Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: To Herald the Coming Holidays–or Not?

I know, I know–it is not even mid-November and I dare to display this wreath! But we are bombarded with seasonal themes and items in stores and ads everywhere; I am made to think on the holidays despite my distaste of the early advancing of the madness. I write in a general protest. I am having second and third thoughts aplenty.

If I was an artist of considerable ability (not just a lazy wanna be who sketches and dabs paint now and again) I would create a spare but lovely watercolor and ink picture of a cozy, snow-laced cabin in the woods. White tapers would burn softly in two front windows, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney; a deer and fox would be peeking out from beneath frosty green boughs. A cardinal would fly by. I’d be standing in the open front door with Marc, arms opened.

Then I’d turn that bit of imagining into a card and send it off to family and friends some weeks ahead, with this message inside:

Skipping the holidays’ material madness at last, but come on by for a good hug–and a mug of something tasty–if desired.

That’s how I’m feeling about Christmas. I have given it my thoughtful attention. This may be the year some variation of that idea comes to be, rather than remain considered.

Thanksgiving is another matter, made for cooking and eating and convivial conversations around the table. Well, Marc cooks these days; I’ll toss a salad and prep veggies, make the drinks and pretty up our old oak table-and am happy to clean up. But even my long-standing love of baking has cooled. It seems to have slipped out the door with our five children, although I baked with and for grandkids here and there; even they have flown the coop. (Must wait for the six month old twins to grow up a bit and we’ll fling flour about and indulge in likely forbidden sugary delights.)

We will likely have Thanksgiving at our place until the adult children indicate they have lost interest or can’t manage it with their hectic lives and own broods. We’d be alright with someone else cooking up a feast, setting the table and cleaning up one of these years, too. Yet we enjoy the family gathering–with an occasional friend–tremendously. And this year my oldest daughter, Naomi (an art prof) is flying in from South Carolina to lecture at Portland State University and will stay on for Thanksgiving. This is a luxury visit; we are quite looking forward to it. (One thing I do love to do is talk with family– and others, the more the merrier.)

Still, then arrives Christmas. What is it that has me with knuckles to teeth as we try to determine the best way to celebrate?

That nostalgic scene I have the urge to create–cabin in snow, deer and fox, a cheery cardinal; candlelight and inviting fireplace and woods about–all enticing one indoors to see what else awaits–is just that: nostalgia. I don’t own a cabin or cottage and never experienced a Christmas in either but it sure sounds good, evokes the peace and pleasures that deeply appeal. (There are people who live out this fantasy. I have a niece whose family convenes in her Colorado mountain lodge. The photos posted are wonderful.) I did grow up in Michigan. There was often a glittering white blanket silencing the outside noise as we crowded about a festive tree. We sang around the baby grand, familiar hymns and carols; our family made a natural chorus and music was a huge part of Christmas. So maybe all that set precedents which are not now met as once before.

In any case, I have not been a child in my parents’ home for 50 years; they are gone. Christmases have long been my own–with the tradition of many gifts, good food and large gatherings. When you have a bunch of children and then they have children, it gets bigger each year. And I do like to “do” for others, to decorate, to find special gifts for the 14 (more including friends) I shop for, and most of all share this time with them, all in one spot. Or mostly. Not the entire five adult children, generally, as two live out of state and one is a chaplain with an overload of duties that time of year.

I used to host big gatherings for extended family. I loved preparations and the spread on the dressed up table and the congenial intersection of lives, the laughter. The love. But my older sister, brother-in-law; a brother and a nephew have died; my niece is not as available; my other sister and partner live in a retirement community and are not that well. All this changes the way family interacts more than I anticipated. It is a little sad, but it is the way of things and I have adapted year by year, loss by loss.

In any case, I’ve been thinking this over for many years: what would it be like to not have a fluffy freshly cut tree in the living room; to not have underneath it the usual heaping pile of presents, to not have everyone over at once for gift opening and brunch on Christmas Day? This has especially weighed on me since our daughter with the new twins confided that she almost dreads the coming holidays as there are now more family wishes to fulfill. (Her husband’s family lives in WA. state so they must travel back and forth. Though it may take only 45-60 minutes to get to WA., it is a challenge, no doubt.) And since we moved in March things are less easy for everyone to get together. Who would have thought moving from a northeastern part of the city to a southwest area would make a big difference? In part it is congested roads that complicate meet ups. Before, everyone was more or less central to one another, a short drive or even walk away.

There is also the fact that our current apartment is smaller, not so much square footage but in its spacial configuration–the old place accommodated a large family well. But one has to make decisions based on what works best for current needs and this place made sense–Christmas, etc. gatherings notwithstanding. So here we are. I can still put in two table leaves to seat 12 if needed; it just gets crowded here.

There is a spiritual component to my musings. I have long seen this holiday not so much as a genuine celebration of Christ’s Birth than a time of gentle merriment, of family, of meal sharing and gift giving more in the spirit of ole St. Nick. We would go to church, yes, but the fact is, it is really a re-imagining of a long enacted pagan holiday, also known as Yule. Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year is on 12/21 this time– which is lovely no doubt but it is not my religion. Many of the same traditions were entwined with Christmas. Yet Jesus was most likely born in the spring. In 350 AD Pope Julius I decreed that 12/25 would also be designated Jesus’ nativity celebration.

