Reserve Me a Seat for a Tragicomedy

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons attribution A1Aardvark
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Attribution: A1Aardvark

Murder and mayhem rule inside a famed, palatial hotel. Our beloved, good-hearted heiress is stowed away in an underground pirate tunnel; her husband is the treacherous stower. Her brother is married to a woman who talks to dolls. Her half-brother’s existence finally came to light, plucked as he was from the obscurity of servility. He was, sadly, delivered from life for an unjust charge of murder (his wife?) yet wait–was he truly good and dead on the funeral day? And her one sister, well, she is more than confessing to the local priest. Behold their mother, the widow who runs her business with an iron hand and a heart to match. Yet she has lost control of her small empire and her wicked son-in-law is to blame, is he not? But, then, he was always a man with blood money on his mind.

I don’t know the statistics regarding numbers of people worldwide who enjoy soap operas. I haven’t been counted among them. Oh, I’ve glanced at a few here and there–in hospital waiting rooms or visiting a homebound client in the past. Excuse me while I snooze. There are other, more interesting things to do, even when I haven’t worked. Daytime television in general has not tempted me unless I am ill enough to require being still and supine. The simple characterizations and repetitive storylines, the way weekly crises pile up to guarantee more barriers to normalcy–what a bore. I do watch a few other shows off and on–some silly, some more weighty. But soap operas? Not likely.

Or so I thought. Then I discovered a series I could not get enough of whether feeling unfit or well. I needed something to entertain me while my spouse watched his cooking or outdoor survival shows. We have one centrally located TV but there is my computer–and Netflix. I was browsing series, looking for something to capture my restless mind, hold me in its thrall. Foreign film fascinates me and I also enjoy series. Up popped “Gran Hotel”, a story of hotel life in Spain, 1905.

I am currently enjoying the ghastly and heartwarming third season.

Well, obsessively viewing it, is more the truth. Particularly when M. is on a business trip–that tells me it has nothing, really, to do with any monopoly of the living room set. I haven’t felt a desire to see it before evening but I wouldn’t put it past me one of these days.

This isn’t a critical report, a review of the series; I am certain there are a few out there. I haven’t read them. I don’t care what the critics think. I can’t wait to find out how Alicia gets out of the subterranean prison, if Julio manages to separate her safely from Diego, the current majority owner of the hotel, and how Teresa, mother of Alicia and two others (as well as rightful hotel owner) deals with an elegant maitre d’. But that one is another sort of professional altogether. The old maitre d’ was a worse shapeshifter so perhaps he is the better pick.

So, here I am, all caught up in the spell. I knew I was in trouble the day I awakened with sinuous Spanish words in my head. I can’t spell them so won’t try but they have clear meaning to me now and they mean things so beautifully: brother, mother, son and darling. Hate and love, hope and heartache. Wine and tea and babies and God. The dance-like rhythms of speech, the beauty of the characters’ expressiveness–their mellifluous, grating or commanding voices carrying through the rooms. Ah, I have come to know them all.

The men openly weep and hug; they rage and lie. The women are smart and subtler in their trickery. They are stalwart survivors and queenly, too. Everyone wants something they cannot have but will not stop trying to gain. Or they want to be rid of what they ended up with. And are seldom content for more than a short while. Are there several stereotypes? Who cares? Are they and we just people looking for something to value and fight for? Yes.

In part, “Gran Hotel” intrigues because it is about a familial dynasty, displaying well how multi-generational dysfunction operates. Yet there is more. The story covers as much as may be possible in such a format of 45 minutes per segment: struggles with morality; loyalty and enduring love and its loss; the critical importance of friendship; the bonds or lack thereof between parents and children; the dangerous ways resentments and regrets poison a person, becoming hate and revenge. Faith, particularly Catholic faith in the early twentieth century is highlighted and prayer (as well as confession and penance) is a part of everyday life. Yet superstitions are not far off.

There are things to be gleaned from the ways of a woman whose only living son is the secret love child of her old, now dead, employer. She is penitent but full of pride in her son; she is humble but carries herself with implacable dignity; she will do whatever is required to insure his happiness and success in this life and beyond. Angela moves like a dancer and wears her age without rancour. Courageous and ethical, she would make a fine friend.

I do get to laugh out loud. There are intrigues that hinge on foolishness and naiveté, some whose impulsive behaviors lead them to ridiculous ends. Javier is the clown, a drunken son who must marry up to increase the family fortune. The smart and indomitable detective Ayala and his less-savvy sidekick Hernando are a comic duo as they try to navigate crime after crime. I would love to join their investigations. I can each episodeas they tirelessly round up a motley group of criminals.

