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.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Mind and Soul as Compass

Mt. Hood

As I was walking the trails around our area, I practiced locating where they all interconnected–as far as I have explored–and how each one has taken me back. It is useful for strengthening recall since we haven’t lived here very long. And it’s a pleasing exercise; I like to use different perspectives in my mental imaging, as though traversing from one direction, then another, then another. I can see in mind’s eye each route the unfolding scenery, pauses taken along the way, different housing clusters that peek through woods or circumnavigate greenways, how main and side streets curl and crisscross. I happily meander.

Mountain Park is a neighborhood of 700 acres on a volcanic hillside; there are 8 miles of trails. They seem complex as they snake this way and that, lead through trees, tunnels, up hillsides, by creeks. Likely we’ve trod only about 75% so far–time being an issue and partly due to their often climbing steeply, requiring endurance harder to maintain in summer’s blasting heat. It can be challenging even in cool weather rains. But I–or both of us– go out every day a good hour. I don’t worry about getting lost. I have a small map inside my head, and if I end up somewhere surprising, I can retrace steps. I also trust a new trail link will lead back to one I recognize better. There are, of course, landmarks even in wooded areas.

The only time I felt a bit nervous was when there was news of a cougar outside the state park boundaries, prowling by homes on the east side of the city. But that was a fair distance. And I want to walk so off I went. I don’t know where the cougar is. He/she possesses supreme stealth, but is more likely to hunt in a state park forest. However, I do see rabbits and lots of birds, bees and other insects, a snake now and then, and people like us who love being under the treetops and working up a sweat. Once I thought I thought I saw a coyote and likely did; it melted into the dusk.

I do have a well attuned sense of direction so rarely get lost. Oh, occasionally misaligned, but briefly. I’m grateful; I got it from my mother, perhaps. My father made sure there was a good working compass mounted on the car dashboard when we took trips. And then he proceeded to go off route, intentionally, unconcerned thanks to his sense of adventure and trusty compass. My mother tut-tutted–it took longer his way to reach destinations but if he did get lose his bearings she enlightened him. A great map reader/navigator (back when there were colorful fold out maps), mostly she gazed at landscape and pointed. Off we went. If we did get lost it was treated as part of the trip, not cause for distress other than wondering when we’d find the next restroom or cafe. (I realize my spouse and I are the same; he agrees he has a poor sense of direction, a poor visual memory when on the move. (GPS was made for those like him; he travels quite a bit for work and relies on it.)

As I was revisiting the trail system mentally–huffing and puffing in 85 degree heat, water bottle in hand–I saw it as a metaphor for how I try to live life: trust my sense of direction, rely on instinct/intuition. And God’s guidance and care. I say “try” because my one weak point is worry about my loved ones. I can get bound up in a tangle of possible disastrous scenarios in a blink of an eye, at times. Especially when I awaken for no good reason at 2:50 a.m. from a deep sleep. Oh, right–a perfect time to worry right into full exhaustion.

Case in point: my son and his new wife went off camping and rock hounding all the way to Montana on Monday. They started off in Washington; no word since they were on their way. This makes me a little anxious. Not that I would often hear from him; they’ve had to travel through mountain ranges and forests where cell reception is sparse. Josh travels fairly often and they’re veteran campers. He is very independent, following his own path. When six, he took off early on bike into our new neighborhood. I didn’t see him until dinnertime when he brought new friends to the table. Did I worry then? Some… not really. He always paid attention to surroundings, found his way back–and it was 1980 when kids freely roamed about. Besides, he inherited his grandmother’s uncanny sense of direction, too.

So today after considering these facts, I chose to turn the annoyance of worry over to God in prayer. After all, they’re also on their honeymoon, not thinking of me! He will communicate as he can/wants.

Also, my oldest daughter is driving from Colorado to South Carolina by herself–from visiting her boyfriend to a return to her home and teaching position. This is an old story for her, too–she goes solo out of the country, as well. It’s not uncommon for her to drive great distances. She also figures direction well, knows her way around busy highways and lonely roads, and she travels smart, takes care. She stays briefly in touch.

