Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

By Michael Gäbler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.

But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.

I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.

I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.

Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.

Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.

Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.

But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.

There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)

The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.

The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.

I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)

Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.

The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.

Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.

Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.

The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.

You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.

And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.

The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.

Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.

I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.

I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Sanctuary, Here and Now

This time of year we tend to follow the example of the ancient Roman god, Janus, symbolized by a two-faced head looking forward and backward. And last year—and the year before and years prior to that one–there was my own habit of contemplation of change, admiring the force that it is. And how I could best welcome it as is, or steer it along a better course (in my view, anyway): a new beginning, an extension of the trail leading from the past. I’d have concluded, as usual, that positive change often boils down to both respecting the past and heeding it.

It is hard to do that today without unease. It’s 2021, and a large bit of hell has broken loose out there. We hear daily that Covid-19 dominates everyone in every corner. My country has been distressed by a whorl of agitation and dissent; it has been heartbreaking to witness. The world keeps spinning its story, every passing day another addition to history in a manner that surely can confound.

It’s a challenge to even harbor, much less scrutinize, the present and future in one continuous series of thoughts. It’s as if my brain is cramped with a passel of ideas and fragments of data demanding my attention and ravenous for more information. And close examination. So I have to take time more slowly and engage with care. If life is lived as it comes–not dwelling on past or present–it becomes somewhat manageable. Or at least less anxiety-provoking, and I’m someone who has felt fortunate to be much less familiar with anxiety than, say, an intense focus on details… If my feet are firmly planted on the ground, my head can tally facts as best I know them and make some sense of the parts of reality with which I must deal. Did that sound more wishy washy than a solid plan? Well, it is the best I have for this moment. If I stay sentient and lucid, I can think about matters, look into options.

One must make do in times of crisis, and there certainly is Crisis going on in the world–such as huge numbers of us have not seen before. It boggles me, so I have to clear my head again and again.

This state of semi-suspension we are in…. but not the frontline workers who by sheer will face the worst of things every hour of each day. Suspension might to them be an utter luxury. These are warriors of the spirit and flesh who are dedicated to saving the critically ill, to feeding the hungry, to rescuing those endangered, neglected and harmed. But the rest of us, the ones who are not perhaps angels of mercy on earth but want to do something helpful…we still can try offering food as many chefs and neighbors (and my son) do; giving money to helpful organizations as countless donors have; passing out baggies of socks and toiletries and snacks to the homeless, like my friend and others manage despite concern on those streets. But we can also do less visible things. We can speak up, for one. And we can do small acts and not contribute to troubles.

I have begun to see this time as an opportunity for sanctuary. A greater time and space set aside for meditation as well as other action. There is the possibility of finding scared space within my spirit. In this house. Outdoors. Outside pressures force me to delve deeper, look around innermost self. Despite weariness and stress I can act as a sort of prospector, searching for valuable characteristics like stamina, kindness, patience, courage, faith. Listening to my heart. When the spotlight of my brain wants to enumerate all the data on illness and unrest and failures at play, I can swivel about and aim the light on this and that shining piece. It gets dark for us all in varying degrees; the miracle to me is that any tiny light of the soul can illuminate so much to help.

If I don’t take care of myself I will pay later; my thoughts, words and actions will be diminished in quality. Can I afford to devolve into rage or rancor, add to any gathering of ill will? I cannot make the world any better a place–now or tomorrow– unless I am a better person, myself. So I keep trying. I burrow into the inner silence, find a seed of hope, tend it.

A practice of pushing on, caring about life while hanging on to any hope came about by age 13 due to abuse that occurred. The worst, perhaps was being left to my own devices to stay safe by my parents (two smart, caring persons who lacked insight enough or courage, perhaps) and emotionally abandoned as I fought to manage PTSD through my youth and years after. And this left me adrift, scared, alone. I got up each day smiling outwardly, accomplishing things, enjoying friends– all the while shuddering internally. So I designed a motto from which arose the acronym “CSTD”: courage, strength, tolerance and determination. It was a mantra, a special chant, a golden passkey that took me from fear to security, and discouragement to renewed energy. I brought this to the fore whenever I needed it–my secret magic weapon with which to make my way through perilous years. C-es-ti-dy...It was part of my construction of needed sanctuary.

I’m not sure how a few words for abstract concepts can engender self empowerment. It is mysterious, still, to me. But we each must find ways to get through bitter times. I prayed the Twenty-third Psalm (my favorite) and other prayers, made up or quoted other sayings; I sought wisdom and hope in poetry, stories, art, music. But thinking “CSTD” counselled me me to not despair; it put steel in my backbone, lifted my eyes. It asked me to avoid wrong assumptions, to well assess matters, as others had not been able to do for me. In the stormy expanse of my life, I could be my own protector, find comfort. Endure. And I already knew that practice of anything enabled progress leading to better results. Seeking ways to be strong yielded more strength; acting brave instilled enough bravery, most of the time. Of course I plummeted, as well–that is another story. But I found my way back to a place of restoration.

