Wednesday’s Nonfiction: An Anonymous Life is Still a Life

Lawrence Wilburn Guenther and Edna Kelly, 50th Anniversary, 1983

What has ever happened to living a quiet life and finding that meaningful? There is such a garish trumpeting about people and events, about what is deemed commendable or abominable and it often drags lives into the grit of the fray, the spotlight of adoration or scrutiny. Conversations are necessary when they make a meaningful impact but the loud voices that promote fame–or infamy–stop me cold. Why this being splashed all over news outlets as if meant to be so vital to us all? How did it happen that people–even youths–crave fame enough that they will go to any lengths to get it? And who said that a visibly higher socioeconomic status equals lasting happiness? All this talk and focus on being a “Somebody” in the world has me cogitating about the value of ordinary human lives. Because there are far more of us out here than the other sort.

Some history is useful as in a far more innocuous way, I once knew the heat of a spotlight’s beam. I did not grow up feeling strictly anonymous, another face in the crowd, invisible, untraceable. Instead, I was easy to spot, quick to name. I was so used to being introduced as “Lawrence Guenther’s daughter” that much of my childish and youthful identity sprang from this shorthand reference. In fact, seldom did anyone need to say that much; my last name covered it. And, I imagine, my large blue eyes–a family trait many of us shared. Not that it was a bad thing, this quick naming. My father never robbed a bank or stole a car or drunkenly crashed one or worse. He was an upstanding citizen, I have to admit. But it felt like a bit of a burden more often than I cared to say.

I knew nothing of how public a man he was until my early teens; he was often surrounded by students and adults wherever we went. He was not overtly gregarious but had a gentlemanly, winning manner. He was sincere and he was smart; there were far worse things than being the youngest child of such a person. My father’s warm smile and expressive bright eyes had magnetic properties, it seemed.

In a town where the name “Dow” defined everything, being known by any other last name was something of note. Herbert H. Dow was a chemical industrialist who founded my hometown’s Dow Chemical, an international company. His son, Alden B. Dow, was a well-known architect. My dad was not famous but he did enjoy a fine reputation across the state and perhaps beyond for his work. Lawrence Guenther was Midland’s public schools’ music administrator, and a teacher, musician and a conductor of an impressive Midland Symphony Orchestra. This may not seem newsworthy at first glance. Yet this town that was marked by pristine, manicured lawns and graceful homes, a top state school system, international scientists, and a plethora of variously gifted students–well, that meant a little something.

Our about 28,000 (when I was ten; it is now 47,000) people greatly valued arts and sciences, so music programs were high on the list for financial and community support. Classes started when students tested well for musical ability. They began in fourth grade–unless their parents had already sent them to private music lessons, which many had (we already had one built in). Dad was an innovative music programmer and teacher with indefatigable passion for his calling. He advocated for the fine arts tirelessly as well as performed and encouraged, with strict expectations, thus exacting from students their best work.

So it came to be that he was well appreciated. And the family name was synonymous with music. My mother, I might add, was a respected elementary school teacher among other things–a substitute teacher after I was born. Plus, a great hostess and supporter of his career. And she was the more innately extroverted. She was not that musically inclined though her voice was a pleasing alto. My four siblings and I were, so we studied hard, practiced our instruments. This led to endless recitals, orchestral performances, church musical events, musical theater, classical competitions, small chamber groups–and small pop groups for me (not as a cellist for once, but a vocalist–what pleasure tat gave after classical music day in and out).

This did not bode well for lasting anonymity in that city and beyond–in music camps, workshops, state competitions. The better I performed, the more it felt as if I was becoming a more public person, too, not only a reflection of our father’s presence and influence. I adored all the arts so participated with enthusiasm. I especially embraced the actual performance part and duly appreciated applause–but preferred to run off right after performances. It was embarrassing to say “thank you” when complimented; I was doing what I was supposed to do, trained to do, enjoyed doing. But I also worried that I might not achieve the best performance each time I walked onto the stage. It would remain a joy to perform but also a relief to exit stages. The problem with having attention drawn to you is that people start to have expectations, bigger ones as time goes by. The problem is then you must please others and smile on and on when you want to take off the finery and walk into a silent, fathomless, starry night.

