhood and into my teens I just had to go forth into that driving snow. Especially the first few snows. It swirled about and stung my cheeks, tweaked my nose, crusted lashes and eyebrows crystalline. I was never lonely; I was fully alive and free. There were cardinals, blue jays, other winter birds and squirrels scampering about. And the tree nursery was a wilderness of loveliness any direction I looked, snow a glittering veil, trees and bushe ands small creatures adorned in beauty. If I got thirsty I found and broke off an icicle to slurp as it melted in heat of my mouth. Some were long enough to be a sword, three feet long or more, sharp as a big needle point on the end. Just in case. Just because I was on an exploration and nothing must stop me.

There were fortresses, cabins or castles out there somewhere, weren’t there?– I would find them and make a fire, warm fingers and toes of Lady Jane in my palms, make a porridge of melted snow and pine needles and old moss. I was never afraid of darkness gathering, the shadows lengthening, then widening upon undulating stretches of creamy whiteness. Like satin bordered with lace, like a huge blankets speckled with earth.

Back around the house, a streetlight swung in the wind as more snow blew in, lifted and drifted. Light and dark chased one another as I began packing snow blocks one against another in tall drifts left by the snowplows. I could crawl inside if I scrunched myself into a tidy ball. The snow blew across the yard in waves so high that freezing flakes slipped over my boot tops and under the legs of my snow pants–then warmed and trickled down my ankles. But a snow house was in the making and unless my family called me in, I was out for the duration.

When all was completed and I finally wearied of the cold, the cold, wet garments would come off, then I’d warm up and dry off by the hot air register (the burning sensation making me aware how cold my hands had gotten). One was positioned right behind a big chair and I could hide there a bit, rest and be happy. Nose ran, cheeks flamed, eyes were wide and bright. Soon scents of dinner would overcome me, simple pork chops or roast beef, potatoes, brussel sprouts, beets with salad. I was home again. All was well in those fine moments.

In Michigan when the snow began to melt, I felt little by little a welling up of sadness. I was not a springtime girl despite being born in April. It was the passage of winter to spring that I least loved. The slipping away of winter’s wonderment seemed a slow counting of tender losses: the enrapt silence of snow fallen, and its soft sifting and clicking against plant life and human bodies; cars cruising through slush, houses made friendlier. The odd emptiness of the world when blizzard conditions occurred and snow fell down as a heavy curtain, insulating the world from itself. The mystery of reaching into snowy depths, stiff grasses like sharp reminders of secret hibernations and ground hard as granite and stones like bitter cold gems ready to crack open to reveal something more.

My body and mind cushioned against any slight or large harm, any misgivings or errors, or reach of words and deeds that might lead me to something that might hurt, or someone I could not interpret correctly. This I knew for sure: snow was a bestowing of nature’s blessing; it was a perfect performance of beauty and power, another gift from from God’s own hands. And I had a place in that embrace.

In time, I came to admire and respect all the seasons in equal measure, for different reasons. The fantastical designs of nature held me early in their thrall. As any child who has the chance to explore such worlds feels, if they are lucky, right away. There were moments I was certain I was given the keys to all I ever needed to know. That was, of course, not quite the case. I had to better learn how to step into the other realm–to move into and about the world of people and their doings. Into the life I had a responsibility to create each step of the way, even when with disastrous results, even when there came success beyond expectations. But oh, what a teacher I had as each winter came with its wildness and gentleness, to offer both respite and adventure. What good fortune it was. And shortly after the spring, the summer, the autumn. Michigan has, as I learned four entire seasons, and all are their own sort of thing. And each had signs and gateways into their secrets.

Oregon has its own surprises and gifts galore. Even if snow here does arrive like a dashing figure and then is too soon called elsewhere. It melts so fast yet I always greet it as a friend to a friend. I can go to the mountains to find much more. That may be a trek I take soon– to nudge out the 2020-21 blues and make way for more satisfying and energizing moments.

Below, a couple of poor pictures–my apologies– of old photos of my childhood home in winter. You might note those icicles and also the long handled shovel on the porch. I did my share of shovelling along with the others!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Sting’s and My Christmas Season

Most of my days are classical music days. It flows in my blood as my family’s tapestry is woven with classical musicians; I have sung and played it, as well. There’s no escaping my enduring love of it: the stately, rich cohesion of many parts, its thrilling or delicate compositions with such variety of instruments, voices. And sacred music and hymns this time of year speak to me, yes. But there is also jazz, another mainstay of my life, a musical form that depends on a precise complexity, as well, sparked with glory of innovation. There is a fun infusion of it even in holiday tunes. And I have to admit there is very little music I don’t value. Such an abundance of choices!

