How I’m Seeing It Today

My head is full of pictures, those recently snapped as well as those saturating the media. Additionally, there are those arising from music heard and night dreams, from daily walks and greater journeys. I fill my head with images in magazines, from photography shared by others on blogs and elsewhere, from the spare art work I design in my mind and at times on paper. More visual than some, less than others, I am apt to think in images at some point even as ideas are swapped in live conversation. Yes, language is the tool that build foundation and habitation within which writing works and thrives. Words are conduits that provide emotions, postulations and hard facts the heft of expanding life. Yet intellectual inquiries, stories or poems do evoke pictures, unleash mentally constructed scenarios. I as well as others read books, in part, due to that very expectation. We want to be taken into another place or time for a rich experience, another life or few with attendant differing viewpoints. Open a book and discover stages being set and soon you are absorbed by narrative, each act and part played out as you become them as well as an invisible figure within an unfolding scene. Yes, miraculous words.

But it’s clear we are animals that rely heavily upon visual data. This begs the question about what we truly do see and also store in our memories. It also asks us how it impacts each person from that moment. How do news images provoke and shape the tenor of our days and nights, our very thoughts? How about films and television, art and even live theater? There has been much debate about the violence in our country and it is most distressingly hypnotic when we see it on a huge screen.

The Las Vegas massacre was horrific beyond any imagining, the latest in mass murders and worldwide terrorist attacks. Firearm-related deaths are increasingly numerous the past few decades in the U.S. There have long been protests about the entertainment industry depicting vicious and deadly violence too often. Sometimes I go from the news to a television show and find there are disturbing similarities. How did this come about and why isn’t it being responsibly addressed by scriptwriters and producers? I find it hard to believe that an everyday man or woman longs to be engulfed by such shows. I promptly change the channel or just turn it off. There is less and less I care to watch so carefully choose films or a series. Even then, I can be bamboozled by first scenes and finally have to give up.

This is the point when I face my responsibility for my own well-being. And for what I create, both for me and any readers. There are topics I write about frequently, things that have mattered to me professionally or personally. Not easy subjects at times, they center on physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness or its ruinous lack. I evaluate how healing has occurred and how to continue to take care as well as how others might improve their lives. And since violence personally has impacted my life, I do not seek it though I do note its worldly presence. I may have been a counselor who remained very calm when faced with a bitter, aggressive client but inside I was swamped with sadness, compassion; weary, too, of the pain and misery I witnessed.

The powerlessness we often feel when catastrophic events occur can be paralyzing. The overload of images and reports can become numbing, even take over sleep, then intrude on wakefulness. If we actually live through such events, it is magnified a thousand fold, encompasses everything. For the rest, it’s natural to note increased stress and even depression when indirectly immersed via the news. We may worry daily about the state of things. If we are prayerful, those prayers become more intense and frequent. Yet we have choices–to take action, to help improve the lives we inhabit as well as others’. How best to do that besides donating money to various charities or causes, or being politically more active?

An editor and author I know and respect, Jessica Morrell, shared on social media and also in her essay that those who write need to keep writing, to not let the world’s debacles, crises and sorrows mute our voices (http://jessicamorrell.com). I agree and  commented that “to not to write is to signal giving up.” We can use pain and worry to fuel worthy artistic responses. To fashion greater commitment to change while mining more hope. To feed the life-renewing energy even one beneficial action can instill. A powerful state results from being present and practicing empathy in daunting times. It is critical for me to maintain an internal and external balance by instigating positive creative activity. It is at the core of my being, this urge to care as well as create in an often bedazzled yet beleaguered life.

Decades ago, a therapist I met for a first session looked at me long and hard, then said, “You’re carrying the grief of the world inside you.” It first startled me–that she’d easily found vulnerability, that pulsing kernel of love and also of despair. In the quietest places inside it rang out as true. Tears suddenly flowed. The larger world spun within me, yes, because what I had experienced countless other people already had for centuries in one way or another. And what was not yet experienced I could imagine, connect to in the nerve center of who I was. There had to be an outlet for all that, one that didn’t any more destroy me (as addiction had nearly managed).

Therapy can be helpful but I had to keep writing poetry and prose and songs, dance, make art, explore and use as a wellspring the lavish complexities of nature. That and more often reach out. There is nothing like helping others to hew a healthy path away from our own self-centered issues. We identify with others or at least empathize when we have shouldered burdens and grappled with our own monstrous moments. There are many ways to accomplish this. We each have leanings, talents and yet-hidden resources we can develop. We just need to make opportunities to try our hand at something useful or beautiful or honorable.

I used to worry about being of real service. Sometimes I still do, feeling what I now offer can never be enough–this pecking away at the keyboard and letting the sentences float into a virtual atmosphere. This amateurish taking of endless pictures, this offering up of my vision as single moments of an embracing faith and wonderment. But it’s largely what I can do in this world. It is the joyous challenge that propels my life.

Once when I was in my twenties a former in-law asked if I would “ever learn decent domestic skills–can’t you even darn socks? Can you only write poetry?”

“Yes, that’s all,” I answered, hurt and embarrassed (it was mostly true, I had little talent for those duties) yet felt fierce as I held my head up. “Because I am working on being a poet, not so much a housewife.”

I learned how to fix torn and broken things in all sorts of ways eventually, how to make roast chicken dinners and can fresh tomatoes, plant flower seeds and split wood, make a lasting fire from old furniture when every pipe froze and the good wood was gone. But I wrote poems as much as I could and anything else so moved to write. It didn’t occur to me it wasn’t at least as necessary to nourish heart and soul as it was to feed the stomach–and this is what I taught my children from the start. It is important to make something from nothing, to recognize and create beauty for its own sake, to delve deeper for truths. To use time and abilities on endeavors that may not ever garner worldly rewards. Because we are not just bellies and brains, sinew and bone.

