Friday’s Quick Pick: Escape Art

The gauze casts itself over rooftops,

breathes across ridge and foothills

like the breath of Odysseus.

It is pulled into my lungs,

subdues the gong that strikes my heart,

an intake of coolness and love, power

that obscures, protects, reveals, shelters,

secrets away what matters most.

I close eyes once to the bleeding world

and then a whisper vanishes in twilight,

the breath let go, soul aloft,

heart swollen and emptied

as tomorrow awaits more remnants of

Light to hunt and scavenge

for whatever is yet to be escaped

for wherever I must go, shall go

Friday’s Passing Fancies: Salmon Creek/We Find Peace

…and when the world is howling,
we leave, seeking hearts of stones,
filigree of leaf and web
and water’s life saving–
we go in search of one other
amid mastery of earth
and oh we gather such finds in
God’s shady hollows and wild light

(for Marc)
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Whatever the Weather

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The robins wouldn’t stop their racket. I rolled over and pulled the coverlet over my head, pulled my pillow closer over my ears, and longed for winter’s snow-insulated quietude. The breeze snaking its way through the partly opened window was heavy with the scent of earth awakening, richly warmed. Spring had come again and I was not ready at all for its insistent, brilliant beauty. The exquisite unfolding of the new season felt painful. I dreaded its arrival, as I knew once more I would be doing battle with my emotions. Perhaps my life.

That scene arose from fifty years ago as I moseyed around my neighborhood. I was taking photographs, a happy outdoor activity, when the rain started. It had swept in from the east  but it wasn’t a concern. My waterproof parka accompanies me six months of the year in Oregon. I am a rain aficionado, one who counts its varieties of music as some of the best. And if my jeans get wet, they will dry. So I kept snapping away, noting three sets of boys playing basketball in their respective streets despite the downpour. They weren’t the least bit fazed, either.

More blossoms had begun showing off in January; there are some flowers year ’round but not so many fancy ones. The temperatures rose in the past month, and now have held steady in the fifties or higher. As I framed camellias, daffodils, tulips and their jewel-toned neighbors for pictures it struck me that I hadn’t hidden from spring in a few decades. The birds sing just as loudly here and now and I fling open windows wider to see what they’re up to. In March or April the sun, like a forgotten love returning home, brings excellent tidings. I line up my sandals. dig up t-shirts and turn off the heat for good.

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It has been decades since weather or season has really disappointed, daunted or weighed me down. I found my place and it fits me like custom-made attire. I know some folks move to the Northwest in sparkling blue summer and are dismayed when the rains arrive, but it wasn’t so for me. I first explored this corner of the country when I was eighteen, living with an older sister in a cabin on a lake just outside Seattle for a year. The moment I stepped off the plane it was as if my soul had found its earthly dwelling place so deeply did it speak to me. I was liberated. The topography and geology of mountains, ocean, lakes and rivers; the vast temperate rain forests; the active and inactive volcanoes that mightily redesigned landscape; the fecund valleys, high desert and seashore; greenness like a magic balm with its scintillating atmosphere…Well, it is easy for me to rhapsodize. The Northwest is where I returned twenty years later (and had longed for it all that time). I have stayed over twenty more, will die here if I have a say in it.

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For some of us, there is a land that moves us, and a time that is right to find it. As a youth I imagined the clouds on mid-Michigan’s horizon were actually mountains and I instantly felt better. Any time my family and I traveled into higher elevations with trees and sky galore my pulse quickened. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the four seasons of the Midwest. Our lives were dictated by nature’s ways in autumn, winter, spring and summer. And I was attuned to them in some primeval way.

But spring. It was not welcome despite everyone else rejoicing when the last of dirty and ice snow melted in the gutters, when the lemon-yellow forsythia bloomed and robins again pecked the earth for fat worms. For me, it brought an up-welling of anxiety, lethargy, moodiness; being visited by loneliness and the specter of depression. Something inside me wanted to escape, to cry out, abandon sweetness and beauty, to seclude myself where no one could find me. But I went to school, I rode my bike, laughed and talked to friends, participated in after-school activities, studied the arts and academics–all the things a teenager might enjoy.

