Wednesday's Words/Nonfiction: Living a Life and What I Know Matters Most

I walk into the library this afternoon without knowledge of any special event. My stop is impulsive, convenient on the way from an errand. I do enjoy our public library a great deal and often feel thankful that I can take home any book or other media for free. But now I am staring at the ample back of a woman while listening to a very good cellist perform. I am trying to capture the cellist as a video on my cell phone. He is playing a most sonorous cello that is plugged in so the notes are “electric” in effect. Shortly I give up trying to get him on my cell, as said audience member keeps readjusting position in her chair, blocking my view. And she is dancing in her seat a little, primarily with shoulders. (I am calling her “Sunny” because that’s how she feels, despite her severely cut hair.) But I can hear him, so catch his cello notes while videotaping the floor or Sunny’s back. (Rather late it occurs to me I might have moved or recorded his performance as a voice memo.)

An older man–tall, dignified and possessed of a beautiful head of white hair–is shepherded to a seat. He is blind. It is made clear the view is no needed to enjoy the concert. I wonder about the man–if he has always been blind, if he lost his sight to illness or injury. He is unperturbed by anything, focused wholly on listening as far as I can tell. I decide to do the same.

But am not altogether successful. My mind drifts easily at concerts. Music of all sorts grabs my attention and may truly enthrall me but it also ignites a bursts of ideas, cinematic images, random thought trains that I follow until I fall off and get back to the performance again. There are jaunty pieces played; melancholy ones; two straight-up Bach sonatas; complex original compositions with several overlays of musical lines and harmonies thanks to his electronic equipment. A maze within a maze that creates a lush landscape and gives rise to pathways that take me to this spot and that. And then the music feels like a dreamy high rise through which I wander and climb, peer about.

And I think of my own cello. How I would have loved to play like the artist–the jazzy pieces, anyway. I studied classical music until 18; some years later I played more as I wished. My cello now sleeps against the wall of my bedroom. No, more likely it is in a coma, as it has been unattended too long. Not nourished. I think of opening the hard protective case often but cannot: it may have cracked again along old lines of ruin that it endured decades ago being transported from Michigan to Tennessee. The original cracks were repaired by my father’s skillful hands. Later as they reopened I got them repaired again; they cost me dearly. I played it some once more. And it sounded nearly good as new awhile but I didn’t play as easily. And I stopped altogether. Yet it is mine, it is in that burnished wood that resides a good length of personal history. It is also a possession of imperfect beauty, of a body with its own voice, even if stilled for now. And it yields stories just standing there. I touch it in passing. My cello can make me cry but I adore it as ever I have, though I have little to no substantial bravery left for making music.

It takes me to my sister, who played her exceptional cello professionally her entire life, almost until her death at 78. She was not an improviser, generally; all that she played was musically clean and deep, sometimes fun. I also liked to stand behind the piano bench where she sat at her shiny grand piano; I’d sing all the old standards she wanted to play. We grew up this way. It was a way of being. Our family of seven would gather at the worn baby grand from time to time, but especially during Christmas. Our father, a violist primarily, played well enough, sang along. My mother might join in, a rare exception as she thought her singing not up to snuff. It was quite good enough, her voice; she left music making to him and us children, is all. She had other interesting talents. I can see her laughing as she winds up a tale of who and what she saw on her way to the grocery store. I can see her at her sewing machine, stitching rapidly, perfectly the seams of a burgundy velvet bodice with a pink drapey skirt for me.

I blink twice. Back to the present, though our present is threaded with strands of our past no matter our intention, whether conscious or not.Some things just bring it back more clearly than others.

The woman, Sunny, in front of me, then: her dress is a true vivid red excepting one third of a vertical area, from neck to waist (I think), designed of thin black and white stripes. Around her neck is draped a sheer scarf that is also black and white but a plaid. Her earrings are like little beaded baskets, cheerful and swingy. Her hair is short and blondish-brown but she is older, perhaps my age. It is in the way she wiggles in her seat, the boots on her feet being sensible, the soft lines folding up along her jaw as she turns her head. But that dancing spirit!-her shoulders are turning and going to and fro. She taps her foot in time: is she also a musician or is she a music lover only? The value for her is in her open engagement, her joy and as I look around I see many others who are smiling, moving. The blind man sits with eyes closed and quietly.

The scarf Sunny wears is elegant but not too elegant for this library afternoon concert. It’s finely knotted, straggling ends lay along her upper back; they move as she moves. I do love scarves, and wear them often though not today. My love of them perhaps originated with my mother and Marinell, both of whom had many and used them often. There are scarf wearing women and those who are not; I think the same is true of men, anymore. My husband wears a charcoal and white tweedy wool scarf in winter and I like that. I collect scarves for all seasons, pull them out to dress things up or to make the ordinary less so or feel warmer as a sudden wind finds my neck. They are not always finely made; I get some from the trhift shop. My daughter has given me a few: one which she dyed over original colors; one she made of silk; one that she shibori-dyed by hand with brilliant indigo dye. I resolve to wear more this winter. And that Sunny has good taste, not surprisingly considering where I live these days, a place where money is tastefully displayed, never shouted out.