What I do will in fact never be “enough” but I don’t have to be the only one trying to do anything. All over this world there are scores of others forging creative roads into new territory right this moment. Sharing inspirational stories in print or around a warming fire. Negotiating peace or demonstrating revolutionary lives, perhaps with potent essays. We cannot live well if at all in the world without these flares of hope. And so I keep on writing, taking pictures of all that moves me, whatever might have some value. I join each day a vast community of doers and dreamers. Now more than ever, we must take action.

Remember the images I spoke about at the beginning of this post? It seems as if I focused more on writing yet each sentence has been accompanied by an image in the multitasking brain. Still, I also took a lot of photographs over last week-end in the three-dimensional world. Let me share some of what I saw–a small offering, a little balm. (And please click on each circle to see full photo.)

Peace to you, wherever you live and strive and love.

 

A Separate State of Being: Childhood Play

Granddaughter with Wolfie; Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2009

There were three of them, girls in summer dresses, perhaps ages 6 or 7, and they were aglow with an apricot-and-honey cast of sunlight falling through the tree canopy. They were stepping precisely among broken branches laid this way and that, avoiding the bark as they maneuvered with small bare feet. They spoke in secret voices as they moved, the space between branches a claimed interior space, perhaps their house, or playroom or just a verdant spot that belonged only to them. One girl then gingerly stepped between two long sticks and found herself outside of the loosely defined oval “room”. She hesitated as she came to a narrow space between longer branches as if uncertain whether or not to enter again. A second girl, however, said, “You can come in, this is our door.” The awaiting child smiled and stepped in, as if over a rise. All three again were together, talking and walking the area when the third child left the space. She hunted and gathered two short sticks that fit well in her hands and knocked them against each other with a pleasant thudding rhythm, and began to sing along with the beat.

The scene had stopped me on my park walk; I caught my breath at her song. Sunlight gilding the greenery, the girls immersed in their own world, dresses in a play of motion against the sweeping background, an afternoon so far removed from hurricanes and wildfires and wars that I felt enchantment had cloaked the park. I could have remained there as long as they. The mother/nanny/neighbor sat nearby with an infant lying on crossed legs; now and then she nodded when they looked to her for reassurance. These were beloved children, so content that their peacefulness emanated large and beautiful from their smallness.

The strong urge to raise my camera visited me, though I rarely photograph unknown children without permission. But it passed. It was their completeness, the perfection of the scenario. How the vibrancy of their playfulness shone. How gentleness and joy tipped some vital balance to make things right and new for a few gifted moments again. I moved on before they did. I didn’t want anything altered, nor my gratitude to lift.

I have thought of those children and their impromptu branch house for days, and of the mothering person, her devotion to those children a certainty. I think she got it right with them. How much time and effort does it take to give a child this kind of freedom, this happiness? Beyond securing adequate food, shelter and safety and steadfast affection–which are so vital most cannot survive without them–what does a parent need to do? And how much can it matter in the long view?

I believe it requires patience and self-restraint to let children be. To just play, let things unfold naturally without interference. I’ve observed kids being directed, cautioned and corrected excessively, as if they cannot create effective ways to open up the gates to make-believe; navigate ordinary conflicts with others; or discard one idea for another to maximize interest and fun.

It is as if adults feel the need to press their own expertise upon children’s improvised alone time, or they worry that they will get into mischief that cannot find its own good solution. Cared-for children are cautioned from day one of countless potential, current or highly suspected dangers. They are taught without ceasing numerous socially accepted behaviors, the how and when to do them. They are urged to do reach for a higher bar, are cheered when they make the mark, are instructed to get back up when they fall down. Children are corralled, disciplined, corrected, warned, filled with information and emptied of many illusions before they even tie their shoes without knotty spots.  So why must they also be “improved” during playtime? Children apparently need all those fine art classes, yoga and martial arts, foreign languages, preschool math and reading courses, a library of DVDs, computer-driven tutoring and entertainment to fill up their extra time–and phones so young…all well and good. Or is it?

There will always be overzealous parents, propelled by determination to create “superior” offspring–as if this was even the best they could do for their children. But I am also addressing the ubiquitous availability of gadgets, their unending, expensive “new edition” spawn. The technological manifestations that children have to embrace as they become older are immense enough in number with attendant skills required. How much does a child have to know about anything that requires Wi-Fi to enjoy his or her life before first grade? (I’d suggest age 10 at the earliest if it was up to me.) A child does not thrill to more distraction than contemporary life already dishes out. Nor does he or she need overt cues or flashy music and garish visuals to excite and improve a naturally growing brain. A child can find her own way in realms of play and learning, When there are questions, a supervising youth or adult can offer to help search an answer.

All they truly require are a few sticks and a grassy spot or a few rocks and a stoop, a small corner and a real or imagined playmate. They will, without any doubt, make a game of it. The ability to adapt, create and embrace the simplest pleasures will guide them forward toward their futures. Perhaps even one day save them.

Watching those three girls at play brought back my own childhood. I’m not indulging in any sentimental send up. Of course I know this is not the 1950s; of course our culture has morphed a few times (even gone back in trendy loops) and industrialized civilization is busier and vaster than ever to address notably different  needs and wants. The threats to well being seem harder to decipher and predict.

But children’s time apart from grown ups has always been and will remain just children’s play. The beauty of this is the innate simplicity primed with spontaneity. And it belongs to children as surely as their unique rates of growth and language use, their childish ways of reaching and touching our hearts.  Even alone, a child can entertain herself for as long as she wishes, with very few material objects to aid her. I say, leave her and him well alone as long as they are safe and within reasonable hearing range. Let things unfold of their own accord. That reaching mind utilizes its fledgling critical thinking skills to work out kinks, follow diversions. Make a good game of life.