For me, the fuss became more trying than emboldening. It never occurred to my father that I was not as accepting as was he of this side effect of doing well. He was fairly ambitious and dedicated, yet marked by a humble nature, and so seemed to take in stride being so visible (despite displaying a vastly more introspective nature at home–no doubt he needed major “down” time). And he had no doubt his children could, would and should excel. He was a faithful believer in God and hard work and so believed that a talent must be honed, and that to waste it was akin to committing a sin. I know he meant well enough, yet that alone provided a penchant for a perfectionism that has dogged me all of my life. But it did not produce a stellar career nor a craving for fame. I excelled at enough, but at some cost. I wanted to a place to create–and found it mainly at a renowned arts camps where there were many such youth as myself.

Still, the thought of being well known–of being recognized as I walked down the street or shared a coffee and occasional forbidden smoke with a friend at a cafe–became less and less appealing. I needed more emotional space. For one thing, I was a young person with secrets due to childhood sexual abuse unknown to my family, and I planned on keeping it that way.

But I was also a dreamer. That state of being requires solitary time to develop and nurture ideas, to embrace with intention each act of creating, to seek an abandonment coupled with unwavering focus. As much as I liked dating as a teen, I was often loathe to leave a new poem or song, a dance or art project–to vacate my busy mind–to meet someone at the front door. My major fantasy by age 12 was to become a well-published, well-read writer (or singer) but to remain primarily anonymous amid any success. It  seemed a more comfortable and natural fate. Did I imagine being interviewed? On the phone, perhaps, once or twice. Did I want pictures of me circulating? I didn’t expect that would be to my advantage. Then more people would recognize me and I would have to duck into bushes.

How different these times are–our personal data quickly accessible. I am at moments startled to see my own image despite having gone along with the trends. But I wonder: how much does that add to my life or anyone else’s? I think very little, even at best. My writing–I do hope that matters some, but the fact is, I will still writing. No fancy byline or authorship would lessen the muse calling and my need to create with language. Or maybe it would. Now I have freedom.

Despite an avid interest in others, enjoying meeting new folks and entertaining from time to time, I embrace solitude, still. More than mingling face-to-face with people, generally. I feel satiated in most ways while burrowing into my writing space or reading chair, engaging with an activity even with spouse nearby. We have our own routines and rhythm, like all older married couples. And I have noted before that I seldom mind when he has long business trips. I do what I do still at 68 because I am daily motivated to create, to gather new information or try out new ideas, to pray and meditate, to take care of myself and, I hope, others. There is no applause as I complete a task or challenge. There is a gentle sense of self-fulfillment. And I can guarantee you that I have labored hard for this peace of mind that anchors my living even–or most–in more arduous times.

Yet, sometimes all this almost–if not quite–makes me nostalgic for the sort of  intense in-person contact after a performance, or after poetry readings that were part of my life once. Or even the career I undertook of counseling broken people. The field of mental health and addictions treatment even in a city like Portland is small enough that others in counselling know who you are soon. One’s reputation, for good or ill, precedes one. I was as known then as I would ever be as an adult, and I was satisfied with that. It was not the yawning ego but the work that mattered so dearly to me. Just like youthful performing, itself, mattered most–the reaching and connecting to others via music. As a clinician it was listening with an open heart and being steady n the face of crises, offering solace and new skill sets.  It is not about winning accolades or making big money–heaven forbid–but simplest caring.

It all–this anonymous v. public business–comes down to what I believe about God. If there is any light within me it can be shared, and by sharing it, that persistent light is freed like ripples in a clinic, on a stage, in a neighborhood, even perhaps the world as it is passed person to person. Creative work and any useful human-focused work are spiritual conduits, each a way to enable the blossoming best in everything, everyone: to bring forth the regenerative energy of miraculous, abundant life. We are given souls to greet one another as allies and helpmates. Minds to share constructive problem solving. And bodies to celebrate genius of a cosmos mimicked in our cellular make up.

