One Eager Hostess, Short on (Perfect) Talents

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I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).

To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.

I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.

Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers.  Ah, table artistry was worth developing.

From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.

Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.

So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)

All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.

There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.

In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a  huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.

I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.

“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”

“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”

I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating  and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook  from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”

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Avery and me, 2012. We’ve skated since then–she has improved!–and it’s definitely time to get on that ice again!

I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.

Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.

Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.

“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”

“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”

Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.

So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can,  the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.

( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )

 

Gifts of Visibility (and Saved by Quick Wits)

My Thanksgiving flowers and candle the day after

The view from where I sit–far east end of the oval oak, heavy claw-footed table–shakes up stereotypes of a “regular” American family. Seated there is an amalgamation of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual traits. It’s a table that’s big enough to hold thirteen if we squeeze in a couple more at each end. And at Thanksgiving it was jam packed with family and food. There was little that was “regular” about what I saw: the variety of lifestyles, skin tones, attitudes, gender preferences and belief systems make up this big, beloved crazy quilt.

It would not have looked and felt this way in my parent’s dining room. My life has morphed significantly since my siblings and I were raised in a small Michigan city. It was and likely is a place where most were Caucasian excepting a very small percentage of Chinese families, a few other Asian and Hispanic families. This was a place where a multinational group of scientists worked at Midland’s major employer, Dow Chemical/Dow Corning. Our hometown was the company’s world headquarters. Yet I grew up in a cultural bubble in very definite ways; racial diversity was not one of them. I didn’t think much of it until I was old enough to travel more, even with my parents, and see how others lived. And I was startled and excited by all that was going on outside my community.

I began to chafe at a few social constraints as I met people beyond our strictly defined realm, and discovered that ignorance was conquerable with education and experience. Eventually, I married “outside” conservative parental expectations (despite my father being a musician, my mother being more open-minded) more than once. As one might imagine, this challenged and enriched my understanding of life.

So, now in my home we verge on being a motley bunch in a variety of ways and I cannot say I am surprised. Our five adult children’s two fathers and I encouraged inquisitiveness, openness, thoughtful risk taking and tolerance. This is frankly reflected at my table during family gatherings. Though it goes way beyond skin deep, I’ll begin there.

To start with, there are some unknown origins represented. My husband’s white mother was adopted and detecting one’s roots was not encouraged in her era; his African American father’s relatives were much less accessible after an early divorce and his father, disastrously, was kept from him. Such was the place and time in which he grew up. So those at the table are clearly not all WASP-ish. I carry the most Scotch-Irish-English-German genes, a tad Scandinavian; I know a lot about my family background. But since my husband does not he has tried to track down more clues as a bi-racial man often thought to be Hispanic or Italian or “mixed something else”–and that can depend on what degree of suntan he has picked up. As he ages he burns more than do I, and that oddly can change perceptions again. But he sees in his daughter’s two children bi-racial coloring and hair; one of our daughters has twice married black men.

Similar questions have been asked of our three adult daughters with their fuller lips, high cheekbones and strong jaws, wavy to kinky hair, complexions that vary.  Then, the family marriages: one daughter is married to an Hispanic man; another, to a Kenyan. Two of my biological children’s father (deceased) was German/Polish/Swiss, so they’re fair skinned and light haired like I am and he was. But my son is partnered with a woman who if of Native American heritage. I haven’t met my oldest daughter’s new guy–may be a Caucasian, who cares either way?– and look forward to doing so at Christmas gathering.

Beyond ethnicity and race, there is much, much more that matters. Each person has a story, like all family members. They are not just my/our children; that was only a beginning. They are not just partners of my children or grandchildren; they bring their own diverse experiences. So there all sorts of histories of accomplishments and missteps, homes and journeying, medical crises and apparent miraculous recoveries (for three), beautiful loves and grievous losses for all. There are tales of migrations and trouble averted and families lost and found.

Our spiritual and political beliefs are not all in accord. These are interesting variances: Mother Earth/ Goddess beliefs, Christianity (some differing views), Divine Dust/Supreme Mind, God Within All, Creator-Spirit. Politics range from quite conservative to moderate liberal to a focus on “a greater universal reality” (including ideas like extraterrestrial beings/systems) to radical feminism to occasional conspiracy theorizing to “Too busy living to worry every minute about this POTUS foolishness; the planet is in giant flux, anyway.” Three adult children as well as my gay sister (also in attendance) have been/are politically engaged and active in some way. They want the world to be more egalitarian, ecologically more sound, safer and healthier, and inclusive of all in some meaningful, practical way.

I get it. As someone reminds me, there was a saying going around in the late sixties when I was out there agitating for better educational systems and equal opportunities: “The personal is political.” I have thought the solutions are sociopolitical while our individual life choices and actions can be a potent force for change for the better. Then I add that spiritual health is, for me, the foundation for all. Generally, the crowd murmurs assent.