But I also looked over my shoulder fall day, even when I knew there was nothing to be concerned about. When I rode my biked over to a friend’s house, I rode hard to arrive faster. When I went to the little corner store where we all bought candy and soft drinks, I examined each car as it drove closer, then passed by. A walk in the woods alone meant taking a risk; fascination with nature was overshadowed by amorphous fears. And when back home I often retreated to my room and clung to all that kept me afloat–writing and reading, music, art, prayers memorized and created, fervent dreams of a safer, happier future.

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There was a reason for all this. In warmer weather I felt  the most vulnerable. For too long as a child I had been doggedly shadowed, picked up from the street, stolen from safety and comfort by a man who was my abuser until he finally was sent far away, never to return. But it didn’t matter that the past was gone. I lived a kind of double life as victims often do, a busy, engaged teen in public, withdrawn in private. Post traumatic stress disorder lingers and can turn poisonous without healing help. Thus, from spring until autumn I was on guard, unable to rest well, a long arm’s length away from sharing what I imagined could be a carefree life with others. The family doctor prescribed sedatives to relieve insomnia and nightmares, to soothe my daily life. And so, addiction’s subterranean lifestyle began. It did ultimately end–when I was ready and found the keys I needed. And as health and wholeness returned, spring came back to me in all its glory, like a creature who had blinders removed. It was surprising, a bonus.

This is not a sad story nor a tale of regret. I share a life that has turned and turned, has witnessed tiny and huge miracles, a life that has spun incandescence from the taut nerves of a rocky childhood and youth. I want others who may suffer from burdens to be assured there is relief, there is even the gift of laughter waiting. There is hope today in my living and being because there never was not hope. God still walks with me because God never detoured. I eagerly open my eyes to be shown Divinity in the most ordinary moments and within the lost and suffering. I am mesmerized by the solutions and creations of countless hands and hearts. And I step out each day without the old hyper-vigilance. I feel strong and sturdy within and without.

If you find spring temperamental or even a menace with its new beginnings, its softness and romance, its grace and charms like darkness upon your shoulders, hold on. We can make our internal weather fair or stormy. And times do change. Search for a way out of your cavern. Call out for a hand. Do not let the beauty of this world give way to the pressure of its pain. Find a place to start anew, to call your little spot of paradise. Make your country among the bravely living. Discover the constancy of wonderment as you lay down your fear. Let God’s love be your ballast and you will be steady throughout all seasons of your living.

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Living Strong, Living Whole


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At the gym I start to think about the Olympics, my primary spectator sport. I am excited about the athletic prowess I will witness but try to follow each difficult and elegant move of Tai Chi in my class. Then I work up a dripping sweat on a treadmill. I have brought a psychologically probing mystery (Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street) to read as I briskly walk. I once made the mistake of responding to someone who had something to say about everything. Talking and power walking do not mix well.

I glance around at the end of a chapter. Twenty men and women, mostly past forty, are huffing their way towards a goal. I like the environment there. No flashy decor, no semi-pros or perfectly proportioned folks to daunt the rest of us. Twenty-five years ago I had engaged in intense weight training, so understand the propelling desire. But in this gym we still mean business. Not even close to that territory Olympians occupy much less the same mental zone, granted, but still, it counts. I am grateful to be among those who take ordinary well-being seriously, no matter fitness level. I attend Zumba weekly, dancing and working with concentration and pleasure. I appreciate the eighty year old woman who is more excited and committed than younger attendees.

But I have to tell you, the tightly packed rooms, the sounds of thunderous feet on treadmills and harsh clunks of barbells, the raucous redundancy of stationary bicycle wheels–all this gets to me if I stay too long. I work two hours to make it worth the fees. By midway I am wishing the televisions would die and I was hiking in the woods. Couldn’t there at least be a video of a trail through the forest or across a mountain meadow instead of CNN or a game show? Hence, another reason for a book. But I long to be outdoors. I engage in this extra fitness routine only at the behest of my cardiologist.