This expansive yet essential anonymity has been the formative factor of my life, after all–not being publicly known by many, at all. I did not end up living the life my father expected of his offspring.  Family members became expert in their fields (including music), some of their names quite known. It is true that I had dreams of “making good” in the music business as a singer, and also as a writer, but my life trajectory took another route after marriage in 1971. It became more isolated and a quieter life made of more mundane events than overtly extraordinary–or so those judging types out there might state. I redesigned my criteria for a life of success. And I have experienced amazing people, beheld more than a few wonders.

I was relieved at a crucial level within to be no longer only “a Guenther” but to incrementally become myself on my own terms, and with a husband here and there. Even if all that fell short at times, I began to claim my life fully as mine. I devised it, I tested it, I rebuilt it and God redeemed it many times with an effortless love. I found that, in the end, what matters is what happens during unnoticed years of countless small actions undertaken, and with the ones I get to love, and any goals I can bring to fruition, whether or not others admire them. There are those who won’t know what matters to me as I attempt to manage a few true and valiant things while I have the breath; they are, after all, busy with their own industrious lives–I could reach out to them, too. But many more may not deign to care about my talents and deficits beyond my quick actions or chatter, as I am not “important or accomplished” enough to discover at a deeper level. To them, I have failed to win the awards or money games–while I keep mining the subtler riches of what I have, will yet discover.

I have learned that the most important acclaim comes from inside. And as long as I recognize my basic (if flawed) integrity which upholds a reasonable self worth, I am alright. Just important enough to those who care. No accolades are necessary. This anonymous life is still a life. I am pleased to be working on it and relishing it, day by day. And surprisingly, I suspect that would be alright with my parents, too.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Come-alongs

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The diffuse glow of light retreated into a cloud bank and hightailed it to a far off, more needy place. It was another piece of evidence that nothing was going right. He’d tried to ignore his mounting dread of another morning garbed in grey, then the afternoon battered with rain. But sunshine had won one round at noon before scurrying off, gave a generous showing as he stood outside the building door. He was trying with all his might to not smoke, partly because it set a bad example for clients, of course. But it was his only actual personal resolution of the new year. You’d think he might manage it–this was an addictions treatment clinic, and by now he knew a few things. But he advised himself that if bleak skies continued–honestly, that was likely– he was entitled to comfort of old habits.

Just standing outside, perusing the neighborhood with its abundant shivering trees was a solace but it could be completed by a smoke. Actually, it was the only reason to stand beneath a water-laden awning soon to unload, in the way of people at the doors. He should go around the corner; there he could take get in one deep, potent drag and he’d be good for the afternoon. He’d be able to work better.

Bargaining: he knew how this went. Bargain until one thing wins, the other loses.

“Hello Rick, catching cold yet? Waiting out the urge?” A quiet, clear voice. “Don’t  worry, the best is yet to come along.”

Marianne swayed past him with a chuckle and quick wave, graying curls bobbing as if pleased to see him, as well. He responded in kind with an exaggerated yuk-yuk but his shorn long hair had nothing to add. New clients had often thought he was one of them, so it was time. Oddly, when he was in treatment twice, himself, he’d been clean cut, stood with shoulders squared and was often mistaken for staff. That was nearly two decades ago. Much had rearranged itself, not only his physical presentation. He rubbed his head to warm his scalp; should have put on his waterproof Aussie hat.