But there is that blasted impulse to worry a thought thin. And worry is a kind of disease: truly, a state of dis-ease, imbalance, a tension that undermines helpful insight. And there have been a few serious matters to worry over this year, so far, and worry did not aid me in a pursuit of solutions or succor. The real glitch about perseveration–and that powerful director of such thinking, trenchant negativity– is that it not only takes up time and energy, it obscures the picture rather than clarifying it. Issues multiply and become fuzzier. One becomes worn out, not refreshed and refocused.

I am fond of the idea of mind-linked-to-soul as a good compass. I find it can correct missteps, redirect, reiterate or discover essential ways and means to “home”– and thus enable me to better proceed. It well informs me. How can I be certain? I am questioned by friends, family and my own doubting self at times. It isn’t that I am always one hundred percent certain every time I need good, orderly direction. But I have a proclivity for that loaded word–trust. That’s the thing. Despite making significant mistakes over decades and experiencing deep losses and being uncertain of the future like everyone else–I trust I’ll get through difficulties. Even being lost.

And I have been badly lost at certain life junctures, the sort of lost that is hard to note. Like childhood sexual abuse, three rapes during youth and adulthood, domestic violence that finally resulted in my being nearly run over–someone walking up the road screamed “Move out of the way!” just in time– by my then-partner. Or when I experienced a toxic psychosis at age 19, resultant of a lot of amphetamine mixed with other drugs, and then being carted off to “the dungeon”, a poorly staffed, badly managed Gothic structure that was officially called a hospital that was actually, I still think, hell–and that took a court order for me to be released to my parents. And there were other brushes with death that left me thinking that it was really too strange that I stayed alive.

Let me not get started on the lives of my family and friends, my own children. They, too, have had hardships and nightmares to live through and, well, I love them so. The hurdles needing to be overcome have been many. Tests of endurance. It seems the fate of being human that we collect calamities of one sort of another…

So, some experience wandering lost in the dark. Confounded, feeling alone. Yet I do not truly fear being lost. For one thing, been there, gotten through stuff. But more so, a certainty that I can investigate and glean more information that will be advantageous. Other people can be more helpful than imagined. And I grasp onto what makes sense- by this age, it is clear common sense underlies so much, if we just pay heed. Add some intuition- more is revealed.

One thing that has not changed is that I have faith in a Divine Love that does not quit. (Perhaps it has become more fierce a belief.) This is my “true north” spiritually, how I live my daily life. When I am fearful of an outcome or just worn by it all, that faith does not weaken or leave me. It is an intrinsic part of me, that numinous Light a tremendous hope for the better. It has sustained me through all difficulties. I call on God and as I do so I call on God within me and all others I come across. By doing so, I can seek what helps, not harms. It is not hard to pray for clarification of intelligent–that is, loving and solution-focused– directions. It can be still a trial to quiet my selfish worry arising from fear of more loss. and a sudden lack of certainty in ongoing strength and the beauty of this human life.

But when things do get tied up in cat’s cradles, I go to the source of peace, of fortitude–my faith in God. And pieces will begin to fall in place once more. I disengage from anxious energy, become renewed in soul and mind. It is superfluous, this worrying snag. So I use my rescue procedure from nagging thoughts that are distorted and magnified.

What really matters most to me? I ask myself again. Get back to basics. God: God’s creative genius, God-ness alive in others, and living God’s way of compassion with courage. The power of that is what brings me back to fresh possibilities. To my good sense. It is a sweet medicine of hope, clarification of calmed mind and heart. I am not alone as I go on.

It seems easy to doubt; I am not immune. The world appears to be shattering about us in pieces that fall and fly, strike randomly and stymie the desire for well being, much less happiness. There is simply more horror than we can take in, begin to understand. Threats of worse and the specter of helplessness test our resolve to stand firm, try to do what is good and true. To speak up, help one another, to just keep on and seek better answers. For perseverance is a big part of finding the way. We cannot afford to give up; so much is at stake. But to trust that innermost compass (or share one that works well), have some faith that what is better and best about being human will yet illuminate a way ahead. Why not stand up, trek forward? Move as if you know where you are going–you likely do. Or will learn the lay of the land as you proceed. And, too, there are moments of sheer synchronicity that come into force and aid us.