The reigning materialistic aspect has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming into the world with his revolutionary message of love, mercy, faith and forgiveness. The bottom line is, engaging in Christmas is more a secular event than a religious one even if I go to services on Christmas Eve. My faith is deeply rooted and less dependent on a ritualistic, institutional structure. So this holiday has been a broad conundrum at times: faith and tradition versus materialism and those ancient beliefs to which I do not subscribe, despite s tendency to incorporate more spiritual experiences than is typical of a traditional Christian.

I do suspect I’m not the only believer who ponders all this and yet each year follows the usual path–buy gifts, fancy up a tree, hang a fragrant wreath on the door. Even among those not of my faith yet enjoy the celebratory nature of it can discover a community bonding, sharing of conviviality, and an inclusive hopefulness. I enjoy this, too; it is heartening that many can find any common threads with which to connect us even for a short time.

And yet.

Each year in the midst of hectic tasks, or as we clean up the detritus from the surrounds, my husband states with wry laugh, “Next year Hawaii!” But we choose to stay, to put Hawaii–or any adventure in December–on the back burner. Because we love our family. We love any caring intentions of this season and even pretty trimmings. The money spent–not so much. That many gifts gets very pricey. Many donation requests get filled. And I often wonder why this needs to be done when we do give gifts on special occasions and share our money all year. Also, by the time kids become preteens these days it gets very hard to shop for them. And the twins are far too young to care one bit about any of it, thankfully. Is it the lifelong habit that keeps us tied to this kind of Christmas?

Since it is getting tougher to corral everyone for a few hours, this can be a frustrating time. There are some who do not have families all in one home so must travel to have their kids part of the holidays; some who have to work up to the last minute or beyond; those who have vacation plans or partners with other ideas; and those who are feeling stressed financially.

So when all is considered, what precisely is the point? Yes, yes: demonstrating more attention and care toward family. Yet that is always available, often in more meaningful ways. Fun celebrations? I get that; it would be missed. But a growing array of gifts? How much stuff do we need? I personally need nothing more. I don’t want to tax my children’s cash limits. Marc and I don’t even care to exchange gifts, anymore.

My brother reportedly gives his grandkids gift cards and skips his children. I see the wisdom in that even if it seems less…jolly and fuzzy. He and his wife sing in a couple of choirs at Christmas church services; otherwise they travel as they do most of the year. It isn’t cash reserves but other priorities that have altered. And that works for them. I find it more refreshing than not.

This year Marc and I will decide, finally, what works even better for us. What seems reasonable yet more fulfilling. The family comes first so much of the time. Christmas is one of these. But we also matter as an older, long-wed couple. It sounds good to have less busy-ness and more relaxation as Marc takes off his holiday time from a pressurized job. I suspect we would rent a huge alpine lodge, then ask family to join us if we could; perhaps another year we will. In the meantime, we want to make sure that Christmas has meaning and magic that stays true to what we both need in our lives, not just the larger family’s. Who knows? Maybe our adult kids will let slip a sigh of relief.

Mostly-grown grandkids would enjoy a good gift card–with a special gift wrapped up pretty under the tree (I still have to have a real tree). But we sure don’t need to deluge them with things. I know for sure those baby twin girls will enjoy the lights and, of course, music. They already are held in thrall to it. Alera, particularly: upon hearing a classical choral piece, she stopped moving, slowly held her hands palms up in the air. She barely stirred the entire time, she was so entranced, her face an expression of wonder, large blue-grey eyes staring into space, head turned toward speakers. I have a photo of her that moment, and would happily share it if not for lack of approval from parents regarding baby photos on social/other media. But I do I study it, mulling over her expression, as if she is hearing angels so struck is she by the music. She loves all classical and much jazz–her sister, Morgan, enjoys it but is currently less entranced.

And music is a true and abiding joy to experience years to come. These are moments that matter, do they not? How can we forget and get caught up in holiday frenzy? Trying to make everyone happy–at least, what we believe makes them happy– we often find that happiness is not even in the places we think it was.

In my home, we will certainly share good meals, share well wishes and blessings, cheery and sacred songs. (My husband has been playing his acoustic guitar for the first time in a long while…) And how else can we demonstrate a steady, active gratitude for life and love for one another, as well as a devotion to a faith? The ways are endless– the coming holidays or any time at all. And American culture and the wide world needs much more of this, far less of the other.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: What Goes Here, Woman?

Okay, this direct question could be put to anyone, bold, commanding. But for me the question has several interpretations that slink around my brain lately. The inquiry is a twist on the common one: “Who goes there?” Except that I know who goes there–it is I, just Cynthia. The woman in question. One who has reached her 69th year, still sentient and fully conscious (on the mostly good days, anyway, as long as I don’t bring alcohol into it), and who likes supple black boots, fabulous scarves, books bent over into deep of night and spontaneous dancing with a little song now and then. A writer. A lover of family and loyal to friends. An introspective person who sees the world like a changing canvass of rich art. A woman who loves to talk with strangers anywhere I happen to be. Someone who has had several terrible things happen; nonetheless, they can and do happen to anyone, and I am sad for their sorrows. And I walk 2-3 miles daily if at all possible.

This much I cannot dispute.

But the rest–what is going on now with me as a result of what came before; what is more likely to occur based on present moments; and what is an intelligent response, though wait, why bother?–the rest is under review.