I wrapped it up a bit early in the morning. I had heard we were getting snow in Portland, a wild event. The rest of the country has been wrestling with polar vortexes, but Oregon has been in good shape, sunny and dry for weeks. Daffodils already arisen from the earth. Snowdrop flowers shimmering amidst forever-green grass. This winter the rain has been a bit scarce and I have missed it. But, really, snow?

It hit me as soon as I walked out the doors of the gym: snow swirling and stinging my face; that bright, sharp scent; flakes landing on eyelashes, melting into damp spots on my cheeks. I caught my breath. Wind drew my long hair across my face as I unlocked the car.

And I was transported to Michigan, thrust back to my youth.

Even though I, like my siblings, was studious, focused on developing musical abilities and given to somber introspection, I had an abiding need to be outdoors. Like children everywhere, I loved my serviceable bike, a blue Schwinn, and traversed streets and sidewalks, excited as a world traveler. My legs needed to stretch and sprint. Although not formally involved in track and field (though I did race–and often beat–the boys in our elementary schoolyard) I challenged myself, running races with friends. Neighborhood games were spontaneous: “kick the can”, “red rover, red rover”, playing baseball, volleyball and badminton. We had to move. Not even television snared us for long. The big maple in my back yard was a favored refuge–like a jungle gym and a good spot for the swing. It was a mountain to conquer. I was fascinated by trapeze artists. I dreamed of their routines, hands to hands or feet across treacherous gaps of space, then tried out moves on rings and swinging bars at parks. It felt amazing.

Ice skating called to me at six or seven. I found the speed exhilarating and mildly dangerous. The dancerly movements mesmerized. I had studied dance, felt deep kinship. Before long I was studying figure skating, performing at times, competing. It demanded discipline. Built stamina and increased courage, not only physically but emotionally, mentally. Nothing but feverish illness could keep me off the rudimentary outdoor rink, the snow a backdrop to challenging figures, falls and successes. On skates I was lifted beyond all cares, and felt free, powerful, joyous. This enchantment lasted until I was about fifteen, when life distracted me, and music had become more time-consuming and crucial to me. But I skated when I could. To this day, lacing my skates up at the side of a rink brings a thrill. And once on the ice this world falls away; I am granted entry to another kingdom.

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When I got home and watched snow drift and whiten our emerald city, I was taken back to years of tobogganing. The two icy runs in the deep greenery in City Forest were fast. Waxing the underside of the wooden toboggan augmented speed significantly. My mother was worried we would fly off and break our heads. Some occasionally did fly off; I was lucky. Four or five of us would squeeze close, hold on to the one in front and when pushed off would howl and scream our lungs out. The rush was beautiful, well worth bumps and bruises, the aching hands uncovered and slowly heated up in the warming house.

I more completely lived outdoors, or so it seems in retrospect.  I pondered life plenty, practiced cello and voice, studied for tests and topics of my choice, wrote poetry and stories, drew things and worried about surviving that netherworld of adolescence. For me, it was like trying to navigate quick sand. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse kept secret, back then I was haunted while asleep and dogged by its specter by day as I also resolved to meet standards set by a high-achieving family and an unusual town that was full of exceptional people. It was critical to move beyond myself and to vacate the confines of artificial place, to further call on Spirit as well as my senses to realign life. I had a wound from which soul and life bled. It had to heal. Delving into the complex organic world and finding my place in it assuaged grief, granted grace often. Even saved me.

I knew that being fully present while developing strength and reflexes, balance and agility held power that nothing else could offer. I felt it as a child and youth; everything worked right. I explored a small woods that was a maze of elegant birches and other deciduous trees, weaving through trails brushed with sunlight and shadow. The creek that ran through it and beyond was a gentling presence as I studied blooming things and rocks and gathered leaves. Sang back to birds. Tracked garter snakes through weeds. I also daily visited the tree nursery just behind our place. There were hours of uninterrupted sanctuary and play. Staff nodded and smiled, my co-conspirators.

