Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

Running Away as a Grown Up Solution

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I am regularly tempted to run away. It’s been an impulse much of my life that, more often than not, I’ve managed to resist in the literal sense. For someone whose formative mind was instilled with a strong sense of responsibility regarding duty and other acquired commitments–and who enjoys her life overall–this fantasy appears to be in conflict. Who would abdicate one’s life ties so easily? But I’m not sure it is so at odds.

A fledgling “escape desire” flared by age ten to twelve while reading a few pulpy novels about independent young women heading off to dazzling New York, for an example, to pound on doors of business (seeking an editor’s trajectory at a hip magazine) or theater (an actor’s life in musical theater) or medical centers (a doctor’s or nurse’s career). The adventures they had, the surprising people they met! I can yet recall how the books evoked yearning; it lit within me an ardor that fueled childish dreams. And I did enjoy the story lines that ended with satisfaction after a few hairy trials. Heroines of a sort they were, and they sometimes found love.

Yet a secret desire to escape Midland along a more general wanderlust developed even before then. Each month I poured over National Geographic, as well as Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post. Everyone was doing things far more interesting than what I saw going on in my town, and they were doing it in  marbvelous places. I imagined what it might be to leave my small Michigan city where we mostly knew one another. To leave heartbreaks already experienced, discarding a sometimes stifling atmosphere of a competitive, properly behaved, often blinkered family. And then to embrace the freedom of options that I listed by adolescence. Too few if things went the way they had been.

On my walls I taped discarded posters salvaged from travel agencies–Paris, London, Madrid, Buenos Aries. I studied them and was transported to bustling public squares, colorful outdoor cafes, saw music and dance performances on the street, and soon almost slipped in the picture to leap along turquoise waves. I kept a bulletin board with more visual and verbal encouragements, each a promise to myself that I was getting out.

The truth was, I was also happy to go to Chicago and wander (close to parents) the “windy city’s” exciting streets or even Detroit’s muscular, diverse energy. I appreciated journeying to see relatives in Missouri and Kansas, Texas and Colorado–not just to visit them. I couldn’t wait to absorb with senses and mind the days and nights of varied countryside, decayed or beautiful buildings, window shop in tiny or shiny, mammoth stores, join the parade of passersby on streets, even quiet byways. On other summer trips cross-country all I had to do was gaze out the back seat car window to find cheery roadside fruit and veggie stands or fancy skyscrapers and historical makers amid deep woods, not to mention places too much to even put into words such as the Smokey Mountains or the Grand Canyon: instant, moving beguilement. Stories took shape at each pause, then we were off to the next part. The whole world was rife with oddness, joy, variety, magic. How to bridge the gap between modest reality when back home and that grander one?

Later, I did run away by skirting limits, then breaking rules and half-submerging myself in a shadowy world of drugs (an escape that ends up as hell), living a double teen-aged life. Not running towards what I’d hoped but trying to get away from much, I was a teen with potential but also issues. By age 15, I was placed in a foster home for a few months; it was terrible, ended disastrously though I learned better to depend more on myself. At nearly 17, it was arranged that I share an apartment with a “respectable” twenty-one year old woman who was working long hours and needed help with rent. That, too, was not any good dream fulfilled but a chance to use more substances, and try to avoid the law. Overdoses, breakdowns, then finally being given a one way ticket to live with a sister and her friend. Now that was something, a log cabin on Lake Washington, freedom, nature surrounding us, new people, a wild boyfriend. But one cannot run from one’s haunted self and eventually I returned to the old hometown, then began university studies at last, feeling defeated but determined to move on and out of there. I didn’t know there were worse hurdles to come. But I vowed to one day return to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with its creatively charged cities (which took me twenty years). The wanderlust had set its tender roots deep within.

But I became an adult in fits and starts as I got clean. Before long I committed myself to being a mother, a wife, a worker bee. I had not well considered being a wife nor had I expected to become a mother due to diagnosed fertility problems. Thus, my learning curve was steep but i am nothing if not persistent, for good or ill. Once setting a goal, I am all in or I admit defeat and try another path. As a mother, there can be no selfish foolishness.

Thus, I determined at last that pockets of daydreams were fine for long pauses but not so useful in everyday life. Daily life held exceptional moments but required diligent attention, sweat, sacrifices. It was time to stop desiring another life. Get on with it, get busy attending those new needs. Escapist fantasies were for selfish people or perhaps cowards.

But you know, it is hard to stop wanting what one feels is needed, yet cannot have. In the long afternoons when rocking beautiful but squalling babies; when tallying up the income, outgo and what little food was left on the shelf; when the night wrapped itself about me in a sometimes too-empty bed; and when more devils of illness and heartache came, that old longing whispered in my ear: ah, to leave this hurt/poverty/backwater place/man and begin anew, to search out happiness, to be gifted with possibilities like dandelion fluff that floats into open palms, seeds for new growth landing in my eager grasp. At such moments, the recollection of old hopes is strong, bittersweet.

