I have long found weather fascinating– amazing, perplexing, harsh and daunting but always impressive. Its complexity, changeability. Beauty, strangeness, danger.
I grew up living along with four seasons: snow-driven winters and hot, humid summers, unstable yet welcome springs and the glorious palettes of crisp autumns. That meant four kinds of clothing for activities: thick woolens, snow boots, hats, scarves and mittens; delicate dresses, shorts, sandals; rain coats and umbrellas; light-to-medium sweaters with long pants. Being prepared for 12 months meant unboxing then boxing back up items just as one became adapted to the current season.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I discovered the novelty of basically two seasons: Rain and No Rain.
The last three days presents me with the giddy relief of this juxtapositioning: woolly clouds bunching up and releasing precious moisture onto cracked and dusty earth. Onto me. Areas of bare skin are soothed by a long-missed pleasure. An extravagant sweep of wind aids me in my walk as autumn leaves spiral then are swamped in puddles and pools, a few overflowing drains. I breathe more deeply than in months; it’s as if clarified air carries its gifts into hungry red blood cells. But even four days ago there were layers of smoke, vert little brisk walking if any. I am so grateful for autumn’s quick start.
Weather affects all of us, now more than we thought it could. Other places have been tormented by hurricanes and earthquakes and my heart cries out for those ensnared by chaos and loss. More temperate weather events and our safety seem less like something we can count on, and so we live in ever more anxious times. Nature does as nature will do, that is clear, and we adapt, experience threats, know great losses.
Pacific Northwesterners meanwhile are working and playing on and around the Cascadia subduction zone, too, and it gives us pause as we consider the projected catastrophic earthquake that likely will someday occur. There additionally are 18 volcanoes in the Cascade Range, most of which have been active, with 7 so far rumbling and spewing in the last 200 years. There was the eruption of Washington’s Mt. St. Helens in 1980 that choked even our city with ash. I can see Mt. Hood, majestic and formidable, when I cross our many bridges or drive east into the Columbia Gorge.
But lately here in my valley–between the active volcanic Cascade Range and the Tualatin and Coast Ranges–it has been a burning summer, a crackling expanse of vast place and time, fiery days to nights into days and more nights. My body basked in a fan’s whipped-up air, (even hot air) and the trusty AC in most living areas. At one point, 57 days elapsed without rain and then came a short drizzle, then more weeks of no rain. The average temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit but it hit 100 with no problem. And Oregon’s wildfires raged on with over 640,000 acres ravaged at last count. And this wasn’t the worst fire weather on record though it affected many more people right here. With the arrival of the rains, wildfires in the Columbia Gorge are smoldering, perhaps soon extinguished. Fire season may be wrapping up at last.
Those of us either born in the Northwest or who have lived here some time (25 years for me) know there will be doses of very warm weather with bright sunshine off and on for another month. And then the driving, dribbling and chilling, gusty rain will make itself at home and remain until next late spring. Snow has already fallen in the Cascades; ski season may be excellent this year. Unsuspecting newcomers arrive in droves early to late summer and are overjoyed by our dramatically green, dry landscape and sparkling skies, not considering how much rain will fall the remainder of time. We have lots of bars and coffee houses that are even more stuffed in winter. You have to appreciate cloudiness and accept being wet to put down roots.
It is not hard for me, the rainfall. Darker starts to the day with earlier nightfall gentles body and brain, can challenge with cold dampness and insularity but also delight. It works well for writers or for anyone who digs deep into greater depth and breadth of solitude to ponder, dream, create. And my daily walks do not stop. I only hike less in sloping hills, mountains, woodlands–too much muddy trail and threat of landslides. And after the fires, the earth is far more unstable than usual. But hiking can wait for the eventual drying out.
Rain. Water that sustains and wields great power. I chart a new sort of compositional latitude and longitude, how these movements map the autumnal sky. Rain music lifts on a breeze, sinks with a lull, peaks as water pours down and drums roofs, branches, pavement and dirt. The constancy of it. Syncopation and freshly scored tempo. The misty auras of light that rim a horizon and seep from behind mountains–for sun will come and go as rain accumulates, runs with rivers. It fills me with bittersweet longing amid a bone-deep calm. Moves me as it cleaves to growing things, a sheen on all it touches. Teaches me stillness within the whorls of beauty and motion.
I have had enough of blazing blue sky and relentless heat and sweat that thickens along my spine. Had enough of rapacious fire, daily warnings of more being ruined. Perhaps I am weary, too, of my own unexpected life strife, a summer of high hopes and pointed, hard truths for myself and my family. Love and its fractures. Faith that begs to be tested. Strength that shows at times only a fair resolve. Summer can paint everything glorious even amid weakness or pain. But fall and winter…they offer different architectures of internal and external space, those pops of color alongside greyness imbued with scent and sign of rain.