The piece the cellist is playing is rising and falling all about us. It is light and dark, rich and simple, warm and bittersweet. I look up to the open second story of the library, see a hand on the edge of its half-wall, then catch a glimpse of a teenager’s face, his longish hair falling forward. He disappears. I am gratified that everyone in the library can hear this good music, this sudden and free gift to us on a rainy winter afternoon.

I think I recognize a head farther up. I get up and wander about aisles of book shelves, peek toward the audience in hopes of identifying my friend. I don’t know Kathy well but suspect I would like to; we always seem too busy to get together again. She plays cello; rather, she also once played and is now taking lessons once more to brush up on her skills. It informs me of her personality a bit, that she has determination–and is brave–that she loves music and making it, that we likely have more in common.

But it isn’t her and the concert is ending. The performer is bowing and the applause–mine included–is enthusiastic. Sunny is chatting with someone and though I can’t see her face I know her eyes are the kind that quickly that light up with pleasure–and it seems another good thing, I don’t know why, and that is satisfying. I move down the stacks and look at mysteries. I am obsessed with mystery books lately, not my usual literary novels or other genres of books on bestseller lists. I want to lose myself in a rollicking good story, puzzle out the culprits, enjoy the history or foreign country or unique detective. I have a habit of constantly asking questions, some say too many, like to dig into it all, root out more answers. Or at least possibilities. Why why why? Who-When-What-How? I would like to try writing mysteries more. This is another thing that intimidates me, but in this case it is all the more reason why I want to try harder. It is writing, after all, only words on a screen or paper. But what passion keeps burning in me for just that.

Shortly I check out three books despite not needing more in my bedside or other stacks. Audience members are dispersing. The blind man is moving toward the entrance, and a woman is holding his hand. They look beautiful together, their white hair softly gleaming in the warm overhead lights, their shoulders touching. I think of my parents, how their white hair made them so attractive, how they held hands, loved each other.

I find it a tad hard to leave the library. I linger by new books, listen to chatter and drink of the peacefulness. Yet there is something nudging me like a shadow at the back of my mind, and it is trying to tell me something.

It is when I go outside and note the rain is now a decent sprinkle that I look up at the cloud-swathed sky and do remember: my nephew, Reid, died around this time. He took all his pain and jumped with it off the Fremont Bridge. He had lived enough of a life he’d embraced but also had so long endured. We had known many years he might leave us this way. There had been such terrible times, then lulls, then more dark days and nights. One never knew what the next week or month might be like for him as he was afflicted with bi-polar illness, and he drank and used too much. I knew it was agony for him, felt it in his presence often, and also was relieved and glad to see him at family gatherings despite–or because–I knew how he felt. As he struggled, I’d ask myself what more could I do, what more could be done. We all did. He asked, too. The truth was something else, that he was in many ways preparing to be done here.

And yet. I still wish profoundly that it had been so different. It is a time that stays with me: that brilliant flame which was put out, in the night or very early morning as he chose to be no more. It has left a part of me where the lifesaving power of art and the potency of hope and strange and unkind designs of life can collide and hurt, then entwine, wrap around my heart with a long soft rope, squeezing my center until I weep. Until slowly, again, I know it must be alright; he is where he is and not screaming out, not even alone.

I tell myself as I often do: God knows everything, God recreates and loves us here and thereafter, we are made of and bound to and freed by such Love. This I am certain about though I cannot explain it even when it seems absurd.

I start the car yet sit with forehead on the steering wheel as my throat closes. I open a window. Breathe as tears blur vision a moment. They recede as Reid moves through my mind, through the foggy, wet day, toward a gentler dusk. I put the car in reverse, drive to the coffee shop. Singing a song to myself as I drive, “The Wexford Carol”, which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma and Alison Kraus and which I heard again recently. It soothes me, releases sorrow, lets in more gratitude.

The coffee shop is packed with couples and teens, friends gabbing, single folks absorbed in their computers. As I sit on a stool and look out the window, I feel okay, even better, and sip my mocha as I nibble a warm slice of banana bread. I get a text from my husband. He is in Houston, between flights on his way back from Mexico after a 9 day business trip. He is tired, will be late getting in. I tell him about the cellist whose music and banter delighted, a used bookstore I visited, the warm ambiance of the neighborhood coffee shop, and how I have missed him. And he texts me back exactly what is needed: “I can’t wait to come home. I love you.”

Wednesday Words/Fiction: The Messy Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t like they were meeting royalty. Teddy told Lola to stop fussing in front of the bathroom mirror and “let’s get on with it, you’re clean and combed” and he was barely 9 years old, too smart for his own good. He had little patience with his sister’s (15 years old last week) rituals and wished fervently for a brother before another year passed. Fat chance, the odds seemed against it. If anyone else got born, it’d more likely be a she; there were more girls than guys in their line up.