I got up in the night and wrote. A song, a story, a three line poem. I sat in the pearly glow of moonlight spilled onto living floors or danced a few steps in dew-spun grass out the back door as my family slept. There was an empty spot within that slowly burned, called out for more. As much as I gave myself over to hope and prayer for a life that filled up the wells rather than readily emptied them, I shouldered a burden of shame. Why wasn’t love of my children and their father utterly enough? It was the 1970s, then the 1980s. It was a far throw from the restrictive fifties into which I was born. Yet I was more often the one in a room full of women without the big career, with little to show for my perseverance to stay fully alive, just to daily do the decent thing. I did own a passport that held stamps from only Canada while my second husband traveled often and farther (and still does).

Of course, life was transformed many times over. I moved to other places on the worn paper U.S. map I spread on the floor to show the kids where to next, our fingertips tracing blue, red and black arteries that crisscrossed the country. I was excited to move again, to meet new people, explore new scenery, thought of myself as a roaming soul. I lived in pleasing houses and raised more children. I went back to work, had a career I appreciated. From time to time, however, I still imagined running away though I knew it would not happen, not the ways I’d once invented. And never unless I took the children with me, for I adored them. (This did occur a few times.) They’d become as much the anchor bolts of my life foundation as my faith in God. Still. The urge to escape, to extend my reach further, was part of my self just like my loyalty to family. I could get restless. I tried to be more content. It could not be denied that there were many golden moments to find. The children and I had delicious adventures and men I’ve loved also have inspired times both life enhancing and fulfilling.

There was, however, another way of transportation to other realms. Not surprisingly, it was what I both felt and learned as a young person: becoming ever better at tuning into both inner and outer worlds; and acting in creative ways in response. By paying attention and loving what and how I chose to see, then letting myself be moved to make something of it–this becomes a door cracked, and then it springs wide open. It is being in the moment and doing any sort of creative work.

In this way, I have found it is not so hard to slip the confines of life’s various conundrums and prisons. I am not speaking to experiences of those who have suffered far worse but only to my own experiences. There are readers of this blog who’ve read of harrowing times, the worst of which I haven’t shared here and some of which have been fictionalized. The point is, in my own strenuous circumstances, there has been a way to get out, to slip the bonds of everything from obnoxious boredom to terrifying events. It is all accomplished by power of mind and strength of soul. And if you have a few extra bucks in your pocket, a road trip always makes the mix more engaging. A brisk walk around the neighborhood can even be a start, for some of us, anyway. The same potential for wonder can blossom in unassuming ways.

I find it rewarding to embark on armchair travels as well, via reading or watching documentaries. I’m good with a trip to our far flung coasts or a hike in nearby valleys and mountains. And my husband and I go on a jaunt to Canada now and again. I avail myself of others’ offerings, such as a brother and sister-in-law mentioned before in posts who travel nonstop and take fine photographs. I just listen to their experiences, thumb through their websites. I am expanded, enlightened more. It’s not being there, but it counts. Interestingly, when my parents returned from European travels after I’d left home, I felt that same tingle of excitement. They shared slide shows and I loved every minute, even my parents’ verbally meticulous notations of each scene.

Most of all, being in possession of an imagination is a powerful tool for all. Sometimes I think this century has lost sight of its most basic operational sense. Do we need to always be entertained by speedy, sometimes shallow offerings, by endless media distractions splashed across screens? Because I’m in my sixties, I didn’t grow up with these things so got used to utilizing my own resources. I know technology does aid us. But we have our extraordinary, DNA-designed “imaginarium”, the human mind. The more it is used, the more finely attuned it becomes and the better it serves–for entertainment, yes, but also to problem solve, to explore strange unknowns, to empathize with others, to engage in a spectrum of possibilities from artistic expression to humanitarian services to entrepreneurial plans. To fashion, then immerse one’s self in a fulfilling life. Spiritually, it is just one step further and forward. For in my view, soul and mind are part of a vast continuum, a powerhouse combination leading us to grander interconnecting, cohesive designs. It all fits together nicely.

Truth be told, I more or less run away multiple times a day. I write something, read widely, dance, sing, listen to music. I make pictures, attend films, plays and concerts. Enjoy talking with other people often, listening to conversations on the street and in cafes, observing from the windows as humanity ebbs and flows past my home. And of course there are daily walks  and weekend hikes that are never uninspiring, but both balm and surprise. Escapes like these replenish. Perhaps they are, rather, more of an augmentation of our humanness, enriching and resettling, so that we gather strength and stamina and clearer minds for whatever is to come. So we can better act in accord with our higher selves. Mend our broken spots. Buoy the tiresome moments of life.

