This Music of Joy Will Never End

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Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan; entrance area. This wishing well remains from my stays in the 1950s-60s but now is filled with earth and plants. I wanted to toss a coin in but glad it has stayed put. (All photos by this writer other than photos Marc took of me.)

(Please note there are captions for the many Interlochen pictures; just hover with your mouse over photo.)

The symphony of winds rushing and skipping through acres of broad leaf and conifer trees, lake water slapping then gliding along a strip of shore: these sounds long ago saturated my brain and blood. The sonic tableau is further enhanced with human-created instruments and voices. The musical phenomena in which nature and people collaborate gifted me with a series of wonderment. My times spent attending internationally renowned Interlochen Summer Arts Camp (overshadowing all other camps) remain potent points of grace arising from a crucible of trying times.

I stay the impulse to write of my beloved father, how he taught and conducted orchestras there in the richness of summer’s glow. I might tell a bit about my four older siblings who studied, practiced and performed on their own respective instruments–cello( my oldest sister; also me), clarinet, viola, flute, bassoon and more as they changed preferences. And a couple of them later became summer counselors for the younger campers. Oh, wait, my oldest daughter taught art there for two summers. But they have their own stories.

And I will not be writing at length regarding the illustrious history of Interlochen Center for the Arts, both an arts camp (established in 1928) and soon a boarding fine arts high school school, other than to say it has offered programs for aspiring artists from grades 3 to 12 who have come from around the world. The place has expanded since I attended to include a College of Creative Arts, as well.

I’m not very interested in cataloging triumphs or failures (for example, I won first chair in the cello section of orchestra one summer only to lose it to my still good friend and far better cellist, Susan). Nor teachers’ strengths or weaknesses; the stress of competing against talented kids from all over the world; cramped yet lovely rustic cabin life; the regimen of getting up at the crack of dawn and flopping into bed exhausted, too tired to gossip or plan hijinks. And when allowed breaks, the best thing was to sit lakeside and sip a soda or dash off a letter home. And visualize a future in the arts, that shining life of work and inner rewards–and perhaps outer.

It was, in truth, not a time so much of great youthful fun as it was strictly scheduled and enforced hours as each worked at perfecting one’s capabilities as a young artist who was engaged in performing and visual arts. In short, it was intensive summer school for kids with many talents, but conducted in the midst of beautiful forested acreage by a lake. And it was heavenly regardless of the toil that came with it. I was thirteen and fourteen then fifteen and by then “excellence above all”was a main credo. It was the family’s, as well, as music and striving were seemingly what was needed; it felt natural.

My fingers ached, even bled at times despite thick calluses formed; my shoulders muscles bunched and sometimes spasmed after hours of practice in small field stone “huts”, side windows opened to a pungent, damp breeze. Still, sweat rolled down back and chest in high summer, my cello sticking to the bare spots of skin that hugged it. At night, it cooled enough. As I walked dirt paths through a bluish-lavender twilight, my cello snug at my side, music still swirled about as I passed Interlochen Bowl, an open air stage full of performers. It was as if music and other mysterious energies moved the very atmosphere I breathed.  I felt, at times, as if I had walked through an opening to an idyllic garden of delights. Nothing was the same there as the outside world; all was finer, richer, sweeter. Tough but better. And at home I had plenty of creative engagement. This was just, well…Interlochen.

Perhaps as I finished voice lessons (hoping I’d have a chance to ace the audition for a musical theater production) I’d slip into the dark, musky backstage at Grunow Theater, spellbound as chameleon actors rehearsed. My small notebook would soon be full of messy notes for future reference…for something, I was certain. I learned more about the arc of storytelling, of drama’s effect when leavened with humor. And witnessed again the enchantment of imagination’s constructs. How I longed to tell such stories: a heavy velvet curtain swinging open, revealing a saga of human loving, toiling and dreaming. I started to consider playwriting more seriously, a leap from silliness I made up as a kid.