But there you have it; we vocalize strong ideas here. We have opposing ideas at times or just have different interpretations of things and get into heated debates. But it’s safe, even when someone gets irked. Every time someone has brought home a new friend or love interest they have been prepared for the reality that we don’t do small talk so well or long at our table; we dive right in, for better or worse (hopefully, not the latter often).

And we don’t have to agree or even accept everything about each other. We just need to love each other. Nothing and no one decrees that family has to be on the same wavelength, with no conflicts or darkly confusing moments, no strained conversations. Those, after all, can be addressed or let go or pondered ad nauseum, your choice. And what sort of family is utterly homogeneous, blood-related or not? Robotic beings, not sweaty, emotive humans. And this is how we like it.

So I look about the table and note how everyone has a variety of talents, skills, passions, quirks and issues. This is true of any family. When we bring it all together, it’s fun and curious what we learn from one another. Three are rock hounds; a couple are amateur naturalists. Two or three are adventurers, ready for nearly anything or anywhere. One is a still pro skateboarder at age forty-four who creates, markets; he sells self-designed skateboards and equipment at various outlets. Another owns a farm in Africa and has developed other businesses. My husband, hard working QA guy/engineer, utilizes his mathematical mind for the heck of it  by solving tough puzzles, or poses odd hypothetical situations to figure out. Plus he has a thing for puns, to my dismay. We both adore words, however, so discuss meanings, usage, etymology–right at the dinner table with some yawning, others pitching in  comments.

Another person is bringing arts and recreational events to a broader community but side passions are vintage clothing and records. Several make crafts or create contemporary art or compose/perform music and record it. A handful have traveled internationally and across the US. One is an amateur Biblical scholar, another a Chaplain for older people. I am an inveterate reader (I even read pharmaceutical inserts, ingredient lists, tags on bed sheets…) and a writer, a lapsed musician who loves world music as well as classical and jazz, and an outdoors nut. I collect visual art and any sort of pictures for collages. Grandkids like to solve brainteasers, draw/paint, play bass clarinet, horseback ride and snowboard, sing and dance and make videos, cook vegetarian meals, research astronomy, camp in the mountains. I knew little about many of those topics until they shared with me.

My gaze is caught by something on my son’s neck. There is a new tattoo on it, an eagle, “his” bird as he says. This is probably the fifteenth tattoo he has gotten, arms and hands (and now neck?) decorated with them, many of them wild creatures which he loves. This is the son who was bitten multiple times by a hermit spider which left oozing wounds that made him terribly ill–yet he has a prominent spider tattoo on his arm, feels no fear of them–rather, feels he was taught  things. I don’t entirely get all this but just accept it as his way–just as I accepted that a daughter dyed her hair green or violet, wore mixed pattern clothing as a teen. She still leans that way–funny how some of those choices became fashionable!– and may do so again. One never knows in this family what may come next.

I observe other daughter’s Kenyan husband as he eats our American food, food that cannot be easy for him to relish but he is trying and he smiles back at me, touches my arm. He talks in densely accented sentences of a rich music, and conveys feelings between words I don’t always understand–but I think I do the feeling. He speaks five languages. He thanks us voluminously for the feast, being included in the talk. I ask for him to bring some food at our next gathering.

A granddaughter is laughing at something her aunt is saying, eyes sparkling. She had a rough teenage year or two but now is rebounding. Her presence emanates her more natural calm and there is also quiet ebullience we long missed. She encourages her shyer but brilliant little brother, no longer chastises him when he gets things so fast and misses other things. They put their heads together to share a confidence–how gentle are their words as they sit with us. A lump forms in my throat.

My sister comes late with her granddaughter (who knows my granddaughter) and we hug long and well. She has had memory issues the past year and I worry.–she was once Executive Director, of several agencies. She is still a master conversationalist and knows how to reach out to others with curiosity and kindness; they respond easily. I am more than thankful for the one sister I have left.

But my eyes rest upon my youngest daughter again and again, the once-violet hair gal. A. and her spouse had arrived before the others to hang out and help. We were talking in the kitchen, eating a few before-dinner snacks. I was chatting away when a small piece of cracker caught in my throat. I coughed harder, coughed more and then could not stop coughing. The others paused to glance my way but continued to gab. My throat seemed to close, my mouth went dry. I was choking. No air in, no air out. I kept coughing, trying to pull in a tiny bit of oxygen, my eyes streaming, chest burning, throat constricting further. My chest did not move much, lungs got almost nothing.

Then my daughter really saw me. “Mom! Can’t you breathe? Should I call 911?”

My husband was frozen in place with our son-in-law. “Try a tiny sip of water?”

