Wednesday’s Words/ Nonfiction: Thoughts on My Hometown During Historic Flooding

Flooded Farmer’s Market, downtown Midland, as taken by a DRONE; photographer unknown.

Since last Sunday, there was talk of flooding in mid-Michigan. Cautions and watches and projections were determined for the targeted counties and communities. There have been heavy rains, 4-7 inches, and rain run-off contributed to the catastrophe. Edenville Dam–long in need of repairs–failed, and then Sanford Lake dam could not contain the sudden onslaught of waters from the Edenville breach. Both were breached on Tuesday and by today there was more disaster as the Tittabawassee River crested.

It is being called a “500 year event.” And it seems unreal to me at this moment.

I grew up in the elegantly planned, inviting community–a model town for sciences and arts– that’s headlining news. Midland, Michigan, home to world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company. It is an unusual community for many reasons, not the least being all those PhDs and other innovators working at Dow Chemical and Dow Corning–and so many other capable persons hired for fine schools, community organizations and a private business college (Northwood University). These folks brought with them equally able-minded spouses and children. The future-thinking minds and a great tax base helped build state-of-the-art parks and recreation areas; public and private schools; an impressive performing arts center; libraries; community-wide programs for the less economically privileged as well as the well-to-do. It has been called the “city of churches” (over 100 in a variety of fine architectural styles) and has long showcased extraordinary homes. This is in part due to Alden B. Dow, who created contemporary, cleanly inspiring designs. Dow was a protege of Frank Loyd Wright and a son of Henry Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, what has historically been the primary employer in the city. (The summer band which my father long had fun conducting was even called the Chemical City Band.)

It didn’t occur to me that I grew up in an unusual city–it was smallish, and population remains only 42,000 people, but is not a suburb to any metropolis. It was what I knew– until I began to travel a bit as a youth and become conscious of far greater diversity. Our town was primarily Caucasian with a considerable number of Asians and very few Hispanic residents in the mid-century. That made the culture usually similar from neighborhood to neighborhood. My curiosity was stimulated by broader experiences awaiting me by my mid-teens. I loved much in Midland–and family and friends–but there seemed much to be desired. Though excellence was the unofficial byword for all the city represented, I strongly desired to additionally avail myself of differentness. The unknown. (As an adult, I continued to hold admiring v. somewhat adversarial views of my hometown due to a few powerfully negative experiences–memoir shared in other WordPress posts and writings. )

It was, then, the rule not exception that those I knew were talented, ambitious and mostly well-educated. And it was to be that many are now heralded, even famous, persons. We were a city made of energetic leaders who intended to forge ahead. These were classmates of mine and my siblings, friendly neighbors. And also competitors, but that was the way we were taught from childhood and it seemed fair enough a long while.

When I left by 19, I was intent on getting to the Pacific Northwest and at 42, I got here and have been very happy in Oregon. Despite many of my schoolmates returning to this ideal environment, I had no desire to do so; we all find our preferred cultures and geography if we can. So it is clear that I have not had a stake in Midland’s fortunes or failures for a lifetime. My parents also passed away decades ago. I have not been back since 2001, even during a vacation in northern Michigan after that.

But the news came about the flood, and as small panic arose I blinked back flashes of tears. It was the undeniable visceral response to learning something I’ve long cared for is being harmed.

I thought, as I talked to my brother back east: our parents are buried above the river, under gracious trees, on a hill. The thought haunted me all night of their final resting places being soaked and worse.

I thought, oh no, the lovely Wixom Lake is being emptied out as floodwaters shoves and gathers its water along with it, carries it in a powerful thrust downstream. What of the fish and water plants, the boats and people left behind? Forgive me these sentiments. My childhood is reflected in large part by pictures whose backgrounds are water–small lakes, rivers and streams, the Great Lakes. Despite not having our own family cottage on a lake, friends did. My joys grew huge at any water’s edge–playing, swimming, water skiing, and boating in it. Dreaming, writing, singing by it. Falling in love, even. I learned how to make more friends at summer camps, grew strong in the wide outdoors each day. Gained passion for the intricacies and mysteries of nature.

Water–and woods–still figure greatly in what I do outdoors and write or dream about.

Now Midland’s downtown and large swaths of nearby areas are now under water and farther beyond also smaller towns. Even now it spills over the snaking, meandering Tittabawassee River as it continues to rise and wreak havoc. The extreme watchfulness must be overwhelming. At last tally, around 11,000 folks were being evacuated from Midland County.

That wide, mostly tranquil river’s song was pleasant background noise to me once. I played on swings, monkey bars and seesaws as a kid at the 50 acre Emerson Park. It lies on a flat area alongside the river; the land about it slopes down from a train track and Main Street above. It was not my favorite park (there were at least a half dozen then, over a dozen now) though I liked to ice skate in blowing snow on a frozen pond with buddies. We picnicked there from time to time with family, friends and our First United Methodist Church folks (just a few blocks away). My dad loved playing horseshoes; there was basketball and baseball and volleyball, hockey in winter. A good, all-around city park. We could walk a few short blocks to downtown from there for shopping or a pizza and lime Cokes. And all that time, the Tittabawassee River hummed and flowed, almost unnoticed sometimes until it rose a bit high.

But we were always warned not to put one toe in that river; it was polluted even in the fifties and sixties from Dow Chemical, which was built at its edge farther downriver. Anyone who dared jump in would be watched for signs of illness and severely warned to not do it again. It was a double-edged reality: Dow had built the city up yet seemed to imperil it at times.

We had milder flooding of the Tittabawassee; I recall it happening but not being alarming, at least to us–we lived too far from it. In 1986, there was another bad flood–but not like this one. Not enough to order 10,000 of Midland’s people to be evacuated.