Lately I have rummaged through my CD collection–I’m one who still plays them–and listening, as is typical, to more seasonal music including Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and their crowd. Singing their hearts out–they make me happy, just listening to such smooth and lilting tones. It makes me long for a stage and a swirly dress with high-heeled dance shoes, so I can drape myself over the piano when done dancing…

But today I chose another album; it weaves another enchantment entirely. It drew me as I sat waiting for words to settle and unfurl inside me, readied at my desk.

The music of Sting is emitted from my stereo, the album being “If On A Winter’s Night”. The minor keys move through the space, through me. It’s raining here, the fall of water a quietly intrusive hum under his singing. Loads of raindrops with theirs rhythmic shifting over heavy pine tree branches, silently streaming down windows. The geraniums are soaking in drenched, blustery air. The squirrels, chubby with good food scavenged, aren’t racing as usual, but hiding somewhere better. I miss our birds who today also seek refuge, fine wings tucked close.

I get up from my chair, dance slowly to the tune, steps and arms almost courtly, a drum resonant in the winding tune. Sting’s unusual tenor moves about in a tender, plaintive way. The traditional British Isles offerings are interpreted in his style and it suits me today: cool yet dense, smoothly unspooling, slightly melancholic. It travels from his hillocks and valleys to this woman in Oregon. It captures me as ordinary speech cannot. As do the moments of warmth with which he infuses the old songs– despite the greyness of the wintry mix of his album. I am easily pulled from this desk by closing my eyes.

Yes…I am leaning at a long wooden common table, on a bench with a bunch of others, a huge stone fireplace aflame with crackling fire, the room shadowed and yet so warm. We’re witness to and sharing poetic tales beloved by musicians and us. The room is close: a whiff of sweat, pungency of firewood, drinks in hand and the cooking from the kitchen has slowed a bit as cook and helpers come out to hear the music. It’s music that’s going on. It’s the core of the heart for now.

As I open my eyes, it occurs to me this music I’ve long enjoyed makes a nice analogy for this year, as well as the holiday season, at least for me. It is a unique album. It requires close listening and thinking about, for me, and still the songs reflect much of what has been and shall be. Love and loss, heartache and liberation, fears and wonders, babies and creatures hushed. Sting brings me to today’s writing.

There is a differentness of these past months days and nights. There has become a new rendition of human life pushing against dramatic constraints and then, an incremental yielding for most. I seek gentling warmth that is still is lined with an overall bittersweetness. I note a dawning appreciation of what may be discovered within new formats and boundaries. The usual manner of living has been upended, so I have had the choice of either despising it or understanding it all the best I can. Then accepting it even when not understood. Discovering the value of restriction is a challenge. This is not a new idea for me; I’ve lived in other situations that demand a more circumscribed life. I have literally been in situations where little movement is allowed. And there can be meaning and worth in some of that, perhaps oddly.

There is the simplification of daily agendas. I’m not up and running about in the same way as before COVID-19. So, less distractions. They can easily arise with more geographical movements, the body more free, a wider choice of activities. The hours flee–and before I often felt: look how much is undone! Not so much now, though there seems always more to address. Especially if one has children at home: more needs and chores. But my family has all grown up. Now these hours open up now like a long horizon, and I can paint or impress upon it most anything I want–even with several clear limitations. I don’t mean I love all this, but it has narrowed my attentions in a constructive way, too. The boundaries in which we have been living gave rise to a slower, more orderly manner of doing things. A greater meditative tone, if we recognize opportunities.

It can take not only adaptability but discipline to cope with a pandemic or other catastrophic change. A commitment to staying safe and helping others stay well, too. But beyond that critical measure in a time of upheaval and stress, time is still colored and molded by whatever else I feel and do with it. I have greater blocks of time and solitude to create. A chance to define and refine relationships better. And I have an important reason for being more outdoors. I luxuriate in the gifts of nature; being outside saves me during the worst of emotional times, and expands the best. Now, it is as if someone said, “Amid the deprivations and worry, here you go–please avail yourself fully of spiritual and physical sustenance.” And so I do. Not a day goes by without a chance to embrace virtues of nature’s earthy yet heavenly ways.

Even the cooling to chilling onslaughts of winter rains. Like today. I had tasks to do, then writing. But I stepped onto the balcony and…breathed in, out. Piney/mossy-enriched dirt and air scents. And then I saw millions beads of crystalline water adorning both stripped branches, heavier green boughs. What are those tiny jewels? Heard the call of a crow. What message goes there? Breeze gusted my hair across cooled skin. What is today’s wind song? In the far distance beyond the screen of rainfall lie hills, mountain peaks. What secrets of aged earth live and root there? It was a few moments of quiet joy. This earth which is not always easy to live on… it gives well and it takes harshly, we think. But what supreme mystery and wonder. What purity of being. The Creator: manifest in the creation right here for us.

