Friday’s Passing Fancy: A Happy Trip–Ashland to Mt. Shasta

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I get the itch to take off for other places by late February-early March. Despite my appreciation (on the good days) and acceptance (when the drear feels too murky and confining) of the insular winter months of Portland’s chilly rainfall, it gets a bit tiresome by then. And Marc is also ready to take a break from work once more (since his yearly one at Christmas). We make our first travel plans for April or May, as I have gotten in the habit of celebrating my birthday (and/or Mother’s Day) by travelling. We usually choose a place where 1) it will be, if not warm, at least brighter with cheerier, more interesting landscapes than drenched city blocks and muddied emerald lawns; and 2) we can travel via car and explore for 7-14 days out.

We are about to embark on another trip–this time flying to San Diego, California and surrounds, a first time for me if familiar territory for my businessman hubby. I started to get excited while checking photos of past trips. I was perusing those of a satisfying, gorgeous exploration of southern Oregon in 2006. It was pleasant to take a short virtual hop there so thought to share pictorial impressions.

We first headed down to Ashland, OR., located 16 miles from the northern CA. border. It is the home of Southern Oregon University and the well known Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We did see a play but I regret I can’t recall what it was though it was a fine performance, no doubt! I do oddly recall the OSF theaters and campus area were very attractive. The college town is a lustrous gem within rolling hills and a backdrop of the Siskiyou Mountains, a part of greater Klamath Mountains.

From there we drove to the border of OR./CA. and on toward Mt. Shasta and the redwoods. Mt. Shasta is within a southern part of the Cascade Range, which stretches across Oregon to British Columbia. This particular mountain is considered sacred by Native Americans and is one of the Pacific Basin’s “Ring of Fire” volcanoes. It is an awesome presence to behold at 14,179 ft. and covered with a brilliant crown of snow. At first its peak was obscured by a topknot of clouds but as we got closer, it appeared for a short time like magic. I felt humbled being as close as we were.

There are many other decent shots of this longer trip but these are some I like the most from the first leg. I may post other photos later. I was less engaged with digital photography then; almost all shots are landscapes. There are two of our charming accommodations and its back garden. I also included one of Marc and myself for the heck of it. How times flies–we both have changed (he got bigger… and works even harder while I got smaller as I began more creative endeavors once retired; we both got greyer over 12 years). But our love of experiencing interesting places and people has not altered–perhaps this has even grown.

In a couple weeks I will be posting pictures and musings gathered or formed while in beautiful, dry southern California!

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Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: The Power of Humblest Mementos

I listened closely and yes, it was for certain her hands on those ivory and ebony keys. Then her speaking voice. I pushed “play” on my iPhone’s voice memo files again. And again. Marinell, my sister, was playing an old standards song, “Stairway to the Stars”, on her lustrous grand piano. It took up a living room corner in one house, then inhabited its own room in another–and was sold, to my private dismay, before she and her husband moved to Texas.

The song was a little slower, more richly nuanced than it is often played or sung (Ella Fitzgerald did a more chipper version), and that was part of her piano skill with popular music, a more languid, casual, endearing coloration of notes. She had her own brand of soul stirred and shined up by a certain frisky but sweet touch as such a song as this deserves, if not requires. It lends a gorgeous sound, warmly so.

At the end of the song, she laughs–that light yet expressive sound– and says it wasn’t so good, but I shout out a muted exclamation of “Yay!” It has long been a favorite of mine and we long shared this love of standards.

As a child and youth I learned to sing whole collections from this era at Dad’s or Marinell’s elbow on the piano bench. I once thought this could be the music I’d sing for a living with luck and more hard work. Thus, the genre gives me uniquely good sensations as much as does classical music, my first old love and later, jazz (only a hop and skip away from the standards). I’ll find myself humming or singing snatches to myself even now when no one is near. I could only sing out with my sister’s accompaniment, though, as years passed. I trusted her, felt at ease making music with her.

