Any day can be a day of gratitude for fathers but Sunday being Father’s Day, we spent time with my son, his wife and his son, as well as our daughter, our son-in-law and their two 14 month olds (plus one other daughter with partner). Gabriel Park has great groves of trees and broad grassy areas, woods and a community garden. Many people wore masks as did Marc and I though this was in open air with plenty of space –much safer. Son Josh (Falk), a pro skater, and Asher (14, long hair–our grandson), were mask-less due to much sweaty athletic activity. They had a great time out there sharing a mutual passion.
I can’t show much of the now-toddling granddaughters as it is preferred we do not. But I took action photos of the guys skateboarding. Josh has been skating since he was 12; he is 45, still sponsored with his skateboards and other items sold, and photographed for magazines (though he’s a contractor full-time). During most of my shots a man (in a black t-shirt) who was filming asked, without knowing who I was, if he was ruining my shots. I laughed, “Oh, I have hundreds of shots of my son, several of my grandson!” He asked who it was so I said, “The guy you’re filming mostly today!” He replied with surprise and appreciation that I was his Mom, out there a dazzlingly hot hour shooting away, in my sweaty mask. Hubby Marc relaxed on a bench.
Earlier in the day we met with another part of the family. Here is a far more protective picture with the toddlers and their parents–sorry to not share more. We brought fruit and animal crackers–those growing girls loved munching on a pear and a peach, and our short visit was good fun!
On through the trees and into the community garden area to finish the beautiful day.
An altogether happy Father’s Day with loved ones. My own father passed away 30 years ago, but he is lovingly recalled. I hope you were able to appreciate your fathers and grandfathers, here or gone, as well.
It was my intention to get up at a decent hour and head to the coast with Marc for at least a look-see. It was to be a considerable consolation to visit the Pacific Ocean for a day since we are not yet taking a hoped for road trip through eastern Oregon and Idaho. It meant I’d re-post a piece from a few years’ back, something I’ve rarely done in ten years of writing and posting on WordPress. But for such a great reason.
I just wanted out. To embrace some real freedom. Out of our home, out of our city, released of some of the binding constraints imposed by Times of a Most Terrible Virus. I had read about “quarantine malaise”, and I considered that it might be creeping up on me a couple weeks back. This day trip was a healthy act of self-care–for Marc and for myself. Blue skies predicted! The roaring lull of big waves guaranteed! Piney forest air plus sea salt=a thrill+peace. An equation for a span of pleasure.
Over the ramparts we go, then! Face the relentless threats semi-armed and mostly fearless! Off to sea and its radiant, wild delights!
However, life is a chameleon that will trick you despite solid strategies to avoid any such tricks.
Last night a chronic health condition flared badly and as usual with bad timing it followed me to bed, where I attempted to fall asleep, not fooled by my desire to do so. This is not a new thing; I have years of practicing the inexact art of living with insomnia. I sometimes am victorious without any aids; most often I sweat it out. But I can give in and take half a pill of something that seems much more benign than not halfway resting. Luckily, when I finally seek an aid, a little medicine goes a long way toward a triumph. This is noted for those of you who haven’t followed me long: I am several decades past being a drinking, pill-popping part-mad woman, a user of self defeating escape routes. For any reason. Some nights I nearly (but not truly) regret that–at wide eyed 4 a.m.–but persist in the ways to wellness. (I might add that I savor Sleepytime or Tension Tamer tea nightly, perhaps even Kava tea a couple hours before bedtime.) I know where I am headed by 11 or 12, and it isn’t always kindly there, no sweet rocking chair drowse, despite a fine book.
But I am lying there (alone–made the smart move long ago as he also has sleep issues) with intermittent punching of pillows to reshape/ reposition them, re-smoothing sheets (or even re-tenting the top sheet about my head), re-settling limbs into a tolerable degree of discomfort, listening to and shushing hidden innards griping–yes, lying there and thinking: This is not what June was to be. As if that would be a revelation to anyone in the world. I repeat a variation silently. This is not the life I had hoped for at 70. As if it was planned for by the 7, 17 or 37 year olds, the middle aged folks and beyond when one might feel a tad more secure or at least on near horizon. All humanity has been aghast at what lies beyond their door–and also inside it, at times. What on earth is next?I shall not fear– but fear I do now and then, as one does.
I get too hot, toss off a a layer. But the vexations begin even as prayers are recited with earnestness. And any whiff of gratitude is often noted on the bumpy night path. I can still breathe, no coughing or fevers, I am okay, overall, so far, and we have food to eat, and family not far.
Last night I was fortunate: it was not even 2 a.m. when I last looked at the clock. Which I do try to not look at, but I tend to count how many hours I will need to function. Say, at 2 I will still need at least 6 –until 8 or 9 in the morning–to function reasonably well. But this is not often fulfilled on that kind of night. Rather, hit or miss, take what you get and be glad to awaken feeling like an only slightly less than average older human, overall. I might get to sleep at 2 awaken at 5, finally sleep at 7:30 again, get up at–gasp–10. It is a messy way to live in some regard but works well enough if it must.