Mother got as done up as she’d ever get and was waiting downstairs. Dad was likely checking his bristly mustache a last time in the round flower etched mirror, standing too close to their mom. Lola could hear her from the bathroom: “Hands to self, now, Art”, when likely all he did was put arms around her for a quick squeeze. Lola once thought she and Teddy must have been adopted; Mother was not the cushy sweetie type. She was a supervisor at a huge shoe factory. Dad was a freelance cartoonist for various periodicals and a singing waiter on week-ends at Cutter’s Steak and Seafood. What did they expect when they met? Everything was a joke waiting to happen for Dad; she obviously went along with it for the long haul.

“She’s going to give me the ole one-two boot one of these days, kids,” he’d say with a mock sad face. “Those big ugly ones right out of Brown’s Shoe factory.” He nudged them toward a hardee har har and they’d exit the room.

Luckily, his cartoons were much better–few words, great drawings. Mother admired him for his talents, as he did hers. And he was a good father.

Lola pressed down her springy waves and surmised her reflection. Her best navy sweater and the ugly gray polyester ankle pants and flats that pinched her left big toe–for what?

This day came about because Dad had been claimed and called upon by Madeleine Taylor Froheimer, apparently his lost great-aunt. There had been stories abut her, how she’d run away from home at 17 to marry some bigwig she’d met at the cafe where she’d worked. It was a scandal; the guy was 28, already a successful businessman. They married, to everyone’s surprise, and moved to Chicago, which was a long away away from Missouri in everyone’s small minds. Madeleine did not keep in touch after she was disowned. She lived one life and the rest of the family lived another–everyone was poor to improving yearly to modestly secure. (Lola guessed they fit in the last category though they still rented–a nice enough–duplex on Gorman Street.)

Three years ago Madeleine’s husband died, likely due to complicated, long nights and rich dinners out and the stress of being so important. Then she came back to the hometown to see if anyone was still around and maybe considered her family. Not many were around, and those that were, were unimpressed now, or plain put off–did she offer them money all those years they were sweating the bills, did she send them holiday goodies or fruit baskets when in the hospital? No. Did they care if she was home again? Please.

But she located Art Taylor, her great nephew. Or, rather, she was in line behind him at the old corner pharmacy, a nostalgic gesture since she didn’t live in that area, anymore. When his name was called, she fluttered inside and out with astonishment, relief and a surge of nerves. Arthur Taylor. Her brother’s son’s son….was that right?…Yes. Her brother who stopped speaking to her, so disgusted was he that she eloped with an older man, a total stranger. She’d heard he got a job in Fort Worth and was nearing retirement. Not much chance of seeing him in Missouri or elsewhere.

But Arthur, maybe.

She tugged at his sleeve gently. He half-turned, a quizzical look on his craggy face.

She ventured forth, sonorous voice floating to him. “Arthur Taylor…that was my great nephew’s name…!”

A few customers looked her over well, then him. She wore a dark fur of some sort, nylons, a deep pink dress, black heels. He smiled, stood taller, then held up a finger. Frowning slightly–was she for real?– he got his medicine. Heart stuff, she recognized it, the Taylor family curse. She was next in line–antacid pills– so he took a seat in a plastic chair along the wall. Looked up at her dumbfounded. 

As they walked down an aisle together, she updated him. briefly.

“Well, I already heard,” he said amiably, mustache twitching in agreement. “Sorry for your loss. Mom mentioned it.”

“Did she snarl about it? Or refuse to say my name?”

He laughed. She had, in fact, snarled about it. She wasn’t interested in meeting “low-down, snooty Maddie”–but, then, his mom wasn’t interested in much but crocheting, eating, and gossiping about her senior housing cohorts. He wasn’t close to her. But Art was excited to meet up with this great aunt. His whole family then was invited to her condo on the river the following week-end. “Like a pre-holiday ice-breaker,” she had said which he didn’t get, but why not go?

“Oh, I was going to ask about your father, my nephew… he’s still around, I presume–how can I reach him?” she inquired as they parted.

“He’s about three hours from here now. Good luck, he’s been drinking lately.”

She softly grunted; it was clearly not news.

The next Saturday afternoon Lola, and her brother and parents spruced up and piled into the van just as a cold rain was dumped. Art knew Alison, his wife, was agreeing to go out of respect for family ties; she wasn’t a social person, really. Teddy and Lila were more than curious. Great-Aunt Maddie was almost famous in the family. And rich, maybe.

The condo was a contemporary behemoth that seemed more like a penthouse snug upside a few others overlooking the river, near the aging, status-soaked marina. Art recalled when several creaking houseboats and docks had been relocated and ostentatious condos were erected; there was public outcry but no matter, they were built. And here he was setting foot in them.

“Fifteen stories up and a rooftop garden,” Teddy whispered as they rode a partly glass elevator. “I read up on it. Only one other condo other side of the building up here. And she has the views! Might be a penthouse?”

Lola was also fully taken by them as they ascended. How far the gaze could penetrate the misty treeline and beyond. It made her feel like she was in a different country. She wondered if they could see to Illinois from the top. She wondered if she could take off her flats upon entry, and planned a decent selfie from the topmost floor. She shook off the rain before her dad rang the doorbell which sounded like deep chimes, a European church chiming, maybe.

“Welcome!”