To hear this, then, nearly three years after her passing from pneumonia and multiple heart attacks far from me in Texas is an unexpected treasure held close. Those simple and good times we had at her piano! And when more of our whole family gathered it made for a booming, harmonized chorus. She sometimes sang along as she played. I wish now I’d recorded the rare times we were all together.

Last week I was scrolling through ancient voice memos–all the way back to 2012 (I keep my phones a long while and obviously memos). When I came to two dated 4/16/13, it was a shock. I had forgotten I’d recorded her playing. I have some CDs of cello performances, a couple other recordings of her playing piano as she was a professional musician. But these were quieter personal moments in her home. In time, there were infrequent sessions due to her health issues and I was barely singing, anxious to not display how rusty I had become. Yet perhaps I worried that there would soon be no more live music and thought to record the songs her long, thin, strong fingers produced as they flew over the keyboard.

It seems appropriate timing to find that mini-recording. I have been wanting to talk to her but of course can’t, exactly. (I do communicate with her in the ways people do who miss their loved ones.) I needed to hear something good, reassuring. I wondered if she was still keeping an eye on things down here, along with our parents– both gone, too…if they understood what I felt.

Two of my other older siblings have been wrestling with life challenges as they age. It has been like gripping a seesaw most days the past few months, and tossing and turning at night as I contemplate their lives, who they have been to me and others and what may be ahead–for us all. Time finally takes us to task, demands we face mortality. My only living sister has an unfortunate penchant for accidents–has all her life, with many broken bones–and has more often fallen this past year at age 73. Many times she also has endured car accidents and now deals with memory glitches due to concussions. My oldest brother is a lifelong, die-hard performer, a jazz musician, playing until six months ago though he is now 79. But now he has been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and is not well and has significant mental health issues to manage. My husband works furiously hard at a demanding position and suffers wear and tear the last years before retirement. I have felt often sad, picking at the problems, making them more noxious and sore while not having any brainstormed breakthroughs for healing solutions. Then I turn them over to God’s wisdom and grace, hoping for better. And this is just how it is to be the youngest of a large family, I remind myself. I may just lose them one by one–this, although I also have heart disease. But we cannot know–perhaps for the best– what lies ahead for certain.

So I’ve needed to call up Marinell and have one of our heartfelt, no-nonsense talks or better yet, visit her (I’m in Oregon, she lived near Seattle with–also deceased–her spouse). But that isn’t feasible. Hearing her play and that brief measure of laughter–our sharing a few comments–is the next best thing. It felt like a small hello from her. I have this to listen to any time. Without that voice memo I might have one day forgotten the manner is which she played, along with the heartening energy of her laughter.

Sometimes a most efficient and satisfying way to recall the best of life is by revisiting the past with our senses. It often these days is by way of fast-posted photographs or silly-good videos, yet think of the variety of scents associated with people and places; the tongue’s recollection of tasty foods; the feel of something we touch that is so familiar as well as sounds galore.

I had a butterfly dress when I was perhaps seven years old. Whenever I gather and smooth between my  fingers a highly polished cotton fabric it brings the dress back to me and how special I felt, My mother made it for me. The cotton gave off a soft sheen (or it seemed) and I was enthralled by those colorful butterflies flitting across a white background, and the attached belt that tied in a floppy bow at the back. There was even a soft tulle underneath so that the skirt puffed out. I felt like a butterfly-swarmed flower of a human kind, swanning about in that beautiful church and party frock. I still find myself looking for butterfly decorated fabric, seeking a way back to love of my mother, that elated moment when I tried it on at first.

I appreciate all types of sensory cues, but it seems to me that the audible captures can be especially vivid, a gateway to memories of certain kinds. At least for me. A family can compile a history of valuable data or personal stories via recordings. I have been mindful of this option. Having sounds attached to facts and visuals is enlightening at the least and satisfying at its best.