But not this morning did I roll out of bed and feel fit enough. I surmised I may not have deeply slept, at all–a blur of soreness and uncertainty, getting up and down, reading, trying to not check my phone, then at last almost acquiescing to sounds of the fan on low and a meditation app on repetitive ocean waves. And there is a fragrance diffuser that releases something like a lavender scent. It wafts about, then lingers only briefly as if reluctant to bear witness to my wrestling. There is a small lavender sachet under my pillow, though–a back-up.
All this did not spare me of dreamy fragments and waking exhausted. (I always wonder what planet I was on, what was that room crammed with people who looked like escapees from an old fashioned carnival?)
I came a bit more awake. The heralding sun sneaking through slats designed a stripey pattern across carpet and skin: a show of shadow, light. I watched it move, barely–I don’t see well without help–and it shimmered. But it was really the first morning I have lain there (since March) and had this thought: why must I push off bed covers and press feet to ground and run water for a shower and get dressed to greet the day?How is this day any different from all those that ran, pranced, crept, and slogged before it? But I kept on and dash it all to any doubts that came.
The high ramparts I saw in my mind were daunting, the views a mixture of dismal and enticing. It took me awhile to think that over and then: was I depressed? Not really; no classic symptoms. Generally speaking, depression and I are not cohorts much. The feeling has been different… lazy, dumbfounding in its ordinariness yet with streaks of strangeness. Distracted even when engaged. Maybe I was only in need of a break from all the reality we are forced to reckon with day in, day out.
So I didn’t look at the news on my iPhone before getting up–well, for just a moment. That helped only a little. Texting my son, then, about a casual family Father’s Day gathering in a big park didn’t help, either–I am glad of it but worry. I am sure we will try hard to stay six feet apart, we will wear masks, though my son tends to fight against a harsh reality made rougher with harsher impositions as if it was a fight quite worth winning. He likes to be in control, I get it. One of his sisters barely gets out, anymore–she works remotely–but naturally craves safe liberation. Well, agreed and agreed, my adult children.
I yawned and got up by crawling from one side of the bed to another–less walking required–slid down to the floor where soles of feet quite woke up, found the en suite and splashed cold water on my face, then turned on a steamy shower. Breathed. Dressed, brushed hair. I was doing it despite resistance and grumbling, achy spots. On to another day, sans leisurely trip to the coast for the time being. Probably best to stay off the beaches awhile longer, avoid any clumps of people there, anyway, I decided, though didn’t half believe it.
By the time I headed downstairs Marc had long been up and at ’em, doing what he does each morning. He has developed a marvelous cleaning routine since he lost his job–disinfects every vital area; 27 drawer knobs and 8 light switches; tidies up his work station for use; sweeps the balcony of anything fallen abundantly overnight from pines and maples and who knows what all, then checks every vegetable and flower. We have likely intolerable (sorry) kale, we have promising snap peas, and tiny leaf lettuce and faltering tomatoes and more in clay pots. My flowers seem happier as rain lessens somewhat and temps warm. (Though it rained so hard one night it recently drowned my confetti plant and three baby birds therein…awful to confront. Marc did this for me…) My hydrangea is soon to pop open in blues, the geraniums are coming along.
Sometimes Marc can be heard from far off singing out there, talking to a bird–or something. I call out but he doesn’t remotely hear me from the kitchen so I boil water and pop a bagel in the toaster. Several minutes more pass and he’s singing possibly opera, possibly his own made up song. His sweeping is new, as is his very presence, various ways and means.
Over the years of our marriage, he has been gone 500-75% of the time on business trips. And then was gone 14 hours days when working locally. Who is this man in my home? I admit this occurs to me… He has led one life while I have led another–quietly, industriously– except for week-ends, and only when he is in town. A shock when you realize you married at 30 (second for us both) and all those minutes and hours swept by full of kids and work and moves and then– solitude at last. And now you are 67, 70 respectively. What actually happened with all that, and now what? Another vexation at points. But I have thousands of photos to more clearly identify who we were and gradually became. (Same with five children.) It comforts me to look at them; I know what we have been through and achieved yet need reminders.
Because right now I might feel puzzled by my own face in a mirror– Cynthia, seeker of clarity, swimming through the murk of the 2020 Miseries. His attractively aging face? Getting used to it more and more. Even he must get used to it since he is not in dress shirt and slacks, now, and a black hoodie is perhaps a kind of relief, or a solace. And all of it a shock to his system and mine. Retirement is planned. Suddenly being unemployed is a hatchet falling but just missing you, leaving one breathless awhile.
It is a blessing and a conundrum, being at home together all the time. I can spot a similar congenial dullness or slight wariness in other couples’ faces. We all want to be good spouses, supportive more than ever for one another–but… “Could you please watch that show in another room? Also, leave the candles on that table as they were–try ear phones for your music more–and, oh, please stop interrupting me…”
Such togetherness is unknown territory but we prefer to have some fun. So, of course, getting out to the beach–anywhere at all–is a great idea. Better than Scrabble much of the time.
None of us had time to prepare mentally much less physically for a pandemic. We once had the nerve to think all was not so bad, even all was well. It is the deciding factor in nearly all we do. There are stringent limitations. Whole countries have been stopped in their tracks. Amazement at that, though we know it is the right way way to have responded. So, follow the rules and bide our time and yet we chafe at it. Social, questioning humans want to get up and go, mix things up, hang with others, explore places. The very thought that I cannot go somewhere any old time or chat with a neighbor without worrying about swapping germs–it adds up, a creeping unrest and then underlying surrender–both tiresome to cope with daily.
