There is Good Coffee Alone, Then There is Coffee with My Friend

I visit a suburban coffee shop right after I get work done at the dentist. And if I feel restless, unfocused or a bit lonely I can head to my area “close-in” (interesting word for inner city near the river, gradually gentrified and booming) city streets to mix with others who are sipping a latte or macchiato or double espresso. Coffee shops abound in my city and they are always busy. Within a few blocks I have my choice of a half dozen, and a 5-10 minute drive will take me to another twelve (or more). I found conflicting numbers regarding how many Portland metro area offers, but it is may lie somewhere between 750-850 shops (one source stated at least 1200, not too shocking). And then there are the cafes which offer lighter food offerings with their impressive array of coffee as well as fine teas.  I have favorite stops in my neighborhood but I won’t deign to rate them as I’m no coffee snob. I go where it’s friendly, the drinks go down easy and don’t agitate my stomach while the decor doesn’t startle or bore me too much. Though I can order a fresh cup at a tiny hangdog roadside stand and be fulfilled as I drive away.

I have always loved tea and have become more a tea person over the years (this stomach is fussy). Still, I enjoy a good cup now and then, especially an expert Aztec mocha made with almond milk, no whip. Add a tasty scone or banana or zucchini bread. That specific drink is found at Insomnia Coffee in the suburbs, and I look forward to visiting following each dentist appointment. Since I’m a frequent patient–they treat me like family–this is a grand motivator for me to endure with acceptance any indignities that are forthcoming. Last Monday I stopped as usual at Insomnia but to my dismay it was being remodeled.  What a let down, I thought the interior is great. I’m hoping this is a good sign, they’ll be back with bigger or better changes. But there are other choices, of course, though I went home to nurse my own cold brew mocha before the numbness wore off.

It got me thinking, though, how big a role coffee shops and/or cafes play in my life and apparently most people’s– at least in the Northwest, place of chilled rainy winters (but long clear summers). There are so many bars and eateries here where scores of people drop loads of money but I don’t drink alcohol and am not a big foodie. Thus, coffee and tea with lighter fare are mainstays. I go in search fairly often, as Portlanders do, for these. (We are reputedly just third in the country for most coffee drinkers–Seattle and San Francisco beat us a bit.)

I like the fact that these shops are meeting places and they support our artisan culture. I like the civilized air that presides in such businesses no matter how humble, how varieties of people come together and don’t find anything to fight about despite a good caffeine buzz. And most of our coffee shops are independently owned, despite Starbucks’ ubiquity (only 295 here owned by them…) and they do thrive. Beyond that it’s the atmosphere, usually cozy, sometimes sophisticated, and wall to wall packed with humans. (And sometimes dogs; Portland is dog heaven, one wonders if they are the actual ruling class here.) I muse over how we can be shoulder to shoulder yet claim our bit of privacy, too, and everyone goes about their own business–or not, if given to spontaneous conversations. Often computers dominate the tables, though, another pro for coffee shop hounds.

Just last Saturday morning my friend Brenda and I met to catch up. We live thirty minutes or more away depending on traffic so we usually talk on the phone, then meet up as we can. We were in the atmospheric Costello’s Travel Cafe, started after a young man traveled the world, then returned with a vision for a family business. (Other good spots for us include Grand Central Bakery, Jim and Patty’s, Townshend Teas, Stumptown, Caffe D’Arte, Petite Provence, Fleur de Lis, Peet’s, Cadillac Cafe–yes, it showcases a real, very pink vintage Cadillac inside). We thought we might be out of luck getting a table but spotted a narrow one pressed against a front window. She snagged it as I got in line to order at the counter, then she took a spot in the longer line as I sipped my mug of coffee and tasted a mixed berry scone. One comes armed with patience at coffee shops or you might even stand outside to snag a table or even a bench as someone leaves. Or up and find another nearby spot.

We had a good view of full tables outdoors–it was chilly but no rain. There was sheer blue sky above houses turned into businesses, a few older offices. Pedestrians attired in various fashions or lack thereof, hard to say, sauntered by. There also stood a medium sized, buff colored, luxuriously furred mutt tied up at a bike rack. He’d accompanied a couple of guys who sat across from him. That dog attracted everyone who passed, like honey for bees, though he did nothing but sit, then stand assuredly, a model of a dog. Perhaps that was it–he didn’t set off alarms and was just being gorgeous.

“Watch this,” Brenda said, “his parents should check that dog and talk to the owner first but there some nutty kid goes!”  She sloshed about the tea bag in a bowl-shaped cup, started on a generous slice of cinnamon coffee cake while fascinated by the child’s seemingly reckless actions. “Too late!”

This from a woman whose own dog, Gypsy, growls at me most of the time I get into her car despite having known him all his life. I bare my own teeth in a smile that may be a half-grimace. It’s the protective nature of the beast. Only Brenda has the magic touch. But the owner of the cafe dog had no concerns plus he’d been trained to be nicer…perhaps. Gypsy hasn’t worried me, even lets me pat his head with his mistress’ assurances.

The perhaps four year old boy plunged his hands into all the lovely fur, ruffed it up good as a series of squeals rushed forth. The dog looked at him from the corner of his eye but was pleased to offer enjoyment. The child was loathe to leave–only his parents tugging hard at him pried him off. The next child, an older girl, put her head on the dog’s back and hugged him. Several others paused to pet and speak to the animal who was the most popular being on the block.