I began recording my writing years ago on tape recorders. In 2012 when walking or driving I began to use the voice memo feature on my iPhone to record ideas–first lines, titles, a paragraph here and there. It is a handy help for writers. I’ve composed whole poems dictated from short memos. I have written, then recorded and posted a couple of poems on WordPress but haven’t yet perfected the process so it sounds really crisp and true. It can be helpful to my creative forays to record and replay a piece–the rhythms of words, pacing of line lengths and the internal and ending sounds of language in orderly sequence–it is all magnified, for better or worse. With music that value is self-evident, so useful for critical evaluation, a way to hone in on the faulty notes, a diminished execution or lack of emotive power.

Still, I use this ploy in everyday life. I have recorded nature sounds: from crickets to trickling streams and roaring oceans to bird songs and wind in a number of trees– so much more. On a hike I once desired to record a mother bear’s “huffing” sounds after I heard her cubs and their interchanges but became too anxious about proximity to pause a long moment. Drat that lost opportunity but I recall it well. I’ve recorded my children’s and grandchildren’s laughter, playful banter, music making. My husband’s twelve string guitar compositions as he played (valued more as he doesn’t play now). My youngest daughter’s soprano ringing out at concerts, belting out during performances with her old bands. I have on tape, also, a 1997 community radio broadcast of me reading my writing. It was fun and instructive. I am pleased to have it.

My father’s concerts were recorded by others often enough. Even though I can’t hear him conducting, I can in the sense that I visualize him standing on the podium in his suit or “tails”, nearly dancing as he moved toward the orchestra/ symphony  musicians and then a leaning away, lifting and turning and pulling the music up to crescendo or quieting it with his gentled hands and carrying the music through space with his body and the slight conducting baton.

Last year when my oldest daughter, Naomi, and youngest, Alexandra, were visiting, I put on a very old tape cassette for them to hear. I wanted them to hear just how real was real my love of music was. I’d stopped regularly singing (and playing cello) right before I had children. That is another sort of story that has little to do with them, but it is also true I’d determined to be a present and engaged mother– I ended up rearing five–and free time was scarce. Of course, the children knew I had passion for my instrument and for singing. They’d heard me sing at home, usually for/with them when they were little, sometimes as we listened to popular radio  or other music. And of course, singing hymns at church, the one time I let loose. But as a youth and young adult I had often performed and had embarked on a path to become a dedicated, skilled songwriter. So, when they were together and our home was otherwise vacated, I got out one tape I’d found in a box of miscellaneous others. They sat on the floor as I got it started in our stereo equipment. I briefly explained: me singing, something I’d written long ago but taped when 28 for my parents’ Christmas present. (I had inherited it when they passed.)

Soon my voice and guitar could be heard rounding out the room’s edges. I looked at my hands, the floor, the wall and speakers, as inside I was trembling. This was a great risk for me. I didn’t want to see deeply into their eyes, not too soon. Did not want to find dismay or disappointment. But when I stole glances near the end, I got far more. They were staring at the speakers with looks I cannot quite describe. Maybe disbelief. And yes, love. Maybe surprise and real pleasure. They seemed to hold questions, too. I closed my eyes, let the strength and tenderness of the song “Workers of Light” move through me, each note familiar as if I’d written it yesterday. My elastic and bright, emotion-imbued younger voice.

When it ended my youngest spoke in earnest. “That was so beautiful–and you’re saying that was your song? You wrote it, even played guitar? Why didn’t you keep writing and singing, Mom? I had no idea!…”

Her face registered deep surprise and eyes were gleaming. I looked at my other daughter as she turned her face away. But I saw her though her hair covered her eyes. She was trying to not shed tears. I let her be; she is a private person, does not always offer words for her feelings. I was afraid I’d start to weep, too, if I closed that intimate space between us. How to answer Alexandra or Naomi? How to explain leaving what I so profoundly cared for that it tore me up as I turned my back and walked away? I could not. Sometimes dreams are replaced by  other pressing needs and they become frail as wisps of smoke. I didn’t want them to think of my loss when they heard me singing but hear unadulterated passion for music and my surrender to it, a music rooted in resilient, undying love.

