Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Intersections of Life

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As I read the email alerting me to the availability of appointments for my first COVID-19 vaccination, I experienced an immediate, visceral loosening of a tension that I barely knew was there. I’ve adapted overall to the pandemic restrictions and found my life still will contain joy, even passing moments. But I’ve been waiting a while for this, as most of us have. The surprise was my palpable relief: it is going to happen, at last. One might think I’d be worrying about side effects since reactions vary widely and can be tough. It’s not that I have no concern about this vaccination; I just am doing it. I believe it crucial to help myself and others to stay healthier and move forward.

I only recently have begun to have dreams of people doing ordinary things–grocery shopping, for instance–and no one has masks on. That was not the case in many dreams the past year when, if someone did not wear a mask in a group, my overlooking consciousness was entirely perplexed–and even worried as I came to a wakeful state. It has become the way things are, how we live in this world. Yet nothing is static or, at least, for long.

Yesterday I began to consider how things will gradually change for society as “herd immunity” is met. For my family, for my friends–just for humanity. It was as if a door that was bolted shut was unsprung enough for me to glimpse in my mind and heart how life can become safer, freer, better. The realization of possibilities happened the moment I made my appointment for the shot. I’m not a foolish dreamer, more a practical one–I sure don’t expect fast, 100% improvements to gleefully restore us to carefree days. (I’m not convinced they were that carefree–there is always another pathogen about, other health events, the grind of financial stresses or relationship complications to surmount in life.) But these new images were beyond my control: full gatherings with others wafted across my mental screen off and on. A group about my table. I thought: I will be able at last to step into my family’s and friends’ physical bubble, just as before. We can share an animated conversation and home cooked meal, both indoors or out. I can visit with neighbors without uneasy wariness. Hike without stepping off a trail as another walks by, masked faces fully averted. And return to outdoor markets and other stores as needed–and desired. And perhaps, by next year, travel to places I have sorely missed or even new destinations can even happen.

Visiting in-person with faraway daughters and a grandchildren will be amazing. The very thought elicits excitement, energy jumping up and down inside me, squealing in joy. How much has not been readily shared! Phone calls, texting and messaging have not been enough even as we’ve told ourselves they are; we do it oftener. The weekly video calls that were so important the first year began to dwindle. It was tiring to keep up, and hard to meet with our five kids all at one time–they all kept their jobs, luckily, and were busier than Marc and me. And let’s face it, virtual interactions cannot meet the great need we have to be face-to-face, hand-to hand. And I am a natural hugger, as so many are. Yet being essentially okay with reality’s strictures, living in this bare bones manner satisfied just enough. That is what I’ve told myself. After all, I’m an adaptable person–we all are, aren’t we; we’re human beings so can and do perform mental gymnastics to get through trials. And I have long been used to lots of relocations in my life, health issues restricting my interactions and more–but I had never lived through a pandemic as my parents had to do (polio, influenza). Adaptability does not preclude a need of others. It just means to survive or make progress, we learn how to make things work.

The one constant has remained a deep desire to spend ordinary spend time with those I enjoy and those I dearly love. I do appreciate time alone, with interests and passions that keep me well occupied. A requirement for me is being among nature’s wonders via daily walks or hikes. I still have chafed against our societal mandate to distance… too much isolated time can undermine equilibrium and, maybe, stamina. Even seeing people walking beyond my balcony makes me feel lighter. Hearing children yelp and whoop in play immediately heartens. Laughter wending its ways through open windows makes me want to laugh along, get in on the happiness. Seeing my twin granddaughters toddle-run across a grassy field sends me over the moon. Yet, it is all from that remove; it is not full-on mingling among the living.

I learned long ago that a good life trick is to not demand that things be only what I desire them to be. Rather, it is my intent to fashion a daily process of give and take, to be open to surprises, seek the best in others while giving my own best self if at all possible. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in being present in life and availing myself of it. When I have trouble with those precepts, I brainstorm while praying like mad for help; I don’t like having poor insight or no applicable answers.

It seems my life has been shaped by a critical need to be brave, no matter what. I’ve had practice, with enough reasons to shrink back amid circumstances that arouse great fear. Accessing courage or even acting brave always brings me more courage and strength. Shakiness is transformed into sturdiness by virtue of bravery’s inherent core (ability to face or endure danger and difficulty); I am asked by this living to stand strong. But to me it also means knowing when and how to seek resources, find new ways to lift myself up, and take care of my whole self with good habits long established– even if feeling about depleted. Connecting with others increases this sense of sufficiency. I can only do so much alone. And I know for a fact that a greater mix ideas and caring make for a better human being.

Coping with trouble also elicits an urge–lets face it–to escape or deny situations awhile. If I take that time for respite and recharge, these are useful tools, not barriers to health as people suspect denial really is. Certainly it has been a go-to in the past year when I, like others, have read even more, listened to music and watched online entertainment more, dragged out old games, sat and daydreamed, etc. The point is, when faced with hardships, we can always do more to live our lives better. I refuse to see less than; I see more than. And it is a choice I make during times when that feels less natural. Coping with these difficult times with someone else–even if 6 feet apart–helps further more often than not.

I do seek solitude (or a time of escape) for calming rejuvenation, but afterwards I want to engage again with others, a little or a lot. How do I keep doing that when we are in this in-between time, when it will slowly become safer for us out there yet we still should live within safety’s rules? And with whom will we choose to practice this return to living more fully in the regrouping of diverse and curious human beings?

The truth is, over the last few months things have changed within my more intimate circle. Mere social acquaintances are nil except when chatting via social media. (Plus, I’ve caught up with several old high school classmates.) My closer relationships are impacted in various ways and have been different. And I’m not even writing about my several children and grandchildren this time…”way too much distance, how weird this is” is the number one complaint from all of them. And me.

Eileen, one of my two closest friends, moved during last Halloween. One moment she was planning on retiring and moving to Arizona to be closer to family. I almost didn’t believe it would happen despite her resolve from the start. She had loved and lived in Portland for 40 years. Before the move I visited her briefly and saw she was about finished packing. Then she was putting her house on the market, and at one last visit when she gave me an afghan she crocheted for me while I gave her a pretty carp windsock from the Japanese Garden. And then she was gone. I didn’t even see her take off in a plane. We called each other often at first, texted daily. I sent her pictures of Oregon rambles; she sent me pictures of austere desert landscapes. We swapped stories of life with eccentric family members; she updated me on a new house search while she lived with a brother. The house she bought there is strikingly similar to the one she sold. But no grass for a lawn, only rock and sand. The back of her house opens to a spiky mountain range and more desert; she so misses her old lush garden. We’ve lately spent less time talking and texting although (or because) she’s homesick for Oregon–she has almost moved back twice. But she is still settling in.

I don’t expect things to remain the same for her. I do expect we will stay close, in this changed manner. Later, when things are safer, Eileen will go swimming three times a week, go to the neighborhood country club to poke around. I know her; she loves to meet people, do new stuff. It will be so good for her (even though I don’t get the draw to retirement communities). When we do talk, I feel the allure of her new place sinking in, grabbing hold; she will put down new roots. I know it’ll take a couple years to get more comfortable. Yet, though I hope she will be happy there, I miss her deeply and often, as her presence in my life has been inestimable joy and comfort for decades. We’ll visit each other; she tells me all the time she can’t wait for me to fly down, how much fun it will be… Her eruptions of laughter are prized, as is how we can talk arts and sciences, politics, spiritual matters and people all in one rich gabfest. And those shared bear hugs… Maybe next winter? I will plan for that.

Another dear friend, Brenda, is here– but not quite fully. I just talked with her tonight on our cells and it was, after an hour, still not enough.

She has multiple, hard-to-manage health problems, so is very high risk for contracting the severe form of COVID-19. Long ago she could have stopped working and gotten on disability, but she has no interest in that. She loves to be of service to others in the midst of life’s chaos and beauty. Since last March she has worked at home, virtually (until last week), for a women’s prison treatment program, counselling inmates. Today she reminded me she has been there 11 years. It seems impossible. We met in 1993 and worked together with gang members and other at-risk youth; we finally worked as part of teams at three agencies. She recently returned to working in the prison. Everyone on staff has been vaccinated and,as well, many prisoners. Brenda feels safe enough so I must trust that she knows her limits and the situation. In the past year we were able to meet in parks or for coffee outdoors every 10-14 days. In the middle of wintry rain it became harder to do. (She also helps her 91 year old mother and a 9 year old niece. Talk about bravery.) So we update and support one another on the phone mostly. We’ve started planning how we might do this and that, how great it will be to be more spontaneous. Maybe we’ll even attend another Bonnie Raitt concert or go music shopping at Music Millenium before 2022. Some things are long and hallowed traditions for us.