And the clothes! Both men and women in this series dress very well. I rest my eyes upon the aristocrats’ costumes, am amused by their regal bearing, their sumptuous fabrics swishing on the floor as they go, heads held high. The peasants dress in weighty, textured fabrics and more modest but interesting hats. The servants have their own attractiveness, crisp uniforms not the least bit lessening their own needs and wants, their perceptions and unspoken thoughts.

Just seing how people may have lived in this time and place was enough to draw me in and provoke questions about Spain’s history. I admit; this is secondary at the moment. There are better ways to gather that information. Until then, I want to sit back in a chair in their sumptuous dining room and just watch.

M. wonders why on earth I like this series. I don’t speak or read Spanish (he can, a little). I am supposedly “too well-informed by good literature” for this sort of thing. So he goes his way and I go mine as we tolerate our disparate tastes.

Perhaps I thought I was a bit above it, too, once upon a time. Does it reflect my getting older somehow, my tiring of the real terribleness of the world? Putting off cleaning up after dinner or as a reward for same? Enjoying a break from my own life’s duress, from intellectual and spiritual pondering or creative setbacks? Certainly the series is not (nor are other soapy stories) free of stress and pain. Grief. Longing. But it is manufactured and though we know this, we willingly join in for the duration with a suspension of disbelief.

We find facets of ourselves in each character and empathize. We can feel compassion for the plight of victims and outrage at the acts of monsters. We vicariously enter into someone else’s life for a short time, then get to return to our own selves. And we can count our blessings: our lives are easier, after all, or less complex and more loving than these. Or at least more “boring”, which is not always a bad thing, perhaps.

There is hope each new episode, at the very least, of resolution of life’s problems, little by little. I yearn for the righting of so many wrongs. I cheer for our heroines and heroes as they carry on despite being foiled again. The relentless villains eventually do pay the price for their misdeeds. At least, I hope. The show isn’t over yet. And I think I finally understand why folks like this sort of thing. No, it isn’t the classics but it easily speaks to human enterprise and our debacles. That commoness is just as valid as reportedly finer fare.

The beauty of make-believe, afterall, is that it dramatically, sometimes profoundly reflects life but it is not my life, exactly, and not yours. It is just…another rousing good story. So let me pour an iced tea and gather a few cookies. Julio and Andres, Alicia and Maite are up to something once again.


A Summer’s Eve Concert

courtesy of Creative Commons

I had planned diverse undertakings for the summer but, as often occurs, my plans were shaken up like so much dice, tossed and rearranged. The new design has been a bit of a revelation.

The time has been partially shaped by bloomings of floral beauty; lulling, salty seashores; and dry, pungent forest pathways. And writing about what fascinates or puzzles, whatever tracks me down during night dreaming or micro-trances that come and go during wakefulness. You know, when that word, phrase or character rises up from subterranean recesses of mind and holds the writer enrapt by a teasing bliss. I’d always rather be outdoors writing or researching but there have been remarkable heat and drought this year. It can make one shudder.

Defining life by such redundant heat in the usually temperate Pacific Northwest is a valid, at moments scary, thing. It is not a diaphanous heat that turns all languid; it scorches all and encourages vast wildfires. It hurts pale uncovered flesh. To defend myself I have at the ready copious pitcher-fulls of herbal iced tea, at least SPF15 for ventures out, and an air conditioning unit for relief as needed. I write and sip, read and sip, scrub things and sip, at times feeling half-drunk on a chilled homemade brew of sweet peppermint and decaf black teas.

But there have been unexpected events regarding family stirring up responses like grief over my sister’s passing, deep concern for an adult child, a blood-slowing weariness. Health impediments have further challenged. I feel compelled to hole up inside following early morning moseys. A darned big toe got tendonitis–who would have thought?–and halted hiking. And dental woes have lately set my head reeling.

And yet. And yet when my inner reserves have threatened to simmer away to empty, refreshment is not far from reach. I know from experience how to find relief like a water diviner, replenishing the well. First there is daily prayer for healing and guidance and gratitude notations. There are kind friends and stalwart family with whom to share it all. Of course, imagination’s array of doorways open onto rich respite with a jazz riff or a symphony, a tale to be read or heard, little renderings of texture/color/form, a twirl that morphs into a dance across the floor. Where there is life, there is curiosity and its counterpart, amazement.

But nature, first and last, gives far more than receives from me. I do not own a garden plot. I mostly enjoy urban patches of land and flora and fauna if not out in Oregon’s storybook countryside. I seek and find each with appreciation. I cannot tell you how much happiness emerges from a scattering of wildflowers or mossy stones heaped at the base of a giant plane tree. The bees loving the lavender plants make me smile despite a fear of stinging things. Dew in early hours kisses a spider’s web, a poppy petal, secret squash planted on a corner. What saves us is often not what we think but a blue poppy might be it. I am a ready attendee, a witness who is loyal to nature’s programs. Little or much of it can right my world.