Marianne paused to peer back through the glass door, a flash of concern unsettling her open face and since he’d watched her enter, Rick smiled, authentically. Only she knew he was trying to beat nicotine addiction. At last. He had to tell her. Only she knew how dicey the holidays were, with family far away; that he’d decided to not go see his egregious father and overachieving sister. Only Marianne knew much of anything worth knowing, he sometimes felt. About the clinic, city, people’s innermost beings. And she was the office systems manager, far too loyal to the organization. Everyone looked to her, but it had taken her well over a year to get to Rick. Not that he’d been her project–she’d been friendly, as she was to all. He’d believed he’d sniffed out a wanna-be counselor behind the warm eyes–that made her suspect. They each had their roles; there was no time to waste. He was polite, too pressured to chat. He sure didn’t need another bleeding heart-listening ear at him. Not when he was surrounded by four good plus one fake and three slightly-to-more-askew ones in his team room. He had his own issues but he tried. What a business, addictions treatment. Love and aggravation, that was his feeling mash up.

Marianne couldn’t help herself. She was responsive and caring by way of deep instinct, not by trade. Nor education. Or even personal need. Everyone relied on her at some point. Well, Tommy, his cynical teammate, thought she was sentimental “to a fault, unfortunately, and prone to mistakes on office orders, and way too forgiving of our crazy clients.” The two men had cynicism a bit in common, but even Tommy at moments noted Marianne’s peaceful influence on the milieu. The hypercritical guy often taunted Rick with: “You have fully succumbed.”

“So what?” he’d say and then shut up.

Rick reached for the pack of Camels, then pushed them back into the pocket. He should have thrown them out. He should have bought a bag of hard lemon candies, should have not had three cups of coffee before lunch. But this was the way of things. Good intentions and follow-through about 75% when on a persistently positive streak.

He took in a a few refreshing lungfuls of winter-rainy air and re-entered the workplace: quiet to chaos in the crowded lobby.

“Hey man, you gonna sign that shelter voucher for me or not?’

“Rick, lookin’ good, we need to talk!”

“I’m here on time, why are you late? Lunch that damned good?”

“Rick, I can do that UA now…”

He made a beeline for the interior locked door, swiped his ID, then made for his desk. It was true, he was ten minutes behind schedule. Not too bad; he’d be there late, anyway.

At his desk in the white square cubicle he opened his files and got busy. Voices migrated over the air waves: therapists discussing a case, another on the phone persuading a client to call his lawyer since he had no say on assault charges. Tommy cursing his computer again. The man had a wicked sense of humor but the cursing started to clang and scrape inside Rick’s head after a few hours. The man was five foot five but had a voice like a cranky giant.

Documents opened on his screen, he focused again. Relief. He hummed to himself, an old Nat King Cole song. Though he jiggled his leg until it vibrated. Did he have chocolate? He pulled out a drawer. None.

“Tommy, easy, all will be well,” he advised over the cubicle wall. He could shape his voice to be as soothing as needed.

“Rick, you’re a bona fide ass, your computer always runs fine and mine is on the blink twice a week.”

“You likely broke it to get a premier set up. New one due soon?”

“So you say. Next week. Cope with my snarls as I do with your innocuous humming. What a duo over here, before you know it we’ll be doing a routine at the corner bar!” He screeched out a phrase of some rock song. Another therapist launched a wad of paper at him; it missed Tommy and landed on Rick’s desk.

Rick moaned, picked up his ringing phone. Two urinalyses right now, check. Then five clients in a row. Group lecture late afternoon, another in evening–what was his topic this week? Had to find one that kept even him awake. Home by 9:30. The voice mail light blinked red. He  got up, strode to the office front.

“Man, I can’t go and if I can’t go I just can’t go. That’s the gist of it!”

“Sorry, that’s a positive. Or you can drink another glass of water and wait it out, Jazz.”

She turned her narrow, taut but deeply dimpled face up to his and the smile became a scowl. “Hey, why do you always have to give me a rough time? Been clean 2 months now, nothing’s going to mess things up, got me a spot at the tent park and probation is going okay.”

Her bony body barely filled her long sleeved, black t-shirt and sweats. She owned just a fleece hoodie as far as he knew, now tied around her waist, spotted with raindrops or food or other mysterious things.

“You’re a champ so let’s keep it that way for you and the PO. I know you hate the observed UAs so do what you have to do each week and all is well. Right? Right!”