As I recall this it makes sense not only for myself but likely for all: dig in, hang on, seek aid, attend to this moment. Create renewal, and re-create as necessary.

I prefer understanding of anything not clear. I question a great deal, address situations and dilemmas as a reporter does: who/what/why/when/how. (This is not easy for my family, who sometimes wishes I did not.) Of course, I also interpret. We aren’t human without a propensity for finding meaning (right or wrong), pressing segments of things into a framework so the mind can better grasp intention, action and outcome. As for the random parts….they also make their way into the scheme, somehow fit in even if it seems they will not. We puzzle things out, place them in perspective, wait for more input. Then sort it out once more.

But there is also a strong need these days to step back psychologically and intellectually. To allow my spirit to refresh in subtle ways. Often that means simply being in repose. I rest and sleep more these days (despite being an insomniac for years, too.) Read, daydream of nothing much other than places I miss, passing pleasantries. Alright, yes–healing for all, world peace, nature in rebalanced harmony….those, as well. But lately I’ve had the urge to walk without pushing myself ’til panting for a change, and to empty my head of streaming impressions and thoughts. The air I take in is such a gift when so many gasp for it due to the pandemic’s cruelties. The legs that carry me are a bonus when some can barely or may never walk again.

I pull a blanket about my shoulders and watch the cold rainfall, hard beads of water splattering my balcony and majestic pines. Hear the robust music of it, watch birds fluff their feathers and squirrels crack nuts between their teeth. Not every day requires a trudge into gloom of winter, deluges pummeling me front and back. Not every day demands I make a momentous self–or other–discovery. Make a fine poem, bake terrific cookies, write a firebrand of an essay–these are pleasures and goals, not strict mandates. Or give away my clothes and food, even. I can also be at home, in repose. Sheltering body and soul. Allow for a bit of peace. Make room for gentle care.

I often seek sanctuary because I need to commune with God and my minute connection to the design of the universe. With the visceral reality of being alive and okay this moment. To find ways to transform perplexity, worry, dismay or loneliness into something healing, more round with wholeness. Being quieter brings me closer to not only God, but to personhood with its mysteries and conundrums. Looking into the face of who we are truly is not an easy thing. But I know myself while being open to instruction, and welcome it all even if one eye to the door peephole. The life inside and outside raises such questions, more so now.

But I didn’t come into this world without a spirit of adventure–when born a human being I was given the chance to avail myself of knowledge and experience. To surpass my fickle, often misplaced expectations: to be more of a good human, not less. And this asks of me deeper connections with Divine Love/Creator/Infinite Nature. We are what we attach ourselves to, are we not? I remind myself of this often. Even as I do something senseless and superficial like feast eyes on and mark items in a shiny catalog that I know I’ll not buy. I love caring for my spirit more than those blue velveteen pants–mostly.

Well, I am a person, that is all. I find humor and hope in that clear understanding.

Engaging with the world–how I miss it. I want to travel even in my own country and feel safe. And I want to smile unmasked and speak with people in line at the stores, chat with my neighbors at my leisure, gather family for a catch-up and big dinner, hold so close the ones I love or reach to those who may need to be touched kindly for one instant. To hike with a group, crowded as we navigate the winding, narrow trail without concerns. Yes, and laugh loudly with one another in open air–how remarkable a thing we had and didn’t realize it. These days we lift our hands in a mid-air greeting, trying to convey warmth with widened eyes. But it is what is necessary and so I am filled with gratitude for every welcome shared, two hands lifted– sometimes waving with a modicum of cheer.

One day greater spontaneity will return to our behaviors and good will shall be discharged more readily in simple ways. We must do what we must do until things are improved enough. In the meantime, I am more often taking to my desk or easy chair at home, though I am a restless person. Stubbornness, discipline: I shall do my best to stay healthy. To survive. To make personal progress however I might. To have good days while weathering horrid ones. Since it is a time to be pensive, too, I give myself over to it. I can be more patient because life requires this, too–not only the charging forth in unbridled delight and excitement.

If we each take time to meditate on the value of human life, and the sacrifices countless folks have made, it gives us plenty for meditation and prayer, however we do that. We can, too, honor our spirits by giving them respect and nurturing. In whatever homely or sacred space. How much better we might come to grasp the inestimable worth of compassion and civility in times such as these. And how profoundly we will need them going forward from here.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: From Fall to Winter- My Initial Plan for Adaptation

I walk into clear sunlight, but the morning air lightly frosts hands and cheeks. It isn’t really cold, yet the fall sunshine is less rosy, warm. I grab a jacket and think: the layering of clothing is begun. This is not such a complaint, though gloves are required by October’s end or my hands ache outside (indoors I’ll wear fingerless woolen gloves). Before long I’ll pull a rain jacket over a sweater, pocket my fleece cap.

