Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

Part 1: A Most Excellent Gift and Part 2: A Writer’s Resolve

LPark, Mt Tabor, Irv walks, gloves 182
Mt. Hood 12/ 2017, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Part 1

It was all done in utter secret. I, who have taken some pleasure in being intuitive or at least canny and a reasonably good study of character–having long been a writer, a counselor and a very visual person–I was blind-sighted as surely as if I had no skills, at all. Or as if I did not even know my daughter or my husband. But I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation for Christmas and shopping for others. When my eldest, Naomi, flew in with her friend, A., I wasn’t thinking of anything but being a welcoming hostess and a loving mother.

Christmas morning was defined by overlapping shifts of adult children and grandchildren coming to our home. We nibbled food, opened gifts, chattered away. There was an hour or two when all four of our kids (a fifth not present) plus two of the grandchildren (three absent) were gathered in the living room. I watched them open bright packages, enjoying the ebb and flow of unfolding events. Tired but content.

I was finally urged to open my gifts. I reached for one but Naomi insisted I start first with a smaller item from her. I noted it was the size of a padded envelope that had arrived days earlier as had all her mailed gifts to us, but I had no sense of it being anything unusual. So I was startled when inside were two gold elastic mitten clips, the type one attaches to a child’s coat sleeve  and then to a mitten or glove.

I burst out laughing as I examined the flashy things. Naomi likes good gags and this was just the clever, goofy thing for me. Turning to my spouse I wagged my finger.

“I see what you and Naomi are up to!–you told her I have lost a couple good gloves over the years! They’re a tad gaudy but I might even use them!”

Naomi was chortling over the good surprise. “Found them online–pretty fancy grown up clips, huh? They’ll look good with your jackets!”

“You sure better use those,” Marc said, “as you just lost your favorite glove again not long ago!”

Everyone agreed as I proceeded to the next gift.

When the tissue paper was opened to its hidden treasure, I took a sharp intake of breath. And was struck dumb. The room filled with questions as I stared, mouth open. I gingerly touched the items now in my lap as if they were precious things, then pressed the two velvety gloves to my chest and my face, the softness sweet against my cheeks. I looked at Naomi as she leaned toward me. sitting on the edge of her chair, her intent blue eyes sparkling.

“What…? How…?” I asked.

When I put them on a surge of joy mixed with disbelief rose up. “But it isn’t even possible, Naomi! My very own gloves! Where did you find my gloves? They don’t even make them, anymore–I went back to the shop at Canon Beach and we looked and looked online!”

“I researched until I did finally find them on Ebay! The very last pair anywhere, I think!”

Tears came in place of words as I jumped to my feet,  my eyes on hers, the eyes everyone says we share. We folded each other in our arms, hugged long and well and just cried. This daughter who holds her emotions deep within her, who doesn’t frivolously share them…she knew. She knew me better than I thought,  she knew how much such a simple kindness would mean.

I finally let go. “Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to find these for me. Just perfect.”

Sound a bit excessive? I do admit I’ve had an unusual attachment to these gloves for years. Sometimes we just feel what we feel about our stuff.  And many readers have already heard of their loss and retrieval. The first post on losing one glove then serendipitously finding it was posted in 2014, here: Case of the Velvety Glove .  The second was about losing one a last and final time and can be read here: The Magnitude of Small Things .

It may make more sense if you know I have Raynaud’s disease, causing reduced blood flow to extremities so that my hands, particularly, deeply ache and feel frozen a long while (then burn as they warm) if I even briefly hold something chilly–an ice cream carton, for example. This occurs in as warm a temperature as 55-60 degrees. (I blame this on repeatedly cold hands, even frostbite when figure skating as a kid and youth– without mittens… And later, years of smoking, sadly.) Having a pair of good yet not cumbersome gloves or mittens makes a vital difference since I am an outdoors enthusiast.

