A recent Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of spending hours by myself along the Willamette River. I head to the water when I feel less inclined to tackle significant, frequently ascending and descending trails close to our home. It is not far to the river paths, happily. The deeper truth is that I love bodies of water and this river (as well as the more powerful Columbia River) has drawn me from the day I moved to the Pacific NW in 1992. It is close at hand nearly everywhere I go in this part of Oregon.
I offer these shots from that afternoon of delights. It was cold and windy and partly sunny—perfect for power walking or loitering, pausing to admire various sights. The rolling, changing river as it grazes or gouges the banks of earth pulls me toward it like a magnet. The rushing or slapping sounds it generates; the reflections of light and shadow on its currents; the birds and other creature activities; the interplay of the elements and the people (and dogs) who come to benefit from its restorative beauty year around: a place of pleasure, wonder and meditative opportunities.
I also enjoy public art works and a stop at viewing platforms at the three parks I visited (George Rogers, Foothills, Roehr)
I’ve not gotten far on contemplating this new decade. In fact, I am barely attuned to the idea of a brand new year. I try to get serious and come up with clear goals, those things good for you like kale, but my notepad remains empty beneath the brief heralding of 2020. Maybe it is my age–is passing of time more irrelevant than it was at 20, 30 40 and so on? Some say more important but it does speed by, then slow down, even pause a split second or two–all as though I’m captive in an oddly edited video. Naturally, I see the past/present/future linked and pertinent to anyone’s identity. It just doesn’t seem as confining to me as it did when younger.
I was thinking, for example, about a class in film making and photography that I took at age 19…50 years ago …and I still want to take a class on film making and 35 mm photography. It was thrilling, that dark room. It would be a different course now but the spring of creative energy and intellectual passion are not less than before. I have plenty I’d love to do–and maybe I will get it done, and maybe I won’t. It was the same back then. But nothing so critical as back then hinges on my decision, only whether or not I fulfill my own desires. That was not the case in 1970, all life met head on with a restless, at times painful urgency, an inbred hunger for perfection, my intense dreams replete with plans for two or three Great Things before the next decade roared in. God forbid that I Not Accomplish Much. I can’t say I did by some standards, but there were other matters of importance, human life being surprising as it is.
Some things came to be, then, some did not come to be. Now I plan less, live more, much oftener in good ease. More spontaneously. I have my calendar with instructive and colorful notations on it already, conspicuously hung. But I know anything is likely to change. I don’t have the power to keep the unexpected from occurring, after all. I can shape my personal time, perhaps some space and events therein, but I cannot perform omnipotent acts.
My life is now in part reflective of the photo shared above. Gathered together: newer and older, inherited and intentionally acquired, chipped but functional, and lovely if spare, open to possibilities and accompanied by light and shadow, comforts of written and spoken language and, though you cannot hear it, music. In this case (from a genre termed “light classical” on TV’s “Music Choice”), a piano sonata by Mozart. I can feast on silence but music suits me more as perpetual winter grayness is absorbed into everything…a humorless palette that needs tonal brightening to be appreciated.
Tea or coffee with almond milk sits close by sooner or later, and chocolate. (Food is sometimes an afterthought. Chocolate covered nuts and fruits are preferred to get a little of the food tucked in.) The chipped china cup and saucer–one more thing that got marred in the move we made, yet still good in the hand. If I am not on my feet doing this and that day into night, I am sitting with a cup or mug, writing tools, my thoughts and a soft light, a stack of books at the ready.
It is 2020, I know, yet how many things remain the same despite that change. Little seems so different from the long past. Much has advanced, self-destructed or worse, it is true. And my generation certainly protested, we marched, demanded a higher national conscience and much better quality of life–equal rights and reproductive rights, cheaper or free and much more informed, expansive education for all. And several goals were met. And also, there were so many lives lost to causes.
Still, those days, these times: the essence of who I am remains, with suitable variations. Like it is for a mature tree, the core of personhood has decades of growth rings, marks left by adaptive responses to the environment, to a myriad interconnections with others that organically or perhaps shockingly came to be. It isn’t only in ind; it is in my very cells and in my soul. We may become ourselves–show ourselves– quickly after birth, I think. But then we tune ourselves up again and again as we grow and conquer and falter, readjusting to circumstances and altering needs.
So what does 2020 mean to me in a personal sense? What is changed or is anticipated? (Note: I do think globally but don’t write strictly of politics here, and am not in the mood to write of it now despite knowing that all that happens around us impacts in some way. The world shares its energy; if the energy wave that flicks us seems small, it still is there. We cannot survive and thrive in exclusivity, despite sometimes wanting to do so.) If I consider my singular life for a moment, I may learn something new here.