I’ve written of my old neighborhood’s outdoor gatherings and family games of childhood days. I’ve stated my parents directed me to “go find something to do” if I dared utter that foul word: “bored.” I had a fairly busy childhood schedule with school and church and the arts–which I adored–but there was “down time” as well. (We did not own a television until I was thirteen–there was not enough time or interest–and even then it was seldom turned on. I found it novel, even strange that friends were wild about cartoons, and just did not feel the tug of it.)

So it was up to me to get in touch with buddies or ride my prized blue Schwinn, create basic seriocomic stories with my dolls and pillows and scarves or the fabulous miniature farm set, build with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, draw (even in dirt with a pointy stick), sketch and paint or attempt crafty things, write a poem, play hopscotch and jump rope, make up a song or dance, give a puppet its own theater, climb the maple tree and survey the intriguing horizon. I liked to watch cars go by, count the models and makes and colors. Play in the sprinkler or water “Plant” a garden while watering with a miniature sprinkling can. Hit a few rounds of croquet acorss the uneven grassy yard–even alone. Heck, I could play everyone’s game, couldn’t I? And win them all. It was for just a bit of fun, after all.

But I loved hanging out in my small hideout in the dense thicket of bushes and trees in the northwest corner of back yard. There was a scarred wood bench to sit on, a table devised of broken pine branches and scrap wood. I could be anybody I wanted.  There were supplies kept there–paper and pencils, glass of water, saltine crackers, a homemade slingshot, an dirty hat. Or I’d explore the tree nursery right behind our house, galloping about as if atop a wild stallion, on the lookout for bandits. In winter I dragged the toboggan around in knee-deep snow under a star-pierced sky, and truly felt the intrepid adventurer.

I was never lacking options, only impetus at times, and soon could find something to enjoy. Play–not much supervised or directed– was a pleasurable part of my day.

I did not live in a shielding bubble, however. Not by the time I was eight years old, when over the next three years sexual abuse altered the course of day and night, a violent twist in the flow of a heretofore secure childhood. But one thing that did not change was the escape and rest offered by play time on my own–or fun with friends and family, if desired. Play saved me in broad and deep ways. Yes, rescued me. It taught me to cope with not-yet-understood stress, how to mine and polish more elusive positive moments, how to improvise, figure out solutions. How to keep in touch with hopeful possibilities beyond the silencing, invisible prison of abuse by a man who appeared harmless, trustworthy, but was a menace, one who threatened grave violence if silence was broken.

It appeared that the play and work, the holy and profane existed side by side in a life filled with love of God and family and redefining losses. I felt weakened before becoming stronger. Separate time to be free of fear, to enjoy ordinary moments as well as try out scenarios of a happier day was vital.

As I later suffered consequences of difficult times, I could delve into that short era of innocence and dig for the light still alive in darkness. I had once so easily embraced or created contentment and laughter; thus, it was possible to experience both once more. Had I not been brave and curious, steady in body and mind and open to the amazements of life? It was all still out there along with the harder stuff, and it could happen for me again. I had to recall that childish impulse toward play as much as anything else as I sorted things out on the way to recovery. I looked for more reasons to laugh. Marvel. They were there, waiting to be spotted. If I could rebuild a foundation of trust brick by brick, I could build a better life. Hold onto happiness. And over time, that is how it unfolded.

Nothing turns out just as we think it will be as children. My life has not the story arc once imagined–it has been tougher, often better and very different. I can still re-design much within through creative engagement, enable more good via prayer and work and compassion. But also in simple play. Because I was long ago encouraged to explore the “what ifs” and “just try its” mode of operation, and learned to do it pretty well. Just grant me a little space. A few minutes. I’ll come up with something that will lead to more fun.

I recall when counselling those in addictions treatment, especially, asking one question over and over: what have you done today that is safe but also fun? And ending group sessions reminding them to put back fun in their lives. Because the ways to enjoy and care about life are like a veritable smorgasbord of surprises. Try one; find out what happens. It will stir up those mood-altering hormones we already possess to boost well being. Think back, I’d suggest: what gave you a great feeling as a small child? How can you recreate that again? We are wise about wonder and delight when starting out in life–so reclaim it.

So play on, little daughters and sons, conjure new worlds into being at a touch, a word, a dream, all right within this one. Pick up that stick and beat the drum of earth and leap through invisible doors. Practice your own robust magic. And do not forget.

 

Lessons from Cottage Life

Coanes’ Cottages, the faded wood sign indicated, a dingy white arrow pointing the way. After a long car ride from mid-to-northern Michigan, I was ready to tumble out and gallop down the dirt path to the lake shore. Dad opened the trunk as Mom gathered up a few stragglers in the back seat. I deposited my suitcase at the door of our rental cottage and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Coanes emerged from their own cottage, dressed in the usual matching plaid shirts, greeting us with a flurry of welcoming talk. I said on cue, “Hello there, nice to be here, thank you for having us” and was thus briefly released from other required social duties.

I ran through long-limbed, shady trees and dry grass stubble, arms flailing, legs reaching, breath rushing though me until there was the same old dock before me. The lake spread out from the shore, a shimmering mirror on surface, deep and clear just below barest green-blue waves. It was rimmed by deciduous and pine trees standing close to one another, tight against gusty storms that often swept off mammoth Lake Michigan a few miles away and Canada beyond that. The calendar had already been turned from August to September so it was far quieter than summertime’s high season. A few diverse trees on the other side bore leaves in process of transformation, green to gold, red to orange. Just the way I liked it.