But not quite yet. The air is still dry as overturned dirt and redolent of a faint summer fragrance, semi-sweetly rich, a tinge of mustiness. Squirrels are gathering nuts by the bunches. Crickets still sing out each evening. Flowers remain abloom as if determined to stave off any greyness that may creep above the horizon. I watch a redheaded, pileated woodpecker working for a good meal, then move on, hands in pockets.

This time on my brisk walk, crisp leaves twirl, then skim my hair, one landing on my head, and crunch as I scuff the path, that brief crackling sound as pleasing as when I was a child. But now I know that it means they are dying, are dead, and will carpet grass, break down in the soil until spring’s uprising. With a pause and gaze at their diminishing vitality, it rises upward in me: that strange meld of emotion that equals “bittersweet.” I linger on the wooded path, then stand in a meadow and something in me wants to stay there. To set up camp, make a circle of rocks and lay a fire. Not budge until the rains become relentless, and even then, shelter in a tent until birds’ nests fill with new eggs. At least I will be close to the earth’s innards and the great trees.

I realize now that I am not welcoming winter this time. Not a bit. I want the summer to extend itself a little longer. To go back and pick lots more berries, to lie on daisy-strewn hills and stare at the open face of the sky. To visit with family or friends across a picnic table or under a huge old oak, share an iced mocha to cool off, our foreheads damp with a glaze of heat. Our eyes full of summer wonders, our minds nourished by a reparative earth.

As I rest under the big maple tree that shelters so well– this tree must be a hundred years old– it’s easy to recall these pathways inundated with rain, then more rain, and skies weighted with thick slate clouds. But another good feature of living in primarily woods in rainy season is that I’ll be protected some from downpours as I walk, off and on–such huge branches offer their arms as coverage.

I turn and take in a wide stretch of mossy rocks and meadow with its still-dry gulch, the bronze leaves thickening into piles, the wild grasses brittle and bent. I listen for Cooper’s hawks, but they are silent while jays and crows keep up their prattle. There is suddenly a longing for what is present, but will soon pass. It puzzles me, this reluctance to leave behind what always must be left, the sharp heat settled into greenery, the high blueness of the heavens. I have never worried about the rain, nor dreaded Pacific Northwest winters. But today head toward that state a bit.

Winter was not soggy where I grew up, Winter was bitter and glittering and welcomed as I grew up. I lived in places–excepting a brief diversion in Texas– until age 30> It was a blazing showcase of autumn that transformed into bold silver tones of winter, hardened by very low temperatures. The air rang with cold. Soon, the straight lines of landscape were scrubbed by icy wind, made voluptuous with heaps of snow. It was a natural progression. I didn’t find any fault with this pattern–the four seasons were a comfort, reliable.

A deepening cold that settled in the parents’ bones meant heat got turned up or woodstove fires stoked, and blankets were unfurled and hot tea and chocolate sipped, fingers warmed about mugs. One’s nose and cheeks were reddened for months. But as I left my youth in Michigan and moved South, West and Northwest, I lost the special taste for snow, its sharp purity on tongue and in the blood. I took with me, instead, two chronically (if not badly) frostbitten hands from ice skating with no mittens for years–they encumbered me, I had no need of them– hands which finally could not retain much warmth below 60 degrees. Still, I tucked away a stubborn happiness for snow and winter, though any snowfall heaped and then melted as I came over miles of slick mountain passes and found the verdant valleys of Oregon. It all became an extended, inventive performance of rain.

I swing my arms in concert with my feet as I tackle steep inclines that mark the southwest hills, muscles in thighs and lower back pulling and softly burning, then the body cheering as another peak is reached. And then another series of around and up and down commences. I smell the fecund leaves that fly past. Cool gusts skim my skin. The light is amber, not brash like it can seem in summer–it is a light that burnishes, and no scalding. I am suddenly pleased more than sorry and want to sing out.

It is, I know, not the weather changes, not entirely-even this confounding year. I adore the outdoors any way I can experience it, usually. It is a primal comfort and joy, a way of gathering peace and generating healing–full of minute and amazing revelations that render a teachable holiness. I have seen four wooly bear caterpillars and their bands instruct me about it not being such a cold or long winter, if one believes folklore (I often do). The weather may, gratefully, be a reassuring repeat after the shock and hell of wildfire storms.

Yet, a remnant of melancholy tries to take root for other reasons, not due to leaves floating from host branches, the winds sharpening.

It is so many episodes we have had to face despite initial resistance: the deadly, omnipresent pandemic; the US chief commander’s failings; the vastly scorched west/northwest forests; global warming on the rise; worldwide economic crises; the loss of face-to-face contact with friends and family as we once knew it. What seeming luxuries we’ve enjoyed in our lives, it now seems. They talk of “pandemic fatigue” in the news, but also feels like “reality fatigue.” I am pressed into weariness some days, as we all must feel.