Not that it never has been before. How often I–in fact, our collective of humanity–revisit the status of personhood, often and perhaps that is embarrassing to confess. Are we who we think, do we prefer to be more, or less, or another altogether, and what the heck does all of it have to do with the routine and demands of daily living? There is always work at hand, little enough time to consider things. Yet how acutely we do engage in the study of ourselves. We are a species of the ruminative sort. We must prod and question to sort things out.

My state of mind is mixed. It’s akin to being close to a good fire, wrapped up in a soft and tensile blanket of contentment–while being aware of a feisty and potentially miserable porcupine outside the campfire. It may shoot its quills with or without provocation, with little preparation to deal with its displeasure. It might be a person with conflicting attitudes, a random car swerving too close, the relentless news with its fists up, my body’s jagged messages. Even how the wind already blows so cold the heating bill will be a tough thing. One more quill to eye, here and there. One must stay aware even in coziness. It is a matter of learning how to navigate life yet it feels harder this year. Would that we were prepared from the onset of our initial yowl. But we grope and gauge, try to figure it out.

Today I would quite rather write of all things good and true. I just came in from a glorious walk in surrounding woods. The sun is beaming, all the hues and tones of autumn transfix, the breeze is almost frosty, refreshing. I enjoyed the hour out as I do every day, rain or shine. So one part of me is steeped in such peace that a passerby might suspect I move from an ultimate calm. The other part is, though, laboriously picking apart knotty threads and connecting elegant strings of others so all may cohere. It is the same most days. And I don’t quite get why, though logic informs me there are several reasons.

Recently I hiked down to Bridal Veil Falls in the Columbia Gorge. I do this every fall. It commemorates my survival of a likely heart attack, not sure, I did not get to the hospital in time to know definitively. I write of it enough that old followers of this blog know it too well. Half-carried out by my husband, then we sped…home. I thought it was congested lungs even though I was brought to my knees, flattened by deep, intense squeezing in the chest area, the weight like an elephant–yes, it is that–on top of ribs and the feeling I was going, going, gone. I’d quit smoking the same year, had often run out of breath when hiking. So I went home nauseous, breathless, so exhausted I suspected I could not get off the bed again. Heart never entered our minds then–who has a heart attack at 51? I was strong and fit, especially since not smoking. I looked in my earlier forties, not fifties then–who worried?

The next morning I awakened with one phrase buzzing in my brain: It is my heart. I got on the phone and found my own cardiologist and got in a day later. Why do it that way? Usually a doctor refers a patient to specialists. But my primary doctor had thought nothing was wrong with me a year prior when I’d complained of very rapid heartbeats and feeling breathless on and off. “Anxiety and menopause,” he said and patted my hand. Would I like drugs to help calm me? No. I held back angry tears all the way out of the building, then lay my head on the steering wheel and wept. What was wrong with my generally healthy and strong body?

A year later: two stents over 18 months (first one failed), rehab stints and I started to make progress that was noticeable and trustworthy. Ever since, I’ve felt more well than not and last December another look in my arteries showed lovely pathways with no clogs or narrowing. It was about then I heard I’d already outlived my expected ten years so keep doing all I do. I respect and love my cardiologist, the same one who told me often in the early days of recovery when i got scared that we’re all going to die so stop worrying and just live. To that point, I reminded him heart disease killed my parents and two siblings already. He leaned forward, his handsome face smiling, that last visit and said, “Well, I say your heart is even stronger than before.” He did not say I was not going to die of heart disease. But it is a great thing to be this much better until…whatever.

I ran into a fond acquaintance who had a serious heart event recently with emergency surgery. We both were walking along the river. Feeling grateful, I spotted her and gave her a big hug. She had been in the hospital again with chest pain but was later released, deemed okay. I get how that goes. She is an admirable person, a VP of a commercial real estate company, a talented writer (met her in writing groups), a loving mother. After we parted, I thought: she is about the age I was. How did this change her? You learn that life can be torn from you in an instant, that it is a flimsy thing we carry our small lives in–even though it again surges with power, and heals.

So here I am, also still living as the days and nights come and go. But is that enough? Is the success of staying alive and grateful enough? What does it all tell me about the quality of my choices and actions? And what in those elicits appreciation from others? Or am I partly invisible, as we all can be invisible, even when we need to be seen? Is the hard work worth what I am now? Isn’t there much more I can and ought to contribute?

The hike down to the beauteous Bridal Veil Falls was easy. Hard to think it hurt so much 18 years ago. But this time it was going back up that was hard. I managed the incline of steep trails fine. Marc and I had a discussion that turned difficult; it was perhaps foolish at first glance. He hates taking photos. I like to commemorate the yearly hike with one: victory! Yet I am often displeased with his results–blurry, off-kilter, too far off. One reason I like him to get me in a photo is that I always take pictures of family plus snap away at the tons of other scenes that intrigue me. I have few shots of myself taken when I was a kid (my family took few)-or even older, when our children came along, as I was taking their pictures for photo albums, of course.

Truth was, I felt a bit hurt after that last hike. Why did he not see how important it was for me to well document that I am still here and could manage the trail well once more? He got the importance of the hike; he did not get the importance of a picture being clear and nicely aligned. I said, “I want my children and grandchildren to be able to see it and know that, yes, our mom/grandma so loved hiking amid nature’s wonders and she did the trail one more year, a triumphant hike.”