One evening after we finished watching a fascinating television program about Cuban cars and my spouse headed to bed, I remained restless. I piddled about until a vague but distinctive sound surfaced from a dull rumble of diminishing traffic. I pulled aside a filmy curtain. Held my breath. Listened.

“Come here!” I called to M. down a hallway.

“Why? Tired…” came the response.

“They’re back!”

“What?” He shuffled out to the living room.

I beckoned so he sidled up and followed suit, placing his ear against the screen window.

“Ah, yes.”

“Let’s go outside.”

“I’m already half undressed.”

“Aw, come on. I’ll go alone, anyway, you know.”

He put on his Keens and shorts and out we went in search of the crickets.

Beneath the towering American sweetgum tree we tried to locate the source of familiar sound. We stood before several bushes but the chirping seemed to ping-pong about the area.

“I haven’t heard them right here before, have you?”

He shook his head. We looked up. It seemed to emanate from the sweetgum branches. Was that possible? A cricket in the tree, on some branch? I had never heard a tree cricket, or had I? The chirping was fairly loud yet there seemed to be only a singleton. A frisson of energy swept up my back. As a raucous group walked by I stifled the urge to call out, “Quiet! Cricket concert in session!” I could have said mating song; that may have stopped them.

But there were more; I could hear them chorusing from around a corner. The hunt was on.

We tracked several loud ones communicating something important–perhaps: stay away from my girl–under bushes half a block down, a place we hadn’t found them before. Again, people tramped by without comment but I suspected they wondered why are those old folks squatting before the bushes?

I was puzzled. “They moved? Let’s go to the main meeting place they gather yearly and see if they came back.”

I was hopeful, even believed they would be there under large corner thickets of greenery where they congregated. It had been ten years that a large cricket community cohabited there. But as I crept up to the site, all was still. We patiently waited a few minutes, as movement can silence them. Disappointment came. Why would they move? Did someone exterminate them? Did they find better real estate? The silence seemed boundless other than a car coasting by and another couple who may have been asking what we were doing standing stock-still beneath an apartment’s dark window. More likely they were chatting about their own affairs. Maybe they had never heard the crickets sing at this corner, though it seemed impossible to have missed.

I felt displeased. M., also stumped, indicated however that it was time to return home. Yes, but first I had to find where the corner group had moved.

“How do we determine an old group? Don’t you know crickets come and go? They’re insects.”

A voice of reason when I am on such a search is one to be ignored. I followed the faint aural indicators that floated upon the darkness. Soft cool air rested on my skin. How I loved walking in the darkness, its pleasures so unlike daylight’s. Amber lights glowing in windows. Hushed voices of those on porches. A plaintive infant call for gentling arms. A random cat racing across our path, starting a skirmish with another in secret places. Life seemed clothed in a finer subtlety, punctuated with fresh flair. I heeded the allure of more crickets but I would have followed much, walked deeper into the night as I had many times before.

And then we came to a grand structure, one of many historic homes in our neighborhood. We couldn’t quite make out if the crickets had taken to bushes or trees as their singing was voluminous, rich in tone, urgent and wondrous.

“They moved,” I whispered. He knew better than to argue. I stood enraptured by the lulling cadence, repetitive chirupping that filled the night. I tried to imagine the up to three hundred “teeth” on wings that are rubbed to create sound, their tiny bodies an instrument. The courting and calling songs always seem to me songs of splendid accord. More crickets to come! But I hear as humans hear, with equal parts delight and ignorance. I was only an audience member.

I stood with eyes closed. It was hard to leave. I wanted to lie down beside them–wherever they were!–and have them sing me to sleep. A random nostalgia for campgrounds rose up, harkening back to my twenties when it was a common event. It all had to do with comfort and tranquility, a simplicity to life that can be misplaced while straightening out life’s knotty problems. I get tired of being so earnest in my efforts; why do I feel so much must and can be solved? Why not heed nature’s lessons, letting instinct guide more? Better to accept my small part in the grand scheme knowing it is counted, but not more than all others. I can relax since I am not the only one on the job. God and the crickets are fully engaged and the world turns as usual.

By the time we got home, I had an impulse to sleep on the back balcony in hopes of hearing more. It was not to be; I have too little space to accommodate potted plants and me. But the evening concert had restored me to a better state, where all is in right balance if I rediscover it, take it within and let it do its magic.

Weary? Impatient or disgruntled? Go out and seek evening’s offerings, have a good listen to the crickets. If you don’t have any nestling close by in shrubbery or trees, listen to a recording. You will hear a voice of the universe in their tireless singing. Small, sacred beings living a short time of the earth, like you.


Language: a Currency of Mind and Heart


My spouse and I were headed toward a collision of words the other day about, of all things, language. I will try to approximate what occurred one evening as we executed a moderate skirmish.