But my husband told me once that he doesn’t quite get how I can be so satisfied by simply looking at visuals and reading about places, people, things. It surprised me. I thought everyone felt that way. If I can imagine it, I can claim an experience that is still  powerful.

“See that chalet on a Swiss mountainside?” I asked and pointed at a picture. “I can begin to see a life being lived there and I can zoom in and imagine being there, even that it is mine a moment if I choose. It is mentally entering a new country, crossing over into another time or kingdom. I do not have to get on a plane to do that much. It is the cheapest route to exploration!”

There is a last grand escape (not counting leaving the human body) idea for which I do sporadic research: where to live when my husband retires, maybe in five years. Surely not in this traffic-ridden, burgeoning city where housing costs are skyrocketing monthly. I’ve been musing over Boise, Idaho for the grandeur of the mountains and four more defined seasons, and most important,  a lower cost of living. Then I am attracted to San Diego, California with its wonderful weather and ocean side living–but a frail pipe dream as we don’t have the budget required. And I have always wondered about the Mediterranean–isn’t there some island we might make a life upon? Say, magical, monastically simplified life on Santorini? Next week it may be Norway or Ireland that I’ll investigate. Or, okay, perhaps upstate Washington, always an area we like to visit.

On the other hand, I can’t take my children from their work and so on, can I? Of course, they’re full grown adults now, plotting their own fun and important ventures. But a few live here and grandchildren, too. We will have to give it a long, hard think. There is more than one way to book a good place and time in this life. We’ll see what happens. Right now I am becoming lost in a recording by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and I am somewhere wonderful that time will reveal, perhaps in the next poem I’m moved to write. But later–when Marc gets home from his Mexico business trip– there is another trip to be planned for a pause in our daily duties. Yes, a small and happy escape.

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View from the Olympic Mountains, Washington from a good “escape trip”

 

 

Christmas, Visible and Invisible

In case you lost track: four more days until Christmas Eve. Of course I want to write something thoughtful, moving and richly authentic, but what I think of this moment is the shopping. I know there is nothing I purchase that will provide true contentment, reasonable internal and external security and well-seeded joy. And yet I joined the hoards and covered a few miles in search of a delightful/useful/curious/unique something or other for each one of 14 people for whom I will wrap gifts. And the average number of gifts per person is about 4. I admit that if I had more money, I’d be in far greater trouble, though I do mind my spending.

I do get a bit tired from preparations even though I’m fortunate to have a lot of energy. I keep saying: this is it, next year I am going to the mountains, I will reserve a remote chalet really early (turns out lots of others like to do the same) and then we’re gone. If any adult children and grandchildren wanted to follow, they’d have to bring sleeping bags and agree to only nature’s or other handmade presents, no television or other technological downfalls. My husband and I might end up alone…

So long ago I faced the truth: I love the Christmas season, even a little hullabaloo, decorating and spit shining the place and then hanging out with all. I do wish we still had a larger home so we could stuff everyone in longer for more fun and food. Because we return to productive, hectic lives fast. This year things will be different as some folks have other places to be this time, too. It may feel more like an “open house.” I need one of those revolving doors so they’ll keep coming and going.

But at least I have the gifts. Mostly. They’re snugged up to one another in bags on the biggest bedroom’s carpeted floor, which now barely peeks out at me. At some point they will be attractively wrapped (well,  hastily covered up with appropriate paper). And I have to bake–my yearly Russian teacakes. That’s it this year, if my schedule holds.

While out there spending money on my family, I wondered how we can be so enthralled with objects; people seemed to move at times as if in an agitated trance. Others fawned over something with an excitement one might ascribe to discovering the one’s grandest desire. Often people trod streets and stores with a stalwart resignation, as if they’d tried their best yet nothing could be done about it. I half-want to sit them down, offer them Epson salts foot soaks and rubs and then a cup of tea as we have a chat. If it is no fun and there is little joy, why overexert yourself?

Clearly, I am not adept at rising above all this. I want to be spiritually minded at all times. I treasure my faith, am possessed by an ineffable love for God. But I have to admit to just enjoying shopping for family and friends, no matter the occasion. It feels good to give, even materially. There were a few times, however, when I had fleeting out-of-body experiences as I looked about and then at myself, whereupon I mused: What is all this? Why? For there is not one item I bought that’s not replaceable or irrelevant in the end. I have no illusions yet still ponder each purchase as if it matters deeply to the recipient. I sometimes think I want to give out happiness.