I welcome the wet season. Can manage the shift, shape it into this or that while long blue shadows spread over my desk. What I thought was cool silence is only a breath between notes of rain…like a skirt that is all hidden pattern until it flares in every direction when its wearer begins to dance. My own dances are formed of gratitude, head bowed or lifted high, soul brimming as rain soothes and charges me. Just Monday spontaneous movement unearthed tears as I watched rain streak the air, a tide of tension coming forward, moving away. And there was a good peace felt as God’s presence. There are days I just trust that whatever comes, life will move me along one way or another, even if carried by angels.
The senescence of autumn, its leading to winter is a kindred state for me. A friendly reminder of who I am and yet may become in the midst of upheavals of many sorts. They can bring us each into bolder maturity, richness of spirit as the miracle of life displays inventiveness. Even as circumstances–and weather–inform and press us to be patient. To hold steady, offer a hand. Attend even the ache of it, and then make better where the good must be done.
Since I have not yet photographed rain much this year, I wanted to share farmer’s market scenes enjoyed well before rain visited. How fortunate to partake of the abundance; I do not forget this as I peruse the options for healthy food, alone.
I had thought I’d whip up a short story as usual for my Monday post but opted out. It is Labor Day in the U.S.A., traditionally a day when folks get together with family to share a grilled meal, relax, feel thankful for any decent employment, and grateful to enjoy the fruits of others’ labors that result in providing necessary services or material goods. And that many people can take a break from various labors, as well, during the traditional three day week-end. Marc, my husband, is engaged in the latter, reading books he usually has so little time to dive right into and enjoy.
It also signals summer’s last days, something about which I am not unhappy–it has been a too-hot and arduous summer for many in my family. And I am even longing for the autumn and winter rains. The crackling dryness begins to overtake body and mind, air is oddly tinged with smoke from wildfires–hundred-fifty hikers rescued from the Cascade Mountains over the week-end due to fires– and the skies barren of pretty clouds. It causes an eeriness as we check in to see the extreme fire weather warnings inform as not all that far way, communities are being evacuated. (We were in Cascade Locks and also some of these hiking areas a week ago; I noted extreme dryness in that post: https://talesforlife.blog/2017/08/30/young-or-older-we-are-carried-forward/)
I feel subdued, a hair and a half off, one of those days when a health issue presses upon me like a wet blanket, not “suffocating” but an aggravating nuisance. Enervating. Anyway, we saw most everyone yesterday at a picnic for a birthday. And our adult children–those in the area–are today in the midst of 1) a aiding a partner recovering from an emergency surgery 2) preparing for an important job interview and 3) busy with own family. Another one I chat with daily; she is on East coast time. And another has lately become a bit incommunicado. Family is complicated. Always loved no matter where we are, what we are up to, when we may meet again.
This vein of thought leads me to concerns of those in Houston, Texas and beyond who are dealing with ordinary life being wrenched from them. What a paramount misery it must be for many thousands, what they would give for a home to again languish within, a chance to grill a burger or veggie, to sit with friends and family and chat about nothing of import. My heart hurts for them. Simple routine work must seem a faraway dream: work now means finding shelter, safe food and water, tending to medical issues resultant of the hurricane with its winds, torrential rains and historic flooding. Let us not forget to offer healing prayers and offer money if we can spare a few dollars for organizations that directly aid the victims.
So all this gives me pause today, and if these words comprise not a diverting story or cheery essay, life gets so gritty and can bring me to a pensive state. It happens to us all.
Another thought is that this is typically the last day before school commences following summertime, whether small children and youth or young adults entering college. I saw various grandchildren yesterday at the picnic . They are very excited to resume work in school starting this week. Leisure time will again develop more value when they are caught in the throes of serious studies. Before they know it, they’ll be sweating away at a grown up job.
So, Labor Day: I have been retired from counseling work for over four years now. But I recall demands of work and endless domestic needs, the deep relief of keeping some time protected, separated from employment though it might yet skirt edges of consciousness–even with beaded glass of iced tea in one hand, a glossy magazine in the other while basking in the sun.
I may still find myself waxing nostalgic about daily problem solving re: the quality of human life (with which I love to be engaged) and small victories (rather reassuring) and losses (which hurt but part and parcel of working with people in crisis). I held such passion for my job 45-55 hours/week. I still live a life stuffed with obligations and activities as well as the unpaid, tedious and enthralling labors of writing–and thinking of writing; reading copiously; more revising, ever more writing. Why, if no money is generously thrown into my bank account with promises of far-flung travel and public readings and… well, all those outrageous trappings? I simply cannot stop myself, it’s that much fun and fury. Each day, another writing adventure and i am panting, trying to keep up with all the ideas.
So. It doesn’t quite feel like I am being a bonafide laggard or, God forbid, a barely moving slug. We can always do more, of course.
My husband certainly enjoys each moment he can attend to without urgency or consequence. His work requires such attention on a daily basis so he should be at his absolute leisure (okay, he watered a few balcony plants, scrubbed the tub for me), absorbing all peace and quiet he can. For him, just not having to travel as much to “put out fires” in the aggressive world of manufacturing is a balm. So I’d consider this day a day spent well enough; he at the least deserves it. As do all others who toil so routinely.