“I just wanted you to know more of what it was to me. Will always be.  Now you know there is at least one recording to play sometimes after I’m not around here anymore…!”

“Mom!…”

Alexandra protested–she doesn’t want to contemplate that I will leave this flesh for other realms. Naomi, who knows things about life and death in a different way, smiled wanly. We went about our day but a deeper knowledge had passed from me to them. Then back to me. They knew the truth of their mother more than before; I was glad to have shared it more fully.

This experience demonstrated to me again the importance of keeping record of certain moments–in this case, by virtue of captured sound– lived by those we love. Of what matters to us, whether human or not. And I for one would like to leave something for my family.  It will unlikely be much, if any, money. I don’t have a precious stack of family recipes, either, or pricey heirlooms. It will instead be reams and files of my writings (which they may toss when I’m gone, no matter), recordings of some music and writing, a few videos of me dancing about the living room (they know nothing of those, but have danced with me) and happy family gatherings. Photos of places I’ve visited and people I’ve known or just seen along the way and found curious and fascinating. Drawings in a sketchbook. Cards and letters, too, handwritten and sent to them just because, like ones my mother sent me (some of which I still read from time to time).

I will keep recording events to share either now or later. It’s part of a broader history, too, small threads of the far-reaching human tapestry, everyone’s common domain; I can contribute in a minuscule way. Mostly, I want the kids and grand kids to be able to recall how riveted I was by the magic chorus of crickets while walking in the warm evening. To realize that to move the exquisite body to music is to feel it all, exalt in life–in case they forget or need to find more joy. That their mother and grandmother is still singing to them, here or elsewhere, a song just for them. Such mementos can connect us intimately across time and distance. Just as Marinell yet plays the piano for me when I shall play that voice memo–a chance gift of good cheer, a succor when I need it.

And though he and his band have several CDs (the Kung Pao Chickens) out, I have made my own videos and iPhone recordings of my brother Gary playing his saxes, clarinets and flutes; of his playful, strong voice slipping around, under and over many great swing tunes at his best venue, sounding, well, entirely wonderful. Just in case. And yes, for posterity. For the family.

Me, the girl who did sing, age 22

Wednesday’s Word: Hideaways in the Other Reality

Me in the forest

Whenever there is a hole or other opening within an ancient tree trunk or stump, or when a huge crooked root beckons, I try to fit inside or under, compacting my smallish frame smaller so as not to get snared by  slivered wood or unknown bits. It’s best to avoid massive spider webs but unlikely that I’ll avoid their creators as I wedge myself in. After all, they thrive in Northwest forests, as well as scores of other bugs (very few mosquitoes, however) –and ubiquitous slimy slugs. I am on neutral terms with arachnids, though I’ve been bitten and at times not appreciated results. This happens least often when I am rambling about woodlands. I fit myself in with a peripheral awareness of other creatures and fill my nostrils with the powerful pungency of wood and loamy earth.

I crouch down, hands on thighs, and look about. It is semi-dark. Snug. The light above or beyond the tree and me is caramel-toned in fall and summer, a grey opalescent in winter, and green-yellow in spring. Birds seem livelier, brightly chirping and serenading as they flit above and around, or my ears hear better  from the center of a tree. At this size and from this angle, I feel less intrusive there. I may rest in the insects’ hollow and this gives me pause, that I am so much bigger than they. I rest on spongy earth where mushrooms dot the landscape, garter snakes slip by and bees swoop and squirrels freeze then skitter off with their chittering. My breath is still, heart is quiet. I can stay this way a long while: at rest though alert, awake to this world even while captivated by powers mysterious, immense even if not always working in my favor. A big shiny black beetle trundles past my feet. The forest air rests on my tongue–savory, sweet-sour. I feel moved by the abundant density of life. It is beautiful and warm here, in this tree, in this solitariness, under canopies of leaves and sky.