The pair I purchased on a beach trip as winter fell upon us a few years ago were just right for most circumstances where I live. I fell in love with for the combination of warmth plus beauty, their luxe practicality; they’re made of stretch velveteen with a layer of fuzzy insulation. I can wear them casually or  to dress up a bit. Nothing beats usefulness joined with attractiveness. Thus, I was quite unhappy when I lost the second glove the last time. I’ve tried other gloves and not been satisfied. My hands have gotten too cold this fall and winter. So my daughter finding the one pair I loved and used often meant a great deal to me.

Really, though, my anecdote is about love. I suddenly and fully felt her thoughtful, persevering love for me. The fact that she also made it fun is just like her. Here are some pictures to show them to you as well as those darned elastic gold clips–I use them, as you can see. Leaning over a bridge on a recent hike, of course, they dangle quite safely as they cannot jump out of pockets! (Please click on the photos for captions and bigger pictures.)

Na and Mom Christmas 2017 001
Naomi and me (fuzzy pic by hubby, ha)

 

Part 2

New–really, revisited– writing goals were to be the topic of my first 2018 post when the glove incident took top billing. I have been cogitating about plans since attending a good writing conference in Washington last October. And there are still some fledgling ideas from then, more ping-ponging about my brain and so much the better.

The old year has passed, another has begun and I find it is high time to get back to work on writing projects I’ve been putting off. There are always so-called good reasons–devotion to this blog three times per week, health and family needs, and at times a monstrous lack of confidence that can strike right in the middle of fevered or serene writing. The kind that creeps in like black mold, felt as a perverse cynicism fought off anyway I can–fervent prayer, research on topics that attract for an essay or story, long walks that shake the oppression right off–or even superficial distractions like my magazines.

However, I am more akin to a sturdy work horse whose blinders help accomplish the job: I stick to my tasks, look neither left nor right, keep moving and writing and thus experience the fulfillment wrought of labor’s comfort…though mixed with bumptious moments. And occasionally an outright exhaustion of hope. Then I rest, begin again.

I keep on since there isn’t much I can do but write. Sure, there are a variety of interests,  proclivities, abilities. But writing is the thing that most shapes and energizes my learning and living and being. Aren’t those microscopic letters hitching a ride on cells in my blood stream?…It started at least by fourth grade when a poem was published then read for a state educators’ conference. I found it surprising that what I loved to do might matter to anyone else. (It wasn’t music, the fine art choice of my family. ) Writing was story/ It was also a natural way to access thought and feeling–it was not a mere daydream, and not some mighty goal I had to achieve.

But there came a time I sporadically submitted stories, poems and essays. Finally, it was more regularly most years. I’ve received many expected and far more unexpected rejections; I’ve also been pleased when submissions have been printed in anthologies and journals or published online. I tried my hand at very minor journalism. It was a series on domestic violence for a college newspaper that impacted many (there was a lot of data; it was then also reflective of my own life). Short stories and essays have become surprisingly appreciated, while poetry has appeared more often under three–okay, four–last names depending on changing marital status. A young adult short story was published and I’ve written several others, another genre that interests me.

I worked on a first novel, completed it over a span of ten-plus years only to have a fine and renowned editor tell me it was “overly ambitious but you are a real writer”. I felt depressed, then a little happy and quite right, that criticism. I published an excerpt from it, however and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and have used chapters as springboards for stories I’ve posted here. For now I’ve put it away but it tends to return to me in other forms. (A mute widow who is a dancer–and keeps secrets about her drowned husband–meets a photojournalist, bereft after a mentor and friend disappeared in the Amazon.)

There are also two well developed but unfinished collections of interconnected stories and characters. My longer fiction has not been submitted since the first novel  gave rise to interest from two agents– who later bowed out.

You never know. Sending out writing is like launching a handmade paper boat with a small lit candle in it and watching to see if it capsizes or returns with candle snuffed out or gone overboard. Of if the little oat ends up reduced to ash. You make another and send it out as it is an adventure of sorts, in any case.