Still, I miss Brenda though she’s nearby, unlike Eileen who is so far. I miss her more now, perhaps, because she nearly died from pneumonia not that long before the pandemic began (was it COVID?–she doesn’t know, it was hell), and still has congestive heart failure, Lupus, severe osteoarthritis and more. I don’t know how long I’ll have her though she is just 62 (and I’ve always known her to battle illness). Every time I’m not hanging out with her, it’s a bit like I’m losing more of her–clearly, at least, time spent. Because you never do know, do you–if not a virus, it can be something else. In fact, it will be–we just don’t know when. But I remain reasonably sure we’ll meet up when the weather warms, when she has more time to spare. That prospect is wonderful.

And my sweet, wise older sister, Allanya. Maybe it would be enough to say she has dementia, and it’s getting worse. For a long while it seemed we could navigate around it, be as we’ve always been–best friends, deeply blood connected. So in sync that we knew what the other was thinking. But it’s not quite like that now. It’s touch and go as I visit her in an open air structure next to a fine retirement community in which she resides. I don’t know when we’ll loop back to a topic we talked about just 10 minutes ago. I don’t know for certain if she’ll be in a fog or prone to morose or aggravated thoughts, or cheery as she always tended to be, ready to talk politics, books, art projects, family and the weather. It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride but I will get on it every time to be with Allanya. Her general health is good. Her apartment is decent; she shares it with an ill spouse. So I’ll be seeing her as long as it can be done. She keeps telling me it is high time to go out for lunch or shopping at the resale stores she loves–and I tell her yes, I know, soon–when the pandemic wanes and fully vaccinated as is she. And thank God we can look forward to this.

We have lost parts of the year–she has lost even more–but we are both still here, will forever be truest of friends. Sisters of the soul. She once found a huge heart-shaped rock and painted it. Then wrote on it: “Heart of the universe. Love, Allanya, 2013,” I knew exactly what that meant to us both.

I dreamed awhile back of those who have passed on, members of family, A few times they all seemed to have convened to visit me, specifically, and I, them. I could clearly see them moving about and then circling, faces well defined as if they were in the room with me, theri energy as recognizable as when they were sentient. I counted 5, sometimes 6, (so many have died the last few years) but felt the presence of more–elder aunts and uncles very long gone. I heard them speak but cannot tell you now what they said right now. They were encouraging me, with warm smiles and good words. Each time I awoke I felt they were there to help and encourage me to be optimistic, to not be afraid of the future, tired out by things. To be assured I am loved and not alone– that they are near in spirit. They are family, ancestors interlinked with each other and me. Of course they would do that. Despite differences or misunderstandings in the past, we know how much I love them and they, me.

And that’s the thing: it’s all about that most basic yet sometimes the stickiest of experiences: love. If only we saw such caring as true compassion in action and just acted on it. We need a reminder now and again if things are rockier before they get better. The last year has been one tough terrain to cross over. Not, however, the worst time in my life. But one of the most puzzling and mournful, requiring patience and gentle surrender, innovation and faith. I have no doubt there will be more opportunities for happiness as well as times of sorrow as we sort it out. How will we have been changed? What will we pick back up or toss out, realign or welcome? Who will we first spend an afternoon with–in the first-person-miracle of flesh, blood and bone? (How can I get all my kids/grandkids/friends here to celebrate each other and life?) What will become a more sacred ritual; what will be dismissed as wasteful, trivial? We can look to the natural world for clues. The calculated designs of nature display a genius of efficiency. They regenerate wounded parts and aid one another, even those not their apparent own “sort”, as all are part of the whole.

I’m looking forward to seeing what alterations of mind and spirit bring us to new appraisements. But first and finally, may there be generous love, greater charity rediscovered to pass between us. We will find our way better.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Breathe and Catch Fire

It’s not like you truly belong anywhere, so this is as good a place as any. Remington Heights, a fancy name for another uninspired suburb. Sort of; it prides itself on being a beautifully compact, near-exclusive town. You guess it is; you can see the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes Benzes mixed in with Subarus, Toyotas, Fords. There goes a red Porsche, its top down in March, for crying out loud.

After moving five times in fifteen years, how audacious is it to say when you’re asked: “We’re from Knoxville?” Hand held out for a good strong handshake.

What then? After they proceed to ask about that city’s milieu, its weather? You can only offer so much–that stop was for two and a half years. The others, even shorter for the most part. They already know you aren’t government or corporate consulting or an interesting entrepreneur. For one thing you teach, take on short contracts. Now, also, your husband. Well, he does one adult ed class at the community college where you teach one theater and two creative writing classes. He hasn’t contributed much to bills with his woodworking schemes and dreams no matter where they’ve moved. But he keeps trying.

“And we also lived in Arlington, Fort Worth, Everett, Rochester and–wait, there are a few more. You can’t imagine how fascinating it is to interact with many sorts of people and places…”

In ten minutes they raise eyebrows, glance at their ubiquitous phones, make excuses, talk about having coffee sometime and take their leave. In Remington Heights they’re thinking, Of all the boring places to have lived, why not Athens? Paris? Singapore...So back to their mammoth, comfy homes with their own loving, complicated families and deliriously devoted dogs.

Or cats–but that’s your preference. A cat can be left alone so easily, and it moves from house to house with nary a blink: every window has a view; every yard has birds and dirt. You need a cat, you keep planning on it, never do it. No time to further consider such an investment emotionally and monetarily. It might just run away.

Not that you are unfamiliar with such a response as raised eyebrows and a shrug after you introduce yourself. It’s on repeat no matter where you go. Gerry says some places are much friendlier than others. His vast experience dealing with direct sales to the public informs his viewpoint. He reminds you this when talk of a job possibility that offers tenure comes up. Gerry thinks you don’t like any place you go, not really, and he’s getting tired of it. That it’s having to put down roots, not the job that’s the issue for you. Okay, but you’re pretty tired of having to secure a great job that keeps a roof over your heads long term, and a job that gives you enough incentive to aim even higher as time goes by. That can be such a grind when you want it to be–dare you say it?–a happy endeavor.

“Next time, yes, always next time,” he says, looking away as you have lunch at a stylish outdoor cafe. “There won’t ever stop being a next time. I could put in roots any place if you’d just stand still in one spot. How long has your longest position been? Four years? Wow, we might still be there, Kit, and we might be glad of it.” He wipes his hands and mouth. “Oh, Kit, I’m sorry, it’s just…” He holds up empty palms to sky.

This is where you have to bite your tongue and not point a finger. If only you had gone to medical school as planned; if only your had a hobby that made us money; if only you stopped complaining when I am doing the best I can do. If only you’d use some of your inheritance for common costs of living instead of insisting it has to be untouched until we have a child or get old. Like it’s precious and must stay in a vault unless we are on the verge of noodles and beans every day.

Well, wait, it has been invested in lots of power and hand tools and wood and nuts and bolts and clamps….that money is good for all that.

If you say any of that, he’ll either crumple or walk out. After all, you’d agreed to let him get into woodworking as a small business. He has excellent talent–those hands that would have made a fine surgeon’s– and plenty of perseverance. But you have to make the cash to keep your lives afloat. So you do. Every new job has managed to do it, mostly–you just haven’t found the right one, the one you can foresee holding until that far-off retirement. Gerry wants that even more than you.

You are okay being a nomad of sorts. He is right about not setting roots too deep. That’s how it’s always been; your family moved almost every year for much of your childhood and when you were finally settled, it was not any kind of a happy settling. When your gambling father left when you were fourteen, your mother threw a huge party. It was also the start of selling overpriced makeup from home but weirdly, she did it well, made good money. She bought a condo two years before you left (right after your brother), and got married for the third time. Farewell, kids!

No, you do not know the comfort of a long term home. As far as you are concerned, a home is a place to lay your head, eat, and hang out if possible, preferably on the back stairs and no one knows. You still look for that–the relief of privacy on a back stoop that offers a better view than the indoors.

Gerry, he’s another sort of human being, at heart. He longs for roots because he had them so long. He will fit in better in Remington Heights. He knows how to act without even thinking, and that’s why he has done well off and on with his business. Maybe here he can make his mark, he’s said–these people can pay for fine bespoke furniture and toys for their kids. You think he’s dreaming but you love him for it, and how he stays with you no matter what. He just that morning told you to go ignite a thirst for knowledge in those students–even if it is just a few students, if only one today. He has faith in you, if he also worries you’ll not make a real home with him. You do need to have greater faith in him–that might go a long way toward building his success, he says. He holds her up; she can hold him up more beside paying for most of the bills.

You just stare at those bills piled up thanks to the last couple of moves crossing six different states. Stunned by it all. But you have a good chance at RCC, the Remington branch of Rand Community College. They pay well and they might keep you on if you try very hard. You hope this time you also can work in laughter more often. You actually pray for it secretly–it has gotten harder to keep looking and rarely find what you want.

Maybe it’s because you aren’t sure what that is. But you will not stop looking.

******

We–Kit and I–now live on a very old estate, and that is comfortable for a man like me. Of course, it’s the carriage house converted a decades ago into full living quarters, but there are ten acres here. I can see the big house rising above the garden walls as I head to the west end of our new place. A portion of the building, right under the apartment, was turned into garage and workshop. No more horses, carriages and how perfect is that? It isn’t cheap but what we get for the money…I’m hopeful this time. I think that if I can make this work long enough, I might create, sell, and make a decent profit. And then invest some of the inheritance to get my own workshop and store and then a house of our own….well, naturally, I don’t tell Kit all this yet. She’d be freaked out, just so many castles in the air, she’d say, slow down.