We fell silent and I was sorry I felt so sad about it, and he so irked.

I think I get tired from all the laboring and even reaching goals, including small ones. I usually have a handle on what matters most when the chips are down and when all seems well. But how much can a life mean and how can we give it, share it, transform it endlessly? A I get older and closer to that still-nebulous but undeniable finish line, the reassessment is in earnest some moments. It is not the same sort of review as when I was 30, 40, 50, when there seemed decades left. In fact, it is this year of age 69 that has impacted me so differently.

It has been a time of surprises, shocks and reorientation. Of setting new courses and not having a clue where this may take my husband and myself by the next year. Of letting go of places (moving from a comfortable home to a very different place) and people (grieving others’ passing or grave illnesses), of greeting the glorious twins and wondering if what I have to offer my daughter and her family is enough. How to draw the line, too, when I am worn out. Of worry about money, how much to give and how much to keep. Of coping with emotional blows from any who shut me out of their lives–this has happened so rarely in my life, it c mes as a shock, the events flummoxing me. And I’ve dealt with my discomforts behind the scenes as mush as I can, as a responsible person, a wife and mother from my culture was taught to do when I grew up. I have discovered more flexibility and strength than expected–that has been an insight gleaned. caring for yourself doesn’t necessarily come more easily when older; you just see more quickly what is needed and get to it.

Where I was confident before, there has been some tentativeness. I do not want to pressure anyone. I don’t want to assert opinions not wanted. But, too, I’ve found that physical and psychic pain still may cut perilously deep …and the power of healing can occur even when not looking. It’s like limping along and suddenly you find sturdier legs, so you walk as if well, with shoulders up and head up. The soul is buoyed again.

So maybe I am getting a better handle on the changes and learning to ride the bumps. Resilience is our friend. Inspiration comes in funny places. You know how you think you have had just about enough for awhile and then you see a hummingbird visit the feeder, and it pauses mid-air before you? How you forgot the shopping list, wander about like an idiot until the important items come forward and it feels like a win? Then you go to the cash register and the cashier looks right at you, tells you how much she enjoys the fall color and sunshine, do you?– and she likes your jacket and really, have a good day because today is what we’ve got, right? It is the commonest things. It is the wisp of light that plunges into shadows, how one finds one’s way.

Every portion of my faith in God and living is based on the real likelihood of something good and rejuvenating that will counterbalance the difficult and damaging. Just when it doesn’t seem likely, it arrives– or I can create it. We are meant to always do creative work, inside and out, at home and at work, in our dreaming and thinking. Mending, altering, finding new parts for old fittings, unique solutions to knotty problems. No one lives without this gift. And how wise a thing that we are given a brain and will to use it–if we just do use it.

Most of the time I do know “what goes here.” I do not sleepwalk; I am in slumber or I am awake. I get up and open the blinds, take in the trees and sky. I make a mug of steaming chai and meditate. What is happening is simple: moving through another year, addressing its needs. I choose to surmount tough times and appreciate the value of each fulfilling moment, and the most ordinary ones. It is choosing kindness over being right or having the last word. It’s letting hurts heal and welcoming people who can care better. It’s finding ways through or around blockades. And holding close the blessings in person, in prayer, in actions. I can’t know what tomorrow will bring–health or illness, wealth or poverty, disaster or protection, triumph or defeat. It is still, at this age, a step-by-step dance, alone or with one another.

I do have a solid sense of who I am. There are a very few regrets lingering. Mysteries unsolved. Moments ahead that will ask much. Failures still occur despite best efforts. So then, what goes here, woman-person? What if I am getting older (even the leaves grow old and flare bright before the end, are wonderful as they drift and twirl back to earth) and it’s not the best or the worst of times, but a satchel full of curious odds and ends belonging to me? It is what I make of it; I will poke about and see what comes together. Maybe I need to pause, review again and again. I’ve survived, have had great times, grown the past ten months, and once more have counted God as my one irrevocable constant. And I expect more to come. As far as I know. I am open to highs and even lows, the many in-betweens.

That is my view of things today. It may always be the main stuff I know. (And I write what I know, so stay tuned if you like…)

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Hood River Gadabout

It’s perhaps misleading to post a photo under a title noting Hood River, for it is the muscular, much-loved Columbia River you see. The river and its famed Columbia River Gorge deeply impacts life in and around Portland, Oregon. We feel the its power as it surges and flows as well as its mountainous environs and are never unimpressed with the majestic beauty. And Hood River is a port, a lovely resort town on its banks and within the Gorge. We enjoy a visit a couple times a year. Summer sports thrive on the water and its surrounds, but autumn finds a sparser population with other sights to enjoy. The above view was shot from the perfect river walkway; the area is stunning. We took our time getting here and continued on to farm country called the “Fruit Loop.”

Before arriving in Hood River, though, we had stopped for a fine view from Mitchell Point in the Gorge.

Marc snapped a happy photo of me as I do love it out there. Marc mused that huge rocks often tumble down–note fence erected to perhaps keep visitors safer. Often the case in the Gorge and Cascade Mountains and it gives one pause when driving or hiking when you go around piles.