I was about to dash out to get my admiring moments in but asked Brenda just how she was doing. Brenda offered a health update which has not been very good for a long while, and then came scenarios involving her six year old niece (for whom she provides care every week-end),  and her work with women prisoners (also in treatment for addiction) at a correctional facility. The stories get longer the farther she moves from her health.

All this when a small round table to the right was not three feet away. A young man with laptop had been joined by two female strangers who chatted away, voices medium quiet so he was not disturbed. Brenda’s voice doesn’t lend itself to sotto voce even when it might be applicable. We just mostly talk as if we’re alone. Anyway, the room resounded with conversations; we joke that we’ll next need hearing aids that also block out others. But it’s another coffee shop/cafe with a reputation for talkative gatherings, soccer game gatherings and other events, with worldwide travel footage on two screens. One might be in Europe for all the languages ping-ponging around.

“My niece is a lovable terror, she knows too much and says it all and she always needs attention! I’m very happy to give it. I love that kid.” She laughs from the belly. “Rug rats, that’s what I called children, aye? Not ever my fate! Now I’m a doting aunt. Huh, karma, maybe!”

Her grey–blue eyes squinted in warm light brightening everything. She shook out long, still-damp, reddish-brown hair so it was artlessly arrayed. Her Native American genes show up in rising cheekbones and how they sit next to other features, her circuitous storytelling, and becoming still, taciturn when emotion runs deep.

She sat half-sideways; we were that close to the wall, but not uncomfortable. She is ten years younger than I but walks in pain every step. Never complaining unless it is so bad she can’t contain it. Her wild life story is evident in her face but so is a quirky good humor. Brenda finds life generally funny despite the horrors humans live through (or do not). She maybe should retire from her work as the battle her body fights takes its toll but she loves her clients, is committed to being of service to others. This is all she knows to do.

She’s been talking about life span lately, how fast it all goes, how it is best to seize every day and find it good before it seeps away. I know she means both of us–my heart problems, her multiple issues. But more often I sense in her some clouded if infinite horizon as she talks, see the wisp of a most uncertain future in her gaze. I look away for the sharp hurt it brings. And then she is back in the present with a joke and I talk about my adult kids and writing–she has never read it and I have never asked, it’s not needed for she knows me at heart–and the ways of my marriage and our recent trips. She cares for her elderly and similarly feisty mother, travels occasionally but only to hear music, Las Vegas or San Francisco. Once long ago she she took a cruise ship. She listens to my life as I do hers. She want to have lunch with a daughter and me.

We talk about the concert we’re attending in late spring. She has bought tickets (she buys online the first minute) for every Bonnie Raitt concert we could go to–is it five or six or even more, now?– and then I always ask what my portion is. Demand it.

“So just how much is my ticket to this concert? I know it costs a lot, this is Bonnie Raitt  and James Taylor, come on! We’re in the ninth row, the middle!”

She waves my words away, shakes her head. “You can get me dinner before and a t-shirt! We’re all set to go.”

“You’re impossible, you always say this when you know I can pay my way and am glad to do it. How can I possibly repay you?”

“I like to do this, you’re my friend, go with the flow.” She grinned, closed the topic.

I think over where we might eat before the concert. Think how I can never do enough for her, she won’t often accept it. But I am her friend.

It has been over twenty-five years since we met, working at a facility for gang-affiliated, addicted, abused and homeless youth. We did not trust each other, only grew to like each other when we took smoke breaks together. We stood near the locked doors at night and under eaves if it rained or sat on the curb if it was daytime, clear skies. Made coffee runs together to breath a bit.  She initially noted I was “too Miss Junior League and sorta snooty” and I found her dominating, quickly abrasive. I felt tempted to smack her some moments but of course, professional hopes and good sense corralled irritation. We discovered we were far more than what the eye could decipher: she was interested in both God and politics as well as the arts, especially music-. Not just her beloved blues but opera (though she didn’t and doesn’t like jazz, to my consternation). Treating people with respect despite the sharp edges she had. And I was no delicate cream puff, not by a long shot, having lived life on and off many edges if not right in the street. She later said she suspected that, she just had to test me to see,  but she was surprised I could handle such tough kids. I soon appreciated her frankness and gave it right back. We laughed hard, something I had forgotten I could do. I liked that we laughed at ourselves, too.

The cafe was buzzing. She picked at her cake as I finished my scone, her voice trailing off as she finished responding to my sharing. She was tired. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I had a commitment with another friend later, a wealth of good times for one day.

“Ready for the music hunt?” I asked.

“Sounds good, sis-tah.”

We exited for Part 2 of visiting. This was how it went when we got together–coffee or tea with food, then music, then maybe something else. (She rarely comes to my upper floor apartment as the stairs are too much to tackle.) After checking on a congenial Labradoodle dog–the Royal Furry One had left– we took off for the independent music store we love. It has an intimate, cavernous semi-darkness and the various music played, loud. After twenty minutes Brenda was empty-handed while I’d found a jazz trio. She was coughing, that cough that would not let go, and her steps had been more halting after we’d parked. Despite all, she laughed it off, as ever: “I get premium parking in handicapped spots since hips and foot went bad!” The surgeries helped but not enough.

