From Fire to Rain, Power to Power

iPhone late sumer, early fall 050
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I have long found weather fascinating– amazing, perplexing, harsh and daunting but always impressive. Its complexity, changeability. Beauty, strangeness, danger.

I grew up living along with four seasons: snow-driven winters and hot, humid summers, unstable yet welcome springs and the glorious palettes of crisp autumns. That meant four kinds of clothing for activities: thick woolens, snow boots, hats, scarves and mittens; delicate dresses, shorts, sandals; rain coats and umbrellas; light-to-medium sweaters with long pants. Being prepared for 12 months meant unboxing then boxing back up items just as one became adapted to the current season.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I discovered the novelty of basically two seasons: Rain and No Rain.

The last three days presents me with the giddy relief of this juxtapositioning: woolly clouds bunching up and releasing precious moisture onto cracked and dusty earth. Onto me. Areas of bare skin are soothed by a long-missed pleasure. An extravagant sweep of wind aids me in my walk as autumn leaves spiral then are swamped in puddles and pools, a few overflowing drains. I breathe more deeply than in months; it’s as if clarified air carries its gifts into hungry red blood cells. But even four days ago there were layers of smoke, vert little brisk walking if any. I am so grateful for autumn’s quick start.

Weather affects all of us, now more than we thought it could. Other places have been tormented by hurricanes and earthquakes and my heart cries out for those ensnared by chaos and loss. More temperate weather events and our safety seem less like something we can count on, and so we live in ever more anxious times. Nature does as nature will do, that is clear, and we adapt, experience threats, know great losses.

Pacific Northwesterners meanwhile are working and playing on and around the Cascadia subduction zone, too, and it gives us pause as we consider the projected catastrophic earthquake that likely will someday occur. There additionally are 18 volcanoes in the Cascade Range, most of which have been active, with 7 so far rumbling and spewing in the last 200 years. There was the eruption of Washington’s Mt. St. Helens in 1980 that choked even our city with ash. I can see Mt. Hood, majestic and formidable, when I cross our many bridges or drive east into the Columbia Gorge.

But lately here in my valley–between the active volcanic Cascade Range and the Tualatin and Coast Ranges–it has been a burning summer, a crackling expanse of vast place and time, fiery days to nights into days and more nights. My body basked in a fan’s whipped-up air, (even hot air) and the trusty AC in most living areas. At one point, 57 days elapsed without rain and then came a short drizzle, then more weeks of no rain. The average temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit but it hit 100 with no problem. And Oregon’s wildfires raged on with over 640,000 acres ravaged at last count. And this wasn’t the worst fire weather on record though it affected many more people right here. With the arrival of the rains, wildfires in the Columbia Gorge are smoldering, perhaps soon extinguished. Fire season may be wrapping up at last.

Those of us either born in the Northwest or who have lived here some time (25 years for me) know there will be doses of very warm weather with bright sunshine off and on for another month. And then the driving, dribbling and chilling, gusty rain will make itself at home and remain until next late spring. Snow has already fallen in the Cascades; ski season may be excellent this year. Unsuspecting newcomers arrive in droves early to late summer and are overjoyed by our dramatically green, dry landscape and sparkling skies, not considering how much rain will fall the remainder of time. We have lots of bars and coffee houses that are even more stuffed in winter. You have to appreciate cloudiness and accept being wet to put down roots.

It is not hard for me, the rainfall. Darker starts to the day with earlier nightfall gentles body and brain, can challenge with cold dampness and insularity but also delight. It works well for writers or for anyone who digs deep into greater depth and breadth of solitude to ponder, dream, create. And my daily walks do not stop. I only hike less in sloping hills, mountains, woodlands–too much muddy trail and threat of landslides. And after the fires, the earth is far more unstable than usual. But hiking can wait for the eventual drying out.