No, we cannot just “over the ramparts and off we go”, off to battle with something invisible but too often overpowering. There are some well suited to the battle, our true warriors of science and medicine. The rest of us adapt and observe the action; we try to ready ourselves the best we can for what comes. We live as we must live, working our brains to consider the previously inconceivable. We get up and do what we do in a blind faith that we will make it alright til bedtime, then get at it again… God or/and lucky chance willing.
I admit to feeling ashamed more than is comfortable. I can’t say I suffer so; there are fewer discomforts than so many have. I am not a medical employee or other front line worker facing often dangerous days and nights; I am not ill with the virus; I have enough decent food and requisite paper goods today. I might not in time have all that but today I am standing on rocky but stable ground, in a life still woven in part of good moments, basic comforts. So I try to alleviate guilt in small ways, help others– but it never is quite enough. Then I get out of my head, try for better.
Endurance and stamina as a way of being: this comes to the fore as I eat breakfast on the dappled balcony among trees. Flexibility of thought, and creativity of spirit. Patience and acceptance of what cannot be changed soon. If I am a little wearied by things–more than some, far less than others–I also have motivation to make each day better. Even this morning despite a weight of burdensome something.
We decide to take charge and go to the wide river, follow it like one follows the intelligent lead of a favorite teacher. I act as if I have energy and somehow it fills me enough that I make an hour and a half with Marc in and out of woods, past unique houses and a variety of boats, past teens splashing and laughing, and older people smiling at their roused and thankful dogs, and singles speeding by on racing bikes or running, hair flopping, many hands and smiles signaling hello. This is how it happens, how I rediscover what it good for me–even writing this simple post is a balm. It’s all in the living, one moment after the other, in any satisfying way it can be managed. The harder times, I pause, then just hold on–or let go as seems best.
Tomorrow I am meeting my best friend, a born fighter with significant battles already won. We’ll sip tea even in the new warmth of June, chatter away at six to eight feet apart, take to the winding park pathways, and laugh easily despite life’s harm and worry. It carries us better through the rest of it all. It makes us stronger and happier, and that matters even more these times.
The deep center of this body–where we live in the many parts that make us and more– sometimes recoils and grabs hold of belly, ribs, heart and solar plexus at the same moment: speechless depths of misery and longing, at once. It pierces, reaches beyond the cellular to spirit. The universe seems to open and close, an accordion of sadness, and want. Stunned. I move around that current all day, navigating my way, but if at night I make my nest, rebuild a tent of pillow, sheet, bedspread and settle in. Then start over again. Silky or raw half-dreams, ponderings here to there. Eventually a facsimile of sleep. Then three or four hours later, repeat.
Are we not all trying hard at times to even sleep, not only more but peacefully so to awake and fumble our way better into another day, perhaps even take charge of it? Are you, as I, struggling in this worldly morass much of the time lately? It is fatigue of relentless adaptation, that push for coping–but also a need of connection and peace. Or a moment of frivolity in the midst of multiple, severe realities. At least it is likely here, the land in which I reside.
How do we manage to live with all the changes and difficulty? The fury and the despair out there that comes to haunt us, too? But everyone needs better than managing it all.
I was going to write a lighter personal essay about something I love, about how some smaller thing is a good trick that keeps me even a bit better afloat. Say, thrift shop vases of fresh-cut flowers. Oregon State Park hikes. Bach cello concertos. Singing along with Eliane Elias, dancing. Yet none of this is quite the crux of my need to write today. I am writing about coping with the world’s increased demands, its violence and grief, its obfuscations, its lies–and that asks me to name what counts the most.
What is a major element that enables me to withstand testings, disappointments, worries, losses? The quickest answer is my faith in Divine Love, God within/around us. That is always foremost or I would not be here writing.
But then came this: imagination. And it’s cousin, curiosity.
One of the first times I realized imagination wasn’t only for creating a story or music and had practical uses was when I was a young girl playing baseball with neighborhood kids. I found myself trying to imagine what it looked like from different bases and the pitcher’s mound when looking back toward me, a batter. I tried to imagine what they were going to do. It was odd, perhaps, but I felt as batter and hopefully home runner that it might help. And it did the more I practiced this switching perspectives, even if it was imagined. I had more confidence and in time was better able to anticipate reactions, which aided my choices.
Imagination influences us daily, in everything we enact or think. It is pervasive even without our fully knowing it as we consider possibilities and try to find answers to a series of minuscule or mammoth problems in our personal and professional endeavors. It intervenes on our behalf as we dream, seek to understand another, set up goals, test theories, develop new inventions. I think of imagination as a partner, as well as an aspect of my personality that motivates me to seek authenticity and depth in what I learn. I can become a healthier person with such help and, naturally, create better. It expands who I am by virtue of its pervasive presence, and its interesting array of offerings–which can be accepted or rejected or used as springboards.
We use imagination not only to give life in our minds what we cannot directly experience with our senses. We imagine connections and study those ideas, synthesize them for insights and solutions. We construct a future goal and then utilize imagined steps along the way, developing a structure by which to tackle the chore. Failure of one option is a possibility that just isn’t usable; we move on, the imagination considering an alternative.