A broad-shouldered woman, taller than I am, she commands a room even when feeling compromised. It’s her air of authority right or wrong, the laser-like vision and instinct that scans a scene, her way of asserting that she’s able to hold off any threat as necessary with her will or a few choice, well-paced words that ring in heads for long moments after. She stands as she lives, with courage and clarity, exudes a passionate interest in life. Even when she, herself, may be vulnerable. Of course, she is just a person felled by what most are felled by even while asserting it’s all good, she’s got this. And I stand by her.

A narrow window revealed the sun sliding behind thickening clouds. We both had other things to do, not like some days when our agendas are clear so we can waste time and do things like shop at Target for nothing special or visit a dog park so Gypsy is freed from the back of her car.

In the car, she stated, “Don’t put that CD in, I don’t want to hear “your crazy-ass jazz.” I retorted,  “I don’t want to hear all those moaning blues, either.” That’s how we are sometimes, smart-mouthed, quick to point out differences that are really just a few steps apart, like the span between chartreuse and pine green.

Next time. There has always been a “next time” year after year, and we have each changed. She’s gotten more careful with language and more pensive. I have found more joy and peace, shed my reserved amour some. Perhaps we’ll meet at a pretty place that has fifty fine teas in big glass jars or  at a spartan setting with bagels and cheaper coffee or a brunch spot where we’ll wait for fifteen minutes and the superior coffee costs a fortune. It may be a hideaway coffee shop with a spacious patio and vines snaking up a fence; there’ll be flowers blooming soon. She’ll fuss about pesky, noisy birds and I’ll offer a few nature stories gathered during hikes. We’ll sip and snack and talk about things, the hardest and the easier, the idiocy of this world and the beauty we still find.

Next year she may feel better, maybe not. Likely not. But we have this stellar friendship, and Bonnie Raitt again in June, that much I will count on despite life being fickle and this flesh wears out bit by bit, mostly without our permission.

I cannot begin to imagine all those fine coffee shops without Brenda.

Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

Running Away as a Grown Up Solution

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I am regularly tempted to run away. It’s been an impulse much of my life that, more often than not, I’ve managed to resist in the literal sense. For someone whose formative mind was instilled with a strong sense of responsibility regarding duty and other acquired commitments–and who enjoys her life overall–this fantasy appears to be in conflict. Who would abdicate one’s life ties so easily? But I’m not sure it is so at odds.

A fledgling “escape desire” flared by age ten to twelve while reading a few pulpy novels about independent young women heading off to dazzling New York, for an example, to pound on doors of business (seeking an editor’s trajectory at a hip magazine) or theater (an actor’s life in musical theater) or medical centers (a doctor’s or nurse’s career). The adventures they had, the surprising people they met! I can yet recall how the books evoked yearning; it lit within me an ardor that fueled childish dreams. And I did enjoy the story lines that ended with satisfaction after a few hairy trials. Heroines of a sort they were, and they sometimes found love.

Yet a secret desire to escape Midland along a more general wanderlust developed even before then. Each month I poured over National Geographic, as well as Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post. Everyone was doing things far more interesting than what I saw going on in my town, and they were doing it in  marbvelous places. I imagined what it might be to leave my small Michigan city where we mostly knew one another. To leave heartbreaks already experienced, discarding a sometimes stifling atmosphere of a competitive, properly behaved, often blinkered family. And then to embrace the freedom of options that I listed by adolescence. Too few if things went the way they had been.

On my walls I taped discarded posters salvaged from travel agencies–Paris, London, Madrid, Buenos Aries. I studied them and was transported to bustling public squares, colorful outdoor cafes, saw music and dance performances on the street, and soon almost slipped in the picture to leap along turquoise waves. I kept a bulletin board with more visual and verbal encouragements, each a promise to myself that I was getting out.

The truth was, I was also happy to go to Chicago and wander (close to parents) the “windy city’s” exciting streets or even Detroit’s muscular, diverse energy. I appreciated journeying to see relatives in Missouri and Kansas, Texas and Colorado–not just to visit them. I couldn’t wait to absorb with senses and mind the days and nights of varied countryside, decayed or beautiful buildings, window shop in tiny or shiny, mammoth stores, join the parade of passersby on streets, even quiet byways. On other summer trips cross-country all I had to do was gaze out the back seat car window to find cheery roadside fruit and veggie stands or fancy skyscrapers and historical makers amid deep woods, not to mention places too much to even put into words such as the Smokey Mountains or the Grand Canyon: instant, moving beguilement. Stories took shape at each pause, then we were off to the next part. The whole world was rife with oddness, joy, variety, magic. How to bridge the gap between modest reality when back home and that grander one?