Until I can see two feet and a long knotty branch used as a walking stick. Marc, my spouse, has waited long enough. Am I going to get up and out of there? I rouse myself and half-crawl out, then unfold myself, brush off the crumbs of dirt and pieces of wood, the webby coating on a sleeve. He thinks I am slightly daft–this obsession I have for smaller spaces in the outdoors, or for climbing beneath or up onto a big root or branch. I even sometimes ask for photos. I can’t say just why–I just know it gives me pleasure to recall being in those lovely spots, to feel that much closer to nature’s ways.

But it all started when I was growing up, this interest in discovering a unique spot, making a nest of my own, holing up in smallish spaces.

In a house full of people–seven of us in a two story, three bedroom place with one bathroom plus a half-finished basement–being cramped for space was a way of life. I saw friends’ bigger houses (some of my friends even had their very own bedroom, not one they shared with one or two other sisters, swimming pools and so on) but ours was homier. In fact, it was cozy and attractive to me, filled with interesting objects as well as persons. (Not just family or an occasional neighbor but Dad’s music students or customers who needed him to appraise and sell or repair instruments and people from church and my parent’s bridge partners and good friends or visiting musicians or school teachers there for luncheons/dinners and siblings’ friends as well as mine–well, it got tight, alright.) The doorbell and phone were forever ringing. Music took up residence in the rooms and talk floated about heads and people moved around furniture or sat in it or pulled out a chair at the long dining table so it got crowded, too.

In winter, when I was indoors more, I escaped under our baby grand piano in the corner of the living room. There I could watch people come and go but also read a book, trace a picture, make lists of names for characters in my plays, hum a new tune I had learned, play with dolls, make tents and houses for them with scarves with the aid of books, listen to those who played piano and watch their feet work the pedals, the vibrations entering my bones as the piece reached a crescendo. I also listened in on more private conversations, a favorite activity. (Or took a nap until age six or seven.)

Less satisfactory was the area in front of a heating register; it was on the wall behind an armchair. This spot did meet dual needs–warming as well as half-hiding me. But it was easy to get in the way as it was by a door leading to stairs so there was foot traffic; I could also get squashed if someone moved the chair back.

The best resort was the outdoors. I’ve written before of the giant maple tree with our regular swing and a rudimentary trapeze; of its sturdy branches which acted as steps that carried me aloft, one sturdy stretch of leg at a time to the very top. Talk about a fine look-out. I could see way across the small tree nursery behind our bush-and-fir-lined back yard, past the Benfers’ huge vegetable and flower garden, over the rooftops of another two-story house, a small medical office and beyond to the pretty subdivision on Richard Court and Manor Drive. And that Michigan sky!–much greater than one might imagine and full on goings-on with chameleon clouds, moveable light and later, glints of a trillion tiny stars. The cars I spotted on Ashman Street swished by, oblivious.

There was a certain crook made of two branches that held my weight well so I wedged myself there. Despite a need to shift every few minutes, I was content. Undisturbed and nearly invisible. Surrounded by robins, a cardinal or blue jay, wrens and sparrows all came and went as they pleased. Freedom felt democratic there. I could just be, dream of anything, imagine myself anywhere–a tall ship was a favorite. My world was full to overflowing within the natural intimacy of a tree’s branches, as if I was made to fit. I just belonged there.

And also in the northeastern corner of the yard’s bushes and pines. I had a couple of weathered, handmade benches–one like a table, one a chair– made of 4×4 wood remnants from the garage. There were variously dolls, notebooks and novels, art supplies, a ukulele, tea sets, snack and lunch detritus, a weak magnifying glass, a miniature flashlight, thermos of tea or water, forbidden matches, a stained old toss pillow and a cast off sheet for a makeshift door or more “seating” for buddies. It could hold maybe three if they pressed into undergrowth. The hideaway was full of branches that had to be tied back to enlarge the space and to be kept from poking out eyes. With all the pine needles on the ground, the place was so heavy with their perfume that I could smell pine for days on my sweater and jacket. Damp pine and warm, layers of fresh or old pine. It would get shadowy and then darker long before the outside darkened. Quieter than anywhere else on the property. There was the advantage of also being able to slip out and hightail it right across Stark Nursery’s land if I didn’t want to stay put or was eluding siblings who came poking about. There I would pretend I rode horses or carried on epic battles or slipped into a netherworld. My hideout was my fort of safety when pursued by ghosts or intruders, those either imaginary or real.