Rain. Water that sustains and wields great power. I chart a new sort of compositional latitude and longitude, how these movements map the autumnal sky. Rain music lifts on a breeze, sinks with a lull, peaks as water pours down and drums roofs, branches, pavement and dirt. The constancy of it. Syncopation and freshly scored tempo. The misty auras of light that rim a horizon and seep from behind mountains–for sun will come and go as rain accumulates, runs with rivers. It fills me with bittersweet longing amid a bone-deep calm. Moves me as it cleaves to growing things, a sheen on all it touches. Teaches me stillness within the whorls of beauty and motion.

I have had enough of blazing blue sky and relentless heat and sweat that thickens along my spine. Had enough of rapacious fire, daily warnings of more being ruined. Perhaps I am weary, too, of my own unexpected life strife, a summer of high hopes and pointed, hard truths for myself and my family. Love and its fractures. Faith that begs to be tested. Strength that shows at times only a fair resolve. Summer can paint everything glorious even amid weakness or pain. But fall and winter…they offer different architectures of internal and external space, those pops of color alongside greyness imbued with scent and sign of rain.

I welcome the wet season. Can manage the shift, shape it into this or that while long blue shadows spread over my desk. What I thought was cool silence is only a breath between notes of rain…like a skirt that is all hidden pattern until it flares in every direction when its wearer begins to dance. My own dances are formed of gratitude, head bowed or lifted high, soul brimming as rain soothes and charges me. Just Monday spontaneous movement unearthed tears as I watched rain streak the air, a tide of tension coming forward, moving away. And there was a good peace felt as God’s presence. There are days I just trust that whatever comes, life will move me along one way or another, even if carried by angels.

The senescence of autumn, its leading to winter is a kindred state for me. A friendly reminder of who I am and yet may become in the midst of upheavals of many sorts. They can bring us each into bolder maturity, richness of spirit as the miracle of life displays inventiveness. Even as circumstances–and weather–inform and press us to be patient. To hold steady, offer a hand. Attend even the ache of it, and then make better where the good must be done.

 

Since I have not yet photographed rain much this year, I wanted to share farmer’s market scenes enjoyed well before rain visited. How fortunate to partake of the abundance; I do not forget this as I peruse the options for healthy food, alone.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Separate State of Being: Childhood Play

Granddaughter with Wolfie; Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2009

There were three of them, girls in summer dresses, perhaps ages 6 or 7, and they were aglow with an apricot-and-honey cast of sunlight falling through the tree canopy. They were stepping precisely among broken branches laid this way and that, avoiding the bark as they maneuvered with small bare feet. They spoke in secret voices as they moved, the space between branches a claimed interior space, perhaps their house, or playroom or just a verdant spot that belonged only to them. One girl then gingerly stepped between two long sticks and found herself outside of the loosely defined oval “room”. She hesitated as she came to a narrow space between longer branches as if uncertain whether or not to enter again. A second girl, however, said, “You can come in, this is our door.” The awaiting child smiled and stepped in, as if over a rise. All three again were together, talking and walking the area when the third child left the space. She hunted and gathered two short sticks that fit well in her hands and knocked them against each other with a pleasant thudding rhythm, and began to sing along with the beat.

The scene had stopped me on my park walk; I caught my breath at her song. Sunlight gilding the greenery, the girls immersed in their own world, dresses in a play of motion against the sweeping background, an afternoon so far removed from hurricanes and wildfires and wars that I felt enchantment had cloaked the park. I could have remained there as long as they. The mother/nanny/neighbor sat nearby with an infant lying on crossed legs; now and then she nodded when they looked to her for reassurance. These were beloved children, so content that their peacefulness emanated large and beautiful from their smallness.

The strong urge to raise my camera visited me, though I rarely photograph unknown children without permission. But it passed. It was their completeness, the perfection of the scenario. How the vibrancy of their playfulness shone. How gentleness and joy tipped some vital balance to make things right and new for a few gifted moments again. I moved on before they did. I didn’t want anything altered, nor my gratitude to lift.