I also learned the basics of playing a full-sized harp, a resonant and wondrous thing, and thought for a couple of years that would become my instrument, it was so amazing to me and felt not so unnatural to play. In the end it was not. Frankly, it seemed too big to deal with as well as complicated to ever master.

I had taken some dance classes as all female children did back then, at least those who liked to jump about or impress their mothers. But I hadn’t had years of strenuous ballet study like the lithe dancers at Interlochen. Nonetheless, I visited the Dance Building often, in awe of flexible, strong girls who laced up their pointe slippers. It was a favorite place to take a break. I had secretly loved to dance almost as much as making music and writing. I just hadn’t had time with so many musical activities and other pursuits, and it was not encouraged by my parents. So, one summer I decided to take an elective for fun, a beginning modern dance class. My heart pounded as I prepared. Self-conscious in my snug black leotard and very pink tights, new ballet shoes so constricting. I longed to fling them off, run and leap. Maybe I was too athletically inclined to hope to dance there.

(Please click this time on circles for captions.)

The dance teacher whose name I’ve forgotten watched me as I perspired through exacting warm ups. The glimmering Green Lake was behind our building and there were so many windows that blessedly, swift gusts from open water helped cool the vast mirrored room and us. I worked as the piano accompanied our movements each class, and studied my teacher and the others. I was so afraid I’d be determined to be anything but even a beginning dancer, tossed out of class. But I was determined, kept at each difficult position or move and did learn. I felt exhilaration, discomfort, mystification, deep joy of the body being freed. I felt terribly strong, similar to when I ice skated, but dance was even more interesting.

It was such a relief to give myself to movement, to not have to talk or sing or play cello–just let my body lead me, teach me. And I waited to learn a real choreographed dance, an event I considered my true reward. In a week we were making something good, and I followed each instruction, melded with others.  Took my place with anticipation, made it past the run-throughs. In a short time, we would have a whole performance to offer.

The teacher beckoned to me at the end of a class. I felt breathless; was it good news or bad?

“How long have you been dancing?” she asked, her kind face betraying nothing.

“Oh, well.” I wasn’t sure what to say. If I told the truth, would she tell me I should not be there? “I had a few years of rhythmics classes as a kid, a little ballet…not so much.”

She put her hand lightly on my shoulder and sat me down.

“Do you want to dance? Is that why you took this class or to just have a lark?”

“Oh, I love dancing, it’s wonderful being in your class. I’m a music major, though.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Because you should dance more. You have such natural talent, I’m surprised you haven’t had training. In fact, I believe you could be a real dancer, make it a career eventually.”

“What?” I felt as though in a dream, the sort you must awaken from despite it being perfect.”But I’m already fifteen! I’d never be able to compete with other talented kids who’ve worked so hard–”

“But you could. You could go home and take dance lessons and work really hard, then study dance in college and do something good.” She smiled and gave me a quick hug. “I was like you, once. I followed my dream when it didn’t make sense. I began rigorous study in university and went on as a modern dancer, dancing all over the world. And I teach here. You have promise–modern dance suits you well. You dance from a very deep place. You should consider doing this, okay?”

I didn’t feel I could answer, as tears welled up. I nodded, smiling, and left.

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A view outside the Dance Building

Modern dancing that summer was the first time I’d fully discovered safety and exhilaration living within a body that had, as a child, endured years of sexual abuse. The first time someone had told me–beyond my figure skating (perhaps more a sport to me, not quite the art I longed for)–that I was acceptable physically, even valued in rarefied worlds defined by ideas and creative activity. Instead, my young being, my flesh and bones had long been burdened with self loathing and abandonment, the lurking, subterranean fear of vulnerability. Dancing that summer along with my teacher’s firm encouragement and appreciation sparked a change in self-perception, in my desire to do more than even survive capably, if possible. Or sometimes, stay alive. Just get by. The fine teacher never even knew it. Or maybe she suspected.

