Wednesday's Words/Nonfiction: Who and What Goes There, and How?

.…She came into its possession without knowledge of it, the creek riffling over her feet, about her ankles as she waded out farther to meet her mother. Their baskets swung on their arms and made a good hard sound with their cargo, small rocks clicking together, blushing in the sunlight. The forest gave enough light and cover as they pressed on, backs bent more often than not. Sika dawdled , then lifted her foot enough so her pointed toes spun a watery circle over the darkening bed of stones. And then and there it showed itself.

This paragraph arrived in my consciousness in three pieces over the last three days–as well as names of more characters, not including the mother who remains nameless now, or forever. But I know what Sika found: that was the very first thing, how an image came to me so clearly it was as if I saw it up close, felt its presence on my very skin. It holds strong energy; it has not left me. Last night, late, I scribbled more of the above on a scrap. It may turn into more greater or lesser; it may even fizzle. We shall see.

But how did this all come to me? Does it even matter? Is there a best way to open up that wellspring of creative energies?

I often hear writers and others debate and share how ideas flow. Many ask: from where does “enough” inspiration arise to not only begin but to keep on? How do we keep that drive going? “Creatives” in all mediums seek inspiration as we usher into fullness of being some subject or image or hypothetical situation we find stubbornly interesting, disturbing, surprising, enthralling. We share so many sources and yet bring our individuality to each experience. The process of making something grows with us or without us entirely at the helm, but it must begin. Indeed, we welcome it with a door or more flung open.

And that is the start of it; being wide open, even vulnerable to experiences, ideas, dreams and visions, to people and place. It requires attention. This requires willingness to attend to what is happening all about, as well as to the insides of ourselves and others.

We can hope to know ourselves better and better as time goes on, if we maintain enough steadiness in turbulent times, can be honest and alert to the variables of our days and nights. We have an emotional barometer, and it can be well used not only for well being but for big creative output. I am, like it or not, one who can sit with the darkness, the unknown or difficult, but also be ready and able to turn on the light when the signals I experience require more information, fast action. Meaning, I am ready to be “on”, ready to face fears. I am not passive or, rather, I also perceive the waiting state of mind as receptive, awake to potential moments. I have a lifetime of being aware of activity internally and externally, sometimes out of a need to survive, but mostly out of the desire to be present in this life.

This readiness alone gives me a surplus of ideas and energies with which to work. And I suspect this is a common characteristic of creative persons. We want to know more, are willing to feel a wide spectrum of emotion, we want to seek out possibilities, solutions. And we want to participate somehow in the discovery process, even if it is making possible a basic translation of an experience. We also have an urge to “re-do”–make something more or less or different of it. And, finally, when we determine it is enough for that round, we might hope to reveal what we have made of various fragments gathered together. That basic curiosity and the urgency to engage with material of all sorts (and even other people) underlies much of our creative impulses, like a foundation for a building.

We can know our own personhood with effort and time. But can we truly know others by sheer observation and interaction? We have vivid or hazy glimpses of people and events. There are many ways in which to do this. I have a few.

The senses come first, no doubt, for most: we hear, see, smell, taste, touch. If I sit next to a stranger on a plane, for example, I likely will touch little to none; taste will not enter into the data except for how smell may trigger a subtle taste counterpart. So, then: a man’s bulk or lack of it; an odor of perspiration or cigarettes, booze or mints or cologne; the expression when he took his seat, if he gazed out the window, the focus with which studied his computer or book or did not; his clothing choice and condition; the tone and timbre of voice when speaking to a flight attendant or me, plus any automatic sounds emitted. His posture, the way he moves, gets up and down, if with consideration, stiffness of movement, or a lack of awareness of others’ personal space. And there is mood, which often can be discerned by the above observations. His body turned away from me and others, his coat pulled close about him. Or simply being still until a feeling comes about the person. We all feel some sort of energy of a person and it informs much of what we do or say. Other clues might be what he is reading if it can be glimpsed. Or if he avoids eye contact or sleeps the whole trip and loudly so. If he chats with comfortably–or better yet, shares fascinating info. If I choose to politely ignore the person after a cursory glance (on a plane, often a good idea), that’s fine. But something has registered with me.

There is an impression made, formed by all of it, and quite quickly. We make note right off, may observe more later. People offer strong impressions for me, and I take with me those I want or need to keep to consider further. Overheard conversations are like gold, as well. A writer keeps a mental catalog of emotional nuances, behaviors, speech and appearance on file. These can bring to the fore ideas for fictional renderings. But it is never boring to observe others. It might seem nosy. It is perhaps aligned with detective work, but we don’t realize we’re doing it.

Because I am a quite visual person–I think in pictures, generally; I am drawn to form, color, design, smallest details; my memory is stuffed with scenes or “movies” as I well recall what I saw (or best I can)–I gather clues and cues about life this way. I am happy with camera in hand, gravitating to this angle or that snippet of view or the thing that kid is doing with her hands or face as she walks by. These photographic slices of life are squirreled away in mind, as well. Many a visual clue leads to a short or long story, often a poem. Just one photo can do it, even a minor shot, and when I see it again, I begin to wonder. Many posts on WordPress start this way, and in workshops if I am given a picture or an object, I am off and running with an unfolding story line almost immediately.

Music can be a great trigger for language to flow meaningfully, though music reaches me at a level beyond language. It finds my soul, and I associate that intertwining less with language and more with experiences that cannot be described easily. Still, music impacts mood or clarifies thinking. It also may provide a neutral background “canvas” upon which a exchange of form and colors, scene and ambiance unfold via heart, mind and language; it can both settle and open things up. I tend to write for hours in silence but if I play any music it is classical or jazz, and quietly. No lyrics–no, not words. I supply words needed and cannot afford to be sidetracked by another person’s story when I work.

Walking and hiking are great release agents of creative flow. I have written countless poems while walking or climbing and tend to record them on my phone as I go. Perhaps it is the rhythm of legs and arms in motion. The heart pumps, purposeful feet push off the earth while also noting its vagaries, oxygen enters the blood stream differently than when sitting. I feel more alive in the wide open–even if it is city’s open spaces I traverse. I do prefer woods, mountains, rivers and ocean. It is the deep breaths of fresh air, the variety of scenes. A stirring sense of unity with all life expands and intensifies with dopamine and serotonin levels rising. And words and images come and go in my head as I move at a fast clip–or pause to observe more closely the fine, symmetrical veins of a curling leaf, the flicking plume of scurrying squirrel’s tail. I embrace God’s presence even better outdoors. I feel my humbling insignificance, but am more free. These are good things to experience for me as a writer. I would rather be a conduit for language, for story than a holding tank for my more tedious or redundant thoughts.

And yet. There is abundance right inside us. What we create comes from the reservoir of our history as well as current mode of living. We can conclude that the vast interior of our beings includes billions (depending on one’s age) of bits of information that can meld sufficiently to birth more words, images, ideas and feelings. A sentence, an idea, a paragraph or picture; a conglomeration of particles of stuff that construe a whole work, an entire story. We bring ourselves to every moment we create, within a context of countless other lives and a humongous variety of experiences. It is a treasure trove, the sprawl of humanity. All we have to do is pluck what we desire to use as it bubbles upward into our conscious view. Perhaps we may forget where the essence of that useful moment originated. Or we recall only too well. It matters less than what can be done with it anew.

