It has been 11 days since our family’s loss. I keep walking, communing with nature. It is the only place I get real relief that means anything, something tangibly good and cohesive, fascinating and reassuring. Something powerful that does not unduly distort or painfully challenge, usually, what arrives with each day. Someone somewhere wrote that beauty is in itself a wonder but in the end it means nothing much. Not so for me. Nature’s offerings–even homelier parts–reflect the strange, abundant and always numinous to me. A walk or a hike, and explorations via boat ride, train ride or flight, even a drive in the car, a spin on a bike…these open my view and mind, and instruct me in more collaborative thinking, allow me to reach far beyond those sharp borders of ego-centered self.
I like to move and see and find things out.
Today, then, because I awakened again with tears and because it is my birthday, Marc and I visited the Jenkins Estate which is on the National Registry of Historic Places, built in the early 20th century on 68 acres. There are several outbuildings as well as the house (which is only partially visible here) in a style common to the NW for country gentry. We saw only a little of the grounds–rain threatened–and we will return. But today there were brightly greened trees and plants with scattered flowers abloom in the redolent, damp April dirt. I had wanted to see a garden today, but I am in love with the woods; it was a good walk.
And I took with me the weariness of loss; my husband walked slowly, as well. Often we are silent these days.
Grief is collective over time. And at times–especially since the pandemic– it seems to vibrate under the surface of all. I have felt it all my life, everywhere and in everyone, within all tableaus of life. As a therapist once pointed out to me, I carry grief for all life even as I celebrate living. How can it be otherwise? I truly haven’t always felt it frightening or depressing or damaging–and not endlessly. I feel it as part of intense, continuous currents of life. It has made me scream out or has sent me to my knees. But it also echoes a song so ancient, so profound that its ethereal yet earthy call evokes recognition not only of inevitable dying but of the potency of living and mysteriousness of becoming…from the moment we arrive until the moment we take our leave. So we are ever in the process of gathering close and letting go. I know this. We all know this. It doesn’t get easier, really, each death. It gets more familiar, a visitor we recognize and so let in, if reluctantly and with eyes cast down at first. But looking at it in its center becomes perhaps less daunting, less unsettling. Perhaps. It is a reminder: the transitoriness, evolution of beginning to ending to secret beginnings. For we know what was, what is now, and only guess at the years, the vistas to come.
I am 71 today. Every day I live is valued and lived in tested faith and a shimmering hope. I live inside this blood and bone, and deep within the spirit of Love, despite my paucity of wisdom and unnecessary desires.
Our granddaughter was 28 ; she knew loss before passing on, and such vivacious life.
Next time I return I will share more photos, offer other experiences. I only wanted to put down a few words, say a small hello to my fellow bloggers and readers. I wanted to say Krystal Joy’s name, to honor her being. The funeral is very soon. I am as grey shadow with marrow deep sadness but, too, I know she is free of a myriad burdens of humanness. The tricky ache of it.
We have so much invested in life’s ongoing and often random travels–even as we know all is temporal in this world. It is so worth it to me. May it also be worth the effort to you.
It is a peculiar habit– to possess objects that are excellent, perhaps even valuable, but unnecessary, and thus are shuttered away. I had forgotten about it, this certain thing, like most items I don’t use. I am utilitarian in my habits, I greatly admire fine creative design and enjoy holding a piece of art in my hand, or wearing it at my neck or seeing it upon a gold-lit shelf. But when an object is impractical or secretly disliked or in need of major repair, it is quite promptly forgotten.
My mother’s china pieces fall within the “impractical” category. And then a subcategory I might name “awkward.” What does one do with china that has no real place in one’s ordinary abode? And yet I have kept it, though hidden away.
I have only a distant–often unnoticeable- attachment to most of what I own. I may well like much quite a lot but a thing oddly matters very little if and when ruined or disappeared. The initial bite of loss is felt but after a bit, it seems upon reflection that it held far less meaning in my scheme of life than previously and often dramatically noted. I feel it is all easy come, easy go in the end. It’s good I am this way, and that I don’t have buckets of money. If I see something something magnetically exotic or thrillingly original that I might love, a feeling comes over me that I am not fond of having: a sudden desire to place it into my realm–and covetousness may pounce inside me. So unattractive a characteristic. I don’t mean to want things like that, even the best things. It takes such energy and attention when I need those for other activities. I’ve never even bothered to putting time or cash into properly decorating wherever I live. Nonchalant might be a good description of my style, ad-hoc and eclectic….. If it’s comfortable and has some color with a bit of pattern tossed about, I’m good. No, I am less about details that look good, more about moments that can live well in real life.
But right, my mother’s china. (Or a portion of it–yes, I’m coming to it.) It’s not the sort of item that fits well into this way of doing things, I suggest. It requires the appropriate display and use. It requires a certain kind of event. So I have left it in a box or on high dark shelves ever since she died in 2001. A sleeping stack, gathering colonies of dust mites.