In the end, each day is what it is; I am grateful to be able to live them as they come, not matter what the hours may require. My life is decidedly not “picture perfect” today or any other. It all still matters–whether any of us is notably industrious or not.
Such work for so short a beautiful life on the wing
For some creatures, work is never done
I hope you folks out there are finding ways in which to enjoy time off work (if you celebrate Labor Day). Perhaps you also are taking stock of bounties and challenges. Stop and feel good about yourselves for doing what you do. And if you’re inclined toward a more pointed, factual post on Labor Day, you can find one from last year, here: US Labor Day=Time Out with a Day Off
This pictorial post is about two things: being alive and thank God for it; and my youngest daughter celebrating her birthday. It’s the 37th one for her today. Yes, how swift is time’s passing…and how wonderful to have A. in our lives more since she and her husband moved from the Monterey-Carmel area (California) back to Portland (Oregon). I think it brave of her to leave a good position in order to live, play and further her career in the Northwest, closer to family.
I am allowed to post a few pictures of her that are already public, taken during her work at Sunset Center in Carmel-by-the Sea. It could seem a bit glamorous at times! It is in a performing arts center; she worked in management doing publicity/marketing and community/educational development. Arts management/administration remains her line of work.
But first, an old, not too clear “actual snapshot” of her: the summer before kindergarten, age 4 and a half. She was a tiny gal for a few years due to a medical condition, but she had a large store of verve and curiosity and could charm a dour stranger in the grocery, a passerby on the street. That vivacious spirit remains in full force.
At that time we lived in a spacious, enjoyable A-frame house on a lovely acre in Tennessee. There remain some good recollections of the seven of us living there despite being Northerners in the South where Confederate flags were yet flown–and likely still are. (I’ve written a post or two on our unusual move to Tennessee–we didn’t live in a house when we first arrived!– if you care to do a search on this blog.)
On the left, A. is in the center with the wine red dress; on right, giving a speech at an event. A parent cannot foretell exactly what or where one’s children will end up doing or being but I imagined the arts would figure prominently when she was a dancing, singing toddler. Suffice it to say: I am rooting for her, I believe in her and love her dearly. And she believes in and loves her Mom back. Lucky me to have such caring kids (adult kids, that is–sort of forget this reality, some moments).
(I would love to show family pictures, but she prefers more privacy.)
Now for the next topic, if you will bear with my randomness today. It connects to the first half in that my very life is predicated in large part on love of family and others, this beleaguered, breathtaking earth, creative expression and the numinosity of God.
For those readers who may not have read many posts, I manage–like too many–the condition of heart disease. And this past week-end marked the 16th year since my heart lurched and squeezed so hard I could barely breathe, then toppled me to my knees when hiking in the Columbia Gorge. I always make the trek out to Bridal Veil Falls. It is within the historic Gorge that is carved, in large part, by the mighty Columbia River, amid the Cascade Mountains.
Diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at 51, two stent implants saved the day. In time–a year or so–I returned to active engagement in life. I did not hike that area for a few years, however, perhaps out of fear and also due to tricky cardiac rhythms. So it is always a relief to be able to go back now each year, the scene of the event and attendant new challenges. It is not a totally easy hike in to the waterfalls. So I deeply feel the victory in it, a blessing and a sign of hope, a balm for my older but still raring-to-go body. To go out into the world and especially into nature using legs and eyes; nose and ears; mind, heart and soul– this superbly designed vehicle within which we carry ourselves–is such a gift I can barely express its worth to me. I will let the pictures speak.
My spouse, Marc, and I paused at a viewpoint at Portland Women’s Forum State Park to take in the expansive scenes of Columbia River Gorge. The domed, interior marble-clad building is Vista House, completed in 1918. It sits atop a basalt promontory of Crown Point, approximately 740 feet above the river. The building was designed as a memorial for the pioneers of the 1800s who made their treacherous way across Oregon, hewing trails in the mountainous forests as they went. The haze is due to smoke from wildfires in the Cascade Mountains. It can be blown about everywhere, of course, even into Portland. The Oregon Department of Forestry notes that there have been 754 fires as of this date since January 2017. Lightning strikes have ignited about 28,000 acres; humans have caused fires on about 5000 acres at this time. This is a lot of acreage scoured by fire; we have had unusually sustained high temperatures in the state this summer, with precious little rain for three months. The dryness is worrisome as we hike in all areas.
Climbing the narrow road to our hiking spots.
Evidence of the dry terrain.
Climbing via vehicle on narrow roads to our hiking spots on left; on right, evidence of the extremely dry terrain.
We first stopped at Horsetail Falls, a favorite but partly to escape heat that had followed us into the mountains. Once outdoors and hiking the air was transformed, refreshingly cool.