Have you ever been inside a prison, talked with inmates about life, like I have? Use it. Have you ever seen hundreds of tundra swans in a muddy winter field, as I did? Use that. Have you been up most of the night crying and watched your windowpanes change from claustrophobic black to radiant silvery light and felt relief again? Use it, too. Have you loved so hard that, despite knowing it might be an error, you gave over to it, suddenly afire? Use this. Have you passed by a street youth smudged with dirt and despair, slouched on a doorstep, then quietly gave every dollar in your pocket– even though you didn’t know what the money could do? Use this. Or have you sat in the top of an old maple tree as a child and wished with every fiber you could fly beyond the houses, beyond the city, beyond ordinary times and into the universe? Into one extraordinary moment–and there it came like magic, just like that for you, inside you? That is imagination. It needs you to use it to stay alive and well.

Take out the tools of language–or art of any sort. Put them to work in the faith that something will come of the exercise.

But back to kinds of wellsprings. What to make of the times I hear a word clearly in my head and it won’t let loose? Or a heretofore unknown character walks across the stage of my mind and starts to “speak” as though in a play already made and I am the audience? What of the entire sentence or paragraph that comes to me like it floated up from the depths, as if down a long river and then it got off its little boat to visit me? Here, it says, is a small bundle of words for a bloom of a poem, a scene for a story; now take it and poke around, turn it inside out or about for a few good ways to use it. Let the language live and breathe, move and sing, unlock and awaken.

That is the Muse. That is the wonder of being possessed of the passion to create. I can be dogged by these ideas and scenes until I sit down to write. I can dream of them night and day, then find they are already transforming, often long before I put the letters to wide, white space for a landscape in the making.

But I also can sit with one hand resting on the keyboard, mind simmering with too much or mind wan and blank as the other hand pushes hair out of my eyes. And then I write something. Anything that seems an okay way to start. Then I write another few words that connect to become a sentence. I can manage this because I have done it for well over sixty years. It is the fruit of hard-won discipline as well as tremendous energy of love for Story.

So where did that first paragraph at the start of this come from, one that may be a new story? It might come from thinking of or seeing rocks my husband seeks for their uniqueness, that my son hunts for their hidden crystalline beauty and my sister roots around for, for their capacity to become animals she creates by painting them. It might come from the love for my mother and daughters. And the powers of nature at hand any time we pay heed. A wonder I feel, for living life deeply with appreciation and determination. Joy, and a willingness to see what arrives next.

What did this unknown character who claims the odd name Sika Standalone find–or what has found her? I know something, but I don’t yet know what it can mean to her greater story or to the shadowy characters nearby–Aubra Tinnert, “Mischief” Mannerlin– or to Sika’s mother, quietly bent over the darkly gleaming rocks under creek water. Why is she gathering all these? Do they need them for trade, for protection, for entry into somewhere, for an offering to–what? My curiosity will lead me on.

I don’t really write fantasy. I don’t know what this is about. But the words will take me there. Or somewhere else altogether. I know enough to trust that much. And I am compelled to stay with it, shape the rawness into something definable. I keep at it despite not making money from my efforts over decades, nor publishing a great deal. I am just a writer and thus, in cahoots with language so as to write.

Lucky me, I must add. How terribly fortunate to be possessed of such a passion as this.

Wednesday's Words/Fiction: The Meaning of Frankincense

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Hugo Fontaine snugged his violin and then his viola into their purple satin-lined cases, called out farewells to his bluegrass band’s other members and headed out the back way of the music building. It had been a good rehearsal for an upcoming wedding gig.

Though he loped along, all 6’3″ of him loose and lithe, his shoulders ached and by the end of the session, the strain got to him. He’d already spent all day at his small but rising gallery, working on an exhibition. The ceramic sculptures were heavy and pedestals had to be moved several times. Of course he might have directed his assistant, Gage, to labor for him but this was a winning show of an old friend’s work. It had to be fresh, right. Marie and he went way back to childhood. They sometimes had thought they should be together but any spark felt at 15 had long ago cooled. They trusted each other; that was a lot. At 38, he had gotten comfortable with his life. She was facing marriage number two.

He needed food but coffee aroma on the breeze struck his nostrils and he crossed the street to Duchamp’s Sip and Dip. It was one of the few places in New York where people could be found to speak French, the owner being French-born, but oddly Hugo seldom did. He had worked a long time to develop a passable American accent. This possibility had disturbed his father when Hugo left Montreal at 22 to complete his Masters degree at NYU, but it had only further propelled him to leave his past behind.

He pushed open the door and found himself enveloped in sharp and sweet odors, voices amiably swirling about as people sipped drinks and dipped biscotti and other baked treats in the mugs. It was warm shelter within a megalopolis rife with traffic, smog, people and many fascinating options. he relaxed.

“Mon ami! Monsieur Fontaine!” The barista, busy steaming milk, bathed him in a brilliant smile him.

He nodded at her and smiled politely. She always was thrilled to see him, and knew he spoke French fluently so tried to engage him. Much too young, flirtatious and deferential, Hugo appreciated that she was a good barista and liked his music (she had been at an event they’d played) but kept his distance. Okay, he knew he was good looking–this had been hammered into him since childhood–but he was shy by nature, not self-impressed.

Hugo’s order given, he moved to a corner near the entrance and waited. His ears were filled with nearby French conversations and he let them come and go in his mind, not interested in eavesdropping then. The violins pulled at his shoulders so he set them on an tiny empty table and sat on chair’s edge, anxious to go home. His hands pressed lightly on closed eyes; his breathing calmed. The opening was soon, the wedding performance was shortly after, and he was supposed to go to Montreal for his mother’s 68th birthday in about a week. He tallied up his tasks and slumped back into the chair, vision unfocused on the black and white tile floor.

And then it hit him: frankincense. He’d know it anywhere. Nose lifted, his body almost rose, too, as eyes searched. That spicy, woody, lemony, amber-toned ,smokey scent, those layers of tantalizing notes–they always got to him but seldom was found this pure. It reminded him of a specific, expensive perfume his father’s parfumerie carried–what was its name? He was instantly back in the store his family had owned for three generations. He had left; his sister had taken his place by their father. But he still respected and loved the art and science of making perfume, and sharing its beauty. Frankincense had become a favorite scent, mysterious, luxuriant, primal while spiritual: powerful scent of sap of the Boswellia sacra had been important for centuries, and still used in a myriad of ways.

Rarefied majesty of a scent, a natural perfection alone yet a greatly flexible note when blended with others, his father always said. And Hugo, often at odds with him (more so since choosing his own path), agreed on that.

He didn’t have to look far to find the carrier of the scent. She was a few feet away, shifting from one foot to another as she studied the hand painted menu board of offerings. Her dark hair was pulled into a sleek long ponytail so that her pale, prominent features and high forehead were exposed. A beige woolen cape encased her sturdy frame and she held red gloves in one hand. He inhaled deeply, then closed his eyes. His cares began to melt away. But his name was called and he stood.

Was the woman speaking French? No, it was the barista again, clumsily working over the language with another victim in line. The frankincense lady was heading toward back of the shop. Hugo slung one violin case with a shoulder strap over his shoulder, took his coffee in its “to-go” cup, then hesitated. He wanted to ask her what it was she wore. But one doesn’t just saunter up to a strange woman and speak what sounds like a very lame come-on line. Did he dare do it? His pointed awareness of her perfume might seem odd. He took a few steps when she appeared to look his way, and their eyes then met.