Great-Aunt Maddie, elegant in a silky persimmon and lemon paisley caftan (Lola described it thus to her best friend) and her silver hair in a tidy chignon, opened the door immediately to shake everyone’s hand. Hers were surprisingly warm and strong. Her small feet wore gold slippers and she slid over the wood floors after taking their coats and hanging them on a brass coat stand. They were led to the long, open and bright living room. The rain did nothing to take away from the flooding of light. The ceilings went on forever. The rooms could hold hundreds, she imagined. Teddy elbowed her and they smiled.

Their dad had been stopped by the art work hanging in the grey ceramic tiled foyer, but caught up. He would rather just wander about looking at her art pieces than chat but sat himself beside Alison, his kids at either end. Teddy, though, required stern coaxing to peel himself from the west wall of windows.

“Sunsets must be incredible,” Teddy mumbled.

Maddie laughed. “They are! You must come back for a viewing if you are so inclined. Now tell me who you are and and something about yourselves. I have coffee brewing and will bring out cakes in a bit.”

The air smelled sumptuous Lola thought, and then, pleased with her pick of adjective, thought of waves of satin that smelled of coffee. It was that kind of air in there.

Who says if you are so inclined, Alison wondered as she smiled at her son’s observation. Who asks for personal information when you first meet?

“Well, you met me,” Art offered. “I do cartoons that help me make a pretty decent living. And I sing.”

“I’ve seen a few. Amusing and canny, and you’re very skilled at drawing!” She beamed at him. “I like to draw but only for myself. And you sing? What sort of singing?”

His family looked at him and back at Maddie. She had classical music turned low on stereo system.

“Popular music,” he said, “old big band standards, some lighter, more recent fare…well, eighties and nineties. I like some opera but am not good at even at pretending I can sing that. I tried it at home once and everyone banged on the bathroom door until I gave it up. My audience prefers the standards.”

“He sings at a restaurant, he’s a waiter on week-ends, and sings as he delivers orders,” Teddy offered, a hand gesturing dismissively. “A steak and seafood joint.”

“But it’s a nice place,” Alison said, throwing Teddy a warning look. “He has a good solid baritone, so they say. I know I like it.” She patted Art’s knee.

“I think that’s lovely–an artist and musician in the family. I’ll come hear you at–“

“Cutter’s, it’s called,” Lola said. “The songs get boring but no one asks him to stop, a good sign.”

Maddie gave up a light laugh. “And so–you are…?”

“Lola Lee Taylor, 15, tenth grade, and I like creating collages out of odds and ends and playing basketball. I can cook, I guess, if you like Italian food and certain cookies. And this is my brother.” She pointed at him and thought too late, never polite to point.

“Sounds promising. Fun. I do like Italian. And cookies.” Maddie leaned forward, hands clasped and in her lap. Her caftan rustled softly. Lola noticed that her earrings were gold, hung with tiny bells that swished and jingled.

“I can speak for myself. Teddy Taylor here.” He raised his hand as if being counted as present. “I think Theo sounds better–at least when I’m older. That’s short for Theodore. I am into bugs and chemical reactions. I prefer spring, summer and fall to winter because I’m all about being in the field.”

“He means literally,” Lola interjected. “He takes his insect collecting stuff out every spare hour and brings back exotic, odd stuff. Dissects bug wings and things. A bit strange, I guess, but generally alright for a little brother.” Was that an unsolicited defense of him? Lola blinked.

Art said proudly, “An aspiring scientist. And an athlete and collage artist. We have good kids.”

Alison was studying Maddie’s feet as slyly as possible. She’d secretly wished for gold shoes when she was a kid: utterly impractical, beautiful, just made for leisure or parties.

Maddie got up. “The coffee must be done. Water or pop or iced tea for you kids?”

“Sweet tea with ice, please,” Teddy answered.

“I’d love coffee with cream and sugar,” Lola said.

Her mother was about to deny her but her dad stopped that with a hand on her forearm and winked. Alison could not resist his winks.

“Can I help?” Alison said, but Lola got up first even though the answer from the kitchen around a corner was a negative.

It was all white, spotless, sparkling. Even cupboards, with brass pulls. Copper pans hung above the stove top. The deep counter tops were white with a golden flecks. Pendulous lights dangled from the high ceiling, shedding a warm glow–were there any other sorts of ceilings and light in this place? There was a skylight, even, and rain drummed on it, rhythmical and silvery and sheer.

Maddie held out an oval shiny tray of perfect, one-bite cakes, colorful in a muted way.

“Petit fours–do you know of them?” Maddie said.

“Only what I’ve seen in magazines. I always wondered how you made these!”

“Me, too!” She grinned. “These are from a bakery downtown. I don’t cook much or well. I might need lessons.”

“I’ll teach you…well, I could that is if you– I mean…” This woman probably had chefs come in, that’s why she didn’t now how to cook.

Maddie looked at her with a friendly, appraising gaze. “I bet you could. I just might take you up on that, Lola. Especially cookie baking–haven’t done that since I was a teenager. How I miss making cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas…I’ll get coffee cups filled, then you can come back to help me, okay?”

Lola did as told, came back and retrieved a black lacquered tray with three cups and a tall blue glass of iced tea. Maddie had the tray with cream and sugar and spoons. She set it down and they both served each person.