Moving on past several other waterfalls, we arrived at our destination, Bridal Veil Falls and began the descent, then ascent. The slideshow shows our arrival, beginning at the empty bridge. (Marc was caught gazing pensively over a gate at the end of a forestry service road.)
It was a joy to complete this small, private pilgrimage again. At the 15 year (2016) mark and still managing heart disease well enough, I felt like falling to my knees and hands again to “kiss” the good earth in thanksgiving–and did so. This year it was enough to take in the bounties of nature, at peace deep in blood and marrow. We never know when what we love might be impossible to wholly embrace, so it is best to unite one’s self with every good and gracious moment.
This essay is not truly about dogs so don’t be disappointed if you read on. I, rather, was thinking of finding or creating a quiz: when a person has such and such traits, what sort of animal would they be most like? Or would they want to be like if you asked them? We do at times compare people to non-human creatures, let’s be honest–either due to physical characteristics or their natures. We may even feel pull to a certain animal, or a connection that moves us. Although I noted dogs in the title, I’m not sure I would be one if there was a choice but sometimes I do feel the desire to yelp, pounce, bark and growl, act funny and be tricky, hide, sneak and bite–rather, those human equivalents. Not every day is a cuddly kind of day, to say the least.
At times I think a wolf is closer to what I imagine choosing to become. Yes, I know, that has nearly become boring; most people have a thing for (or against) our resurgence of grey wolves. They are majestic: intelligent strategizing, fine physical prowess, loyalty to the pack, team predatory skills and beautiful songs.
But on the other side of the fence, so to speak, there are black panthers with their trademark grace and sly ferocity, nocturnal sensory equipment and precise hunting skills. Who cannot admire such stealth and power, the wondrous design of their sleekness? Plus, they even live in the Amazon, a place I have been drawn to all my life.
What draws me in the end–how do I connect to them? Mysterious and wild (so different from me) and strong, smart, spectacular to watch and hear. So I consider both wild canine, wild feline. I could be more creative in choices but these two mammals have long fascinated me. Among others…I seem to feel a tug to many. I am easily mesmerized by other beings in the world. Birds, insects, ocean life of all sorts and so on: I have a wide ranging passion for Mother Nature and her critters.
So I want to note that the other day there was a familiar piercing/whistling call in a neighborhood park. I looked up, stood riveted for a good fifteen minutes. I had thought at first they were ospreys. Oh, to be a bird! My eyes were trained on treetops as people passed me by. But a couple stopped; we watched three beautiful, powerful birds fly back and forth far above, calling to one another. A park staff person later corrected me–they were Cooper’s hawks, which excited me even more. They were nesting in our park? I had only seen them from afar in the country. Amazing. But it seemed similar enough to an osprey call that I looked up them up on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. To my delight, I discovered it was a specific call heralding food delivery to the nest.
Yes, I might wish to be a bird, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk.
Still, have been thinking more about dogs since caring for daughter’s very young cat a couple of months. I sometimes daydream about finally getting another dog. Still, I don’t currently have a dog as I believe domesticated animals are happier outdoors rather than indoors or at least both. I live in an apartment. Maybe I’m projecting my preferences…but my last was a Brittany Springer spaniel, twenty-five years ago.
I do like cats overall despite being allergic and disliking being scratched. I’ve lived with a few. The last was a temperamental (are there any other sorts) calico the same daughter chose as a young teen. Mandy-Cat was lovely and irritating, not so affectionate but intensely loyal. My current guest cat, Hyundai, named for the car under which it somehow hitched a 45 minute ride and emerged without a scratch, is a feisty and possibly feral male of perhaps five months. He likes to skitter up to the top of a balcony screen door and sniff about wildly; run ramrod over couch and chairs at midnight; make capturing a tea towel from the refrigerator handle into a Herculean challenge. He takes possession of one nylon shopping bag as if it were his perfect prey or a comfy abode, whichever he deigns to make it.
I might not choose to be this cat. On the other hand, he is imbued with a grand spirit of adventure, a certain charming meow, and we chat with one another throughout the day with a few positive results. Perhaps it was Hyundai who has inspired me to think again about the nature of people versus the nature of other animals. And what all that means, after all, since I am not an animal behaviorist, just a mere retired human mental health clinician. So it is natural I examine my personal attitudes and actions, ferreting out why I am who I am–and how humans are so unlike one another despite sharing so many traits. (Likely other animals are also more alike than different but a zoologist would likely prove me wrong.)
I love what dog shows call “the working dog group”. I admire huskies because they are hard working, energetic and alert with superior endurance and stamina, friendly and playful and smart as well as being furry-attractive (lovely eyes, too). They’re team workers, fleet of foot, eminently trainable and love to do a great job. I also admire German shepherds for similar qualities as well as others, though perhaps they might be less readily sociable I have high regard for their capability of working within dangerous situations, their intelligent behaviors. They’re very loyal, thus excellent guard dogs. They also can certainly attack and bite. I imagine all dogs do at times–fear being a trigger and territoriality–but it appears that huskies are far less likely than German shepherds to react aggressively, according to statistics about serious dog bites (they are perhaps third or fourth on lists I’ve read). Still, they can make fine companions as do huskies. They are simply different dogs.