So you can better create a picture: M. is the one more often silent for long periods, who is never genuinely gregarious, who enjoys solitary living more than interacting with other people. He adores ideas that bound toward him like rambunctious puppies or barking beasts. M. is such a devoted thinker that sometimes I swear I can feel his brain’s energy burn hot all the way from a room down the hall. When M. stares out the window he is not staring out a window. He is working on conundrums brought home from work; he is questioning just what or whom he views coming down the street; he is chiseling his way to the heart of a curious advertising slogan, a songwriter’s lyric, a phrase of Scripture, a riddle left him from whatever was read earlier that day or last week. My spouse daily is seen taking notes in one of a sundry of notebooks, jotting down ideas as if they are magic cyphers. He excavates solutions to knotty problems for his job and if I suggest he try going to sleep now, he replies zestfully that he is getting closer, ever closer.

And what about me? Well, language attaches itself to me even when I hang out the sign Do Not Disturb. I often speak even when the tenor of a gathering suggests it may be better to stay silent. Written or spoken words want to construct new pathways and relationships and ignite sparks to illumine corners and just dance about in a garden, any garden at all. Language–even someone else’s–is a raft that floated me down a fabulous river as a kid and it  still does the job.

As any writer comprehends, I’m a story-teller who wanders about a wild and open land populated with feelings, circumstances, geographies, states of mind, startling events, and cosmologies I imagine but can barely describe. Then it all manages to coalesce into my writer’s voice, my particular language, and thus forms a tale. A glance at a scene at a bus stop can morph into a whole world: She was leaning against the post as if it was holding her up, as if her oldest friend had left her with Righteous that obese white cat, a tattered copy of e.e.cummins’ last poetry collection, and a kiss blown into the wind. And, indeed, that was all true. Despite her deep belief in the incorruptibility of loyalty. Despite her wishing otherwise.

I’m on a quest for my own enigmatic rabbit hole–an adventure!– and so must find each right word to get there. They wait for me to be picked up, dusted off and given some vital (even if minor) role. But this is all just for me, the writer, selfish and greedy as I am about words. I know sometimes less is more or so the critics say. But I seek and treasure them like they are manna from heaven.

Before we started to enter this charged conversation, M. and I were of one accord. We agreed as we always do that language is as difficult as it is easy, even when it is one’s homeland language. I not infrequently feel that he and I–and all others–speak with a very different understanding of the same words. And vice versa. It may bore some, but M. and I love to discuss the etiology of words, their multi-layered definitions and how a slight inflection or an altered rhythm can change the course of a sentence as it travels to the mind or ear of the reader or listener. It may land with a crash. In context one single word means one thing, yet in another it reveals another universe. No wonder people miscommunicate even in their native tongues. Interpretation seems the mightiest force at work.

And then he said: “A writer or speaker can change a person’s very life.”

“The ideas might ignite deeper questioning,” I admitted. “The feeling behind the words might move someone… if they can empathize with them. Or if they are vulnerable somehow.”

“No,” he insisted, “words are so powerful that they can change someone’s innermost being.”

“Hmm, well, I think they can carry great weight but they aren’t supernatural. I can’t change anyone with my words; only the person can change himself or herself. If our words have any value others use them as exploratory tools, and they develop greater insight, don’t you think? Or if they touch a person, one can allow this to stimulate and open heart and soul. Or not. Language is a worthy exchange of energy only if a listener or reader accepts it. The words and receiver both gain something more then.”

“What? How does language gain anything? We are the recipients here. And we make language happen and evolve.”

“To me, language is empowered by the person taking it in. Otherwise, it is meaningless. Just a harmless story, a passing thought. Bottom line: a grouping of syllables. Unless we ascribe greater meaning that is personalized–”

He leaned into the oak dining table. “I’m saying language has managed to change history! It can electrify the masses. People think, feel, react to words and, thus, they do alter the course of human life.”

“I don’t think we’re so fundamentally opposed. I see where you’re going. But I’m still thinking it is primarily one’s deliberate actions that makes the change happen. Not simple words that give pause.”

“My point: without the instigating words, no change might be even sought. Cause and effect–language cannot live without it, nor can we.”

“Yes, yes…” I breathed an inaudible sigh. “I am not convinced my strings of words could profoundly change one person. And there are a myriad ways people are influenced in life, that they can be spurred to take action. And in my case, perhaps only I am moved by my own words, no one else. Is that sadly narcissistic or…?”

“How odd an idea! Well, all creative people are to some degree narcissitic but that’s another theme altogether. No, you have much to share about life, about your experience of God–you can affect others’ lives so you need to share that.”

“Maybe. More likely not. I think you are more hopeful about the miraculous power of language than am I! I don’t think people can change so easily…”

“Maybe so. It’s weird. You’re the obsessed wordsmith. Yet I may have been more directly altered by reading another’s words, according to you.”