I have thought of those children and their impromptu branch house for days, and of the mothering person, her devotion to those children a certainty. I think she got it right with them. How much time and effort does it take to give a child this kind of freedom, this happiness? Beyond securing adequate food, shelter and safety and steadfast affection–which are so vital most cannot survive without them–what does a parent need to do? And how much can it matter in the long view?

I believe it requires patience and self-restraint to let children be. To just play, let things unfold naturally without interference. I’ve observed kids being directed, cautioned and corrected excessively, as if they cannot create effective ways to open up the gates to make-believe; navigate ordinary conflicts with others; or discard one idea for another to maximize interest and fun.

It is as if adults feel the need to press their own expertise upon children’s improvised alone time, or they worry that they will get into mischief that cannot find its own good solution. Cared-for children are cautioned from day one of countless potential, current or highly suspected dangers. They are taught without ceasing numerous socially accepted behaviors, the how and when to do them. They are urged to do reach for a higher bar, are cheered when they make the mark, are instructed to get back up when they fall down. Children are corralled, disciplined, corrected, warned, filled with information and emptied of many illusions before they even tie their shoes without knotty spots.  So why must they also be “improved” during playtime? Children apparently need all those fine art classes, yoga and martial arts, foreign languages, preschool math and reading courses, a library of DVDs, computer-driven tutoring and entertainment to fill up their extra time–and phones so young…all well and good. Or is it?

There will always be overzealous parents, propelled by determination to create “superior” offspring–as if this was even the best they could do for their children. But I am also addressing the ubiquitous availability of gadgets, their unending, expensive “new edition” spawn. The technological manifestations that children have to embrace as they become older are immense enough in number with attendant skills required. How much does a child have to know about anything that requires Wi-Fi to enjoy his or her life before first grade? (I’d suggest age 10 at the earliest if it was up to me.) A child does not thrill to more distraction than contemporary life already dishes out. Nor does he or she need overt cues or flashy music and garish visuals to excite and improve a naturally growing brain. A child can find her own way in realms of play and learning, When there are questions, a supervising youth or adult can offer to help search an answer.

All they truly require are a few sticks and a grassy spot or a few rocks and a stoop, a small corner and a real or imagined playmate. They will, without any doubt, make a game of it. The ability to adapt, create and embrace the simplest pleasures will guide them forward toward their futures. Perhaps even one day save them.

Watching those three girls at play brought back my own childhood. I’m not indulging in any sentimental send up. Of course I know this is not the 1950s; of course our culture has morphed a few times (even gone back in trendy loops) and industrialized civilization is busier and vaster than ever to address notably different  needs and wants. The threats to well being seem harder to decipher and predict.

But children’s time apart from grown ups has always been and will remain just children’s play. The beauty of this is the innate simplicity primed with spontaneity. And it belongs to children as surely as their unique rates of growth and language use, their childish ways of reaching and touching our hearts.  Even alone, a child can entertain herself for as long as she wishes, with very few material objects to aid her. I say, leave her and him well alone as long as they are safe and within reasonable hearing range. Let things unfold of their own accord. That reaching mind utilizes its fledgling critical thinking skills to work out kinks, follow diversions. Make a good game of life.

I’ve written of my old neighborhood’s outdoor gatherings and family games of childhood days. I’ve stated my parents directed me to “go find something to do” if I dared utter that foul word: “bored.” I had a fairly busy childhood schedule with school and church and the arts–which I adored–but there was “down time” as well. (We did not own a television until I was thirteen–there was not enough time or interest–and even then it was seldom turned on. I found it novel, even strange that friends were wild about cartoons, and just did not feel the tug of it.)