First, I have actually lived to see the new decade arrive. A fortunate and necessary grace.
I can’t count on it as it is not a given. My car was totaled in an accident. It might have totaled me. But did not. My heartbeat might have taken utter leave as I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning since heart disease has nagged me 20 years. But it did not. I might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But was not. I’ve also had more stress (due to many life changes plus a health issues for Marc and me) than I can recall encountering in a very long while. But have not retreated, blithering, to the corner (at least not for long) remaining heaped in a soggy ball. And likely will not this year. I have endured harder years and known less joy by far.
Second, this April the grand-baby twins will have been here for an entire year.
Alera and Morgan were not here last January, they were wriggling and snuggling while waiting to arrive. But it was possible they may not have been able to stay there long enough as our daughter was a high risk mother with high risk babies. She’d been informed she’d likely never have children due to severe growth hormone deficiency and other hormone issues since birth. But things can change with right help. And the baby girl-people are strong, well, luminous and such fun.
Third, I am not moving this year. Change can be made to happen or not, at times, and this is not happening.
I almost argued for a change of address to save more money in the long run. But we did this move in 2019. It was taxing. Month by month it has become better for the best reasons. It has enriched my thinking and doing being out here among impressive woodlands, in a pretty place right outside Portland. Never wanted to live a suburban lifestyle, it just doesn’t hold the rhythms and textures I love. It was either city center or the country for this woman–and I’ve enjoyed both with many moves during my life, a suburban town tossed in a couple of times. But this spot has its charms, more quaint town than suburb. And we’re five minutes away from baby girls and their parents, fifteen from another daughter. I can still getto my son and sister within a half hour or less. So I am for now stuck here and starting to like it, surprise. And regarding finances: I’m deliberate with finances for the most part, and do worry about the future at 3 a.m. But some things have to be done in faith. This was one of them. There are babies right here. Much to learn and share.
Fourth, I can write more comfortably as well as edit photos better this year.
This is no small thing. I now have a new Dell Inspiron 15 5000 that I was reluctant to buy (the money thing, though on the cheaper end). But Windows 7 was not much working, anymore, and was not to be supported soon… so my limping Sony Vaio had to be sidelined. Since I am no whiz on the thing–it’s about intuition, trial and error and learning pretty fast I guess–this new machine is a godsend. It does what it is supposed to do; it displays all with orderly clarity. No more cussing at my desk every hour or more as I labor. Or push away and give up for a day. Which means my blood pressure will improve and my creative juices will rise to the occasion with far less interference. I will get more done–ah, this so relieves and heartens me! And Marc will have more peace.
Fifth, I expect to be outdoors a great deal, and not just on sidewalks or attractive balcony.
Is this different? Perhaps not. But some years it has been many city walks and parks (admittedly, still scintillating, refreshing), whereas now it is all woodsy pathways. I might find more routes in city center, though–I miss gazing at varied architecture. And I would like to hike, explore more; the beaches, forests and mountains around here are fabulous as ever. But I know this for sure: walking fixes nearly everything. Writing does the most good for me on a regular basis but walking loosens and polishes ideas as well as being more generally kind to soul and flesh. Such meanders are meant for humans to right the body, mind and spirit.
Oh, plus, I have a gym membership gratis with our housing. So: swimming, treadmill, Zumba, rowing, etc. as needed. Another good year to keep on shaping up.
Sixth, I may find myself designing houses soon. And composing music. Well, to some degree.
They are old plans of action that want to be made anew, that’s all this is. Another daughter and my son told me there are countless apps online to enable those creative forays. Who knew there were so many choices, even for free? So I have made notes and will check them out. I cannot imagine a life without creative activity, no matter my skill level. I don’t demand perfection of myself, not with these endeavors, at least. I wanted to design–and sketched quite a few, built a couple models– houses as a kid. I wrote music as a youth and even as an adult awhile. I can still do both if I want to do. So often we get in our own way. I need to get out of mine more.
And there is that art class I keep intending to take. And didn’t I mention film and photography?
You cannot ever stop learning unless you desire stagnation with resultant boredom. There is not nearly enough time to gather in wonderful bits of knowledge to peruse and use. I am as excited this year as every other year to just keep my mind a-humming with new ideas and experiences.