“Do you need the Heimlich, Mom?” A. yelled.

I could not answer, coughing, coughing and retching and then nothing and I tried to reach for her. Light seemed to be exiting the kitchen, I was loosening hold of body and mind as I doubled over the sink… then she put her arms around me and with her clasped hands pressed hard against my ribs and upward until something small but terrible seemed to be released. Not a pleasant sight, face flaming hot, eyes stinging. I still felt it there. A minuscule waft of air entered mouth and sore throat; body felt misaligned; head felt empty, eyes streamed. Her arms were still around my chest but gently.

“Mom? Better?”

“Can you breathe now, Cynthia?” my husband asked, stricken.

I nodded, barely, barely as the light came back on, as legs felt wobbly. I breathed in, out shallowly a little more. I could not quite stop coughing; no words. I took a sip of water to cool my throat and chest, finger held up as a signal that I was likely coming ’round.

Gradually I breathed without diaphragm spasms or sharp pains and stood up straighter. After a moment, I automatically started to do something in the kitchen, and smiled a little to reassure them. My husband put a hand on my arm; A. put both of hers on my shoulders.

“Please come with me and sit down. Rest awhile.”

I sat there and felt as if the world had dissolved and was coming together and into focus again. I could see them looking at me, concerned. I felt tired; my head began to ache badly. I closed my eyes, pulled sweet coolness of air in and out of me. Arms encircling me: my daughter hugging me.

“I love you, Mom!”

“Thank you so much…!” I whispered.

A. had recently trained for disaster preparedness for the city, with essential emergency medical triage skills. She behaved in a calm, clear-minded, fast manner. She said she had not yet learned the Heimlich maneuver. But whatever she did worked. Her presence of mind, a certainty that she must help me made the difference, along with the intervention tactic.

By the time the others had arrived, I felt more normal, had gotten busy though my head still hurt, requiring a pain reliever. I had nearly put aside the incident and didn’t care to mention it further nor did the others.

But when we all sat down to the big table and took each other’s hand as is our tradition, I was asked to say the prayer. This is what came out:

“Lord, I thank you for all who are with us and those who are not. Fill us with Your peace. Fill us with divine compassion.” I paused, out of words for once, only to rush on: “And thank You so much and the angels, too, for helping my daughter save me tonight!”

Of course, I began to cry a little and then had to explain. Everyone was duly impressed with her skills, relieved I was okay. I got more hugs all night.

“I did what seemed instinctive,” she murmured as if surprised, herself, by her actions.

I knew I was far gladder than they. Gratitude does not express enough what I felt. Just to breathe unobstructed was fantastic. To fill out the picture with the rest was nearly too much but in a positive way–delectable food, family together and the love therein. I began to think of how much each person means to me and was imbued with a moment of extraordinary joy and serenity. Those long gone felt near to me, as well.

I suddenly saw again that visibility is an invaluable thing–to truly know a person and to be known. To patiently learn more of another, to stay and abide with each other until the bigger picture is revealed here and there. I hope to never forget that to be seen and being willing to truly note others is of more than simple, average importance. I’m honored I get to know my family as I do, as well as those brought into our home. Human beings need to feel worthy in the sight of others, to be accepted for who they are beneath trappings and niceties. Cared about, regardless of differences or similarities or changing circumstances of life. It is a gift that never goes out of style or loses its value. To not be invisible, to not be overlooked or discounted is one genuine wonder.

This Music of Joy Will Never End

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Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan; entrance area. This wishing well remains from my stays in the 1950s-60s but now is filled with earth and plants. I wanted to toss a coin in but glad it has stayed put. (All photos by this writer other than photos Marc took of me.)

(Please note there are captions for the many Interlochen pictures; just hover with your mouse over photo.)

The symphony of winds rushing and skipping through acres of broad leaf and conifer trees, lake water slapping then gliding along a strip of shore: these sounds long ago saturated my brain and blood. The sonic tableau is further enhanced with human-created instruments and voices. The musical phenomena in which nature and people collaborate gifted me with a series of wonderment. My times spent attending internationally renowned Interlochen Summer Arts Camp (overshadowing all other camps) remain potent points of grace arising from a crucible of trying times.

I stay the impulse to write of my beloved father, how he taught and conducted orchestras there in the richness of summer’s glow. I might tell a bit about my four older siblings who studied, practiced and performed on their own respective instruments–cello( my oldest sister; also me), clarinet, viola, flute, bassoon and more as they changed preferences. And a couple of them later became summer counselors for the younger campers. Oh, wait, my oldest daughter taught art there for two summers. But they have their own stories.

And I will not be writing at length regarding the illustrious history of Interlochen Center for the Arts, both an arts camp (established in 1928) and soon a boarding fine arts high school school, other than to say it has offered programs for aspiring artists from grades 3 to 12 who have come from around the world. The place has expanded since I attended to include a College of Creative Arts, as well.