And so we continued until—well, we quit. There is no right or wrong here; we each had points. We let it go and all that language pulled back to rest awhile, out of harm’s way. I still maintain that we humans give language its full and true life by the design work of our particular perspectives. Our experience, knowledge, insight. Love or growing interest or hate. Hope or despair. Understanding or abysmal mismatch of ideas and feelings. Ambivalence. And then when we are ready we change ourselves, with the help of God, I peronally suspect. And other human beings, whether on paper or face-to-face.

I thought about it a week–M. is not the only one who cogitates long and hard. And the conclusion I have tentatively come to is this: as a writer, language may primarily change me. Just as an athlete loves to shoot hoops or run a race, I love to exercise the language center of my brain. It beguiled me from an early age. It may have been my mother’s expressive telling of everyday tales that started it. It might have been my father at the dinner table, sharing what he read with meticulous verbal offerings. And his interest in our response. The books I read contributed, of course. But language set all the hormones of well-being rising and I wanted to take charge of more of them.

Deep wonderment bloomed as I took pencil to paper and jotted down my first letter, clean of eraser rubbings. Then came a first poem, then an attempt at plays and stories. All I had to do was imagine things; language would lift and steer me into the domain of creation. I could make known my thoughts to another, but first I made them better known to myself. And that writing–even the secret journals I hid under the bed in a locked, handmade wooden box–freed me from the constraints of time, space, situation. I felt no boundaries hemming me in. Perhaps there were (and are) philosophical or moral boundaries edging in, as we are shaped by our beliefs. But otherwise I felt liberated, neither female nor male, young or old, heroine or villain. Or vicariously became all of those and more. A free agent or, at the very least, a participant in the bright illusion. It seemed worth the effort either way.

So what of M.’s words? I know he feels he has been changed in irrevocable ways by things he has read (or heard). He mentioned a writer, now interestingly forgotten, who gave him hope when he felt bereft of it. It was something like: “Return to the last place where you knew you were okay.” I was silenced by this; that concept was a touchstone for him that became pivotal.

I’m not altogether sure why I don’t find such experiences to be as useful to me. Whose words made such a difference that it transformed my life? I could name a gaggle of writers including several songwriters who helped me along divergent pathways. And there is one phrase that is simply part of my daily lexicon: God is Love.

But words beyond that? Wait, there is a phrase written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The majority of the poem the narrator might seem to be musing on an ancient statue of Apollo. But the last line grabbed me and has held me to its meaning: “You must change your life.” No one else, I thought; yes, I can and must do the work.

Perfect for the closing of this post. We must change from our own need and desire yet language can potentially guide us this way or that. For me, the truth is that words bring a modicum of fulfillment more often than not. From them I can even find a treasure trove of happiness. Even in quiet they are thrumming along somewhere. And that’s just as I’d always hoped.


A Poetry of Sisterhood, Past and Present

Birthday, lilac farm and tulips 5-12 151

I was going to write about writing and reading poetry, its innards and otherness, how its spareness rearranges and keeps honest the core of living. Then my sisters stepped forward. One lives on earth; the other does not.

I have kept a snapshot on a table that sits inside the front door. We three are standing together on a river walk in Astoria, a town we visited on one of our too-few sister getaways. We are grinning, arms about each other’s waists. Taken several years ago, we look chubbier than more recently. I study the softness of our faces revealed by late spring light. We are confident, sure we will be there for each other year after year. I stand in the middle. Being the youngest, bookending myself with each sister is natural. None of us was/is tall, but we stand firm. They have white or greying hair; mine is still brown in the photo. An anomaly in my family. But I think the white is flooding my roots in the last few months, trying to catch up with the others.

Maybe my hair is grieving.

I still don’t know whether to use present or past tense half the time. Marinell passed away a few days before my birthday in April. Allanya is still here, in the same city as am I. Which to state: we were, or we are, or we will be…There are these new gaps–not one but many–like crevasses we note, then assiduously avoid.

But everything has changed. Everything. When one sibling dies and leaves the others behind, nothing fits in the same way. We became parts scattered by a toss into the circle of our expectations and hopes. Landing, though, outside the usual parameters of things. It is being alone in a good boat that, even when secured at dock, rocks with the waves–but it isn’t quite a comfort. It’s off-kilter. I stand with feet apart and scan for the others. Wait.

I have two brothers, one nearby and one on the other side of the country. We occasionally speak of many things, but not Marinell’s death. We are kind to one another. We note our health and projects. They are engaging in various captivating activities, invigorating travels. They live forward, I assume, as before. I haven’t asked them recently what else, what now–now that we are four in a family meant to be five (seven with  parents, gone as well). But their presence make two linchpins in the wheel of my life, helping it keep its place.

