Signifying: Strokes Across a Page

DSCN0821I came across a plastic bag full of handwritten notes from my middle teen years recently. They had been stored at my childhood home but when my mother sold the house following my father’s death, she gave them to me along with other mementos. I was surprised to see them but took them to my home where I squashed them deep into a desk drawer. When I found them last week I read each one, wondering over the scribbled thoughts, desires and dreams that had lasted decades in an attic. Not that they revealed mind boggling information. We were kids trying to grow up and each note displayed the awkward but maturing mind and heart of the writer. Our favorite topics? Love or lack thereof, and friendship or loss of. Same thing, I guess.

I have thought about handwritten communications more the last few months. I’ve recently written about letters in short story posts. But it arose spectacularly when I was very ill with severe muscle toxicity after taking a statin for many years. I shared some of that here. I had increasing trouble with many common muscle actions and reactions but one of the hardest to deal with was the way it impacted my hands. My grip became so weakened that even signing my name became a challenge. Far from being automatic, certainly not elegant, the letters formed clumsily and erroneously. It was tiring to command and make strokes as I meant. It was frightening. I stopped the statin, got progressively better and five months later I finally write more like myself.

I have enjoyed writing longhand. I found practicing penmanship as a child pleasant; it’s a bit alarming that schools don’t stress cursive writing, anymore, as if it is archaic. By my teens I became fascinated by how individual cursive writing was. During note-swapping years I saw that each person’s writing could dramatically change along with emotions. A few years later our writing matured with our characters. Furthermore, it seemed altered by health issues. I decided to study graphology, commonly known as handwriting analysis. The mind, after all, originates a thought; the brain initiates a cascading string of connections and reactions. The neurological interplay between nerve and muscle and intent intrigued me. It became a lifelong interest and I developed some skill. It has aided insight into myself and others. Physicality and attendant health, personality, even subtle psychological strength and weakness are rendered apparent in the study of peoples’ writing. When I was just beginning my hobby, graphology was still considered “occult” or a pseudo-science if worth consideration at all. Today, employers, psychologists and police departments utilize professional graphologists to supplement their understanding of human nature. I would like that work.

But I have other ruminations today. What is the importance of writing things down? What do we share with language set upon paper besides words? And what may be lost with less use of pencil and pen? How many times a day do I write things down?

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It begins at nighttime before going to bed: the list. I use a mechanical pencil–it writes easily, is erasable–upon the smooth paper in a black-bound Moleskine journal created for people like me. Each page is undated. I prepare myself, define what I want to accomplish. There, in a book at my place on the dining room table, is where I clarify goals and projects, set deadlines and remind myself of appointments. It reinforces motivation but I doodle a little, play with my printing and writing. I’m relieved to be able to write again. I anticipate the coming days. And then let go of tomorrow until it arrives.

I write on my PC every day but I record odds and ends of what I think about: unusual words, characters’ names for stories, lines of poems or stories. Observations that range widely. I jot down names of songs I hear and composers, books I want, a photography idea. For all this there are very small notebooks to tuck into pockets, purses and cars. The bigger ones are stashed all over the house.

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There are paper cards of myriad designs and I buy them for no special reason other than they please my eye. Stir me. And then they are sent after I put words inside. A right card for an occasion is lovely but when one randomly snags my attention it is better. I feel happy when I think how a surprised family member or friend will discover it in the mail. Study the front, then open it. I prefer them blank so I can write something good for the person, tell them I care. I take my time.

Paper does that: helps you get inside time, then put time aside, and work or play more slowly.

I wrote daily in diaries as a child. Then for decades I scribbled about my feelings and events in three-ring notebooks. At times I used a formal, bound journal. I haven’t kept one for years; I am busy writing other things. But they served their purpose in every way. Today diaries seem to remain popular despite our vast electronica. When working as a counselor, journaling was a profoundly useful tool for my clients. It was a time and place just for themselves, a luxury for many. Time is allotted in a private spot at home or elsewhere and you have at it, setting free your most curious thoughts, and verbalizing crises, goals, prayers, rants, longings, hurts. And usually, one feels relief afterwards. The mind was engaged then emptied; the heart unburdened, clarified. The soul became calmer, softer. Opened. We can give ourselves to the paper with thoughtfulness. We can trust it, let the pen make visible grave fears and truest needs. No one gets to edit or critique; no one gets to read without permission. It is a depository for treasures and a dumping ground for junk. Some people don’t even know they have such a powerful voice until committing themselves to paper, hand moving at the necessary speed, paper invitingly empty until transformed with all that matters that moment. And it spells freedom.