I’m not very interested in cataloging triumphs or failures (for example, I won first chair in the cello section of orchestra one summer only to lose it to my still good friend and far better cellist, Susan). Nor teachers’ strengths or weaknesses; the stress of competing against talented kids from all over the world; cramped yet lovely rustic cabin life; the regimen of getting up at the crack of dawn and flopping into bed exhausted, too tired to gossip or plan hijinks. And when allowed breaks, the best thing was to sit lakeside and sip a soda or dash off a letter home. And visualize a future in the arts, that shining life of work and inner rewards–and perhaps outer.

It was, in truth, not a time so much of great youthful fun as it was strictly scheduled and enforced hours as each worked at perfecting one’s capabilities as a young artist who was engaged in performing and visual arts. In short, it was intensive summer school for kids with many talents, but conducted in the midst of beautiful forested acreage by a lake. And it was heavenly regardless of the toil that came with it. I was thirteen and fourteen then fifteen and by then “excellence above all”was a main credo. It was the family’s, as well, as music and striving were seemingly what was needed; it felt natural.

My fingers ached, even bled at times despite thick calluses formed; my shoulders muscles bunched and sometimes spasmed after hours of practice in small field stone “huts”, side windows opened to a pungent, damp breeze. Still, sweat rolled down back and chest in high summer, my cello sticking to the bare spots of skin that hugged it. At night, it cooled enough. As I walked dirt paths through a bluish-lavender twilight, my cello snug at my side, music still swirled about as I passed Interlochen Bowl, an open air stage full of performers. It was as if music and other mysterious energies moved the very atmosphere I breathed.  I felt, at times, as if I had walked through an opening to an idyllic garden of delights. Nothing was the same there as the outside world; all was finer, richer, sweeter. Tough but better. And at home I had plenty of creative engagement. This was just, well…Interlochen.

Perhaps as I finished voice lessons (hoping I’d have a chance to ace the audition for a musical theater production) I’d slip into the dark, musky backstage at Grunow Theater, spellbound as chameleon actors rehearsed. My small notebook would soon be full of messy notes for future reference…for something, I was certain. I learned more about the arc of storytelling, of drama’s effect when leavened with humor. And witnessed again the enchantment of imagination’s constructs. How I longed to tell such stories: a heavy velvet curtain swinging open, revealing a saga of human loving, toiling and dreaming. I started to consider playwriting more seriously, a leap from silliness I made up as a kid.

I also learned the basics of playing a full-sized harp, a resonant and wondrous thing, and thought for a couple of years that would become my instrument, it was so amazing to me and felt not so unnatural to play. In the end it was not. Frankly, it seemed too big to deal with as well as complicated to ever master.

I had taken some dance classes as all female children did back then, at least those who liked to jump about or impress their mothers. But I hadn’t had years of strenuous ballet study like the lithe dancers at Interlochen. Nonetheless, I visited the Dance Building often, in awe of flexible, strong girls who laced up their pointe slippers. It was a favorite place to take a break. I had secretly loved to dance almost as much as making music and writing. I just hadn’t had time with so many musical activities and other pursuits, and it was not encouraged by my parents. So, one summer I decided to take an elective for fun, a beginning modern dance class. My heart pounded as I prepared. Self-conscious in my snug black leotard and very pink tights, new ballet shoes so constricting. I longed to fling them off, run and leap. Maybe I was too athletically inclined to hope to dance there.

(Please click this time on circles for captions.)

The dance teacher whose name I’ve forgotten watched me as I perspired through exacting warm ups. The glimmering Green Lake was behind our building and there were so many windows that blessedly, swift gusts from open water helped cool the vast mirrored room and us. I worked as the piano accompanied our movements each class, and studied my teacher and the others. I was so afraid I’d be determined to be anything but even a beginning dancer, tossed out of class. But I was determined, kept at each difficult position or move and did learn. I felt exhilaration, discomfort, mystification, deep joy of the body being freed. I felt terribly strong, similar to when I ice skated, but dance was even more interesting.

It was such a relief to give myself to movement, to not have to talk or sing or play cello–just let my body lead me, teach me. And I waited to learn a real choreographed dance, an event I considered my true reward. In a week we were making something good, and I followed each instruction, melded with others.  Took my place with anticipation, made it past the run-throughs. In a short time, we would have a whole performance to offer.

The teacher beckoned to me at the end of a class. I felt breathless; was it good news or bad?

“How long have you been dancing?” she asked, her kind face betraying nothing.

“Oh, well.” I wasn’t sure what to say. If I told the truth, would she tell me I should not be there? “I had a few years of rhythmics classes as a kid, a little ballet…not so much.”

She put her hand lightly on my shoulder and sat me down.