I had other playgrounds where work also determined my time. I spent several summers as an arts student at National Music Camp, known as Interlochen, in northern Michigan’s forested lake lands. It took who I was and shaped me more deeply and broadly. It gave me a literal steady ground from which to better launch my life. It was a place where dreams came to fruition more each day, with extra gifts of  lake living, the trees a canopy of delights. Music flows from and returns to the Creator outdoors.

God, ever near, spoke to me more clearly outside, in that wordless language of Spirit. I experienced how well my body served me even if there was also pain in having one. Senses bring knowledge, build skills. Conditioning of mind and body result from discovering possibilities and pushing limits. Sports and play were then, and are now, good ways to learn. Courage arises when we are at our most weakened. This was surprising to me as a youth.

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As human beings, we are built to fight for what matters most; we are made to embrace the difficult as well as the blissful. I was not going to fail because I was unwilling to take a chance, to seek a better way. To find the holiness in the midst of the unholy is the way I choose to live. There is nothing between me and a life lived well but what I put there. Wholeness is our birthright.

I hiked at a state park a couple weeks ago, before we imagined snow coming. I left my husband behind, I confess. The hilly trails and giant moss-clothed trees beckoned like dear companions. My heart beat hard. Birdsong imbued the air with ethereal communiques. Sunlight drifted into microcosms and macrocosms and onto me as though a welcoming hand. I was profoundly at peace, as always.

I can now see the snow accumulating beneath a lamppost. Someone is cross country skiing in an otherwise empty street. Her long strides are efficient and smooth. I am envious. I remember that and snowshoeing at a place called Rattail Lake. It was one of those weekends full of friends, snow, a roaring fire and late night philosophizing. We were bold college students, aflame with life. We thought we had forever. But that reminiscence brings me back to an abiding passion, ice skating. It is time to get out there again, skim that field of ice, revel in the guidance of body and soul as they liberate joy.

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The Beauty of Another Country

yo30097-breaktimehudsonriver1973 Taking a break Along the Hudson River, NYC by Wil Blanche

(Photo by Wil Blanche, Break Time Hudson River, 1973)

The river flowed as if it had a plan, deliberate, strong-willed, slathering the banks and concrete retaining walls with dirt and detritus. Heat-powered scents were redolent of city life combined with ground beneath concrete and brick. Cass had biked there. She wished for a strong breeze. But it was a miracle to be resting, sunshine so easy on sore arms and legs. Honeyed light soothed her. She let go of a twig she had picked up and watched it bounce away on the Hudson.

Cass worked hard at the cabinetry shop her dad owned. The business was even better than last year. She knew how to do things that men older than she did not. There were four other women there, two in the office, two laborers. He liked to think himself progressive, but they were paid less than others. Only Cass made what the men did, with top overtime allowed. That was due to thousands of hours she had clocked since age twelve when she was a “go-fer”. Unpaid labor until fifteen.

Lately she had thought about talking to him about moving on. Making it on her own. She watched seagulls wheel and dive. There was a loud girl chatting up one of the road crew; their talk leaped over the sound of barges. Cass shut her eyes tighter. She wanted to forget all the people who acted so special because they were desperate; the shop and its demands; the endless traffic din. It was the countryside she tried to conjure.

She had last been there three years ago. Hills were burnished with the glow of autumn. Emerald grasses, cows lolling and red weathered barns all seemed to her a part of a living art museum. Trees like bouquets of copper and jade. As a kid she had studied such scenes in a heavy library book of photographs and felt a stirring but to visit it was always like seeing a foreign land. There was a family reunion every five years at Great-aunt Dinah’s farm until she passed. She and her dad and brother had gone to her funeral, something her dad hadn’t wanted to do; it was an obligation. Cass didn’t recall the viewing (other than her hair, white as snow drifts against deep-lined skin) or the funeral (except for a cousin swearing he’d never put on a suit again no matter who died, the idiot).