Seventh, my spiritual life could use more, not less. Of prayer, yes, of sacred moments. But I also just need to stay alert to the shining heart of life, to root out hidden treasures, and keep my being open to grace. The heat of passionate engagement with life’s small miracles can cool, leak away in minuscule woundings as well as grave trials. It is easy to let perplexing moments, those cruelties and hardships of my small life–not to mention those of the billions who make up humanity–transform me into a more jaded person. Or be turned into one who becomes dis-empowered. Empty and unmoved.
But I won’t have it. I wasn’t born to not pay attention. To not take action. To not embrace. To not believe in greater possibilities. We can always be more than we think, better than we imagine. We are made of cosmic stuff; we live our lives in part within realms of Spirit because we are more than flesh, blood, sinew, bone, neurological labyrinths, and our mad self will with many faulty choices. Everything in God’s creation reflects a vital complexity of the magnificent infinite story. Can we not see that for the grand good fortune it is?
I claim my part. Not vaulted, nor far-reaching in scope. But this life is mine, to use as can be of benefit as long as breath is in me. I will be celebrating 70 this spring if all goes well. I care much less than I thought, but it is quite okay with me. I mean, what’s another year? We move through time like secretly winged things, catching the updrafts where we can.
Well, I have to write when I need to understand more. Now that I have some insight, my friends, this is how I see 2020. This particular day. Maybe not tomorrow. But not so differently than before I undertook the exercise. I suspect I am fairly ready for what may come, but then again I may not be. I have been taught a bunch of things this past year and more to come. I carry a bit of goodly knowledge from many years of surviving, growing. Perhaps we don’t quite know what we are made of until we have need to know it.
I do persist in tending an intrinsic hope, despite tatters and moans. Hope for what is good for me and for you. May you each care well for your life and loved ones… and whomever and whatever else you can manage.
I walk into the library this afternoon without knowledge of any special event. My stop is impulsive, convenient on the way from an errand. I do enjoy our public library a great deal and often feel thankful that I can take home any book or other media for free. But now I am staring at the ample back of a woman while listening to a very good cellist perform. I am trying to capture the cellist as a video on my cell phone. He is playing a most sonorous cello that is plugged in so the notes are “electric” in effect. Shortly I give up trying to get him on my cell, as said audience member keeps readjusting position in her chair, blocking my view. And she is dancing in her seat a little, primarily with shoulders. (I am calling her “Sunny” because that’s how she feels, despite her severely cut hair.) But I can hear him, so catch his cello notes while videotaping the floor or Sunny’s back. (Rather late it occurs to me I might have moved or recorded his performance as a voice memo.)
An older man–tall, dignified and possessed of a beautiful head of white hair–is shepherded to a seat. He is blind. It is made clear the view is no needed to enjoy the concert. I wonder about the man–if he has always been blind, if he lost his sight to illness or injury. He is unperturbed by anything, focused wholly on listening as far as I can tell. I decide to do the same.
But am not altogether successful. My mind drifts easily at concerts. Music of all sorts grabs my attention and may truly enthrall me but it also ignites several bursts of ideas, cinematic images, random thought trains I follow until I fall off and get back to the performance. Today there are jaunty pieces played; melancholy ones; two straight-up Bach sonatas; complex original compositions with several overlays of musical lines and harmonies thanks to his electronic equipment. Some of it is experienced as a maze within a maze that creates lush landscapes, gives rise to pathways that take me to here and there, usually ending with a waterfall. And then the music impacts me more like a sophisticated construct, a dreamy contemporary high rise through which I wander and climb, peer about. Often alone, indistinct figures come and go.
And I think of my own cello. How I would have loved to play like the artist–the jazzy pieces, anyway. I studied classical music until 18; some years later I played more as I wished. My cello now sleeps against the wall of my bedroom. No, more likely it is in a coma, as it has been unattended too long. Not nourished. I think of opening the hard protective case often but cannot: it may have cracked again along old lines of ruin that it endured decades ago being transported from Michigan to Tennessee. The original cracks were repaired by my father’s skillful hands. Later as they reopened I got them repaired again; they cost me dearly. I played it some once more. And it sounded nearly good as new awhile but I didn’t play as easily. And I stopped altogether. Yet it is mine, it is in that burnished wood that resides a good length of personal history. It is also a possession of imperfect beauty, of a body with its own voice, even if stilled for now. And it yields stories just standing there. I touch it in passing. My cello is oddly as adored as ever, though I have little substantial bravery left for making music.-serious music, anyway. (Singing to the twin grand babies is far different.)