This is a shortened litany of efforts and projects and small successes laced with many rejections. I took a long break again; it has occurred many times over 60+ years, but not yet for forever. The last time I submitted was two years ago. The most recent pieces are in Spark: Anthology II–that was 2014. That is, I think. It’s been too long to recall clearly what went where without checking my files; there was another poem plus a photo published somewhere in the last 2-3 years. I hope that online journal is still going strong…must check. Might be another place to submit once more!

Meanwhile, I’ve tiled over strengthening what works and learning more of what does not, slowly putting the demanding, sensitive ego aside and giving stricter attentions to word and line. I try to cut back on verbiage, even improve typos but it takes more work.

This is what a writer does, of course, and is not noteworthy except when you’re doing it yourself and sweating it out.

The point is, I’ve been writing quite awhile. And barring a period from age thirteen to perhaps twenty-one, my goal has not been to be a noted author as much as to be a worthy writer, one who stays true to herself and offers nourishment of many sorts. Just as I’ve been nourished by diverse writers whose works I’ve read over decades. I can only hope born of sincere desire that what I write has value beyond my personal passion for language and story. Nothing can stop the writing, but can I publish more? Can it be read and enjoyed more often? Do I care most about writing for its own sake? Can I also manage to care about and work on becoming more widely read?

Time ticks away. My mirror confirms this if the mind knows only this moment being lived. I have much more to access via imaginings or night dreaming or life’s small sparks, the inspirations discovered courtesy of places and people. There are ideas that barge right in, or create a steady beat of melodic words that stir in my innermost ear. A hunger seizes me as mysterious intentions of language erupt and flow. And then I am brimming once more.

I have to make room for these pressing wants and needs, just as I have made room in my life agenda for the joy of this blog three times a week. And so, to the point!

I’ve decided to post fiction or nonfiction on alternating Wednesdays and a poem or photography on each Friday. The mid-week post will be entitled “Wednesday’s Word” (fiction one week, nonfiction the next) and the Friday post will stay “Friday’s Passing Fancy” for poetry but the following week will be “Friday’s Quick Pick” for photography. I also plan to refresh graphics of the blog soon. It’s good to engage in positive transformation!

It is motivating to determine that just one more day can aid in researching markets, preparing pieces to submit, and exploring greater opportunities in literary communities/publishing worlds. Opening rejection letters and perhaps now and then an acceptance. Risk is good, I remind myself.

Not the first time I’ve reworked the format of Tales for Life, this likely won’t be the last. It is part of the fun of blogging, how much freedom we have here and control of the work we share. But I appreciate being spurred on with comments and “likes”.

I hope you will enjoy what’s yet to come here at Tales for Life. I’ll continue to peruse and absorb as many of your unique offerings as I can. Thank you for being part of the huge creative community at WordPress. May your 2018 be sublime of soul, heart, mind, and your health robust–or good enough to carry your forward as is, gratefully, my own.

Below: two of my photos from the first posts, Oregon shots shared in 2011.

Manzanita trip 2-11 003Idaho-BC8-10 023

 

Christmas, Visible and Invisible

In case you lost track: four more days until Christmas Eve. Of course I want to write something thoughtful, moving and richly authentic, but what I think of this moment is the shopping. I know there is nothing I purchase that will provide true contentment, reasonable internal and external security and well-seeded joy. And yet I joined the hoards and covered a few miles in search of a delightful/useful/curious/unique something or other for each one of 14 people for whom I will wrap gifts. And the average number of gifts per person is about 4. I admit that if I had more money, I’d be in far greater trouble, though I do mind my spending.

I do get a bit tired from preparations even though I’m fortunate to have a lot of energy. I keep saying: this is it, next year I am going to the mountains, I will reserve a remote chalet really early (turns out lots of others like to do the same) and then we’re gone. If any adult children and grandchildren wanted to follow, they’d have to bring sleeping bags and agree to only nature’s or other handmade presents, no television or other technological downfalls. My husband and I might end up alone…

So long ago I faced the truth: I love the Christmas season, even a little hullabaloo, decorating and spit shining the place and then hanging out with all. I do wish we still had a larger home so we could stuff everyone in longer for more fun and food. Because we return to productive, hectic lives fast. This year things will be different as some folks have other places to be this time, too. It may feel more like an “open house.” I need one of those revolving doors so they’ll keep coming and going.