It was the time we tended to visit the Coanes’ Cottages,  after their busy vacation season ended and kids were back in school. I vaguely recalled them from church; my parents had known well when they had still lived and worked in our hometown. And then they retired from “good jobs” as Mom indicated, and part-time pleasure became a full-time business. By early to late fall we could stay in an unclaimed (I guessed free to us) cottage which to me far better fit the description of a cabin. It seemed a kind of luxury to me to be there though I had stayed at other lakes, for other reasons (performing arts and church camps, friends’ summer homes). The homely but decent-sized cottage, cheerful fire in the fireplace when nights turned cool; the old log walls and wood floors emitting the musky smoky scent I loved–it was a fall reprieve from our already hectic city lives. The decor of the habitat was primitive and basic to me even as a young teen, but its simplicity soothed me, reassured me with its longevity and sameness.

My parents weren’t so much true outdoors people so much as general science lovers and nature admirers. Even Dad didn’t fish or boat much (he liked tennis and bike riding) though most other people came in droves to catch abundant bass, rainbow trout, perch,  pike, whitefish and more. And also to go boating, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, to name a few. And that was only in summer. Winter held plenty of attraction with fun activities like ice fishing and ice boating.

I understood that the Coanes were different from my parents’ other friends, and also my friend’s parents. They preferred a pared-down sort of life, in sync with the outdoors all year, a far more rugged life. Mrs. Coanes held me in thrall as I shyly observed her. She exhibited such energy and strength, a pervasive independent attitude. Though this was a bit like my mother, Mrs. Coanes routinely fished with success (we’d eaten the catch many times) and even hunted deer; she tackled the same heavy work as did her husband. They had ruddy cheeks and calloused hands. Mrs. Coanes didn’t fuss with make up or bother calming her curly, silvery-brown mop of hair. I thought it curious that she and her spouse dressed about the same–long sleeved, plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans or old khakis, laced leather boots, even in summer. From a distance they were nearly interchangeable when they had their caps on. They seemed to be perpetually in a good mood, easy to be around and full of stories about game or fish they got, the customers they had met, the changing of the seasons–and good books they had read.

They also played bridge and knew much about science, art and history. After dinner we often hung out at their cabin or they came to ours. I skimmed my novels or the cottage’s crossword puzzle magazines while the four of them played bridge or Michigan Kitty or Scrabble or checkers (I might  join in the last two). I listened to conversations about our town versus the lake life as well as my parents’ various engagements and our large family. They didn’t have children, an noteworthy fact to me, the youngest of five. I learned that they both had worked at Dow Chemical Company–it was the main employer of in Midland, Michigan and though they’d enjoyed being company scientists, they loved this life more.

I tried to imagine my parents owning such a place and failed–surely not Dad with his tuxedos as conductor for concerts or playing in string quartets, and Mom with attendant elegant dresses or her work as an elementary schoolteacher. But they had other sides to them. Mom had grown up on a farm and was not at all averse to physical work–her energy seemed indefatigable. Dad loved to tinker with cars and repair things. They both camped for many years with a pop-up camper and enjoyed the relaxation it brought.

But during lake visits and while staying with the Coanes, I saw them anew at times.

I learned Dad greatly enjoyed the water and loved to sail. He put on swim trunks and joined Mr. Coanes on the small sailboat buzzing with excitement.

Mom shouted after him, “Put a lifebelt on! You could capsize and drown! Don’t go out too long or far away– I want to be able to see you!” Her nerves were not hidden though her face appeared calm soon–or taut with anxiety just beneath the surface.

Mrs. Coanes tried to reassure her but it didn’t do the trick. Mom would jump up from her camp chair, walk along the muddy shoreline and flatten a hand against forehead to shield her eyes from sunlight. She tracked the sailboat’s progress.

I’d swim awhile, dog paddle deeper and be carried out by chilly, lapping wavelets to the floating dock. There I’d dive off the buoyant wooden square again and again. Pungent scents of lake; the sweet, crisp air of early fall! And Mom wasn’t worried about me. I was close enough, she knew I was a strong swimmer. But Dad was disappearing around a peninsula with Mr. Coanes, off on a small adventure.

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

It heretofore hadn’t occurred to me to ask. She was in her fifties and I somehow had assumed that, like most women of the times and that age, she just didn’t want to get into a suit and be sopping wet while in full view of the public.

“I don’t like water,” she said, scanning the distance. “Never have.”

I thought about that. She daily took baths, of course, fast ones it was true but she never had mentioned a dislike of water. She washed things, she watered the garden, she bathed us kids when we were little. Did she mean she didn’t actually like getting right into it awhile? Hard to avoid when bathing. I thought this most peculiar. And one thing I liked about being close to her was that she was the sweetest smelling person I knew, even her breath.

When Mrs. Coanes had gone elsewhere I got more nosy. “So–why?”

“I just don’t like how it feels, being doused. I never take showers, you know, a quick bath in tepid water. Or a sponge bath–don’t look at me like that, that is how it often was growing up! You recall I get up before you all do to get ready, and there is a line when I get out.”

“Well, so you feel you have to hurry?…but is there one real reason why? I mean, did something happen that was scary?”

“That’s the reason why: I don’t enjoy water,” she said with quiet exasperation and got up to pace the shoreline again, hands stuffed into pockets of her attractive Pendleton wool plaid jacket. I noted her sturdier casual shoes beneath a lighter tweedy skirt.

It made no sense; it bothered me. How could a person not like the way water slipped over skin, soft and smooth and refreshing? A bath was one thing but a lake….they were full of fascinating life. Viney weeds could suddenly wind around legs, true, and blood suckers met in the muck were gross. But toe-nibbling fish were okay. I knew Mom had a real appreciation of earth sciences, had studied them in college and often talked about geology and etymology. But she had never included water life in her enthusiastic fact-sharing, either. And I still didn’t quite know why.

“Hey Mom, stop worrying, Dad is a good swimmer and he’s with a veteran sailor.”