So what does all this have to do with my musings? Its about reactions to stimuli in part. Other animals seem to be more straight forward about things, do exactly what they need to do and are clean and simple about it. I would like to be more like that some days. To the absolute point but smarter about matters, especially complex ones….a human debacle.
I’ve been mulling over a few situations the past months wherein I responded with feelings and words that were not altogether comfortable for me. Nor, I suspect, the receivers of those responses. I have instincts like any other animal so can sniff out any danger, find weak spots in my life, seek to minimize unnecessary discomfort and maximize well being. I am protective of those I love; work hard to seek and maintain the aspects of life I welcome and enjoy; adapt to the randomness the best I can and try to learn well from it. People have called me courageous, intimidating, loyal, dominating, compassionate and nonjudgmental, insightful, powerful when angry and intense if distressed. I am unable to lay claim on any of these without scrupulous, ongoing self-examination. But I do know many of my weaknesses as well as some of my strengths and a few ring a bell.
We all have our “hot buttons.” I suspect that something perceived as an intrusion into the hallowed realms of family or friends is close to the top of the list. Another would be when we feel attacked at an emotionally vulnerable place (and, of course, physically unwanted touch). Yet another might be when we feel our basic dignity is being disregarded. And also if we feel betrayed by someone well and long trusted. Misunderstandings of various sorts come and go; tempers are sure to flare a bit. But deeper woundings are harder from which to rebound, and certainly to manage well with the wisdom of tact and consideration. Fairness may go out the window. It is just harder to move past differences, to forgive and forget when whatever occurred hurts greatly, whether or not another can understand the why or wherefore of it. But a lack of understanding or a respect of one’s viewpoint makes the dig even deeper.
I am first and last a student here, learning new skills to deal with my and others’ most human hurts. It is trickier when a conflict and resulting skirmish seem avoidable. How to soothe the scratches and gouges well, help them heal up right? Isn’t it in part connected to an initial reaction to those first irritating words, boundary crossings, oversights? The greater surprise and harder the fight, the harder and faster the fall.
I should know this by now. I learned early on to protect myself. I had to be quick of mind and foot. We all find ways to take care of ourselves when we meet up with bullies or hecklers, those who practice criticism as a prime activity or seek to do any sort of injustice. (Just being a kid and a youth can seem to put one at risk, especially in these times.) For me, it was critical to learn how to be brave, to become self reliant, perceptive and quick witted.
By my twenties I was developing a diamond-hard carapace about my core being that was rarely removed. I walked and talked like a person who was carrying a sort of weather flag denoting a “watch” or a “warning”: be wary/mess with me at your own risk. I knew how to be gracious, to talk a good talk and underneath it all was a sincerity and, oddly, confidence that authenticated my behaviors. But I was always in command of myself, my jobs and surroundings, my life as much as possible–even when my life was unmanageable, I rallied and tried to commandeer strength out of sheer stubbornness. right or wrong.
I was often told that when I walked into a room and down the street, people took immediate notice…it was the surety and hardness of my footfall with confident strides, squared shoulders and head high. But these also caused folks to pause, to assess if I would be an alliance or enemy. I’ve been not always embraced, more often respected. (I wondered the same about them, truth be told.)
Back then I knew how to labor hard, to be counted upon, to fight for what I believed in. And, I think, how to love with ardor and steadiness–that is, when a serious trust was tested and proven. But as time passed I discerned better how to use armor when most needed, to relent when it was helpful, to soften responses so my presentation changed, reactions were subtler. It felt as if it came at some personal cost until I fortified myself with better counseling, deeper prayer and acceptance of God’s abiding care and presence in my living. I tinkered with this and that, tossed out more irksome, useless bits. In time I found my life a synthesis of better aligned spirit, body, feelings and intellect.
Still, there remains the conundrum that though I long to be a finer human being, I am flawed so much more than hoped. The right circumstances with the wrong statement made to me and I can strike when I should remain restrained. I snarl when I should be silent; I jump up when remaining sitting down is a better course to take. I snag and grind a resentment when releasing it could be as mere breath floating from my lips. I want to be a good human creature, expectant of joy, civilized and stalwart and caring. I just cannot seem to always succeed in the follow through. I have to pause and rethink some occasions or better yet, take a big step back and let everything be. I don’t have to have the last word in all scenarios; I need to pick times it can retain most value. In fact, it can be more useful to seek a truce. And then comes an experience more satisfying, the enlarging graciousness of deeper peace.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be more a husky than a German shepherd. Oh, I know the second breed is very clever, dauntless and fierce and loyal. But I am more and more interested in being a full team player as well as brightly independent, one who can go to utmost limits but then is rewarded with rest as adjunct to rambunctious fun. One who will never forsake those I care for but who is more than happy to meet new neighbors–all with little to no threat of biting from either side. Well, other animals might say I make too much of it; they must find life more simply defined: birth and survival, play, hunting, mating, eating and sleeping, more family, hunting and survival, aging and death. Strength and wiliness must win out.