Kit says many things and I know she means something else half of the time. But I saw her eyes light up as we toured the place and put in our rental application. I was worried we might not get it–we have moved so much–but having my nest egg to show us as being ultimately solvent helps. Plus Kit’s a college teacher, how can they not like that? So here we are, and Remington Heights has no idea that I have what they need: beautiful furniture made to order. But it will soon.

After I got my M.S., I decided to skip medical school and pursue working with my hands differently than planned. I’ve always loved the scent, textures, colors and grains of wood. How it can yield to careful labor and give you its best when you respect it. There were plenty of woods to enjoy on our land growing up–several thousand acres for the giant cattle ranch that also boasted many trees. I was always sneaking off to the workshop used for a variety of reasons and fiddling with discarded or broken pieces. And our manager had the skills I needed. It was a fine line for him–teaching me what he knew while doing his main job well and keeping my father satisfied. But it worked well enough for me–Jack told me I had the right feel for it–until I stopped making things to enter college. Then it got shelved.

If I am being honest, I’d have to say that, in fact, it was the inheritance that set me free from the family expectation that there be a doctor in the family. I loved ranching but had not seriously thought I’d be one to run it–my older brother and sister do that now. But my uncle was a very wealthy businessman. He’d stayed in touch since childhood and figured out I wasn’t destined for medicine. He once told me when he saw me making a chair that I should put to use the sciences in a more artistic way. He left me enough when he passed to not make the wrong career choice. I knew it was for a woodcraft business.

Kit knows all this. She supports it, more or less, she’s just worried. Anxious that I’ll tire of her quicksilver temperament as her parents apparently did; afraid she won’t have what it takes to be a first class professor; scared she’ll never make enough money so she can stand on her own two feet if I do leave her; afraid I won’t ever be a success with my wood crafting or that I will be a great success–it goes on, this terrible tangle of fears she harbors, even nurtures. I sometimes hold and rock her like a scared little creature, shivering and unsteady, until she calms. But that’s marriage. I lean on her a lot for acceptance of my chosen path.

If you met her, you wouldn’t see the scared part. She’s strong with words and actions. You know you can count on her. You know there’s an imaginative, quick, intense intelligence behind her clear, penetrating gaze. Any job she has had, they wanted her to stay–sometimes they couldn’t keep her as it was a limited contract, sometimes they just wouldn’t offer better pay or other terms. But she always finds work. And she knows so well her realms of theater and writing.

I’m pleased this time that this is where we landed. Kit finds it “too rich for her blood”, as she says with slight derision, but the fact is, this city offers opportunity for us both. I don’t care what people think of me but she says that’s what privilege spawns–a self confidence that is unshakeable. Maybe so; she never had that in her life. But all I want is to make beautiful things with my big calloused hands. And to love her better so I have to be smart but gentle. The best things happen to wood when you treat it well, learn its natural inclinations, find its hidden beauty. Same with Kit.

All this is a challenge I’ll not back down from until I more than succeed. But first off I have to set up my tools in the shop under the living quarters and walk the estate. I wish Uncle Cam could walk with me. I can almost feel his pat on my back when I made my first wood toy, a pine truck, when I was ten–whereas dad directed me to get back on my horse, get to work. That simple thing made a difference.

******

You know this is the place when you see a generous arc of tree branches swaying over and about an old carriage house with the sheen of long use but kindly. Then moving up the side steps to a wide sunny living room and three small bedrooms off a hall, then circling back to a neat kitchen with white painted cupboards. A bathroom with an antique tub in it and a small desk turned into a vanity. You imagine yourself in that tub, candlelight casting a glow, how you love long quiet soaks and seldom get them–and all the while looking out windows with ivory and viney half-curtains. You can see a garden from there–as you bathe! Everything about the carriage house feels well used but the wood floors shine with care; comfortable furniture is freshened with bright fabrics and interesting textures. It is quality but has no pretension, is pretty and cozy enough without being syrupy- nostalgic. And it has a wood stove. What else can it need?

You don’t show Gerry too much enthusiasm until you are accepted as tenants and even then, underplaying it is better than letting too much emotion show. Even if the rent is high it can be worth it–you can manipulate the budget somehow. Besides, to watch Gerry as he lopes about the property and talks to the fourth generation owner of the estate–how can you dampen that excitement? There’s this feeling both of you might find some peace here, on this huge corner lot, under the shade of maple and elm and oak trees. There are even fruit trees not far from the front door. You fantasize about sneaking out after dark and snapping up pears and apples–until Gerry says the landlord told him take any fruit desired at no extra cost (Gerry laughs as he relays that), it’ll go to waste if not eaten. Never have canned. Wondering about that but the idea makes you anxious so just think of Hunt’s pears with cottage cheese like when it was dessert as a kid–you were told it was a treat. And it was.

So you’re in, your are the chosen ones. You find that first week with the unpacking, learning the ropes of a new town with expensive tastes (that make you squirm and itch) and then visiting the college–you find those first days lighten up with a simple pleasure you haven’t felt in forever.

You want the job to fit well. After a month it may not be a perfect thing, no, but you aren’t getting tension headaches. Not hurrying from one class to another, shoulders set as if pushing against wind. The drama class is filled with interesting students if a bit haughty (well, it’s Remington Heights, it’s theater), and the writing classes are a mixed bag but you can cope with it all so far. Time will tell who has capabilities, how hard you’ll need to work until late at night even at home–and how pleased the Dean of Fine Arts will be. Or not. If tenure will ever be a dream come true. You learned long ago you must stay in the moment while even while designing a future.

Then, at a major monthly staff meeting, someone says something. That way that makes you shiver a little. You turn your head to see Ms. Brunette Bob who is tapping the table with a silvery pen and Ms. Luxe Ponytail who is smoothing her forehead as if she’s just gotten back from toiling in the fields. They are whispering, heads tight together.

“Were you wondering about me?” you ask, half smile trying to move across your too taut face. “I’m Kit Barnett, drama and writing, formerly of Knoxville.” Trying not to spread a Southern accent on it, hard to resist. Something has to amuse or please these women, you suspect.

They blink at you in unison, look down at their notepads a moment before smiling back. A waxy sort of smile, Caught us, but oh hi there!

“Oh, right, you have Marnie’s old job–I thought so,” Ms. Brunette says.

“You’ll find her students miss her already but don’t despair, they’ll settle in,” Ms. Ponytail reassures. “Marnie was a kind of legend after ten years…she had such flair. I mean, not that you won’t or anything…”

“Thanks for the heads up. And you are?” Marnie the Great, dang, more pressure!

“Oh, I’m Selene Rossiter and she’s–” she turned to Brunette–“Jana Leon. We teach drawing and ceramics, respectively, and this term I have 3 D, as well. Welcome to RCC, Kit Barnett. It’s a good place, overall. A good way to move on to better opportunities, it’s already my third year and I’m getting restless.”

Jana said, with a shrug, “I’ll likely be a lifer. I like Remington Heights and so does my boyfriend.”

You find all this friendliness entirely suspect but say thanks and pair their faces with names, hoping the other seven people there have distinctive names, too, so you can elicit them as needed. You determine to make a brilliant name tag for fun to stick on your shirt, will that make you better known? You know how this goes when new, you’ll be passed over a long while unless you remind them. You are not all that unforgettable in looks, either, though this has never mattered. It’ll take time, that’s all. Selene and Jana are as nicer than most are when you start out a new place. You doubt you three will be going out together, one too young and uppity, the other otherwise engaged–and it’s fine. You don’t really need friends, per se.

The meeting begins and you listen intently to what is said and not said, how people interact with words and eyes and hands, who speaks up, who is doggedly silent. It’s a game you must play to do the job and get paid.

But when you teach, you feel that urge to impress upon the minds behind upturned faces (and those that do not show themselves) that what they are about to learn and explore has the power to alter their lives in ways that will set them free. Yes, set them free, as art is that potent. And this is what carries you over the country in search of a place to set yourself down, share knowledge and create. A base to inspire as once inspired as a college student when your first good art professor told you: “Your work has such energy; let it breathe and catch fire.”

Professor Harmon did not say to you like Mom said, “Why do you waste your time making up stories, trying out for those dumb little plays? Get a real life and a real job and grow up!”

No, Madge Harmon said, “Let yourself have an adventure, Kit, make things happen. You have plenty of talents.”

And it turns out that teaching was one of them. You have what it takes. So keep at it–RCC will see what you can do. Or you’ll make them see it.

You need to hang on to that bathtub and those fruit trees. You need to support Gerry’s big hope in all the possibilities. He might be right one of these days.

******

“They don’t much belong here, really, you can tell by the way they…just are,” Viv Arnold said as she filled her basket with garlic, carrots and onions at the covered farmer’s market.