Although I did not become a dancer–there were other needs, trials and goals that took precedence–I yet do dance and experience relief and joy to do so.

There was much more to those summers than dancing, singing and acting (I got a decent part in “Pirates of Penzance”; sang in concerts), playing my cello and a little harp, and learning more writing skills. There was hanging out in the dusty, smelly art studios, watching others make curious objects. And I realized I wanted to explore visual arts more, as well. There was sitting in an audience in the open air Kresge Auditorium, not just performing. Being moved far beyond my ability to verbalize my feelings as great, music was performed. The greens-to-blues lake within audience view shimmered and soothed. And there was time spent getting closer to new friends, some kindred spirits with whom I kept in touch for years, and setting out on a sailboat upon undulating waves, and gathering around campfires. It was the singing trees and the breath of sky like a scarf about me; the taste of summered water; the pulsing light and tantalizing shadow upon the paths that led me to more discovery. I was at home in the world where art was being made by many, where I, too, was following my passion to create.

My times at Interlochen heralded healthier changes while strengthening my certainty that art can salvage lives, that a grand variety of arts created and shared is more fulfilling and exciting than anything else for many thousands. For me.  I saw this in many others, how they came needing more and emerged from the time spent with something new. As I once wrote in a poem, there hopefully comes for many that “deepening at the seams”, those stitched together places where this human life tugs and even rips apart our yearning selves. We can heal those tears of the soul. Praise the ongoing design and redesign of greater moments. For me the result is a life full of empowering magic, lived with good love, and I get to be part of a worldwide community that loves to conjure something fresh, remake what is known. If only there was even more time to grab hold and give it away, tenfold.

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I have endless gratitude for this way of living, within the vast terrains of heart, soul and mind, each day and found stories like gifts I get to mine and share.

An Up North Autumn: Lakes, Forests and Love

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West Bay, Lake Michigan. All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2017 (Photos not re-touched)

To any outsider and according to ordinary appearances, my husband, Marc, and I were going “back home” to Michigan for a week’s visit/vacation. That is, we were on the proverbial journey that leads to one’s old stomping grounds, a destination deemed “hometown” (seeming more a mirage than actuality). What I discovered anew is that my old home base (as well as my husband’s) was not where or what makes most sense at first glance. It should have been more obvious to us from the start; we did plan the trip together. And it is people whose presence means “home” as well as places. Both might be different from one’s original hometown.

Our main purpose for flying half the day (really entire day due to a six hour layover in Chicago) was to visit my elderly mother-in-law, my brother-in-law and his wife at a new home they now all share. Our second intention was to go on a “color tour,” i.e., to witness northern Michigan’s palette of autumnal forest hues. The drive from the Detroit airport was a wake-up call that clarified we were no longer in Oregon: hulking grey industrial complexes, drivers darting in and out of lanes without warning and blaring horns as if making a chase movie. The essential flatness, the geometry of everything. That cumulus cloud-laden sky tussling with windy rainfall. (Later, weather became, then remained weirdly balmy–why did I pack my fleeces? Oh, so-called Indian Summer was upon the state….) Here and there were scattered fall-bright trees among cityscapes and burdened highways. However, in time the city scenes were fewer as we neared our destination.

Their house was perhaps an hour and a half from the Detroit airport, and found set back from the tidy, tree-studded street, one nearly empty of any Sunday morning bustle as we glided toward the house with our rental car–a new Chevy Malibu, a fine “Motor City” auto industry-worthy sedan, I have to say. Marc had grown up in Flint and Lansing, cities other than the one we were visiting but we might have swung by his old homes if he’d wanted that. He did not mention it. So, we arrived to visit with his mother and brother. To share and discover what it meant for him–for us both.