It is a casual, scenic town, and we always enjoy a coffee and sandwich at Doppio Coffee.

Down by the river, we take our time exploring a stretch of the Columbia. Bear in mind that I am shooting toward the Washington side of the Columbia River, north, and at other times northwest–it’s a fairly short boat trip to WA. The Oregon side of the river tends to be more mountainous and rugged in appearance; shooting from WA. shores would obviously render those pictures best.

Good fishing in the Columbia, usually salmon and steelhead, but fishing is quite restricted.

A favorite spot to gaze out over the river as it rolls and pushes toward Portland and then out to the Pacific Ocean. One can see some of both state shorelines here.

There is an ancient, powerful and wondrous energy that pulls me to the Columbia Gorge. I head out to explore and quickly am saturated with peace, as if my core being is infused with mysteries of earth and I feel the watchfulness of a vaster cosmos that oversees all. I have a love affair with nature, and the Pacific Northwest is perhaps the truest recipient of my unabashed adoration. When I first visited the NW at age 19–that time of intense dreams and yearnings (and lived in Seattle area a yr.)–I knew I’d permanently relocate here one day. It took me 20 years, and I am thankful. And I appreciate sharing my home territory in these posts!

Mt. Adams-seen in WA.

Next time: a visit to Oregon’s bountiful Fruit Loop!

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Autumn’s Wiles and Wooliness

The air is golden today, but with a slight undertone of copper that burnishes the woods. I sit by half-open glass doors, appreciating early autumn air laced with warmth–sunshine cheerily dapples all–and then come alarming blasts of brain rattling noise. Reddish pine needles, small branches, lots of twigs and dead leaves rain down on my once-inviting balcony. They prick and blanket the potted flowers, plants, outdoor furniture. Overhead, thudding footsteps remind me of what I forgot: this is roof-and-gutter cleaning day. It’s that time of year as habitats are readied for long winter rains. We already have had a small storm. So–necessary if annoying for a few hours.

I am not as tolerant of noise since I’ve become attuned to nature’s songs and silences in the forested hills. Finally, the atmosphere calms as falling debris stops and brash machines move on. I know the work done will make coming months safer, more comfortable.

Autumn is settling in, despite slightly balmier temperatures today. For a few more weeks it will swing between sandal, sneaker and boot weather, to being coatless to donning rain jacket, and this cavernous, west-facing room will be defined far more by shadows from early ’til bedtime. When I come downstairs in the morning–if Marc hasn’t already opened blinds–I’m met with a sheer darkness no matter the hour. The air seems bluish-grey and it is chilly. Rather, it feels cold for me by 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit indoors or out (with Raynaud’s, hands and often feet get unusually cold and hard to warm up).

I have to get at the ready a heating pad, woolen socks and fingerless gloves brought to me from Iceland by daughter Naomi. This year I also know to be prepared for sporadic snowfall around our new home, as we are at 800 feet, high enough to get flakes that stay. But I have good slippers and lots of blankets, handmade. thick velour, woolen. Swaddling up has already commenced at end of day as we get situated on the couch to read or watch television. I long for a fireplace but haven’t had one in decades, although there have been a few wood stoves– I enjoyed chopping and splitting the pungent wood, once, tending the fire. But here I am loathe to turn on heat until it is late October-early- November-cold–it costs more than it used to.

But despite the few less desirable features to this season, I love the changeover from summer into fall and beyond. How, like sublime peaches and plums, tasty corn and vivid pumpkins, there is a steady ripening of abundance until there is the peak–and a subsiding, then a spinning of the cocoon-like state of rest. I think of it as a courageous, somehow silvery turning inward, a gathering of a deeper energy and meeting one’s self at a more still point. I watch spiders at work and admire their diligent industry, how they create complex netting to snare insects and prepare for mating. And then they wait. I can learn from nature each season.

I am an outdoor person, and the cold, wet months ahead are not always welcome. But now the fall beckons me to still get out, take the last great mud-free hikes and walks. I pay attention, mind the rolling rocks and sliding earth. There are few level sidewalks and paths here than the previous neighborhood; I must locate my waterproof trail shoes, dig out fleeces, scarves and gloves.

As a youngster, little of these concerned me. The air took on that sharp tang and the bright sky could be so crystal clear it about vibrated. The leaves of the sugar, red and white maples shone like vivid little flags as they twisted about in a gusty wind. There were red and white oaks, hickory and quaking aspen, larch and poplar. The trees of Michigan were glorious to me and remain so as they “turn”—and people flock from far away to see “the color.”

As those transformed leaves fell fast, for years it was up to me and my siblings to rake the scattered beauties into piles, throw handfuls at each other and cover ourselves up. The best was making huge piles to jump in, as which point we would have to start the raking all over again. Bits of leaves stuck in hair and around the shirt collars and smelled delicious despite dying or being dead, a weird thing to think so I did not. I would gather a few lovelies and press them between sheets of waxed paper to keep as bookmarks, or set them around a bowl of fruit in the dining room table until the tips began to curl and my mother would toss them.

The city allowed people to burn leaves at certain times, and in yards bigger than ours, my friends and I would gather round to warm up in the spreading dusk and secretive dark to chat about school, life, love. I can still smell that scent of leaves burning–it’s very meaning was autumn, and it’s rich fragrance was heavy with poignant happiness. I felt magic descend on me as if rising smoke of charred leaves reached out to the stars and blessed each one, and then, somehow, also me. It made me a poet long before I appreciated it fully.