Later, she’d sat on Dinah’s creaky back steps and drank in the openness of vast acreage. It was like drinking fresh water when she was parched inside and out. She had been needing something, She hadn’t fully realized it until then.

In the city there were weeds that struggled through sidewalk cracks and little parks bounded by streets crammed with people and vehicles. It gave her a headache. Their shop had a break area, a patch of dirt with a wobbly, splintered picnic table that Cass finally fixed up with a blue-potted ivy and a yellow checkered plastic tablecloth. No one said anything except for the office girls who liked looking at it from the second floor window. Her dad saw the modest improvement; he said so when she asked. But the workers often took a smoke and coffee break at the side door, ate lunch down the street.

Great-aunt Dinah had left her farmhouse to her son, Howard. He’d leased it and one hundred-fifty acres, then week-ended in a house he’d built on a pretty spot a few years previous. It was really a cabin, as though he’d dreamed of remote forest living. The majority of land was sold off. Howard was an ancient history professor. He liked to go to read and write, take long walks, he’d told them during a recent visit. He’d retire there soon.

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                    (Photo courtesy of Discover New England)

Howard had some business in the city, so called to see if they wanted dinner at the Zenith; he’d pick up the tab. Cass enjoyed his conversation as well as the food. Her dad, less so. They only saw each other two, three times a year, Howard’s idea.

He said, “You two should come out for a long week-end. There are beds in two rooms upstairs. The master is downstairs. It’s a nice refuge. People enjoy the peacefulness.” He cocked his head, raised his grey eyebrows. “Time is fleeing; family should gather.”

Cass recalled how comfortable it was and the gentle land. She had looked at her dad with anticipation but he shrugged and lit another cigarette off the butt poking from his lips.

“Not likely, Howie. Got a business to run and Cass is my right hand. Started to make great money again. Can’t risk taking time away. Thanks just the same.”

Howard wiped his lips neatly with the white cloth napkin, studying her. “Well, Cass, you’re twenty-one so decide for yourself. Savor some time away. Bring a friend, too!”

Her dad had grunted as though a) Howard had no business extending such a grand offer to his kid; b) Howard was too high and mighty–like he didn’t work for a living, too; and c) Cass wouldn’t consider a three-hour train ride for a week-end marred by “eau de manure”.

“I might do that,” she had said. But she had one week’s vacation, saved for Atlantic City with her best friend. Still, which sounded better?

The girl by river’s edge shrieked with laughter. Cass’ eyes flew open. She watched a man trying to grab her so he got smacked. They roared as if this was hilarious.

The strong waters churned but Cass imagined reclining on a pontoon, holding an iced drink. Coming to join her might be someone tall like her, with wiry brown beard and longish hair, a guy who appreciated women who knew machinery and wood and had a mastery of both. Who had some savings and a dream. They would sit and watch the world drift by. He’d also like a horizon far enough away that you had to travel a long time to feel any closer to it.

Cass’s shoulders slumped. She needed more beauty in her life, hard-core awesomeness, the kind that multiplied with each season and is valued for all time. Trees, bugs and creatures, dark rich earth, flowers among vegetables. The weather seen coming from the distance. The strange music of birds in the morning. She wanted kindness, enough so her hard work and restless nights finished well with interesting talk and a kiss that meant something. Her long, muscled arms stretched above her, soaking up sunshine.

Then she said aloud, “Dang, I want my own carpentry shop. Sooner rather than later.”

Wanted to leave this city, sit on grass by Howard’s cabin and learn about the things he knew. Figure out how she could start her own true life. She felt a frisson of energy slide upwards. That’s what she was going to do. It was amazing how easy it was to decide once she was ready.

As she rode her bike back to the shop, she looked long at the girl with pastel bell bottoms and bare shoulders, the bottle blond hair. It was not her destiny to be that way but she raised a hand  in greeting. The girl stared back and Cass wanted to call out, Don’t take what you can get, find what you want, but peddled on.

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