It is this river that crested at 35.5 feet today, and has swamped the downtown and a vast many more acres, flooding homes and businesses, sending residents fleeing for higher ground, shelter. I try to imagine where it has all gone and how. Of course, forceful water moves where it chooses; unimpeded it can get to surprising places and when powerful and immense enough it carries or plows down everything in its way.

Then I read that Dow Chemical Company’s containment ponds have now mixed with the floodwater. There also could be sediment from a downstream Superfund site (with dioxin contamination) displaced. So future hazards are largely unknown. As home base for a worldwide chemical company, Midland may be seriously impacted. Time will tell.

And all this amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unimaginable to me how this can be survived with clear, functioning minds so recovery can begin. Yet I am assured by old friends that massive efforts are gearing up.

As I write this, happier times of childhood in Midland come forward and recede. The day camp each summer for years, the long walks in Barstow Woods by my house, sunny days at Central Park outdoor swimming pool and inside the red brick Community Center where in winter so much fun was to be discovered within the two stories one could not be bored: the damp, sharp scent of chlorine that hung in the air as I practiced jack knife and swan dives in the indoor pool, swam laps. The outdoor rink where I practiced figure skating after school, sharp edges of my blades scraping, slicing the thick ice. The stages, bracketed by heavy black velvet curtains, where I warmed inside and out in the slow heat of stage lights, and sang, danced and acted or played my cello with orchestras–or solo, and when playing to win competitions.

No, the pictures I hold close are not those in the news as the unleashed water rises higher and higher. I think I want to know if the street I grew up on–over-arched by big oak and maple trees and encompassing several blocks of my childhood friends’ homes, my playground, my whole world then– is intact, yet I don’t look. Sometimes it is best to let good memories remain safely, orderly within life’s mental and emotional archives. Because what’s going on out there is not easy to contemplate. How do I consider the whys and hows of it, what such floodwater destruction may render things? It has long been a realm of creativity, industry and educational progress–right now, a far different place, at least materially speaking. Yet, surely, Midland can overcome even this and rebuild as it has had to do before.

I know this is also a sign of the reality as climate changes increase and graver challenges and losses occur. And we must withstand it as the best minds race to find interventions, and we gain more tools via which we can survive and adapt further.

I wonder what small, ordinary Snake Creek is up to in Barstow Woods right now. How often it provided me deep peace and pleasure. Is there still the sweet chiming of gentle water as it slides between pungent earth of shallow banks, winds past white paper birches and gatherings of tiny wildflowers–or has it been swallowed up, doomed for at least a season? Please keep running clear and bright.

Dear hometown,

From my heart I offer a prayer for rescue, recovery, and deeper healings.

Love, Cynthia.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Lessons from the Past

Yesterday I returned to our old neighborhood in search of abundant flower gardens. I found a few, but, honestly, it is only early May so those were rather high expectations. Lots of vibrant rhoddies and azaleas. I can’t say I was disappointed. The sights were worth revisiting as the warm, lemony sunlight of mid-day soothed and cheered me. But it was more than the flowers, I have to admit. Perhaps I was looking for our more carefree days before the coronavirus, my husband’s recent and surprising job loss, and the very unstable future in our country–and the world.

It was good to walk down those streets, to recall the years we enjoyed an overall comfortable, interesting life. To see people chatting on their porches–we have fewer porches where we now live–and see children playing on the street, even if at arm’s length, as they played basketball and rode bikes and drew colorful hopscotch diagrams. Our current environs rarely include big porches facing wide streets, and there are fewer children about–we live in condo country and also among wooded homes that tend to be more secluded in the hilly acreage.

As Marc and I strolled about NE Portland, pointing out changes and what has remained the same, I thought as I often do that one never knows what the future holds. I’ve long felt this is an aspect of being human that’s exciting: around every corner–every single new day–there is something about to arrive that will challenge or thrill or enlighten. There is new information to be gleaned, an experience worth embracing. At the very least, one that offers a glimpse into the kaleidoscope of our living, and potential wisdom for the next part of the journey. I am not the sort of person who hides (for very long) but who steps forward to see what is next. I want to know things. Despite it being a bit of a risky proposition at times to just step outside and wave hello, I’m doing it.

So I yet choose to welcome the new day. However, I’ve had to remind myself of this during the shut-down of our country, and as we seem to be considering a very gradual re-opening…which concerns so many of us. I admit my cozy blue-and-cream-flowered quilt is tempting to pull up to my chin another fifteen minutes. But I get up before too long. Get fully dressed. (I still take a a moment to choose clothes carefully as I like certain colors at certain times. Old habits…)

Yesterday while cleaning I came across a small journal. It was as if I was to review what I’d lived the past year. It is one of many journals begun and soon abandoned; after 40 I ceased to be an avid diarist so the vast majority have been repurposed, or completed ones tossed long ago. But not this one.

The only entry was written on 2/1/19, a month before we moved from our established city area home to a SW Portland suburb. I read it over slowly.

It seemed I’d had a difficult dream the night before, and during it I felt we were being pushed out of our home, intruded upon by strangers, and sent packing to unknown lands. I couldn’t figure out how to orient myself via four true directions of the compass in my mind, a strange occurrence as I tend to use an instinctive sense of direction. But it had panicked me and I came to a startled awakening. This does seem a most obvious dream to have about moving. And I wrote:

“How odd to feel so lost in that dream… I came to waking too late after being suddenly jarred to consciousness three other times: the ceaseless planning, the work of it, the new locale and its issues, the costs of moving, the details to manage alone while Marc works. Disruptions and requirements that seem a tsunami of change. One more month until we must start afresh–yes, among tall pine trees on a high ridge. It will not as before. The suburbs have always sent me hightailing it in the other direction…

“What does a woman need to live a rich and fulfilling life, regardless of upheaval? Far less than one imagines, materially. I look through my books; surely they are one essential good. I must choose wisely for the smaller space. I finger scores of pictures, tons of old CDs, small treasures here and there…what matters now?