“Do you want to dance? Is that why you took this class or to just have a lark?”

“Oh, I love dancing, it’s wonderful being in your class. I’m a music major, though.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Because you should dance more. You have such natural talent, I’m surprised you haven’t had training. In fact, I believe you could be a real dancer, make it a career eventually.”

“What?” I felt as though in a dream, the sort you must awaken from despite it being perfect.”But I’m already fifteen! I’d never be able to compete with other talented kids who’ve worked so hard–”

“But you could. You could go home and take dance lessons and work really hard, then study dance in college and do something good.” She smiled and gave me a quick hug. “I was like you, once. I followed my dream when it didn’t make sense. I began rigorous study in university and went on as a modern dancer, dancing all over the world. And I teach here. You have promise–modern dance suits you well. You dance from a very deep place. You should consider doing this, okay?”

I didn’t feel I could answer, as tears welled up. I nodded, smiling, and left.

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A view outside the Dance Building

Modern dancing that summer was the first time I’d fully discovered safety and exhilaration living within a body that had, as a child, endured years of sexual abuse. The first time someone had told me–beyond my figure skating (perhaps more a sport to me, not quite the art I longed for)–that I was acceptable physically, even valued in rarefied worlds defined by ideas and creative activity. Instead, my young being, my flesh and bones had long been burdened with self loathing and abandonment, the lurking, subterranean fear of vulnerability. Dancing that summer along with my teacher’s firm encouragement and appreciation sparked a change in self-perception, in my desire to do more than even survive capably, if possible. Or sometimes, stay alive. Just get by. The fine teacher never even knew it. Or maybe she suspected.

Although I did not become a dancer–there were other needs, trials and goals that took precedence–I yet do dance and experience relief and joy to do so.

There was much more to those summers than dancing, singing and acting (I got a decent part in “Pirates of Penzance”; sang in concerts), playing my cello and a little harp, and learning more writing skills. There was hanging out in the dusty, smelly art studios, watching others make curious objects. And I realized I wanted to explore visual arts more, as well. There was sitting in an audience in the open air Kresge Auditorium, not just performing. Being moved far beyond my ability to verbalize my feelings as great, music was performed. The greens-to-blues lake within audience view shimmered and soothed. And there was time spent getting closer to new friends, some kindred spirits with whom I kept in touch for years, and setting out on a sailboat upon undulating waves, and gathering around campfires. It was the singing trees and the breath of sky like a scarf about me; the taste of summered water; the pulsing light and tantalizing shadow upon the paths that led me to more discovery. I was at home in the world where art was being made by many, where I, too, was following my passion to create.

My times at Interlochen heralded healthier changes while strengthening my certainty that art can salvage lives, that a grand variety of arts created and shared is more fulfilling and exciting than anything else for many thousands. For me.  I saw this in many others, how they came needing more and emerged from the time spent with something new. As I once wrote in a poem, there hopefully comes for many that “deepening at the seams”, those stitched together places where this human life tugs and even rips apart our yearning selves. We can heal those tears of the soul. Praise the ongoing design and redesign of greater moments. For me the result is a life full of empowering magic, lived with good love, and I get to be part of a worldwide community that loves to conjure something fresh, remake what is known. If only there was even more time to grab hold and give it away, tenfold.

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I have endless gratitude for this way of living, within the vast terrains of heart, soul and mind, each day and found stories like gifts I get to mine and share.

An Up North Autumn: Lakes, Forests and Love

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West Bay, Lake Michigan. All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2017 (Photos not re-touched)

To any outsider and according to ordinary appearances, my husband, Marc, and I were going “back home” to Michigan for a week’s visit/vacation. That is, we were on the proverbial journey that leads to one’s old stomping grounds, a destination deemed “hometown” (seeming more a mirage than actuality). What I discovered anew is that my old home base (as well as my husband’s) was not where or what makes most sense at first glance. It should have been more obvious to us from the start; we did plan the trip together. And it is people whose presence means “home” as well as places. Both might be different from one’s original hometown.

Our main purpose for flying half the day (really entire day due to a six hour layover in Chicago) was to visit my elderly mother-in-law, my brother-in-law and his wife at a new home they now all share. Our second intention was to go on a “color tour,” i.e., to witness northern Michigan’s palette of autumnal forest hues. The drive from the Detroit airport was a wake-up call that clarified we were no longer in Oregon: hulking grey industrial complexes, drivers darting in and out of lanes without warning and blaring horns as if making a chase movie. The essential flatness, the geometry of everything. That cumulus cloud-laden sky tussling with windy rainfall. (Later, weather became, then remained weirdly balmy–why did I pack my fleeces? Oh, so-called Indian Summer was upon the state….) Here and there were scattered fall-bright trees among cityscapes and burdened highways. However, in time the city scenes were fewer as we neared our destination.