But she had to be afraid of water; she acted worried about his safety. I tended to find my mother fearless. Even if she hid a few anxieties, she tried to faced things head on. Perhaps that was what she was doing by letting him go ahead on the little boat each year, just staying watchful rather than becoming a little hysterical. My mind wandered–did someone she know actually drown? Did she come close to it? Did she get doused with water from a farm hose by one of her many mischievous, maybe sometimes mean brothers?

I felt as if I was seeing into their lives from a different angle, with more open eyes. And I also felt somehow less confined to childhood’s real with the bits of new knowledge. What else didn’t I know about them? I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for much more.

Mom shrugged off my words, then tossed me a tolerant smile, as if I couldn’t begin to understand such things. Mrs. Coanes returned so I grabbed a towel, happy to get off on my own, to doze and dream, get a decent tan. Then Dad and Mr. Coanes edged back into view so I sat up again. Mom waved and jumped about as if she hadn’t seen them in days. I sat up. Dad was at the helm; he was sailing the boat by himself. Yes, it was a small boat but there was something about his hair ruffling in the wind, the honeyed sunshine on his elated face, arms and back strong and that easy joy so apparent. My father, set free awhile. Free from endless labors, from even family, from public expectations. It was Dad in the midst of water and wind as the boat skimmed the brilliant teal blue lake. He brought it in nicely.

Mom restrained herself as they finished up. She gave Dad a beach towel to dry off. He was alert, excited–my often taciturn, tired father was a joyously revised one. I congratulated him on his outing and Mr. and Mrs. Coanes noted what a natural he was at sailing. Mom, smiling easily once more, slipped her arm through the crook of his and they walked back up the small hill to the cottages.

I knew what I was going to do the next day: get my chance out there on that sailboat. I had had a taste of sailing at camps and longed to sail more, like Dad.

But that night as the adults played cards, I went down to the lake and sat on the end of the dock. The waves slapped against earth and dock in the sweetly comforting way I never failed to miss when back in the city. Frogs and crickets and birds sang and chirped. I listened for loons, those strange beauties. And an entire sky opened itself to me like a magic kingdom, moon like a beacon, even a harbinger of very good things to come. If I felt a passing pang of loneliness, I imagined another teen sitting across the water doing the same as I, feeling the same tender thrill, that sweet anticipation of an entire life ahead.

Those early autumn stars stirred and settled themselves in the swaths of another night and I imagined them like pinholes into heaven. I propped myself on forearms and tilted my head back to observe them in their true glory as twilight gathered more darkness. Such a perfect, confounding universe, so many questions to ask and answer. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that nature was my companion and would be my inspiration and solace my whole life long. I would never feel entirely bereft or lost with nature all about me.

I understood some of why the Coanes left our small city far behind, and why Mrs. Coanes simplified her life. Looking back she was a quiet pioneer, forging her own path in the early sixties when many women wouldn’t have dared–except perhaps, other outdoors women or athletes. How fortunate I was to have known them and to have enjoyed their hospitality. To learn a little about water’s powers and that far off country of grown up life and marriage.

 

Love, Fight, Work, Learn: If a Dog, would I be a Siberian Husky or German Shepherd?

 

This essay is not truly about dogs so don’t be disappointed if you read on. I, rather, was thinking of finding or creating a quiz: when a person has such and such traits, what sort of animal would they be most like? Or would they want to be like if you asked them? We do at times compare people to non-human creatures, let’s be honest–either due to physical characteristics or their natures. We may even feel pull to a certain animal, or a connection that moves us. Although I noted dogs in the title, I’m not sure I would be one if there was a choice but sometimes I do feel the desire to yelp, pounce, bark and growl, act funny and be tricky, hide, sneak and bite–rather, those human equivalents.  Not every day is a cuddly kind of day, to say the least.

At times I think a wolf is closer to what I imagine choosing to become. Yes, I know, that has nearly become boring; most people have a thing for (or against) our resurgence of grey wolves. They are majestic: intelligent strategizing, fine physical prowess, loyalty to the pack, team predatory skills and beautiful songs.

But on the other side of the fence, so to speak,  there are black panthers with their trademark grace and sly ferocity, nocturnal sensory equipment and precise hunting skills. Who cannot admire such stealth and power, the wondrous design of their sleekness? Plus, they even live in the Amazon, a place I have been drawn to all my life.

What draws me in the end–how do I connect to them? Mysterious and wild (so different from me) and strong, smart, spectacular to watch and hear. So I consider both wild canine, wild feline. I could be more creative in choices but these two mammals have long fascinated me. Among others…I seem to feel a tug to many. I am easily mesmerized by other beings in the world. Birds, insects, ocean life of all sorts and so on: I have a wide ranging passion for Mother Nature and her critters.

So I want to note that the other day there was a familiar piercing/whistling call in a neighborhood park. I looked up, stood riveted for a good fifteen minutes. I had thought at first they were ospreys. Oh, to be a bird! My eyes were trained on treetops as people passed me by. But a couple stopped; we watched three beautiful, powerful birds fly back and forth far above, calling to one another. A park staff person later corrected me–they were Cooper’s hawks, which excited me even more. They were nesting in our park? I had only seen them from afar in the country. Amazing. But it seemed similar enough to an osprey call that I looked up them up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. To my delight, I discovered it was a specific call heralding food delivery to the nest.

Yes, I might wish to be a bird, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk.

Still, have been thinking more about dogs since caring for daughter’s very young cat a couple of months. I sometimes daydream about finally getting another dog. Still, I don’t currently have a dog as I believe domesticated animals are happier outdoors rather than indoors or at least both. I live in an apartment. Maybe I’m projecting my preferences…but my last was a Brittany Springer spaniel, twenty-five years ago.