It takes me to my sister, who played her exceptional cello professionally an entire life, almost until death at 78. She was not an improviser, generally; all that she played was musically clean and deep. Sometimes fun, in a perfected way. I also liked to stand behind the piano bench as she sat at her shiny grand piano; I’d sing all the old standards she wanted to play. We grew up this way. It was a way of being. Our family of seven would gather at our modest, worn baby grand from time to time, but especially during Christmas. Our father, a violist primarily, played well enough, sang along. My mother might join in, a rare exception as she thought her singing not up to snuff. It was quite good enough, her voice; she left music making to him and us children, is all. She had other interesting talents. I can see her laughing as she winds up a tale of who and what she saw on her way to the grocery store. I can see her at her sewing machine, stitching rapidly, perfectly the seams of a burgundy velvet bodice with a pink drapey skirt for me.
I blink twice. Back to the present, though any present is threaded with strands of our pasts no matter the intention, whether conscious or not. Some things only resurrect it more clearly than others.
The woman, Sunny, in front of me: her dress is true vivid red excepting one third of a vertical area from neck to waist.This panel is configured with narrow black and white stripes. Around her neck is draped a sheer scarf that is also black and white but large plaid. Her earrings are cherry colored, little beaded baskets, cheerful and swingy. Her hair is short, blondish-brown but she is older, perhaps my age. It’s how she wiggles in her seat to ease discomfort; the boots on her feet being sensible; soft lines folding up along her jaw as she turns her head. But that dancing spirit!–her shoulders are sliding to and fro. She taps her foot in time. Is she a musician or a music appreciator only, a retired dancer or maybe someone who just needs to move and happily so? The value for her is in open engagement, the simple joy of it and many are smiling, responding with gentle movement. The blind man sits with eyes closed, is still.
The scarf Sunny wears is elegant but not too elegant for this afternoon concert. It’s finely knotted, straggling ends lay along her upper back; they move as she moves. I do love scarves, and wear them often though not today. My love of them perhaps originated with my mother and Marinell, both of whom had many and used them often. There are scarf wearing women and those who are not; I think the same is true of men, anymore. My husband wears a charcoal and white tweedy wool scarf in winter and I like that. I collect scarves for all seasons, pull them out to dress things up or to make the ordinary less so or feel warmer as a sudden wind finds my neck. They’re not all finely made; I get some from thrift shops. My daughter has given me a few: one which she dyed over its original colors; one she made herself of silk; one that she shibori-dyed by hand with brilliant indigo. I resolve to wear more this winter. And note that Sunny has good taste, not surprisingly considering where I live these days, a place where money is tastefully displayed, never shouted out. But good taste can be appreciated, too.
The piece our cellist is playing rises and falls about us. It is light and dark, rich and simple, warm and bittersweet. I look up to the open second story of the library, see a hand on the edge of its half-wall, then catch a glimpse of a teenager’s face, his longish hair falling forward. He disappears. I’m gratified everyone in the library can hear this good music, enjoys the sudden free gift to us on a rainy winter afternoon.
I may recognize a head farther up. I get up, wander about aisles of book shelves, peek toward the audience in hopes of positively identifying my friend. I don’t know Kathy well but suspect I’d like to; we always seem too busy to get together again. She plays cello; rather, she also has played and is taking lessons once more to brush up on skills. It informs me of her personality some: she has determination–and is brave–and loves music and the making of it. We more than likely have other things in common.
But it isn’t her. The concert is ending. The performer bows and the applause–mine, too–is enthusiastic. Sunny chats with someone and though I can’t see her face I believe her eyes quickly widen in pleasure–and it seems another good thing, I don’t know why, but it’s satisfying to consider as I move down the stacks. Pause to read titles of mysteries. Pause to breathe in the musky scent of older paper, ink and bindings; many books have been on these shelves such a long time, standing tall and at home.
I am obsessed with mystery books lately, not my usual literary novels or other genres of books on bestseller lists. I want to lose myself in a rollicking good story, puzzle out the culprits, enjoy the history or foreign country or unique detective. I have a habit of constantly asking questions, some say too many, like to dig into it all, root out more answers. Or at least possibilities. Why why why? Who-When-What-How? I would like to try writing mysteries more. This is another thing that intimidates me, but in this case it is all the more reason why I want to try harder. It is writing, after all, only words on a screen or paper. But what passion keeps burning in me for just that.