But at least I have the gifts. Mostly. They’re snugged up to one another in bags on the biggest bedroom’s carpeted floor, which now barely peeks out at me. At some point they will be attractively wrapped (well,  hastily covered up with appropriate paper). And I have to bake–my yearly Russian teacakes. That’s it this year, if my schedule holds.

While out there spending money on my family, I wondered how we can be so enthralled with objects; people seemed to move at times as if in an agitated trance. Others fawned over something with an excitement one might ascribe to discovering the one’s grandest desire. Often people trod streets and stores with a stalwart resignation, as if they’d tried their best yet nothing could be done about it. I half-want to sit them down, offer them Epson salts foot soaks and rubs and then a cup of tea as we have a chat. If it is no fun and there is little joy, why overexert yourself?

Clearly, I am not adept at rising above all this. I want to be spiritually minded at all times. I treasure my faith, am possessed by an ineffable love for God. But I have to admit to just enjoying shopping for family and friends, no matter the occasion. It feels good to give, even materially. There were a few times, however, when I had fleeting out-of-body experiences as I looked about and then at myself, whereupon I mused: What is all this? Why? For there is not one item I bought that’s not replaceable or irrelevant in the end. I have no illusions yet still ponder each purchase as if it matters deeply to the recipient. I sometimes think I want to give out happiness.

I know what counts amid all the fuss and anticipation. I am certain that we all do, whether or not our primary consideration is to offer up hallelujahs of praise for Jesus’ birth. Or to support youngsters’ wonderment and the hope in Santa Claus’ dedication to their dearest wants. Or to just pause and take a holiday break on ski runs with friends we’re fortunate to know. For some, it’s just a couple of days off from demanding employment–isn’t all work tiring by end of December?–and a chance to recover a greater sense of wellness. Heart.

Little things count for much. Lighting a candle in memory of those who have left this realm. Reading a good book by the heater or a snapping fire. Immersing one’s self in the melodic swell and decrescendo of favorite music. Holding closer a beloved child, a partner, a best friend. Looking above at vast and brilliant scatterings of stars in the sheer navy-to-black cosmos–where things are happening right now that we do not even know about. (I recently learned that seven newly discovered planets about the size of earth in a nearby solar system may have water.)

How much emphasis can we place on a simple act of tenderness? How many miracles exist in forests, valleys, mountains and deserts; in an operating room where one more life is snatched back to life? At a corner cafe where food is given away and within reaches of an infant’s newly arrived intellect and imagination? One only needs to consider for a moment. And it’s all happening despite the commercial call to us each Christmas and New Year’s.

I don’t know about you, but this life is devastatingly, mindbogglingly breathtaking to me even at 67. I now that’s two long adverbs and a fancy adjective, but really. I don’t need a special season to remind me of my place in the fullness of this universe as we know it. It’s a minuscule spot but still, a good seat. I want it so I claim it. I open my arms to it, embrace the relentless absurdities and suffering, the epiphanies, the rewards.

So I do my Christmas shopping and my whole system responds: very soon, celebratory days will be here. But I also wait on angels who have their own agendas –to some an odd thing to say–but they are patient enough with us to just realize they are near. They often spur me with good impulses, so I can do what is better, not easier or self-serving. (Read orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal’s experience of dying on a kayaking trip and what she learned in To Heaven and Back, for one example; or look for angels in my blog tags. It is not unusual in all cultures to acknowledge angelic presences.) They have their jobs, too, after all; life isn’t just busy for us. Or are we so egocentric to imagine we’re the only effectively operant beings around? Maybe we should look again at the news–then at ancient wisdom of the ages.