“It is only a change of house. I have done it so many times in my life! Yet I sometimes tremble as I prepare for this one. Why? Does one habitat mean more than the next? I will go simply forward, find my way, as always. Oh, dear God, I surely hope.”

Did I sense any of what lay ahead? I thought we were moving close to our daughter and son-on-law so when they had precious twin girls–high risk for various reasons– we’d be only five minutes away instead of thirty due to traffic jams and distance. But it seemed like something else was afoot despite all the reassurances we had. There came upon me a weight of dread at times, and an urgent need to get our lives in good order. To deal with whatever was coming: it felt as if I was preparing for something far bigger than any of my ordinary plans.

I didn’t know my daughter would suffer from nightmarish postpartum depression for three months, and that a good, solid recovery would take another three. She recently published an essay on her experience; it was harder and scarier than I, her worried, praying mother, even witnessed and I saw a great deal. The beautiful twins’ arrival and first months’ was not to be that happiest of all events during which we’d share energy and time and love in a simple, straightforward, constant manner. It was, in truth, harder than anything I’d ever thought it could be. To see my daughter sink and struggle day in and day out with her mothering and her perfect babies was so painful I couldn’t speak of it…only weep privately. We were not able to be the easy going grandparents in and out of their lives effortlessly as I had experienced with other grandchildren. Yes, I was there for hours several times a week, and my husband and I took care of each other, too. And the babies thrived. In time, life started to slightly brighten and if shadows fell again, the horizon was more discernible; more illumined ways and means came to us with each day’s coming.

And my daughter got better; she labored at it with intense energy, used every resource available, sought support and welcomed daily help. We all learned and adjusted even as there were times of deep pain and worry. I found I understood fewer of my son-in-law’s parenting perspectives as I helped with the babies three days and more each week. In time, since he was not working , he was able to leave and get other things done, or get a needed respite. My daughter had returned to work but sometimes I just glimpsed her on my way out. She was worn out and determined to settle back into routine. I sure had to learn about caring for twins and their family needs on the run; we sometimes compromised a little. The babies were snuggled, fed, diapered and adored. I saw how incredibly strong my daughter–and her husband–were and are. To parent requires courage; to parent with extraordinary stresses requires a warrior spirit and hope beyond hope.

Adversity can do damage but it can also make one very strong, can expand and enlighten person; it can make one tougher yet more tender, at once. I think we each experienced some of that as we plunged on, got past the hardest weeks.

I discovered things about myself as a mother, and as an individual–how much more I was willing and able I was to endure greater fear and uncertainty, how much more love came forward when I felt tapped out, how much deeper my faith in God would become. How I will not give up my belief in better times, even now in my later years after sorrows galore, not give in to fear or worry or pain for more than a small time. But I let my deepest heart feel it all.

There was nowhere to run, after all. I was living it with them all, was smack in the middle of our real lives. I was not going to turn away from not only the crises but the miracles.

There are times we must, I think, allow ourselves to feel our brokenness, to admit our frailty so that we can be ready for more healing once again. Because it comes if we embrace the process. If we are ready to grow further as individuals. And looking back can only help us understand a bit more. The rest is staying steady as we can in the moment and moving on.

We have lived in our woodland home now for over a year. It is a place that has come to so well suit us. I see how important it has been to have vast reserves of nature’s wonders right outside our door; how much more healthy to have miles of sinuous trails for walking or short hikes; how soothing the river with its timeless flow of waters; how cleansing the winds from the western mountain range and foothills. It is quieter in all the right ways, and birdsong never ceases to bring a smile as I awaken. It is gentler here, and we have needed that.

I feel gratitude daily, even moments of joy despite these chaotic times, and deep grief for those who are suffering. It'[s all of it, isn’t it, our human living? And we will keep on, until we do not. I have come close to death several times, and each time I wonder how it happens that we each leave or we stay. But today remains the gift right now.

I don’t know if we will live here beyond next March. Who knows where we all will be this time next year? It has always been unclear, hasn’t it? This time it is a viral scourge, next time it may be something else entirely we must face and cope with. It depends now on how COVID-19 rules our culture, economy and health, yes. And if my husband will find another good job or if we can or simply must retire sooner than later. If we can remain fit and able as we have been, overall. But every place I’ve had to move– despite challenges– knowledge has been gained, fun has been had, friends made. I hope I have left some good will. Wherever we are, we lug ourselves along, as the saying notes. So I best take care of my soul, mind, and body–this life I still have depends on it. So I draw nearer to those I well love. I still offer my kind greetings and support to friends and neighbors–and you, dear reader, if you will have it via my weekly stories.

Blessings to you, do not despair but find the good in the living you do.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Notes on A New Solitude

Trillium Lake and Mt. Hood

It is Wednesday, my daily journal tells me. Time seems malleable; it morphs from the moment I arise with a peculiar elasticity so that it might be morning or afternoon, sooner or later. And then flattens into a distant horizon I note but move past. The birds wake early, speak out, sing as they take their fill at the feeder, their wings a blur in the light between the trees branches, the cherry blossoms. The everyday dark-eyed juncos, black-cappped chickadees, wrens and robins look more beautiful each time they flit into my view. Deft, inquisitive, efficient, their bodies soft and strong.

*

Sunshine fades into a thin veil, then bursts into a soft fire as clouds scud about then stall out. The hours feel dense, thick as if sultry as the breeze cools. They hang upon the me as if in anticipation of something not always defined. The unknown is a thousand wisps of shadow. I wait. And wait. I move about, attempt to complete tasks well enough.

This time we live with now is about health and economics, also about life being lived in bits and pieces, starts and stops, then swirls into more familiar currents–as if little has changed. I live inside those groups of statistics that accumulate, fluctuate hourly. It can seem like watching from the edge not from inside. It happens like this when one is stunned.