Empathy seems a result of this creative force, for if we allow ourselves to imagine how it must be to live as another person we start to understand the individual or the group. Then we can develop the ability to see the world differently with greater caring and sense of shared humanity.
We can entertain ourselves imaginatively, of course, by daydreaming,letting the mind roam wherever it will. Or casually participating in various activities for hours–movies or other arts, games, socializing with new friends. We try to interpret and engage with them in some way that answer questions and stokes the imagination further. Observations alone can be entertaining–we all speculate on who that platinum-haired person we see walking the Great Dane at 8 am, noon and 4 pm really is, or what that conversation about a judge, missing lawyer and a July deadline might lead to– we will imagine it if we like.
The plasticity of the mind is a grand thing. Born with a vast curiosity, we’ll use it constantly unless forbidden for some absurd or terrible reason. I suspect even then it will come to our defense, drive us toward more questions, potential answers. How fortunate we are to have that innate desire to explore and gather information seen and unseen; the capability to conceptualize, construct entire stratagems to gain greater ground. Intellectual curiosity coupled with imagination discover theories that can split open a universe within or without us.
I have felt my entire life that my imagination was a basic necessary tool to keep my self in decent working order. And to find fulfillment. Joy. It not only kept me alive in devastating circumstances–we have to be able to first imagine possible relief and the light returning to hope even a bit–it has led me into a life that has been richly interactive with many levels of experience most every single day, even in harsh times. (I had to think about that, but find it essentially true.)
Using imagination is a rescue tactic. I can step into a picture, a story, a poem of my own making, a view before me, a random conversation, a different perspective, a fledgling idea, a framework for tomorrow. Nearly all things can be tolerated for a time with constructive use of imagination. It can aid in keeping one on more even keel– thus, healthier and sane at the core despite pressures and pains. If in dire circumstances, what we can imagine, we can live for and aim to more fully realize in this three dimensional world. It also takes us beyond what seems mundane and useless.
Yes, it can also help devise an answer erroneously; make inferences regarding events that may have no grounds for truth; lead me down a primrose path that goes in circles. But I still have free will and choice and my human curiosity will seek another way out, a new conclusion, a deeper look. Besides which, imagination does not insist I keep only my own company. I can be alone with it and be entirely happy. But I can also find others’ knowledge and wisdom. I can call upon anyone that will allow me to ask for help. For another idea. A helping hand. A spiritual opportunity. An inspiring jog to my suddenly lethargic mind. Without imagination, I’d be far less likely to believe a viable option was to reach outward, as well. And it would be much harder to keep on keeping on.
What I love is the human capability to wildly or meticulously imagine anything desired, and talent for seeking the unique spark in all life. We can freely consider and embrace the intriguing or unexpected. And for me that means honing in on the good in all others, imagining the best rather than the worst. Though this has not come easily some years, it still comes to me as I pause and ask more questions. I keep eyes and spirit open as I need to live thoroughly, thoughtfully.
It is true imagination can snag, boomerang and sting; it can make me seriously reassess my intelligence and courage so that I must start again, take different chances. Yet I let my imagination consider the beauty of a panoply of possibilities to lead me forward. There is more to gain than lose, always. Otherwise, there are too many empty gaps. And that is akin to missing the boat while traveling this spectacular river of life.
I believe everyone wants to be in on such a journey. If I can think of it and pray for it, I can extend a hand or speak up, clarify imaginings as I help with a few more hopes and dreams. Perhaps they may even come to resemble a finer reality.
Who saves us from ourselves as we work for and pray for the healing of bodies and minds across this country and the world? As we honor those leaving us and uplift those who need just one kindness shared? Let me tell you about two friends, without whom these days and nights would be more confounding, tiresome and menacing…who help make the long wait worth every small, good effort at making time more meaningful.
B. was smart, sarcastic and tough when we met in 1993 and worked with gang youth, but she had a heart and I right away saw it. She thought I was a sort of innocent, a fussy woman with good instincts who could handle her snappishness, anyway. She was right about “handling” her attitude. But she got a clearer picture of my own untidy past and counseling skills soon. We made a good team in our work and would at other agencies to come. Yet from outer appearances, who’d have predicted we both loved opera and blues?
Now, after decades of surviving crises at work and home, it feels like we are getting close to danger of wildfire, one we have tried to avoid facing as her health has declined.
“Well, you’ll never guess where I ended up last night.” She coughs hard, once, her words struggling to get into the air and to me.
We had just talked two days prior; I can guess. B. was very sick with pneumonia well over two months ago. She has lupus and weakened kidneys, a scarred liver, and degenerative arthritis despite being ten years younger than I am. So, it has been a halting recovery, at best; breathing and energy have remained unimpaired. She has tried to work remotely but is a counselor for an addictions and mental health treatment program in a women’s prison. Not very convenient to work from home. It seems unlikely she will return during the COVID-19 crisis. Maybe not after. We have talked often each week as I have waited for events to unfold. She has been taking her 91 year old mother to the store– until finally she agreed to not do so at my pleading. Now, deliveries are made. She helps care for a niece on week-ends, at times, still.
She could get sicker fast. With corona-virus. Anything. So I am prepared, maybe.
“You landed back in the hospital. Lungs?”
“Not that. I got shocked.”
I take that in. “Heart, you mean? They shocked your heart?”
“Yeah. Heart was at 180 bpm. A-fib.”