He held out the clear bottle again. Her pupils looked too small. She held out a plastic cup for more water.

“You on edge this week, you tweakin’?” She turned, cup up to lips. “Turn it down, Rickie.”

“Thanks for the advice, Jazz. Let the desk staff know when you’re ready.”

“I know the drill.”

Rick restocked a few UA supplies in the deep closet before getting the next client when he felt rather than heard a swish of something. A skirt? The uniform was clean jeans or khakis if you dressed up.

“Rick?”

He looked up, eyebrows drawn. An unknown face. A mass of hair swept back and far below that a skirt, long, bright. Dark eyes that reflected florescent light so it was hard to read them.

“Marianne pointed you out to me earlier. I have a stack of UA forms here.”

He took them, nodded at her, studied the new form.

“So you know, I’m Nell. Just started yesterday–took over Jud’s position up front.”

“Nell, good to meet you. Good luck.” He got busy again. Not because he loved tidying things but because looking at her made need to pull back. Too much to take in without staring from a distance.

There was that swish again and then muffled voices from the lobby beyond. The room felt cooler and bigger; had it been warmer before? He shook his head. He was going through nicotine withdrawal; it made him a little nuts. On the way back to the team room he glanced over at the front desk. Nell and Marianne were in a huddle; the older woman lifted her head as he passed. He called the next UA recipient. And then another showed.

Back at his desk to check voice messages. Three o’clock. and time for client Ray with two DUIIs, a broken front tooth from his last car accident.

He got to his office, sat at his desk, turned on the desk lamp with bright green glass base and soothing illumination. He’d brought it from his basement, a forgotten treasure of the past. Opened the file and got ready for Ray, a man he might personally like if he wasn’t so deeply alcoholic, angrily resistant. The man had nearly killed two people. But Rick wasn’t paid to like clients, just educate and support them on the road to better health.

Then: Nell who? Where did she get that amazing–is that what he thought of it–skirt? That hair was shocking. Stop. Why did he care? Rick was so far off women that he felt like he had dug a cave in the mountains and set a ring of fire at the entrance to ward off trespassers of the female of the species. He’d not be found off guard. He was a loner since Laura. It suited him fine.

He went to greet Ray but instead found Jazz walking back and forth before him, causing two people to cast her a look of irritation. Ray was asleep. Or hung-over. Or drunk– please not today.

“Jazz, you ready yet?”

“Come right along,” Marianne encouraged as she slid past him, out the door with her (overdue) lunch bag. “Rick is one busy counselor.”

Come-along, he thought, that was her trademark refrain. Everything in her view needed to come along– move forward. Or, it was that something good would come along–sooner or later– if that is what was sought. That’s what she told him whenever he voiced a complaint. It could almost put him to shame some days–that persistent optimism. Her own life was not an easy ride, widowed young, raising a granddaughter alone. And yet, the open heart. That’s why she should counsel and he should ….try something else, maybe. But what?

When could he take just one little drag of a stubby Camel? There was a rooftop terrace of sorts where they could eat lunch or take a break–he could smoke up there if he was fast. he thought of the view of the block, the sky. But incoming calls jangled the air. More life and death calls. He readied himself and beckoned the live wire that was Jazz.

******

At home everything was as usual, thankfully. Snarfy greeted him with a jump up, a lick and happy yelp. He let him out back and heated leftover chicken and veggie  soup that had been made from leftovers the night before, and also poured a cup over the dog’s kibble.

It had been Laura’s job to let Snarfy out and feed him; she’d gotten home first. A graphic designer, she went in at 7:30 and got home by 4:30. He slept in until 8:30 and got into work at 9:30 doing the four, ten but more like twelve hour days. She always felt he should tackle housework early in the day or run errands or pay a few bills, not just slumber away. But when he got home he was so keyed up, he couldn’t sleep until 1 am or later. He’d slip in, move toward her aromatic warmth, and she’d usually mumble about cold feet so he’d back off. Stare at the ceiling awhile. Try to catch up with the Post or CNN on his cell phone. The ceiling morphed as traces of failed light crisscrossed the deserted space; it soon gave rise to a wilderness of faint possibilities. He liked watching it all unfold or pause, and eventually he’d fall asleep when he wanted to wake her, show her. But Laura never deliberately studied ceilings, to his surprise. Too “prosaic”, she said, which he had to look up. He had thought it was a design term.