I tried to make another private cubbyhole at the end of the front porch. Alas, it was too noisy with nearby streets, people who stomped up and down the steps with annoying regularity. Plus, there were red juniper berries there that my mother was worried I’d eat like a scavenging explorer. I did pick them; I never ate one, certain I’d die. I also would make a mess behind those ample bushes; that wasn’t going to happen in our front yard. But I still sometimes hid there to watch the world between branches, especially during winter when it became igloo-like with snows. (I’d also make snow caves alongside our street after the snowplow made towering drifts.)

Often I roamed the 24 acre wooded park, Barstow Woods, a couple of blocks from our house. The winding trails and creek offered plenty of nature to examine, a whole territory to explore or to play hide and seek in with my friends. I was as at home there as I was on my own city block; it was a safe place back then. And I learned much about trees and animals and plants each summer as a “day camper” with other kids and adult counselors.

The northern parts of Michigan were visited often, and there I was just as accustomed to running wild on dirt side roads and trails, playing in the light-dappled woods and finding my way back, moving according to sensory input. And dwelt in happiness all those places.

Since those days of fearless play I have lived in the country a few times though never long enough. But I have always been drawn to it, awed, enchanted and daunted by it. Sometimes as an adult, I can become afraid of sounds and shapes I can’t identify and unexpected events that occur no matter the time of day or weather, no matter if I am alone or not. (Like the unseen cougar I learned later was in the area but that I felt along the trails.) Generally, I am secure in my instincts and there are many spots that accommodate me. The open rolling fields of the Midwest and its northern woodlands; the dense, humid hothouse of the South; the tinder-dry, quirky vastness of the Southwest, the rainy wilderness, mountains and high desert of the Northwest: they have each called to me. And I have found my place even in the hardest life circumstances. There is always a hollow near a waterfall or a gaping hole in an aged, giant tree. A river bank that offers green bushes where I can kneel, watch the current carry leaves and twigs, ducks and stones.  And Pacific Ocean beaches with huge driftwood piles to sit on and within, and headlands with caves to settle into.

I live in the city but I am never far away from landscapes other than densely packed blocks. We have Forest Park. At over five thousand acres and stretching eight miles on hills above the Willamette River, it is one of our nation’s largest urban nature reserves. And other city parks and wildlife preserves are varied and well kept. A mere twenty-minute drive takes me to the Columbia River Gorge, a designated National Scenic Area where wildlife, waterfalls and rivers and rocky buttes flourish amid the Cascade Range, miraculous with beauty. When multiple wildfires ravaged that vast acreage last year I wept, sick at heart. This summer I will finally venture out into it once more.

Every one of us needs a place to find serenity, to be at ease apart from the world’s pressures, its craziness. And we are animal beings who need our comforts, spiritual beings who need deeper sustenance. For me, it is more often than not in the welcoming outdoors, within nature’s arms. But I am told that even in sleep I pull close the blanket and quilt, up over nose, to or even over shuttered eyes, making a little tent. Please don’t awaken me; I am a creature well nested and deeply at peace. Nurtured yet freed. I will emerge restored and bright eyed when good and ready.

Find your refuge

Play It Andante, Play It Allegro, Just Play On

At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.

I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.

When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.

The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.

Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.

I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there”  so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?

You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.

When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.

Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.

It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.

By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.

Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.

The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.

You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.

When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.

The piano is in the formal living room  and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.

We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.

Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.

You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.

We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.

I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.

But now you are not here.

You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.

This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was  enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.

Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.

Marinell life pics 001
Marinell as a young woman

 

Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The revised paper received a “D+”,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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