I think I hear a distant woof and howl.
I’ve determined I would most happily be a husky (or a grey wolf in the wild), perhaps not a German shepherd…but then, how can I know for sure? Depending in the end on what works best and what would be required of me. Depending on what was offered for work and love–as well as mealtime and play. And shelter and safety. Or is all that rather too human?
Scenario 1: A parent settles against a pillow propped on a bedroom wall next to his young son, now curved about the warm bulk of his father. Readied for a visit to a marvelous world, then sleep, dreamtime. A worn book is drawn from a jumbled pile on the nightstand and opened. The first well-thumbed page is gazed upon, soon given life as the father reads beginning paragraphs of a familiar, always beloved tales of the Berenstain Bears. They’re family tales of daily living. They include a small adventure with a moral that teaches three cubs a lesson or two about ordinary but challenging scenarios: a visit to the dreaded dentist, a not-so-predictable fishing trip, going to school even when you feel unpopular, or how to manage when mother or dad is sick and how to weather death of a pet or friend. It satisfies every time, these stories, and the boy drifts off after the very last lines which are recited by heart.
Scenario 2: The children lean into the firelight, shoulder-to-shoulder with adult family members. One with a deeply lined face and hardened hands and feet sits tall within the circle. She intones a saga of fears and hardships, of courage and perseverance, survival and joyful victory. It is one that has been handed down for generations, and encompasses spiritual beliefs of the tribe. The ways of community are also inscribed in that tale, the prohibitions, rituals, customs. There arrives humor along with pathos and emotions fill the room as each listens and gains something anew. And takes comfort in the gathering of so much love and learning.
Scenario 3: On a falling down stoop an older boy sits above younger children. He half-playacts a story of the mad one who once lived in the neighborhood. He crept through shadows by day and later roamed the blind darkness, stealing food and even garbage, stealing day and night dreams, stealing light from the moon and streetlamps, leaving a mess of bad energy. There was a gang of kids who found then lost and found again the shadow man. But they got together and took turns keeping food safe and at least one street light on. The dreams, they had to be made up, shared with each other but kept safe from the shadow man, kept for the future.
The story is for children who must trust and depend on each other. Adults are chancy. Kids, it is clear, can adapt, are strong, are fleet of foot and mind, gather hope. They laugh and shiver and huddle together.
Stories: we enter the world as a collaboration of new and old story, a fresh new suit to live in, then at long last leave it, letting go of its billowing hem and frayed seams. In between birth and death flesh and soul are torn and banged up, repaired and made anew with stories. Ours and others’. Why are stories so vital in our lives, both youthful and grown up?
They can make or break us with reassurances or new ideas or warnings of worse to come. They can change our individual courses, reinforce what we know, challenge a community’s accepted ways. And they inform us of where we come from and who we are expected to be–or how to be someone unlike the usual, acceptable child, woman or man. We absorb these things before we can read, take a lead in the storytelling. We may even learn it from birth, when we are named for someone the parents value or given creative names unlike any other. They have meaning, our origins, our names, the textured stories woven with others we are told. There are legends with which we are gifted by a country’s long history, by cultures, by family, by friends and lovers.
Do you recall the first stories you were given as a small child? Was it a prayer you memorized alongside a small poem? Perhaps a family tale whether inspiring or unnerving to carry forward. Or a tattered book handed down from siblings. Later there is ongoing table talk, random neighborhood chatter about this person or that, our own individual moments–they all comprise a framework within which to grow, struggle. Every day, circuits of shared language operate within larger story talk. Language provides form and function to feelings, defines hopes and beliefs, strengthens attitudes, disavows what is not acceptable, tallies the truth.
Whatever truth is. Isn’t truth what we are told and at some point what we learn to tell ourselves? Even that blur between truth and lie becomes part of being informed about life’s puzzles and signals as we accessed that lie somehow. It impacts how well we may or may not operate with the personhood developed.
It can be argued that storytelling creates one’s real life viewpoint, values, expectations. It may determine the trajectory of our lives, our personas as well as our authentic, at times guarded selves. We are shaped from an early age by what we hear and see, by what we gather into us. Our families teach us first, those who cared for us or did not.
I grew up with a mother who was, by any standard, moderately verbose. She said it was because she was Irish, was strongly pulled into life with its characters and events. I hung on every word. I just thought she was born a natural storyteller, but perhaps that was one and the same. Animated, emotionally reflective, expressive with her hands as well as language, she could make a walk to the grocery and back an anecdote that entertained.