Numbers do not stay apart from one another like we must, but bunch and crunch and spill into virtual atmosphere awhile a virus is carried across the streets, the tables in the plaza, the windows that blink, the swings that stand empty. So time takes on its own weight though I walk in and out and through it. My body takes in this day like it takes in the forest when noting the low huffing of bears: I find my way with squashed fear, heightened senses, with the caution of survival even as I still admire the sky, the trillium, small things that skitter and gobble and mate and seek cover as I pass.

*

It was a gift our parents gave us: freedom. I didn’t know it then, but reveled in it alone or with neighborhood friends.

I sailed about, melded to my rattling blue Schwinn bike, on the sidewalk, around corners of each block, up and down an empty overgrown lot’s narrow path. Into parking lots where I’d practice tricks: balancing torso across the seat, grasping handlebars with taut arms and small hands; crouching on the seat while steering with a wobble; one knee on the seat and one leg sticking out behind me a bit. I was fearless. I knew I could do these things. When I could not, it was only a bleeding knee that would scab over.

Oh, the circus. I wanted to be in one–didn’t every child of my era? I used to envision the weird mathematics of flight called trapeze artistry, and at night would dream of a guy and myself high above the circus ring, our moves enabling us to fly through the air as if we belonged there. As if we had special powers.

But really it was learning how to exert energy, allow physics to work–and let each spare, coiled, tensile person to grasp those other hands or bar. A practiced synchronicity of factors set into motion and completed. As a child, I thought: magic, that’s what it was, and that seemed sensible.

I tasted a kind of sweet power on the bike and in those dreams. But it was easy, harmless, accessible. No thought of failure. A child knows the exhilaration of boundlessness. Until she does not. But it is potent before then. We try to replicate such ease and unfettered living ever after.

I think of all this today, of how movement and precision, spontaneity and vigorous energy impacted times of victory that have been a part of my life. Expectancy of more and better. That thrust toward greater heights. And how small and ground level it has all become, wavering expectancy in the face of growing catastrophe.

But at 69, there is still a burning fire in my soul, with that mysterious nerve center that carries me into and out of each waking day and sleep-seeking night. That keeps me alert to possibility and wonder. One does not need a bonfire to keep needed warmth and energy engaged. It takes a spark well tended to illumine what is needed, what gets and can keep one going,

I must be sure to tend it, feed it with appropriate and worthy fuel. The storm that brews and rages beyond the door, these woods–it could blow it out, leave only smoke.

*

It is not that I am alone.

My husband works at his desk nearby. He takes loosening-up steps about the place, pads around in tawny leather and sheep’s wool slippers. I keep on my red wool felt slippers, the hind end of a black cat outstretched on left slipper and its front half running across right one. Held side by side they make a good whole feline. I look at my slippers more–I am sitting down more than usual and there they are, the cat that’s one or the other part made entire–and on the move only when I am. We schlep around from chore to chore, though I do put on my usual clothing, not too often giving in to lazy stretchy yoga pants which I said I’d never wear for general use–they can make me feel old. Halfway through the day I might leave a dusting of blush, add a slick of sheer lipstick; old habits die hard. It makes no sense. I see no one but the man who took me for better or worse. And vice versa. And it has worked out well enough.

But other than the split cat and peeks of Marc, I am alone. Not counting the daily check-ins with friends and family–those have increased but are from the other side of somewhere else. We know what matters when there is a lack of things to busy and distract us. We see how time leaks away faster some days and then never gets around to wrapping things up nicely. And we don’t want to lose it, these moments that keep us better, fuller.

I mean, though: I am alone with my innermost self. That isn’t such news. But now it is tinged with a deep, conscious solitariness I have not felt in decades. It is the confinement. It is the drastic curtailing of activities, the fast shut down of the country and far beyond. I look out the windows and see no one there, mostly. My neighbor with the shimmering white hair and sunflower yellow pants and bulky white sweater, her chihuahua barking like crazy at the end of its taut leash. A car with an unknown someone who unloads grocery bags at a nearby door, quick quick and gone. It is silent awhile. What about the guy who sells insanely expensive fishing equipment–is he at home dreaming of finally only fishing– some day? He does not meet our eyes. And those delivery trucks come and go, roaring up and down the hills, drivers slack- faced as the package exchanges hands, then they race to the next stop, on overtime but under pressure, at risk themselves.

Meanwhile, the natural world blooms and shivers in a ritual carnival of color and fragrance as we seek the interior life literally and otherwise. I see the bees and they see me, circling, zigzagging onward to their targets of love. I used to be afraid of bees, after a few stings as a barefoot kid. They began to seem more like heroes and heroines–those blooms, that honey. It is apt right now, the terribly frightening stings and yet still gifts of bounty, often side by side.

I stand on our balcony, pull in gulps of piney air. Watch red maple leaf buds swell, a potted geranium release a flower. I am eager to plant lettuce seeds in the rich soil of pots, to order other useful seeds. I want to purchase and care for more flowers but still have patience for the ,long wait. This is who I still am, only a woman who sniffs each new bloom with eyes closed and heart swelling, who is entranced with the elegant work and guessed-at nattering of birds. Hears a cello playing an old hymn or an Elgar concerto, both rich and soothing so that within my chest a vibration hums along and takes me to a kind of ecstasy. Who finds the soles of my feet making quick purchase of earth as my mind bobs about in search of poems, a kite tethered.

And I await the lone owl who hoots in the dark when we are all tucked in. Wait with patience, as if it is a good sign.

But it isn’t too rough, or not yet– this aloneness that holds a big place in life. I have lived essentially alone with webs and mazes of interconnected thoughts, the spiritual and emotional wayfaring for a long, long while. Have had good practice dealing with pressures of sudden crises and a lingering of repeated loss and pain. We mostly all take the brunt and puzzle it out, find ways to endure. These times are not the same as before, no, at closer look more arduous. Clearly uncertain. Yet a solitude of spirit and mind becomes more significant only if I choose.