So it was up to me to get in touch with buddies or ride my prized blue Schwinn, create basic seriocomic stories with my dolls and pillows and scarves or the fabulous miniature farm set, build with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, draw (even in dirt with a pointy stick), sketch and paint or attempt crafty things, write a poem, play hopscotch and jump rope, make up a song or dance, give a puppet its own theater, climb the maple tree and survey the intriguing horizon. I liked to watch cars go by, count the models and makes and colors. Play in the sprinkler or water “Plant” a garden while watering with a miniature sprinkling can. Hit a few rounds of croquet acorss the uneven grassy yard–even alone. Heck, I could play everyone’s game, couldn’t I? And win them all. It was for just a bit of fun, after all.

But I loved hanging out in my small hideout in the dense thicket of bushes and trees in the northwest corner of back yard. There was a scarred wood bench to sit on, a table devised of broken pine branches and scrap wood. I could be anybody I wanted.  There were supplies kept there–paper and pencils, glass of water, saltine crackers, a homemade slingshot, an dirty hat. Or I’d explore the tree nursery right behind our house, galloping about as if atop a wild stallion, on the lookout for bandits. In winter I dragged the toboggan around in knee-deep snow under a star-pierced sky, and truly felt the intrepid adventurer.

I was never lacking options, only impetus at times, and soon could find something to enjoy. Play–not much supervised or directed– was a pleasurable part of my day.

I did not live in a shielding bubble, however. Not by the time I was eight years old, when over the next three years sexual abuse altered the course of day and night, a violent twist in the flow of a heretofore secure childhood. But one thing that did not change was the escape and rest offered by play time on my own–or fun with friends and family, if desired. Play saved me in broad and deep ways. Yes, rescued me. It taught me to cope with not-yet-understood stress, how to mine and polish more elusive positive moments, how to improvise, figure out solutions. How to keep in touch with hopeful possibilities beyond the silencing, invisible prison of abuse by a man who appeared harmless, trustworthy, but was a menace, one who threatened grave violence if silence was broken.

It appeared that the play and work, the holy and profane existed side by side in a life filled with love of God and family and redefining losses. I felt weakened before becoming stronger. Separate time to be free of fear, to enjoy ordinary moments as well as try out scenarios of a happier day was vital.

As I later suffered consequences of difficult times, I could delve into that short era of innocence and dig for the light still alive in darkness. I had once so easily embraced or created contentment and laughter; thus, it was possible to experience both once more. Had I not been brave and curious, steady in body and mind and open to the amazements of life? It was all still out there along with the harder stuff, and it could happen for me again. I had to recall that childish impulse toward play as much as anything else as I sorted things out on the way to recovery. I looked for more reasons to laugh. Marvel. They were there, waiting to be spotted. If I could rebuild a foundation of trust brick by brick, I could build a better life. Hold onto happiness. And over time, that is how it unfolded.

Nothing turns out just as we think it will be as children. My life has not the story arc once imagined–it has been tougher, often better and very different. I can still re-design much within through creative engagement, enable more good via prayer and work and compassion. But also in simple play. Because I was long ago encouraged to explore the “what ifs” and “just try its” mode of operation, and learned to do it pretty well. Just grant me a little space. A few minutes. I’ll come up with something that will lead to more fun.

I recall when counselling those in addictions treatment, especially, asking one question over and over: what have you done today that is safe but also fun? And ending group sessions reminding them to put back fun in their lives. Because the ways to enjoy and care about life are like a veritable smorgasbord of surprises. Try one; find out what happens. It will stir up those mood-altering hormones we already possess to boost well being. Think back, I’d suggest: what gave you a great feeling as a small child? How can you recreate that again? We are wise about wonder and delight when starting out in life–so reclaim it.

So play on, little daughters and sons, conjure new worlds into being at a touch, a word, a dream, all right within this one. Pick up that stick and beat the drum of earth and leap through invisible doors. Practice your own robust magic. And do not forget.

 

Beauty and this Beast: Wildfire!

Columbia Gorge: Before and After
Credit: James C King,  Oregon Wildland Firefighters

The pictures tell the story but I will say it: I am heartbroken.