She smiled a brief lopsided smile and looked at her cell phone, then glanced up again as he stood, uncertain. He closed the gap and found himself before her.

“Forgive me–but my family owns a parfumerie. I know that fragrance but can’t name it.”

She frowned as she bit her lower lip and he felt it best to go so turned around.

“Black Tourmaline.”

She said it quietly, as if reluctant to reveal it. Hugo turned back around. It was a cloud he stood within, invisible yet dense, light and dark, rich and deep. He was beginning to feel better by the moment, if awkward. But that wasn’t it, not the perfume he thought he knew but since she had answered, he reciprocated.

“Ah. So many perfumes! It is hard to identify them, even with strong notes as this. This is not one I recall. But then, I don’t pay attention usually, it’s just frankincense, it is so distinctive, of course….very nice…”

He felt heat in his cheeks as he fumbled for a more specific response. Had he forgotten everything his father taught him, then? The perfume he once knew so well had evaporated from his memory, in any case. This was ridiculous, it was only fragrance, what else could he say? He gripped the handle on his instrument case, shifted the other violin case, prepared to go.

The woman nibbled on her biscotti and stared at his hands. “Two violins? You are ambidextrous to the extreme?”

He was baffled by her words, then exhaled in a nervous laugh, relieved to move on. Which he needed to do now. He bent to extend his hand; he was not an oaf, he knew how to be courteous if nothing else and better now than not at all.

“Hugo Fontaine. Yes, a violinist–and violist–more bluegrass than classical.”

“Gina Corelli.”

“You’re kidding–Corelli? As in Arcangelo Corelli, Italian violinist and Baroque composer?”

“Right. Not kidding. No relation that I know, but I have never researched my genealogy. I am not that interested, it might set up expectations!” She laughed, too, but softly, and indicated a chair. “Have a seat, Hugo?”

“Well, I need to get back to my gallery. There’s a big show coming up, but–” She was wearing frankincense, she knew something of music, perhaps, there was an empty seat. An invitation. He looked at his watch and sat.

Seated, he could see crinkling blue eyes and that dark mane of hair– it had a startling effect. She might pass him by any time and he wouldn’t notice her–the quietness of her bearing, bland paleness. A sort of gentle yet strong kind of loveliness that melded into anywhere, anytime…. He lifted his coffee and drank deeply as she eyes scanned his face. Bold despite her calm energy, he thought, but he could not stop looking at her, either. He inhaled her perfume without ceremony, fell under its spell. Perhaps she was used to this, men asking to speak with her, men following her down the street and her waving them off or more. It was her fragrance…or was it her?

As if reading his thoughts, she said, “Most people can’t always place the frankincense; they don’t always like it. It has a headiness, right? But more. I’ve worn it a couple of years and nothing else feels right somehow. It has a soothing effect though it perks up my senses. Maybe that is logical since it is your family’s business…In New York?”

“Montreal. But I live here, have since university. Yes, I get that.”

“Born and raised here, myself. That must have been interesting, perfume and Montreal.”

He shrugged. It sounded exotic but it was just his growing up life, as hers was New York, which seemed better to him. Freer, more cosmopolitan, energizing.

“You play something, also?” He suspected she might, knowing about violins and ambidexterity. Corelli.

She shrugged as if it was irrelevant. “I have. Oboe. Flute. I’m in the publishing business now. Educational materials publishing. Not so wonderful as an art gallery owner.” She took another drink and nibble. “What sort of art?”

His phone rang with a Mark O’Connor Band song, “Coming Home”. He was about to ignore it when he saw it was from Gage.

“I’m sorry, Gina, I have to get this. Maybe we’ll run into each other again sometime?”

“Sure, maybe!”

Her gaze followed him as he wove through the tables and lines. Then she pulled a slim book from her leather bag, opened it, smoothed the pages, at once lost in the tender words. “If when you rise in the blue and green mists of woods at dawn, go farther, seek the meadows and willows by running waters, forego the spell of sleep, of cares…”

He got up and took off with his instruments. But as he hailed a taxi, then arrived at the gallery and started back to work, the few facts he had accompanied him like a vapor, hanging on into night and the next days: Gina, frankincense, flute, blue eyes, dark hair, beige cape, good energy.

And then it got busier and he tied to push such nonsense aside.

******

“What are you doing with that?” Marie asked an hour before the opening of her show. “I thought it was to be in the center of the room!”

It was a mammoth piece, a curvaceous, green-glazed form, one Hugo privately thought of a part octopus, part sea siren. He may have been right but they rarely discussed what her work meant or might represent. Every artists had their own intentions but it was up to the viewers to ascribe meaning. He loved it, but he liked the smaller trio of pieces in the center better and so had moved it without consent.

He put a hand on her shoulder. “But see how these complement the space and lighting so well?A sort of relief after the opening genius of the big piece.”

“Oh, really Hugo, the lighting can be altered, the space is so large and it isn’t what we decided.” She looked at it all, crossed her arms, tapped her foot.

“It’s now stationed by the window, near the door, a draw for passersby and a very good spot overall.”

“It’s the draw of people off the street you think best, really!” She walked around the room and inspected once again.

“Not a bad thing,” Gage said under his breath. “The piece looks wonderful there. She might sell it….”

“Oh, well, opening night nerves,” Hugo reminded.

The food and table with colorful candles set into her ceramic holders were being readied by the caterer. They were all dressed and ready. Hugo poured wine for each; they drank quite indelicately. It wasn’t easy, running a gallery, supporting artists’ desires and hoping for a good profit. Marie knew all that. Her work was selling well now, in fact. It was as much for his Fontaine Contemporary Arts that she was showing there. Though he was rising closer to the top of the list, himself, the last five years.

Gina, frankincense, flute. He shook his head and drank again. He had manged to shut off the repetitive musings, mostly, the past few days, but it was like a song repeating ad infinitum.

“Hugo? Did you hear me? The pedestal on the east side needs adjusting, can you help me?”

Gage snapped his fingers near his right ear and Hugo came back to the present, growling a bit at his assistant.

“Stop that.”

“What is it with you lately?”

“I have wondered the same, maybe you need time off, head to the Bahamas of something,” Marie said and dusted her sculptures lightly with a batik napkin taken from the table.

“Or Montreal…” Gage suggested, bravely. He well knew that Hugo did not want to go to his hometown next week. Not only was he busy with more shows coming up but his father wasn’t lately well and his mother was feeling anxious. His sister seemed more in charge. She had demanded he come.

Hugo shot him a warning look. He did not want to think of all that, though he did suspect there’d be good moments to share, as well as stressful times with his father. There usually were, even with his mother’s constant refrain: why was he insisting on staying single? Now he had to worry about their aging.

The time came to unlock the doors and begin the formal opening of Marie Werther’s show. People began to fill the doorway; they were keen to see her imaginative ceramic works and he hoped, too, they wanted to own some. It was fine art but it was business, after all.

Outside, glancing in the window as she slowly passed was a woman in a voluminous cape, dark hair flying about her face, hands snugly gloved in red leather. She paused to get a closer look at the work, then searched the crowd, palms pressed against the glass a moment. There. Hugo stood among admirers, goblet in hand, chatting away. His eyes swept over the large gallery spaces and afraid he might see her, she hurried on. She could not go in. That was too close to a sort of stalking, wasn’t it? Yet, she had looked him up and found out about Fontaine Contemporary Arts. She had wondered about him enough that she felt she had to see if it was all real– the person, the place. Now she knew more. His family had long been perfumers, Hugo was from Montreal.