But in the summer, it was more surmountable for me, or at least manageable. Stepping into nature has been a liberation from constraints we’ve all had to adopt every hour of each day in some manner, whether disinfecting groceries and our skin or masking up or being bombarded by new data and graver concerns, and anxiety about every cough and sniffle.

And I worry about my twin grandchildren not being able to play with other little kids seen in the park or next door; not enjoying various playground equipment (they’ve never tried); not being able to nuzzle their faces against mine or hang out in their clever cardboard box playhouse with grandparents and all other “outsiders.”

Outsiders… we, the grandparents–it has come to that onerous state. We meet them in parks, stay 6 feet apart as much as possible even with masks. My arms ache for them, my heart longs for them but I banish sadness and laugh at their antics, touch their beautiful hair, grab a chubby, strong hand–which will be sanitized as we part… Oh, farewell, sweet pea and sugar plum, until next time. Once a week we usually see them an hour or two, and I am so glad of it, knowing others may have far less access to families.

I do yearn to see the rest of my flock, the entirety of five adult kids in my living room–or outdoors. There is a daughter in South Carolina who will not be here for Thanksgiving this time–nor will anyone, likely. It has been nearly a year since Naomi visited us–and most of her family–in OR. And another daughter (who was estranged from the family for 2 years) cannot come to visit now that things are gratefully back in sync and all is well. The youngest daughter and mother of the twins works full time–at home, somehow. A fourth daughter is in a deepening relationship and works many hours. My son works even seven days a week; his painting jobs diminish in winter months. It is not as easy to get together now, that is for certain. Other grandchildren either live elsewhere or are working full time, too. (That they all have jobs is a blessing; my husband still sends out resumes as he seeks a new one. It has been a 6 month search.)

But even Thanksgiving or Christmas are not what will be most surely missed. We can’t cook up any old pot of soup together and share crusty warm bread just fresh-baked, nor put on the kettle and bring out apple pie with ice cream, nor sit around our big table and talk and laugh as time rolls by, our motley crew brought together by love.

Isn’t this the hard thing that sticks under the skin like a relentless thorn? How does one get rid of the deeper sting even if the thorns can be more or less managed?

This autumn feels like that long wave of farewell, ’til we meet again, my dears-– waving to the beautiful days and nights we’ve managed to hold c lose since the start of the pandemic, despite such a variety of challenges. It was less terrible in some ways than expected, but that is only because I daily could (and yet can) step outside for an hour, even if it is on the wide balcony overlooking woods and toward the not-so-distant Coast Mountains. I am not a creature well contained indoors; I crave movement and open air, with plants and animals all about. I am fully alive when finding my place within nature. There is a heartbeat that is not only mine. There is a sky that covers all of us, everywhere. There is a wild mountain range that gives way to an exotic desert, an emerald valley that reaches to forest, rivers that connect to lakes and to seas, and flax- colored plains that go on and on and are being trod by someone or something else out there. I meet myself there but lose myself, too, in the enormity of this planet and universe. Life makes sense to me more than usual. I am alone but not ever truly lonely; I feel the connection to all as surely if we were each a silken thread in the fantastic web of life.

This year it was a relief that, though we’ve had COVID-19 around every bend, we–if fortunate enough to avoid the virus; so many suffering thousands have not–were given a bit of kindness in weather. There was spring, summer and fall within which to engage in daily lives, perhaps even to play a little. We have been now warned that winter will be rougher with such close, stuffy indoor time, and fewer chances to be with people safely. It pains me that we step back from one another routinely now, that we are afraid of others despite wanting–needing–to come closer.

And yet, I know I can get through this winter– if I have the good fortune to stay well enough. I want to make it as positive as I can and the simple determination carries a strong impetus. And, anyway, one does as one must; we all have to put one foot in front of the other as before, for whoever knows what can come next?

But I will miss the bright green days and running through the grassy hills with the twins and our loose gatherings with family we occasionally have enjoyed. I need to locate covered pavilions, as many places as possible so we can come together if only for a half hour in wet, chilly weather.

That I will walk daily is a given. I do it for well being, as humans do all over the globe, and also out of necessity. It is then my head clears and I find my footing in both the interior and exterior design of matters. Any leftover detritus I can give to creative activity, and to prayer.

Rain, rain–we need it. It is a part of everyone’s/everything’s life cycle, especially here. It is second nature to become waterproofed–to take precautions for a deluge. It can be a time of hibernation, seizing opportunities to get cozy, or delve deeper into depths and unearth even better creations or finding new forms of labor, exercise and entertainment. I may feel bittersweetness coming on here and there, but I am not without curiosity. What will be learned in the months to come? Nothing is beautiful all the time, and hardship can make us heartier as long as we have the will.

I will leave my window open a crack to hear, smell and watch rain showers, thunderous deluges, damp winds off the churning rivers, a dazzle of light snowfalls. It is part of the rhythm here. It is what I choose to embrace in the valley, in the hills. Melancholy may come as a visitor. It will leave, as well.