I do like cats overall despite being allergic and disliking being scratched. I’ve lived with a few. The last was a temperamental (are there any other sorts) calico the same daughter chose as a young teen. Mandy-Cat was lovely and irritating, not so affectionate but intensely loyal. My current guest cat, Hyundai, named for the car under which it somehow hitched a 45 minute ride and emerged without a scratch, is a feisty and possibly feral male of perhaps five months. He likes to skitter up  to the top of a balcony screen door and sniff about wildly; run ramrod over couch and chairs at midnight; make capturing a tea towel from the refrigerator handle into a Herculean challenge. He takes possession of one nylon shopping bag as if it were his perfect prey or a comfy abode, whichever he deigns to make it.

I might not choose to be this cat. On the other hand, he is imbued with a grand spirit of adventure, a certain charming meow, and we chat with one another throughout the day with a few positive results. Perhaps it was Hyundai who has inspired me to think again about the nature of people versus the nature of other animals. And what all that means, after all,  since I am not an animal behaviorist, just a mere retired human mental health clinician. So it is natural I examine my personal attitudes and actions, ferreting out why I am who I am–and how humans are so unlike one another despite sharing so many traits. (Likely other animals are also more alike than different but a zoologist would likely prove me wrong.)

I love what dog shows call “the working dog group”. I admire huskies because they are hard working, energetic and alert with superior endurance and stamina, friendly and playful and smart as well as being furry-attractive (lovely eyes, too). They’re team workers, fleet of foot, eminently trainable and love to do a great job. I also admire German shepherds for similar qualities as well as others, though perhaps they might be less readily sociable I have high regard for their capability of working within dangerous situations, their intelligent behaviors. They’re very loyal, thus excellent guard dogs. They also can certainly attack and bite. I imagine all dogs do at times–fear being a trigger and territoriality–but it appears that huskies are far less likely than German shepherds to react aggressively, according to statistics about serious dog bites (they are perhaps third or fourth on lists I’ve read). Still, they can make fine companions as do huskies. They are simply different dogs.

So what does all this have to do with my musings? Its about reactions to stimuli in part. Other animals seem to be more straight forward about things, do exactly what they need to do and are clean and simple about it. I would like to be more like that some days. To the absolute point but smarter about matters, especially complex ones….a human debacle.

I’ve been mulling over a few situations the past months wherein I responded with feelings and words that were not altogether comfortable for me. Nor, I suspect, the receivers of those responses. I have instincts like any other animal so can sniff out any danger, find weak spots in my life, seek to minimize unnecessary discomfort and maximize well being. I am protective of those I love; work hard to seek and maintain the aspects of life I welcome and enjoy; adapt to the randomness the best I can and try to learn well from it. People have called me courageous, intimidating, loyal, dominating, compassionate and nonjudgmental, insightful, powerful when angry and intense if distressed. I am unable to lay claim on any of these without scrupulous, ongoing self-examination. But I do know many of my weaknesses as well as some of my strengths and a few ring a bell.

We all have our “hot buttons.” I suspect that something perceived as an intrusion into the hallowed realms of family or friends is close to the top of the list. Another would be when we feel attacked at an emotionally vulnerable place (and, of course, physically unwanted touch). Yet another might be when we feel our basic dignity is being disregarded. And also if we feel betrayed by someone well and long trusted. Misunderstandings of various sorts come and go; tempers are sure to flare a bit. But deeper woundings are harder from which to rebound, and certainly to manage well with the wisdom of tact and consideration. Fairness may go out the window. It is just harder to move past differences, to forgive and forget when whatever occurred hurts greatly, whether or not another can understand the why or wherefore of it. But a lack of understanding or a respect of one’s viewpoint makes the dig even deeper.

I am first and last a student here, learning new skills to deal with my and others’ most human hurts. It is trickier when a conflict and resulting skirmish seem avoidable. How to soothe the scratches and gouges well, help them heal up right? Isn’t it in part connected to an initial reaction to those first irritating words, boundary crossings, oversights? The greater surprise and harder the fight, the harder and faster the fall.

I should know this by now. I learned early on to protect myself. I had to be quick of mind and foot. We all find ways to take care of ourselves when we meet up with bullies or hecklers, those who practice criticism as a prime activity or seek to do any sort of injustice. (Just being a kid and a youth can seem to put one at risk, especially in these times.) For me, it was critical to learn how to be brave, to become self reliant, perceptive and quick witted.

By my twenties I was developing a diamond-hard carapace about my core being that was rarely removed. I walked and talked like a person who was carrying a sort of weather flag denoting a “watch” or a “warning”: be wary/mess with me at your own risk. I knew how to be gracious, to talk a good talk and underneath it all was a sincerity and, oddly, confidence that authenticated my behaviors. But I was always in command of myself, my jobs and surroundings, my life as much as possible–even when my life was unmanageable, I rallied and tried to commandeer strength out of sheer stubbornness. right or wrong.

I was often told that when I walked into a room and down the street, people took immediate notice…it was the surety and hardness of my footfall with confident strides, squared shoulders and head high. But these also caused folks to pause, to assess if I would be an alliance or enemy. I’ve been not always embraced, more often respected. (I wondered the same about them, truth be told.)

Back then I knew how to labor hard, to be counted upon, to fight for what I believed in. And, I  think, how to love with ardor and steadiness–that is, when a serious trust was tested and proven. But as time passed I discerned better how to use armor when most needed, to relent when it was helpful, to soften responses so my presentation changed, reactions were subtler. It felt as if it came at some personal cost until I fortified myself with better counseling, deeper prayer and acceptance of God’s abiding care and presence in my living. I tinkered with this and that, tossed out more irksome, useless bits. In time I found my life a synthesis of better aligned spirit, body, feelings and intellect.