Not surprisingly, my son texted me as I finished this: “In Montana! Great time! Heading toward Yellowstone!” My daughter, too: “Doing fine, in Alabama, heading to Atlanta.”

For now, all is well. This is what I hold close. Whatever comes will arrive moment by moment, hour by hour, day by night by day, as before. And if I have the good fortune of being here, I will meet it. If not, then with God, in any case. I am not ever utterly lost. I know where home is and it is here, within, where it always was.

Cascade Mountains

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Visit

Allanya, my sister, 7/2019

My two older siblings and I spent a few days together recently. It’s a welcome yearly occasion. One is a musician/photographer/world travelling brother, one a retired executive director of social services sister–and, of course, me. This is unlike the more frequent “three sisters’ trips” and visits shared with our oldest sister, now gone. And the last time we met in 2018 was after our older brother passed. (So this year it is only us, down to three from four, and before that, down to four from five.) Since it is a more rare occasion, our get-togethers mean that much more. We swap stories, share food, take walks, nothing fancy. Sometimes it is enough to just be with siblings; lots of chatter can be less important than you might suspect.

In some ways, this year’s gathering was as usual, mutual changes noted. There have been a few since we are older, as expected, and still it can hit us as surprising. After all, we grew up together, and it can be easier to hang on to how it was than meet the present head-on. But there it is; we are the same if different and it is likely to continue this way. That we are siblings will never alter; the ties are deep.

I doubt anyone accurately predicted we’d become who we have been, done what we’ve done, and ended up in our respective spots. Though since I am the youngest of five, I can’t say I recollect entirely what Wayne and Allanya (and the others) were like when I was a child. Five years younger than she and seven younger than he, I tended to feel they were a set, like semi-twins; the oldest two sibs were the same with one and a half years’ difference. I was out of the primary circle of four due to my late arrival, and how I saw them was through a lens of the littlest one who looked up to them literally, and otherwise. I trailed them about, happily but was called a “pest” often if also was routinely looked after and taught things helpful or not so much, blamed/teased and generally, at the very least, tolerated. I forged my own ways and world as they grew up, while I remained a kid a few years longer. By age 13, they had all become college students and I was alone in my room and with my thoughts. I saw them infrequently after that–until my later thirties or so.

Wayne, as I think back to our childhood, seemed quietly and warmly outgoing, helpful with many friends, and he was good with kids. Like all of us, he was from an early age a string player–viola–and played in orchestras as well as with the rest of us and our father in our impromptu gatherings. Allanya laughed robustly and this drew people to her. She adored animals but had just cats (enjoyed then lost many, played a mean game of softball (as did our other sister). he had chosen cello to start (as did our biggest sister and I) then switched to flute and then, happily, bassoon. We all sang, at church and in school; I sang with a pop trio and performed in musical theater productions and wrote and performed songs with a guitar. There were so many stages and musical performances we all were involved with, they blur in my memory. Music was our common denominator–and all arts were considered of great value from childhood on. The same is so today.

My sister and I were close but fought as siblings can. She packed a mightier punch; our parents would have been horrified to know we had a few actual fights. Three of us sisters shared a room. When it was only Allanya and me, I was by default the underling, scapegoat and accomplice. I was her comforter when another cat was run over in our busy street, and when her heart was otherwise broken, a repository of dreams and struggles.

A favorite scheme was when she wanted extra food, typically dessert–she’d she’d hand it off to me in a napkin under the dining room table so Mom didn’t see. (She tended to heavier while I have been more skinny–still fight to keep on pounds.) I knew that meant I was to somehow whisk it away to our room and hide it until later. It worked, generally, if I didn’t eat some of it first. From this experience I was learning part of my role.

When I was a teen it meant that even when no one else knew she was gay, I did, before I understood all it meant. I, of course, told no one after I saw her, a college camp counselor (I was a camper, not in her sphere) with another camp counselor at an arts camp. I kept mum until she officially came out, then eventually legally married the woman with whom she remains. (I admit that after that, I said less about my own romantic yearnings of the guys in my theater class or in orchestra; later I realized love was love.) Once I mailed a box with many journals to her for safekeeping, then we threw them out later. She shared the truth of matters no one else suspected. We grew closer, also had fun together when visiting even though she left home, then moved far away. We had learned to trust each other greatly. We are, in fact, still best friends in the way we can be.