It might have been his work and differing hours, her cool, tidy art taking precedence and his counseling so all-consuming. Her formal education, his street smarts. But in the end it felt like boredom. Rick, bored with her nagging and avoidance; Laura, bored with his resistance to her ideas, so many feelings. With their lack of willingness to do something innovative, insightful, fun to change it all.

Five years and done. That was four years ago. She’d left Snarfy; she didn’t have a natural affinity with dogs. The right thing isn’t always comfortable but in the end, it’s still right. For Rick, liberation was right, being alone, too.

The soup was still good. Netflix had a good mystery series on, so Snarfy and he sprawled on the couch. Snarfy’s fuzzy triangular ears were pricked at the whistling winds as they swirled around oak and evergreen treetops, rushed along the back fence, awoke the tubular chimes and their sonorous callings.

He’d be halfway content if not for the smoking dilemma. But he’d had a dream in which his father shook a finger at him, told him to “dial it down” and immediately Rick thought of smoking, steaming hot lungs: bad for him. As it had been bad for his father, gone ten years too early at least.

Snarfy licked his bowl clean and Rick rinsed their items in the kitchen, put them in the dishwasher. This was when he missed smoking most, after a meal. Like the final portion of the meal, or a commentary that tied it all up. A delicate branch flew by the wide window, then a thicker one with pine needles. The rain could become black ice overnight. Maybe the clinic would close–a pleasant thought and unlikely. But as he turned out the light above the sink and ambled to the couch with Snarfy trotting along with him, her olive-toned face, those deep eyes robbed him of that idea–he wanted to go in tomorrow.

So you know, I’m Nell.

He reached for his lighter, flipped it over a few times, thought of the Camels. Leaned forward with both arms on his knees, undecided, then lit a half-burnt Christmas candle, a now-droopy, snowy pine tree. Turn down the heat, Rick; don’t be lured by stuff you don’t need. Just be calm.

******

“And when you click there it will take you to the other client portal and that data you need… oh, morning, Rick, how’s it going with the resolution?”

Nell glanced his way as her boss spoke, eyes sliding down to his feet as she crooked a couple fingers in greeting, then got back to the screen.

He peered over his reading glasses at her. Couldn’t Marianne keep his smoking battle to herself? She must think he needed a mother–he had a very nice one in New Hampshire, thanks, anyway. He couldn’t help but love that she asked, anyway.

“Morning, Marianne, Nell. Feeling pretty alright.”

Nell turned in her chair slightly and looked at him full in the face. It jarred him so that he spread his feet as if to gain better purchase. She was alert, pale lips a little tight, mind at work. She hesitated, then opened her mouth a little, took a breath. Conscientious person about to offer not so great info.

“Jazz’s UA results are in.”

“Not a good feel to that.”

She pointed to his mailbox so he snagged the sheets, took them to his desk in team room. There it was. Positive for cannabis and opiates. His held breath shot out. How could she? But, then why not? Picked up the phone, dialed her cell number, waited for the voice mail recording.

“Jazz, I need you to come in ASAP for another UA.”

He hoped that would get her in fast, as it was a probation violation. Jazz was running out of the last of good luck. She knew the consequences: more jail time. She should not try to run this time.

The day flew by because there was much to do; he was good with tightly packed schedules, worked faster and better. There were too many UAs on a day when he needed to prepare for two new groups. he stopped thinking of the Camels in his jacket even when he felt his head might explode. He popped a lemon drop in his mouth, walked a bit. He sneaked out for a very fast, late lunch and when he returned, there was Jazz yakking with Nell as if this was a social call. Rick noted Nell was the congenial sort, encouraged brief conversation, a good thing with clients as it gave her insight. Some sleuthing might be accomplished if she was willing to share information. Like who looked high, who seemed more depressed than usual, who was antsy or angry.