Hugo took a break from chatting. He could have sworn he saw her. Gina. She was a shadowy figure passing by, beyond his bright windows, so he rushed to the front and peered into dark of night. Snow was starting to drift down, glistening in streetlamp and headlights light, and people hurried on their way. He stepped into the fall of soft flakes, and almost believed her perfume settled about him, warming him in the icy air. He took in a long breath of tingling air. But she was not there, just–surprisingly, strangely–stuck in the depths of mind.

Somewhere in that city she was living a whole life. And he was not in it.

******

The wedding reception was generously festooned with blue and white flowers, a pair of doves in one gilded cage and bluebirds in another (Hugo worried they’d be let out, he didn’t care for birds swooping onto his head), hangings of silvery tulle and white satin (he was told), and tons of food, fried chicken being a primary choice. The guests were festive, the bride and groom were well on their way to married bliss after several rounds of drinks. It was a pretentious-leaning yet earthy affair and the band, Down Home Times, was playing hot and happy. He could play these tunes with little thought, and yet he appreciated every crowd’s dancing and cheering. It paid okay, but it was his main outlet for fun. He’d veered onto a different musical road as a teen when leaving classical training, but this gave him a different– more satisfying–thrill. And it was with relief that his parents liked it when they’d heard his first set on stage at 18.

At a break between his current sets, he and the guys usually went outside, some for a smoke, some for the relief of open air. Hugo was the last one to the door when he heard a voice behind him.

“Hello.”

He stopped to look over his shoulder, expecting a bluegrass admirer but there: the frankincense, spicy-citrus-amber-smokey-woods suffusing his nostrils, altering his state of mind, bringing him to a full stop.

Gina.

She stood before him with a tentative smile, bright eyes. “I know the bride, but her cousin much better so I tagged along for the night. I did not know it was going to be you up there, I swear. A shock, I have to say.”

“No way.” He offered his hand and she took it a moment, warmth against warmth.

“I knew of your bluegrass interest, and it was on your gallery site. Yes, I found that. I looked up a bit more. But I didn’t know you were playing here until I arrived.”

“Well, then.” He ruffled his sweaty hair and looked away. “Too much. In New York, this is a wedding you just came to, out of nowhere–too weird.”

“I know…kind of different, I agree.”

“Wait, you are here with out an escort?”

“Male? No, no date!” She chortled. “Just the bride’s cousin.”

“Do you want a drink?”

“No, I’m not such a drinker. I just wanted to say hello once more. “

“I’m getting water, I need hydration right now. Coming?”

So they got his water and talked a bit, her about work, how she needed a vacation, it had bogged her down all that fine print, boring statistics. She did not plan on taking his time up when he asked if she wanted to come by the gallery on her lunch hour sometime.

“I’ve been.”

He wanted to be cool, but his mouth fell open a bit. “It was you, then, during the opening of Marie’s exhibit–you walked by the gallery and I went outdoors to find you.”

“Yes. You did that? I didn’t expect you to see me, that wasn’t the plan. I was trying to slip by.” She put her hand on his forearm. They sat with her fingers firm but careful on his shirt sleeve, skin under the fabric tingling where those fingertips lay.

He shook his head. “None of this was the plan. But I keep thinking about you, anyway.”

“Yes. Me, too–you.”

His bandmates were jogging up the stage steps. Hugo jumped up to join them.

“Don’t move too far. Please.”

“Not likely, this has gotten interesting!”

And she laughed, head tilted so that he could see the silver of a filling and her hair bounce and gleam. He thought how wonderful it was to see her, to smell her, to talk a bit with her, and then he took a giant leap. He was embedded with her presence already and so far there was no serious resistance. He was going with it.

“Want to go to Montreal with me next week-end, by any chance? My mother turns 68 and I must attend the family party.” He made a mock-sad face and then left her there.

Hugo picked up his violin and put bow to strings, tapped his foot with the stand up bass rhythm line, dove right into the music. After a few bars the intoxicating Gina Corelli moved up to the stage and raised both arms, gave him two thumbs up. He sure hoped one of those was for a madcap trip to his hometown. He thought it likely. With frankincense in the mix, anything seemed possible to him, as it had for people all through time.

Wednesday's Words on Thursday/Nonfiction: What's New, What's Not?

I’ve not gotten far on contemplating this new decade. In fact, I am barely attuned to the idea of a brand new year. I try to get serious and come up with clear goals, those things good for you like kale, but my notepad remains empty beneath the brief heralding of 2020. Maybe it is my age–is passing of time more irrelevant than it was at 20, 30 40 and so on? Some say more important but it does speed by, then slow down, even pause a split second or two–all as though I’m captive in an oddly edited video. Naturally, I see the past/present/future linked and pertinent to anyone’s identity. It just doesn’t seem as confining to me as it did when younger.

I was thinking, for example, about a class in film making and photography that I took at age 19…50 years ago …and I still want to take a class on film making and 35 mm photography. It was thrilling, that dark room. It would be a different course now but the spring of creative energy and intellectual passion are not less than before. I have plenty I’d love to do–and maybe I will get it done, and maybe I won’t. It was the same back then. But nothing so critical as back then hinges on my decision, only whether or not I fulfill my own desires. That was not the case in 1970, all life met head on with a restless, at times painful urgency, an inbred hunger for perfection, my intense dreams replete with plans for two or three Great Things before the next decade roared in. God forbid that I Not Accomplish Much. I can’t say I did by some standards, but there were other matters of importance, human life being surprising as it is.

Some things came to be, then, some did not come to be. Now I plan less, live more, much oftener in good ease. More spontaneously. I have my calendar with instructive and colorful notations on it already, conspicuously hung. But I know anything is likely to change. I don’t have the power to keep the unexpected from occurring, after all. I can shape my personal time, perhaps some space and events therein, but I cannot perform omnipotent acts.

My life is now in part reflective of the photo shared above. Gathered together: newer and older, inherited and intentionally acquired, chipped but functional, and lovely if spare, open to possibilities and accompanied by light and shadow, comforts of written and spoken language and, though you cannot hear it, music. In this case (from a genre termed “light classical” on TV’s “Music Choice”), a piano sonata by Mozart. I can feast on silence but music suits me more as perpetual winter grayness is absorbed into everything…a humorless palette that needs tonal brightening to be appreciated.

Tea or coffee with almond milk sits close by sooner or later, and chocolate. (Food is sometimes an afterthought. Chocolate covered nuts and fruits are preferred to get a little of the food tucked in.) The chipped china cup and saucer–one more thing that got marred in the move we made, yet still good in the hand. If I am not on my feet doing this and that day into night, I am sitting with a cup or mug, writing tools, my thoughts and a soft light, a stack of books at the ready.

It is 2020, I know, yet how many things remain the same despite that change. Little seems so different from the long past. Much has advanced, self-destructed or worse, it is true. And my generation certainly protested, we marched, demanded a higher national conscience and much better quality of life–equal rights and reproductive rights, cheaper or free and much more informed, expansive education for all. And several goals were met. And also, there were so many lives lost to causes.

Still, those days, these times: the essence of who I am remains, with suitable variations. Like it is for a mature tree, the core of personhood has decades of growth rings, marks left by adaptive responses to the environment, to a myriad interconnections with others that organically or perhaps shockingly came to be. It isn’t only in ind; it is in my very cells and in my soul. We may become ourselves–show ourselves– quickly after birth, I think. But then we tune ourselves up again and again as we grow and conquer and falter, readjusting to circumstances and altering needs.