“Well, Selene says she’s a very good teacher and friendly, not pushy. I think they’ll find their way around in time.” Jude Rossiter squeezed the avocados just enough.”I think you are wrong about him. The husband is a class act, anyway, did you see him earlier at the bakery? Gerry somebody from Utah–big ranching family, I heard.”

“What does he do now? Does he teach, too? Not much money in that.”

“No, he makes bespoke furniture! Well, one class in woodworking, Selene said. But didn’t you see the huge ad in the newspaper? The pictures are beautiful. I may give him a call about a chest I want designed and handmade. Or maybe we should both just drop by when his shop is open, that would be informative.” She picked up bunches of fennel and dill.

Viv sniffed a tomato. “Is this really fresh? I sometimes wonder! He has a certain elan, I must say, dark hair and blue eyes. Yes, I saw him, Viv. His wife is rather plain, from what I noticed at RCC after my quilting class. But if she’s a good teacher–well, we need more of those around here, so cheers! Maybe we should consider inviting them to the Spring Fling, find out more and see how things go?”

“At the Club? Hmm, a good thought….But watch yourself, dear, you’re old enough to be his mother.”

“Never so old one cannot be wistful, Jude. Now let’s get out of here and chat more over a nice drink.”

Jude thought about what Viv said about Gerry and Kit. She didn’t know much about the wife, the teacher–she had always wanted to write, maybe she should find out more. But he reminded her of her son. Though Thomas was a patent attorney, no good at doing manual anything. Maybe it was the similar charm and a way of carrying himself. Honestly, Viv needed to own up to her age and exhibit proper decorum. It was getting embarrassing. The Spring Fling, however, was an easy way to introduce the couple to Remington Heights in all its boring self-glorification. She would do what she could to encourage them if they were interesting, unlike much of their citizenry– and, of course, fairly generous hearted. You never knew when you might need an extra helping hand on some project.

******

When Gerry got home from teaching his class three weeks later, he found Kit sitting on the steps on the carriage house, the porch light a soft haze in the growing darkness. A notebook was flat on her lap, a favorite mechanical pencil in hand. She looked up and smiled at him but kept on writing.

He sat down on a step above her and placed his hands gently on her and massaged her tight shoulders a moment. Kit exhaled a steady stream of air, closed her notebook, leaned back against his knees. She’d have to mention that invitation to the Remington Country Club “Spring Fling” but for the moment there was this: navy sky above towering trees, a few stars glittering between branches. A night bird called out once, twice. She wanted to learn about the birds and flowers on the estate. She’d like to talk to the owners about its history. She’d like to take a bath every morning and every night even in summer, open the bathroom windows to the breeze with all that was carried on it right to her.

She’d like these moments to stay in their places and never leave her.

Gerry ruffled her hair, it shortness feeling like a downy chick but he might never share that, just keep it to himself. He loved her hair and put his cheek to it a moment.

“How was your day?” she asked as she pressed notebook to chest.

“I got two more orders already, a couple came by before my class. Two side chairs and a nightstand for a child. I have my hands full, so surprised it’s happening fast. How about you?”

She put the notebook on her lap once again, hands flat atop its cover. “I’m so glad, Gerry–things are looking up for your business just like you wanted, it’s what you deserve.” She looked up at the treetops and found a tiny star among newly leafed branches that was bigger out in space than she could easily ponder. “Well. I’m finally writing again.”

“You are?” He came down the steps to one below her. “What are you writing?”

Kit gave him her real smile, the one that showed pink gums and every big square tooth, the one that told him how much she cared that he asked this question on this night, on the steps under trees and stars. Their steps. Their fine night.

“I’m working on a full length play…Gerry, I’m good and ready to do it.”

He reached out for her, pulled her up and embraced her tightly. This is what he’d been waiting for, her true self to emerge and find its way back to creating. To not be afraid so much. To believe the life they inhabited together would be alright. It was happening, right there, right then, a change. Kit hugged him closer and they left the world behind, trailing a tender and plaintive song of nightbirds.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Lake Skating (Mona Faces the Ice)

Photo by Gantas Vaiu010diulu0117nas on Pexels.com

She surveyed the frozen lake and landscape and felt its sullenness. It seemed a blur despite the many lines and array of muted and brighter colors; she noted pale and smudged snow at rest on flat earth and small rises, the weighted sky pressing against and surrendering to a fading horizon. It was the way of things in winter, the now-sleeping land patient, wide open yet oppressive in its endlessness and greyness.

Even frozen Lake Wenatchee looked unappealing that moment. The other kids and a few grown ups were trying to make the best of another dull, regrettable February day. But it was home, and Mona appraised it with a loving if grudging assessment. She slung her skates over a shoulder and dragged herself onward. She was not thrilled about getting out there, scraping about the crusty, bumpy ice with the local crowd.

She knew she was cranky even if she could be big hearted and was smart. Her father often said she was like an old woman– had she skipped over the regular age progressions? Mona was fourteen and a half and it seemed irrelevant. And when her father said that to her or others, she didn’t know if this was good or bad; it was an observation. Her mother said she ought to listen better to her elders and begin to act more normal. What was acting normal, exactly? If is was like her older brother and sister, no thank you. If it was her classmates’ ways of doing things, she was bored to death by the prospect. She had to often check a desire to roll her eyes and sigh in classrooms or during social get togethers that she felt obligated to attend. Who were these people who said such silly or empty things? But it wasn’t that she didn’t care for them, it was that she was confused by them, and felt like an island adrift from the mainland they occupied. She often felt she had to build her own boat and carry on, her compass the winds she noted.

her mother said she was too smart for her own good; she worried about that. Her father said no one could be smarter than for their own good–everyone had things to learn and to offer. Mona felt like she wandered around trying to translate other’s languages so she could get in on the game, the joke, the story. There was a great deal she did not know, at all.

Mona searched the snow-skimmed ice for familiar forms and faces. Her skates banged against her back and front as she half-ran across the field toward the lake. Last time she had said she was not coming out to skate again. When the lake thawed she’d be the first in it, but in February the frozen body of water seemed a dozing monster of some foreign sort. She hated the ice now even though she knew much about it.

******

Only her family and the obligation to grow up where planted kept her firmly tethered to them all. If she had her way, she’d be off to Spain or Prince George Island or Singapore in a flash. Any place but Marionville. But her parents had been born there and they weren’t budging much less to another state or country. Her father, the weatherman for a northern Michigan television station, had been given an option to do just that last summer. It was Boise, Utah, not the place of her dreams, but it offered a good salary increase–yet he’d declined. He had four seasons in Michigan, he made enough money and Marionville was a great community for the kids. Great in what ways? She had marched into his study/billiards/sports room in the basement and asked that when he and Mom had been talking it over.

“In what ways is it great?”

Her mother had flipped her hand at at her as if shooing Smitty the cat, and her father had puffed on his pipe, squinting at them above the curling smoke.

“Don’t listen in–and you should alert us when you descend those stairs, Mona,” her mother said, patting back a stray wave of her penny bright coif.

“I mean that our schools are better than most up north, the town is attractive, the land is beautiful with good recreational opportunities, and we have a very fine library, considering.”

“And a summer town band and a great women’s chorus, lus the live theater does well during tourist season.”

“Are you trying to sell some stranger on Marionville? Do I like gullible after all these years here?” Mona dared to say. “I wonder what a place looks like that has exponentially better attributes. How I might strive more and make great er gains.”

“See? An inspirational speaker or diplomat, perhaps someday.”

“Does your language never get to shift into simple teen gear? It perturbs me, ” her mother muttered and sat down with a plop on the couch.

“I suspect you could travel the world over and not find a place as comfortable as this,” her father said. “We’re staying, Mona.You’ll have other opportunities after high school if you play it right.”

Her mother looked at her daughter and saw the loveliness in her face and sturdiness of her slim body–if only she would stand up taller and be pleasant. But that was adolescence. And she had been through this phase with the other two kids; they were soon on to the next. It would all pass, in time. They would grow up and be real human beings. Moona would be thankful for much more one day.

Mona could think of nothing else to add to all the nonsense, so she turned on her heel and ran upstairs. At the top she paused; she could just glimpse them.

“It’s her intelligence, dear,” her father murmured. “She was born with much more than most. Some good genes slipped through.” He let go a small chuckle.

“Well, she might keep it a bit quieter and simpler until college–those rather rowdy genes likely came from your side,” her mother replied, “but I might carry a tad of the blame, I imagine.”

He shook his head as he returned to his pipe and fishing magazine. She loudly cleared her throat, and retreated to her armchair with a book. They were two odd lovebirds her parents, and they were not ever leaving their nest.

The familiar, irritated heaviness of resignation fell upon her as she crept away and took refuge in her room. When would she ever get away from there? When would she live the life she dreamed about?

******

Mona could feel the heat of Gen’s aggravation through the cell phone.

“I think you’re being ridiculous to insist you’re not ever skating again. You’ve loved skating all your life–it’s what we do in the winter.”