Alison watched all this with chin hanging. Since when did Lola offer to do anything much serve people? But it was good, it was polite and well done. She was impressed. But Maddie was a definitely too high brow for them. And Alison’s pantyhose were tight and itchy, her feet tired out by the heels.

After they’d sipped and enjoyed the rich tasty cakes, and oohed and aahed over more views, Maddie resumed the intros.

“Alison, could you share some of what you do or like? You have to be a patient, fun-loving person to be with Art–he is a bit, well arty, I gather?”

They got a kick out of that. Alison let out a long breath and jumped in.

“Not sure about being a fun person, but I supervise at Brown Shoe Company. Have been there eighteen years now. I hope to make manager soon; I like being a leader, working with a team.”

“That’s interesting, a long career there. What do you enjoy outside of work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked over at her family members. “I like to read. Thrillers and mysteries. I like suspense movies. I try to take good care of my family.”

“You like to go on long bike rides, Mom, you have endurance,” Teddy said.

“You love gardening our little plot, too,” Art noted.

Lola thought about it a moment. “You make pretty Christmas ornaments–I know Dad helps with design–each year.” She smiled at her mother, then Maddie. “She started on some last week after Thanksgiving, the best yet.” And she realized it was true and that she loved seeing them on the tree.

Alison’s cheeks grew warm; she looked down with a smile.

Maddie sat across from them in her favorite velvet wing-back chair and felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile: delight. She liked these people. She liked them much more than she even dared hope.

“All admirable.” She put her coffee cup on a side lamp table. “My turn, right? You know I left home young, ran away with a business man who was over ten years my senior. I had an adventurous streak. My family and friends said I was wild but I wasn’t all that. I just needed something other than what they did. Marty and I shared an instant passion and I thought it was love, would have followed him anywhere. Chicago seemed far away and he had money, enough to show me a different life than the hard one I’d had with an alcoholic father and withdrawn mother. Martin Froheimer was a stern, very smart man who let me see his gentler, romantic side. We had quite the social life, lovely homes, traveled. But he was gone often on business. It got lonely, I can tell you. And as time went on he got more stern–ornery, to be honest, and then a bit mean…Anyway. That’s how things went.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, smoothed back lustrous hair, rested her thin hands on the arms of the chair and sank back. The family waited, surprised at her frankness. Alison looked away, a little embarrassed at Maddie’s self-disclosure but Art sat up, attuned to undercurrents of sadness. Pain not openly admitted before and there it was, popping out now.

“We talked of divorce, but decided to put it off for our daughter’s sake. Then he got sick. Pancreatic cancer. And he died shortly after.” She sat up again and stared out the wide windows, lifted her head. “That was two years ago. I needed a change. So here I am–for now, anyway. Lizzie, our daughter, lives in Amsterdam. We will see.”

“Wow,” Lola said. “That’s a lot. Maybe you can rest up here.”

Teddy squinted at the aging woman. “Yeah. Good you moved.”

“Well, Great-Aunt Maddie…I–“

“Please, just Maddie will be fine. I feel less aged than that.”

“Well, I sure am glad you ran into me. I wondered if maybe you’d like to come by our place for dinner soon.”

Alison shifted. “Or we could take you out.”

“I’d like that–dinner at your home. I was hoping we’d get on alright. And I feel that we really will. All this–“she opened her arms to indicate the finely appointed rooms–“is just this, but I’m only Maddie, you great-aunt, you’ll see.” Her amused smile warmed them.

They paused at that thought. She was different but, then, so were they.

“I think we should all go to the Christmas Village, it’s so pretty there, especially if it snows well enough to cover buildings and pathways, ” Lola said, cheered at the memory of years prior.

“She might not like the smelly animals and paths that get muddy,” Teddy muttered.

“Of course she will,” Art enthused. What was not to like about the corny, lovely Christmas Village?

Maddie felt the steamy heat of tears behind each eye threaten her composure and she blinked them away. They barely knew one another, even if it was off to a good start. She was certainly not going to ruin it with any bawling. “I’d love to go. Really. I can’t recall when I last tromped in the dirt and was around smelly animals. And a simulated village–it sounds wonderful.”

“The decorations and lighting are excellent,” Art said, encouraged.

“Festive is the word,” Teddy added as he got up to gaze at the soon-to-set sun. “A festival of Christmas!”

“We could make a day of it, have dinner after,” Lola said and went to stand by her brother, taking in the expansive view of the city and river.

Alison relaxed and gave a welcoming smile to her husband’s great-aunt. Now hers, she supposed. “Would you join us next week-end, then?”

Maddie nodded and rose. They got up and got their coats.

“Good to have you here, Maddie.” Art gave her a quick hug; she held on a moment longer, her thin arms strong about him.

On the way back down, seeing the lit up city landscape rolling, open and beautiful from their vantage point they fell silent. Teddy felt annoyed he hadn’t asked to see the rooftop garden but believed he would get to see it yet; he wondered over the insects that lived outside a luxurious condo. Lola imagined the gleaming kitchen steaming up from pasta and sausages bubbling away in savory sauce. But she didn’t get that selfie shot–yet. Alison thought how funny it was that a woman who manufactured sturdy, ordinary shoes knew someone who owned golden ones for such delicate feet–and that Maddie was likely a decent human being.