Later, I did run away by skirting limits, then breaking rules and half-submerging myself in a shadowy world of drugs (an escape that ends up as hell), living a double teen-aged life. Not running towards what I’d hoped but trying to get away from much, I was a teen with potential but also issues. By age 15, I was placed in a foster home for a few months; it was terrible, ended disastrously though I learned better to depend more on myself. At nearly 17, it was arranged that I share an apartment with a “respectable” twenty-one year old woman who was working long hours and needed help with rent. That, too, was not any good dream fulfilled but a chance to use more substances, and try to avoid the law. Overdoses, breakdowns, then finally being given a one way ticket to live with a sister and her friend. Now that was something, a log cabin on Lake Washington, freedom, nature surrounding us, new people, a wild boyfriend. But one cannot run from one’s haunted self and eventually I returned to the old hometown, then began university studies at last, feeling defeated but determined to move on and out of there. I didn’t know there were worse hurdles to come. But I vowed to one day return to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with its creatively charged cities (which took me twenty years). The wanderlust had set its tender roots deep within.

But I became an adult in fits and starts as I got clean. Before long I committed myself to being a mother, a wife, a worker bee. I had not well considered being a wife nor had I expected to become a mother due to diagnosed fertility problems. Thus, my learning curve was steep but i am nothing if not persistent, for good or ill. Once setting a goal, I am all in or I admit defeat and try another path. As a mother, there can be no selfish foolishness.

Thus, I determined at last that pockets of daydreams were fine for long pauses but not so useful in everyday life. Daily life held exceptional moments but required diligent attention, sweat, sacrifices. It was time to stop desiring another life. Get on with it, get busy attending those new needs. Escapist fantasies were for selfish people or perhaps cowards.

But you know, it is hard to stop wanting what one feels is needed, yet cannot have. In the long afternoons when rocking beautiful but squalling babies; when tallying up the income, outgo and what little food was left on the shelf; when the night wrapped itself about me in a sometimes too-empty bed; and when more devils of illness and heartache came, that old longing whispered in my ear: ah, to leave this hurt/poverty/backwater place/man and begin anew, to search out happiness, to be gifted with possibilities like dandelion fluff that floats into open palms, seeds for new growth landing in my eager grasp. At such moments, the recollection of old hopes is strong, bittersweet.

I got up in the night and wrote. A song, a story, a three line poem. I sat in the pearly glow of moonlight spilled onto living floors or danced a few steps in dew-spun grass out the back door as my family slept. There was an empty spot within that slowly burned, called out for more. As much as I gave myself over to hope and prayer for a life that filled up the wells rather than readily emptied them, I shouldered a burden of shame. Why wasn’t love of my children and their father utterly enough? It was the 1970s, then the 1980s. It was a far throw from the restrictive fifties into which I was born. Yet I was more often the one in a room full of women without the big career, with little to show for my perseverance to stay fully alive, just to daily do the decent thing. I did own a passport that held stamps from only Canada while my second husband traveled often and farther (and still does).

Of course, life was transformed many times over. I moved to other places on the worn paper U.S. map I spread on the floor to show the kids where to next, our fingertips tracing blue, red and black arteries that crisscrossed the country. I was excited to move again, to meet new people, explore new scenery, thought of myself as a roaming soul. I lived in pleasing houses and raised more children. I went back to work, had a career I appreciated. From time to time, however, I still imagined running away though I knew it would not happen, not the ways I’d once invented. And never unless I took the children with me, for I adored them. (This did occur a few times.) They’d become as much the anchor bolts of my life foundation as my faith in God. Still. The urge to escape, to extend my reach further, was part of my self just like my loyalty to family. I could get restless. I tried to be more content. It could not be denied that there were many golden moments to find. The children and I had delicious adventures and men I’ve loved also have inspired times both life enhancing and fulfilling.

There was, however, another way of transportation to other realms. Not surprisingly, it was what I both felt and learned as a young person: becoming ever better at tuning into both inner and outer worlds; and acting in creative ways in response. By paying attention and loving what and how I chose to see, then letting myself be moved to make something of it–this becomes a door cracked, and then it springs wide open. It is being in the moment and doing any sort of creative work.

In this way, I have found it is not so hard to slip the confines of life’s various conundrums and prisons. I am not speaking to experiences of those who have suffered far worse but only to my own experiences. There are readers of this blog who’ve read of harrowing times, the worst of which I haven’t shared here and some of which have been fictionalized. The point is, in my own strenuous circumstances, there has been a way to get out, to slip the bonds of everything from obnoxious boredom to terrifying events. It is all accomplished by power of mind and strength of soul. And if you have a few extra bucks in your pocket, a road trip always makes the mix more engaging. A brisk walk around the neighborhood can even be a start, for some of us, anyway. The same potential for wonder can blossom in unassuming ways.

I find it rewarding to embark on armchair travels as well, via reading or watching documentaries. I’m good with a trip to our far flung coasts or a hike in nearby valleys and mountains. And my husband and I go on a jaunt to Canada now and again. I avail myself of others’ offerings, such as a brother and sister-in-law mentioned before in posts who travel nonstop and take fine photographs. I just listen to their experiences, thumb through their websites. I am expanded, enlightened more. It’s not being there, but it counts. Interestingly, when my parents returned from European travels after I’d left home, I felt that same tingle of excitement. They shared slide shows and I loved every minute, even my parents’ verbally meticulous notations of each scene.