The discipline I’ve rallied the past months derives from a significant store developed over a lifetime. I was taught very young that good things come from labor towards competence and possible mastery. Wanting and getting are two different things. Meeting one’s goals takes devotion, with an expected amount of trial and error. One must try, one must work and so I did. Developing simple habits– attention, well-used times of practice–to what lay before me aided in moving forward, and took me closer to learning what truly mattered to me. This also bred patience, which only means waiting–whether actively or passively–in a relatively calm manner for an event or its results. Things will happen; they happen as they will.

Not wanting to be self-deluded, I realized that though I may help determine many outcomes, this did not mean all. But other outcomes can be useful. Maybe surprisingly better. Not all solutions can be anticipated or even understood entirely. This isn’t easy for someone who is driven to gain solid knowledge, who relentlessly seeks the truth and its finer details. This happens even in the simplest life matters for me. But it is possible to accept outcomes not desired, scenarios not easy. I need to accept things that have finality. But acceptance can be helpful no matter what is at hand–even as I also can find ways to work with it. Bending limits the potential for breakage, after all. Then, in addition to this methodical way of approaching “living life on life’s terms”, is my natural and opposite impulse to live passionately and deeply. And that is what bubbles up–sooner or later– during hard times. My love affair with life hasn’t fizzled, it’s ongoing so why not bring it to the fore in the rougher times? It requires of me to remove preconceptions of what I think matters. And what I think is still mine to enjoy.

Does reading an interesting book matter? Does lighting a candle at mealtime matter? Humming along with or breaking into song when I hear music that enlivens me? Dancing across the room when I get up t o greet the day? Smelling lavender in the vase on a shelf, dabbing perfume for no good reason behind my ears? Siting on a mossy rock and watching the chickadees and juncos? Yes. Hearing the twins’ little voices grow bigger? Yes, please. Marc reading aloud from a book? Savoring a slice of juicy pear? All of it. Every day. And the rest which of the things I need to do: Writing poetry and stories. Taking pictures. Praying for the sick and sorrowful. Writing letters– or sending cards, just because. Seeking greater understanding of relationships. Reaching out to extended family and friends not close by. Greeting neighbors, even when they look down. Leaning more about societal upheavals and how to be a help. I care about human life, so I need to keep acting like it.

The real constraints I put on myself are not much due to the pandemic. It worries and frustrates me, as it does others. Mostly, I miss closer–actual–contact with loved ones, as people do even more these days. Yet the one thing that can trip me up is my mental framework. Sometimes, long-rooted health issues do, but so far I can push or glide onward. In the end I must overcome any vestige of unwillingness to seek what awakens me, moves me. Whatever motivates me to greater insights. I already know I can make do with less, just as I’ve made do with more if nearly overwhelmed by that, too.

It’s a matter of working with what is at hand, figuring it out. Inventiveness is a prime human feature; we are all gifted with it. Why do I-/we ever sell myself/ourselves short?

This Christmas is, for most of us, seemingly less than accustomed to experiencing. It is unusual in terms of carefree roaming in and out of festive shops; in giving of gifts personally, or gathering with others in our homes; sharing convivial feasts; and sharing prayers and praise in celebration if one is Christian, as am I. The candlelight service will be terribly missed; it is a lifelong tradition to raise my lit candle in the sanctuary of darkness with others as we sing “Silent Night.” Yet I also miss conversations with shopkeepers in brightly decorated stores. Strangers’ well wishes at a coffee shop as I slurp my peppermint mocha– without needing a mask, six feet apart from them.

I began this essay stating Sting’s album seems a metaphor for these times in my life, specifically for this Christmas season. His fine group’s performance, his singing of traditional seasonal songs with their own twist on them captivates me. So it comes down to this: Like the music I enjoyed today, I am trying to honor what is good and true of the past, engage with the present creatively, share appreciation for whatever gifted moments arrive, and accept that melancholy may tinge any triumphant moments. This is not essentially different from other years, in a sense. But this December 2020 asks me to glean even more carefully any useful remainders of life’s offerings, to well sort whatever is enhancing and enriching from the dross. To reap fulfillment of this moment, then give the best away. And I know there is ever much to learn. More to enjoy. Plenty to share from the soul’s stirrings.

The rain has suddenly slowed to a stop. The night has begun to spread its magic over the woods. The candles are glowing, casting changing shadows over walls and ceiling. Quietness envelops me, another kindness, now that the lovely music has ended. I am glad I heard Sting winter music today and evening. And blessed to be sitting with a good peace this moment. May there be greater peace for all beyond this room.

And meantime, I’ll be listening to Handel’s “Messiah” and more exquisite–or fun–music soon. May you find your musical sustenance for the holidays.