She tucked me into bed with amazing (to me, a little girl in the city) stories about growing up on a farm, playing tough games of basketball in school, being best friends and then falling in love with my father as a teenager, making her way to college despite stiff odds because she was not going to be a farmer’s wife. She loved talking about her large extended family. It was as if they walked in and out, sharing their own entertaining monologues.
What I learned was that her family was resilient, affectionate, stubborn and a bit rough around the edges at times and could create something from nothing. And that pigs were smart but could be mean. That cleaning a barn was a thankless job and that fresh eggs were the tastiest despite hands being pecked often. That strangers might come to the back door looking for a handout of food if times were hard and be given what could be spared. That Gypsy infants had pierced ears but other children did not get to have them. That losing his good farm in the Depression did my Grandfather Kelly, whom I never met, right in.
I also heard that persistence and belief in one’s self could change a life. Being a strong and athletic girl was a good and fun thing to be. And that curiosity was a near-sacred thing, imagination a great tool but I must leaven both with common sense. Her words reflected a basic bedrock of hope even amid despair. Her life was a vivid series of stories within stories and it seemed bigger than regular life to me–but she said all lives were like that, astonishing.
My father was quiet, some might say so introspective that he was silent much of the time. But his eyes spoke to me: thrilled, sad, angry, bemused, proud, amused, worried. A look from those large light blue eyes took the place of fifty fancy words. His fine grasp of language at home was used when he felt the words would add interest to a topic but felt my mother was better at elucidating matters. Yet I had heard him speak to large audiences when he conducted musical groups, for church affairs, in classrooms, at conferences, for public occasions–and his way with words was succinct while humorous and also wise. He was a born public speaker. He loved a good joke. He taught me pacing, ways to capture attention with that smooth delivery. People listened deeply to what he said, yet he spoke with a humble elegance that struck me each time.
But he also taught me about praying and faith. That riding a good bike well taught me balance and gave me strength, joy and a practical means to various ends. He taught me that learning world history provided a structure for the present and future, even mine. And any sort of travel meant opening a door to surprises that illuminated life in big or small ways. His many actions and fewer words instilled in me the idea that anything can be fixed as solutions abound; that civility is a valuable thing; and I am responsible for my actions. That music was God’s mouth. He told most of his stories, though, by conducting, teaching and arranging music, and by playing musical instruments. Best of all for me, he would play piano for fun, the notes nuanced and light and I would sing jazz standards beside him, his voice chiming in here and there.
Storytelling was a given in my life. It is for most people, no matter time or place. But sometimes one’s story seems not so easy a thing to tell, much less embrace.
When starting out as a mental health and addictions clinician I was given an opportunity to teach–more guidance with teaching tossed in–addicted, high risk, gang-affiliated or -affected youth. One of my duties was to help the actual teacher at the alternative school classroom in the residential treatment center. I tutored and engaged them in various activities as well as planned and facilitated field trips (including ballet and opera, which most even enjoyed). But what I longed to do was enable creative writing experiences. So I did.
Each day young men and women took their places at tables, bored and slouchy, irritated with one more class– writing, at that. My only objective two times a week was to encourage them to put a few words down on paper, then a few more until it might grow to a page full of phrases. Daydreams and feelings welcomed. I wasn’t correcting grammar, spelling, syntax–this was not my interest. The kids were asked to reach in and seize their complicated or simple stories and put them into a form that clarified things for them.
When traditional prompts of opening sentences or magazine photos provoked less than I had hoped, I sought aid beyond the usual box. I couldn’t fill up a whole 45 minutes with my own voice; they wouldn’t put up with that, either. One day I decided to bring in the facility’s “boom box”. I asked them to choose music to play as long as it didn’t center on drug use or violence–a hard thing for them. Then they were to write whatever came into their heads. What they wrote was still bombastic and violent, a loose stream of consciousness. Still, anything was a good start. It was the early nineties so I suggested they put those fragments into a rap of their own. It was poetry class that day in my mind, and in theirs it was a chance to voice their mind’s contents in ways the felt more comfortable.
After they were done–they all seemed to scribble down something–most were hesitant, masking it as usual as toughness and boredom. I picked a guy who had musical talent and he stood up and gave a short intense performance. The group hooted and tried to hurl insults but they responded rather than show their stoniest faces. They relaxed then better participated. Their offerings were vividly descriptive, at times bloody and bitter but each piece was a true creation of what they felt, saw, heard in their lives. Some may have exaggerated–they had to be as “bad” as the others– but the context was honest, feelings raw.
I had to be careful to not start a firestorm of emotion, to be calm and firm. Unafraid of what they wrote. “Just tell it like it is, tell your own story,” I encouraged each time, “no one is getting judged or graded.” As they worked away I stood nearby, answered a few questions, then sat at back of the room as they spoke aloud their words. Haltingly at first, then more expressively as time wore on. And if someone skipped saying parts aloud, that was alright for the moment. It was for their benefit, not mine, I assured them. They were at last engaging in story making and telling.