Still, there remains the conundrum that though I long to be a finer human being, I am flawed so much more than hoped. The right circumstances with the wrong statement made to me and I can strike when I should remain restrained. I snarl when I should be silent; I jump up when remaining sitting down is a better course to take. I snag and grind a resentment when releasing it could be as mere breath floating from my lips. I want to be a good human creature, expectant of joy, civilized and stalwart and caring. I just cannot seem to  always succeed in the follow through. I have to pause and rethink some occasions or better yet, take a big step back and let everything be. I don’t have to have the last word in all scenarios; I need to pick times it can retain most value. In fact, it can be more useful to seek a truce. And then comes an experience more satisfying, the enlarging graciousness of deeper peace.

I try to imagine what it would be like to be more a husky than a German shepherd. Oh, I know the second breed is very clever, dauntless and fierce and loyal. But I am more and more interested in being a full team player as well as brightly independent, one who can go to utmost limits but then is rewarded with rest as adjunct to rambunctious fun. One who will never forsake those I care for but who is more than happy to meet new neighbors–all with little to no threat of biting from either side. Well, other animals might say I make too much of it; they must find life more simply defined: birth and survival, play, hunting, mating, eating and sleeping, more family, hunting and survival, aging and death. Strength and wiliness must win out.

I think I hear a distant woof and howl.

I’ve determined I would most happily be a husky (or a grey wolf in the wild), perhaps not a German shepherd…but then, how can I know for sure? Depending in the end on what works  best and what would be required of me. Depending on what was offered for work and love–as well as mealtime and play. And shelter and safety. Or is all that rather too human?

The moon and open spaces are calling. Later.

 

Those were the Days, the Nights

It was a brisk, golden autumn in 1971. Our apartment was on the top floor of a weathered four-plex, a sure upgrade from the barely renovated chicken coop we’d called home, with sharply slanting roof and tiny spaces allotted for bed, couch, bathroom and kitchenette. It was a very primitive version of popular “tiny houses” that ecologically minded persons now herald as a radical solution to land hogging and indulgent square footage. But since we’d been married 6 months and were still university students Ned and I went bigger and better–out of the country, into a “student ghetto.”

The floors were real (scarred, creaky) wood. The ceilings were high (a few cobwebs, bubbling paint in spots) and the ample openness captured echoes of footsteps and even whispers. There was a large living and separate dining room, bedroom, a full kitchen and a back porch with attendant steps to the yard and alley. And a small alcove, nearly a cubbyhole, right off the dining room.

I claimed it for my own–not to write, but to paint ever larger canvasses that I made with my own hands. I had intended on majoring only in English and creative writing; somehow an art major crept into the mix. Perhaps it was part of my intent: I had left behind a provincial (read: stodgy, to my hippie sensibilities) hometown and high familial expectations as well as a complicated emotional legacy. I married a man with piercing blue eyes, a deep well of vibrant silence, and a talent for sculpting abstract forms from wood, brass, plastics cement–whatever felt and worked right. He had left behind a factory life, the life his father, a supervisor, lived, thought most reasonable. We were rebels of a sort in a time when “the personal is political” was just gearing up.

In that apartment I was industrious, set up my easel and oils and acrylics. I jumped into my new art classes and did well, learning  as I took a chance with design, color, form. Sometimes we revved up the Bultaco motorcycle for street and wooded trails to let off steam. Ned also worked on  his art and on “chopping” his second hand Harley Davidson. There were poetry readings to attend and participate in, music to make with my voice and guitar as well as share with other student musicians, art events to co-create and view.

I was happy in that apartment with its narrow windows that stuck and overhead fans that only swirled the last of Indian summer heat, a bed that sagged to bring us even closer, the sound of his booted feet clomping up worn steps. I made tuna curry and brown rice, salads and eggs, cheap food that filled us along with tea and coffee. They were days and nights made of adventures and love.

Alright now, step back–hold on a minute! Bring those stage lights back up, take another look. Was that the life I led at 21? Or am I indulging in…sigh… a pastel drippy scenes of nostalgia?

Or was it richer, still?

Let me regroup as I think this over, before I am in danger of drowning in a syrupy pit of nostalgia.

That oft-repeated phrase “oh, those were the days” lands on my ear like the annoying buzz of a gang of mosquitoes. That’s what I’ve always thought and tend to still think: out of the mouths of the very aged or the bows and ribbons type–that is, the inordinately sentimental. Likely both. A belief in greater attributes of the past rather than the present or future seemed like sheer hyperbole, undue adoration of what was quite finished. Who can enjoy this thinking? It seems shortsighted at the least to imply that what has gone before is better than the current moment and beyond.

My motto for years was “don’t let the past steal the present.” It remains stuck on my bedroom mirror in case there is a lapse of lucidity and I hearken back to said “good ole days or the bad.” They were, in truth, often peppered with miseries, roughed up by heartache but why dwell on the either the fabulous or dismal? Much of life has seemed accidental; it can leave us limping, with hidden scars. The good ole days? Is that viewpoint sold with rose-colored glasses? The hard-bitten part of me begs to differ. What price is paid for wistfulness for the past, the longing for it? Others surely led a life different from mine.

I believe there is a wealth of matters to attend to, here and now. We have power to see it as we want; then it, as well, becomes memorable. Sentimentality strikes me as the most superficial form of nostalgia, a surfeit of displayable emotion that glosses over rather than enables the deeper self to reflect on what may have been delightful or bittersweet. May I assiduously avoid the first.

Yet. There are moments when I heed that call to longing. How to avoid the lure? It’s magnetic, the past as we can recall it, truthfully or not (for we know memory can trick us, as well). It is, I imagine, an essential feeling we return to and feel a need to bring closer. Poignancy of tenderness, joy or passion has great pull. A sense of security pervades recollection, even if loss occurred. It settles about us, familiar, a comfort even as it flees us again. Like any pleasant feeling, it pumps up serotonin, the “happiness hormone.”