I know what counts amid all the fuss and anticipation. I am certain that we all do, whether or not our primary consideration is to offer up hallelujahs of praise for Jesus’ birth. Or to support youngsters’ wonderment and the hope in Santa Claus’ dedication to their dearest wants. Or to just pause and take a holiday break on ski runs with friends we’re fortunate to know. For some, it’s just a couple of days off from demanding employment–isn’t all work tiring by end of December?–and a chance to recover a greater sense of wellness. Heart.

Little things count for much. Lighting a candle in memory of those who have left this realm. Reading a good book by the heater or a snapping fire. Immersing one’s self in the melodic swell and decrescendo of favorite music. Holding closer a beloved child, a partner, a best friend. Looking above at vast and brilliant scatterings of stars in the sheer navy-to-black cosmos–where things are happening right now that we do not even know about. (I recently learned that seven newly discovered planets about the size of earth in a nearby solar system may have water.)

How much emphasis can we place on a simple act of tenderness? How many miracles exist in forests, valleys, mountains and deserts; in an operating room where one more life is snatched back to life? At a corner cafe where food is given away and within reaches of an infant’s newly arrived intellect and imagination? One only needs to consider for a moment. And it’s all happening despite the commercial call to us each Christmas and New Year’s.

I don’t know about you, but this life is devastatingly, mindbogglingly breathtaking to me even at 67. I now that’s two long adverbs and a fancy adjective, but really. I don’t need a special season to remind me of my place in the fullness of this universe as we know it. It’s a minuscule spot but still, a good seat. I want it so I claim it. I open my arms to it, embrace the relentless absurdities and suffering, the epiphanies, the rewards.

So I do my Christmas shopping and my whole system responds: very soon, celebratory days will be here. But I also wait on angels who have their own agendas –to some an odd thing to say–but they are patient enough with us to just realize they are near. They often spur me with good impulses, so I can do what is better, not easier or self-serving. (Read orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal’s experience of dying on a kayaking trip and what she learned in To Heaven and Back, for one example; or look for angels in my blog tags. It is not unusual in all cultures to acknowledge angelic presences.) They have their jobs, too, after all; life isn’t just busy for us. Or are we so egocentric to imagine we’re the only effectively operant beings around? Maybe we should look again at the news–then at ancient wisdom of the ages.

So speaking of angels, there was Gabriel’s message and the others’. Those who’ve followed my blog awhile know that I thank God for Christ’s message of unbreakable, endless love. For love was never meant to turn from those in need; he told all that it works to heal torment and deep rifts of all sorts; it does not deny people dignity and welcomes all with a transformative mercy and care. Jesus’ story is largely about liberation through persevering care and kindness, about the strength and courage needed to walk such a path.

We can be that person who loves one another, that person who mines for goodness and generosity despite the prurience and paucity of our times. But this requires that we step forward and offer aid or a true act of acceptance, that second or third or fourth chance at reconciliation, especially when it seems unreasonable.

There is joy on this often reviled, worn down world. I strive to write from the places inside me that, like many rivers converging, often crest and overflow with grateful astonishment; the part of me that yet knows little but, regardless, wants to give much. It is that powerhouse of luminosity that moves and remakes me just as when I was a small child–as we all were and likely felt similar things–its boundless beauty filling me up.

And I see it in you and you and you, adding to this powerful energy we can utilize on our earth. It is a wonder when it is harnessed and we choose to deliver what helps and heals.

So I hope that you will have a great time giving out even a few small gifts and sharing a table and singing familiar tunes. Whoever you will be beside and even if alone, experience the time with a whole heart, with soul. Break out the cookies, the tasty drinks or gather at the hilltop campfire and look long about you. Receive the Light; send it out again. It’s what fuels all the good that is still, yes, yet to come. Take a leap and believe in hope, for that is just a beginning.

So, my many WordPress companions, may blessings beckon and follow your every footstep. No matter how taxing it is to keep on, please just keep on. I thank you for visiting my writing one more year. It has been the finest gift to me that you still bother to read what I work hard at creating, spurred on by a lifelong passion to share stories that arise.

Merry Christmas! Be safe ringing in a Happy New Year.

Below: An example of a truly good present. I was born very near sighted, but those foggy, annoying glasses didn’t keep me from hitting the ice at the outdoor rink almost daily each winter, so getting new skate blade guards (at 9) elicited jubilation! And lastly, I am wishing the best to you and yours!

PS: I am taking a blogging break until January 3, 2018. Then I’ll share what my new posting schedule will be and why I am making changes. Stay tuned.

 

Gifts of Visibility (and Saved by Quick Wits)

My Thanksgiving flowers and candle the day after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom? Better?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Mom!”

“Thank you so much…!” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Trip Ends: North Country Roads to Fishtown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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