Most of all, being in possession of an imagination is a powerful tool for all. Sometimes I think this century has lost sight of its most basic operational sense. Do we need to always be entertained by speedy, sometimes shallow offerings, by endless media distractions splashed across screens? Because I’m in my sixties, I didn’t grow up with these things so got used to utilizing my own resources. I know technology does aid us. But we have our extraordinary, DNA-designed “imaginarium”, the human mind. The more it is used, the more finely attuned it becomes and the better it serves–for entertainment, yes, but also to problem solve, to explore strange unknowns, to empathize with others, to engage in a spectrum of possibilities from artistic expression to humanitarian services to entrepreneurial plans. To fashion, then immerse one’s self in a fulfilling life. Spiritually, it is just one step further and forward. For in my view, soul and mind are part of a vast continuum, a powerhouse combination leading us to grander interconnecting, cohesive designs. It all fits together nicely.

Truth be told, I more or less run away multiple times a day. I write something, read widely, dance, sing, listen to music. I make pictures, attend films, plays and concerts. Enjoy talking with other people often, listening to conversations on the street and in cafes, observing from the windows as humanity ebbs and flows past my home. And of course there are daily walks  and weekend hikes that are never uninspiring, but both balm and surprise. Escapes like these replenish. Perhaps they are, rather, more of an augmentation of our humanness, enriching and resettling, so that we gather strength and stamina and clearer minds for whatever is to come. So we can better act in accord with our higher selves. Mend our broken spots. Buoy the tiresome moments of life.

But my husband told me once that he doesn’t quite get how I can be so satisfied by simply looking at visuals and reading about places, people, things. It surprised me. I thought everyone felt that way. If I can imagine it, I can claim an experience that is still  powerful.

“See that chalet on a Swiss mountainside?” I asked and pointed at a picture. “I can begin to see a life being lived there and I can zoom in and imagine being there, even that it is mine a moment if I choose. It is mentally entering a new country, crossing over into another time or kingdom. I do not have to get on a plane to do that much. It is the cheapest route to exploration!”

There is a last grand escape (not counting leaving the human body) idea for which I do sporadic research: where to live when my husband retires, maybe in five years. Surely not in this traffic-ridden, burgeoning city where housing costs are skyrocketing monthly. I’ve been musing over Boise, Idaho for the grandeur of the mountains and four more defined seasons, and most important,  a lower cost of living. Then I am attracted to San Diego, California with its wonderful weather and ocean side living–but a frail pipe dream as we don’t have the budget required. And I have always wondered about the Mediterranean–isn’t there some island we might make a life upon? Say, magical, monastically simplified life on Santorini? Next week it may be Norway or Ireland that I’ll investigate. Or, okay, perhaps upstate Washington, always an area we like to visit.

On the other hand, I can’t take my children from their work and so on, can I? Of course, they’re full grown adults now, plotting their own fun and important ventures. But a few live here and grandchildren, too. We will have to give it a long, hard think. There is more than one way to book a good place and time in this life. We’ll see what happens. Right now I am becoming lost in a recording by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and I am somewhere wonderful that time will reveal, perhaps in the next poem I’m moved to write. But later–when Marc gets home from his Mexico business trip– there is another trip to be planned for a pause in our daily duties. Yes, a small and happy escape.

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View from the Olympic Mountains, Washington from a good “escape trip”

 

 

Part 1: A Most Excellent Gift and Part 2: A Writer’s Resolve

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Mt. Hood 12/ 2017, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Part 1

It was all done in utter secret. I, who have taken some pleasure in being intuitive or at least canny and a reasonably good study of character–having long been a writer, a counselor and a very visual person–I was blind-sighted as surely as if I had no skills, at all. Or as if I did not even know my daughter or my husband. But I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation for Christmas and shopping for others. When my eldest, Naomi, flew in with her friend, A., I wasn’t thinking of anything but being a welcoming hostess and a loving mother.

Christmas morning was defined by overlapping shifts of adult children and grandchildren coming to our home. We nibbled food, opened gifts, chattered away. There was an hour or two when all four of our kids (a fifth not present) plus two of the grandchildren (three absent) were gathered in the living room. I watched them open bright packages, enjoying the ebb and flow of unfolding events. Tired but content.

I was finally urged to open my gifts. I reached for one but Naomi insisted I start first with a smaller item from her. I noted it was the size of a padded envelope that had arrived days earlier as had all her mailed gifts to us, but I had no sense of it being anything unusual. So I was startled when inside were two gold elastic mitten clips, the type one attaches to a child’s coat sleeve  and then to a mitten or glove.

I burst out laughing as I examined the flashy things. Naomi likes good gags and this was just the clever, goofy thing for me. Turning to my spouse I wagged my finger.

“I see what you and Naomi are up to!–you told her I have lost a couple good gloves over the years! They’re a tad gaudy but I might even use them!”

Naomi was chortling over the good surprise. “Found them online–pretty fancy grown up clips, huh? They’ll look good with your jackets!”

“You sure better use those,” Marc said, “as you just lost your favorite glove again not long ago!”

Everyone agreed as I proceeded to the next gift.

When the tissue paper was opened to its hidden treasure, I took a sharp intake of breath. And was struck dumb. The room filled with questions as I stared, mouth open. I gingerly touched the items now in my lap as if they were precious things, then pressed the two velvety gloves to my chest and my face, the softness sweet against my cheeks. I looked at Naomi as she leaned toward me. sitting on the edge of her chair, her intent blue eyes sparkling.