So what does 2020 mean to me in a personal sense? What is changed or is anticipated? (Note: I do think globally but don’t write strictly of politics here, and am not in the mood to write of it now despite knowing that all that happens around us impacts in some way. The world shares its energy; if the energy wave that flicks us seems small, it still is there. We cannot survive and thrive in exclusivity, despite sometimes wanting to do so.) If I consider my singular life for a moment, I may learn something new here.

First, I have actually lived to see the new decade arrive. A fortunate and necessary grace.

I can’t count on it as it is not a given. My car was totaled in an accident. It might have totaled me. But did not. My heartbeat might have taken utter leave as I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning since heart disease has nagged me 20 years. But it did not. I might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But was not. I’ve also had more stress (due to many life changes plus a health issues for Marc and me) than I can recall encountering in a very long while. But have not retreated, blithering, to the corner (at least not for long) remaining heaped in a soggy ball. And likely will not this year. I have endured harder years and known less joy by far.

Second, this April the grand-baby twins will have been here for an entire year.

Alera and Morgan were not here last January, they were wriggling and snuggling while waiting to arrive. But it was possible they may not have been able to stay there long enough as our daughter was a high risk mother with high risk babies. She’d been informed she’d likely never have children due to severe growth hormone deficiency and other hormone issues since birth. But things can change with right help. And the baby girl-people are strong, well, luminous and such fun.

Third, I am not moving this year. Change can be made to happen or not, at times, and this is not happening.

I almost argued for a change of address to save more money in the long run. But we did this move in 2019. It was taxing. Month by month it has become better for the best reasons. It has enriched my thinking and doing being out here among impressive woodlands, in a pretty place right outside Portland. Never wanted to live a suburban lifestyle, it just doesn’t hold the rhythms and textures I love. It was either city center or the country for this woman–and I’ve enjoyed both with many moves during my life, a suburban town tossed in a couple of times. But this spot has its charms, more quaint town than suburb. And we’re five minutes away from baby girls and their parents, fifteen from another daughter. I can still getto my son and sister within a half hour or less. So I am for now stuck here and starting to like it, surprise. And regarding finances: I’m deliberate with finances for the most part, and do worry about the future at 3 a.m. But some things have to be done in faith. This was one of them. There are babies right here. Much to learn and share.

Fourth, I can write more comfortably as well as edit photos better this year.

This is no small thing. I now have a new Dell Inspiron 15 5000 that I was reluctant to buy (the money thing, though on the cheaper end). But Windows 7 was not much working, anymore, and was not to be supported soon… so my limping Sony Vaio had to be sidelined. Since I am no whiz on the thing–it’s about intuition, trial and error and learning pretty fast I guess–this new machine is a godsend. It does what it is supposed to do; it displays all with orderly clarity. No more cussing at my desk every hour or more as I labor. Or push away and give up for a day. Which means my blood pressure will improve and my creative juices will rise to the occasion with far less interference. I will get more done–ah, this so relieves and heartens me! And Marc will have more peace.

Fifth, I expect to be outdoors a great deal, and not just on sidewalks or attractive balcony.

Is this different? Perhaps not. But some years it has been many city walks and parks (admittedly, still scintillating, refreshing), whereas now it is all woodsy pathways. I might find more routes in city center, though–I miss gazing at varied architecture. And I would like to hike, explore more; the beaches, forests and mountains around here are fabulous as ever. But I know this for sure: walking fixes nearly everything. Writing does the most good for me on a regular basis but walking loosens and polishes ideas as well as being more generally kind to soul and flesh. Such meanders are meant for humans to right the body, mind and spirit.

Oh, plus, I have a gym membership gratis with our housing. So: swimming, treadmill, Zumba, rowing, etc. as needed. Another good year to keep on shaping up.

Sixth, I may find myself designing houses soon. And composing music. Well, to some degree.

They are old plans of action that want to be made anew, that’s all this is. Another daughter and my son told me there are countless apps online to enable those creative forays. Who knew there were so many choices, even for free? So I have made notes and will check them out. I cannot imagine a life without creative activity, no matter my skill level. I don’t demand perfection of myself, not with these endeavors, at least. I wanted to design–and sketched quite a few, built a couple models– houses as a kid. I wrote music as a youth and even as an adult awhile. I can still do both if I want to do. So often we get in our own way. I need to get out of mine more.

And there is that art class I keep intending to take. And didn’t I mention film and photography?

You cannot ever stop learning unless you desire stagnation with resultant boredom. There is not nearly enough time to gather in wonderful bits of knowledge to peruse and use. I am as excited this year as every other year to just keep my mind a-humming with new ideas and experiences.

Seventh, my spiritual life could use more, not less. Of prayer, yes, of sacred moments. But I also just need to stay alert to the shining heart of life, to root out hidden treasures, and keep my being open to grace. The heat of passionate engagement with life’s small miracles can cool, leak away in minuscule woundings as well as grave trials. It is easy to let perplexing moments, those cruelties and hardships of my small life–not to mention those of the billions who make up humanity–transform me into a more jaded person. Or be turned into one who becomes dis-empowered. Empty and unmoved.

But I won’t have it. I wasn’t born to not pay attention. To not take action. To not embrace. To not believe in greater possibilities. We can always be more than we think, better than we imagine. We are made of cosmic stuff; we live our lives in part within realms of Spirit because we are more than flesh, blood, sinew, bone, neurological labyrinths, and our mad self will with many faulty choices. Everything in God’s creation reflects a vital complexity of the magnificent infinite story. Can we not see that for the grand good fortune it is?

I claim my part. Not vaulted, nor far-reaching in scope. But this life is mine, to use as can be of benefit as long as breath is in me. I will be celebrating 70 this spring if all goes well. I care much less than I thought, but it is quite okay with me. I mean, what’s another year? We move through time like secretly winged things, catching the updrafts where we can.

Well, I have to write when I need to understand more. Now that I have some insight, my friends, this is how I see 2020. This particular day. Maybe not tomorrow. But not so differently than before I undertook the exercise. I suspect I am fairly ready for what may come, but then again I may not be. I have been taught a bunch of things this past year and more to come. I carry a bit of goodly knowledge from many years of surviving, growing. Perhaps we don’t quite know what we are made of until we have need to know it.

I do persist in tending an intrinsic hope, despite tatters and moans. Hope for what is good for me and for you. May you each care well for your life and loved ones… and whomever and whatever else you can manage.

Wednesday's Words/Short Story: Mulligan's Resplendent Holiday Feast

Each year the building looked forward to it–that is, if they had no other pressing or thrilling plans. They checked their lobby mailboxes a week ahead, anticipating the handwritten and simply illustrated (with perhaps a snow covered pine, a blue jay atop it) invitation to a Resplendent Holiday Feast. At the bottom, under the signature of PJ Mulligan, Sr.: You are all what makes it resplendent.

Mulligan had been a banker for many years and was happily all about retirement when his wife got ill. And did not recover. This changed things in every way. He sold his lovely Colonial and hightailed it to the nearby more moderate-sized town of Goosehollow where he took the first decent apartment he could find. Everyone who knew him well expected he would buy another house, a cottage, perhaps, but no he said he was not close to ready for one last permanent dwelling. His home had been Jean and their son. Now, five years had passed and he’d started to grow moss on his heels, he said, so that was that; he dug in and made it work.