Their house was perhaps an hour and a half from the Detroit airport, and found set back from the tidy, tree-studded street, one nearly empty of any Sunday morning bustle as we glided toward the house with our rental car–a new Chevy Malibu, a fine “Motor City” auto industry-worthy sedan, I have to say. Marc had grown up in Flint and Lansing, cities other than the one we were visiting but we might have swung by his old homes if he’d wanted that. He did not mention it. So, we arrived to visit with his mother and brother. To share and discover what it meant for him–for us both.

Beth, my mother-in-law, is 89 years old; she is lovely despite worsening issues with eyesight and hearing, a slowness of gait. Her gentle face and searching eyes couple with the sharp inquisitiveness of a theological scholar (amateur but believe me, she knows the most arcane things) and longtime teacher, as well as traces of tension around eyes and mouth which stresses of life deposited. I find her smile beautiful and her laugh tender. But everyone has family history that is complicated; being human must mandate that to some degree. Visiting, I am more a semi-outsider looking in, only know parts of what makes the family tick so I observed. A pleasant occupation.

(You may need to click on some photos for captions.)

My husband embraced his only sibling, two years younger, and they began to catch up bit by bit. They’ve not been so close as I have with my four (now three) siblings; this visit was important. We found my sister-in-law yet unwell from a medical ordeal but we gabbed as we could. Beth was more the focal point. How endearing she could yet be–eloquent with such precise grammar, curious about people and events, opinions well delineated. Pleased as she could be to once more be with her older son and even me. To be able spend days and evenings with both her children held such import. It had been 6 years since we were all face-to-face. Too long. The three days zoomed by. My husband and his brother became more reconnected. Beth was pleased with the mini-family reunion as other members shared dinner twice. There was a more intimate confab here and there that I respectfully avoided, exploring the pretty back yard leading to woods. Or I chatted with my sister-in-law. I came to better realize the depth of her weariness and bravery, even as we also shared a little laughter. Her deep eyes were hard with pain, softened by a good heart.

When Marc and I were closer to leaving, Beth asked me, “Are you going to visit your parents’ graves in Midland, your hometown? Tend to the sites?”

I shifted into startled silence. No, not on this charted course.

“Well, no, the plan is to continue on up north to Petoskey and Traverse City areas. I  guess I could have but…not this time.”

Beth was politely surprised. I said something reasonable about our schedule and conversation moved on. I felt a bit stung by my inability to say “yes” to her, but it vanished soon.

Such an act is considered a duty, a tradition for adult children yet it has rung empty for me. I have not visited my parents’ graves since my mother died ten years after my father. I may never do so. Because I believe in ongoing life beyond death, I don’t feel their presences in a greenly-pruned cemetery. Because I can sense their spirits in my dreams and daily living, I don’t have undue desire to talk to them at the spots where their bodies were buried. To leave flowers that will fade and die, too.

And the fact is, I have little interest in revisiting the small city where I spent my childhood and youth. It is an attractive, even privileged place but not so much a fuzzy embrace of warmth, security and joy as a series of chain links, of strife bound together with various sorts of love, unusual experiences. And many if not most of the links became weakened or rusted through. I admire its bounties and appreciate much of what was learned there. But all those I loved the truest do not live there, anymore. In my memory files of “hometown” it is like looking at colorful pictures but also seeing mysterious muted tones of shadowy negatives, primary scenes before the final images. I did have interesting adventures, some dangerous, others tattooed with sadness. And there are those that shine within, still. Peace enough has been made and I have written much about good times, far less of wounding ones. We all are wounded here and there, in this way or that.

So when I think of growing up, I often consider other places, including what downstate Michiganders call “Up North.” Marc and I–both grateful to have shared the time with his mother, brother and the others– took to the road again. We were seeking the destinations where we each found stability or rich happiness or inspiration long ago, and from which we continue to draw strength and peace.

Photos from along the drive north:

The undulating roads into northern Michigan are lonely as large cities are left behind, but lonely in a way both freeing and calming. Hills appeared here and there, at last. The speed limit is 70 mph so we zipped along straight then curvier highways and byways, past subtly rolling land steeped in shades of green, tan and brown, the trees tending more toward gold, orange and red mile by mile. This was what we’d hoped for: Michigan’s spectrum of autumnal colors. It was a more silent drive as we feasted our eyes.

It was early evening as we arrived at Bay View, once the summer home locale of Marc’s grandparents and, thus, his whole family. We had booked a room for one night in Stafford’s Bay View Inn, which is on the National Historical Register. All the buildings in Bay View, a community that requires membership, were constructed at the turn of the twentieth century and are Victorian. This lends a sense of being transported into that long ago time. The charm of the inn’s rooms was matched by the gentile, good humored spirit of the staff. Begun primarily as a Chautauqua community, Bay View residents did and still does devotedly champion the arts and greater education. But the star to me is the land with its waterscapes.