Even then I took long walks (preferably alone, the better to daydream and take it all in) along often damp, tree-lined streets in September or October, gusts slinging leaves at my face, new sharpness on the wind making nose run and eyes tear up. I loved it, pulled my collar up closer, eyed treetops and limbs to see which ones had yet more glories left, which showed off their elegant, muscular bodies. I didn’t really want all the leaves to fall, those fine branches to more vulnerable in winter storms to come. But I soaked it up nonetheless, that mystery of the seasons, the trees being so bold and strong to withstand the elements until spring remade earth and whatever lived in it once again.

Up north with family or friends, staying on smaller lakes or by the Great Lakes, fall was even more enchanting. Because many cabins or cottages were closed up for winter and so the last trips held more meaning. Because there was all the water, and air blew by like a cool mist and was layered with a perfumey mix of wet leaves, pine needles and lake; the earth underfoot was far less dusty; rocks seemed to carry more weight, rough or smooth; and lapping waves brought music and odd treasures to shore. There were huge old pines and birch groves to explore anew. There was peace and pleasure in row boating or canoeing in fall, surrounded by a vivid palette, watching the sky run blue to steel grey in even a few moments and after a hard rain, show off its rose and tangerine.

Later in a cabin the fire was lit in a stone fireplace. All was hushed indoors as wind regained momentum. The soughing in trees turned to rhythmic beating of branches against the roof, and the night was good, fresh perch or lake trout fried up, easy talk. After dinner, not much more going on than a cheerful game of rummy or bridge and crackling of wood as flames spit and flared. But contentment was never so fine as that, even as the wind howled through the wooded acres and waves smacked the rocky shoreline and the lights might flicker. We had all we needed. Life reduced to the simplest and best moments.

I look out the sliding glass door and note the woodsy mess I need to attend to following the gutter and roof cleaning. But I look forward to going out with my broom, working in the late afternoon glow, under the trees. I do still know how to ease into autumn: embrace these changes. The challenging, circuitous walk I took before writing gave rise to a gentle joy as I noted the slight turn of Oregon trees’ leaves. I have stew and chili on my mind. Woodsy candles set on my tables and a couple of tiny white and orange pumpkins. I was made giddy by the looks of surprise my two twin grandbaby girls’ faces held as I put one each in their beautiful little hands. Next year they may visit the apple orchards with us but this year Marc and I surely will drive out by Hood River and search for the best cider and apples as we have for decades. And I also must look for a woolly bear caterpillar to see how wide its bands are–to forecast how long and hard the winter will be (the wider the rusty bands, the milder; the wider the black ones, the harsher).

I am thankful for autumn’s graces and stirrings, its preparation for the long haul of winter–and how it brings me to myself and others differently. The seasons seem like bridges from one phase of nature to another unfolding. And they each accompany me through my own seasons, offering me a certain aplomb and greater gratitude.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Not Who You Thought I Was

Think you basically know who your neighborly acquaintance and co-workers are? And perhaps can get a good idea of the stranger’s state of being who stands behind you at a coffee shop and offers a cheery “hello”, a two minute chat? It’s likely you trust that you do after x many years of  various sociable interactions, and that you can pretty much “read” first impressions received–but maybe best to think again.

I’ve lately perused several reviews about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. His research and conclusions intrigue me; people intrigue me, in general, as a writer and as a retired counselor. I also suspect many of us know already that strangers can be almost any type of person behind the knee-jerk performances given us. We generally tend to be cautious by teen-age years–and certainly by adulthood. Now more than ever, it must be said. I will read his book at some point, to see what new insights have been discovered.

Beyond that, his ideas obliquely dovetailed with my post idea for today. It may seem the opposite of Gladwell’s subject matter and I admit it’s too-large a topic: the origins, nature, and outcomes of friendships. (I will keep it more personal and shorter than all that.) But the reality is, our friends generally begin as strangers unless we knew them shortly after birth and even then, there was that first meet-up. Our knowledge starts close to zero before climbing upward toward some imagined one hundred percent, yet we probably never draw near to the fullness of deeply knowing another. Or we might be more fortunate, who knows at the inception of connection?

We are drawn to others for certain reasons–consciously or not–and we tend to see what we want to see. Suspense novels demonstrate this over and over; crime headlines and stories do, as well. yet we blithely go about our business of developing assessments, making new friends and perhaps becoming closer in time, determining who we can count on and who is a fair weather buddy and who is–let’s be honest–is a wash-up.

I’ve not had the most prolific friends compared to many. An introvert with strong extrovert bursts for pleasure or customary needs, I take my time, try to choose carefully. I learned to withhold  who I am until I am more certain of what may come of it. I had more friends when younger, due to circumstance and personal leanings. But when I review my history, it turns out those I decided might not be such fine cohorts were better, often far better, than first determined. Because I surmised who they were rather poorly, too wary at times. Or perhaps we found opportunity for a diversity of interactions and it changed things. Or a common cause led us to team up, then held other benefits.

The truth is, my good and even best friends were quite surprising–not who I thought they were more often than not.