The truth is, it is quite enough to manage what I have. I’m well pleased with small tokens of artistic renderings or gifted lovelies. I can get excited about simple handcrafted items or occasional treasures in a second hand store but I can walk away with no longing, too. Maybe it has been all the practice I’ve had; one feeds and clothes the children, one doesn’t buy art or jewelry. One needs orderly rooms to move about, not extra piles to stumble over. (Alright, I have bought books, too many.) The few artistic pieces that are spread about my home required a lifetime of modest acquisition– none of it would impress anyone. They are not pricey. (I have also been known to cut out inspiring pictures from magazines and tape them to a wall.) Many have been given to me. But they’re cared about for one good reason or another. Usually the experience of finding it, the person attached to it.
Yes, that’s what gets us most of all–by whom or just how an object comes to be in our lives. It resonates of these every time we use it or walk by it or try not to think on it too long. That odd energy of things imbued with an essence of place or time or person–how alluring to mind and senses.
And so this comes around to my mother’s Rosenthal china. The twelve person place settings she bought and had shipped when my parents went to Germany. She had other china, and everyday ware (Franciscan Desert Rose, which I use daily). But this was the one she used to dress the most gracious table, along with crystal water goblets and silver. The dinner plates are pure white and embossed with a faintly, to me, architectural design. Yet I don’t have those with me. The fruit bowls that I have, and love and avoid are decorated with delicate flowers of deep pink, yellow and periwinkle, arrayed atop the raised pattern.
I happened upon them again recently. I stood tiptoe on a kitchen step stool, rummaging on the top cupboard shelf for something else. My hand reached behind a front row, and barely touched the rims of the delicate fruit bowls. That sound they make when moved against one another–a soft, bright noise. I took down two more ordinary bone china tea mugs my mother-in-law gave us long ago (that we use often); a few colored or etched glass candy dishes (a couple from my mother); and a diminutive vase that looks like an old-fashioned gentlewoman with an open-top hat made for tiny blooms. (This I happened to buy in a hospital gift shop after I completed cardiac rehab 20 years ago–it made me feel even better.)
I touched the bowls gently once more, hesitant.
I didn’t attempt to bring the them all down. I counted them: twelve, as meant to be. And then–because I suddenly wanted to hold it in my hands–I took the top one off the stack gingerly and stepped down from the stool. I proceeded to wash it with my fingertips and a spot of dish detergent under running water. I grabbed a tea towel. I decided I wanted to use one, perhaps just once. Applesauce, perhaps. Blueberries. Chocolate covered raisins. I visualized a vivid mound of raspberries against the white hollow in the bowl, rinsing it clean.
And then I dropped the china bowl. It lightly struck the quartz countertop, delicate against rock-hard. Only a bare inch from my hand to surface. I snatched it back up. But too late, though it somehow held together in my wretched hands.
You can imagine the bad words I said. How my heart plummeted. Eighteen years well sequestered and then, when once in two years I take one down to clean it, I drop it? Why was I not ever more careful? (My hands are notorious for dropping things. I suffered severe myalgias and weakness after taking statins 13 years; some days grasping strength is still impacted.) I ought to have called Marc to help. And so on.
I examined the bowl more closely in the light. The thinnest telltale line crossed from the smooth edge of rim and continued two thirds to the other side. I expected it to split apart but it did not, so I firmly pressed it tight together so that the line of fracture disappeared, then set it far back from counter’s edge. And then, after showing it to Marc, I thought once more how often my favorite things have been damaged or destroyed. It has happened again and again–and most often it is an accident not even of my doing. (I have come to see it as a further lesson to not hold tightly to things of this world.) I fussed a bit more, then decided if it sat there safely it might be useful, afterall, until I found the correct glue to fix it. If I dared to fix it. I put raisins in it and plucked them one at a time. The next day I put two pieces of chocolate in it and delicately lifted one piece and the other. The next day, a few crackers. It was being used just fine, but I was wary of moving it. I watched it as if it might.
I know I need to fix it soon, and fix it right. I am the caretaker.
The truth is, these fruit bowls are not mine, but are for my daughter, Naomi. The artist. She was originally to inherit the whole set, twelve of everything imaginable. This is what my mother had told me, and what she told Naomi so long ago. My daughter has been to Germany, also, and she appreciates beautiful, well made and interesting objects. She is my oldest child, was close to my mother dearly (so adored, that woman), visiting her and helping her off and on the last few years. My mother’s children had long gone from Michigan. But her granddaughter Naomi stayed with and worked with her father and his side of her family–construction and plant nursery work– many summers when she had time off from university and later from teaching jobs. Gladwin, a rural area where her paternal kin lived, was not far from Midland where my parents, then only my mother, resided. Mom looked forward to Naomi’s visits greatly. They gabbed, watched television and read, walked, did errands. They both loved to sew, to cook. They enjoyed classical music and much more. Later, when it was needed, my daughter helped with more personal needs. I recall feeling burdensome guilt that I had moved far away, that I could not visit Mom often since I lived in Oregon. And feeling deep gratitude that Naomi could, and without any prompting. She loved her dearly. And was appreciated and loved by Mom.