And I have bought two pricey pairs of insulated rainboots for the twins so we are ready to get out there. The next thing: looking for a waterproof canopy to rig up for our wide, deep balcony. We can fit a few under that when it pours, after all.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Making a Stake in Reclamation

The raindrops pelted me with snappy wetness; wind was gusty and chilled just right. Ah, an early autumn downpour, crispy leaves scuttering about, the earth emitting its scent of greenness devolving into decay and fallowness in the weeks ahead. Not yet winter and not fully fall, this transition period will display fickleness–one week a bright balminess again, the next, an earlier darkening horizon with clouds gathering water to disperse.

My upturned face ran with raindrops, my jeans grew soggy, my breath was taxed by steep paths, then I found my pace along the terrain. And every step brought to mind singular words or phrases, as is so often the case. This time: cure, curative, restoration, claimant, clearing, rejuvenation, reclamation. Act of reclamation. Then only the quietness of woods and steady beats of my feet.

By the time I got home I asked myself: claimant of what, exactly? A cure, of what kind, for which sort of malady? Clearing… of smoke, land, people’s minds, clearing away of debris? Rejuvenation of our fire-hollowed million acres? Reclamation: that has been the urgent word for a few days. It first conjured up a picture of people standing up tall, a solid force and laboring to make right what is wrong. Our people in Oregon. The American people.

Still, my brain scanned examples of reclamation and came up with a mediocre plot of land that lies in sad shape. Someone passes by and sees it is disused, or poorly used or even overused. He/she is challenged by the task of rehabbing it, considering something better, different. An insignificant spot altered so that people may come to enjoy. That person asks for help. Flowers or vegetables are planted, a bench or two installed, an old wooden table set in the shade of a revived apple tree whose white blossoms glow in the sunlight, and the fruit ripens, is picked and well enjoyed. Soon others gather to swap ideas, share food, play dominoes or chess or cards.

I consider the art of mosaics, how often they are created by jagged pieces and slivers of glass or ceramic or rock that have been broken and then salvaged to construct a work of art, utilitarian or an object of beauty to gaze upon appreciatively. The useless pieces were reclaimed, refashioned into something of value to the maker–and maybe others. Something that might have gone to waste since deemed useless has been reclaimed.

I consider these images that unfurl like stories, and then people I know. How do we restore our lives in response to the stresses and worries of these days and nights? Or is a basic restoration the wisest goal, with so many influences intent on determining otherwise? Restore to just what, now?

I keep hearing from friends and some family that they are beyond weary of it all. The novel coronavirus’ demands and restrictions and continued loss of life; the historic wildfires of the West/Northwest; the ever increasing political turmoil; loss of jobs and homes–that they have begun to feel more impotent each day. I hear the telltale flatness of their sentences, a symptom of depression, and worry. I call them, text them. Daily there are articles about people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being so long ill from COVID-19 or working brutal hours helping the critically ill; from losing all to the fires out West or to hurricanes; from worry over, or participation in protests to address racism that can turn ugly and get way off track. And reported erroneously–as so much seems to be, more and more– in the media, as well.

How do we manage, then, monumental stress and uncertainty? It is no longer just one thing or another, but a number subsequent events–depending partly on where one lives– that have us tied up in knots. We know to try to stay better connected to one another even if virtually (who could have imagined this–like sci fi come to the fore–main mode of connection just 7 months ago?) and getting enough rest, exercise and eating decently despite lessening appetites; and taking time to enjoy whatever we each may find. Taking time to be together, even if six feet apart-but even that seems harder, at times. We are just tired.

Recently some friends and I had conversation about how people can reckon with painful, sometimes sudden, alterations in their lives. After the initial shock of a negative life-changing event lessens–which may take weeks, months or longer–individuals embark on various courses. They may do nothing, unable to find motivation enough other than to survive. They may engage in more group activities (even online) to help stay the profound sense of loneliness that can accompany the sadness. Or they may take up a project that fully engages, whether building something or repainting or repairing the house (hardware stores are doing well). Or some may lessen tension by enrolling in a Zumba class, running a few miles a day, doing yoga. Therapy is an option and if it is good, people can learn how to cope with stress and fear, and with PTSD triggers to then minimize overwhelming feelings of helplessness, deal better with nightmares and intrusive thoughts or images of the trauma. Or sessions can help one learn how to grieve more fully, then finally begin to live without the loved one who was lost, or the job that was taken away or the health that is undone–and finally, one hopes, go on, day by day.

Others might retreat into solitude and prayer or other meditative activity. The person seeking relief may choose to work longer and become the last one out of the office–or be very late turning off the computer if working at home, one’s partner calling out to “come to bed, please.” They also could engage in addictive behaviors that may temporarily induce a numbed disconnection from unhappiness they push away. This can occur even if they were not originally given to problematic drinking/gambling/sex/shopping/falling into love affairs– to name but a few.