She taught English a few years but found her true calling within social service agencies, whether helping people with HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues or pregnant homeless girls or teen runaways or battered women’s shelters. Her skills included advocating and organizing as she oversaw massive community work, and also did fund raising for millions. In the meantime, she ran side businesses–rebuilding/restoring furniture, buying and selling turquoise jewelry and other collections, investing in real estate and flipping renovated houses. My sister has always loved being busy accomplishing something. And, she’d agree, making money–it was a pleasing challenge.

Was this what our hometown folks expected of her? I think they thought she would be a teacher like she’d planned (and likely married to a man). But she did formally and informally educate others about important social matters.

Unfortunately, Wayne and I have not been as close. Inevitably, perhaps, because he is male; we simply shared less time together–though there was affection– as he roomed with our older brother (though they were not too close). He also spent more time with Allanya in school or musical events. He was tall– at least six feet to my five foot four inches–though everyone was– and he moved with a casual grace. I believe he liked tennis, and was thrilled with a good game of ping pong. And he swam often, loved to dive until he sliced open his head and got a concussion when slamming a diving board on the way down. A terrible day.

His enjoyment of the water coincided with mine and so we’d swim around and past each other in pools or northern lakes; he might show me things as we dove off a raft or board. His serious accident, frankly, did not deter me from working on my own swan and jackknife dives and flips, even from a high dive board. I figured if he could master these, so could I. The accident was “just” an unfortunate pause; he recovered. Then, in winter, we sledded, tobogganed, ice skated and built forts from which to throw monster snowballs. I was quick if not the biggest, and knew how to compete! Mostly, I admired his congeniality and his talents from afar more than from up close so am delighted that has changed over time.

But we all got separated year by year, went to different colleges, landed jobs, married, moved to other cities. Though I did live with my sister a year in Seattle after high school… truth was, I was given a one way ticket by our parents to stay with her after I ran into trouble with drugs, and wrestled with PTSD from past abuses. We lived in a great mossy cabin on Lake Washington with an artist she knew who also became a longtime friend. It was at the lapping lake on a half acre of land. We smoked pot and made art and music, studied eastern religions and had philosophical discussions into the early morning. It was 1969; that was how many of us lived. My sister did alright in work and life. I didn’t make much progress as I racked up hours at an A&W drive in restaurant as a roller skating waitress, and hung out with an older, wilder bunch, a guy who loved his motorcycle and partying. I learned about drug dealers and drug dealing and often looked out across the lake and wondered, in tears, who I had become and how I might reclaim what mattered most. Yet we sisters had each other’s backs no matter what. It should have been better for us both. I might have styed and enrolled in college there, but did not. We remained in close touch after I went back to Michigan.

My brother, meanwhile, had taken a required ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program in college, and later entered the Army though he held a music education degree, a minor in history. I did not think we had much in common and was likely correct. While I had been railing against the Vietnam War, he was overseas enmeshed in it and what we hippies called The Machine. Then, when he returned to stateside, he was not the same. There was a stunned stillness to his typically animated self and it scared me. Yet he stayed on with his Army career many years.

Was this what people would have expected? He might have been a choir director, an historian, or a teacher of music theory like our father. I don’t think most would have expected him to become a career Army officer but it made sense to him and he did his work well.

It would take me decades to get to know Wayne again, due to differences in our lives but also actual miles between us. You, too, have to build a habit of genuinely engaging even with family (maybe especially). When I did visit with him, I watched, listened, shared what I felt I could, though some still felt too private. I waited. Over time, life got less arduous, more normalized. I visited him on the East coast; he flew out to Oregon every year or so to see us four sibs living in the Pacific Northwest. When, for my 60th birthday, my siblings bought me a ticket to celebrate it with them at his home (with his second wife, whom I enjoy) I felt enriched with the growing appreciation and love. It was one of the best family gatherings I’d had, just being together a few days. And we later met up as much as we could.