But sisters. They can occupy the same internal territory at a glance. Marinell and Allanya have been as close to me as any of my friends. More so. Not just because we were born of the same parents, but because we have embraced each other thoroughly. Our differences have skirted around the edges of conversations. We’ve had divisions and multiplications of positive and negative in our lives. Some shared like a knotted rope. But we didn’t waste time on the oppositional, rather forged connections all ways we could. Empathy, full throttle, has made it easy, no matter that we have inhabited different lifestyles. Mutual respect has been restorative in a world that seems to often disregard it.

Allanya and I care about helping people, the arts, our families, about creative work and nature. About how we can live from inside out, manifesting the Divine Love we know to be real. The same can have been said of Marinell. I do not idealize any of us. Our errors have informed our knowledge of the world and ourselves. No one has judged; we’ve gotten those stings from elsewhere.

Allanya has been an executive director of such diverse agencies, she acts that way more often than not, but her tender compassion can light a brave light in the dark. She collects turquoise and primitive paintings, yard creatures that she rescues from curbside, then repaints. Allanya is devoted to her family, so is often busy, as am I. But on the phone and face-to-face, we can erupt into laughter as well as weep without hesitancy. We have affinity, we have loyalty galore.  We eat chocolate together when sharing errands. Remember old flames.

Yet, we somehow steer away from the places our sister has occupied, literally and emotionally. We need more time to assimilate the truth, I suppose. To add it all up. To dispel the undertow of tears so we can reminisce with light heartedness.

The power of place is resonant of people in ways that perhaps only scent can be. For a few decades Marinell lived three and a half hours away. I cannot imagine returning to her quaint town outside of Seattle yet. There would sit her two-story pale yellow house with many windows, snug on a hill. Now owned–taken over–by others. Her music room is likely a television space or guest bedroom. Her burnished cello and grand piano were sold to strangers two years ago, when she and her husband moved to Texas. The thought still elicits a gasp. I may not even enter Seattle, a stellar metropolis that is resplendent in its offerings. It used to be partly hers–where she played in the symphony, shopped at Pike Place Market with us, attended Seahawks games. I imagine it less welcoming now, a city other people get to use for their pleasures and ambitions.

She was the reigning family historian. Lineage details and events and rumors were kept in her excellent memory, as they were in our mother’s until she passed at ninety-one. Now who do we contact when wanting to know where our second cousin once removed ended up? How will we know what really went on for our grandparents and parents during the Depression? And what was the name of that great-aunt’s gadabout son and did he ever marry?

I think of calling her every week. There is something I need to hear from her. Anything, a chortle of delight, a surprising insight, a question put in such a way that it never meant harm. She and I had many of the same health issues so shored each other up with two wills. We meant to endure without fuss, to give gratitude a refreshing.

I think of her answering the phone, that lilt of her refined voice, also capable of improper asides. How those beauty queen (literally) hazel eyes warmed the room. A tentative breath, then a pause when thinking, biting her bottom lip.

Everything was beautiful in her world even when it wasn’t. She found it, nurtured it, carried it, shared it.

I peruse the memroy bank and find us taking the (small, not large) yacht voyage for a week through the San Juan islands and sparkling Victoria; the journey to Banff where bears gorged on berries and we were awed by the Rockies; and that trip to tulip fields where we three sisters us sat gabbing amid such a profusion of color it was as if we were painted into a living canvass. And the shopping we did. We caught up on even serious personal issues while weaving between aisles, browsed the sale racks–all with pungent asides on good, bad or plain ugly fashion. I shake my head thinking of updates on crises amid discussion of earrings and scarves–but it worked fine.

My sister. Mercy and flowers, courage and fine crystal, stamina and a Bach concerto.

There will be no new times, not here, not soon. I accept she is gone, and I know where I feel she is. But she is not within my reach and it still shakes my heart without warning, a rattle of sorrow in the quietude of my days and nights. I keep trying to fill those gaps with frail wisps and little souvenirs, even epiphanies of memory. She shone for me. For so many.

This was to be about poetry. It has become musings on how I have been a sister with two other sisters, now one to one. That number flummoxes. But I will rebalance. What is left is what was before, a peculiar lessening and yet, still more.

Allanya and I are closer in age so became friends first and longer. Our childhood territory was marked by quiet fighting, sharing food and secrets. Co-conspiring of kids, and then deep sympatico as adults. Marinell was thirteen years older than I; eight more than Allanya. Perhaps her re-entering my life much later made it different, my being youngest to her oldest. She was a sort of second mother, pushing my pram, reading me books, reinforcing good manners. In time our ages better aligned as we discovered in each other solace and good humor, shared revelations.

I knew I was a grown up when I felt equal to my sisters–trustworthy, a part of their repartee, present for them and entirely able to return their affection.

The years gave, then took. As they do.