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The brain works with us even when we don’t know it, transferring data to memory. Sorting, organizing, circulating as we create and own our peculiarly unique thoughts. We can either let them lodge in the caverns of mind or dissipate into celestial ethers. Or put them into the world. And writing things down helps nail a thought in place so we can retrieve it later to appreciate or use again. If I forget something I will recall the writing of it; the words or numbers flash across my mental screen just as they were written.

So, what shall we tell one another on paper that we cannot or will not speak aloud? What meaning can we impart by offering our written thoughts, one human hand to another? Once the pen speaks, the words have a life. They stay put. They may do good and also harm. But they help define the creatures we are. They allow us the exquisite opportunity to tell our side, ask our questions, impart our understanding. Do I think words are everything? No. But when I have them to give, I want them to travel well across that page to a receiver on the other end. Even if God, alone.

I kept my mother’s witty and perceptive travelogues. And many letters and cards. She is gone but I have something of her because she wrote about things. To me. Her hand pressed against cool sheets of stationary, her pen flowed across emptiness until it came alive with tales and advice. And at the end, her own handwriting gave me this: “Your loving Mother.”

My name signed on the bottom of a document, a tiny scrap or a missive means something, as does yours. It is staking our particularity in the vastness of humanity. My hand and your hand make it so. Signify yourself; leave your lively mark upon the paper. Reveal yourself, then try not to delete.

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Being Let Loose

Yachats11-10 040“Do you always sit this still?” the physical therapist inquired. “Your head doesn’t move much at all and your shoulders seem frozen. You do walk off balance which is why you came. But you look…way too still somehow. How and why do you do that?” She sighed.

That took me aback. I laughed, a bit embarrassed. Nothing like being told that my muscles were knotted, my posture askew and my neck like a post.

“Well, I was paid to sit at attention for most of my counseling career, about twenty-five years. But now I’m not working for money. Maybe it’s time to loosen things up more.”

I explained that I had sat in an office chair every day. I always leaned forward a little, hands folded in my lap, every sensory avenue tuned to the client who sat before me. Attentive listening it is called. I became so adept at not influencing or distracting clients as they spoke, so calm in the midst of anger, fear, pain and grief, that I would lose sense of my own physicality. I was intent on discovering what their true energy was, where the maze of thoughts and feelings took us. They were demanding puzzles, but shared stories that broke open their insides. And mine, though quietly.

Intuitive responses arise partly from complex and minute informational bits that people share, less with words than with their bodies. What they do not say. I watched and heard. And after a time my feet might get tingly, my hands cold. Headaches geared up. Yawning could creep in by late afternoon; my brain could feel buzzy and empty at once. I realized my circulation wasn’t so great. In between clients, I would shake out the kinks and stretch a little, but  client turnaround time was often five minutes or less. Lunch hours were very short at the desk. For ten or more hours a day I paid attention. I was trained in the art of hearing and enjoyed listening deeply, responding with support and interventions. The rest of the ten to twelve-hour days was spent on documentation via computer.

It was the educational and therapy groups that saved me from becoming immobilized. I enjoy public speaking and sharing new ideas with others, so stood at ease before a crowded room, challenged and conversed with people. But the real bonus: I finally got to move like a human being. I felt free walking back and forth before the group, covering the chalkboard with diagrams and key points. I could let my hands speak; they flew about like happy birds.

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Still, I would return home desperate for a walk and a massage. Just simple relaxation. At eight thirty each night I would walk with my husband or alone if needed in the rain, wind, the sun setting or long set. Then I was returned to myself and my mind would slowly clear, become transparent. Awake but meditative.