Wayne has traversed the world constantly since he and his wife retired from the Army. It is as if their stops at home are a brief respite before they return to lives they more need and desire to lead. It is so far afield from from my life; I cannot keep up with all the countries they’ve been to–most all, some several times. It exhausts me to consider the miles they fly and how they partake of what they encounter but the experiences also fascinate me. I eagerly await tales they share. This last Oregon visit was on the heels of more European travels (lastly Switzerland and France, I think). And I sure look forward to viewing the photos since they are both fine photographers.

Wayne got engaged with his passion as a young adult when he was stationed overseas; he snapped and developed black and white pictures then. Some of those wartime images are moving. haunting. Since then he has studied, learned and exhibited often. It has been a pleasure to see how his work has evolved over many years.

He and his wife have been professional string instrumentalists and vocalists; he recently retired from rigorous performance work. I am sure he will still sing for special occasions when he called to do so, as he loves music, still. As we all do, in our way–how can we not? It is in our blood and heart. But while he continued to perform, I did not, but left it to raise a family and more. And sometimes that feels like a very large chasm between us, though we talk music, embrace it together, nonetheless.

I have shared much of my life here so it is known that I was a home care manager for elder care/disabled adult services for a few years, then was a clinician mental health/addiction treatment field for 30 more. And raised five kids. I didn’t reach certain goals I had growing up. I believe Allanya and Wayne have. I’d guess my emotional and physical trials were of a different nature than theirs, and fall-out less private than my siblings’. But I am first to praise them and so enjoy being their sister.

Would people have expected this life for me? My close friends were likely just relieved I stayed alive– and created some happiness. And as far as the career, I think some would while others may have expected I’d seek a life of performing. Having a big family? I doubt it. Writing more than this? Perhaps. Life happens and we often plan around it, just live it as it unfolds- I do not regret it. There is good in this living every single day. There are lessons to be gleaned in all changing circumstance. I am a willing student, and a seeker of Spirit and so I go with the river as much as I am able.

My family makes a patchwork design; we have all kinds, of course, with many so-called eccentrics or to use a modern term, “creatives”, with unique perspectives. Dysfunction or any significant challenges also impact members differently in any family. People learn to adapt, survive, strengthen and find healing, and it goes better if they use several resources and work at it. I would say the three of us have recovered from much if not most all of our woundedness over time. We let go of more with each year, I feel. No one can know for sure, even a brother and two sisters, what we have lived but ourselves.

But we are strong and bendable, thankfully. We’ve made or captured countless wondrous moments, taken chances to forge our own way. We also share a heart for others. Our passion for fine and performing arts is primary; we value and respect differences even if it demands much; and we believe in a loving Divine Power, a genius web of vast creation. This, despite scars and remaining secrets we must sort out or release, our defects and weaknesses and those failures to do what might have been much better to do or say. Like every family, we are so fallible individually and also as a whole.

Wayne had to fly back to the East coast after 4 days; Allanya and I, of course, remain in Oregon. She has worsening dementia, almost unbelievable and yet she is herself, who she always was, and we flow with her flow. She remains amazingly good-natured, and does realize she has short term memory loss and confusion. We talk about it– and many other things, as ever we have. It all began with several car accident and resultant concussions but has has evolved into a quite foreign illness we are trying to grasp and accept. This has not been in our family; we are new to such necessary understanding and are improvising as we learn more.

Our brother and I are not sure what is next. I am here, while he will be there and yet we will figure things out together. It is hard to accept at times that what or who she knows today she may not know or be able to share the next day. Or even the next hour. Wayne and I are the last who can remember much of the family’s past and also this busy present–and will hopefully for a long while. He is 75; I am 69. And blessed to feel well, overall, well engaged in living. He will again be travelling to, I think, South America to start with, along with his equally adventurous wife. And they will be taking more photographs.

I will be tending babies and my family, enjoying friends as I can, taking my own impromptu photos and writing with time stolen, and immersing myself in nature’s gifts, as ever. And praying for more strength and grace, please, Lord.