He appreciated his neighbors, most of whom had lived in Mistral Manor for a good number of years. They were a varied bunch, not at all offish as some had been in the city. If people didn’t stay they likely had no business being there in the first place. The rent was good. The upper story views, especially, were great–tidy courtyard with a fountain in the center, bustling nearby streets and a sprawling park not far. The community had become close knit without becoming suffocating. For the most part. Obviously, if you were a loner, this might not sit well. Mulligan was at first on the verge but rallied the second year and all went well after his first Resplendent Holiday Feast as cooked and shared with whomever would like to come. And about 14 came then, and finally it became a more usual 8 or so.

Marty was the first one to notice the invite hadn’t appeared in a timely fashion.

“I suspect he’s tired after his Banff vacation to see his son, Phil,” he suggested.

Carrie from across the hall nodded in agreement. “I did see the cab drop him off two nights ago. He looked the same, just fine, but that was a big trip. He’s no spring chicken.”

“Two weeks he was gone. I missed his cheery waves in the hallway. He said he wanted to ski–a bunny hill, it was too long since he last raced his way downhill. Maybe he strained something.”

Carrie noticed Marty had shaved his beard and couldn’t decide whether or not it did his roundish face any justice, so she unlocked her door and hoisted her grocery bags again. “Patience. He always has the feast.”

“But what if he doesn’t this year?”

“Then… it is what it is.” She noted his look of consternation. “No worries, Marty, all will be well.”

Marty thought Carrie was too Zen, she might show more concern, at times, but he liked chatting with her and petting her half-feral orange cat, Spicer. Maybe he was just too worried about things; his mother always said so. Marty wish he felt more secure about life. Himself.

Carrie leaned against her door after she closed it. “What if Mulligan has no feast?” she said to Spicer, who flicked his tail and ran off. The thought made her uneasy. Mulligan was a favorite of hers, not the least because he was a fine cook. He also always tipped his hat at her, whether or not he actually had one on, and asked after her and Spicer. And she also liked his vinyl collection.

Marty had nowhere to go for holidays. His parents now lived in Amsterdam, of all places, a move that had disturbed him–they’d just retired! They’d been close, hadn’t they?–and his sister, Ellie, then moved to New York City. His beloved Cecily had broken up with him the first of September. The apartment now seemed nearly unsuitable or entirely sad; it needed her arts and crafts, her laughter. But Mulligan always cheered him up, he had a knack.

“Hey Marty! No invites yet, huh?” Lance bounded up the first inside steps. He raised bushy reddish eyebrows and shifted a backpack bulging with all the unknowns he crowded into it.

“Nope. Patience, I guess, right?”

“That feast is the event of winter–other than fantastic parties for New Year’s Eve!”

“Yes, it sure is.” Marty knew Lance had lots of invites to lots of things. He didn’t care, he hung out with Gerry and Pete on New Year’s Eve at Rasputin’s Bar and Grill. But he wondered about those parties.

Lance whizzed by him, then spun around. “You find a nice new girl, yet?”

Marty stepped back, pushed a hand though his hair. “No, no–of course not.”

“Well, let me now how it goes. I’d be glad to set you up on a blind date–“

“I’m good, thanks, Lance. More or less.”

“Alrighty, chat later!” And he bounded off to his place up the next three flights of stairs. He never took the elevator.

Lance slowed down on the third floor. Pressed hand to chest. He’d been a bit out of breath lately. He wondered if his heart was going to act up again. But he felt alright. He ascended the next set of steps and thought again of Mulligan, if he was feeling alright. Good man, congenial. And a skier for decades, he just went to Banff. Maybe he should check in on the guy this week-end. That man could cook, he might have missed his calling!

Meanwhile, Harold and Tina in number 14 were busy thinking over Christmas funds and lack of money in general when their daughter, Nance, came in and slumped on the couch, coat still on, boots kicked off.

“No invitation. Doesn’t Mulligan send them out by now?”

“Well, yeah,” Tina said, “but he was just at Banff. Give him a break–he has stuff to do.”

“Like us, kiddo.” Harold punched a few keys on his old school calculator as his wife looked over her gift list, chewing her lower lip. “You okay, glad to be off school awhile?”

“Sure.”

She had had a regular boring day at school, she was so glad it was out for the holidays. She thought about the boy who always ignored her when she really wanted him to just look her way. Was that bad or good?

And Nance wished her parents would quite calling her “kiddo.” She was fourteen. She was taller by the minute, would surpass her parents. Anyway, she had a good gift for each one. In art class she’d hand built a rectangular tray, then fired it with a fancy glaze streaked gold and teal, her mother’s favorite color combo. For her dad she had made a coffee mug, earth tones.

Harold gazed at Tina with sorrow. He showed her the final numbers when she lifted her head. She shrugged one shoulder, looked down, blinked lest a tear wet her cheek. His job had been a perfect fit and for forever, until it wasn’t. It ended the night before; Nance didn’t know yet.

Tina cleared her throat, blinked. “I have to work overtime– just have Christmas Day off this year, kiddo.”

Nance frowned; her mom worked way too much, she was hardly ever home. “Yeah, okay, Ma. Dad and I can manage, and we have the Feast on Christmas Eve.”

“Hey, Nance, I wanted to talk to you. Got a minute?”

She knowingly smiled at him–it was, of course, about his gift for Ma–but he was leaning forward in his chair, hands gripping knees, glasses perched on his head giving him a serious look.

“I’ll start dinner,” Tina said and left the living room thinking about the feast, how she’d have to miss it. Thinking about her husband, knowing he’d find another job, he just would, maybe even soon.

Between fourth and fifth floor, LaDonna sat with knees pulled up to chin on the staircase landing. She moved over as Luke came by, raised a hand in greeting.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Oh, LaDonna–Owen again?…You okay?”

She waved off his concern. “Never mind. He’s sleeping it off. He has ten days off, right? So he got an early start after work today.”

He sat down, shrugging free his jacket. “I imagine he’ll be at it the whole time.”

“I never know for sure but I won’t be here all that time. I work at the salon until Monday night, so he’ll mostly have the place to himself and Mugsy. Maybe he’ll go to his brother’s and drink–they do that every chance they get.”

“How is that big lump, Mugsy? Haven’t seen him awhile– for a fat ole bulldog, he’s pretty spry. Makes me think about getting one.”

LaDonna laughed. “You’ve said that three years. You’ll never have a pet. You’re too busy entertaining audiences here and there, everywhere. Next stop, big bad city for good, you wait.’

“I’d rather have more human company.” He glanced at her, expressive eyes saying all he could not but she turned her head.

“As if you don’t have any.” Her stomach flip-flopped. “We don’t always get what we want, Luke, you know that by age 33.”

“Huh. You know my real age. Not even my agent knows that.”

She swatted his arm. “You had your thirtieth birthday bash here and I showed up for the heck of it, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Luke sighed as she moved a tiny bit from him. “Anyway, we have the feast to go to, right?” She always went, sans Owen.

“I wonder. No invitations.”

“I know, I thought it was due.”

“We should check on Mulligan, see he’s okay.”

“You always put others first, you know that?” Luke stood up, slung his jacket over his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll walk you up. I’ll check to make sure he’s actually passed out.”

“No thanks. I have a book to read. I like it fine out here.” She picked up the paperback and began to read aloud using her storybook voice. “‘It was at last snowing heavily, and tracks left by the horses were deep and sparkling on the snow-covered road. She pulled the blanket closer about her shoulders and peered into the forest and saw a flash of red wings. It was a sign.’ See?” She smiled, a weary one, he thought, but generous all the same.