Being quiet and still all those years did me no favors. It is against my nature, possibly against all human nature. Let me enter the woods and hike, indulge in long meandering walks. Let me do simple physical labor to ground me, loosen me. I just swept (with a regular broom) and tidied our lengthy sidewalk and parking area today because I wanted to. My landlord could do it and I know more leaves are falling. I felt enlivened and comfortable with the rhythm of sweeping. The crackling bright air filled my lungs. My mind rested and writing ideas came forward, prayers were released, worries made more powerless.

Like most kids, I grew up in full motion–running and swimming, ice skating and tobogganing, bicycling and skipping rope, playing volleyball. I danced every day. I swung from and climbed up trees. I drew pictures, acted, played cello and sang on stages. I was even a cheerleader. Never did I imagine I would sit still for a living. But as a youth when I had to keep my body quiet for, say, one of my father’s concerts, it felt unnatural, hard to pull off. I wanted to use every sense and breathe fully, be spontaneous in mind, spirit and flesh. Move.

It has been many months since I resigned from my last position. I am a woman without a title. Still I sit. I roll my shoulders up and back as I type. I write five to seven hours daily, five to six days a week. This, after all, is the main reason I am home: I have a core-deep, focused, lovely passion for writing. But I am learning once again that I need to get up, do a few exercises, turn on the music and dance around. When I have an anemic poem or a story that mocks me at every turn, outdoors I go. If I’m lucky I hike, but a turn around the neighborhood will do it.

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If it is really storming, then I get busy doing anything. Sometimes all it takes to get blood racing and brain recharging is a simple activity. Vacuuming, for instance, or the orderly folding of laundry.

Earlier this week I decided food would be useful; I tend to forget meals when I am absorbed in something. I pulled out the requisite items: lettuce, tomato, onion, bread, sliced turkey. Tried to shake off frustration about the short story I have revised several times. Realized I should clean the kitchen, so made a swipe or two. Heard my characters yakking in my head, giving directives to each other and me. I got out the mayo and Dijon mustard, then spread each on  bread. And then I put the bread together.

Meantime, I could clearly envision my story’s protagonist, Jasper, sitting on the hillside in his splintery Adirondack chair, gazing at the psychic artisan’s house below. The woman he finds on the far side of strange but likes a little, anyway. He is going to help her out, but how?

And then I figured it all out, what he would do next. Energized again, I took a big bite of my sandwich–Ha! Now for food!–and put it down again. I talked aloud to myself: “Well, that was absolute idiocy!”, with a swear word as exclamation point. It had nothing on it but lettuce and condiments. I had lost track of the physical world a few seconds… yet the very act of moving and doing something so pedestrian had shaken loose the next decent line of the story.

My number one therapeutic intervention to restart creative momentum is walking. Then I get somewhere fast inside my head. The rhythmic swing of legs and arms, heart pumping harder, taking in sounds and colorful sights, finding an array of scents: my mind is loosed. I hear words come alive within and they tell me things I did not know before. They travel from my soul to dodgy (aggressive coronary artery disease) but determined heart, to rapid-firing synapses and back again. I feel and become stronger, opened up, realigned in body and mind. Other creatures don’t think it all over; they just get into gear. So why do I deliberate each time?

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Many situations have been imprisoning in my life. We all know that dark corner feeling. There have been times I have felt like a hostage, emerging with scars and a jaded view. Others have enlightened me more than I imagined at the onset. But if our earth-bound sensory lives can damn us, they also can save us. Just as I must keep my spirit primed with thanksgiving and love of the Divine, I must also give my body opportunities to fully appreciate itself. We are each made all of one piece. We create from fullness and paucity, from expansiveness and the narrows of our lives. Our bodies need us to experience wonders and we need their wisdom. I am a person well acquainted with physical pain yet still I find it so.

And since I am not working for pay, next on my real life list is this: a couple of hours each Friday for a few weeks I will step far away from the desk. I am finally going to take flamenco classes. Flamenco is music and movement that shakes me up and shares life with me. I know there will be good stories and poems arising from this willingness to dance. I will let life and limb loosen more so I can journey deeper into its essence.

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Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.