Shortly I check out three books despite not needing more in my bedside or other stacks. Audience members are dispersing. The blind man is moving toward the entrance, and a woman is holding his hand. They look beautiful together, their white hair softly gleaming in the warm overhead lights, their shoulders touching. I think of my parents, how their white hair made them so attractive, how they held hands, loved each other.
I find it a little hard to leave the library. I linger by the display of new books, listen to chatter, drink of peacefulness. Yet there is something nudging me, a shadow at the back of my mind, and it is trying to tell me something important.
It is when I go outside and note the rain is now a decent sprinkle that I look up at the cloud-swathed sky and do remember: my nephew, Reid, died around this time. He took his pain and jumped with it off the Fremont Bridge. He had lived enough of the life he’d embraced but also had so long endured. We had known many years he could leave us in some hard way. There’d been such terrible times, then lulls, then more dark days and nights. One never knew what the next week or month might be like for him as he was afflicted with bi-polar illness, and he drank and used too much. I knew it was agony for him, felt it in his presence, and also was relieved and glad to see him at family gatherings despite–or because–I felt his despair so sharply. As he struggled, I’d ask myself what more could I do, whatever more could be done. We all did. He asked, too. The truth was something else, that he was in many ways preparing to be finished with the high-wire walk though each 24 hours here.
And yet. I so badly wish that it might have been been different. It is a time that has entered my cellular memory, those moments when knowledge of his leaving us did arrive: a brilliant flame put out in night’s cover or the stillness of very early morning as he chose to be no more. It has left a part of me where the lifesaving power of art and the potency of hope and strange and unkind designs of life can collide and hurt, then entwine, wrap around my heart with a long soft rope, squeezing my center until I weep, then giving me something to hold onto again. I know it must be alright, it came to something, it was different than his past; Reid is where he is, not screaming out, not alone, not now.
I tell myself as I often do: God knows everything, God recreates and loves us here now and thereafter, we are made of and bound to and freed by such Love. This I am certain of though I cannot explain it when it seems absurd. I still believe; no, it goes beyond belief, it is the spiritual, the cosmic reality I live within. We are all connected; I cannot ever lose anyone I love.
I start the car, yet sit with forehead on steering wheel as my throat closes. I open a window. Breathe as tears blur vision a moment. They recede as Reid moves through my mind, through the foggy, wet day, toward a gentler dusk. I put the car in reverse, drive to the coffee shop. Singing a song to myself as I drive, “The Wexford Carol”, which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma and Alison Kraus and which I heard recently. It soothes me, releases sorrow, lets in more gratitude.
The coffee shop is packed with couples and teens, friends gabbing, single folks absorbed in their computers. It is warm in there in every way. I sit on a stool and look out the window and I feel okay, even better than okay, sipping my mocha, nibbling a warm slice of banana bread. I have much to care about. I am not afraid to finish this day and begin another.
Then I get a text from my husband. He is in Houston, between flights on his way back from Mexico after a 9 day business trip. He is tired, will be late getting in. I tell him about the cellist whose music and banter delighted, a used bookstore I visited, the warm ambiance of the neighborhood coffee shop, and how I have missed him. And he texts me back exactly what is needed: “I can’t wait to come home. I love you.”
It has taken me a bit to sort pictures from a trip to North and then South Carolina over a week ago. For one thing, there was all that prep for Thanksgiving to deal with–the shopping, cleaning, table decor prep, contacting family members. Any holiday feast asks more of us than usual and that is part of the cheery hullabaloo.
However, I additionally dealt with an unexpected event–a car accident on Thanksgiving afternoon. My well-loved Hyundai Elantra, nine years old, is to be salvage soon. But a 20 yo grandchild (who I was picking up for the dinner) and I escaped with little injury. Well, my neck and shoulders are feeling the strain since last Thursday. Still, we both are fortunate to just lose a vehicle, to get up and walk away. Talk about gratitude…We had the planned feast at our home. It seemed, once all 14 of us settled down, the best thing was to go on and enjoy as we could. I am so glad we were all together.
Meanwhile, I still am trying to figure out what went wrong. I may never know. I still need to deal with insurance maters and find another car. Unsurprisingly, I’m not in the mood to car shop….But I am in the mood to share happy pictures from the S.C. part of my trip.
First up: The Gourmet Shop in Columbia. Stop by if you can–it is a unique spot where we found great cheese and teas. Stylishly fun inside and out.