“I see, catch you later, but you could charm any audience, yourself, ” Luke said and hurried up to his apartment. If only she was not staying with that lout. If only she would give him a chance. If only!

******

If he had any sense, Mulligan might have remained at Ben’s longer. It was a winter wonderland in Banff, he’d successfully skied a little, and Ben was excellent company as was Sara, his wife. They’d wanted him to stay on until after Christmas but Ben ran an inn and Sara ran a boutique; they were so jammed up this time of year. Mulligan needed to get out of their way, let them have time alone as they could.

He wished they’d have a baby, he thought dreamily as he ladled the peppery-herbed chicken noodle soup into an antique porcelain bowl. Good thing he’d frozen some of it before he’d left. Yes, a little one would do all good. They’d have to slow down. And he’d be full of so very much more.

Because lately he felt emptier than he should. The travel was not bad, the vistas breathtaking, the visit lively. The snow pack, great. But he’d watched them scurry about, so successful and energized–and he’d felt powerless somehow rather than relaxed. What did he have to do when he got home, either? Not much. Volunteer twice a month at the Red Cross. Shelve a few books at the tiny corner library as hour twice a week. Meet with chess club once a month. Have brunch with Jack and Antonia from church on occasional Sundays. But what did they talk about? He didn’t like to mention aches and pains–they did and it took up easily twenty minutes– and they read supernatural thrillers, fine, but not poetry or nonfiction on science or biographies. But they liked a game of rummy, liked good food–that was good enough.

Wasn’t it? Life was what you made of it; he knew how to do that. He generally had liked his fine, had little to complain about. Well, until Jean left him hanging here. But he’d managed. He appreciated Goosehollow, his sunny apartment, the balcony where he could see everyone coming and going. The picturesque town that looked even better over tops of trees. He’d tried his hand at poetry writing, secretly. It was an experiment and was yet to be seen if it panned out as anything other than wisps of letters and imaginings set upon paper. Sometimes he liked to fantasize: A Banker’s Treasury of Verse. Silly, he knew.

But that time had come again: Christmas. And Mulligan knew he had to get invitations sent pronto for his yearly Resplendent Holiday Feast. Yet this feeling persisted, like he was scaling a mountain some mornings as soon as his crusty eyelids slid up. He’d seen the doc and nothing was more wrong than before, which meant only that he was older and not having as much fun. He took St. John’s Wort, called it good; it maybe helped a little.

He’d loved cooking the feast, having the garrulous bunch over around sevenish, a more civilized hour to share his offerings, then they’d play cards or charades or dance to his records or just sip wine, be peaceful. Luke usually read something to them since he was an actor. His voice was resonant, his words so infused with feeling they were spellbound. Marty might sing a little. People usually moseyed out by eleven after they helped clean up.

Every other year he’d anticipated it but clearly this year not so much. He wasn’t even inspired about a menu and that was serious. If Jean was here, she’d laugh, tell him to…well, no matter, she wasn’t. He didn’t have anything to say to her, either. Not right yet. She ought to have stayed with him, oughtn’t she? The years were not kinder without her. It wasn’t her fault, nothing was anyone’s fault, he knew that. Mulligan was only feeling sour; he had to shake it off.

But how was he going to tell them to make their own big deal meal for once? Just let him be, sulk a little in solitude, doze by a fire. Forget.

******

They hunched over chipped white mugs of coffee and whined companionably. Mulligan was skipping this year’s feast, terribly sorry, he was going to stick with soup and a sandwich Christmas Eve, and please don’t worry. He liked a little time to himself, too, so everybody have a good holiday!

That little note on green paper was tacked on the community bulletin board just beyond double lobby doors.

“It sounds like a crock.”

“It scares me for some weird reason.”

“It’s just that he’s getting up there, you think? He’s way over seventy.”

“Naw, trip just tired him, maybe it wasn’t a good visit. His son is a fancy inn owner. Met him once. Nice– but you know…important.”

“Well, Mulligan isn’t so regular a person in some ways. He’s kinder. But I suggest we consider reaching out to him.” Carrie reapplied lipstick, no mirror, a dash of mauve gloss. “Well?” she said when they stared at her.

They thought her comments worthwhile. Especially when she usually was more circumspect–and cool.

“I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? I haven’t even seen him since he returned. Not that I should, but it’s been nearly three days already. He usually is out and about!” Marty said.

“True,” Lance agreed. “We should stop by, offer some help.”

“We need to consider him,” Luke agreed. “Not just us, right, LaDonna? I mean, he’s the one who’s really alone, we all have something or someone to consume time and attention. Maybe we’ve been selfish.”

LaDonna dropped two cubes of sugar into her coffee and sloshed the mug back and forth. “Yes, we need to do something for him this time.” She sat up tall, grey eyes widening and lit up, which was something considering the deepening bruise near one of them. “Potluck!”

Luke reached for her hand without thinking. Others noticed, their eyes sliding over his finely featured face and warm eyes, at her beautiful black hair, blushing cheeks. LaDonna put her hand in her lap and Luke leaned back.

“I agree. I can barely cook but I do know how to make hash and baked beans,” Marty offered.

Harold laughed. “And I can make cinnamon tea–or mocha java from an instant packet.”

Lance signaled the waitress. “Another round of the coffee pot, Jill!” He took out a little notebook and stubby pencil. “Let’s figure this out.”

******

Mulligan opened his door to a group of babbling residents. Friends, alright, they were that. He couldn’t make out a word of what hey were saying so he ushered them in. What choice was there? Probably thought he was no longer breathing. But he was; he’d eventually get over whatever this mental virus was.

He stood with arms crossed over his broad chest, feet apart but he managed to look neutral. “I have a small case of woes. I’m pooped out. You’ll have to live without the feast for just this once. Now, is that what you wanted to know before I kindly ask you to move along?”

“You’re not contagious!” Lance grinned at him. “A relief, Mulligan, I’m in training for February marathon.”

“We wondered what’s up, that’s all,” Marty said.

Carrie shook her head at Mulligan, a little frown forming. “But everyone gets a bit blue at holidays if they’re honest, some just more than others. We came to see if you need anything.”

Mulligan sat down as they stood waiting and shifting one foot to another.

“I guess I’m out of commission for once. I’m not used to giving up on anything, but seeing my son and trying to ski, then coming home to an empty apartment–well, it is sometimes enough to stall a person. I just need a break from all the gung-ho festivities.”

“You might need a dog,” Luke said. “I might. Despite the applause I have my times, too. Look, you’re our friend, we want to cheer you up.”

LaDonna went to Mulligan, sat on the arm of the chair, put an arm about him.

“What’s with your eye being bruised?” Mulligan asked as if they were alone.

“Mugsy got in the way of my face. More important, I think you deserve a batch of my usual anise shortbread cookies. That’s the least I can do. Will you be home Christmas Eve? I’ll bring them by.”

“Well, I suppose so,” he said.

“I can help, too,” Harold said. “Well, maybe Nance can pull together a mac and cheese dish. “

Mulligan gave them the wannest smile, wrinkles deepening a touch. “I won’t lock the door, if that’s what you mean. Very nice of you folks to offer and to just come by.” He stood again but he felt uncertain, not sure if he might rush them out or if he should offer them a quick drink, which he did not really want to do.