Beth, my mother-in-law, is 89 years old; she is lovely despite worsening issues with eyesight and hearing, a slowness of gait. Her gentle face and searching eyes couple with the sharp inquisitiveness of a theological scholar (amateur but believe me, she knows the most arcane things) and longtime teacher, as well as traces of tension around eyes and mouth which stresses of life deposited. I find her smile beautiful and her laugh tender. But everyone has family history that is complicated; being human must mandate that to some degree. Visiting, I am more a semi-outsider looking in, only know parts of what makes the family tick so I observed. A pleasant occupation.

(You may need to click on some photos for captions.)

My husband embraced his only sibling, two years younger, and they began to catch up bit by bit. They’ve not been so close as I have with my four (now three) siblings; this visit was important. We found my sister-in-law yet unwell from a medical ordeal but we gabbed as we could. Beth was more the focal point. How endearing she could yet be–eloquent with such precise grammar, curious about people and events, opinions well delineated. Pleased as she could be to once more be with her older son and even me. To be able spend days and evenings with both her children held such import. It had been 6 years since we were all face-to-face. Too long. The three days zoomed by. My husband and his brother became more reconnected. Beth was pleased with the mini-family reunion as other members shared dinner twice. There was a more intimate confab here and there that I respectfully avoided, exploring the pretty back yard leading to woods. Or I chatted with my sister-in-law. I came to better realize the depth of her weariness and bravery, even as we also shared a little laughter. Her deep eyes were hard with pain, softened by a good heart.

When Marc and I were closer to leaving, Beth asked me, “Are you going to visit your parents’ graves in Midland, your hometown? Tend to the sites?”

I shifted into startled silence. No, not on this charted course.

“Well, no, the plan is to continue on up north to Petoskey and Traverse City areas. I  guess I could have but…not this time.”

Beth was politely surprised. I said something reasonable about our schedule and conversation moved on. I felt a bit stung by my inability to say “yes” to her, but it vanished soon.

Such an act is considered a duty, a tradition for adult children yet it has rung empty for me. I have not visited my parents’ graves since my mother died ten years after my father. I may never do so. Because I believe in ongoing life beyond death, I don’t feel their presences in a greenly-pruned cemetery. Because I can sense their spirits in my dreams and daily living, I don’t have undue desire to talk to them at the spots where their bodies were buried. To leave flowers that will fade and die, too.

And the fact is, I have little interest in revisiting the small city where I spent my childhood and youth. It is an attractive, even privileged place but not so much a fuzzy embrace of warmth, security and joy as a series of chain links, of strife bound together with various sorts of love, unusual experiences. And many if not most of the links became weakened or rusted through. I admire its bounties and appreciate much of what was learned there. But all those I loved the truest do not live there, anymore. In my memory files of “hometown” it is like looking at colorful pictures but also seeing mysterious muted tones of shadowy negatives, primary scenes before the final images. I did have interesting adventures, some dangerous, others tattooed with sadness. And there are those that shine within, still. Peace enough has been made and I have written much about good times, far less of wounding ones. We all are wounded here and there, in this way or that.

So when I think of growing up, I often consider other places, including what downstate Michiganders call “Up North.” Marc and I–both grateful to have shared the time with his mother, brother and the others– took to the road again. We were seeking the destinations where we each found stability or rich happiness or inspiration long ago, and from which we continue to draw strength and peace.

Photos from along the drive north:

The undulating roads into northern Michigan are lonely as large cities are left behind, but lonely in a way both freeing and calming. Hills appeared here and there, at last. The speed limit is 70 mph so we zipped along straight then curvier highways and byways, past subtly rolling land steeped in shades of green, tan and brown, the trees tending more toward gold, orange and red mile by mile. This was what we’d hoped for: Michigan’s spectrum of autumnal colors. It was a more silent drive as we feasted our eyes.