It all comes down to rooting out some relief from realities that plague people. But a foundation of healthier ways needs to be built somehow if life is to be improved beyond a short tie. When there is psychic or physical damage, repair is needed. To reclaim something can mean to save from the refuse, to gather remnants left and make anew from ruined bits. It might mean the person needs to move away from haunting errors made with a change in locale or leave a toxic person. And it requires getting perspective and some control of conflicting parts to remake a life so that it works better. This, rather than you being worked over by it. Because unless a life is essentially habitable, it becomes a kind of prison or worse. And little can feel worse than to feel caught in the same bad place, helpless.

I have actual experience with all this, both as a counselor working decades at mental health and addiction treatment agencies, and in my personal life. Client after client came to see me with complex, weighty issues. They were at wits’ end and worn out and often on the brink of giving up entirely. Some had arrived after being near death for a few reasons— or had met death and then returned unhappily to the living. And the circumstances were far more varied than one might think.

One person was desperate to meet, with bad injuries still healing after a private plane trip that resulted in a crash. Yet this person continued to see the pilot, the love interest, who was untrustworthy, abusively dangerous. My client had developed an addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs in part due to the availability from the wealthy partner. The client’s well bred family had given up and from the hospital sent the person right to treatment.

Another person who was homeless with addiction and mental health diagnoses was finally getting substance free, yet still had the problem of where to live safely with a mangy but beloved dog. Housing was severely limited; there was no income until disability was applied for and gotten, which took a long while to obtain. There was no care for the dog without money. So we had to cut corners to secure pet help and temporary housing,

An adult was the only one left alive after her family was murdered by nephew in alcoholic black out. A teen grew up in a home with “routine” domestic violence; she had became a runaway and a dealer, lost in every way and angry. Another client was raped but no one believed the truth; he started to drink 7 days a week and dropped out of college-he was hoping to become a doctor.

I listened to human tragedies every day. How could I help them recover? Show how to rebuild their lives for the short and long term? Because the reality is, I could have used every therapeutic tool in the book, shown compassion and patience for months, but if the individual was not prepared to do the tough work of changing his or her state of mind or circumstances, I was not going make the difference I desired. Being ready to change was equally a key, perhaps even more than gaining new choices and life skills. This sounds harsh but consider what happens when one does not want to heal, to change: more of the same, or nothing.

It might surprise some how not ready people can be when you get down to the bottom line, despite their pain. But I understood this. The more life errors or trauma experienced, the less able a person feels to hang on for the long run, to start to recover and move forward. It takes exhausting and mind boggling efforts when already feeling on empty. So when there was any spark noticed in a client–that they realized life could still be worth living and there was hope despite the rawness and bleak view, I was holding out my hand, carefully but surely. I felt that when someone at last took it, he/she was willing to give a different way of living the barest chance. And we all know one spark can make a fire, and a small, well tended fire can do much needed good, especially when you are not truly alone.

From an early age, I was given some challenges. Those who have followed this blog know I experienced childhood sexual abuse. My mother, who suspected it, did not protect me nor tell my father or anyone of her fears. I was cautioned to stay away from the perpetrator at 9 years old. So it continued 2-3 years until my beloved oldest sister divorced the man she’d so hastily married wasn’t right for marriage (and she learned afterwards was a pedophile–and heard of my abuse when I was 35, she was 48.). It was like being caught in a corner with no way out and no one to call for help. Everything boiled down to survival and I knew so little about that then.

But that was just the start. If someone is abused and no one acknowledges it or helps, more trauma arises from that terrible error. In fact, it may be the worst of it. The secret was kept; the adept pretending that all was fine increased; feelings of worthlessness, failure and loneliness increased year by year. And behaviors tried out to lessen the relentless discouragement, confusion, and fear were increasingly unhealthy. Abandonment in dire crises is a hard one. I just had to learn how to swim in a vast stormy sea.

And then what came happens when life is lived as if stumbling through the dark with clumsy bruised feet. More victimization from various assaults; drug use both legitimate (our family doctor prescribed my first tranquilizers at age 12 due to not being able to sleep) and later illegitimate to dull the pain; the drug-fueled, PTSD-laden breakdowns at 15 and 19; and much later, alcoholism and treatment centers. Retreats from death.

Less positive choices for a life path was made harder by being a magnet for a dangerous boyfriend and later unstable/abusive/neglectful husbands (and, occasionally, “friends”). Including a criminal who took whatever dignity I had somehow redeveloped, as well as what money I had. And for most of that relationship I was sober; I had naively thought he was different deep down… Clearly, I hadn’t righted my life yet. I did not have the corrected map or enough wherewithal to traverse the right roads. There was no sure reclamation going on until the two teen children still at home left secretly with me. This was, for me, about the worst it could get. I was devastated that the work I had put in was still not my salvation. But I would not give up.