“What…? How…?” I asked.

When I put them on a surge of joy mixed with disbelief rose up. “But it isn’t even possible, Naomi! My very own gloves! Where did you find my gloves? They don’t even make them, anymore–I went back to the shop at Canon Beach and we looked and looked online!”

“I researched until I did finally find them on Ebay! The very last pair anywhere, I think!”

Tears came in place of words as I jumped to my feet,  my eyes on hers, the eyes everyone says we share. We folded each other in our arms, hugged long and well and just cried. This daughter who holds her emotions deep within her, who doesn’t frivolously share them…she knew. She knew me better than I thought,  she knew how much such a simple kindness would mean.

I finally let go. “Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to find these for me. Just perfect.”

Sound a bit excessive? I do admit I’ve had an unusual attachment to these gloves for years. Sometimes we just feel what we feel about our stuff.  And many readers have already heard of their loss and retrieval. The first post on losing one glove then serendipitously finding it was posted in 2014, here: Case of the Velvety Glove .  The second was about losing one a last and final time and can be read here: The Magnitude of Small Things .

It may make more sense if you know I have Raynaud’s disease, causing reduced blood flow to extremities so that my hands, particularly, deeply ache and feel frozen a long while (then burn as they warm) if I even briefly hold something chilly–an ice cream carton, for example. This occurs in as warm a temperature as 55-60 degrees. (I blame this on repeatedly cold hands, even frostbite when figure skating as a kid and youth– without mittens… And later, years of smoking, sadly.) Having a pair of good yet not cumbersome gloves or mittens makes a vital difference since I am an outdoors enthusiast.

The pair I purchased on a beach trip as winter fell upon us a few years ago were just right for most circumstances where I live. I fell in love with for the combination of warmth plus beauty, their luxe practicality; they’re made of stretch velveteen with a layer of fuzzy insulation. I can wear them casually or  to dress up a bit. Nothing beats usefulness joined with attractiveness. Thus, I was quite unhappy when I lost the second glove the last time. I’ve tried other gloves and not been satisfied. My hands have gotten too cold this fall and winter. So my daughter finding the one pair I loved and used often meant a great deal to me.

Really, though, my anecdote is about love. I suddenly and fully felt her thoughtful, persevering love for me. The fact that she also made it fun is just like her. Here are some pictures to show them to you as well as those darned elastic gold clips–I use them, as you can see. Leaning over a bridge on a recent hike, of course, they dangle quite safely as they cannot jump out of pockets! (Please click on the photos for captions and bigger pictures.)

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Naomi and me (fuzzy pic by hubby, ha)

 

Part 2

New–really, revisited– writing goals were to be the topic of my first 2018 post when the glove incident took top billing. I have been cogitating about plans since attending a good writing conference in Washington last October. And there are still some fledgling ideas from then, more ping-ponging about my brain and so much the better.

The old year has passed, another has begun and I find it is high time to get back to work on writing projects I’ve been putting off. There are always so-called good reasons–devotion to this blog three times per week, health and family needs, and at times a monstrous lack of confidence that can strike right in the middle of fevered or serene writing. The kind that creeps in like black mold, felt as a perverse cynicism fought off anyway I can–fervent prayer, research on topics that attract for an essay or story, long walks that shake the oppression right off–or even superficial distractions like my magazines.

However, I am more akin to a sturdy work horse whose blinders help accomplish the job: I stick to my tasks, look neither left nor right, keep moving and writing and thus experience the fulfillment wrought of labor’s comfort…though mixed with bumptious moments. And occasionally an outright exhaustion of hope. Then I rest, begin again.

I keep on since there isn’t much I can do but write. Sure, there are a variety of interests,  proclivities, abilities. But writing is the thing that most shapes and energizes my learning and living and being. Aren’t those microscopic letters hitching a ride on cells in my blood stream?…It started at least by fourth grade when a poem was published then read for a state educators’ conference. I found it surprising that what I loved to do might matter to anyone else. (It wasn’t music, the fine art choice of my family. ) Writing was story/ It was also a natural way to access thought and feeling–it was not a mere daydream, and not some mighty goal I had to achieve.

But there came a time I sporadically submitted stories, poems and essays. Finally, it was more regularly most years. I’ve received many expected and far more unexpected rejections; I’ve also been pleased when submissions have been printed in anthologies and journals or published online. I tried my hand at very minor journalism. It was a series on domestic violence for a college newspaper that impacted many (there was a lot of data; it was then also reflective of my own life). Short stories and essays have become surprisingly appreciated, while poetry has appeared more often under three–okay, four–last names depending on changing marital status. A young adult short story was published and I’ve written several others, another genre that interests me.

I worked on a first novel, completed it over a span of ten-plus years only to have a fine and renowned editor tell me it was “overly ambitious but you are a real writer”. I felt depressed, then a little happy and quite right, that criticism. I published an excerpt from it, however and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and have used chapters as springboards for stories I’ve posted here. For now I’ve put it away but it tends to return to me in other forms. (A mute widow who is a dancer–and keeps secrets about her drowned husband–meets a photojournalist, bereft after a mentor and friend disappeared in the Amazon.)