Art felt gratified that he knew the truth or at least more of it, and that he liked her a lot. It was mutual, too. They’d share this Christmas together–she wouldn’t have to be alone up there in the clouds. Then he started planning his next cartoon. It’d be about family ties. It’d be funny, of course, only more so. He might frame and give the original to her. He wouldn’t care if she put it in her bathroom or hung it outside among bushes on the rooftop–it wouldn’t be an investment like the expensive art. It was all the same to him, and a good inside joke; he’d be quite pleased that it was hung there for her.

 

Monday’s Meander: Home/Yesterday, Today

Hello readers and fellow bloggers,

I’m having some trouble preparing mind and home for Thanksgiving, although my husband, the cook, is busy with his food lists and plans–he gets absolutely gleeful about the fuss, mess and tastiness! But it is the first year for all holidays in our new place. Our dining and living rooms are smaller, the surrounds outdoors entirely different if , yes, beautiful, as well. Everyone lives farther away than before, except for one daughter and her family (including beloved 7 mos. old twins). And it will be the first year I do not have my only remaining sister much closer; she has dementia, and holes up more and more in her retirement complex. I do miss many in my family, especially those passed on as we all likely do this time of year. I think of them dearly, keep them close to heart as I recall the best times amid our family’s’ years of ups and downs.

The picture above is from 2017 around Thanksgiving– at the old place, our home of 23 years. It provided a flush of pleasant memories while looking through old photos– and I wanted to share its quiet simplicity.

Tomorrow I will have lunch with my sister. That is good. Also, I know the babies will have a blast smearing and tasting potatoes and and all for the first time! And fortunately, my oldest daughter from S. Carolina is visiting this week. She has kept me moving at a fast pace visiting people, seeing sights, shopping…it has been fun and, as usual, we will be sad to see her go at end of week. It clarifies once more that it’s people–not decor, not material treats– during holidays that matter most.

If I don’t find time to write my usual post Wednesday this week, have an embraceable sort of Thanksgiving Day. Well, just love one another if you can even if it is taxing, share moments of kindness and fun, name every thing that positively powers your life. I will be doing the same.

Blessings,

Cynthia

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Hands and Handwritten

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

Human, beautiful hands. I’ve been thinking–as I tend to do–of how they serve us, how we appreciate yet can take them for granted. How they speak for us, and all day and into night accomplish diverse tasks, with our barest cognizance.

After a few days attending art exhibits with my sculptor daughter, I have once more been in awe of a variety of beautiful, challenging works that artists create with hands, mind, heart. To draw, paint, cast in bronze, mold in clay, piece together fabrics, weave wool and naturally dye it, make a print of color and carefully determined pattern: an abundance of creativity that is accomplished by our hands. It seems honorable as well as miraculous to me. I am a woman who once painted big canvasses in college but now just draws for meditative exercise. A person who once wrote every story and poem in longhand before heading to a typewriter. A youthful cellist and harpist, a dabbler with the violin and piano. In other words, I know a bit about the essential hand, how our fingers rooted in the sturdy base of each palm inspire such possibility. A memory rises up of being a youth who broke a thumb; I gained instant insight into how requisite it is for success in simplest activities. It was hard waiting to heal.

There is a complex set of minute actions that enable writing by hand, a topic of interest for a lifetime. I love to set down ideas, feelings, lists on a clean sheet of paper–or a torn open envelope, a shred of napkin, a handy receipt. Pencils or pens, though they offer very differing experiences, are all worthy tools in my fingers and complete the goal of making seen the thought. Only a few years ago it remained imperative we master the skill of cursive as well as block printing, at least enough to communicate effectively. Increasingly it has become waylaid by use of computers even in elementary schools and certainly at home, and ubquitous cell phones.

When I returned home from our recent trip, we spent several hours with the twins. I wish I had a video of 7 month old granddaughter Alera’s hands in action. They tell such quiet, eloquent stories. I’ve been watching not only hers but Morgan’s (twin sister’s) since birth. How they first appeared in the world as curled up buds, then gradually unfurled, then bobbed about like mini-balloons given flight but nowhere to land. Then they reached erratically, mostly for bottles and faces, snagged strands of hair or fabric of shirt or blanket. They behaved as if yearning to nestle things in their fingers and palms, to hold closely. Such a marvel of mechanics and expressive potential: each finger tender, tiny but much stronger than they appeared. Before long they began to indicate a wider interest in environment and insistently grasped more objects, from a flower’s sweet petals to the calico cat’s fuzzy fur to a terry cloth bib; to Grandpa’s wiry beard, a chilled teething toy or dangling earrings. And all, of course, enters the mouth, so we have been vigilant about safety.