After all of that and with more therapy, I had enough. I sometimes wondered if I was one who might not recover, never make my life whole. It was either create a different life or get off the planet. i abstained from relationships for years. When I was out of money awhile between low paying jobs, out of nowhere came the gift of work I then believed was not for me. I could pay the rent and buy food (my19 yo son helped out); that was enough.

But there was rapid skill development and a surprising passion for the work even as I resisted the encouragement to become a fully certified counselor. The work was with addicted, emotionally ill, gang-affiliated, and homeless youth. Even as I said no, I returned to college. My work got better. I healed faster with more help. Still, for six years, I was one of those who worked every hour I could–to pay the bills but also to keep well occupied–and attended classes and studied. But when home I withdrew from the world. I prayed, wrote, walked daily, danced–took care of my self, tended to my children the best I could. Parenting demanded I be involved and responsive, enabled me to yet love deeply. In time, success seemed more reachable in the ways that mattered. After that, another marriage and there came decades more working with vulnerable adults and youth.

I found more and more happiness, despite difficulty. I stopped feeling terminally unique, too. A deep relief that was.

The point is, reclamation of life can take awhile. It can demand you give more, to make good on tentative promises to yourself and others. But it does come to pass.

I found it a long journey; I remain on the lifelong path to greater understanding and well being. It is alright; I enjoy learning immensely. But I had to build up endurance. Had to keep searching for the light through shadows, sketchy twists, off-road forays. I transformed the old feeling of being a maimed person with mostly deficits into being changed but not ruined. To being able to regenerate were injuries had slowed it or stopped it before. To having a capacity for problem solving and adaptability. I kept giving the pain to God, and it works. I gave my more tender self to creative work that improved. It happened in bits and pieces but each time there were clearer insight or better choices made, there was progress. And I was grateful for any small step forward.

Reclamation of life: we can do this for ourselves. Likely you, too, have already done it many times but perhaps didn’t know how potent a thing it was. Then hindsight showed you how much it was you undertook and overcame. A fighter for good, a creative force, a change agent–yes, you.

I came back to the core of who I am–as valuable as others, a capable person. Someone worth respecting and caring for. It was first hard to believe. And strong, as I found I can endure many harsh surprises, losses. I have, with encouragement and care from many, retained a heart for life and for others. An “optimistic realist”, I will hold up hope, but give me the full facts. No excuses or white lies or fudged numbers. Give me the truth, first and last, as it is best known. I am not good in the dark even if I can manage it. Turn on a spotlight– or at least a homely candle burning orange and yellow in the maze of life.

So, back to the conversations I have had lately about how one deals with all these crises that millions are trying to cope with these days. I can only think that we can do it, because it has been done before. We do have what it takes. We all suffer; we learn how to persist. People have the remarkable characteristic of resilience and when it is coupled with concern for others as I have seen in Oregon since the wildfires devastation, this is true power being witnessed.

I know at any time conditions can change in a flash. Meantime, I am going on despite trials making my own sort of reclamations as follows:

*Remember we are each part of the infinite and eternal design of the universe. –I had to get this one out of the way, because it informs all I do and believe. It helps me keep things in a more reasonable perspective. Maintaining my spiritual life just makes the difference. (Others may not agree–I try to always respect this.)

*Assess the situation based on facts as they are known. Do not close a blind eye when both clear eyes open is what is needed.

*Develop a plan for longer range goals (even a day, week or month beyond this current moment) by brainstorming options; be open to thinking outside the box and hearing others’ ideas.

*Proceed with caution but take even a small action– with expectancy of a some good progress to be made within one’s own life and potentially within a community.

*Use common sense. Sometimes humans overthink a problem or situation to the point of dead-end idiocy. Trust the gut; we were all born with instinct and intuition. (I should have done so long ago…)

*Exercise compassion, even when–maybe especially when– angry or confounded. Pause to pray or meditate, and that one’s perceived enemy to be truly blessed, not cursed.

*Stand up. Be heard. Claim your space and change one little thing. Make right what can be made right in your sphere, and work to support others who endeavor to reform what is unjust–that is, whatever stymies human flourishing. And may we keep out planet alive with more people fully caretaking of–not wasting–its vast gifts.

*Hold on. Some things cannot be rushed or altered at the moment. Timing makes a difference. Patience can mean everything. But then go boldly.

*Find worthwhile meaning in small moments, too; praise them all. What we have after we lose something or someone is ourselves, and some faith in what we cannot yet see but hope for, and anything we can salvage to begin again.

*Remember: no matter your pain, it has been felt before. No matter your grief, it has been mourned by another. No matter your aloneness, you are still part of humanity and someone cares. Ask for help; be found. Then help others who seek aid.

*If you can laugh despite the tears, give that to yourself and others. It shakes free some heaviness, lets more light in, brings relief.

*Create something. Anything you like. Give it away if the spirit moves you.