It was early evening as we arrived at Bay View, once the summer home locale of Marc’s grandparents and, thus, his whole family. We had booked a room for one night in Stafford’s Bay View Inn, which is on the National Historical Register. All the buildings in Bay View, a community that requires membership, were constructed at the turn of the twentieth century and are Victorian. This lends a sense of being transported into that long ago time. The charm of the inn’s rooms was matched by the gentile, good humored spirit of the staff. Begun primarily as a Chautauqua community, Bay View residents did and still does devotedly champion the arts and greater education. But the star to me is the land with its waterscapes.

This was the backdrop of our northern childhoods, those pines, birches, maples, oaks, elms and poplars. The Great Lakes Huron and Michigan that flow into one another. They are so huge that when we were children we thought they were much like the ocean; the horizon above the deep, clear cobalt waters was so distant and magical we could barely imagine what was beyond it. We ran down to the rocky shore where Marc started his rock hunting in earnest; he soon found a couple of agates and beloved Petoskey stones. These unique stones are fossilized rock, made of rugose coral, from glacial times. They are named after an Ottawa Chief Pe-to-se-ga (Rising Sun); their fossil markings look a bit like small suns with rays spreading outward. We found a few to take back with us.

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East view of Little Traverse Bay, part of Lake Michigan

I breathed in the bright edge of a Lake Michigan wind, hair streaming, eyes watering. The powerful scent of fresh water and wet earth provoked a tingling shiver as I scanned and took it all in, hungering for beauty. The rhythm of waves excited and calmed me at once. This ancient canvas, no longer mirage or memory but real as could be–north country’s fresh water and big sky wonders, a swaying of great treetops by lake’s edge, a hardness of stones under feet–yet moved me.

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West view at sunset of Little Traverse Bay

The next day Marc and I wandered on foot about sunlit Bay View streets and found his grandmother’s house still kept yellow and white and crisscrossing tree branches even more generous and luminous: the stillness of streets caught in a spell of life and times long past yet gently present. Each house there is beautifully rendered in the style of those times. Now many appear to be year ’round homes, winterized for the brutal winters–not allowed when Marc’s family lived there only in summer. We visited the youth clubhouse and boat house where he swam and sailed his Sunfish each day, a treat he still recalls as thrilling. We saw the stark white chapel, though closed. He was brimming with memories. I was, too, from the summers we brought our boisterous five children. It is an idyllic place and it is his “home place”, the one that shaped and educated him in untold ways he was grateful to experience. Soon, I saw a profound ease imbue and cheer him, displacing tensions of his jam-packed work life. Later we also enjoyed shopping and eating (great coffee and tea, too) in charming downtown Petoskey, the city to which Bay View utilities/services are connected. We also visited nearby, more upscale Harbor Springs; I will share those pictures another blog post.

There are two shots, a front and side view, of my husband’s grandparents’ beloved yellow and white summer house, no longer in the family. The rest is a sampling of other homes, some more modest than others, all lovely and in great shape for over 100 years. The chapel and boat club gazebo are also shown.

 

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As we drove away, Marc said: “Next year if we can return, let’s stay two or three nights at the inn.”  I agreed. The first days of our trip had been nearly perfect. (I was ill one day with a chronic malady, so had to miss out on a fabulous Cessna Comanche plane ride. Marc got on board with his niece’s husband, the Comanche pilot.) Only two more days left before we had to fly back to Oregon. How could it get any better than this?

Next Wednesday I’ll take you to a North Country jewel, Traverse City, as well as tiny Interlochen where big things happen– and where my own history sent out deep roots. We’ll also visit wine and cherry country around Old Mission Peninsula and the attractive, touristy Leelenau Peninsula. We’ll find colorful trees galore! Those parts also welcomed us. I had nearly forgotten: Michigan, for all its blustery, sometimes rougher can-do attitude, is also open, friendly and gracious in a refreshing down-to-earth way.

MI day 4-5, Bay View, Petoskey, TC 120

 

Lessons from Cottage Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I hear a distant woof and howl.

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

The moon and open spaces are calling. Later.

 

Those were the Days, the Nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or was it richer, still?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What brought me to this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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