This was the backdrop of our northern childhoods, those pines, birches, maples, oaks, elms and poplars. The Great Lakes Huron and Michigan that flow into one another. They are so huge that when we were children we thought they were much like the ocean; the horizon above the deep, clear cobalt waters was so distant and magical we could barely imagine what was beyond it. We ran down to the rocky shore where Marc started his rock hunting in earnest; he soon found a couple of agates and beloved Petoskey stones. These unique stones are fossilized rock, made of rugose coral, from glacial times. They are named after an Ottawa Chief Pe-to-se-ga (Rising Sun); their fossil markings look a bit like small suns with rays spreading outward. We found a few to take back with us.

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East view of Little Traverse Bay, part of Lake Michigan

I breathed in the bright edge of a Lake Michigan wind, hair streaming, eyes watering. The powerful scent of fresh water and wet earth provoked a tingling shiver as I scanned and took it all in, hungering for beauty. The rhythm of waves excited and calmed me at once. This ancient canvas, no longer mirage or memory but real as could be–north country’s fresh water and big sky wonders, a swaying of great treetops by lake’s edge, a hardness of stones under feet–yet moved me.

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West view at sunset of Little Traverse Bay

The next day Marc and I wandered on foot about sunlit Bay View streets and found his grandmother’s house still kept yellow and white and crisscrossing tree branches even more generous and luminous: the stillness of streets caught in a spell of life and times long past yet gently present. Each house there is beautifully rendered in the style of those times. Now many appear to be year ’round homes, winterized for the brutal winters–not allowed when Marc’s family lived there only in summer. We visited the youth clubhouse and boat house where he swam and sailed his Sunfish each day, a treat he still recalls as thrilling. We saw the stark white chapel, though closed. He was brimming with memories. I was, too, from the summers we brought our boisterous five children. It is an idyllic place and it is his “home place”, the one that shaped and educated him in untold ways he was grateful to experience. Soon, I saw a profound ease imbue and cheer him, displacing tensions of his jam-packed work life. Later we also enjoyed shopping and eating (great coffee and tea, too) in charming downtown Petoskey, the city to which Bay View utilities/services are connected. We also visited nearby, more upscale Harbor Springs; I will share those pictures another blog post.

There are two shots, a front and side view, of my husband’s grandparents’ beloved yellow and white summer house, no longer in the family. The rest is a sampling of other homes, some more modest than others, all lovely and in great shape for over 100 years. The chapel and boat club gazebo are also shown.

 

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As we drove away, Marc said: “Next year if we can return, let’s stay two or three nights at the inn.”  I agreed. The first days of our trip had been nearly perfect. (I was ill one day with a chronic malady, so had to miss out on a fabulous Cessna Comanche plane ride. Marc got on board with his niece’s husband, the Comanche pilot.) Only two more days left before we had to fly back to Oregon. How could it get any better than this?

Next Wednesday I’ll take you to a North Country jewel, Traverse City, as well as tiny Interlochen where big things happen– and where my own history sent out deep roots. We’ll also visit wine and cherry country around Old Mission Peninsula and the attractive, touristy Leelenau Peninsula. We’ll find colorful trees galore! Those parts also welcomed us. I had nearly forgotten: Michigan, for all its blustery, sometimes rougher can-do attitude, is also open, friendly and gracious in a refreshing down-to-earth way.

MI day 4-5, Bay View, Petoskey, TC 120

 

From Fire to Rain, Power to Power

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

I have long found weather fascinating– amazing, perplexing, harsh and daunting but always impressive. Its complexity, changeability. Beauty, strangeness, danger.

I grew up living along with four seasons: snow-driven winters and hot, humid summers, unstable yet welcome springs and the glorious palettes of crisp autumns. That meant four kinds of clothing for activities: thick woolens, snow boots, hats, scarves and mittens; delicate dresses, shorts, sandals; rain coats and umbrellas; light-to-medium sweaters with long pants. Being prepared for 12 months meant unboxing then boxing back up items just as one became adapted to the current season.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I discovered the novelty of basically two seasons: Rain and No Rain.

The last three days presents me with the giddy relief of this juxtapositioning: woolly clouds bunching up and releasing precious moisture onto cracked and dusty earth. Onto me. Areas of bare skin are soothed by a long-missed pleasure. An extravagant sweep of wind aids me in my walk as autumn leaves spiral then are swamped in puddles and pools, a few overflowing drains. I breathe more deeply than in months; it’s as if clarified air carries its gifts into hungry red blood cells. But even four days ago there were layers of smoke, vert little brisk walking if any. I am so grateful for autumn’s quick start.