*Go and sit under dancing trees or move through fields or mountains or walk by water or rest among cacti and watch for coyotes. Open a window to the sky and listen, smell, touch, see. This is much of the wonder of life, given to you.

We can be well enough restored–as long as we have breath and our hearts beat–even in these times. It is not so likely it will be the reality we have known before…but nothing is static. Living can still be embraced and improved upon. It has been done before. The world has suffered in some terrible way, always. We being an adaptable species have managed to go on thus far amid devastations. We fail at times, but we also are compelled to try once more. We will wake up each day to see what is going on, and we will participate in the unfolding by being present and accounted for. I have gotten to 70; so also can you carry on the best you can.

I believe we are meant to be like angels for one another while we walk this earth. We are meant to illuminate the pathway together. We are meant to see goodness in one another, make compassion the rule. May we, then, comfort and help one another as we navigate rough waters and no matter what lies ahead.

(Note: those referred to as clients are composites of people I have known over many years of counselling positions.)

Wednesday’s Words: Wildfire Nightmare

This is an old picture taken near city center; what I see out my own window is far, far worse.

The sky beyond our conifers and deciduous trees turns pastel orange before 4:00 pm, and the jittery air beyond is clogging up with smoke. Since last evening we have been under a Level 1 warning for wildfires, which means our bags are packed, our documents are gathered and we are alert to changes in conditions. Our particular Oregon county–Clackamas Co.– is already partly engulfed by fires; a third to one half on the fire map is noted in a critical state, a deep red color. Though these are not yet too close to our home, they have already destroyed so many properties. We don’t know how many acres are charred, or what the loss of life and property is yet. But we have packed our bags and are alert to the ongoing reports and notices. Where will we go, with COVID-19 still circulating? An emergency shelter site? We’re thinking on a workable plan.

It is very difficult for firefighters and other agencies’ aid to keep on top of multitudinous firestorm areas, as we have been experiencing higher gusts of wind a couple of days; foliage and trees are so dry that ravenous fires spread rapidly. And we cherish our a multitude of trees, including this spot where we are. It is a fraction of the greater state of Oregon. There are 35 devastating wildfires burning now. And worse in California. There are some burning in the State of Washington, our neighbor across the Columbia River and Portland metro.

We have a yearly fire season; the Columbia Gorge in 2017 was a bad season. This time they are occurring in areas not often impacted, not ever as huge or close to suburban spots and many small towns. Thousands have been evacuated from the area, but south/southeast of us. Our governor has declared a State of Emergency, as there are these various and broad areas of raging fires. In fact, it has been called “unprecedented fire behavior.”

Unfortunately, sliding glass doors were left open a short while as potted balcony plants were watered early morning. Even before I came downstairs, I could smell it–that dry, noxious permeation of unmistakable if faint smoke. The doors were closed tightly again; we taped every window shut. We do not have an air purifier or even air conditioner. The good portable purifier broke a couple months ago. I didn’t think to replace it yet since my allergies don’t kick up until the leaves start to fall. So we’re sealed inside our townhouse. We’ve not needed the air conditioner as it remains evenly cool, even when temperatures reach mid-nineties. Why? Because we live among an abundance of trees…and face the west side, looking toward the Coast Mountain Range… where now the sky is not ordinary sky but a blanket of tangerine smoke that camouflages foothills and peaks.

It is ominous, strange. I feel secure here in the valley between mountain ranges. But now both an external and internal energy is powerfully unnerving, as if a suddenly unearthed demon spewed its breath across our astonishing and gorgeous topography. It feels irrelevant to calmly type as the smoke layers and bunches. The updates on fires are a constant background track to our days and nights. Just now another evacuation notice was posted, and people will flee with little in hand and hearts in their throats, pets under their arms and families rushing beside them. All the while knowing their homes will likely be gone, just like that. I cannot imagine such reverberating loss, not having endured it before.

This has been a blessing, to live within hills by rivers and forests, mountain ranges on both sides, beauty that is awe-inspiring. It has been both solace and joy to walk circuitous, challenging trails, visit rejuvenating waters that abound nearby. Now all we can do is wait out the horror of September 2020 wildfires and hope that the area is spared. Such a small word, hope, but essential.

Yet my words feel off-kilter as I try to think carefully–it feels uncomfortable or even wrong, for our state’s neighbors are not safe as they evacuate or wait to hear if they must go. None of us could imagine this, not here, not away from forested mountains. None of us are safe, nowhere near it yet. Not until towering fires are contained as dominating winds settle down–until our usual pure “green” air is near-breathable once more. It is enough to humble this woman, to threaten tears–but I remain vigilant, organized and prepared to leave all that fills this home if need be.

Think of us kindly, and countless numbers more. Discover and hold close all the gratitude for your lives. One never knows what is ahead–not in these peculiar and often dangerous times. I plan on writing another poem to share with you this Friday. Such is the nature of my own stubborn hope.