The next shots are from the 701 Center for Contemporary Art, again in Columbia (all photos are taken there this time), where the works in CCA SC Biennial 2019 is exhibited. Daughter Naomi has two art installations there, as below. The first is a photo of “Personal Space Capsule” created while in flight on a plane, exploring how we may experience and psychic space in tight spots. The second is a small end part of the sprawling piece, “Boundings”: think incarceration of immigrants/families plus how people in general erect/alter/remove boundaries. Her work tends to be abstract, philosophically engaging, full of social justice queries and statements; she often uses re-purposed or handmade materials. (More variety of her work can be found on Instagram @invisiblesculpture and her website NaomiJFalk.com.)
Perhaps surprising to some, we enjoyed our visit to the Richmond Library Main. The architecture is contemporary, quite beautiful. Their services are impressive with an auditorium, cafe, a variety of classes, work spaces and studios to create, as well as several imaginative spaces to read within. There was also a wonderful quilt exhibit going on in the entry area. (There were many people milling about, so I waited to capture images.)
I had a blast hanging out with her–art and artists all the time! But Naomi actually flew out to visit us for Thanksgiving; she gave a guest lecture at Portland State University, as well. It was great that she could be in the Pacific NW for a week with siblings, nieces and nephews and, of course, us parents.
A parting shot from Naomi’s place: a pillow case she designed/created and a linen dress with draped scarves that hung there the whole time I visited…like a simple, yet configured art installation. See you later, Na!
Human, beautiful hands. I’ve been thinking–as I tend to do–of how they serve us, how we appreciate yet can take them for granted. How they speak for us, and all day and into night accomplish diverse tasks, with our barest cognizance.
After a few days attending art exhibits with my sculptor daughter, I have once more been in awe of a variety of beautiful, challenging works that artists create with hands, mind, heart. To draw, paint, cast in bronze, mold in clay, piece together fabrics, weave wool and naturally dye it, make a print of color and carefully determined pattern: an abundance of creativity that is accomplished by our hands. It seems honorable as well as miraculous to me. I am a woman who once painted big canvasses in college but now just draws for meditative exercise. A person who once wrote every story and poem in longhand before heading to a typewriter. A youthful cellist and harpist, a dabbler with the violin and piano. In other words, I know a bit about the essential hand, how our fingers rooted in the sturdy base of each palm inspire such possibility. A memory rises up of being a youth who broke a thumb; I gained instant insight into how requisite it is for success in simplest activities. It was hard waiting to heal.
There is a complex set of minute actions that enable writing by hand, a topic of interest for a lifetime. I love to set down ideas, feelings, lists on a clean sheet of paper–or a torn open envelope, a shred of napkin, a handy receipt. Pencils or pens, though they offer very differing experiences, are all worthy tools in my fingers and complete the goal of making seen the thought. Only a few years ago it remained imperative we master the skill of cursive as well as block printing, at least enough to communicate effectively. Increasingly it has become waylaid by use of computers even in elementary schools and certainly at home, and ubquitous cell phones.
When I returned home from our recent trip, we spent several hours with the twins. I wish I had a video of 7 month old granddaughter Alera’s hands in action. They tell such quiet, eloquent stories. I’ve been watching not only hers but Morgan’s (twin sister’s) since birth. How they first appeared in the world as curled up buds, then gradually unfurled, then bobbed about like mini-balloons given flight but nowhere to land. Then they reached erratically, mostly for bottles and faces, snagged strands of hair or fabric of shirt or blanket. They behaved as if yearning to nestle things in their fingers and palms, to hold closely. Such a marvel of mechanics and expressive potential: each finger tender, tiny but much stronger than they appeared. Before long they began to indicate a wider interest in environment and insistently grasped more objects, from a flower’s sweet petals to the calico cat’s fuzzy fur to a terry cloth bib; to Grandpa’s wiry beard, a chilled teething toy or dangling earrings. And all, of course, enters the mouth, so we have been vigilant about safety.
Although their voices are gaining range and skill and they are on the cusp of crawling, their hands so intrigue me. The first time Alera lay her hand flat against my face and briefly stroked it moved me. She has hands unlike her sister’s, whose broader palms and shorter fingers seem happy being utilitarian and so strong and bold, emphatic like the rest of her body and personality, with a musculature that is more reactive or hearty than her twin’s. Morgan is an action gal, and if she can get cranky she also has a sense of humor that swells into lots of baby gab, too. Alera is perhaps gentler, more relaxed in one’s arms, and as the world turns. Her clear eyes gaze long at her surrounds, the light and shadow; her head turns to listen intently to sounds. She seems engaged in puzzling it out, noting details. And her hands follow suit, patting and feeling her way into life.