To understand how much I love the Pacific Northwest, I will tell you that at 19 years old I fled my Midwest hometown via a one way plane ticket to live at the edge of Seattle, Washington. My life had been a strange mix of the horrid and sublime; it wasn’t to become truly and healthily balanced until years later. But I knew anything could be withstood if I was close–step-out-the-door close–to the wilder areas of nature, specifically mountains, rivers and lakes, forests. I had tasted some of that happiness when summer camping and other visits to northern Michigan. So I had yearned for even more wilderness before cabin living (with older sister) on Lake Washington, an area then still more rural. Every morning I stepped outdoors to take in expanses of lapping, radiant water and greenest trees, to hear music of scampering animals, trilling birds. It wasn’t perfect in all ways; I returned to MI. a year later. But the brash and gentling natural world had so potent an effect on me that all I had to do was shut my eyes: soon arrived the residual energy of its orderly and stirring designs, mysteries and truths. Nature always had felt like a conduit for the healing and instructive powers of God.

Most people seek and can be fortunate to claim a geography that fits them, feels most like home. I was relieved to give up flat, wide-sky expanses of mid-Michigan for this other. Though I visited often it took 20 years to make the permanent move; I have resided in Oregon since 1993. It has been everything I’d hoped in most aspects. Of greatest importance have been the natural world’s opportunities for exploration; activities have seemed endless.

But now: wildfires. Within this part of the state lies our historical treasure, the beloved Columbia Gorge. There is so far zero containment. Six hundred firefighters are out there working day and night. No human life has been lost at this time. Scores of forest creatures have perished, so many more to follow.

Last Saturday a teen-aged boy set off a firework during high fire danger weather in Eagle Creek. That fire began to rapidly grow, then exploded on Monday and now is merged with an older Indian Creek Fire: it now all covers 32,00 acres and counting. Many things can spark flames in fire weather but now these lick at the outer edges of Portland; my husband works in an area that is now at a Level 1 warning–“Be Ready” to evacuate (L 2, “Be Set”; L 3, “Go”). Many communities have been evacuated or may soon be.

And we are not the only ones; an estimated 500,00 acres are burning in Oregon alone. Many are raging in California. There are 1.8 million acres afire in the U.S. right now, per Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown’s latest figures.

Just ten days ago my spouse and I were hiking in the very areas where the fires are devastating the forests and creatures. My post last Wednesday was a cheerful account of hiking to Bridal Veil Falls and enjoying other areas. At that time I felt an eerie sense of the risks of brittle dryness as we trekked among voluminous grasses, unruly thickets and towering trees. One mistake or lightning strike could ignite a fire. But people here are wary and respectful of fire danger watches and warnings. It never occurred to anyone a Washington state youth would exercise such poor judgement, set a conflagration going.

I have stayed indoors for three days, trying to not watch too much news, waiting to hear from Marc on and off since he can see more from his office window. Air quality from falling ash (accumulating on cars, my balcony, other outdoor surfaces) and smoke blanketing the skies is unhealthy, causing burning eyes and congested lungs if out in it too long. (My not-perfectly-healthy heart warns me to take no chances.) The cat I caring for and I are anxiously pacing at times, peering out windows, sniffing the breeze through a cracked window and recoiling–even he does not want to go out. I have the air conditioning unit on high most of the time to filter and cool hot, thickened air. People have donned masks so they can breathe outside when they must leave their homes.

Ash on my son’s truck; he lives somewhat closer to the fires.

Everything feels different for me, brought into a razor-sharp focus I did not have 5 days ago. The trails I have loved hiking and walking, above and along the Columbia River, are forever altered, so quickly. I am profoundly thankful my sense of urgency told me ten days ago to hike those trails at Bridal Veil Falls among others, my annual pilgrimage (marking 16 years lived past a heart event while hiking). Any area structures and homes near there are being or have been evacuated.