I gave a last-day-of-visiting barbecue for some of my kids and their partners and my youngest’s new baby twins for Wayne last week-end before he left. I found it absorbing to just sit back as my son, Joshua, asked questions about Wayne’s military career inception, how he rose in rank and why he remained in the Army. And if you had been there, it would have been this: a forty-something house painter/pro skateboarder with many scars and tattoos and also beads around his neck–asking his only surviving uncle, now–with sincerity– just what he learned, and more of who he is. And his uncle told him some of that story. And then asked after his nephew’s skateboarding and life. And we talked about other relatives here and long gone, and our genealogy. Life as it is, common, valued.

And how lovely as we sat in the glow of sunshine on the balcony, eating tasty grilled fare, sharing it all and laughs. The company of those I love is so worth keeping.

We start out seemingly empty of personal agendas, hands and minds clean of miscalculation. As a grandmother I can attest to this, and study my twin granddaughters and see only eager and immense possibility for their individual life paths–it is vividly apparent in their searching eyes, ready responses, new skills and guileless anticipation at four months.

My brother cradled each one of the twins, smiled and chatted with them, then he hummed and sang and said: “A flat? Can you sing A flat with me?” And they cooed and smiled at him and maybe, just maybe, one of the girls hummed in response, that note or in its vicinity. This is our family. This is our way of caring. Who will the little ones become? As we all discover, there is a momentum as we undergo a curious series of events, just journey through each hour upon this earth. I feel fortunate to have my two remaining siblings and to witness their decency. To share affection that shapes time and tales. To be able to say, I am one of this small tribe, blood of this blood.

Thursday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Better Deal

I went to a mini-country flea market a couple of weeks ago and was at first disappointed. It was a lark, something to do on a lazy July afternoon. I expected a vast array of fascinating items, pretty things, possibly antiques, as well–like the flea markets you see on TV, where most things look interesting. If I try again, I will have to research the best ones to browse–although I have said I’m not keen on collecting anything now. Possibly never again. Yet afterward I felt it was a satisfying, even cheery time.

I have written before of the things I managed to hang onto. But I haven’t even been a bonafide collector–rare books or other pricey specialties–oddities like intact fenders from 1940s trucks, say, or fine lacy collars from France. No, I am no expert or even wanna-be expert. Rather, a gatherer of bits and pieces: hand-thrown ceramic mugs; arty blank greeting cards; magnets depicting interesting places or people; excellent pens and mechanical pencils (not pricey–just a strong, smooth delivery). And more useless things, of course, like rubber bands and old glasses. Because you never know…

When we moved in March, we gave the heave-ho to those useless and many superfluous items. I kept thinking that I wanted to lighten my life load and also that I do NOT want my children to have to deal with extraneous items when I am finally gone. Lots of drawers and cupboards were emptied and sorted, memories no longer requiring vast material semblances. There was a whole storage area in the basement whose contents I didn’t tabulate. I don’t care what was there; it hadn’t mattered for decades. I didn’t watch those hauling, nor the truck being filled and leaving for the dump. The haulers sorted out any good stuff and did what they wanted with it. I was entirely relieved to see empty space.

So I am not wanting to replace the old with newish old things. I have done that for years–church rummage sales, garage and estate sales. I would stop in a flash to see what was good, or just to browse. You couldn’t imagine what might jump out of a dusty stack or a pile on a table. Something useful or lovely, all was game– though most of the time I walked away empty-handed, pocket currency intact.

Second-hand shopping was, in truth, the affordable way to manage our household’s needs for many years. It wasn’t about collecting good stuff. With five children, clothing and shoes were expensive to supply. My husband, a businessman, got good togs, but I was happy enough with hand-me-downs. (Appreciated Goodwill stores many times over.) So were the kids until they thought they knew better at 12, 13. Our four daughters shared clothing, anyway–even wore some of mine, since we were all about the same size for years. Our son was the only one who sometimes got brand new clothes. I’m not sure he even cared since dirt and sweat permeated all.

The same went for household things. I’d seek out decent pots and pans and replacement dinner sets and glasses. Another good bed frame. A usable lawn mower or cheap bike. A chest of drawers I could paint or a small desk to refinish. End tables for the den. Vases and picture frames and unused candles–always desired and useful, it seemed. Everything I needed could (and can) be gotten somewhere for much, much less. Back then I could not– and later, would not–pay full prices. All could be gotten for a song at any sidewalk sale opportunity. Why not go for it? One could always walk away with a shrug; on to the next possibility.

I also have appreciated chatting with the sellers as I searched, hearing stories of why they were clearing things out. Sometimes–like I had a few times early on–money was needed badly enough to sell their goods, say, to cover rent or a looming car payment. Other times they were revamping, hoped for a fresh decorating or fashion start; were moving and starting over far away. Divorce seems to always demand unloading much. Babies growing fast, children leaving home. Job losses, illness. Or just a desire to clear out the cobwebs, be free of their–they just faced it head-on– junk. (All situations I have been familiar with over decades…) It was clear if they were real collectors of valued items, they could even make good money. Then go out and buy more. What could I say? I’ve always adored books and had (perhaps) too many. Still do and buy them used mostly–and re-sell later.

I have to say it is hard for me to spend hard-earned money on new and costly items. I can see new computer or washer, for example, dressy shoes or beautiful handmade art or jewelry now and then from art fairs (have to support artists and crafts people!). But my forest green Laz-y-Boy sofa came from my sister’s years ago; it is still serviceable. As is the fine woolen tulip rug my other sister sold me for cheap. (She is gone; I think of her every day as I walk on it). And by the way, they have both been serious bargain hunters out of principle, my remaining sister far more than I. And she has been a serious collector of turquoise jewelry and Native American totems, old tools, musical instruments and more. She’d take used furniture discarded on the street, restore it to its gorgeous origins and sell it–she long had bought and sold certain items for a tidy profit. It must be in the blood, as my deceased brother collected wind instruments, silent and foreign movies and jazz records and motorcycles/cars and their parts– and more. My son salvages broken things, fixes them for fun, gives them away. We love to find hidden treasures, I guess, to keep or gift. And if we really save on a big sale or with smart haggling it is a happy purchase, indeed.

But I am, I believe, done with accumulating much more. I just like to look. I don’t need much, nor fancy things (okay, good clothing left over from my retired work life), though I’m sure some think I could enjoy better possessions than what we have. Truth is, I like our pared down belongings, and the emptier spaces that suit our current home. Less to take up my time fussing over, maintaining.

What matters more to me is the simpler life, a life swept of miscellaneous stuff and of absurd agendas (like cleaning fancy silver, which I was brought up doing–who needs it?). My mind grows more orderly, calmer, as if sunlight illuminates and breezes sweep in to freshen up my thinking. My heart is steadier and less constantly taut with life’s aches. My soul feels a stirring that can be overlooked or even lost when revved up with pursuit of this desire, that finery, that temporal need. I want to stand alone with myself and feel alive and quite alright, just as I am.

My husband and I gravitate more to the outdoors in drier, warmer weather. The rustling, nearly meshed canopy of leaves above, balcony overflowing with potted flowers, hummingbirds and bees flitting in and out: heavenly moments. I cock my ears at birdsong (and kids’ voices far off) while taking meals, reading a book, or practicing daily meditations and prayer at our outdoor table. My breath moves through me like silent music, filling and releasing me. What I have cannot be seen nor noted as admirable, but the joys and wonders are embraced within, absorbed and passed on, I hope, in living well with others.

I am less burdened since getting rid of much. I could live with even less. My spirit feels good. aligned with itself, not cluttered by irrelevant distractions. What matters even more to me is not what I own but if I inhabit this day and night truly and honestly. And what I can give of self and time.

But… having simple fun matters. Going to the country flea market was a brief stop during an outing on a toasty summer day. There was nothing for me but two new hand-stitched burp cloths for my twin grand-babies. Cost me five bucks. But we wandered about, anyway, conversed with congenial, interesting people. We enjoyed a happy hour with family, after which we had a delicious meal at a humble grill in a town we had never been to before.

One can wander, peruse odds and ends and share warm greetings for the simple pleasure of it, after all. I think we can use more of that kindly sort of thing, and less the actual material ones.