Although their voices are gaining range and skill and they are on the cusp of crawling, their hands so intrigue me. The first time Alera lay her hand flat against my face and briefly stroked it moved me. She has hands unlike her sister’s, whose broader palms and shorter fingers seem happy being utilitarian and so strong and bold, emphatic like the rest of her body and personality, with a musculature that is more reactive or hearty than her twin’s. Morgan is an action gal, and if she can get cranky she also has a sense of humor that swells into lots of baby gab, too. Alera is perhaps gentler, more relaxed in one’s arms, and as the world turns. Her clear eyes gaze long at her surrounds, the light and shadow; her head turns to listen intently to sounds. She seems engaged in puzzling it out, noting details. And her hands follow suit, patting and feeling her way into life.

Beginning about 2-3 months ago she began to examine and pick at a blanket tuft or manipulate a rattle, rotating it between those slender fingers, touching and turning over the shiny Celtic cross on my chain with delicacy. Morgan may be more apt to give something a yank and a toss and giggles ensue. One can’t help but guffaw with her. Alera wants to learn its surfaces, its ways. And when music plays, Alera turns her hands about and mimics mine: twist, turn, rise and fall. Each of us enjoy a bit of conducting. I think: her hands are heart-full, make graceful pictures. Morgan’s jump up and command, hold tightly. I wait to see more as each month brings changes.

How do we ever get to that point where we can tie shoes, draw a house, remove pistachios from shells, wield effectively a paring knife, play a stringed instrument, hand stitch a raw rip? What a privilege to be born with appendages that learn so fast and well to do our bidding.

The little ones are being given more “grown up” food as they take fewer bottles, and what a happy spectacle as they gingerly finger oatmeal clumps or grasp a cooked sweet potato stick or try to pinch tiniest portions of applesauce, a baby portion of dragon fruit. With two minuscule bottom teeth Alera is learning to use them to bite the goodies. Their steadying hands find their way to source of sustenance to chin and cheeks to mouth. Alera is happy to snatch bits with fingertips or open her hand to hold and squish but manages to get much of it in her mouth, trying until she does. Morgan seems a little suspicious of the odd clumps on her high chair tray so mashes more than eats for now. But they are learning as all babies do, what it takes to satisfy a growing hunger. Finger food is great, though, we all eventually agree.

My own hands have done good service thus far. Despite having Raynaud’s which leaves them chilled through under 60 degrees and fingertips that crack painfully in winter–despite this irritation, I enjoy their dexterity. I am not a fine seamstress or a miniature watercolor artist and I no longer play my cello, but I manage to get plenty done–as we all do. I appreciate hands’ skills more than some people may.

A few years ago I experienced a damaging reaction to a type of heart medicine, the statin group that so many take to lower cholesterol or fight inflammation. I found out the hard way that I am one of two percent of the population that developed serious myalagias (muscle weakness and pain). I became severely impacted regarding ordinary muscle movement, with dizziness and balance problems, memory fog with confusion and more.

It became nearly debilitating over a couple of years. I did notice my fingers not landing right often as I typed–and I’m not a great typist to start. I found when I got up fast I lost balance. My limbs felt rubbery I experienced shooting “electrical” pain all over my body. Surely it was work stress or general tiredness, I thought. When I began to walk without warning like a drunk person, could not accurately reach for and grasp items and dropped them daily, I worried and pondered the origins much more. I was becoming scared yet hid the fear and body’s errors as much as possible, calling myself a “klutz”-which I’d never been. But when I could not reliably, legibly sign my own name, alarm plus the concern of a sharp physical therapist sent me to my cardiologist. I was to stop the statin immediately; if my symptoms improved, it was the statin and that was bad but sort of fixable. But if no improvement, I likely had MS or ALS or other neurological disorder. In two weeks, to my surprise, problems slowly started to clear: it was–surprise–the statin which was to support my heart’s health. I began to be returned to myself bit by bit and after a m onth to six weeks, I felt like I hadn’t felt for a couple years: almost right and well.

I share this story as there had arrived a quiet despair that my hands could not do what they were meant to do, what I wanted them to do, what they’d accomplished perfectly with barely a thought. I was told much if not all my strength and normal movements, my sense of balance and clear mind would return. But parts of functioning have not returned to a homeostasis I enjoyed before statin use for 13 years. One is my overall hand strength and their necessary discreet movements–and more, an ability to look at a thing, reach and grasp it immediately. I knock things over as I reach and drop and break things even now, if not as much. I struggle still opening jars, once a breeze. It is discouraging sometimes.

But one thing I can do again is write out anything by hand. My signature slowly came back, with only occasional blips. But the actions writing takes sometimes create cramps in a short time. I carry on after a pause and finger stretches, and return with s relief that becomes joy.

I’ve long loved setting graphite or nib or ballpoint tip or even marker point to paper. Printing is fun; I like to experiment with different styles with that form. But there is the other experience: subtle curves and curlicues of each cursive stroke; the ease or labor of pen or pencil over smooth or textured surfaces; the manner in which letters conjure words to specifically name things or people and give form to idea and emotion—visually, one has personally rendered it! And then to consider it and commit those written words to memory.

I write; therefore, the world and I are one and more, truly present here and now: that is how I have felt even since childhood, I suspect. Language is given fuller life–and its molded beauty is so apparent– when set onto a tangible surface. It is given sharp clarity, then set free. So am I, it seems.