Lively, tuneful birds flitting among the forest, the bears’ huffing calls, signs of cougar, rushing creeks and waterfalls, the sight and scents of that deep, sinuous, busy Columbia River from high wooded trails, the town of Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods and beyond…hard to think of today but harder to avoid. I try to console myself with the fact that I at least possess hundreds of photographs from over the years and such fine memories. I know there are other areas intact in the Northwest to enjoy but for the foreseeable future nothing will be well and not ever the same along miles of the Columbia Gorge. Not as it has been for many thousands of years.

So I weep, there is no stopping it, for great losses. How can we ever repair such damages? Or must we watch earth’s demise, just wait for Mother Nature to repair things again–and will that fully occur this time? Powerlessness wells up and harangues me. Hurricane Harvey has devastated so many areas down south. Now there is Hurricane Irma tearing a path of destruction. All over our globe climate change usurps the last flimsy denials, our illusions of domination. Many Native peoples everywhere spoke of the loss of natural balances long ago; so often those warnings went unheeded. I think hard on these things as I prepare to share a few photos from over the past 8-10 years.

What are we to learn amid all this? At the very least, we must come to know more deeply all we are given on this earth, so much better honor and care for it. And beware reckless greed though it feels so late. Nature’s bounties and complexities have been our guides and lifelines, yet too fast can be threatened. And lost. Can we have forgotten that the earth was made to be enjoyed and utilized in an alliance,  a partnership that provides us housing and food and a myriad resources every single day? This planet is constructed for an alliance, for interdependence that has sorely been taken for granted more often than we want to admit.

Love and honor your small spot on the earth wherever you are, love the beautiful and the homely, the short-lived and aged plants and creatures, those underfoot and making homes in small spaces and those high above, the ever blooming and those that require more tending, bodies of water that beguile and nourish or desert that stuns with its rare raiment, the jungles with their lushness and secrets, the valleys and woodlands with emerald swaths and changing shadows and light, the far northern lands with austere majesty.

I want to ask that you think of us here. Hurricanes and other disasters are so overwhelming while I suspect fires can be noted as spectacles then put aside by the public, with less probing thought afforded long-term consequences. Far less federal aid is generally allotted for fire damages and rebuilding efforts, as well as those who must relocate. I appreciate prayers for all life suffering from the wildfires in our country.

(Starting with the picture of the blue heron among Columbia River’s shoreline rocks are five consecutive pictures of Cascade Locks, a village/area long a favorite for us, and we most recently had lunch by the river just ten days ago…all now threatened by voracious flames with evacuations underway. You will see Bridge of the Gods that has so long spanned Oregon and Washington; we hope it holds. But news is that wildfire sparks have now “jumped” the river to WA. More devastation unfolds.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

No Short Story Today; Life Just being Lived on Another Labor Day

AT's 37th picnic-gathering 043
Photo by this writer, of flowers at our picnic table when all had been packed up and people had gone home.

I had thought I’d whip up a short story as usual for my Monday post but opted out. It is Labor Day in the U.S.A., traditionally a day when folks get together with family to share a grilled meal, relax, feel thankful for any decent employment, and grateful to enjoy the fruits of others’ labors that result in providing necessary services or material goods. And that many people can take a break from various labors, as well, during the traditional three day week-end. Marc, my husband, is engaged in the latter, reading books he usually has so little time to dive right into and enjoy.

It also signals summer’s last days, something about which I am not unhappy–it has been a too-hot and arduous summer for many in my family. And I am even longing for the autumn and winter rains. The crackling dryness begins to overtake body and mind, air is oddly tinged with smoke from wildfires–hundred-fifty hikers rescued from the Cascade Mountains over the week-end due to fires– and the skies barren of pretty clouds. It causes an eeriness as we check in to see the extreme fire weather warnings inform as not all that far way, communities are being evacuated. (We were in Cascade Locks and also some of these hiking areas a week ago; I noted extreme dryness in that post: https://talesforlife.blog/2017/08/30/young-or-older-we-are-carried-forward/)