I am never actually alone within the numinous presence of God. And I am not without kinship all over the world, if I know your names or not. Still, solitude, the living with one’s self deeply has benefits. I know myself well. I can live with who this woman is. And there is room for more in my head and heart.

And so I will these bones and sinew to stay strong as it can as I climb the hills each day. But, everything is a gamble…I say that even though I have never played Rummy much less Black Jack for as much as a penny. Chance does what chance may do.

*

Where is this God?— some are demanding. Why are we nearly abandoned once more?

Are we abandoned? Why is this not the long and dangerous trajectory of intersecting factors?

Regarding God, I have no rational answers to those sorts of questions.

I have never been able to explain what was embedded in my core from the start. At age three or four I sat at my mother’s feet while she sewed by the big window. A pleasant, unremarkable domestic tableau. But she told my sisters and father I talked aloud with Jesus and God…she found it disconcerting, my mother a lifelong believer. A mother who had more than a few foretelling dreams and could size up a person inside two minutes more often than not. Maybe she was worried I would be like her.

Maybe I am. But I don’t really remember the talks she recalled. I straddled two (perhaps more) worlds so easily then, as children are keen to do. I recall dust-filled streams of sunlight cast over her feet and my knees and hands as i p layed with scarps of fabric. And singing to myself, the whir of her machine and the snipping of threads. I recall sheer happiness. Likely God was in the mix a lot. It never surprises me that this is so.

*

I find it startling that people don’t believe God lives and moves within and among us. Here. There. There. In me, you. Outdoors, inside. In darkness and in brightness and flux of in-betweens.

We come into the world quiet or bawling, vulnerable and alone; we will leave it by and with our own selves. In the moments beyond anxiety’s fiddling with us, this surely is not a bad thing. It is the sheen of separateness that is temporary, our singularity proscribed so we might make more of less, make greater from smaller, make complete from fragments. Recognize in our own existence a map of an infinite universe at rest and at work. We are given a momentary chance to practice human creativity, find unity in an onslaught of divisiveness. Or so I have lived long with this idea; it makes more sense to me than most.

Not understanding cosmic mechanisms at work yesterday, today and tomorrow does not diminish, much less negate, the mostly unfathomable realities of the Cosmos. What we do not know, we just do not yet know.

We are separate wherever we may be, but reside in the whole together, every creature and other living thing on a very small planet. The trees know about this; they depend on one another as their roots entwine and reach beneath the teeming surface and also receive one another’s every signal above ground, transmitting helpful chemical information in return. In their great varieties and with steady growth they shelter and nourish, give clean air and life-preserving shade. They watch and know much, survive and revive decade after decade. This is not just a fancy; it is now researched facts.

Science sometimes seems to lag behind what we intuitively know. Why do children run up to trees and hug them? Climb them no matter falls, and set up house in the crooks of branches? It is only natural. They love them, and so do we bigger people. I move among them in all seasons, see, listen, learn, gather joy. My hand upon their rough or smooth bark, my fingers skimming leaves and lichen and mosses. I embrace them gently, thankful. It is a welcome shared entirely without deceit or rancor.

Would that we lived more like trees.

I would rattle my spring leaves and arms right now, let the wind sing me, then settle in with the others who come by.

*

I learn from other people. On the way back from our walk, we saw this on a sign in a neighbor’s window:

“We choose brave love, fierce joy, and active hope for ourselves, others and the planet.”

Worth believing as best we can, even as we wave from behind panes of glass, even as we pass one another with a brief nod, gazes anxiously glancing off one another–and a real half-smile feeling more precious than a handful of precious gold. I feel rather brazen to offer a soft “Good afternoon.”

This new solitude brings solace and succor as well as the ache of separation for us social beings. But I am here, and you are there, and we are not so alone. It is, I think, an illusion, a self-centered error to assume we are that unique and on this trail of our very own. It has been trod for eons by those like us and unlike us.

*

Words, only words, I think. But words are a comfort to me. Words are one way of doing things when other tools do not or cannot. Words can transform and free and uplift. They are part of my life blood, in any case.

Words keep me in place as I, along with the rest, navigate this twilight time and try to survive an invisible power of a virus.

When we think it, speak it, pray it, we are clearer, stronger:

Hope. Courage.

Perseverance. Compassion.

*

*

As a Christian I believe in much that guides me well–and may we all seek strength and wisdom from what we each do believe:

“Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always….”

Wednesday’s Word on Thursday/Nonfiction: Our Lives Put on Pause

Today during my daily walk through vivid green trees and other burgeoning plant life, under overarching sky that beamed with radiant blueness, my eyes brimmed suddenly. Such beauty and joy juxtaposed with a flash of longing and sadness. I was thinking of the almost one year old twins; I wasn’t able to write yesterday as I was with those glorious grandchildren. And it just hit me as I power walked: it was a good thing I was there enjoying their effervescence, their happy curiosity, the small new accomplishments, as now I will likely not see them– or our local daughters and son and their families– for some time. Of course, I suspected this might happen sooner than later-didn’t we all, in the back of our minds? The coronavirus has now been confirmed in 24 people in Oregon; half are in the county where A., my daughter and mother of those babies, works in city offices. Not even a couple of weeks ago it was “just” 11.

Portland is starting to shut things down and mandate restrictions on large group events, as is more and more of our country. The NBA? The NHL? Sports have likely never looked like this. More primary and secondary schools are closing for a period or going online. Our neighbor, Washington State and the city of Seattle, is hardest hit now and they are taking emergency measures. Many universities are going online (one daughter’s place of work, University of South Carolina, is for a time) and scores of other employees are starting to work from home if at all possible. As so many say that this all feels unreal but there it is, a conglomeration of facts adding up to more challenges than we have seen in a very long while and more to come.

What will our lives look like shortly? How do we cope with the risks and hurdles and not become fatalistic? It is a tall order these days.