I tried other routes. I might choose a word or a pair that seemed opposites then put them on the chalkboard. Ask them what song they’d choose to sum up their day and then write additional verses. Or suggest they share what their mothers were like or what their fathers advised them. Or what it was to live on the street, need the next heroin fix, steal for alcohol and drugs or food–but all on their terms. Incomplete sentences was okay. Single words listed one after the other was fine. A rap song of their wars or their loves, the bullets dodged, a knife fight they survived. I asked them to put an object they cared about on the table, write about why they kept it close. A picture of family could free more words than anything despite their running away or being sent away.
It wasn’t fast or easy. But they knew I wouldn’t back down, either. They resisted, they argued, they refused to do much some days. I read them prose and poetry they occasionally liked, sometimes dismissed, also found stupid. I brought in books they might read. I played recordings of poetry slam poets that they enjoyed. And I told a few stories of my own life, not too much but just enough that they knew I wasn’t really Miss Junior League, after all. And I admitted I was a writer.
They didn’t give up on me and the class nor I, on them.
Sometimes a braver kid would lead the way and other times a quieter one would show boldness. But soon I was being regaled with portraits of these youth. Fragmented, harsh, filled with hurt that gnawed at them and too often a lack of hope for better days. They were stories of daily adaptability, of survival, of some good intentions if even they may have failed. One of the most important subjects they wrote of was their mothers. And younger siblings. They said they would die for them, period; death was not the worst they could imagine. But they tried to stay alive for them, anyway, despite a precarious existence.
Some were good writers, a few talented. But they all offered stories that moved me. Helped me think more deeply about who they were. Made me better understand various culture clashes. There were rival gang members sitting near one another, writing poetry or memoir. Most of them began to channel aggressions and pain more effectively–not as often shouting abuse or talking over everyone else or starting a senseless, black-out fight during which police would be called.
Their stories were imbued with greatness: their intimate voices, given some power and heard a better. They began to see writing as a tool to map the landscape of their lives and sussed out some of the whys of what they felt and thought, a dawning of insight and accomplishment. Over time, youths slid up to me after class and said, “I get it now (a feeling, problem, desire, loss) a lot better. I couldn’t figure out how to explain it. Or I was too freaked out to say it out loud.” In that way, aspects of who they were became parts they could examine and feel, then piece together. This was no small feat for kids whose operative mode was a rage brewed from self-hate. Some decided to keep writing after classes. They had found an outlet, a way to frame their past and present with words. Ideas and possibilities. No one told me the class was worthless. And later in their rooms or in the hallways when some of the kids got obstreperous or combative, I would tell them: “Go write it down.” And more and more often, they chose to do that.
What did they learn about themselves by writing and telling their own stories? If nothing else, they more clearly identified from whom and where they had come and who they might be if not in gangs, on the street, in the drug house, in juvenile detention. There were moments of hope pushing between those fervid lines. They could say things that mattered. Their words were worth being heard. What I gained was deeper compassion. Patience. Greater faith in the creative process. Gratitude to be able to work with them for nearly five years.
I also worked with Native American women in another residential setting. The results were strikingly similar but powerful in different ways. Many of those women were also wives, mothers and grandmothers; their burdens were heavy with years of experiences. The prohibition against speaking the truth of their private lives was intense. To speak of traumatic things that had happened was physically taxing. Writing was hard, too. But when encouraged to share histories and dreams and fears orally in their own tongue first, sing their songs, dance, they began to speak. And weep. We always stretched and breathed deeply first to loosen the bones, to open the heart. We even danced our own simple line dances, snaking down hallways of the institution. And they began to smile, to even laugh, and to not often cry as if they could not stop. They embraced each other despite having held enmity toward one another due to multi-generational grudges between tribes, or certain members, even relatives. By speaking their truth, they came nearer the next steps needed to rebuild and share their lives. When they went from whispering with eyes downcast to raising arms, stamping feet and shouting out joy, I knew they’d begun to help save themselves with more transformative stories. It was the good racket resultant of thawing out many “frozen” stories. They were reclaiming more of their lives from addictions.
The body holds its stories inside the skin, in heart and mind. Sometimes excavating them is hard; sometimes they come as riding a river to freedom. Other times, in bits and spurts. But they’re waiting to come to light.
What stories do you tell your children, your friends, yourself? Are they true? That is, are they what you really mean? Do they offer something that is valued, that can mark you as who you are or want to become? Is your life story more submerged, floating along or making waves? You can help it speak richly and freely. Sharing your unique and so human story helps you and others live better. It connects one to the other.
My son and I were talking the other day about my lifelong urgent desire to know things, to root out and hold close authenticity in this life. That this is the writer’s way. He immediately understood what I meant. Since he writes songs and loves to orally share stories, I suggested he write them down more often.
“Mom, that’s for you to do and that’s good. I am the story–I’m right here living mine,” he said, then put an arm about my shoulders as he barbecued under tall evergreens in his yard.
That’s what we all do, every day: inhabiting the story we make anew each day. Share yours, won’t you? See what happens.