The poetry has been about herself, afterall. About accepting that loss swoops down on us, picks us up and drops us, altering all. Even how I think about journeying into the Olympic National Forest, where I know she walked and wondered about her health and future. It is about a sister who calls forth these words and inscribes the vibrating notes of my mourning. In truth, she liked my stories and we once made music together at her piano. I have written pages for her to critique; now I just write for myself. The music, it whispers.

As the days pass, sadness visits me and burrows but in time healing will complete itself enough. I have been enriched by her comings. Now her going. Yet I will find her in myself because we are ever sisters.

In the end, nothing can be perfectly retrieved from the past but love.


In Search of a Good Paperback Summer

Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini
Girl Reading by
Charles Edward Perugini

You know those magazines and online sites that tout the latest barrage of fast summer reads? My eye goes to the catchy title or tagline with an avarice that is a tad embarrassing. It’s like a magnet, each sizzling, promising list. (But, then, I read book revioews for fun as well an info on the latest offerings.) The books on the beach lists are intellectual lightweights, perfectly breezy. They fit snugly in one’s hands. I keep waiting for a “Beach Bonanza Bingo” fold out, one I can play to win a freebie. Because the truth is, as I finish the brief reviews I’m rarely compelled to fork over cash on the suggestions.

Okay, I do find myself momentarily stalled by a book cover design and author bio, the blurbs. I do think, now this one or that might whisk away vestiges of the miasma rising from a too long winter and spring’s instability. Such a book might enable me to dog paddle in ultramarine waters of the mythic Mediterranean, a place I dearly long to visit. Or might I accompany someone who has distilled her strength via harrowing trials? I may then fly with her as she flexes new wings generated by… what, really? a mad love affair? Or perhaps I’ll get the inside story on the powerhouse CEO who takes ownership of a Cape Cod manse–which is inhabited by ghosts, one of which is an old business partner. I might even skitter down alleyways for a rendezvous in the humid beauty of Rio de Janeiro. Or outwit a detective in solving a latest pop-up murder on a lakeside wayside in noir, majestic Norway.

But I think not. There is not enough to keep me riveted, most times. Still, jewel thieves interest me; where is that paperback? That might be in non-fiction, another fine creature altogether.

Yes, I think, pack two or three in a colorful bag along with my bikini (alright, one piece: over fifty, not fearless and foolish) and head out to the sandy stretch of coast for a day of reading and SPF 30 sunning. But I had my four-day summer trip last week. I found little time for books. And I don’t own a quaint cottage. So it is off to my easy chair or bed. Or my balcony, under the shade of, well… I haven’t yet bought bamboo blinds to hang from roof edge so I don’t scorch under remarkably high temperatures. I’ll read indoors, enjoying a moderate blast of air conditioning. Iced tea at hand. A sort of oasis, afterall, in the midst of my day.

Reality, however, or the intrusion of same: that is what stops me when I peruse the June/July lists. As often as I seek fiction, my real life can’t seem to comfortably accommodate those light flights of fancy, where good folks come out unscathed and bad guys get their comeuppance every single turn. Where love is as delicious and satisfying as fresh-squeezed lemonade sipped on the sun-dappled veranda: “Oh, thank you, darling. I do want it to be that way, sometimes, who wouldn’t? The momentary weakness of considering books that command brief attention, tales frothy and forgotten as soon as I close them–all it is, is a slight pull to a life that is painted as sweet and easy. I know, millions of people devour these novels. But the basic falseness leaves me even cooler than usual this year.

Death, illness, heartache, a ridiculous car accident garnering a hefty co-pay at the body shop–these have been interwoven throughout the first six months of 2015. Life occurrences; we all have them, ready or not. So have I longed for escape, maybe beyond that of aforementioned cotton candy books? Of course. The brief coastal respite after my heart issues was a good thing, as upon our return, there have been family troubles that ring unmistakable alarms. It is being sorted. Solutions hunted. I can reach into a stubborn, deep resolve when it comes to problems, as can my spouse. We have each navigated thorny issues for our careers, but family members’ well-being is a whole other concern. It requires fast action, then careful reassessment. It requires patience and presence to be alert to unthinkable possibilities: sea changes or more loss. With the bottomless well of Divine Love, more compassion will be gathered and given.We are bulking ourselves up with prayer and faith in God, plucking insights and resources from a tangle of feelings, of shifting priorities.

As in the best fiction, in actual life the truth of an individual is often not what is imagined “authentic”. Rather, it can arise from a murk of human error and need, then one’s willingness to take healthier risks. Half the challenge of living is its awkward unpredictability. Even as we think matters are being perceived well from our outward and inward selves, there is usually something not observed or defined correctly. I could almost envy those with prodigious memories, who can reel in every sight, sound and signal by gleaning mental files and then tapping their fine heads with an: “Aha, there’s the telling moment, the unadulterated truth. Reality, naked as it is–can all not see it?” All I have is intuition and years of honing observational skills; I am not all that accurate.

Yet, why can’t my being and doing equal entirely the shining creation that once, long ago, seemed probable? That’s the wraith of my youth whining, excuse me. But the diluted lives that those breezy novels offer up, with quips and fabulous fixes? Not so much my cup of tea, you must see. It’s serious, the business of being a human, if ridiculous, too. One can be an adult a long while and yet there comes a day or evening when one is still unreasonably, foolishly jarred. Flummoxed and humbled.

Despite this, I praise every morning’s light gliding through windows and evening’s violet twilight, welcome mysterious darkness. I can and do find it lovely to laugh and it is summer, anyway, with lavish air slipping over me after Oregon’s wet chill winds. I am spellbound by all variations of light and shadow, greenness enveloping each linear or rounded space, the buzzing and sneaking about of so many insects. My daily walks and hikes are that much more amenable.

Well, I may not have the most leisurely, beachy paperback summer that others may have, but it will be a remembered and valuable summer. And there will be time for more good reads. Must be; it is mandatory especially in challenging times.

Yes, more books call to me, just not summer bestseller lists. Currently there is a surprising novel on my nightstand that should be on a beach list. But there is a meatiness of themes concealed within well-written entertainment. The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston contains Celtic symbolism, shamanism, albinism, grief recovery, time travel (or historical synchronicity) and intuitive powers, the creative life of a potter, danger, and the healing forces of love. I am halfway through it and though I am not a usual fan of fantasy novels about magic, I am rooting for this protagonist. She is strong. She is willing to learn from spiritual challenges that meet her every step. It is escape reading, yes, but it resonates right now, provides me interesting moments without too great an investment of time. And I do like the author’s turn of phrase. Brackston is a Welsh writer; I’m half Irish so perhaps that inflates my pleasure.

But since I am writing about lists of books that elicit appreciation, slight loathing or, worse, indifference, I herein offer a half-dozen titles, some in paperback. If you like reading fare that challenges as well as lingers, try these. They abound in plot and character, hold intrigue of a variety. Maybe you’ll find and like something new.

1. Power by Linda Hogan.

An endangered white Florida panther is killed. It is sacred to a Native American’s clan, and a teen-aged member knows who the murderer is. She intends on finding out why such an act was committed. There is a hurricane, there is mystery, Native American spirituality and unusual perceptions. There is, happily, Linda Hogan’s always transcendent use of language. This book is a challenge that mesmerizes.

2. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

Ahh. A family of coyotes, a female wildlife biologist who is absorbed by wildness, surprising human connections and the landscape of southern Appalachia. There is heart, the lush natural kingdom and surprising revelations. A departure for Kingsolver, perhaps, lighter and still very fine. One of my favorite fiction reads of the last fifteen years.

3. The Small Rain by Madeleine L’Engle.

You may know her for YA books, or only for the lauded A Wrinkle in Time. But she has written over 60 books and this one is a treasure. If you are fascinated by artistic families and how their children manage to survive and thrive, please read these moving pages by a wizard of words. Her careful touch, her probing into human psychology and an underlying respect for faith in God make her books a rare treat.

4. Mr. Lynch’s Holiday by Catherine O’Flynn.

One of the oddest and best books I have read in awhile. Here we have an English widower who visits his avoidant, lying son on the coast of Spain. All is not well in paradise. But he, patient and accepting, discovers peculiar beauty amid ruins and nurtures tentative bonds of love amid his losses. Besides, there is a secret held close to the derelict community where they reside. You will keep reading and appreciating the author’s deft skills, the human carnival that is revealed.

5. The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro.

Okay, this may be the lightest one. But it’s 1955 and from London to Paris we are taken on a multi-layered journey to discover what and why Grace inherited something important from a benefactor, of whom she has never heard before. It is about war and its aftermath, hard choices that have long reaching effects, and also the power and intricacies of perfume. How could I not have read this one and passed it on?

6. The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth. It’s for children, it seems at first, and has only 88 pages. It has pictures! At the start, a Japanese artist and an unwanted white cat have problems galore. But compassion wins out and that cat…well, she is one strange and awesome creature. A good thing to read when you are feeling overwhelmed by our clunky material world. First published in 1930.

There are my June’s half-dozen. If you have a favorite title or author, please do leave it in the “Comments” section. And if it is a fat paperback beach read, give me your recommendation–I am always open to a good tale nicely turned out. If there is any interest, I may offer more titles at another date, as I tend to seek writers or books often less popular or well-known and would love to share them with you. Indulge yourself in a glorious summer of reading–I’m soon checking in on the Seer and the potter. And after the respite of reading, I’ll be looking for right and good results of work on family needs. I hope you make your way well this summer, too, and have strudy support if needed beyond the world of books.