A. and I chatted about things at length yesterday when she got home from work: should we now cease meeting up? She worries that she might become a carrier eventually, and even if never that ill, she then could pass it to me. She truly fears for my health and her father’s, of course. It is hardest on older adults, after all, even kills them it appears…not babies or kids or younger adults. She has been talking about this since the first cases here– while I’ve become increasingly hesitant as i decide where to shop or visit. And I conclude today, best to stay out of stores, finally shop online if needed. This is not my way of doing things. But caution and prudence and wash those hands, I have mainly thought and reminded my family: common sense practices help contain any viral spread. We are everywhere and always now inundated with this advice. Hopefully more and more adhere to it. How else to effectively fight against something so miniscule but powerful?

We are up against invisibility, when you think of it. And what a thought that is.

My husband, meanwhile, was travelling from the East Coast to Mexico to home and back the last three months. He finally asked Human Resources and his boss about curtailing work trips. And they have now, despite concerns economically, as with all businesses lately. I have even encouraged him to take off a couple weeks and relax, rest up–he certainly has that time coming and yet he has forever been and is a dedicated nonstop worker.

Meanwhile, I think of my older and only brother who has been on a photography trip to Cuba with a small group. He is used to all sorts of things happening internationally. But the fact that he has a cold now concerns me. Havana is now barring planes from the US to land. He is due back soon.

I can’t think of a time this kind of scenario has happened in my lifetime. No one my age and younger can, I imagine. Sure there have been influenza outbreaks with complications of terrible pneumonia for too many over the years–and bird flu, swine flu, anyone?–and we had SARS to worry about. I long have had to work with clients who had MRSA infections on (bandaged or not) skin and sitting not a foot away from me,and those with serious health issues of all sorts due to addiction, homelessness and poor if any health care. But this particular virus replicates so fast that avoidance and containment has to be much more immediate everywhere.

Well, I am over 65 and have heart disease. I don’t normally feel like a person at high risk; I am healthy, overall, and the cardiologists last looked in my arteries a year ago stated there was no current issue seen–as partners we’ve managed coronary artery disease very well. But I am on that watchful list, anyway, and it is sobering.

I have been terribly ill from a number of causes several times. I have been near death and did not expect to “come back” four times and lived to recall the tales. And I don’t have an insurmountable fear of dying, nor even of becoming very ill. Of course I can worry at 3 a.m., imagine what it would be like to get coronavirus, then play it out in my head…then I do fall asleep. What else to do but go on? Every one of us has worries about health, at times; this one is big. But I believe that whatever is ahead will do what it will and come and I will be able to meet that physical challenge– or I will not. It is that simple. I can do as much as I can to prepare to stay well, but the spectrum of possibility in human life creates and destroys as it does. And if I must leave this world, it will happen, I presume. Yet–I do not feel fatalistic. Only realistic.

No, what bothers me right now is that with more restrictions placed on our movements–for the good of all, yes–I may well not get to see my friends or family for…who knows how long? For their sakes or for mine and Marc’s, we have to determine choices clearly, pragmatically.

One of my dearest friends has been ill for decades with lupus, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and a patchy liver and many other things as a a result. Brenda has been recovering from pneumonia the past 8 weeks. She is still weakened. She works as a counselor in a prison. I fear for her well being; she is not cavalier about it. When we last checked in she talked about her will, and her desire to make sure her friends know how much she cares. I listened, swallowed hard. I know this virus could kill her but, like me, she has had brushes with death before and so takes it as it comes. There really isn’t any other choice. But I have loved her a long time and I am hoping against hope she will stay safe.

Another friend of decades, Eileen, has been meeting with me for lunch or dinner plus a a movie for years. Or a tool around books stores or garden walks. I so enjoy her ready laughter and sunny spirit, her intelligence and her wit. We have a particular sort of great time together; the lack of it will be sorely missed as we wait this out. But she is to retire and move to Arizona in August. Perhaps sooner now.

It felt good when Marc and I held a family dinner three weeks ago. Even then I was thinking–when will we easily manage this again between time scheduled for other things, work, and this virus concern? Their youngest sister and her family didn’t come, though; now it will be more time apart. But it was good see them convened at the table, to update on work, activities and experiences, future plans as we shared a hearty meal–as ever it is. But I also thought of ones not here–the daughters in Virginia and South Carolina. I wished for a fuller table, a raucous house, but was deeply grateful our grown children enjoy our company, as we do theirs. I looked at them and thought: this is my clan and how lucky.

And now, the pause on meeting, sharing, hugging at will. No longer can I comfortably and spontaneously call my son, say–“Hey, I’m in the neighborhood, what’re you doing for dinner?” A pause… on visiting my only sister (in early stages of dementia) as I have done every 10-14 days, as her retirement community is barring visitors for at least a month. A pause… on getting together with my old work friend, Jim, with whom I enjoyed lunch and laughs only awhile ago.

And another kind of companion: I for the first time am loathe to keep visiting the library, and find that more sad than most changes. All those beautiful, mind-expanding books…and all those germs. Let’s face it: Whatever we touch can seem too much these days. Thank goodness I have many books waiting to be cracked open in my very home. And I am already reading them more.

It will be difficult to not see folks…to not be with grand-babies (who live ten minutes away) I am used to being with three times a week for almost a year –and what of their one year birthday in April now? This separation from family can make me ache from soul to brain and it is just beginning. It is as if we are being asked to put not only activities on hold but the chances of deep loving and living. We humans need to give and accept actual hugs, to study the face of a loved one, to be near enough to hear a soft sputter of delight or exasperation under the breath. Not send heart and flower emojis, those odd, cutesy emblems of emotion that say so little even when they do mean to say so much. Even virtual/video meet-ups don’t come close to meeting face-to-face, not really. Awkward and limiting, I always wonder what all to say. But I guess I can learn how to do it better, with more heart.