“Wait–your heart? You mean the suspected anxiety attacks were maybe A fib events?”
I know how that is, the alarm of it, a rapid up-sweep of heart rate, breathlessness, tightening chest. But never at 180; 130-140 is too high for me as a heart patient.
A sharp tingling covers me feet to head with the knowledge of B. in pain, heart a runaway creature she cannot control.
“Guess so. It hurt so went to ER.”
“The doc said good news is my lungs look healed.” She takes a shaky breath. “Always something for us, eh? My body is falling apart.”
I think how most people would have said that even 20 years ago as she racked up surgeries for various damaged joints from feet to hips to hands. But this is a new thing, as if finally giving up a charade of “doing okay” and coming to terms with it all. She does not complain, whine, groan. It has never occurred to her to nurture self-pity. But she is worn out by buckling organs.
“Yeah, we get through one thing…. but we played and lived hard, we pay the price. You get up, I get up.”
“Yeah, but I’m a mean ole possum so won’t stay down.”
I laugh with her softer chuckle but all of a sudden feel in my bones how ill she really is. She doesn’t even like possums. White pet rats, that was a thing once. A wild cat or two. A parrot. Mongrel dogs, for sure. Possums and raccoons, no.
“On medicine now for this thing. How are you?”
“I’m okay, hanging in there. Are you–“
“I’m out of it. Just wiped. Have to go. Talk later.”
She hangs up.
B. has talked more of surrender to God over the past year, this woman who fought with fists in her youth, spit in the face of a twisty fate, protested with loud voice against injustices, swaggered across streets with her cane and stopping traffic to meet me on the other side, picked up life’s shattered pieces countless times, reached her hand to others in need without any questions.
My best friend, B. who I’ve long teasingly nicknamed Brenda Starr, the ace reporter from the old comic strip who chased after adventure and hunted down evil ones and rooted out truth at great risk to herself, all the while her beauty unfazed by the grit and sweat. The last part B. would loudly hoot over. She is not the glamorous type. At least, not since she was in her 20s and dressed in a leopard print dress and spike heels…though her hair, light golden auburn, long and voluminous, still is fabulous. But she is brave.
I stare at the phone as I lean against the wall and try to pray but no words come out. My throat threatens to close over and my husband calls me to the table for reheated pasta.
This chilly afternoon, a fine steady rain splashing against the windows–it is back again after stunning brilliance of springtime–I know I am fortunate. My current greater solitude since the rabid, often deadly virus has left me musing even more. And lately I consider the friends I enjoy– despite not having dozens at this point in my life. Meaningful ones seem to have crystallized, become denser, sleeker, deeper. Crucial even more than before as so much else becomes irrelevant.
I feel gratitude well up, a happy balloon floating within my being. I have family who cares, yes. But my friends–they are the once-hidden treasures I never planned on caring for like this, day in, day out. No, when a young woman I believed I was more the person who was there today, gone tomorrow: “love the one you’re with.” And I certainly did. But that foolishness was revealed to be what it was, of course, when I met people to truly love for the sake of who they were/are–not for whatever could be useful, for a thrill in the moment, the sharing of a drug and a suffering poet dream.
First, risk; then attachment; then devotion and loyalty. It was rather hard back then. I had to learn better. But not now. It has come easy for along while; the rewards are great.
I have two non-blood very best friends and that is plenty. It is like amassing spiritual and emotional wealth to know them every single day.
E. and I check in at least once a week, often after midnight as we both have insomnia. She also has been ill with a less serious respiratory illness but since she has asthma she is high risk for the worst virus. Her doctor has determined she must remain at home from work now. Her work isn’t sure they will need her to go back. But whatever happens, there is too little protection being in an office setting. Or, for that matter, even going to the store for bread and milk.
She is packing her several rooms full of stuff, off and on; her plan was to retire and move to Arizona near her brother by summer’s end. She has lived alone since I met her 25 years ago, after her drawn out, life-shaking divorce.
“Now who knows? I might just stay inside until I kick the bucket. I’ll knit myself a huge cocoon and stay put, how’s that? Might retire at last, if I can stop buying yarn. And books…well, could build a house with those, too!”
E. is guffaw-prone–both B. and E. make fun of defects of character and life’s travails–so lets loose her light, rippling peels of laughter. We vow not to go down gnashing our teeth
“I imagine you have blankets, scarves and socks galore stacked up in there, maybe tilting pyramids. The books you can give to me if you want.”
Her knitted pieces are evenly made, colorful. She adores soft, bright skeins of beautiful yarn and they take up space on floor, couch, table and bed. I can see her hands fly, the thing she creates growing by the minute.
“Want some socks? Yeah, adding to the mess. Oh, well, I have more boxes. I’ll get by even if I stay here. I’d just like more sunshine, my family closer.” She wheezes a little but assures me she is okay. “How are you? I’m so sorry Marc lost his job.”
“Yes, well, it has happened to millions. We sure aren’t special in this time and place…I’m working on a new budget. Well, scrapping it and starting anew…”
“Tell me how it’s going, you know to call me any time. It stinks for things to not end up as we’d planned, who could have known? We had such confidence! Sort of.”
“Well, what else is new? Nothing is what we thought and we’ve lived interesting, curious lives.”
We talk a bit more about our oddly reduced circumstances. But I’d rather not. It is what it is. And we are there for each other. She is also in recovery so understands each day needs to be met with humility. Acceptance and strength. Faith not fear–our mantra. And I intend on utilizing my practical ability to problem solve, keep heart to endure, adapt. Keep my vision aimed upward and outward. We both are Taurus, for what little that’s worth–but we do tend to think more alike and that can be comforting.
“Miss going to the movies with you,” I say. She adores films and all the arts. We have enjoyed plays together, dance concerts. “We’ve seen so many good ones, and there are always more.”
“I know,” E. agrees, “then getting lunch or dinner out and catching up in person. We know how to have a good time.”
We talk about what we are watching on small screens. My home no longer has cable TV to save money–we do have streaming apps. But I don’t miss things that are not essential, not much. Maybe immediate access to lactose-free ice cream and tons of chocolate chips for cookies to bake, sure, but not pricey steak or 160 TV channels or new clothes for spring or even another shiny hardback book. I have more than enough stuff. I miss movies and dinner out with E., though.
“Let’s meet up for coffee at a drive-through place and sit in a parking lot, 6 feet apart, just gab a little,” I say. “I’ve done that with my kids a couple times. Hard to not hug, but just seeing each other…”
“I love it–tell me where and when. We could dress up, bring cake!”
We commiserate about the tarnish on our “golden years”, share a funny story or two and finally hang up. The residual richness of her voice works like healing balm. her longtime job has been in accounts receivable in a health care system, weirdly considering things as they are. But I realize she is so good at that because her voice emanates her real personhood– warm, honest, empathetic and deeply kind, with a gift for finding gentle humor in hard moments. And that touch of lingering New Jersey accent makes it even better. Much better. I can see her scurrying along a clamorous New York City street, headed to Broadway for a play’s opening. Something I had hoped we might yet share.
I don’t want her to move to Arizona, ever, but if she does I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. I already have my invite.
I text her at midnight. “We could have been Broadway stars, you know, just bad timing, sketchy men. Booze. Good night, Ginger.”
She sends me an emoji–herself dancing with that still- red shock of hair, her purple glasses, mouth wide, eyes gleeful as ever.
I just read an extraordinary book called Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. By the end of the novel you emerge slowly from the story with the main character as if coming into the sheerness of dawn. Edward is a youth who was the only survivor of a devastating plane crash that took his family and the others. He muses on how love must not be wasted, time must not be wasted.
I wept as I read the last lines of that story. I have felt a slow burning inside of these truths my whole life, like a brightly lit candle that has guided me every step, even as I have gotten lost. Time and love, not to be wasted: the only rules worth minding. We must inhabit these fully, use these well, give these to others freely.
I feel it more every day, the desire and need. To be that present. To better ensure that love is known when I speak and move in this world.
“Hello? Don’t text me. I can’t read without my glasses.” B. chides me.
Her voice is weaker than yesterday.
“Okay, got it. We’ll talk. How is it going now?”
“Feel worse, maybe. Thinking should finally retire… prison doesn’t need me.”
“Well, it does. But of course you should retire. You work too hard. Now you will be in the hospital several days, to get things in order, your heart rested and healed more. I know, my friend, that all of this is hard on you.”
“Tiring. So listen, I talked to my mom. I want you to know”– an eruption of a cough—“I want you to have Spook’s Pendleton blanket. It is clean, it’s folded on the end of my bed at home.”
For a second I thought she had said she saw Spook, an old friend, in her room and it scared me.
“Spook”, now long gone, was a Native American elder, a man she was bonded with for decades. B. is part Native American and the woven woolen blanket he gave her from Warm Springs Confederation of Tribes is unique, special. I knew and respected him. He always had a corny crack, a smile for me. We worked together awhile in the fight against addiction’s ravages on the Native community. He liked that I gave the Native women a chance to dance, to sing their languages, to tell their stories. And he may have known they touched me in my very bone and blood. He seemed to feel for a white woman I was okay. Because I was B.’s friend, no doubt.
But his blanket, to be given to me? I cannot imagine such an honor. I am deeply stilled. Everything holds collective breath– outside, inside, wherever Spook now resides, in the bed where B. struggles to live. From her place in the life constellation, mine and so many others’.
“Okay. You feel Spook will be okay with it. You see him there?”
She laughs a little, coughs. “Naw. It’s mine, anyway. Blanket. I mean it, may as well say these things. Nothing morbid about it. You’re my sister. And I love you.”
I cannot speak again. Why do es language, even easy syllables, keep falling away from me? But she has never said that aloud… “sister”… though such intimate words have not been needed. It all feels bigger than a sum of many parts. I know she has thought about leaving the earth for a long time. She has been that terribly ill, and too often. I close my eyes against the sunshine at my window, and there are flashes of orange behind my eyelids. A riot of pain and grief. And happiness for who she is.
I answer her. “I’m so very glad to be your sister. I needed another true one. We know what we’ve shared all these years.”
“And money, I have money to give you and Alexandra’s babies, not much, but something. And go to a Bonnie Raitt concert for me when you can. We have to hear Bonnie even if I’m not there in the flesh. Take her and Marc, too.” She half-gasps for breath. “They’re good nurses here, I tell them so.” She gives a kind of sputter. “Bonnie, our girl…”
I want to say something else but can only listen, try to take it in, her mind going here and there– so just talk like we always talk, as if this is a conversation we always have.
“Yes–a beautiful power she has. Lots more music, too. What does the doctor say?”
“Trying to get more damned water off my heart.”
A deep intake of breath a sigh from her. Does she know what this means? I know it is congestive heart failure; my sister died of it, my brother–I saw my own brother die. But she won’t say the diagnosis or prognosis out loud, that’s how she is. Or not today.
“So I told Mom these things–don’t forget.”
“You can pull through this. We’ll be meeting again, why not?”
“Yeah…just in case, had to tell you. People need to say things. I should find a priest.”
“You aren’t even Catholic. Talk right to God.”
“I hear you, my old friend…sister.”
“Have to go, tired now.”
“Alright, I love you. Praying for healing.”
I haven’t heard from B. today. I may call or I may not. Her breath is precious, she is weak. She will contact me sooner or later. Somehow. I don’t know for certain if she is leaving this world or not. I feel she expects she may. She is more and more enervated by this burdensome body. Her spirit is strong; it will always be. But I sense her drifting more with every moment, and feel the burden of her ill body in every unspoken thought as my own heart keeps beating hard and slow, a reminder that I am truly here, that I am so alive.
Why is mine beating so strong and well now? Why me? Brenda Starr, why?
What matters the very most as a life is lived? I will be 70 in a few days. I am not living as I thought I might, but more and less, different. One surprise after another. I am full amid sorrows and strife. As we all have to cope with daily. And we can determine to face it and hold on.
So, good fortune is mine–these friends, their love shared. And another day given me, sweet and tender, aching and resilient, persistently beautiful.
My childhood was bounded and enlarged by gardens, smaller or bigger, private and public. I thrived where all things flourished with restraint– or with less. It fed my earliest poetic leanings, and reminded me daily how the universe near and far throbs with life.
My first childhood home on the corner of Trenton and Lamb was a rambling two-story that housed seven. The yard had pear and apple trees from which the family picked–or gathered from ground–fruits for canning or salads or desserts and out-of-hand munching. The white and pink blossoms shook in Missouri-humid breezes. Flowers lined the yard with rainbow colors.
In the breezeway, I was cradled in one arm of the one-handed woman who ironed for us and more with the one she had once a week. She sang as she rhythmically pressed the items, cushiony body swaying. The clean, fresh scent of laundered, warm cotton fabric still gives me happiness. As do trees and blossoms.
Not too distant from our house was my paternal grandparents’ tidy white clapboard abode, with a well-tended a kitchen garden in the back. It seemed a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, scents and flavors set within a rectangular white picket fence on a gently rolling yard (beyond rippled more grass, greening a hilly terrain). The gate was not too large for me to reach to unlatch alone at first, but I grew. Over the years I’d make my way down even rows of tomatoes and potatoes, lettuce, squash, strawberries and watermelon, snap peas and sometimes a few tall stalks of corn; and between pansies and petunias, marigolds (averting pesky bugs), zinnias and rose bushes. I knelt down to put my face to the growing things, breathed in deeply a bouquet of tangy, earthy and sweet; it all smelled good and happy. I dug into rich soil, found worms in hand, beetles creeping across my palms. Bright butterflies drifted about as birds called out. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened porch door, paring knife in hand or a perhaps a bowl and say my name. Though reluctant to leave such a half-secret world, those nodding flowers and mouth-watering berries I popped into my mouth and the bug-watching, I answered obediently. We would sit on the steps and shuck corn, soft silk sticking to my fingers a bit. A quiet, industrious woman, she and I got closer during such tasks–such as peeling potatoes and finally mastering the art of removing a peel in one long curl or washing and cutting up strawberries or removing corn husk faster.
My erudite grandfather was not avoidant of manual labor, and though he seemed more gentleman than small time farmer he would hoe, plant and weed, as well, his shabby straw hat perched atop luxurious white hair.
After moving to Michigan, those spring and summer visits were more coveted, and felt like strong sunshine radiant within me the whole year.
When older, there was an indoor botanical garden we visited when seeing relatives, an Art Deco-style feat of glass architecture of the Jewel Box in St. Louis, MO. Trees turned and twisted up to the ceiling; flowers were vibrant and exotic to me; in one display I imagined myself lost in South America. The light that streamed from every glass panel was enchanting; it was an entire world, removed. I would take off to explore, immerse myself in the lushness. Any visit was an event and once yearly not enough. It remains a display greenhouse of primarily flowers, and is on the National Historic Register.
In Michigan our house was smallish with an open, sloping back yard surrounded by pine trees in the back with only one small cherry tree, to the relief of my mother–no fallen and rotting fruit. But an impressively huge lot to the north was entirely a garden.
Mr. Benfer’s garden. He and his wife owned the lot but lived on the south side of our place. It was like the countryside had taken a detour and stopped, then put in roots. Those peonies! That rhubarb! They had rows and rows of corn, tomatoes, green beans and sugar peas, pumpkins and other squash, cucumbers, tons of strawberry plants and things I’d not known of before–my mother, who had grown up on a large farm, happily explained it all. The roses and irises, tulips and more drew me like the bees to varied delights.
I longed to hold them close and bury my nose. To get out there and pick a few things. But Mr. Benfer’s garden was not my grandparents’. It was more like Mr. McGregors’ garden and we were the bothersome rabbits: we were strictly forbidden entry. They were not fond of children nor even that much of adults. But we were seven and often inadvertently crossed boundaries during recreation–badminton and croquet, basketball and other ball games. Those balls, birdies and plastic darts ended up in that garden more than we’d hoped. My bother was a budding archer; stray arrows were trickiest to reclaim. I suspected he shot badly on purpose, on occasion, at a plant. (I hoped not the lovely rabbits hopping about with boldness– until shooed out with hoe. Like the famed McGregor story, I mused.)
There was a single heavy wire strung as a boundary between our yard and that lot, no more than a couple feet high–easy to get over or under. Which we managed fine. Or we could just step into the back of the garden which opened up onto a small tree nursery that also extended behind our yard. But I was the youngest so warned to stay back and watch a brother’s or sister’s antics. I was a designated guard, and kept an eye out for the Benfers –or our parents. How I longed for a sumptuous berry, a juicy cherry tomato. If lucky I might get one from the siblings, then sworn to secrecy. In truth, the mischievous excursions didn’t happen often; we knew what was right and wrong. And would also be scolded soundly. And several times my siblings got found out and were sternly spoken to, then commanded to avoid further trespassing. It didn’t fully deter anyone– the thrill of sneaking about and escaping without being seen was more fun than actual “borrowing” of produce. Stealing, though, was an actual sin.
Mr. Benfer was not a generous or easy-going man. Very tall and a little stooped even when younger, balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed darting eyes. He emitted a low grunt if we dared speak to him, which I often did in hopes of making things friendlier. His wife might nod at me. Her big hats wavered about as she bent over the rows–their backs were bent for hours, it seemed. As I grew older I knew the work got taxing but I still hoped to taste the fruits of their labor. At times I was left on my own so managed to sneak over, snatch a warm, sweeter than anything strawberry. But most often I just stood at the back and looked and sniffed the ripening air, and marveled at how they could bring forth such bounty, such beauty. Despite being unfriendly, possibly unhappy people. I resolved to not trod upon their ground after my siblings left, one after the other, for college when I was twelve. It took restraint.
The flowers were stunning, and some fell to the side of our yards. Their irises were tall, happy sentinels, daffodils bright and lemony, and sunflowers were giants amid burgeoning rose bushes whose perfumes layered the air several feet away in June’s softer heat. The tulips–my birthday flower as well as forsythia– were sturdy and graceful in rainbow hues. I talked to them sometimes in passing as my fingers grazed their petals. And when storms ripped the blooms apart I felt almost forlorn without them to greet. At least the few flowers that grew around our house were more shielded.
Mrs. Benfer loosened up a little at us as time passed, despite us being chased out a few times, Mr.’s spade shaken in our direction. Mrs. even came to our door now and then with rhubarb, my mother’s favorite for pies, which I cared for little. But small bunches of peonies or roses that were brought by were a joy to behold and arrange in vases for our dining room table. But Mr. Benfer remained inscrutable and humorless. His garden was his true love; people were not his forte, perhaps. But what wonders he wrought with his wife, and that said a great deal.
The other neighborhood garden was tended by my mother’s best friend, a multi-skilled woman with whom I stayed after school for several years, as my mother taught elementary school– but not mine. My second mother, Winetta Titus. Opening her French doors to a blooming yard was heavenly. The birds loved it there, too. We’d sit on the patio and watch and listen as she taught me their names and habits. She, too, raised vegetables, but it was the flowers that drew me in. She’d cut bouquets for me to take home. Winetta’s presence was a gift to me during my growing up; her garden was lively poems of love and wonder, of generosity.
The last garden to note this time is Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, where almost all my childhood and youth were spent. Herbert H. Dow was the founder of Dow Chemical, the mainstay of Midland’s employment and industrial leadership, and a generous giver of money and other gifts. His home included a lot of land; Dow Gardens is a 110 acre parcel filled with botanical offerings. The grounds are breathtaking: pretty bridges, water features, perennials and annuals, pines and other old, sturdy trees. One can stroll at one’s leisure or rest there for hours.
Since it is located beside the library, it was a perfect destination. Books and flowers, butterflies and all manner of other insects working away among the shady trees, a stream and pond. It was a sanctuary as our northern four seasons changed; an open-air school for my searching mind; a space to gather casually with others. It helped shape my sensibilities and preference for the outdoors. My hometown was and is nothing if not beautiful–this is noted with gratitude despite dealing with plenty of hard challenges there and then moving away to rarely return.
I miss those childhood gardens. I suppose every child is intimate with enchantments–or should be. I learned much by lingering in them, paying close attention … to bountiful natural design, the curious life cycles, weather’s impact, pleasures of discovery The patience needed. The mystery revealed. Our place in the scheme of things earthly, how connected our biological reality is to botany and other sciences in basic ways.
But mostly it was the allurements of nature amid proof of God’s genius that swept me up, carried me to deeper realms. Such experiences probed and savored seemed like the most virtuous moments. There was safety in that despite the vagaries of natural events. There was a routine reassurance in the regeneration of life. And it was a thrill to embrace even small bits of the immense complexity of nature’s ways and means.
A garden, after all, is synonymous with hope, a place for faith to flourish–even when not grand. Even if you plant a few tiny seeds in a small clay pot and see them produce more life.