Weather affects all of us, now more than we thought it could. Other places have been tormented by hurricanes and earthquakes and my heart cries out for those ensnared by chaos and loss. More temperate weather events and our safety seem less like something we can count on, and so we live in ever more anxious times. Nature does as nature will do, that is clear, and we adapt, experience threats, know great losses.

Pacific Northwesterners meanwhile are working and playing on and around the Cascadia subduction zone, too, and it gives us pause as we consider the projected catastrophic earthquake that likely will someday occur. There additionally are 18 volcanoes in the Cascade Range, most of which have been active, with 7 so far rumbling and spewing in the last 200 years. There was the eruption of Washington’s Mt. St. Helens in 1980 that choked even our city with ash. I can see Mt. Hood, majestic and formidable, when I cross our many bridges or drive east into the Columbia Gorge.

But lately here in my valley–between the active volcanic Cascade Range and the Tualatin and Coast Ranges–it has been a burning summer, a crackling expanse of vast place and time, fiery days to nights into days and more nights. My body basked in a fan’s whipped-up air, (even hot air) and the trusty AC in most living areas. At one point, 57 days elapsed without rain and then came a short drizzle, then more weeks of no rain. The average temperature was 85 degrees Fahrenheit but it hit 100 with no problem. And Oregon’s wildfires raged on with over 640,000 acres ravaged at last count. And this wasn’t the worst fire weather on record though it affected many more people right here. With the arrival of the rains, wildfires in the Columbia Gorge are smoldering, perhaps soon extinguished. Fire season may be wrapping up at last.

Those of us either born in the Northwest or who have lived here some time (25 years for me) know there will be doses of very warm weather with bright sunshine off and on for another month. And then the driving, dribbling and chilling, gusty rain will make itself at home and remain until next late spring. Snow has already fallen in the Cascades; ski season may be excellent this year. Unsuspecting newcomers arrive in droves early to late summer and are overjoyed by our dramatically green, dry landscape and sparkling skies, not considering how much rain will fall the remainder of time. We have lots of bars and coffee houses that are even more stuffed in winter. You have to appreciate cloudiness and accept being wet to put down roots.

It is not hard for me, the rainfall. Darker starts to the day with earlier nightfall gentles body and brain, can challenge with cold dampness and insularity but also delight. It works well for writers or for anyone who digs deep into greater depth and breadth of solitude to ponder, dream, create. And my daily walks do not stop. I only hike less in sloping hills, mountains, woodlands–too much muddy trail and threat of landslides. And after the fires, the earth is far more unstable than usual. But hiking can wait for the eventual drying out.

Rain. Water that sustains and wields great power. I chart a new sort of compositional latitude and longitude, how these movements map the autumnal sky. Rain music lifts on a breeze, sinks with a lull, peaks as water pours down and drums roofs, branches, pavement and dirt. The constancy of it. Syncopation and freshly scored tempo. The misty auras of light that rim a horizon and seep from behind mountains–for sun will come and go as rain accumulates, runs with rivers. It fills me with bittersweet longing amid a bone-deep calm. Moves me as it cleaves to growing things, a sheen on all it touches. Teaches me stillness within the whorls of beauty and motion.

I have had enough of blazing blue sky and relentless heat and sweat that thickens along my spine. Had enough of rapacious fire, daily warnings of more being ruined. Perhaps I am weary, too, of my own unexpected life strife, a summer of high hopes and pointed, hard truths for myself and my family. Love and its fractures. Faith that begs to be tested. Strength that shows at times only a fair resolve. Summer can paint everything glorious even amid weakness or pain. But fall and winter…they offer different architectures of internal and external space, those pops of color alongside greyness imbued with scent and sign of rain.

I welcome the wet season. Can manage the shift, shape it into this or that while long blue shadows spread over my desk. What I thought was cool silence is only a breath between notes of rain…like a skirt that is all hidden pattern until it flares in every direction when its wearer begins to dance. My own dances are formed of gratitude, head bowed or lifted high, soul brimming as rain soothes and charges me. Just Monday spontaneous movement unearthed tears as I watched rain streak the air, a tide of tension coming forward, moving away. And there was a good peace felt as God’s presence. There are days I just trust that whatever comes, life will move me along one way or another, even if carried by angels.

The senescence of autumn, its leading to winter is a kindred state for me. A friendly reminder of who I am and yet may become in the midst of upheavals of many sorts. They can bring us each into bolder maturity, richness of spirit as the miracle of life displays inventiveness. Even as circumstances–and weather–inform and press us to be patient. To hold steady, offer a hand. Attend even the ache of it, and then make better where the good must be done.

 

Since I have not yet photographed rain much this year, I wanted to share farmer’s market scenes enjoyed well before rain visited. How fortunate to partake of the abundance; I do not forget this as I peruse the options for healthy food, alone.

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