So we get ready for “the long pause” as we–individuals that are whole communities, countries–rally to respond to this serious health crisis that reaches its tentacles farther every day. To preserve more and more lives, it is a no-brainer, and social distancing as they call it, begins in earnest. We need to stay friendly, supportive in any small ways we can. So we remember we are in this together; we can pool resources and maintain a problem solving viewpoint with positive attitude to get through it, somehow.

Love, like water, must find its way, its outlet, its home; it wants to find those beloved. Humans are unavoidably interconnected at heart, that is clear. I hope the best for us all, and do pray we reach out to one another in the manner in which we each can. We can’t let fear run us over and hold us down, make us less willing to care. Better to appreciate singular moments, anticipate and plan for healthier, less strained days and nights. To do what we can with our time, talents and our will for good. Call each other on the phone for a change. Send cards and letters. Video chat and send pictures. Let neighbors know we are around, even at an arm’s length if necessary.

Blogging, of course, is a terrific way to be present despite worries, a safe place we can share our creations and ruminations. I will be right here among you all–that is still my plan!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Finding and Being Heroines and Heroes

Photo by julie aagaard from Pexels

I am almost unable to put down a nonfiction book that I had read about a few weeks ago. It’s a memoir of a woman who at the lissome age of 21 was recruited by the CIA. It is not ordinarily a book I’d be that eager to read–the CIA isn’t such a compelling topic to me (I wonder about its efficacy, actually), though I appreciate good stories (factual and otherwise) of high adventure or tales related to dangerous circumstances and, of course, accounts of bravery. But I was intrigued enough that I went in search of it.

Women (and men) who leap way past usual comfort zones to accomplish their goals are of interest to me–aren’t they to anyone? I wanted to know who she was and why she did what she did, i.e., what makes her tick. I asked the librarian since I hadn’t found it on the shelves or in “New Arrivals.” He looked it up in the system, murmuring, “Is the the real name of the author? Never heard of her–or this.” I had to admit her name was unusual. And if it was such a good book, how come the well-versed librarian in a savvy city didn’t know of it? Maybe it appealed to an obscure readership. I do like to discover off-the-beaten-path writers.

I plunged right in, as her writing grabs me as she gets right to it, her stark content underlain with deeper emotional nuance. Life Under Cover, Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox reveals some of her career in that agency. Quickly I’ve gotten halfway into the thick of it. I use “thick” specifically because it plumbs the depths of her astute thinking and hard choices, how it outlines rigors of her training then steps into fine surprises overlapping with the horrors of her work. She finds the training and assignments fulfilling as well as toughening. Ms. Fox is impassioned about saving human lives and helping make the world we must yet inhabit a safer place to coexist. She urgently wants to understand others, find a common humanity whenever possible even as her sole mission was to gather information to thwart terrorist plans of attack. She seems relentless about goals and mandates from the onset, and engages her considerable intellect at an early age. And I love how she is driven to find and fit together as many pieces as she can to make the picture whole, her mind a wide ranging sieve that keeps only the necessary bits. And then she embarks on more search and find. The number of data she analyzes, then utilizes, is mammoth. And she is tireless.

Did this labor shape her into an altruistic heroine? Or was it work that fulfilled a need of more selfish or ordinary dimensions? When did she know she wanted to do such work? I read on. It is a powerful narrative. Ms. Fox is brilliant but caring, someone who met grave obstacles with fortitude and persistence. That in itself impresses me. The governmental agency named CIA I’m not as clear about but am open to information and insight. I am anxious to see what transpires and how it all winds down to an end–as she is no longer in the CIA. As far as I know…this is what her bio notes.

It has gotten me thinking beyond the book. About why I am engaged by her story, what it means to general humanity that there are people who undertake these risky and difficult challenges. What does it mean that Ms. Fox offers herself to such a powerful agency when she might have helped refugees in Thailand? She changed her mind when she was interviewed by the CIA a second time.

We each might come up with our list of heroines and for different reasons, from the familiar to the famous, and who they are might inform others what matters to us. They inspire us first of all. They lead the way more often than not.

For myself only a few women, alone, would include Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Theresa, Elizabeth Blackwell. There are many men and just altogether too many others to note here and now. And I would also have to name those in the arts who are movers and shakers or were once. (Twyla Tharp and Isadora Duncan, anyone? Leontyne Price, Pete Seeger; Barry Lopez, Joy Harjo; Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier.) The list goes on and on…and that is not mentioning the more obscure of the creators and doers.

But beyond famous people, who can we say deserves to be designated as hero or heroine–someone willing to sacrifice much, to go to extraordinary lengths for the betterment of life, of others– whether it is family or community or the masses around the world? What is the call to serve about? How can we answer it, if and when it comes? Some felt–and many presently do feel– they were or are simply doing their duty–to family, to country, to any greater cause they devote themselves to daily. They’re not even interested in being honored or pegged as “exceptional.” That sort of humility comes from trying and doing despite failing that eventually brings wisdom, I’d think.

“The greatest man or woman is a humble person,” my father intoned when praised for his own musical and educational work. And to many he was worth lauding not only the work but his genuine kindness, added to a dedication of his life to providing youth with musical opportunities that they took far into their lives thereafter. They have shared their thanks to him, even decades later. I grew up with this knowledge and watched my parents give themselves to the community–from teaching to volunteer work to donations to various causes, to their church, neighbors and family. In a sense–as it is for every child and in this case, because my parents were held in deep respect–they were a hero and heroine to me if in a mild mannered way. They had come from poorer upbringings yet made much of their lives. They had such interest in learning and people. So it was natural to think of helping others, of just being of good use. But how?

What I loved was the performing and fine arts–and nature and figure skating. I felt a passion of wanting to make the world a better place, too. I wrote of it, thought of it, read about it from an early age. I watched people engage in their chosen paths with sharp minds and burning hearts, both at home and in the world via television. I listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and their songs triggered a deeper longing to be part of something that added to positive changes. I did not dream of being anyone’s bona fide heroine. To contribute to the greater good in some meaningful manner was a current that ran through me, even the worst of times.