So speaking of angels, there was Gabriel’s message and the others’. Those who’ve followed my blog awhile know that I thank God for Christ’s message of unbreakable, endless love. For love was never meant to turn from those in need; he told all that it works to heal torment and deep rifts of all sorts; it does not deny people dignity and welcomes all with a transformative mercy and care. Jesus’ story is largely about liberation through persevering care and kindness, about the strength and courage needed to walk such a path.

We can be that person who loves one another, that person who mines for goodness and generosity despite the prurience and paucity of our times. But this requires that we step forward and offer aid or a true act of acceptance, that second or third or fourth chance at reconciliation, especially when it seems unreasonable.

There is joy on this often reviled, worn down world. I strive to write from the places inside me that, like many rivers converging, often crest and overflow with grateful astonishment; the part of me that yet knows little but, regardless, wants to give much. It is that powerhouse of luminosity that moves and remakes me just as when I was a small child–as we all were and likely felt similar things–its boundless beauty filling me up.

And I see it in you and you and you, adding to this powerful energy we can utilize on our earth. It is a wonder when it is harnessed and we choose to deliver what helps and heals.

So I hope that you will have a great time giving out even a few small gifts and sharing a table and singing familiar tunes. Whoever you will be beside and even if alone, experience the time with a whole heart, with soul. Break out the cookies, the tasty drinks or gather at the hilltop campfire and look long about you. Receive the Light; send it out again. It’s what fuels all the good that is still, yes, yet to come. Take a leap and believe in hope, for that is just a beginning.

So, my many WordPress companions, may blessings beckon and follow your every footstep. No matter how taxing it is to keep on, please just keep on. I thank you for visiting my writing one more year. It has been the finest gift to me that you still bother to read what I work hard at creating, spurred on by a lifelong passion to share stories that arise.

Merry Christmas! Be safe ringing in a Happy New Year.

Below: An example of a truly good present. I was born very near sighted, but those foggy, annoying glasses didn’t keep me from hitting the ice at the outdoor rink almost daily each winter, so getting new skate blade guards (at 9) elicited jubilation! And lastly, I am wishing the best to you and yours!

PS: I am taking a blogging break until January 3, 2018. Then I’ll share what my new posting schedule will be and why I am making changes. Stay tuned.

 

Dry (!) December Walking=NW Winter Pleasures

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All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Walkers of all landscapes and weather, I just got back in, my heart is content, my face smiling in a cold leftover glow. I am more than ready to get back to work. What an excellent thing to have life and limb, to be able to exit the door and return with a fine satisfaction, full of invisible gifts.

As most know, I am a devoted walker, one who ramps it up and keeps the pace for an hour or so daily, if at all possible. And for over a week now, the sky has been an essential blazing blue. Temperatures have hovered between upper thirties and mid-to upper forties (Fahrenheit). No rain to speak of, maybe a few drops here and there.

This dry spell is almost unheard of in December; it should soon be raining, perhaps hailing or sleeting here in the Willamette Valley with rumors of flurries that make it down the Cascade Mountains to us. The drizzle is on a brief hiatus. Of course it is a certainty that rainfall will reappear, do its duty of keeping our vast forests and lovely yards emerald green–likely by end of week or so. Wetness then will slicks faces and hands, grow familiar, even feel like a transparent second skin; we are half amphibious after a couple of months, and for another four.

Meantime, it has been a wonder to be out and about in crackling bright gusts. Rarefied air. The clarity of everything out there is dazzling. So you would think this  a superior time for joggers, walkers, cyclists. Instead, there seems a scarcity of people. I am not entirely alone on my jaunts but I can state there seem fewer than on usual rainy days. So I power walk–and pause to snap pictures– with impunity, now free of skateboarders, runners and cyclists bearing down on me (though we adapt well to one another, usually). Less likely to have a dog dash in front of me, yanking the owner along with Herculean effort.