So the Rosenthal china was to go to Naomi, among other things. But things are open to interpretation when an estate comes into question–if some intentions are not signed and sealed. My oldest sister was the executor of the estate and told me after our mother’s death that it was not going to happen. Apparently, Marinell understood things differently; that Naomi got it was not explicit. She suggested that her daughter would like the china at first but in the end, she determined it would be shipped to her home state of WA. And then, to my surprise and for an unknown reason, I was t old the whole lot was ultimately sold.
Yes, I was aghast. Why did that happen, I wondered. It was entirely uncharacteristic of kind, fair-minded Marinell (now deceased or I wouldn’t write of it), the whole thing. She hadn’t taken my word as the truth. It was very disappointing–and she’d not even thought it might hurt us. Maybe because she had many fine things, herself, it didn’t impact her much in the general view of things. But there it was–the china was gone. Naomi and I simply let it go, as one must–it wasn’t worth holding any grudge.
Except. I had the fruit bowls.
I barely recall it–perhaps such details matter yet they’re blurred–but they were separate from the rest as we sorted things after the funeral. Or they ended up being sent to me accidentally with a box of other things; either may be the case… But Mom likely used them as she loved a small snack of fruit, cottage cheese, carrots and so on. She had left them out, then boxed them up at some point. But I chose to keep them for Naomi as the vast bulk of china slipped away. I knew she would be happy to eat a little yogurt or ice cream or pear slices or strawberries from them one day. My sister never mentioned missing anything. I felt it was justified, even that it was meant to be. They stayed with me and have remained here– until Naomi can use them.
It is about time, I sense. I am not getting any younger. And I don’t want to break one more. They are a meaningful remnant of a time, place and person for her to keep close.
How much do things matter? Things that may not be used as one hopes or imagines? My mother entertained, happily if modestly, and pulled out all the stops when friends or visitors from the arts and education and church worlds came for dinners and lunches. I was a shadow part of that as a teen. I helped prepare food, set the table just so, laid the silver and the place settings. I served others with a smile and a nod. I sat with them at those extraordinary tables–the loveliness of her centerpieces, the light slipping over crystal and silver– and talked about books and music and a mix of ideas. Nothin earth shaking, but good topics. Music played always in the background. I easily crossed over from inquisitive child to a seeking and also forlorn young adult at that table. Such rituals held us all together.
So, that Rosenthal–“All food tastes better when eaten from it” Mom said, and it was true– was partly mine, perhaps, long after my older siblings departed from home, and still when I came around a few more years when attaining adulthood. I never once needed it for myself–I am a mix-and-match person, a casual meal person. I have a cupboard full of handmade mugs, ones from special places; I hold on to chipped pieces. I had a couple of pretty goblets but they–of course–broke. Mom had a different passion for beautiful things, and worked them well into my parents’ middle class, educated, well travelled lifestyle, the pleasing china cabinet brimming with perfect, shining pieces. Ones she used with ease and often, as if it was always so. She, a farmer’s daughter, with an eye for more diverse beauty.
So that was in my mind when I pulled down one bowl–that I ought to use one now and again until Naomi has them for fond use in her own life. I had rarely done so before. I’ve regularly used her bone china teacups sets and those doomed goblets and many other culinary-related items. I have her LLadro figurines in a cabinet. I wear a couple pieces of her good jewelry. But those bowls… Maybe I felt a niggling guilt for having them, though it’s unlikely as the years rolled by and they weren’t missed–who used fruit bowls, anymore? Mostly I wanted them to stay safe.
You never know what means the most until faced with it’s possible loss. I was mad at myself last week and sad, but it didn’t make me weep. I have blinked back a few leaks over few possessions badly ruined. But full tears come easily for me only when it is a true matter of heart. Like when I awakened the other morning with cheeks wet and I thought to myself, Oh yes, it is April, then comes May, June. These times are full of losing a sister, a brother, my mother. Then, after that, my father. And all this has no shape but fills an amorphous realm of bittersweetness, and not one sharp memory to stun me but a tender and brazen moving picture of long, mysterious, amazing lives, and no heft in my hand or within my arms but the silken air and the puzzling ether beyond.
But inside there is resounding love, far more valued and useful than a fine white and floral china bowl meant for berries. Still, I gaze at and touch that broken bowl with a private tenderness. The line remains invisible, but it is there in the center.
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.
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.
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.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson