Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Connecting the Dots

Morning glory, famrrmers mkt, downtown, city, cj oink 095
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Dot-to-dot magazines: I was crazy about the cheap newsprint drugstore ones on the children’s rack that cost under a dollar, and successfully lobbied my mother to allow one as a treat. I kept them close at hand longer than one might expect a child-soon to become-a-youth to enjoy them. Whether each page held a fine design of flora and fauna or simple geometric patterns, of easy-to-harder labyrinths or children and grown-ups doing ordinary things–I wanted to have at them.

Pencil sharpened, poised above the page, I studied the few or numerous numbered dots, I predicted the pictorial outcome. Yet felt a thrill, anyway, when bringing it to fruition whether right or wrong. It was like watching a Polaroid snapshot gradually come to life, or colored inkblots on a folded paper develop into  a surprising picture as the paper is opened. All I had to do was follow the numbers, dot-to-dot-to-dot– and lo! a small puzzle solved, a rendering awakened. It was simple, relaxing entertainment. I felt far more stimulated and accomplished when doing “word search” features(often included in the magazines), but that was not the goal. The point was to engage in a task (of questionable long-term value) that gave me happy respite.  Besides, I was a visual child and creating any sort of graphic design, even dot-to-dot ones, was blissful.

I miss those but I know they can be bought at a news stand. One can even purchase nice books filled with such games. I recently looked them up online. To my surprise, there appeared a large variety of intricately created dot-to-dot designs. They seem like works of art when completed–you can color them, too, and proclaim the picture your own. And those adult coloring books are impressive, as well. There is a profitable market out there in response to demand.

How nostalgic, even enchanting, these pastimes. And how bittersweet that we so crave simpler things, sweeter times, our days or nights softened by the soothing neutrality of such engagements. It is easy escape. Some comfort that costs little but gives generously for a half hour, an hour, as long as we desire. We seek it out as we need it, just as we did as children or youths, then extend our search as adults. It is certainly not always found on the internet or other electronic entertainment sources people flock to with a thirst for something more, bigger, better.

Sometimes it all requires pausing to simplify. Or we are perhaps forced to reassess our options. If we pay attention to our life needs, we will reach out to see what is there, who is there. And we may be surprised by the results.

The past several months– defined by family illnesses, life challenges and ultimately, two family deaths– I have been more persistently musing over connection. To human beings. To our places in the world and universe, to the natural world and to one’s creative muse. To divinity. These are what matter to me. And what I have felt more deeply than ever. Yet my thoughts and experiences have been fractured unexpectedly; my quiet, pedestrian life has been interrupted, shaken up, re-ordered. It has been a period spent swaying between deepened solitude, a slide into a well of quietness, and the more active desire for the company of others. Ordinarily, I would write more hours (perhaps even journal), resurrect meditative and freeing  art activities, seek out more music (or create with singing or other instruments, find a computer program for composition), get much more physically active. I have read a lot. These are some of my coping skills, life’s joys. But the changes experienced have required travels and looking outward as much as inward. Being with people, and often witnessing exhaustion etched on faces, eyes revealing shards of anger and waves of anguish. And yet, there have been laughter and tenderness enough to cover us with a softening kindness. Perhaps common human sorrows underlie part of that alchemy.

If you have read my summer posts, you know my older brother died rather suddenly. Then I flew with my spouse, Marc, to North Carolina, traveled through several states to Michigan for an in-law’s memorial and back to N.C., then finally to Oregon again. I flew to Colorado for a week to visit a daughter and her partner, got altitude sickness near the end of all the fun. Then to the Oregon coast for a beach “time out” with and for Marc. The day we got home from that heaven, we attended another memorial at a crowded pub for my jazz musician brother.

Everywhere there have been family members to console and be consoled by, to join hands in what seems an ever-shrinking circle. I have thought of blood ties and of family married into and how they both help hold up the world for me, with me. How they fill my life with colorful moments and surprising reveals. How their lives are so needed in the full constellation of my life, in the balance of what matters most. When one leaves the earth, their unique space is created, not to be filled again. Their lack of physical presence is as a shadow that passes through a doorway from here to there and further than I can quite see, most of the time.

How to maintain the old stable connectivity when people I have known and loved? My parents are gone; one sister; one brother, a sister-in-law. Another sister has mild dementia and sitting across from her recently, she faded before me a moment and I was frightened. Who else? When? How does one prepare one’s self? Of course, we cannot. We only can live daily and when things change, when we lose another someone, we accept that reality slowly, heartbeat by heartbeat.

I again think of those dot-to-dot books. How one stroke could take me to another dot and then a another and another. How I have the choice to lift my pencil and be done right then or to keep that line going to complete the picture–before turning the page. How like living a life…

Though everything, I have been in touch with friends or they have called me, sent me notes, shared a meal with me. I don’t now have but a few, decades-long close friends, but they have been here for me as I am, for them. But one friend is also ill and every passing year is a gift. The others may or may not stay in Portland as not so far ahead, retirement may dictate designing another life in another place altogether. Anything could change. And does. And there can be loneliness in any circumstance.

Portland is becoming massively populated. Expensive. I had to go downtown on an errand and was on a busy thoroughfare I don’t often traverse. I looked up and around at every stoplight. The stores and houses that had been demolished, the cavernous, even monstrous new buildings being erected…it stunned me. After living here since 1992, I have watched small waves of new residents arrive.  The last 2-3 years people have rushed to the city and looked for housing where all the action is, “close-in”, as we call it. Some suburbs are also expanding and real estate is hot. But Portland has firm boundaries and the only place one can go is up, so the high rises continue to rise at a rate that keeps many of us breathless. It’s only a matter of time–I keep waiting to hear of it–that my small five-plex will also be sold for a gazillion and as many or more fancy, shiny new condos will inhabit this space. We must migrate to a more affordable elsewhere.

Progress. You have to house the people as they keep coming. I was initially housed in one of my family’s rental homes–fortunate even then. And I hang on to our current comfortable spot a little longer. But how to stay connected when landmarks are altered or removed, when neighborhoods take on a whole new flavor, when your neighbors are often nameless when you barely even blink?

The keys to continuity in a fast paced life have to be resilience and adaptability. Going where the new dots go to see where it all ends up. Or creating one’s own new page. It takes curiosity as well as stamina, tolerance as well as brainstorming.

My husband longs to retire in Michigan, preferably in northern MI. on one of the countless alluring lakes, or even one of the Great Lakes (which are nearly like the ocean but, of course, are not). I understand the pull to that enveloping country, a place that lives vividly inside my mind and heart. But I don’t get why some actually return to their old hometowns. I suspect we cannot reasonably return to the past to embrace it as our present–but people do it, and apparently it works out. It has to be the desire for familiarity as our world becomes more unfamiliar in vital  ways. And that hope of connectivity. I  may have to move. I research various cities that might suit us as we age, in case we are priced out completely in Portland in a few short years. I’ve moved many, many times since I was 18. And there has always been several somethings or someones that made each move enriching. But I had to keep my ears and eyes open. Make the effort required. I was seldom alone and not for long–I raised five children. But there were always their own needs and wants. Now they’re adults and the architects of their own dreams, searching for the next ones. Though I am happy when they (and their fast-growing kids) include me/us, they owe us nothing.

So I have started to take stock once more, since these continued losses and attendant changes. What is truly left me now? And how can I keep myself in better touch with people? With meaningful activities? This life in all its generous experiences… I have had plenty of the bad and I don’t ever want to miss out on the good stuff. I have a strong desire to share it with others, though I have a penchant for significant solitariness so suitable to writing/creative work. I need to keep looking for options, despite my many forays and sometimes ending up faltering. I worked for a very long, time as a counselor. But I also have participated in numerous writing and a few vocal groups; tried Meet Up groups; engaged with various churches (will get more involved in the current one); taken dance and Tai Chi classes plus joined gyms; taken college classes; been active for decades in recovery groups; done some volunteer work; attended many writing workshops and conferences…well, there is more but that covers the main actions taken so far.

But there is much more I can do. Discovery happens if I just take action– new or old talents and interests to expose and encourage, knowledge to glean, service work to do, friendships to root out and nurture, places to explore in this and other cities and towns, within bountiful nature here or elsewhere. That is how I will stay connected in a way that continues to fill me and then overflow, hopefully, to others.

Because I was taught well long ago to take what life brings you and make something decent of it. To see possibilities and do something useful with them. Make a slim, winkled dot-to-dot magazine fun, give it some oomph. Plunk a melody on the piano, see what develops. Out of the mess, assemble order. Out of the ruins, create anew.

High aspirations, perhaps. But sensible, as well, to me.

As a child, when my family took trips across country in our crowded car (seven of us in that family, too), my mother would point to the landscapes and towns, observe the streets, shops and people and say, “Look out your windows! What do you see? Isn’t that interesting!” And my father would slow down, park and we’d pile out, run to the historical site, or a riverside park for a picnic or walk about a town green and gawk at stately statues, or even visit a strange church if it was a Sunday and sing old hymns with the rest and later have a chat. Just passing through, have a good afternoon. And then we’d tumble back in the car, play word games or sing our harmonized songs the next hundred miles, or tell stories, or be roustabouts, but finally we’d fall sleep that night in some cheap motel, side by side. Full up. Content enough with that day’s adventure and ready–come what may–for the next.

All people, I discovered, are complex human beings in need of home, hearth, good work and a modicum of happiness to share. May I never forget that most primary connection.

View a few pictures of downtown neighborhoods of wacky, wonderful Portland as it tears down and rebuilds:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irv., misc., downtown at night 019Farmer's Market, Tryon hike, neighborhood flowers! 055Saturday Downtown+Tryon Josh & kids 010

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Photos: Hail the Clouds and Their Country

NC-MI trip 003

Now I am home, though still a little tired and saturated with images and thoughts of the last minute trip. Though we flew to North Carolina, a few days later we had a drive to make. The car trip to Michigan from North Carolina was 14 hours last Friday. The next day was spent with family and attending the memorial service for my sister-in-law. Then the third day: back another 14 hours on many roads and five states from N.Carolina to Virginia, W. Virginia, Ohio, MI., then reversed for return. I often passed the time–I read as well–staring out the window as my husband drove. (I’d have been happy to drive but he was caught “in the zone”, and refused my help. Next time it shall be different; he was too tired to endure this stretch of time behind the wheel. But when he makes his mind up…)

It recalled the road trips I’d taken with my parents and siblings as a child around our country, how excited I felt about each place we went. I gawked at the world, happy even though squashed between four siblings in the back seat. Each town was a story even then, every landscape a magnetic space. Everything crackling alive. And it still is, amid the dying…

NC-MI trip 010

Marc and I talked on the way there with some banter; we knew it would not be easy the next day. But we fell silent often, thinking of this second loss in two months. And our old lives in Michigan (several decades ago) and those places to which one cannot ever really return for long, not once grown up and gone. And yet those places and times cling like a tenacious aura of the Past, sometimes bright, sometimes dark.

NC-MI trip 019

Seeking relief, I filled myself up with natural scenarios beyond the window, sometimes letting out the dry chilled air-conditioned air and letting into the car little gusts that dripped with humidity and was deeply hot: upper-90 degrees F.hot. It smelled good to me, as if rain that has been held back so long it has to sneak in, delicious-green and heady. And heavy.

I was struck, as I always am when traveling these areas, by the endless rise and fall of deciduous trees (far fewer conifers there) that took over foothills and parts of the Appalachian Mountains. Such abundance! The land rose up, split into graceful mounds, spread out in valleys and turned over this way and that, revealing  changing light dabbed that daubed the landscape. I watched and snapped pictures, mesmerized. The clouds were astonishing, utterly magical they are from place to place. We also got through a sudden, bombastic thunderstorm.

NC-MI trip 144

So this is what I have today: pictures of daring cloud formations, rolling hills amid such old mountains and fecund, open farmland (with “corn at least knee-high by 4th of July”, as they say). A few bugs may be smearing windows. Not the best pictures, I am sure. They are more half-dreaming images of my perceptions along the way. The land and sky were witness to my sorrows and wonderment. And I, a willing audience for their dramatic displays. This life. This earth. The curious existences everyone does lead. And ever-reluctant me, traveling here and there, anyway– and I’m not even done yet for July, two more trips to go!

If you want a variety of sustenance, travel a little bit, or even take a decent walk. And if you want to see where I went, come along…

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Wednesday’s Words: On the Go Again

Sometimes we have to be flexible even if we don’t feel quite up to it. Our lives are altered despite out attempts to keep control, an elastic experience based on the one constancy of change. I didn’t expect to be flying out so soon again but events continue on a surprising trajectory. One adapts; humans excel at this, I remind myself.

In this case, we are soon to attend a memorial gathering for my recently deceased sister-in-law in Michigan. (My deceased musician brother has one, too, the end of July but that consists of driving to an area pub in Portland to enjoy great tunes and good words.) Of course, I had expected this MI. travel at some point, just not coupled with an immediate business trip that Marc deemed necessary. And it was cheapest for me to use reward miles to get anywhere and just go with him. So within a day we were booked on flights spanning the country’s width to North Carolina. By end of this week, we will be driving a very long day to be with family in MI., then back again for more days for his business agenda.

After sleeping maybe three hours the night before, we headed to the airport–wasn’t it still dark out?– for tedious hours in air and during a beastly layover in one airport. I shortly entered that state wherein the mind turns to grainy putty and the body moves into a mild but critical endurance mode. As I steadied myself during the 9 hour layover it came to me that this is why I don’t adore airplane travel. In fact, I am not very good at it which is surprising since as a youth and young woman I loved flying about. But that was a different time, a safer and simpler time. And I was an adventuress with a lingering naiveté about striding off toward a blurry but glorious horizon. And in search of my soul mate at every stop, on every plane. Ah, well.

In airports I bring forth adequate patience. I roam about, read; we converse, munch sandwiches and sweet or salty snacks and sip lukewarm coffee or water to slake our thirsts. Make up life stories about complete strangers slyly observed. I may talk to them sometimes; Marc hides in phone or computer. I felt for the guy who has moved from Newark, NJ to Jacksonville, FL (and was headed back there) because housing is no longer affordable in NJ but worse, government is, he says, crooked and who the heck even cares? Nobody, not even him, anymore. But he has hope for Florida, still. Or at least his neighborhood and new friends. He is impatient to get out of Newark again, yet he smiles back and offers me his chair. I decline. I preferred to stand and stretch after far too much sitting, something that makes me a little mad after an hour or so.

It’s the “puddle jumper” we next board that gives me the most pause. I watch many passengers duck their heads to get inside–it is that tight in there. Required for the hour ride to the final stop, we taxi down the runway. It creaks and sways from nose to wing tips to tail. It shimmies and cracks. I find myself quite unashamedly clutching Marc’s arm, trying to blot out sensory input as we lift into the air. All those squelched thoughts–just what holds us up? why do we pay to get on these? what about just hitch hiking next time?–assail me, then I give up and doze, exhaustion slackening my mouth. Until I begin to sneeze. That’s right, when the air cooling and circulating system is activated to loosen and offer its hidden dust, mildew and old air, I begin to sneeze and blow as if a gigantic cold has arrived. I can see people turning away from our seats, sinking into their books and computers. I always feel I should stand and shout, “Really, no virus here, it’s dust and mold allergies and you can’t catch those!” There are rarely enough tissues to get through these bouts. It’s embarrassing. It’s necessary to manage the situation but hold onto a shred of decorum so I try to blow discreetly, softly.

By the time we arrive I am too tired to appreciate the attractive rental car. I want to stay alert but it is after midnight. Even though our point of departure’s time zone is three hours earlier so my body theoretically should be okay, it feels as if I have migrated into a surreal time zone. Landscape is black-blue-yawning grey. My husband, even more sleep deprived, seems immune to this state, but I know better from trying experiences. I have to keep him between those faded white lines on the freeway for at least an hour. We make it safely and tumble into bed.

Well, “tumble” is far too generous a verb. This is the cranky nighttime part though I well know these are a fortunate person’s complaints. But there are temperature and fan settings to fuss with, a hard bed with a vast amount of pillows and I forgot to bring chamomile tea for pre-bedtime. Traffic noise. At 3 am I re-stuff the ear plugs and take a small amount of drugged-sleep-inducing  OTC sleep medicine. It takes a day or two for this body to re-calibrate. I also have some chronic health matters that require attention anywhere I am; decent rest is necessary.  Marc of course has to adjust but with less discomfort by far. He operates on fumes, almost believes sleep is optional–he maintains out of necessity and habit, of course, but I sometimes suspect he may be from another planet.  Then I think of pilots’ travel and regenerative habits. Not so reassuring as I try to relax. Finally consciousness gives over to sleep’s powerful pull.

The next day we move to a quieter room with a balcony. But we’ve had freeloaders there as the photos indicate.

It is a weird lifestyle, travel and living in a hotel, and I wonder over how Marc can cope with it since he loves familiarity and his set ways. He has always had to travel often for work. Since we arrived I have determined to make do: no car and no access to anything but a small fitness room and outdoor pool, my computer, a TV,  a hotel restaurant of sorts. I have not yet gone swimming. Each day I have slept in too late, eaten my bagel, drunk my Decaf Chai. When out on the balcony it feels as if I have stepped into a sauna. My hair droops even as it frizzes. But I can hear and see pretty rusty-orange-with-blue birds as they trill and flit about. And there are gently waltzing treetops. I have been watching wasps create a hive underneath the metal railing, and they are so meticulous and focused they have so far ignored my camera and me. Fascinating labor to see up rather close but I may not go out, anymore.  I have been bitten before; they’re not easy bites as they grab a small chunk of flesh. Best are the singing/buzzing katydids at night; they remind me of soft Missouri nights, where I was born and my family often visited.

After sweating in the exercise room, I visit with friendly staff with their lilting southern speech patterns and later report the wasp nest which will be dealt with tomorrow (which makes me a bit sad but I can’t imagine outmaneuvering wasps trapped in a hotel room). Now as I write I keep one eye on the weather report re: possible thunderstorms today, maybe tomorrow. Well, I have trusty Netflix. And my bright floral swimsuit is at the ready as soon as the sun shines hot and clear of dense clouds for at least an hour.

And in two days what will the trip to Michigan bring? Funerals and weddings and other such reunions are often fraught with complex emotional eruptions–like beautiful, well designed pinatas that are poked and prodded until surprise innards explode forth and, thus, provoked upwellings of excitement, appreciation and/or dismay. So I don’t know what is next. I am doing all this travel out of respect for Sherril’s memory and love for her bereft husband and his brother, Marc my husband. But I do know relationships and the known order of things change, like it or not, when someone passes on. A human life is that deeply meaningful–that when it is no more on earth its essence hangs here while the absence is yet keenly felt. Yet his or her disappearance creates a real vacuum, too, and we scramble to find our way about it, and not be tossed into the dark well of grief. To not flail about, at odds with the remnants of memory or this breathing, beating life for which we yet need to be present.

So I am travelling unexpectedly in many ways, as we all do. In fiction I can orchestrate things, flesh out skimpy parts and design a new scene and even as characters whisk me along it is an exhilarating thing, a finely tuned way of perceiving, envisioning and being. I know we–yes, the characters, the story and myself– are in concert on some level. In real life it is harder to track the slippery truths and the end is not always nearly heroic. It just comes, and I had better embrace it and live with it in all its mystery or revamp my attitude. As I noted, it may yet storm tonight but tomorrow my swimsuit will remain optional attire. And I feel excellent–strong, happy– as I splash and slice through cool, calm turquoise water, as I float with face to the sky. In fact, I feel pretty good now as sun dips below trees– so when all is said and done, I am thankful once more, God-Who-is-ever-with-us.

 

(I will not be able to post this Friday. Next week, I plan to post after the US holiday of Fourth of July. Be well, wherever you roam or gather!)

Wednesday’s Word: A Story of a Short, Hard Fall v. the Long Haul

Oswald West trails along the Oregon coast

Apparently I think I have daredevil blood in my veins, if perhaps not seriously like stunt persons or Indy race car drivers (though I felt the attraction in younger years). Or maybe I entertain the idea that I’m quite a skilled athlete. Both read as faintly ridiculous–neither is close to the truth, at least not at this stage in my life. Well, maybe the first sentence is still true. I do have impulses to undertake some stuff that many people I know do not, even if they’re a decade or so younger. And I act on those most of the time. Risk taking doesn’t often seem such an unreasonable choice to me– physically, anyway. I trust myself, my animal instincts.

But I had an injury this morning that gave me pause. I had completed the task of changing a light bulb above the bathroom sink. As usual, I then jumped down from the counter. Except I didn’t land perfectly on my feet as I have a hundred thousand times in many situations over the years. My stocking feet slid just a bit, I lost balance and listed; gravity fast took me to my left. My arm and hand searched to find something to break the fall but all I found was the side of the tub, then the damp bottom that my hand slipped rather than grabbed onto, say the shower curtain or the rounded edge the bathtub. Thus, my left side crashed against the rounded edge of the tub even as my body loosened and recoiled from the crash. I felt my ribs press in, move out. I caught my breath, waited a moment, considered that I’d likely develop a bruise–I take aspirin for heart disease, so bruise rather easily. No body alarms rang out, though, so I got up. With nothing awry except a small sore spot on my side, I counted my blessings. I did feel a bit shocked by it, tried to figure out just what occurred. I rarely have fallen in any circumstance, and tend to end up embarrassed if anything. It has been a sort of a family joke that if I start to fall or even drop something, fast reflexes are my good luck, saving me each time.

So I decided to go on a walk after a bit, as the sunshine was amazing and no rain clouds in sight. The temperature was in lower to mid fifties: more almost-spring weather! I admit I also  wanted to see if I was okay enough to move about more. So I strolled along for once, snapping photos, checking out blossoming trees and bushes, even a first perfectly white tulip. I called my sister to share my story; she was surprised, too.

That fragrant, lovely walk was a mistake. By the time I got halfway home I was aware of pain. I put an ice pack on it and decided it would be wise to call the nurse advice line.

“Any swelling? Big bruising? Sharp pain when you breathe in and out? Can you move about generally okay?”

“Well, I can’t turn or bend to my left. How do you mean, like a knife or a side jab or a grating pulling sensation? It hurts when I laugh much–I was laughing earlier as I told my sister how very un-catlike I suddenly felt today…more like an unwieldy hippo in a downhill slide. It is spreading a bit but no, I’m not in agony when I take a deep breath. It just sure hurts along my left side now.”

“I imagine! Keep icing, take pain relievers. Come in tomorrow morning to be checked further. There are no openings today but if things worsen later, call. But just so you know, it will hurt more as time goes by, will be worse tomorrow. Just keep an eye out for serious pain, swelling or bruising in the next few hours as that requires attention much sooner than later.”

“I feel like a real idiot, stupid how I lost my footing, ” I mumbled.

“Naw, listen, people get injured all the time in odd ways. We all do things we expect will be fine, then they aren’t.”

At least she didn’t say: why on earth was a 67 year old woman standing atop the bathroom counter, then thinking she could just jump down to the floor?

That would have upset me more.

I expect this body to do better for me. I have counted on that a long time. It has been happy to oblige with fortunately excellent balance, some decent core strength and sure-footedness, generally limber movements. I guess it has been a source of pleasure plus a bit of quiet pride. I so love being physical, believing this vehicle of flesh and bones will do as it is supposed to. This despite having chronic and sometimes emergency health issues. What’s a medical challenge here and there?–they do keep us on our toes. We all have our hurdles; mine have been fairly manageable thus far. I still crave being active and so get out and about. I long ago learned that lots of movement pumps up general well being, is required for bodies to work at optimum levels despite our glitches. (Kids clearly know all this without thinking; we adults can forget.)

Okay, not that I am one of those older women who backpack thirty miles into the wilderness with a fifty pound backpack–finally  to sleep upon stony ground under an wide and possibly storming sky. My camping days have sadly faded away (though I’m definitely open to buying a pop-up camper; maybe if we save and then cash in all our extra change when hubby retires). I admire those who do this after 65 or 70–even at 50–and what a beautiful thing to have what it takes.

In fact, I do far less than I’d like. I could find excuses but why bother, I just haven’t done all I want to do yet. I seriously want to rent kayaks and canoes again as well as try tubing down a river, hike much farther and higher, swim at least twice a month, ice skate more, take up regular cycling after not riding a bike a couple of decades, and try more dance classes. (I had to quit flamenco due to a sore foot from hiking two years ago). I’d also like to go rock climbing, parachuting, horseback riding, cross-country skiing–some of it new, some not.

But I power walk an hour a day which is perhaps 4-5 miles, depending–more and faster when the weather is good. I dance and exercise at home, have enjoyed working up a sweat in Zumba classes. I hike often when the trails aren’t too muddy (recently we did eight miles at the beach, in the coastal forest). I wouldn’t mind weight training again. I haven’t decided to join a fitness club again; I always prefer the outdoors. But weight training was a thrill when I was forty; maybe it’d be fun now.

I also am more apt than my husband, bless him, to do physical work around our place–it’s my nature to hop to things, get them done. I used to love splitting fire wood and doing all the yard duties; I just like such work. I’m not the most daring or active a person can be but neither am I a shrinking violet when it comes to pushing my body some.

When I was a kid, I used to dream about was being a trapeze artist. It was likely after I saw a performance of Ringling, Barnum and Bailey Circus. I imagined over and over what it would be like to have such perfect timing and such strength and grace to swing back and forth and grab another swing or the hands coming toward me. It was mesmerizing. I wanted to be far up there, to feel the flight that occurred with such letting go, to sail through the air. So I rigged up a trapeze in our big old maple tree in the back yard. I’d swing and hang from that thing endlessly, as if I was really doing something. And when the trapeze broke, I put op a heavy rope from which to swing and catapult myself up onto the bigger branches. That tree was like a mountain, something to be conquered and then to rest within, a feeling of triumph filling me with happiness.

And I could be as tough and capable as any boy, often outpaced them, endured longer bike rides, climbed higher than most all of them. (This was more important as I got older rather than less. Strength, agility and stamina were crucial to my confidence and feeling safe in the world. More than once those traits literally saved me.) I also liked to practice bike tricks for hours in the medical building’s empty parking lot near our house. These required standing atop my bike seat, sticking out one leg behind me as I drifted about the parking lot. Or lying with abdomen on bike seat and chest on handle bars, then letting go of the handles. How about jumping on and off, hanging form the side as if the bike was a bareback trick horse? The fun was endless. Of course I fell, got a few cuts, shed a tear now and then. That was simply part of it.

I was athletic as a child and youth but more importantly, I was in love with human locomotion. I also wanted to see how far it was possible to push myself. I had little fear and lots of curiosity. I dearly longed to be a National Geographic explorer and journalist (besides a trapeze artist, dancer, figure skater, etc.)–that wonderful magazine inspired me far more than most tomes in our home.

I hope this lovely zest for life doesn’t subside much any time soon. But some days I wonder just a little.

Yachats, Oregon

Along the coast of Oregon are plentiful pockets of tide pools, many of which are among massive basalt rock formations. The sea crashes against the rocks sending up towering spray, waves surge and land in mighty thrusts of energy. You have to be careful out there and not many want to even venture farther than a few feet from the shore. My husband will go down to the rocks with me aided by his walking stick  so he can search for stones and starfish and anemones. After a bit I go on my own way, closer to the edge and the crashing waves. I always want to climb until I get a grand view out over the ocean; if there are peaks to scale that is where I end up. I know the dangers. I know not to turn my back to the sea, and to keep my distance from the slick edge where waves break high.

Yet…I want to get as close as I can to the swirling depths, to the action–just as a rocky outcropping or a steep hillside calls to me to climb to the top. Just as the towering maple and oak trees and the trapeze called me. It is hard to explain how it feels, all the right muscles clenching and stretching, feet reaching and finding a next toe hold, sense of balance finely attuned. Everything working together, the heart pumping happily, rich air filling up the lungs, bones ringing with the joy of it. I take chances because it is worth it. I know onlookers on the high ground likely think I have lost my mind but I am not concerned with them, only the moments when I am free, exhilarated, full of the mystery and beauty out there: mentally, spiritually, viscerally alive.

Only one time I slipped on wet mossy rocks and my hand found purchase to help me get my balance again. A slight scrape on my palm got infected; it was one of the worst I’ve ever had thanks to all the bacteria in the sea, on rocks frequented by an array of wild creatures and microscopic matter. It hasn’t kept me from going out there though I’m even more aware of how and where I step. I respect the ocean’s powers and defend myself against its beguiling, ferocious waves. Several people drown at the coast each year because they underestimate the danger. I do ask my body each time: can I still safely go out to explore? So far, it has been a yes.

Whew, right now, my left side is crying a bit, pain radiating out and I can’t easily think of leaping about all the fabulous earthy places I admire. It’s taking some effort to type all this. I need to ice more, rest awhile. Still, it was the day to post my nonfiction piece and suddenly there was a topic I’d not foreseen. Besides, I need to write as much as I desire to be outdoors, maybe more. My two loves, though.

My happiness expands within the wonders of nature. We are all part of an infinite natural design.

Because we never know. I’ve found myself unexpectedly very close to death a few times. This is a far cry from that but even little accidents can make one re-evaluate the order of things. One tiny tip of the balance, one alteration of the physics at work, one second miscalculated and we find out how vulnerable we can be. I can’t say I appreciate it much right now. Body messages and common sense or intuition do keep us going, keep us moving through life. Did my body feel a bit sluggish this morning? I think so…and then was not so smart although other times I’d land just right. Live and learn the hard way, I guess.

When I heal I’ll likely climb and hop off another counter or rocky abutment until my instinct warns me not to do it–and I will listen better. And expect a good outcome. But not while wearing my darned slippery socks, without better consideration of all factors.

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What fluke accident have you had? Did it make you more cautious? Or do you have a slight daredevil tendency, too, and you just want to get back out there–and without real worry? I’d love to hear about it as I heal!

Play It Andante, Play It Allegro, Just Play On

At the edge of the piano bench, my feet dangling, I watch your hands fly across an orderly length of black and white keys. A whole story in sounds rolls over and through my smallness. Light filters though the living room windows and upon our arms and legs and faces. Your features are composed of sweetness and subtle strength. Full of the music. I am at ease, round with love for you. Music is added magic, creates a conduit that feeds me good things.

I am five years old but you, Marinell, my oldest sister, are eighteen. Grown up already. Our baby grand piano is a meeting place for the entire family but sometimes I get to claim a space by you, alone. Often I lie under the piano on taupe carpeting and lay my hands on the dark wood underside and the vibration fills me with pleasure. I see your feet work the brass pedals and sometimes sneak a hand there, a game of not getting caught by your shoe. I later try to play as you do, notes of intention and affection. The music comes out rough, unadorned.

When you play your cello, though, it is different for me as listener. I hide behind the big chair by the heat register. I already know this is an instrument I want to play–two sisters do so I will make the third. But your way with it sweeps me up in a storm of emotion that fills my insides too full. I cannot get enough of it even with a house full of string players.

The piano allows me to be closer to you. Observe. Sing along with my light voicing of notes. You don’t shush me, smile a little. When the songs are popular, not classical, I know some words. Sometimes the whole family finds its way around the piano. We sing in four part harmony. I have never known singing without harmony and find my place with a submerged melodic line. (At church we sing this way in a pew close to the pulpit and everyone turns to look at us: the Guenther family, singing as if in performance. It cannot be helped, this is our way.) You sing, too, but barely above piano’s voice, my offerings.

Your hands are an extension of who you are, capable, graceful, assured or so it seems. I see them type words fast and rhythmically as if it is just another musical instrument–around 120 words a minute I learn years later when you work for lawyers. Long fingers such a blur of energy. I try this myself, typing up a strange mess but when I slow down, each round letter key pressed slowly, it works though the small words mean less than what I want. But I most gravitate often to the roll top desk in the basement with its cubicles and drawers, pencils and paper, a hand me down that now fits just me.

I cannot keep up with you. You flit here and there on narrow feet and sometimes I pad after. You are somewhere “out there”  so often. And you are already reaching some apex of typists and musicians without my knowing what this means. I hear it, see it, sense it. You even play softball well, running like a flash of wind. Then you are Homecoming Queen. What that means is that you are chosen as the special girl in your school. You doff a glittering crown and fancy dress and get to ride on a huge float around town, people waving and hollering. I am in awe of your beauty like the rest, how can one not be, a smile that dazzles, deep dimples, hazel eyes that hints at such depths and inner light?

You watch over me, youngest of your four siblings, like a parent ever aware of my presence, sometimes irritated with my frequent shadowing. I have come to expect you to be nearby even more than our mother despite your busy schedule. I wait near the doors of the house. Spy on you with boyfriends. Watch you get ready for school events or concerts. You work part time at a fine clothing store, manage to save money for several cashmere sweaters. I open your dresser drawer, smooth them carefully before I am caught and scolded.

When you leave for a faraway college on full music scholarship, I may not cry but it feels like weeping inside, as if you are pried from me. I have no way to follow. In two years when I spend time near you, it is utterly different. You marry unexpectedly, not to a good man. Are gone awhile, then back in town again for a couple of years. I still watch you, feel your glowing heart as your soft face is marred with worry. I try hard to avoid his reach, try to circle back to you. We are still sisters but apart; I miss you. Observe from afar, now wary, afraid. Then you pat my hand, put an arm around my shoulders, hug me briefly. You let me rummage through your velvet lined jewelry box, try on too-big rings with pretty stones and clip-on earrings that are like delicate flowers. I wait for the music to return. You are quieter than ever, surrounded by the family when you visit us. And then you move to Texas. Alone, for a new beginning, back to music, better work, better friends, our music professor uncle who helps you forge a different path.

Many years later after I’ve married too soon, perhaps as well, you generously open your door to me despite your busy life with family and everything else. Shelter is needed until my husband, children and I find a way to move out on our own. Two weeks becomes two months. You are rooted in Texas after marrying a musician/ computer guy, are raising two bright-eyed daughters who are as good and capable as you. You work in an office by day then play your cello for symphony, the opera, quartets and trios, and may be most at ease on stage. Your restless fingers have learned embroidery and crocheting for relaxation, the tidy beauty of it.

It is a hard time for me, not enough to stretch enough. A small, airless dwelling. A man who’s gone often, brings home too little money or patience. A man I yearn to be with but who has anger in his blood, words that hide or fall out in sudden fistfuls. Times of aching stitched together with dashes of wonder under a searing Texas sun. Rescuing my four year old daughter from fire ants and her own silence; terrified as when my toddler son jumps into the apartment pool, then dog paddling not drowning. I take a menial job scooping ice cream and at home I swim with the children through deep blue water, escaping heat of day and savoring cooling dark of evening. Our skin turns nearly brown as bark. I sing to them, tell stories, write terse surreal poetry that bruises me, wears out paper with dreams and secrets. You, sister, try to not weep, a finger pressed to your lips, when I at last tell you more of the truth. You bring food, alert the church during Christmas. It humiliates even as it nurtures. I long to deserve better.

By the summer, we say good bye. It feels again like a pulling apart from you. My family migrates back north to help with house building for my in-laws, one of whom is dying. And my husband and I try to fix fissures, span the canyons we cannot bound across, anymore. To rekindle passion, even tenderness that first brought my husband and me together. It is ice- and -storm-riven country, lonelier than ever despite other miracles of earth. We remain hungry for so much and it is not to be.

Time is bargained with, lived in and through. I embark on each day as if it is transport to purgatory or a glimpse of heaven. I write some and drink more; you send me cards with birds and flowers. I love my children more as they grow taller and I grow thinner. College calls me back to a way of thinking that can welcome opportunity.

The drumming of time moves us on and we jump to its demands.

You also make big changes, move to Seattle area while I marry again and live almost like a nomad with my second husband, going where each next promotion takes us. I find work a fine balm, writing a salvation, my children a beloved cause I would die for. For many years we were not often enough in touch–we let the space billow. I worked to survive; you lived a far better sort of life and that discrepancy was widening. But events conspire so that I at last move nearer to where you reside (as well as two other siblings). It is the place I have dreamed of since youth, having lived there for a time at nineteen: the great Pacific Northwest.

When I visit you and your new husband– your ever-quipping, old high school sweetheart, a pilot–in the redwood house on a slope of Cougar Mountain, I am struck by your laughter, its volume and frequency. You are different, softer but sunnier; I haven’t yet dissipated my somber ways, am still too thin. We wander from room to room. This house suits you despite shady, towering evergreens which make you sneeze. Contemporary, it sprawls with its many windows and a huge back yard that is half deck and pine needles, half pickle court (who has even heard of that?). Your bedroom has an attached spa room with sauna that I am invited to enjoy. The fire in the hearth warms us all.

The piano is in the formal living room  and I again watch your lithe hands play as I sing old standards, rusty and embarrassed, happy to be making music with you. I no longer sing for anyone else but you nod at me, smile. I can never tell you what this means to me, but you know. Eventually you play your cello; you remain a consummate professional, paid with money and admiration. I am still moved. My own cello waits in its sealed case at home; I vow to play it more. But what could be envy is this loosening inside, a deep relief that we live close to one another.

We sit on the expansive deck, gab as we eat breakfast or lunch, sip iced teas. We hew out a trail through our thorny pasts, find one another again. I find myself laughing with you as if human life is brimming with goodness and feel more convinced it is so. I breathe tangy breezes, we putter about; there is such gratitude that you reap joy here. That I can witness it, a beautiful thing. That we have time to know one another more again, to cover lost ground.

Over the next twenty-some years we grow closer than I imagined. This, even though we have divergent philosophies on a few big topics, inhabit different lifestyles. I visit you often as is possible on the mountain; sometimes you visit my city. We take good walks, shop like goofy girlfriends, go to a few concerts, catch up on our separate events. Toss about ideas, build more camaraderie with our husbands. You are like a bright bird who has traversed faraway lands. I have been a few interesting places you’d never have found even with compass in hand. We talk of men past and present, how being women is a burden and a gift. We share news of family, gossip some, swap favorite books and films and music, tell each other interesting stories. Look out at all that greenness and clear light. Laugh.

You and I also share woundedness, scars that qualify us as at least minor warrior women, just two among so many warrior women. There is forgiveness of the past and easy retrieval of blessings. We offer hope when at times it seems stretched to its tearing point. We share similar health issues so call each other: “Hi Sis, one more crazy/tough/unexpected thing has happened. It’s always something, such is this life,” and can make light of such mortality as we commiserate.

We can request, “Pray for me (or this situation)” and know it will get done. We each recognize prayer as an indestructible raft that carries us through tamed and wild waters, that infuses us with peace and courage. We are as certain of God’s Presence in this life and our own selves as we are of love of our children or our healers, the arts and nature. We can find it in the resonance of colors like turquoise and iris, in a filigreed shadow cast across land, a common bird on the wing.

I can call you anytime and know you will answer that call; you know I will answer yours. This is how much I trust you and care, big sister. A lifetime of this. More than many get.

But now you are not here.

You called me nearly three years ago, right after Easter to tell me you were so happy to know that life–the soul’s life, our true life, as we said– is eternal. I heard the stark foretelling in your voice. You were going to leave. Two days later and you were in the hospital. A week later you were gone.

This is a very short history. I could add how you tended the flowers in the last house (one with few trees, more brilliant light): as if they were needing your protection and affection, as you offered all. How–though you spoke more frankly and emitted a heartier laugh as you got older–your voice was still shaped by that rich quietude that had drawn me even as a child. When you looked at me, you discerned much more. When you listened, you heard what was not spoken. When you reached out to me it was always just enough. I hope I was  enough, too, for you. No longer a kid or only a sister by blood but a loving friend by happy choice.

Your birth date is coming up, early March during more unveiling of springtime. I suspect you are happily ever after as you thought you’d finally be. I feel the radiance of your smile and I know it’s so, Marinell. Save me a place on a phantom bench. One day I’ll be finding you again.

Marinell life pics 001
Marinell as a young woman