“There’s skiing and snowmobiling, snow shoeing, tobogganing. Let’s see, there’s music, books, hikes in the woods, films, there’s–“

“Stop it, Mona. Get your skates and meet me there. You just have to overcome your nervousness. We can’t spend our lives avoiding everything we’re worried about–this is a direct quote from my mother. Or was it your father?”

“I’m not nervous! It’s just that it was the worst thing ever and who’s to say what the odds actually are? Do we have that data? No one seems to care if–“

Gen hung up. What was Mona going to do? Gen was her best friend, they were blood sisters, secretly, and without Gen, who was there in her life that truly counted? (Besides family, and often she wasn’t entirely sure about them.) That she’d even want to be around more than twenty minutes without wanting to pull her hair out? All the reasonably good things occurred in connection with Gen Traymer first and last. Gen remained happily loyal when others did not after elementary school. Well, maybe not so happily sometimes but they both put up with the other.

So here she was again, trudging across a stretch of cold white desert to the lake they loved all year around. Except for Mona lately. Well, she had her reasons, perfectly sane, clear reasons.

“Hey Mo, what’s up?” Wade Bartos yelled at her as he skidded to a stop at the edge, hockey skate blades flashing dully at her.

She hated that nickname, it was like the name of a pet mouse. He was always showing off. She wondered if he really thought she cared. Even if he was the second smartest male person in her English class, he didn’t like to use his brain much and opted for sports almost entirely which endangered said brain. They’d argued once in the hallway about that–whether or not it took much intelligence to play a skillful game of any kind, how many brain cells decreased with each blow to the noggin–and he almost won. Well, he insisted he was right, but he always did. The truth was, Mona was athletic, too, so the debate was a waste of time, really, expect that they liked to do that. Plus she knew he was engaging with her any way he could. It had gone on like that for a few months, and it irked her more than a little.

She held up her skates to show Wade more obviously, as if to say, skating, dummy, thinking he’d laugh at her and take off. But he didn’t. He stared at her hard.

“You’re really going to try again?”

She shrugged, heartbeat drumming harder than it should after the long but easy walk to the lake. “I came for Gen, maybe I’ll just watch awhile.” She wanted him to leave.

But he grinned at her a long moment, then took off with a flourish, blades slicing through the crusty ice. He was fast, faster than nearly all the speed skaters.

Enough ice had been cleared that it would be passable to skate much of the way around, she guessed. A few kids and some adults came out early on weekends to shovel as much as possible. The following visits their shovels were brought to clear snow or shredded ice off as needed. But the ice was doomed to remain rough–gouged by blades, scraped and scratched and full of little potholes and natural debris caught in its steely surface. Some of the skaters longed for ice rinks that were carefully cleaned, groomed often so the ice was smooth as glass underfoot, harder to keep balance at first but oh, when you got accustomed to it, what perfection it was to glide, swoop and rush across its shining surface.

Or had been. Mona hadn’t been to Traverse City to skate at the fancy rink there in months.

Mona scanned the crowd for Gen and there she was with that red hat with fat blue pom-pom, gloved hand waving at her. Mona sat down on a log and waited as Gen skated up to her in long, even strides despite the snowy lumps. She was a superior skater, and seeing her move across the lake made Mona feel a little happier to have come. It gave her a sense of connection to the beauty of winter again and it warmed her insides. Her friend came to a halt before her with an ice-spraying T-stop.

“Well, I wondered…okay, I had my doubts but you made it!’ She took off her hat and rubbed perspiration-dampened curls.”The ice is good even though the surface is crap but we’ll manage.’

“You mean you’ll slowly help me navigate the rough spots and the people and my anxiety as I try to make my unhappy way out.” She looked at the ice and gave a little shake of shoulders, as if she was having a chill when in fact she was plenty warm outside, too. Only her feet felt like thick ice blocks, stuck to the ground.

Gen sat beside her and put an arm about her shoulders. “I know it’s hard. This is the farthest you’ve gotten in over a month.”

“Yeah. Because I already know better than to risk my life.”

They were silent a moment, remembering.

“But that was a one time thing,” Gen said and squeezed her shoulder.”It could happen to anyone. You know what you’re doing, it was just random, an accident, a thing we all know might happen.”

“Don’t get all reassuring. You know that it could happen again. This is not rocket science even if we both can figure out the whys and wherefores…it happened. To me, not you.”

“And a few others in the history of this town. Mona, you are not being picked on by God, you know!”

“Oh, please, leave any talk of divinity out of it…”

Gen pulled away a little, looked at her skates digging at hard earth. “I can’t.” She faced her friend. “Stop making it worse. We’ve talked and talked about it. You’ve come out a couple times to watch from a distance and now you’re finally at the ice. So…please put your skates on?”

Mona gulped hard and closed her eyes tightly; she didn’t want to see it like a movie again. She did not want to remember how the ice suddenly gave it warning of loud cracking and, a shifting of thing, an echoing as the sound travelled down and under the lake length…the subtle shift in ice and a giving way as she stood halfway to the center of the ice, legs shaking, and tried to skate away, to beat the crack that would open.

But she was too slow to move, she felt trapped there and by her growing fear. The ice gave way. Mona plunged into a freezing abyss of icy lake water and she clamped her hand over nose and mouth so as not to gulp, and her breath was stolen, every nerve screamed and panic came but knew number one was to overcome the initial cold shock. As time ticked by each limb seemed near useless, and in three minutes she could die. She began to kick with her legs to propel her weakening body towards light, each movement a slowed motion of energy loss. It was eternity, a blackly screeching, frigid and endless vault of nothing, body pierced by searing pain, chest compressing, her mind empty of anything but survival or awaiting death. Monas head bobbed up once, twice, submerged again.

Alden the Monk lived alone at edge of woods in a three room shack. He had been watching outside his door, waiting for the worst to happen. He knew this lake, the ways of the ice. he knew death might arrive fast, a spirit lurking inside the lake. He crept out but fast, on all fours, grabbed her wrist as she reached up and yanked her arm so hard it felt he ripped it out of the socket. Up and up and then her body pulled from hell and over ice, and a furry grim beast putting its teeth into a jeans’ leg and yanking, too, hauling her along with the Monk off that ice, over snow, away from the grasp of death.

She nearly passed out, heart pumping in fearful relief hard but quiet as if it belonged to another, breath coming in deep painful gulps as she searched his weathered face and heard King’s yelps and barks from a distance, his rough tongue on a cheek. She gave over, let the Monk do what he had to, wet clothes stripped off and blankets piled atop her shivering length. The woodstove on the other side in a gentle roar. Fragrances of coffee and burning wood like a sweet prayer. Everything hurt so badly; she was starting to shiver and then she was almost as afraid as before the Monk had come. Shortly, paramedics rushed in, were working over her and she drifted into a netherland of dreams and horrors until the emergency room and all that followed, her family, Gen, her life touched by nature’s power and human terrors. Her life somehow changed by how much she did not understand and a hermit who knew much and rescued her.

“Mona?”

Gen balanced on her skate, holding out both hands so Mona pulled on the boots of her worn Hyde skates and tugged, then laced each one fast without thinking of it further. Until she was done.

Was it worth the trouble, her heart whimpering, her lingering, embarrassing scramble of feelings? Every single one out there–and though the ice was tested hard as a rock and the snow had stopped– knew what had happened; it was news. So her return would be news. But she loved ice skating as much as anything outdoors in their long brutal winters, and so she took her friend’s hands. Slow and easy, she told herself, as if just learning to put blade upon surface. Blades made contact and she was standing with knees trembling, Gen’s hands tugging her along slightly. The worn figure skates slipped over the familiar rough surface. She did not look up, only held onto Gen. Mona lifted one skate after the other, the strokes thrusting her forward.

A few classmates waved at her–she raised her head enough to nod at them. Wade skated by and then began to circle back.

Gen gritted her teeth as she forced legs and feet forward. “No, not him.”

“He’s a nice enough guy and you know he likes you.”

“He’s all about things that don’t matter to me; I don’t want to like him.”

“Yeah, yeah, here he comes. You’re doing great, push off harder, make the effort.”

“I am not feeling great yet. Are you my teacher now? I will never feel great about this again…”

“Wrong, you will feel even better!” Wade said and clapped her on the back so that she stumbled a bit. “Oops, sorry, trying to encourage you.”

He took her other arm so Mona was wedged between the two of them. She tried to shake him off but he held on loosely. She glared at them and kept moving. They were watching the ice for any troublesome spots and making sure others moved out of the way. Several more skaters shouted greetings, a few skated with them them. Mona felt if she could only shrink to the size of a pea she’d be more okay. To have them watch her–they used to watch her skate well, by herself–and get so close as if they’d protect her…it made her feel weirder. Like she was some emotional and physical cripple who couldn’t make her own way.

She shook off her friends’ hands, began to put her body into each forward stroke. If she was garnering attention, to heck with them, she was going to just skate.