My first close friend as a youngster sat with me at church. We passed notes on a Sunday bulletin and watched from the balcony all the other goings-on. After church services, we often met near my house at a drugstore counter to delve into a huge shared plate of  hot, salty French fries and cherry or lime Cokes. We enjoyed the occasional sleepover but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company at church events for years. Then we went to the same school by grade seven and became closer. She came from money, I was middle class but it seemed less important then–having parents who were educated and church going seemed to be the expectations for making friends back then.

We share the same first name, and that was dealt with by my name being shortened to “Cindy” which I detested–but then we both answered to that, too. She was the oldest of five kids in her family; I was the youngest of five. She even then seemed older than I. Both achievers, we did well academically but while I was involved in the arts, she was more politically inclined, running for and winning president of the student council. Many must have thought we were an odd couple of friends but it made good sense to us.

But she was not really as I first thought. She was deeper, gentler, and also much angrier. Her family life seemed blissful in their beautiful house but in fact, it was not. There was strife in her parent’s marriage; her mother was deaf and often seemed unhappy and her father drank a bit much. Loud arguments were not uncommon–between adults and  kids. In my family, no one argued; we tried not to even raise our voices. No one talked of anything too personal. And there was no alcohol in our house; none was drunk elsewhere. She was not athletic but I was; she was a class leader and I became more a rebel in mid-1960s. We still shared a desire to achieve; a sensitive nature under which was a well of deep hurt; a passion for fashion and books; and a sturdy trust of one another. And yet, when people change, friendships alter, and can fizzle out little by little. There is not the same alignment as before. And when one moves past the unusually intense bonds of teenage-hood, the need of closeness evolves. One grows up, and there is a loosening of ties while others form in appropriate ways.

We moved away from the hometown. She ended up in television news production while I raised two children, attempted to complete my degree and kept on writing, letting go of music and theater. She was yet my childhood best friend, and we kept in touch via letter, some phone calls; these dwindled to nothing. After over twenty years of not being much in touch we bumped into each other, fatefully, in yet another Methodist church service. She had been living in my city, too. But our get-togethers were strained; she was wane and terribly thin, pushed a piece of bread around her plate. She spoke of things that meant little to me– and vice versa. She’d never had kids; I had raised several. She had never remarried; I’d married three times, four if counting a remarriage. We had our childhood in common, memories, that was all. I was baffled, and worried about her mysterious frailty never explained, a vagueness in her eyes that had once been clear and quick, though they’d always been beautiful and still were. My heart was softly bruised by loss as our friendship was void of relevant meaning. She was not anymore who I thought she was. Maybe time had altered us that much. It is as likely that she never was who I imagined, just another youth trying to find her way–a partial stranger who for a time was known a bit and filled an important need in my life. And I, in hers.

I had another best girl friend to whom I swore loyalty. She was fierce from a distance. I was practicing becoming fierce. She was sullen, too, but one who always spoke her mind and defied convention– but displayed more compassion than I’d ever seen among our peers. We became the support needed for three years. She left town after high school as did I. Over time we lost connection.

Fifteen years ago we learned of each other’s whereabouts. Our email updates were lovely but brief– then ended. As if that was all we needed to say after the past intense years. She had become a biology, chemistry and psychology teacher at a high school in the Southwest. I’d imagined she’d been a world traveler/vagabond or maybe, if she settled down, then a social worker. Clearly I was mistaken but not entirely surprised–she was bright and she’d liked knowledge, the give and take. I wonder if we had tried harder if we would’ve enjoyed an adult friendship across the miles. But I always think of her fondly, a firebrand who smoldered less or differently, settling into her life, as I did mine.

There were college friends, too, many of whom lived on the same street in ramshackle rented houses. Like a mini-colony or commune, just a brief walk from one door and through another. Who knows if we would have been so keen on friendship except for being in an accessible place, at a propitious time. We met in class or at a college event or during a crisis hotline volunteer shift shared. It might have been our common sense of irony–so popular then–or similar degree program or mutual friend that first linked us. But before long we camped, hiked and skinny-dipped in backwoods lakes, took turns hosting dinners and musical gatherings, critiqued each others’ poetry or songwriting, held each other’s hand as loves soured. The women were engaged feminists; we had weekly women’s meetings that empowered us, attended protests, helped educate one another. Most of us went our separate ways but they are with me internally, as those were happy, passionate times of community in a real sense. (I married one of the men from then– eventually–and am married to him now, a best friend, too.)

I have had the good fortune to make friends everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve moved a great deal since nineteen. For one thing, since I’m in recovery, I can find twelve step meetings almost anywhere. Many of my closest friends have also been in recovery and what friendships those have been! In every city and countryside I have lived, there were women of all ages and stations in life who’ve been smart, honest, caring, and always lively. We’d go on walks, out for coffee or a meal, talk on the phone for hours, laugh over our ridiculousness. We’d hold each other when life felt unbearable, and mine the humor where there seemed to be none left. We were willing to be there for each other, which is not always the case in the more ordinary (not in recovery) world. And often what we’ve had in common was mainly a need and desire to live fuller, healthier lives, with no substances abused.

I initially seldom guessed how friendly we might become. Even at those meetings as people try to be open and thorough about serious addiction issues, you don’t–can’t really–know the complexity of a person. We each don our worldly masks, some more than others, and addicts and alcoholics are well known for being chameleons to survive their lives. Who knows what a nice smile really hides or means to convey? We all harbor a prejudice or two even when we wish we didn’t, and all kinds of people come through the doors.