I grew up in the sixties. We were nothing if not mobilized by a momentous desire for change that benefited human beings more inclusively. “Power to the People” was a common (if not so original) slogan and chant and although it has been criticized by some over time, to me it meant that power should be shared, that everyone was born with a basic right to dignity that included shelter, food, equal opportunity, education, justice. I debated, marched, wrote and sang of it.

I have gotten lazy over time. My fire for social justice began to cool as I became entrenched in my private struggles mentally, physically, spiritually. When I had children, I thought teaching them to be compassionate, fair, open minded–to ask “Why” and to critically think things through rather than be blindly led would help them, so I set about doing that even as I worked on my own issues. And they grew up as thinking, feeling people as hoped.

But I was never again involved in a political movement. I was certainly not even dreaming distance from embarking on an international and dangerous mission. I knew people who knew people who knew others…well, that was back then. Time passed. I was in my thirties. Then I stumbled into a career in human services, but instantly latched on to the work. First, working with home-bound elderly or others who suffered from brain injuries or were otherwise disabled; then addicted, usually homeless, mostly already having been incarcerated and/or gang-affiliated male and female youths; then mentally and socially high-risk adults. It suited me, despite not ever considering doing counseling for work (did handwriting analysis count…?).My mission was to create art of some sort, reaching out that way. Writing by then had overtaken all other modalities. So now this different direction pulled me. And it turned out that it required creative brainstorming and action of many sorts.

To be truthful, I can’t say there wasn’t danger involved working with those for whom violence was second nature and the primary defense for survival; who had known little in life but mistreatment; and who had spotty guidance if at all in better ways to be. Every day held a possibility that I might be attacked–it wasn’t a secure jail but a dual diagnosis rehab. Eventually I was a couple of times and police arrived to haul a kid off, to my unhappiness– and there came, still, threats.

Even the quite elderly who suffered from many problems…one never knew what I’d be in for when a door opened during my home visits– a naked ninety year old man standing and grinning in the doorway or a demented woman with hammers in her hands. Completely at odds with what clients called a “Miss Junior League” persona, I had developed a reputation for being unshaken by most anything but not, either, too hard. I sure didn’t know how I did it; I just went by my gut and I wanted to be there, do the work, give an ear to their complaints, be a voice for their needs.

But I sure was not anywhere near becoming a Ms. Fox, a woman who risked life and limb to protect a nation’s security every day–and millions more people beyond. I wasn’t interacting with arms dealers in a dark cafe or weaving in and out of narrowest alleyways to elude someone or protect myself. It was all pretty tame and after about 30 years, it seemed like far too little was accomplished. How many clients–people I had come to know quite well–had relapsed or even died despite how I had tried to help them, to insure they might stay alive? And I don’t mean the frail elderly who were closer each day to their timely end. Far too many over the decades. One feels like too many. One alone sears the heart.

Since all that–I retired several years ago–I know I’ve become more nonchalant. Selfish. I will be in my seventh decade and I could have been volunteering, getting out there to aid a child in reading or writing, or filling food boxes (though I did both years ago). I might be helping via church channels but haven’t found one here with whom I want to share my efforts. I could be engaged in politics–this is the year to do it, of all years–or I could work on a drug hotline or just shelve books, for crying out loud. I look for inspiration, pray for opportunities: what next can I do? I am a long way from being unable to be of good use in this world, even if not anywhere near becoming decent heroine material.

Instead, I do other things, like at last reading a heck of a lot. Learning about CIA undercover agents. Lessons of insects and seasons. My own endurance as life gets harder in some ways when I hoped to experience more ease of joy, peace of mind.

And I write, write, write. That is what I stick with all I’m much good for , it seems. It has been my calling since I was a child, too, and has not quieted within me. But am I yearning to be published more? Not really, not enough to get to it more. Am I coveting a book jacket with my name as the author on it? No, it no longer occurs to me that it is critical. My need is to simply be a writer, and to write what I understand as my truth, then offer it to whoever may read it. That is: persevere against all odds; love despite knowing love can often wound; seek answers even when it appears there are few to none; seek God in the mysteries of nature and humans for God inhabits all. It takes a little courage to share what I do though not all that much, not the sort I admire heartily. But I suppose it has become my kind of activism, nonetheless, just this in my now-quiet way.

It seems to me that we each do what we can do, and that if we find ourselves moved to be helpful in a minor way even that can be enough. It all gathers force and has meaning as intent plus action combines to strengthen–and moves change forward another small step. Our lives can be propelled by energy of life focused on doing good, just as they can be propelled by doing less than what is good. Or becoming inert, opting out of life’s rollicking, vivid stream, becoming aimless.

We have to be our own heroines, at times. We can also remain on the lookout for chances to not walk away, to not avert our eyes, to not say “no, not at the risk of throwing off my well-preserved image” or “no, I don’t have extra time” or “no, that is not for me to do.” Why not? If others are risking their lives for us, why can we not risk our time, alter priorities and do better?

Some people are meant for fancier or bigger or unusual things. I don’t think I could ever have become an Amaryllis Fox “wanna be.” She has had more fire, more boldness of body and mind, and her very special talents have been put to use in such specific ways. According to her book jacket blurb, she now offers analysis for global news outlets and speaks on peacemaking–so she has met changes with more invention. Peacemaking! I would like to hear her speak of this, for how we need peace to be made. I would like to thank her for being a perhaps unsung heroine of a certain unique order, and for writing a book that informs and, beyond this, moves me to care even more for the welfare of others. I, for another, would appreciate if we can agree to be more brave and empathetic in the face of uncertainties and strife. What else will help us find and share answers most needed? That is the sort of everyday heroics I would like to more often count on seeing and doing.