And she did it. She sailed around the outer edges, stumbling here and there, knees locking up a bit but she moved ahead and kept her balance better as she kept at it. And the cold wind grazed her cheeks, a pale sunshine leaked out of the clouds. Her brown shoulder-length hair lifted and waved like a burnished flag. She was freer than she co uld have imagined possible.

Until she skated past the Monk’s house and glanced over at the spot where she’d fallen in.

She couldn’t stop it, she saw it, it came back at her and she screamed, not so anyone thought it was an emergency but enough that Gen and Wade rushed over, caught her as just as her legs buckled.

They held her up between them. Others slowed and stopped, circled loosely around them.

“Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh,” Mona cried and covered her face, willing herself not to shed tears, willing herself to be okay, and yet all she wanted to do was fall to the ice on her knees and crumple, and wail.

Alden the Monk saw them out there. He smoked his cigarette, yanked at his bushy beard and nodded his black ski hat-covered head. King, his husky, stood with paws on the window sill, ears pricked, whining softly. They remembered how it went, too. They remembered how four kids and one adult with her little dog had fallen in over the past eighteen years. Three made it out and recovered. The woman with her dog died eight years ago. The ten year old boy did not survive a few years later. Alden had been far more watchful ever since. It was just his job, he believed, like it was his job to keep the sustaining woods fire-free and the beautiful birds safe from feral cats and the slinky-smart coyotes alive. They all called him the Monk but really, he was a Life Keeper, he felt. The girl would soon be alright. He knew about tragedy and he knew you could heal and go on. Or, if like him, live in solitude, within the welcome of acceptance and peace.

Mona stood up again, looked over at the ramshackle little house. She glimpsed the Monk and the husky at his window and he returned the look a long moment, then stepped away with King. She’d have to leave him something, a surprise, a thank you. She hadn’t done that yet–her parents had thanked him and offered him money which he refused. But she was ashamed of misjudging her steps and stupidly half-drowning in ice water, embarrassed by her clothing being removed by him, angry about her newly hatched fear. But she recalled his eyes on her eyes for a split second that day, how he had cared. He had gone onto the cracking ice to save her life.

She lifted her hand to him, hoping he saw her.

Gen and Wade were talking to her.

“See? It’s perfectly solid, nothing to worry about.”

“It’s over, it happened but you lived through it–it’s over and you were so lucky.”

“You did it, you came out and skated and got through the bad memory.”

“Don’t cry, you’re safe, Mona, here with us.”

The small group gathered around them began to clap their hands and cheer.

She was safe. She was not actually alone. It was going to stop haunting her some day, maybe even before spring.

“Thank you Gen, forever,” she said then turned to Wade. “And thanks for hanging around today.”

They skated swiftly around the lake, separately but close to one another, Wade going on, then passing them as he flashed around the lake. But the two friends skated in long, easy, fluid lines, avoiding the bad ice and finding the good. Wade whizzed by once more and shouted, “Pizza at Buster’s Hut tonight, girls!”

Gen yanked on Mona’s sleeve. “What do you think?”

“I think I might have one other decent friend. Maybe it’s time to find a few more. Marionville has to have a few more weirdos hiding out.”

They high-fived, then glided to the edge of the ice. There was a small bonfire flashing yellow and orange through a hazy winter veil of late afternoon. People were circling up, warming their hands, sharing food, laughing. The girls unlaced and removed their old, trusty skates, cleaned the crusts of ice from the blades and then joined in to warm up before walking in long shadows to Buster’s.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Jottings on Sunshine, Contentment and the Wash

By Michael Gäbler, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Though I can’t recently locate it, I recall a photo my photographer brother shot and gave me years ago. It showed colorful clothing drying on a clothesline in a narrow alleyway. An older Italian woman, voluminous black hair piled about her head, leaned at the open window above the line of flapping laundry. I recall it being on a pulley system, a good way to reel in all that breezy laundry. Since it was stretched to the other side, presumably the neighbor shared it. I was struck by the friendliness of the shot, the attentive, perhaps pensive woman, the quiet comforts of an ordinary day, an alley with–if I am correct–one boy playing there, almost looking upward. Did he have a bike?…I am not certain now. Was he heading to a friend’s or going on an errand for the woman? Maybe they had spoken to each other; maybe she was his mother, more likely grandmother. It is an entire story. I miss that picture.

But, as much if not more, I was instantly taken with the sight of that laundry drying outside in a slash of sunlight splashed across the alley. I was impressed with the convenience of the set up. Wondered if the clothing still smelled fresh after drying between tall, old apartment buildings– and thought it would. Did the woman have to iron much or did she just shake it out? My senses woke right up as I imagined it all.

I recently had some significant problems with our washer/dryer combo in the laundry closet. It got me thinking of that photo, and the not unpleasant chore of doing laundry over the years, and why I don’t mind it much. In fact, it may be the one household task I manage without mild annoyance week after week.

I must have been well trained, as I did family laundry with my mother. When she was older and less well and I was still at home, I did it for us all as needed. The washer and dryer were in our dank, shadowy basement, the end not renovated with recreation room and Dad’s instrument workshop. As a young child I didn’t care to use those stairs, the back of the steps being open. I was never certain if there was anything or one waiting to snag my ankles. Maybe my older brothers spooked me or maybe it was just a dreary basement, but I was anxious for a few years. But down I went, especially if I was called to duty, even if alone.

Usually Mom and I did the work together. I stood close and watched her, committed to memory what she told me: this and this is how things need to be done to get the best result. I knew she knew such things; she was also a teacher. I had at first a little fear about laundry, too, as I’d heard the story more than once about the wringer she’d used many years to get most of the water wrung from wet clothes…and the terrible accident. My oldest brother had been helping–or maybe he was fooling around, he was a wild one– but his arm was pulled right in between the rollers of that operating machine. He nearly lost that arm; it was a painful, devastating injury that took many months from which to recover. I must not have been born when it happened as I was spared the actuality, if not the tears Mom shed when she mentioned it. I was careful around all machines.

Maybe that’s when they bought a dryer–it would have been an expensive item, as was the washer. I got the feeling that Mom was grateful for both. As a farmer’s daughter and an elder child of eleven children, she was used to near-back breaking work. Any convenient, time-saving helps she had as an adult were respected, maintained well and used til they could no longer be repaired (both my parents were good at repairing things). She once told me she came to inhabit a privileged life after marrying my father, a man with a masters degree, quietly refined, ambitious. No matter that they were starting out as young teachers, struggling. It was not the farming life. No matter that she, in time, raised five children and helped along my father’s career in music, and also taught elementary school. No matter that she was rarely off her feet, hands occupied with multiple tasks–it was not the old life, not the blasted farm, anymore. And the Depression was over, and, finally, the war. Life was gentler and better, at last. So a washer and a dryer? Wondrous.

Yet, Mom also liked to scrub clothes on a small washboard in the double utility sink if there were any stains. Fels Naptha in hand, she showed me how to rub the wet soap into fabric, rubbing it hard first between both hands of knuckles and and then on the metal washboard. I found it entertaining to help, appreciated the efficiency of her labors, and enjoyed the end result: the clean dress or shorts and shirt I might be wearing right then. But it did make my knuckles raw–her hands were toughened, deft and strong.

But despite the dryer, much of the time she liked to hang out the washing. She said they smelled of sunlight and wind. She was right, even as fall rolled into winter and the wash dried cold and stiff. Then she stopped hanging it out until spring.

There was a regular clothesline for years but I liked the umbrella line. It looked just like an umbrella half-turned inside out and one of them spun around. I’d help with hanging the heavy wet clothes, handing them to her or reaching up to do it as I grew. I liked the clever, simple wooden clothes pegs or clippy clothespins. Sometimes I stood by and handed them to her as needed. My favorite were colored plastic clothespins. (Wooden pegs also could be made into little dolls with yarn hair and colored pencil features; the others were useful for clipping arty things together, or lavish scarf dresses to fit me snugly as I played dress up.)

The great things about hanging wash out to dry: it is something to do outdoors, and work becomes fun; it is enjoyable to watch it flap and rise in the gusty breezes especially when swinging from a maple tree; it gets bleached and disinfected by sunshine; the scent of the garments seem made of something heavenly when dry; towels and sheets fill the hands with fabric that suddenly range from rough to newly, pleasingly textured. Nothing was so lovely as when beds were changed and the line-dried sheets put on at last, the corners squared, the top sheet pulled up smooth and snug. You slipped between them, inhaled deeply, moved about until your body was happy to sink in and rest. And even blankets, rugs, woolen coats and sweaters aired outdoors were better than they might be otherwise.

The folding took time, but it is satisfying to turn a pile of crumpled assorted articles into uniform, tidy items, then a few small tower-like piles, each intended for another person. A few were left out for ironing. I learned how to do that, too, and liked the reassuring motion of warm iron sizzling over various dampened fabrics, the fragrance of sunshine and heat a sweet mist; and the steam rising up as the iron slipped back and forth. I’d hold up ironed pieces to my face, each so warm and smooth and freshened. If starch was required for, say, a dress shirt of my father’s, I’d skip the sniffing and hang immediately onto a hanger. I ironed many cotton sheets, as well–that is how I was taught to care for simplest things.