“Let’s go, guys,” Carrie said. “I’ll come by with a couple treats next week, okay?”

Marty nodded and waved at Mulligan just as Mulligan had always done at him.

When they were gone and their voices had vanished down hallways, he sank back down into his easy chair. He should light the fire. He should put out the ceramic Christmas tree, he supposed, light a candle in the window as he always did for Jean. He should go to bed and read and doze, yes, that was the best action to take. So he did.

******

He’d forgotten what day it was. Time had slunk by. Oh, he had gone to the town square to gawk at the gaudy, huge tree that was going to waste after it was taken down. He had bought himself a small slab of ham for Christmas Day, fresh broccoli and carrots. So when there was a sharp and insistent rap on his door, he startled. He had knelt by the fireplace–he’d finally given in and lit a fire and was poking at one of those wax and sawdust logs. He hadn’t bothered to get the seasoned and fragrant logs yet. He struggled to get up, felt impatient and a little foolish about it even though he was alone.

Until now.

“Who is it?” he called out as he turned the doorknob.

“Mistral Manor calling!” someone called back, likely Luke.

Mulligan shook his head, swung open the door.

“Surprise, Mulligan!” they called out.

He stood back, mouth agape as they paraded in with their fragrant hot dishes and platters of redolent cheeses and meats, the tins of enticing cookies.

“What on earth?” he said.

“We have brought the Resplendent Holiday Feast to you,” Nance said, showing him the mac and cheese.

“From us to you,” Carrie and Marty said nearly at once and laughed.

Everyone turned to him after they set their dishes on his table–waited to see what he’d do or say.

And he didn’t know what to do. He’d let them down. What was it about? Should he rush to them, throw his arms around them? Should he let himself bawl like a baby, for the most ordinary reasons in the world? Should he caution them to please not scorch his teak tabletop? Or should he just thank them for their surprise of consideration, time and effort? Honestly, they had such generous spirits, he was stupefied. Not usual for him.

He stuttered a moment, then: “A real portable feast?” His voice came out in a regrettable mouse-y squeak.

He got himself together. “Well, for goodness’ sake, you sure did show up–and you have shown me up! Guess I will rise to the occasion and put on the coffee pot and get the good plates down. Carrie, find the Christmas tablecloth in the buffet drawer, and will you all please remove the hot dishes a moment. Luke, did you bring something to read? Oh, good man! Lance, grab those cookies, they belong in the kitchen, out of temptation’s way for now. And LaDonna…”

He stopped as she turned to him, the bruise discoloring a spot of tawny skin but her face was tinged with happiness.

“He’s gone to his brother’s, don’t worry!” And she got the silverware from the silver chest, smoothing the lustrous pieces, so relieved to be there. To be on her own a bit, but with friends.

Harold and Nance moved the table away from the bay window to make more room for everyone. She’d taken his layoff okay; she’d been glad to make the casserole and he was proud of her.

“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you…” Marty took a full breath and began once more.

He gleefully sang out as he and Carrie got chairs situated. The rest stopped to listen. Such a voice! He ought to be on the stage, not at a computer desk all day. But Mulligan felt a spark of happiness, and thought how his neighbor would always have an appreciative audience in Mistral Manor. And that counted for something.

PJ Mulligan, Sr. couldn’t help himself and he nibbled a corner of a perfect anise cookie. Then he joined in with clanking notes, loudly belted it out with the others, every word bright and clear–and with higher hopes crowding out that useless emptiness.

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 several bursts of ideas, cinematic images, random thought trains I follow until I fall off and get back to the performance. Today 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. Some of it is experienced as a maze within a maze that creates lush landscapes, gives rise to pathways that take me to here and there, usually ending with a waterfall. And then the music impacts me more like a sophisticated construct, a dreamy contemporary high rise through which I wander and climb, peer about. Often alone, indistinct figures come and go.

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 is oddly as adored as ever, though I have little substantial bravery left for making music.-serious music, anyway. (Singing to the twin grand babies is far different.)

It takes me to my sister, who played her exceptional cello professionally an entire life, almost until death at 78. She was not an improviser, generally; all that she played was musically clean and deep. Sometimes fun, in a perfected way. I also liked to stand behind the piano bench as 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 our modest, 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 any present is threaded with strands of our pasts no matter the intention, whether conscious or not. Some things only resurrect it more clearly than others.

The woman, Sunny, in front of me: her dress is true vivid red excepting one third of a vertical area from neck to waist.This panel is configured with narrow black and white stripes. Around her neck is draped a sheer scarf that is also black and white but large plaid. Her earrings are cherry colored, little beaded baskets, cheerful and swingy. Her hair is short, blondish-brown but she is older, perhaps my age. It’s how she wiggles in her seat to ease discomfort; the boots on her feet being sensible; soft lines folding up along her jaw as she turns her head. But that dancing spirit!–her shoulders are sliding to and fro. She taps her foot in time. Is she a musician or a music appreciator only, a retired dancer or maybe someone who just needs to move and happily so? The value for her is in open engagement, the simple joy of it and many are smiling, responding with gentle movement. The blind man sits with eyes closed, is still.

The scarf Sunny wears is elegant but not too elegant for this 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’re not all finely made; I get some from thrift shops. My daughter has given me a few: one which she dyed over its original colors; one she made herself of silk; one that she shibori-dyed by hand with brilliant indigo. I resolve to wear more this winter. And note that Sunny has good taste, not surprisingly considering where I live these days, a place where money is tastefully displayed, never shouted out. But good taste can be appreciated, too.

The piece our cellist is playing rises and falls 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’m gratified everyone in the library can hear this good music, enjoys the sudden free gift to us on a rainy winter afternoon.

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

But it isn’t her. The concert is ending. The performer bows and the applause–mine, too–is enthusiastic. Sunny chats with someone and though I can’t see her face I believe her eyes quickly widen in pleasure–and it seems another good thing, I don’t know why, but it’s satisfying to consider as I move down the stacks. Pause to read titles of mysteries. Pause to breathe in the musky scent of older paper, ink and bindings; many books have been on these shelves such a long time, standing tall and at home.

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

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 his pain and jumped with it off the Fremont Bridge. He had lived enough of the life he’d embraced but also had so long endured. We had known many years he could leave us in some hard way. There’d 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, and also was relieved and glad to see him at family gatherings despite–or because–I felt his despair so sharply. As he struggled, I’d ask myself what more could I do, whatever more could be done. We all did. He asked, too. The truth was something else, that he was in many ways preparing to be finished with the high-wire walk though each 24 hours here.

And yet. I so badly wish that it might have been been different. It is a time that has entered my cellular memory, those moments when knowledge of his leaving us did arrive: a brilliant flame put out in night’s cover or the stillness of 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, then giving me something to hold onto again. I know it must be alright, it came to something, it was different than his past; Reid is where he is, not screaming out, not alone, not now.

I tell myself as I often do: God knows everything, God recreates and loves us here now and thereafter, we are made of and bound to and freed by such Love. This I am certain of though I cannot explain it when it seems absurd. I still believe; no, it goes beyond belief, it is the spiritual, the cosmic reality I live within. We are all connected; I cannot ever lose anyone I love.

I start the car, yet sit with forehead on 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 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. It is warm in there in every way. I sit on a stool and look out the window and I feel okay, even better than okay, sipping my mocha, nibbling a warm slice of banana bread. I have much to care about. I am not afraid to finish this day and begin another.

Then 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.”