The thirties registering on the outside thermometer is close to riveting Northwest cold, true–cold enough to make my cheeks feel like pop sickles after a half hour. When that East wind blows, all parts of my face wish they might take cover beneath a wool mask. I am not such a fan of hats–I pull up the hood on a sweater (or on my rain jacket if it’s a drencher) but I’ve popped my old cashmere cap with the little moth hole onto my head more often or not. My nose runs and runs–sorry for that mental mage–and often I am out of tissue halfway through. My damp, half-frizzy hair is useless now but since cutting it to chin length-another post, perhaps–I care even less, smash it down. My eyes sting when attacked by biting gusts. And I have Raynaud’s, a condition that makes my hands (and often, feet) soon unbearably cold below 60. For safety and comfort I put on moderately insulated gloves as soon as it dips, and heartier ones for chillier conditions. (Indoors I wear finger-less gloves part of the year, especially when typing.)

As I write this, I am uncomfortably aware that Northwest winters are a breeze compared to Michigan’s, to Maine’s or Alaska’s, to those in Canada or Iceland and beyond. I do know the depths of winter. I do know and relish the memories of  being buried in snowdrifts before popping up and throwing snowballs. The romping about like a wild thing in it and doing fun sporting activities. And I recall the dangers and the inconveniences.

But this is here and now. It is my winter, Oregon’s months of pungent, wet earth and green shadows all about, of rampaging icy rivers that take my breath away with their beauty and snow-encompassed mountains above that call with singing winds and sleek, glittering mountainsides.

But given all that and the good and not so good here in the valley, what do I love about walking in the winter? Nearly everything. Discomforts are not that trying. This time of year is as chock-full of pleasant surprises as others. And being Christmas season, decorations are eye-catching additions to places and landscapes. I like the zing and zip of the cold as long as I am adequately dressed, and the body warming up so kindly as activity continues. How it feels to pull in piney-fresh, cool air. Even the reddening of cheeks feels cheery. The landscape shines differently in weaker winter sunlight, and shadows take on textures and shapes missed in other seasons. Maybe being raised in northern parts, I still sense mysterious earth’s re-tuning, its settling in for a long haul. I feel deeply at home outdoors. I am rejuvenated by sights and sounds, scents, tactile experiences–but also non-material ones.

Nothing quite impacts me as does nature no matter where I am. The ease of body through space, of mind given free rein to cultivate peace is priceless. It is a wellspring that nourishes and reshapes me into a fuller human being. This is happiness in its simplest–but not too simple–form. Taking care of myself in this way aids me in caring for others, and it provides greater resources from which to create. Writing ideas arise constantly when I walk–first lines, characters grabbing my attention, whole plots, a poem that lodges within. Problems present potential solutions. Spiritually there is no better antidote to being worn out or threatened by melancholy about the state of my country and our world. And of course, my overall health is rewarded and my cardiovascular system thanks me first, then the rest. I haven’t felt so terrific the past month–it is this or that as we age, let’s face it–and yesterday I was flattened while. Today I had to get back outdoors as walking unties body’s knotted spots, sweetens a stewing mind, and sets the spirit on a smoother course.

As I walked there came a conviction that I am in preparation for something lovely. Undeniably, winter brings hibernation for much and for a writer this is a benefit  as restful solitude, that cocoon of introspection, can well fertilize the brain and greater being. And I sense my winter will pare me down closer to the essence, bring forward truer needs and desires. I will make ways to call forth what is necessary but potent and, hopefully, more valuable to my writing and daily living.

I was recently surprised to discover I have written three posts a week for nearly seven years! Can that really be over a 1000 pieces written, pictures often additional contributions to the whole? I started with three blogs, each a separate genre; this continued on a few years. Those morphed into one–Tales for Life–that encompasses fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry (plus photography thrown in) on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I am grateful to have had this obliging spot on WordPress so long. I plan to stick to it albeit with some upcoming changes. More on this later.

Come along for now and see what I have seen recently. Enjoy a few random Portland (rain-free) winter shots and have a peaceful rest of  the week.

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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! )