It may be good news that there is increasing evidence nostalgia is good for us, according to the esteemed Scientific American magazine. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-nostalgia-is-good-for-you/) Nostalgic recall bestirs warm emotions, reaffirms life was (and may be once more better) good and special in a certain time or place or with that person. It creates a bridge from one period of life to another, gives us a sense of firmer footing within the morass of human endeavor.

Unbidden, scenes from the past revisit so easily. I don’t go in search of the past without an automatic and real resistance. The last half of my life I’ve preferred to exist in the present moment; there are enough treasures and puzzles to note, pursue, mull over. But I am writer. Much glides and rushes from past to present to future. It overlaps levels of consciousness amid the process of creation/recreation. We are constantly storing up scenes from life, adding them to that vast kaleidoscope of memory. And we forget, too, then recall once more.

As I awaken or fall sleep or as I gaze upon a certain landscape, hear a measure of music, smell a potent fragrance–all those trigger another memory. We are captivated. Time disappears. Recollection is a conduit to experiences etched in our cores. They have parlayed time lived into an essence, slipped it right into present states. Such texture and heft, such reverberation, all those intrinsic meanings.

When the past carries with it the promise of pleasure or peace, our hearts open further. We find room once more for what we thought was boxed up, tucked away. Perhaps feeling nostalgia provides ready access to a long afterglow of distant happiness. We get it in our sights, zero in, then net it with our minds. Ah, the way it was back then.

Today I awakened remembering that above mentioned college apartment Ned and I inhabited. The bottom of a dark wood staircase on the first floor as I closed the heavy front door with its frosty glass, then racing to top of the steps and bursting into a brilliant expanse of open rooms: I was there. And he was just out of sight but waiting.

What brought me to this?

It may have been the grey, heavily textured ceramic jug I saw on my son’s fireplace mantel recently. He said he was going to put some of his father’s–Ned’s– ashes into it after he found a suitable stopper. I recognized the ceramic piece; it was made by Ned. Though not the most finessed of potters he was, however, a remarkable maker of many objects, of houses and furniture. A fine sculptor with calloused hands, broad-palmed and long-fingered. Exacting, capable hands.

It may have been the watercolors I was studying the other day in American Art Review. How I often glance at my art toolbox on a book shelf, with its paints and  brushes, pencils and erasers and pastels and so on–thinking this is the day I will paint a small rendering of something. This day I will buy an easel. This year I will find a watercolor class and register and attend and learn.

I remember all my paintings carried from place to place for ten years. Some had a place on changing walls. I finally removed them from their frames, rolled them up for easier moving and storage. Eventually they were all lost in the flooding of a renovated carriage house where my children and I lived. I opened the first floor door and water poured out, and with it most of the saved past. This was after Ned and I had separated. I did not paint again for decades unless it was with the children. Finally, as I entered middle age I made a few private, terribly small attempts. Each year passes; the barest of strokes crisscross sketchbooks along with various writings and collages, much like the ratty scrapbooks I kept as a kid. I keep thinking I am ready to work at it harder or, rather, enjoy it more.

It may also have been a recent solitary walk in the woods. There was something about that August breeze, how it carried the scent of warmed pine needles and ruffled my hair. I gathered the tranquility. When I opened my eyes there came to me in intense fullness the soughing wind and whispering trees, the greens of leafiness, the blues of sky between branches: I ached so for the beauty. I recalled my first times living deep in countryside. Walks along the marsh marigold-framed creek, twilit deer snorting softly and eating our corn, two tow headed children we adored running about as their father split a cord of wood and I made batches of fresh-herbed tomato sauce for winter pasta meals.

I felt Ned’s presence; I felt what had begun earlier on in my life, it’s long ranging impact.

Yes. It was a brisk, golden autumn, 1971. The apartment pulsed in streaming light that slipped though tall, narrow windows. The rich fragrance of oil paints prickled my nose as I uncapped small tubes, smeared a few hues on a palette, readied the turpentine, linseed oil. I stood before a stretched, primed white canvas and began. He called my name then came to survey the first strokes, kissed the top of my head. I answered with a laugh. Happy. Welcoming of life, ready for everything, grateful for what I had. This was so despite rough times already lived and a vague sense of those to come. It was a brief sheltering time that made me stronger, broadened my capacity of love, filled me to overflowing. We made art.We acted foolish. We were brave, brash and tender, wise enough to know we knew little though we pretended to know more. And maybe we did know a few, after all.

Ned, father of my first two children, is no longer in this gravity-dominated world. But many moments shared live on for those who knew him.

So, I ask you as well as myself: is nostalgia to be sought out or avoided? I think we cannot avoid it. Nor should we. Sometimes it may be what saves us from a difficult present. Or inspires us to retrieve what mattered most but what was lost or to rediscover the common threads that make us lively and ready to move forward. It is true I used to think it a waste of time and effort to revisit what was done and gone, much mine the richness amid rubble. I strove to keep hidden the past within a more successful and contented present. But it was only when I gave myself free reign to explore all scenarios that I salvaged the beauty attached to the wreckage. Rebirth begins in the midst of endings and failures. From a rotting log arises abundance. Not everything is light and loveliness but we might welcome it, anyway, then appreciate the entirety. And in memory preserve it for further viewing.

As a writer of fiction, poetry and memoir, I find myself going internal (and external) places I’d not intended to go. But I follow that tug more often than not and hope it is not a superficial reflection but one that reveals finer things. It is a human thing, this nostalgia for the linking moments that best uphold our continuity. And from time to time we long for whatever the heart taught us well.

Remember with good regard, then have at those fine moments. It turns out it’s even healthy for you. May nostalgia not obscure your view but broaden it. And bless you and those with whom you share those times.

Ned Falk standing with one of his award winning sculptures, 1973. (Be at peace. See you later.)