I can’t imagine young women today feeling as I did back then. But when my father or mother put on clothing I had ironed, and they looked sleekly pulled together and handsome and pretty, all set for a day’s work–well, it gave me the smallest sense of pride in a humble job well done. Not to mention my own clothing being well tended. Somehow ironing out the wrinkles made the most ordinary clothing seem important. In the 1950s and 1960s where I grew up, a young girl and teen was required to look good and presentable, and that meant to ne clean and polished, well put together. Of course, I did grow up in the sixties and was soon not following most of my city’s middle class cultural norms. I was intent on feminism and freedoms; it then became clear the common way of doing things did not imprint enough on me. (Fashion de rigeur later became jeans, chambray work shirts and Frye knee-high boots–or peasant skirts and tops or caftans and leather huaraches–sandals– after 16. No ironing necessary.)

Off and on I continued to line dry the wash as an adult. But there were times when I could resent laundry chores. One was dousing, washing and hanging dozens of cloth diapers on a line near-daily, every week. It saved money. But the process was daunting enough that I gave in after the second child and began using disposable diapers, at times. Another period was when my own five children, during adolescence, got the bad habit of trying on many items, tossing them on floor or bed and later putting them into a laundry hamper, unworn. I was mad and tired of figuring out which items were dirty and which were supposedly clean. Finally I decided to put their growing heaps of laundry into garbage bags and put those in our basement laundry area. They had to figure it all out for themselves. In time, despite their whining about how mean and horrid I was, they relented and started to take better care of their own clothes. It was a relief to not have it all left to me; I wished I’d laid down the law earlier.

The children did more of their own laundry when I ran out of time or energy. Marc helped a little. I’d begun working more hours at my human services job. Laundry for seven family members could take me until midnight. And if someone shouted downstairs, frantic, “Mom, I need that ruffly blue blouse ironed, can you please do that before I get up tomorrow?”… I got more and more close to refusal. They all had been taught how to wash and iron, even my son (who cared less about tidiness than his four sisters). But somewhere between thirteen and sixteen they’d rebelled and stopped. They’d gotten “too busy.” Since four of them were teenagers at once, that was mostly true. (My last child hung around home a bit more, longer.) Fortunately, it all evened out by the time they graduated from high school and went on their way. They knew how to care for themselves, and have proven to be savvy at efficient task completion as adults…most now with their own kids.

Nostalgia can be useful occasionally. More so since the pandemic robs us of accumulating experiences we think we desire. A simpler time appeals; we may see it as better times, as well, even if not really true. So I still can miss the small pleasures of line drying a load of wet wash. The homeiness of it, the reassuring routine. The easy pleasantries swapped with my mother as I held up each requisite wooden peg or the companionable silence. I recall her pointing out backyard birds as they came and went for she was a bird lover, a nature beholder, despite not being a farming aficionado. She loved insects in their variety and usefulness; earth’s minerals and soils, their bounties; flowers’ magic from bulb to blossom; and the changing of seasons being as much a part of her as family life and its complex ways. Anything we could share outdoors thrilled me, and I was enrapt by her storytelling as natural as breathing.

Laundry freshly dried and folded is a task to take mundane pleasure in, still. If the day seems out of sorts one thing I can do is laundry–putting some things right and into good form. I like the movement of it, the swing from washer to dryer to flapping out wrinkles to smoothing and folding or hanging. My husband can do laundry but chooses not to, yet I seldom am bothered by this. The easy rhythm is lovely; it’s a small event that breaks up monotony or blends with the hours. Laundry has a small power to balance life, a counterweight to the philosophical with the banal and concrete.

The trouble I had with my original washer and dryer in our home was gradual and annoying at the start. The dryer kept leaving pale tawny smudge marks here and there on legs of pants, arms of nice shirts or knit tops. I felt the dryer was too hot, as well. The maintenance man came in and checked the machines, then noted a small metal vent looked a bit rusty and snaggy so he got out his steel wool and scoured it cleaner and smooth. I complained about our half dozen marred items but there seemed nothing to do about what was already done. The problem seemed to lessen. I relaxed. Then fall came and I noted dark smudges on heavier items, this time black, longer marks. I held the clothes up to my nose. I thought they were scorch marks this time, even burn marks, and I was not drying one more thing until it was resolved. I complained and got action fairly fast: a new large sized but stackable washer and dryer unit delivered in three days.

You might think I was delighted–no more marred clothing or perhaps, eventually, a fire. But they turned out to be futuristic machines with many settings and little push buttons. It had complicated directions in four languages that I finally read in English a few times before we could even begin. The washer tub filled itself to the right level; it has sensors to tell it precisely when to stop filling. I didn’t believe it at first and tried to open the loid, but it would not. I had to trust it and found that very hard without seeing it happen.

And the sounds it made. It didn’t fill with water immediately but started and stopped with strange electronic grumbles. I thought it was malfunctioning already. But on it went, filling and pausing until all was ready and it washed–with soft, whiny alien noises. The load came out fine, to my surprise, even with almost not water left in the clothes. The dryer was less hard to understand though I studied those buttons several minutes, too, before entrusting the heap to the perfectly heated tumbling apparatus. When it was done, I didn’t even realize it; there is no bell or alarm but just gently stops turning. I have to keep an eye and ear to it but find if things sit, they are not all wrinkled. It is admittedly much better than the former dryer’s obnoxious alarm; it could cause me to startle if I was deeply reading or writing. Every item comes out (mostly) wrinkle-free, way cooled down. I’m now accustomed to its funny humming and soft ratcheting, its gurgles and pauses and surges.

The truth is, it’s a wonderful advancement General Electric has made for cleaning and drying clothing. And I’m pleased we got it for nothing; I feel partly compensated for our stained clothing (worth a good $600-750). I can get the job done without worrying now.

Yet as warmer weather arrives, the balcony will offer an option once more. I will still sneak a hand washed top or dress, maybe even a silky camisole, just place the hangers on hooks or nails in the roof overhang. I might put a lap blanket over the balcony railing to air out, too, or a rug.

I am well aware it’s against the housing rules (as well as sonorous chimes I adore but had to put away). I know the fine print, I got their message–and who wants to see wash drying outside in a well-heeled community these days? It might even give the neighbors a story, a surprise.

I have to say: I do, I really do. And I suspect my clothing misses sunshine streaming down and a strong breeze.

Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: Ephemeral Snow v. Midwest Snow

I felt last night that something interesting was brewing as the sun was setting. The radiant orange sky was adorned with a mock bas relief: towering clouds that spread like a fiery blanket over woods and then distant mountains. And the weather forecast also had me sniffing the air for any hint of snowfall. I usually stay on the fence about our changeable weather, and Willamette Valley weather folks are on the fence about snow showers actually showing up at any time. But I live higher than most Portlanders at 800 feet above sea level–it is colder here and lasts longer. Even my car’s temperature indicator pinged at me, indicating freezing temps. It was within grasp on the edge of the breeze, that sharp sweetness of a coming snow.

After all, snow was something to get excited about–we had had none here this winter. The Cascade and Coast Mountain ranges get plenty but I have wishes far greater than reality. My twin granddaughters had already gotten to play in the superior mountain snow, even sled down with their parents and tasted a bunch. Two other (teenaged) grandkids are used to winter’s plentiful fluff in their city, at a higher elevation of much colder central Oregon. But here I was with face to the windows, opening the balcony doors–waiting, waiting.

It took until the next day but it came. Yes, I know, it is clearly nowhere close to being a white-out snow…but it was still a pleasant thrill. It was drifty and soft and bright–it was not, thank goodness, more rain.

That was about it, yet it felt so good, a relief to stand outside and have wispy, sometimes globby flakes land on my face, feel sharper wind as it pressed against more weighted pine branches; they swayed a bit to and fro as if in welcome. There were many grey-on-white foot prints. My hands cupped chilled softness to shape a snowball–it was good packing snow despite the limited amount. I stood on the balcony that overlooks many pines and absorbed a breath-giving freshness of air, the taste of it almost a wintery dessert. For a few minutes I leaned against the house, coatless, arms held close about myself. I wanted to feel the slightest elegant power of snowfall, take deep its lingering quietude.

I shared my hasty snaps of the snow with my five adult kids because they know of the variety of more relentless winter events, the voluptuous kinds that coat everything with its generous displays. They lived many years in the Great Lakes State as did their parents. We traded pictures of their snow levels and mine along with a few memories. It was an immediate reconnection to a different space emotionally. Anyone who lives with snow for months every winter knows how this is, how it shapes your internalized landscape of life.