I feel subdued, a hair and a half off, one of those days when a health issue presses upon me like a wet blanket, not “suffocating” but an aggravating nuisance. Enervating. Anyway, we saw most everyone yesterday at a picnic for a birthday. And our adult children–those in the area–are today in the midst of 1) a aiding a partner recovering from an emergency surgery 2) preparing for an important job interview and 3) busy with own family. Another one I chat with daily; she is on East coast time. And another has lately become a bit incommunicado. Family is complicated. Always loved no matter where we are, what we are up to, when we may meet again.

This vein of thought leads me to concerns of those in Houston, Texas and beyond who are dealing with ordinary life being wrenched from them. What a paramount misery it must be for many thousands, what they would give for a home to again languish within, a chance to grill a burger or veggie, to sit with friends and family and chat about nothing of import. My heart hurts for them. Simple routine work must seem a faraway dream: work now means finding shelter, safe food and water, tending to medical issues resultant of the hurricane with its winds, torrential rains and historic flooding. Let us not forget to offer healing prayers and offer money if we can spare a few dollars for organizations that directly aid the victims.

So all this gives me pause today, and if these words comprise not a diverting story or cheery essay, life gets so gritty and can bring me to a pensive state. It happens to us all.

Another thought is that this is typically the last day before school commences following summertime, whether small children and youth or young adults entering college. I saw various grandchildren yesterday at the picnic . They are very excited to resume work in school starting this week. Leisure time will again develop more value when they are caught in the throes of serious studies. Before they know it, they’ll be sweating away at a grown up job.

AT's 37th picnic-gathering 005
Two beloved grandchildren, 11 and 15 (brother & sister). It was hot outside…don’t ask why fashion choices included cap plus hoodie plus camouflage pants- I can’t keep up. I know, the phones–but they played ball, too, and chatted. Hugs remain good, despite trends and ages.

So, Labor Day: I have been retired from counseling work for over four years now. But I recall demands of work and endless domestic needs, the deep relief of keeping some time protected, separated from employment though it might yet skirt edges of consciousness–even with beaded glass of iced tea in one hand, a glossy magazine in the other while basking in the sun.

I may still find myself waxing nostalgic about daily problem solving re: the quality of human life (with which I love to be engaged) and small victories (rather reassuring) and losses (which hurt but part and parcel of working with people in crisis). I held such passion for my job 45-55 hours/week. I still live a life stuffed with obligations and activities as well as the unpaid, tedious and enthralling labors of writing–and thinking of writing; reading copiously; more revising, ever more writing. Why, if no money is generously thrown into my bank account with promises of far-flung travel and public readings and… well, all those outrageous trappings? I simply cannot stop myself, it’s that much fun and fury. Each day, another writing adventure and i am panting, trying to keep up with all the ideas.

So. It doesn’t quite feel like I am being a bonafide laggard or, God forbid, a barely moving slug. We can always do more, of course.

My husband certainly enjoys each moment he can attend to without urgency or consequence. His work requires such attention on a daily basis so he should be at his absolute leisure (okay, he watered a few balcony plants, scrubbed the tub for me), absorbing all peace and quiet he can. For him, just not having to travel as much to “put out fires” in the aggressive world of manufacturing is a balm. So I’d consider this day a day spent well enough; he at the least deserves it. As do all others who toil so routinely.

In the end, each day is what it is; I am grateful to be able to live them as they come, not matter what the hours may require.  My life is decidedly not “picture perfect” today or any other. It all still matters–whether any of us is notably industrious or not.

I hope you folks out there are finding ways in which to enjoy time off work (if you celebrate Labor Day). Perhaps you also are taking stock of bounties and challenges. Stop and feel good about yourselves for doing what you do. And if you’re inclined toward a more pointed, factual post on Labor Day, you can find one from last year, here: US Labor Day=Time Out with a Day Off

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.