So signing my name, an authentic reflection of one’s identity, was part of it–but it seemed the universe opened like a fantastic lens as hand was put to paper. The beauty and relief of it felt a treasure. I’ve long known others didn’t much feel that way–most students of my generation hated learning cursive and having to write papers. But I found that artists of many sorts did. And writers, of course, as it was and is a helpful tool for creating story. Neurologically speaking, the very act of writing and the brain are natural cohorts. Language, both written and spoken words, arise from clearly sophisticated gray matter activity, though one can surprisingly be done if the other cannot be (as with some stroke victims). My statin toxicity seemed to sully general language and memory facilities as it curtailed my hand’s ability to form good letters; the brain would not listen and translate my intent. For writers who do write longhand, this is anathema. The return of that particular skill was a steady recovery.

I often attend writing workshops that require a participant to write freehand and impromptu for proscribed times. With pencil or pen preferred. Say, writing for two minutes or for ten, often using a prompt of a first sentence or a picture or a fragrance shared with the group–or just stating anything that comes to mind. This is heaven to me. I write quickly and freely, my hand barely keeping up as the wealth of language and image come forward in great bursts: I am in a whole new world right now. I also find when we read our short pieces aloud, I may not well decipher that handwriting. But the very action of longhand and its unlocked ideas–a nascent plot was received in words roaming the pages. If I had used a computer, I’d have paused as I re-read, been more distracted, gotten up and down–in part due to ways I use a keyboard versus the way I write longhand. Things occur differently, more fluidly in thinking as a line is crafted by hand. (Though I appreciate both for different virtues, and admit using my computer more for blogging thanks (?) to WordPress design.)

Writing longhand aided me at work, as well. I took notes on a yellow legal pad after the counseling sessions and liked to annotate or emphasize with various marks. In team meetings, brainstorming came readily when I could jot ideas down, doodle. Got a person-to-person problem? Detail it first on paper; consider carefully. Stumped by a client’s diagnosis? Write down current observations plus past data gained; see what rises up from the info piles.

I have a recent pen pal. Both of us came to the idea from a book group online and we decided to give it a go. I’m not sure yet if we have enough in common to strike up a decent postal friendship, but I do get a kick out of writing the letters and cards. (I had a pen pal as a kid; he lived in Japan.) I well consider my words as I go, and keep it pleasantly legible. I like seeing her personality in her handwritten replies.It is a pleasure to receive an envelope with my name and address carefully noted on its smooth front, stamp neatly placed in corner. Someone took the time; it got to me via human hands in many places.

I’m the type who buys cards all year long, blank ones with unusual, colorful, funny or skilled art on the front. I love making an effort to sit down with soft blue, indigo or black ink-filled pens (color matters to me) and communicating with another. I anticipate how they’ll see it amid bills and junk mail and then be surprised, take time to read it, look at the art and set it on a bookshelf or lamp table if they truly like it. Which I have been told is done. My friends and family expect this of me sooner or later, often for no reason at all other than I’m thinking of them. I want to take the time and care. It feels a more considerate way, a civil a thing to do in our fast-moving, techno, throwaway world.

Hands at work, at rest and at play. Silent communication as they move about with potent, sometimes frantic energy; or slow, graceful expressions. (I talk with my hands so much it’s been suggested I keep them on wheel when driving. Or stop talking…but not sure I can talk without hands aflutter.) Writing, our hands begin to sculpt imaginative or solution-based plans. And there is the creation of art from a plethora of materials, giving life to a form minute, intricate, rangy or towering.There is such power to that. But we routinely use our hands to take care of business, to survive as we go about living, and how fortunate that those of us who can, do.

Meanwhile, Alera’s hands. I wonder now as I did when daughter Naomi was born and studied her translucent, teeny fingers (she was 2.5 pounds at birth): will she be an artist? A musician? Naomi (like a many others in the family) has both abilities. So maybe I have a good instinct about Alera. Then again, maybe she’ll become a master gardener, a jeweler or an oceanographer who studies dolphins–her exploratory touch accepted. Perhaps Morgan will make pottery or be a tennis player or heal the sick with her determined touch. Who knows? They both have those working, intricately arrayed hands to help guide them. And I can write about them as I choose, thanks to my heart doctor’s intervention, and to my mind’s delight.

Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

flowers-in-stone-1939(1)_jpg!HalfHD

                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archaeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for any creative types, thus our tolerance of perceived “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it slightly scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a “dirt buster” handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with unrelated objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Five fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, a very old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new white votives. A box of long matches was in a coffee can along with two overripe bananas. Books on every available spot. Dead plant–or perhaps it was just exceedingly wan, soaking up any thin rays that fell upon a wooden shelf, and next to two more that seemed much more willing to survive. Bones propped up on the next shelf between books: not quite menacing and of different sizes. Don’t ask me what, my imagination could run rampant; perhaps mementos from a student dig.

I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire or other health hazards but for some reason–intelligence, wit?–I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen a flickering glow from the sidewalk. That was always welcome to see as I trudged up the walkway.

I just backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

103713-M

Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a woolly bear caterpillar between us.

woolly111-300x197

I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

1730_Stoopendaal_Map_of_the_World - low