There are also two well developed but unfinished collections of interconnected stories and characters. My longer fiction has not been submitted since the first novel  gave rise to interest from two agents– who later bowed out.

You never know. Sending out writing is like launching a handmade paper boat with a small lit candle in it and watching to see if it capsizes or returns with candle snuffed out or gone overboard. Of if the little oat ends up reduced to ash. You make another and send it out as it is an adventure of sorts, in any case.

This is a shortened litany of efforts and projects and small successes laced with many rejections. I took a long break again; it has occurred many times over 60+ years, but not yet for forever. The last time I submitted was two years ago. The most recent pieces are in Spark: Anthology II–that was 2014. That is, I think. It’s been too long to recall clearly what went where without checking my files; there was another poem plus a photo published somewhere in the last 2-3 years. I hope that online journal is still going strong…must check. Might be another place to submit once more!

Meanwhile, I’ve tiled over strengthening what works and learning more of what does not, slowly putting the demanding, sensitive ego aside and giving stricter attentions to word and line. I try to cut back on verbiage, even improve typos but it takes more work.

This is what a writer does, of course, and is not noteworthy except when you’re doing it yourself and sweating it out.

The point is, I’ve been writing quite awhile. And barring a period from age thirteen to perhaps twenty-one, my goal has not been to be a noted author as much as to be a worthy writer, one who stays true to herself and offers nourishment of many sorts. Just as I’ve been nourished by diverse writers whose works I’ve read over decades. I can only hope born of sincere desire that what I write has value beyond my personal passion for language and story. Nothing can stop the writing, but can I publish more? Can it be read and enjoyed more often? Do I care most about writing for its own sake? Can I also manage to care about and work on becoming more widely read?

Time ticks away. My mirror confirms this if the mind knows only this moment being lived. I have much more to access via imaginings or night dreaming or life’s small sparks, the inspirations discovered courtesy of places and people. There are ideas that barge right in, or create a steady beat of melodic words that stir in my innermost ear. A hunger seizes me as mysterious intentions of language erupt and flow. And then I am brimming once more.

I have to make room for these pressing wants and needs, just as I have made room in my life agenda for the joy of this blog three times a week. And so, to the point!

I’ve decided to post fiction or nonfiction on alternating Wednesdays and a poem or photography on each Friday. The mid-week post will be entitled “Wednesday’s Word” (fiction one week, nonfiction the next) and the Friday post will stay “Friday’s Passing Fancy” for poetry but the following week will be “Friday’s Quick Pick” for photography. I also plan to refresh graphics of the blog soon. It’s good to engage in positive transformation!

It is motivating to determine that just one more day can aid in researching markets, preparing pieces to submit, and exploring greater opportunities in literary communities/publishing worlds. Opening rejection letters and perhaps now and then an acceptance. Risk is good, I remind myself.

Not the first time I’ve reworked the format of Tales for Life, this likely won’t be the last. It is part of the fun of blogging, how much freedom we have here and control of the work we share. But I appreciate being spurred on with comments and “likes”.

I hope you will enjoy what’s yet to come here at Tales for Life. I’ll continue to peruse and absorb as many of your unique offerings as I can. Thank you for being part of the huge creative community at WordPress. May your 2018 be sublime of soul, heart, mind, and your health robust–or good enough to carry your forward as is, gratefully, my own.

Below: two of my photos from the first posts, Oregon shots shared in 2011.

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Christmas, Visible and Invisible

In case you lost track: four more days until Christmas Eve. Of course I want to write something thoughtful, moving and richly authentic, but what I think of this moment is the shopping. I know there is nothing I purchase that will provide true contentment, reasonable internal and external security and well-seeded joy. And yet I joined the hoards and covered a few miles in search of a delightful/useful/curious/unique something or other for each one of 14 people for whom I will wrap gifts. And the average number of gifts per person is about 4. I admit that if I had more money, I’d be in far greater trouble, though I do mind my spending.

I do get a bit tired from preparations even though I’m fortunate to have a lot of energy. I keep saying: this is it, next year I am going to the mountains, I will reserve a remote chalet really early (turns out lots of others like to do the same) and then we’re gone. If any adult children and grandchildren wanted to follow, they’d have to bring sleeping bags and agree to only nature’s or other handmade presents, no television or other technological downfalls. My husband and I might end up alone…

So long ago I faced the truth: I love the Christmas season, even a little hullabaloo, decorating and spit shining the place and then hanging out with all. I do wish we still had a larger home so we could stuff everyone in longer for more fun and food. Because we return to productive, hectic lives fast. This year things will be different as some folks have other places to be this time, too. It may feel more like an “open house.” I need one of those revolving doors so they’ll keep coming and going.

But at least I have the gifts. Mostly. They’re snugged up to one another in bags on the biggest bedroom’s carpeted floor, which now barely peeks out at me. At some point they will be attractively wrapped (well,  hastily covered up with appropriate paper). And I have to bake–my yearly Russian teacakes. That’s it this year, if my schedule holds.

While out there spending money on my family, I wondered how we can be so enthralled with objects; people seemed to move at times as if in an agitated trance. Others fawned over something with an excitement one might ascribe to discovering the one’s grandest desire. Often people trod streets and stores with a stalwart resignation, as if they’d tried their best yet nothing could be done about it. I half-want to sit them down, offer them Epson salts foot soaks and rubs and then a cup of tea as we have a chat. If it is no fun and there is little joy, why overexert yourself?