Today my youngest, Alexandra–one who lives in the metro area–checked in on me. She had earlier sent photos of her 20 month old little girls frolicking in a lot of snow on Mt. Hood a week ago, tasting quite a bit as they played. She asked how I was doing, meaning: how is it going with weather/virus statistics/vaccine roll out pushed back farther for too many/political changes/restlessness, as I like freedom to move a lot/life with her dad being yet unemployed. I answered, “Fair to Midland”, a dumb old gag that originated who knows where. In fact, I grew up in Midland, Michigan (she with her four siblings lived in that city awhile, as well; they’d often visited my parents/their grandparents). So it slipped out, innocuous if truthful. Maybe it was triggered by the snow the night before..ah, yes, Michigan snow…So a “Midland” designation could be pretty good or it might be a slight bit better than fair. I was feeling more the second. Life in itself can be fatiguing.

However, I also had been considering experiences to write about for this nonfiction blog post today. Since we were chatting, I asked my daughter to throw out a random idea or phrase (she writes a lot, too).

She said, “Melting snow–or fingernail painting.”

“Not fingernail stuff, I’d get three lines out of that one today. But snow….snow sledding, snow people and snow houses, heavy pants and coats and wet mittens and snowballs fights, giant snow drifts….”

“Wait, are you writing about snow? It has to be snow melting.”

“Oh,” I said. “Okay then, snow melting right before spring with green shoots underneath, or the demise of snow in the greater world, or watery snow in ditches that become creek beds and mountain rivers rushing from snow melt. That crappy moment the sled won’t budge because the runners are gunked up with mud taking over the once-snowy spots. But–a bit sad?”

She quickly responded: “The snowperson feels her own face slowly disappear. Her eyes first, an escape from the stare of an angry sun. Her nose, a frozen lump receding, and with it scents of earth and wet. Too late to yell out, to petition the clouds to dispense more of the clay that builds her bones: snow…” She paused. “But, anyway, mud sledding sounds sort of fun.”

I was quite taken with her melting snow lady scene; it was an entire story in a few sentences. I was hoping for more. “Oh boy! Can I quote you on that?” Meaning: can I use this for today’s post or better yet, will you write it for me?

“Sure–but I’m kinda depressed so not the best storyline.”

“We all have been kinda depressed off and on. Fatigued, worn out by it all. Anyway, I love you.”

She gave me her love with hugs and got back to her now-virtual work duties. I got my hiking boots on–I had to get outdoors. Rain–for months now–or snow, daylight or dusk: moving beyond my front door and into the world and nature’s domain is a ritual I well keep. A routine, an opportunity for discovery and more good moments. It’s praying on two feet moving, with all senses attuned. And maybe I’d still find a bit of snow.

So I went on a trek in search of snow, up and down hills, pinpointing evidence of yesterday’s flurry of frozen rain. There was pitiful little. The air held a steely edge as I wove in and out of treed areas, the sky grey and weighted as pewter, damp breezes sliding over hair and face. The temperature had risen overnight to 43 degrees Fahrenheit; snow had about all melted. My thick sweater and LLBean jacket with a hood encouraged heat and sweat as I tramped winding walkways. But there was a whisper of it, tiny clues here and there that snow had landed and stayed long enough to entice, to make me remember the lavish and treacherous, the magical snows of my youth.

The creeks were burbling and rushing downhill, pleased with increased wet volume. But trees and earth looked a little forlorn, not dressed with leaves nor with snow, caught at an in-between stage. I know they wait patiently for all that comes, live on in anticipation of matters and happenings they know far better than do I, and so I bid them a good day and kept on.

But as for the snow of my childhood and youth that is not here today…That kind of snowfall provided an entry into a differently populated, newly designed world. Everything lost its edges, was rounded, gave off a bright sheen. The earth with its plant kingdom and humanly created structures were refashioned into ghostly or gaudy versions of themselves, depending on laydown of any light. Before the snowfall, all that was ordinary and reliable transformed into magical and mysterious.

How many routes were carved through heavy snow? Year after year. Around our two story yellow house, forging the deep path with my heavy boots– into the front, side and back yards, about the juniper (and sleeping forsythia) bushes, back to the big maple and circling the bloomless cherry tree, then turning finally toward Stark’s Nursery that went on forever behind our bushes and pines. Each venture was a new exploration. I felt brave and hearty as I trudged into the howling center of winter, dragging my wooden sled behind me, face to snow’s kisses. I’d gather small branches and pine cones to be settled on the sled for delivery elsewhere, or carry a pyramid of snowballs for surprise battle with my sister if she roused herself (or any other who dared challenge). Or, too, my doll–dear Lady Jane, a beautiful walking doll, my favorite–warmly protected and wrapped in Mother’s dress fabric remnants or an old woolen scarf. It was the elements and us.

I could have headed to a good sledding hill with my sister and brother, as often I did. I might have gone to City Forest to enjoy gargantuan toboggan ice runs constructed high up, the rides down a fast rattle and flash with a sprawling crash into packed hard snow. I might have skated more often than anything; it was a passion. Good ice (shiny smooth if possible, free of snow) or bad ice, it made no difference. (Figure skating required and provided other things–the best clean ice, hours of hard, happy work with thrilling small successes.) I occasionally went skiing with a friend whose family did that sort of thing–mine did not–and when I made it down “bunny hills” without falling, I fell in love with its speed and athletic delight.

But in childhood and into my teens I just had to go forth into that driving snow. Especially the first few snows. It swirled about and stung my cheeks, tweaked my nose, crusted lashes and eyebrows crystalline. I was never lonely; I was fully alive and free. There were cardinals, blue jays, other winter birds and squirrels scampering about. And the tree nursery was a wilderness of loveliness any direction I looked, snow a glittering veil, trees and bushe ands small creatures adorned in beauty. If I got thirsty I found and broke off an icicle to slurp as it melted in heat of my mouth. Some were long enough to be a sword, three feet long or more, sharp as a big needle point on the end. Just in case. Just because I was on an exploration and nothing must stop me.

There were fortresses, cabins or castles out there somewhere, weren’t there?– I would find them and make a fire, warm fingers and toes of Lady Jane in my palms, make a porridge of melted snow and pine needles and old moss. I was never afraid of darkness gathering, the shadows lengthening, then widening upon undulating stretches of creamy whiteness. Like satin bordered with lace, like a huge blankets speckled with earth.

Back around the house, a streetlight swung in the wind as more snow blew in, lifted and drifted. Light and dark chased one another as I began packing snow blocks one against another in tall drifts left by the snowplows. I could crawl inside if I scrunched myself into a tidy ball. The snow blew across the yard in waves so high that freezing flakes slipped over my boot tops and under the legs of my snow pants–then warmed and trickled down my ankles. But a snow house was in the making and unless my family called me in, I was out for the duration.

When all was completed and I finally wearied of the cold, the cold, wet garments would come off, then I’d warm up and dry off by the hot air register (the burning sensation making me aware how cold my hands had gotten). One was positioned right behind a big chair and I could hide there a bit, rest and be happy. Nose ran, cheeks flamed, eyes were wide and bright. Soon scents of dinner would overcome me, simple pork chops or roast beef, potatoes, brussel sprouts, beets with salad. I was home again. All was well in those fine moments.

In Michigan when the snow began to melt, I felt little by little a welling up of sadness. I was not a springtime girl despite being born in April. It was the passage of winter to spring that I least loved. The slipping away of winter’s wonderment seemed a slow counting of tender losses: the enrapt silence of snow fallen, and its soft sifting and clicking against plant life and human bodies; cars cruising through slush, houses made friendlier. The odd emptiness of the world when blizzard conditions occurred and snow fell down as a heavy curtain, insulating the world from itself. The mystery of reaching into snowy depths, stiff grasses like sharp reminders of secret hibernations and ground hard as granite and stones like bitter cold gems ready to crack open to reveal something more.

My body and mind cushioned against any slight or large harm, any misgivings or errors, or reach of words and deeds that might lead me to something that might hurt, or someone I could not interpret correctly. This I knew for sure: snow was a bestowing of nature’s blessing; it was a perfect performance of beauty and power, another gift from from God’s own hands. And I had a place in that embrace.

In time, I came to admire and respect all the seasons in equal measure, for different reasons. The fantastical designs of nature held me early in their thrall. As any child who has the chance to explore such worlds feels, if they are lucky, right away. There were moments I was certain I was given the keys to all I ever needed to know. That was, of course, not quite the case. I had to better learn how to step into the other realm–to move into and about the world of people and their doings. Into the life I had a responsibility to create each step of the way, even when with disastrous results, even when there came success beyond expectations. But oh, what a teacher I had as each winter came with its wildness and gentleness, to offer both respite and adventure. What good fortune it was. And shortly after the spring, the summer, the autumn. Michigan has, as I learned four entire seasons, and all are their own sort of thing. And each had signs and gateways into their secrets.

Oregon has its own surprises and gifts galore. Even if snow here does arrive like a dashing figure and then is too soon called elsewhere. It melts so fast yet I always greet it as a friend to a friend. I can go to the mountains to find much more. That may be a trek I take soon– to nudge out the 2020-21 blues and make way for more satisfying and energizing moments.

Below, a couple of poor pictures–my apologies– of old photos of my childhood home in winter. You might note those icicles and also the long handled shovel on the porch. I did my share of shovelling along with the others!