Beginning about 2-3 months ago she began to examine and pick at a blanket tuft or manipulate a rattle, rotating it between those slender fingers, touching and turning over the shiny Celtic cross on my chain with delicacy. Morgan may be more apt to give something a yank and a toss and giggles ensue. One can’t help but guffaw with her. Alera wants to learn its surfaces, its ways. And when music plays, Alera turns her hands about and mimics mine: twist, turn, rise and fall. Each of us enjoy a bit of conducting. I think: her hands are heart-full, make graceful pictures. Morgan’s jump up and command, hold tightly. I wait to see more as each month brings changes.
How do we ever get to that point where we can tie shoes, draw a house, remove pistachios from shells, wield effectively a paring knife, play a stringed instrument, hand stitch a raw rip? What a privilege to be born with appendages that learn so fast and well to do our bidding.
The little ones are being given more “grown up” food as they take fewer bottles, and what a happy spectacle as they gingerly finger oatmeal clumps or grasp a cooked sweet potato stick or try to pinch tiniest portions of applesauce, a baby portion of dragon fruit. With two minuscule bottom teeth Alera is learning to use them to bite the goodies. Their steadying hands find their way to source of sustenance to chin and cheeks to mouth. Alera is happy to snatch bits with fingertips or open her hand to hold and squish but manages to get much of it in her mouth, trying until she does. Morgan seems a little suspicious of the odd clumps on her high chair tray so mashes more than eats for now. But they are learning as all babies do, what it takes to satisfy a growing hunger. Finger food is great, though, we all eventually agree.
My own hands have done good service thus far. Despite having Raynaud’s which leaves them chilled through under 60 degrees and fingertips that crack painfully in winter–despite this irritation, I enjoy their dexterity. I am not a fine seamstress or a miniature watercolor artist and I no longer play my cello, but I manage to get plenty done–as we all do. I appreciate hands’ skills more than some people may.
A few years ago I experienced a damaging reaction to a type of heart medicine, the statin group that so many take to lower cholesterol or fight inflammation. I found out the hard way that I am one of two percent of the population that developed serious myalagias (muscle weakness and pain). I became severely impacted regarding ordinary muscle movement, with dizziness and balance problems, memory fog with confusion and more.
It became nearly debilitating over a couple of years. I did notice my fingers not landing right often as I typed–and I’m not a great typist to start. I found when I got up fast I lost balance. My limbs felt rubbery I experienced shooting “electrical” pain all over my body. Surely it was work stress or general tiredness, I thought. When I began to walk without warning like a drunk person, could not accurately reach for and grasp items and dropped them daily, I worried and pondered the origins much more. I was becoming scared yet hid the fear and body’s errors as much as possible, calling myself a “klutz”-which I’d never been. But when I could not reliably, legibly sign my own name, alarm plus the concern of a sharp physical therapist sent me to my cardiologist. I was to stop the statin immediately; if my symptoms improved, it was the statin and that was bad but sort of fixable. But if no improvement, I likely had MS or ALS or other neurological disorder. In two weeks, to my surprise, problems slowly started to clear: it was–surprise–the statin which was to support my heart’s health. I began to be returned to myself bit by bit and after a m onth to six weeks, I felt like I hadn’t felt for a couple years: almost right and well.
I share this story as there had arrived a quiet despair that my hands could not do what they were meant to do, what I wanted them to do, what they’d accomplished perfectly with barely a thought. I was told much if not all my strength and normal movements, my sense of balance and clear mind would return. But parts of functioning have not returned to a homeostasis I enjoyed before statin use for 13 years. One is my overall hand strength and their necessary discreet movements–and more, an ability to look at a thing, reach and grasp it immediately. I knock things over as I reach and drop and break things even now, if not as much. I struggle still opening jars, once a breeze. It is discouraging sometimes.
But one thing I can do again is write out anything by hand. My signature slowly came back, with only occasional blips. But the actions writing takes sometimes create cramps in a short time. I carry on after a pause and finger stretches, and return with s relief that becomes joy.
I’ve long loved setting graphite or nib or ballpoint tip or even marker point to paper. Printing is fun; I like to experiment with different styles with that form. But there is the other experience: subtle curves and curlicues of each cursive stroke; the ease or labor of pen or pencil over smooth or textured surfaces; the manner in which letters conjure words to specifically name things or people and give form to idea and emotion—visually, one has personally rendered it! And then to consider it and commit those written words to memory.