Clearly, I am not adept at rising above all this. I want to be spiritually minded at all times. I treasure my faith, am possessed by an ineffable love for God. But I have to admit to just enjoying shopping for family and friends, no matter the occasion. It feels good to give, even materially. There were a few times, however, when I had fleeting out-of-body experiences as I looked about and then at myself, whereupon I mused: What is all this? Why? For there is not one item I bought that’s not replaceable or irrelevant in the end. I have no illusions yet still ponder each purchase as if it matters deeply to the recipient. I sometimes think I want to give out happiness.

I know what counts amid all the fuss and anticipation. I am certain that we all do, whether or not our primary consideration is to offer up hallelujahs of praise for Jesus’ birth. Or to support youngsters’ wonderment and the hope in Santa Claus’ dedication to their dearest wants. Or to just pause and take a holiday break on ski runs with friends we’re fortunate to know. For some, it’s just a couple of days off from demanding employment–isn’t all work tiring by end of December?–and a chance to recover a greater sense of wellness. Heart.

Little things count for much. Lighting a candle in memory of those who have left this realm. Reading a good book by the heater or a snapping fire. Immersing one’s self in the melodic swell and decrescendo of favorite music. Holding closer a beloved child, a partner, a best friend. Looking above at vast and brilliant scatterings of stars in the sheer navy-to-black cosmos–where things are happening right now that we do not even know about. (I recently learned that seven newly discovered planets about the size of earth in a nearby solar system may have water.)

How much emphasis can we place on a simple act of tenderness? How many miracles exist in forests, valleys, mountains and deserts; in an operating room where one more life is snatched back to life? At a corner cafe where food is given away and within reaches of an infant’s newly arrived intellect and imagination? One only needs to consider for a moment. And it’s all happening despite the commercial call to us each Christmas and New Year’s.

I don’t know about you, but this life is devastatingly, mindbogglingly breathtaking to me even at 67. I now that’s two long adverbs and a fancy adjective, but really. I don’t need a special season to remind me of my place in the fullness of this universe as we know it. It’s a minuscule spot but still, a good seat. I want it so I claim it. I open my arms to it, embrace the relentless absurdities and suffering, the epiphanies, the rewards.

So I do my Christmas shopping and my whole system responds: very soon, celebratory days will be here. But I also wait on angels who have their own agendas –to some an odd thing to say–but they are patient enough with us to just realize they are near. They often spur me with good impulses, so I can do what is better, not easier or self-serving. (Read orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal’s experience of dying on a kayaking trip and what she learned in To Heaven and Back, for one example; or look for angels in my blog tags. It is not unusual in all cultures to acknowledge angelic presences.) They have their jobs, too, after all; life isn’t just busy for us. Or are we so egocentric to imagine we’re the only effectively operant beings around? Maybe we should look again at the news–then at ancient wisdom of the ages.

So speaking of angels, there was Gabriel’s message and the others’. Those who’ve followed my blog awhile know that I thank God for Christ’s message of unbreakable, endless love. For love was never meant to turn from those in need; he told all that it works to heal torment and deep rifts of all sorts; it does not deny people dignity and welcomes all with a transformative mercy and care. Jesus’ story is largely about liberation through persevering care and kindness, about the strength and courage needed to walk such a path.

We can be that person who loves one another, that person who mines for goodness and generosity despite the prurience and paucity of our times. But this requires that we step forward and offer aid or a true act of acceptance, that second or third or fourth chance at reconciliation, especially when it seems unreasonable.

There is joy on this often reviled, worn down world. I strive to write from the places inside me that, like many rivers converging, often crest and overflow with grateful astonishment; the part of me that yet knows little but, regardless, wants to give much. It is that powerhouse of luminosity that moves and remakes me just as when I was a small child–as we all were and likely felt similar things–its boundless beauty filling me up.

And I see it in you and you and you, adding to this powerful energy we can utilize on our earth. It is a wonder when it is harnessed and we choose to deliver what helps and heals.

So I hope that you will have a great time giving out even a few small gifts and sharing a table and singing familiar tunes. Whoever you will be beside and even if alone, experience the time with a whole heart, with soul. Break out the cookies, the tasty drinks or gather at the hilltop campfire and look long about you. Receive the Light; send it out again. It’s what fuels all the good that is still, yes, yet to come. Take a leap and believe in hope, for that is just a beginning.

So, my many WordPress companions, may blessings beckon and follow your every footstep. No matter how taxing it is to keep on, please just keep on. I thank you for visiting my writing one more year. It has been the finest gift to me that you still bother to read what I work hard at creating, spurred on by a lifelong passion to share stories that arise.

Merry Christmas! Be safe ringing in a Happy New Year.

Below: An example of a truly good present. I was born very near sighted, but those foggy, annoying glasses didn’t keep me from hitting the ice at the outdoor rink almost daily each winter, so getting new skate blade guards (at 9) elicited jubilation! And lastly, I am wishing the best to you and yours!

PS: I am taking a blogging break until January 3, 2018. Then I’ll share what my new posting schedule will be and why I am making changes. Stay tuned.