But you know about their recovery or how they are working at it, not much that might reveal a whole truth. That is only one part of their story; one’s essence is multi-layered, even more fascinating. Gradually people take more steps forward, learn to build trust so solid relationships grow. I have often felt that many of the finest people I have come to know have been those I’ve met at meetings. When you have lost or are on the verge of losing everything thought to be of value, you discover what ultimately counts most. You keep things to essentials. And that can make for profound ties for those who get it.

I recently enjoyed a visit with a woman I met 26 years ago. We were working with homeless, usually gang-affiliated, abused and addicted youth. I had fallen into the job, or so I thought until I fell in love with it. She had chosen the field. Larger and taller than I with a mane of hair, her swaggering attitude and assertive words intimidated me some. She acted as if she knew everything and commanded those kids–at times aggravated them with her boldness. I didn’t like her at all, I thought she was hard and crass and I had seen or felt enough of that in life. I figured she should get a grip on her style if she was going to be an example to the youth. She obviously felt otherwise and we went our own ways if we could, throwing looks at each other in the charting room but cooperating on the job.

But we both smoked then and took our smoke breaks behind the building’s fence where the kids–forbidden to smoke–couldn’t see us or smell the smoke. Rather than stand silently, we got into various conversations. I offered just a little of who I was. She told me right off that I was “prissy, a nit-picker, too inexperienced in all ways for this work.” I didn’t show it, but it got to me enough that I shared a bit more of my story just to get her to stop the commentary. I figured she might respect me more if she saw beyond my “Miss Junior League” clothes (her idea but she wasn’t the only one to think such things), ingrained manners and reserved presentation. It almost seemed if I swore here and there she got more congenial, but I informed her I didn’t like it. We swapped a more stories, shared our last cigs with each other, then stopped the mutual hassling–mostly. (Much later we laughed over how to annoy or tease a person can mean you like them, a peculiar method of showing it.)We worked better and better together and the kids in the facility saw that, how such different personalities could work in tandem for their welfare. After four or five years I moved on to another job as did she. At best she was a good companion in our work and we laughed a lot once I got to know her more; at worst still rough-edged and hard to know more deeply. And I think we both figured that was that and “good luck to you.”

Oddly, or perhaps serendipitously, we found ourselves often working for the same agencies in our city. And on the same teams again. Or one of us would be leaving an agency and the other would be coming into it. We began to spend time after work, going out for coffee and catching up, sharing inside info about what we knew of places we worked or wanted to next work. And gradually I began to hear about her parents, siblings, lovers and partners, past mad exploits and current sobriety challenges, her foibles coming forward as well as many strengths. I learned she loves opera as well as Bonnie Raitt (we’ve attended five concerts) and Mavis Staples. And also live theater–so I took her to a musical theater performance and had a great evening. I soon knew that she is part Native American; we’ve been to a few pow wows together. I realized she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, both with time and money. That she is devoted to whatever dog she has last rescued and made her own. That she loves to go to Las Vegas for glitzy extravagant shows, yet also has a fascination with politics and volunteers for various campaigns. That she dislikes the outdoors as much as I adore it. And that she will never marry–we accept this difference despite my being the marrying kind. She does, however help raise a great niece and adores the child despite bellyaching about her hi-jinks.

We are getting older now, yes. There are even more things we can guffaw like fools over when we meet and slurp the steaming drinks with sugary scones, muffins or rich chocolate cookies. I have had the pleasure of enjoying five of her dogs; the last, an unlikely cross between a terrier and a basset hound named Dave, is a peach. She is not well; she has not been since I first met her. She has recovered from some things and developed others, serious maladies. She walks with a cane and a major limp despite being younger than I, and I know she is in pain every single moment. She doesn’t talk about it unless there is a crisis; I don’t talk about my health issues, either–we have too little time to enjoy all the good, the absurd, the miraculous, the strange, the love that circulates about despite many barriers to it. She has long worked in a women’s prison, helping them learn new things and get better, find their way back to lives more worth living. She is tired out by it but she won’t stop as I have; she wants to do this until she cannot take another step, I think. She will do it because it is what she loves–and to stop might mean not so good things are ahead for her.

I certainly had not sized her up correctly at first meeting eons ago. (As well, she did not make the correct evaluation of my personhood; she saw externals and decided who I must be.) She was this whole entity with interesting facets, far less like her projected demeanor than I even surmised. I found in time that she’d become a dear companion, someone I find marvelous and can count on. Laugh and weep and celebrate with, as needed. Someone who always can count on me.

A beloved friend. Once a stranger, as I had been to her. We both had been in error.

I could write of many people admired and gradually loved. Though I am not as social these days and can feel a bit too alone, I know that despite my share of heartaches and horrors–some trying to throw me off what can seem like the tightrope of life– I’ve been gifted with wonderful people to care about. They each have entered my life as a surprise, for all the right reasons. (More so than the people I should have avoided and also, unfortunately, judged inaccurately.) I believe we ought to pay better attention, make discernments the best we can–but then we must take our chances. Give others the leeway for reassessment and perhaps acceptance into our lives. Otherwise, we miss out on finer, richer truths of other human beings, the kaleidoscope of insights, delights, and mutual enrichment.