I write; therefore, the world and I are one and more, truly present here and now: that is how I have felt even since childhood, I suspect. Language is given fuller life–and its molded beauty is so apparent– when set onto a tangible surface. It is given sharp clarity, then set free. So am I, it seems.
So signing my name, an authentic reflection of one’s identity, was part of it–but it seemed the universe opened like a fantastic lens as hand was put to paper. The beauty and relief of it felt a treasure. I’ve long known others didn’t much feel that way–most students of my generation hated learning cursive and having to write papers. But I found that artists of many sorts did. And writers, of course, as it was and is a helpful tool for creating story. Neurologically speaking, the very act of writing and the brain are natural cohorts. Language, both written and spoken words, arise from clearly sophisticated gray matter activity, though one can surprisingly be done if the other cannot be (as with some stroke victims). My statin toxicity seemed to sully general language and memory facilities as it curtailed my hand’s ability to form good letters; the brain would not listen and translate my intent. For writers who do write longhand, this is anathema. The return of that particular skill was a steady recovery.
I often attend writing workshops that require a participant to write freehand and impromptu for proscribed times. With pencil or pen preferred. Say, writing for two minutes or for ten, often using a prompt of a first sentence or a picture or a fragrance shared with the group–or just stating anything that comes to mind. This is heaven to me. I write quickly and freely, my hand barely keeping up as the wealth of language and image come forward in great bursts: I am in a whole new world right now. I also find when we read our short pieces aloud, I may not well decipher that handwriting. But the very action of longhand and its unlocked ideas–a nascent plot was received in words roaming the pages. If I had used a computer, I’d have paused as I re-read, been more distracted, gotten up and down–in part due to ways I use a keyboard versus the way I write longhand. Things occur differently, more fluidly in thinking as a line is crafted by hand. (Though I appreciate both for different virtues, and admit using my computer more for blogging thanks (?) to WordPress design.)
Writing longhand aided me at work, as well. I took notes on a yellow legal pad after the counseling sessions and liked to annotate or emphasize with various marks. In team meetings, brainstorming came readily when I could jot ideas down, doodle. Got a person-to-person problem? Detail it first on paper; consider carefully. Stumped by a client’s diagnosis? Write down current observations plus past data gained; see what rises up from the info piles.
I have a recent pen pal. Both of us came to the idea from a book group online and we decided to give it a go. I’m not sure yet if we have enough in common to strike up a decent postal friendship, but I do get a kick out of writing the letters and cards. (I had a pen pal as a kid; he lived in Japan.) I well consider my words as I go, and keep it pleasantly legible. I like seeing her personality in her handwritten replies.It is a pleasure to receive an envelope with my name and address carefully noted on its smooth front, stamp neatly placed in corner. Someone took the time; it got to me via human hands in many places.
I’m the type who buys cards all year long, blank ones with unusual, colorful, funny or skilled art on the front. I love making an effort to sit down with soft blue, indigo or black ink-filled pens (color matters to me) and communicating with another. I anticipate how they’ll see it amid bills and junk mail and then be surprised, take time to read it, look at the art and set it on a bookshelf or lamp table if they truly like it. Which I have been told is done. My friends and family expect this of me sooner or later, often for no reason at all other than I’m thinking of them. I want to take the time and care. It feels a more considerate way, a civil a thing to do in our fast-moving, techno, throwaway world.
Hands at work, at rest and at play. Silent communication as they move about with potent, sometimes frantic energy; or slow, graceful expressions. (I talk with my hands so much it’s been suggested I keep them on wheel when driving. Or stop talking…but not sure I can talk without hands aflutter.) Writing, our hands begin to sculpt imaginative or solution-based plans. And there is the creation of art from a plethora of materials, giving life to a form minute, intricate, rangy or towering.There is such power to that. But we routinely use our hands to take care of business, to survive as we go about living, and how fortunate that those of us who can, do.
Meanwhile, Alera’s hands. I wonder now as I did when daughter Naomi was born and studied her translucent, teeny fingers (she was 2.5 pounds at birth): will she be an artist? A musician? Naomi (like a many others in the family) has both abilities. So maybe I have a good instinct about Alera. Then again, maybe she’ll become a master gardener, a jeweler or an oceanographer who studies dolphins–her exploratory touch accepted. Perhaps Morgan will make pottery or be a tennis player or heal the sick with her determined touch. Who knows? They both have those working, intricately arrayed hands to help guide them. And I can write about them as I choose, thanks to my heart doctor’s intervention, and to my mind’s delight.