When Jazz showed up, they sat in his office. She crossed arms over her chest. Noting he saw this, she then let them fall casually at her sides, hands resting on the chair’s arms.

“You want to show me your arms?”

“What? No.” Jazz narrowed her eyes at him. “You crazy? I’m not doing heroin and not here for show and tell. But I can take another UA any time you want.” She roughed up her thatch of fading burgundy hair.

The defiance, the feigned outrage made her face fiercer, hints of worn beauty barely visible under makeup. She had been at all this a long while. She knew what was expected, what the cost was, what her life could be or how it would end. It had been fifteen-plus years of using and she was a hard thirty. Lost two children, lost partners, lost any facsimile of a what passed for any normal life. They’d worked together four months and she had become less wary of him, even relaxed at times–until now.

“Let’s go, man, prove me wrong.” She flipped her hand at him.

“l’ll get Melissa to accompany you.”

“Observed UA? Really? I hate those–can’t pee–I’m good, I tell you!”

“Not according to this.” He handed her the red-lined results.

“No way, no way! I got four months, I go to those stupid meetings, come to your groups and therapy, I’m even eating again–you know this!”

The words torpedoed out; he had to make himself not pull back, glad the spit didn’t hit him.

“But the truth is indelible, Jazz, there’s nothing for it but to test again and hope this one is less toxic, anyway. Then we need to talk without any bull. And I have to call your PO.”

“Right on, Rick! Nothing like screwing with my life! You got the wrong sample or you got a bad reading, I’m clean as they come!”

“Jazz–” He silenced the words: better not catch you with bought urine.

“No Jazz this, Jazz that…I’m just outta here. Idiot cops or keepers, all of you!”

She stood so fast the chair knocked sideways, teetered and righted itself, then she was gone down the hall.

“Jazz!” he called as softly as he could but she cut off his attempt with a chop of her hand. He followed her a way until she rounded a corner.

“Gone. Damn.”

He said this to himself but Nell, returning to her desk, heard him and watched Jazz go.

“But not gone for good?”

He rubbed hard at his forehead. “Unless she ODs again and doesn’t wake up.”

Rick wanted to run after Jazz, ask her to please stop using, please stay alive, please tell him what happened. But he never did that, it was the client’s choice. Sort of. So he suddenly wanted to smoke. He broke out in a cold sweat, leaned against the file room doorjamb.

“Hey, how about coffee in the kitchen?”

“I just need to pause and let it go…well then, okay, yes.”

They sat there without talking a moment, inhaling the fragrance of a fresh brew, sipping. Rick suspected she was jeopardizing her new job by taking such an unscheduled break– another staff was in the front office but, still, her chair was empty. He tapped fingers on the table, then stopped, jiggled his leg. His closely shorn head felt chilly, itchy. Smoke, just smoke that cigarette, he heard in his head. He wished he still had long hair that covered him up more.

“So, you have a dog?” she asked, lighting up. “I just got a mutt, a really good one. Named Sukie. Training isn’t so fun, but worth it. She’s a good buddy and smart.”

“I like that name. Yeah, my Snarfy is an old border collie. He likes to laze about, follow me around, answer my questions.” She laughed. “Plays Frisbee with me sometimes.”

Five minutes, ten minutes, and he had her face memorized, voice etched on his brain. Her hands flushing the air like birds, translating words into more good stuff. Hair wound in a turban sort of thing. And another skirt, skimming booted feet.

He got up, smoothed sweaty hands on his jeans.

“Thanks, I guess I needed a mental health break.”

She cocked her head at him but shyly.

He asked, “You in recovery, too…or is that too personal a question?”

She nodded but preceded him through the kitchen’s opened door and aimed for her desk. “Have to get back to work. Oh, I like your socks.”

He stood in the hallway and stared at his feet. He’d worn two different socks, one faded navy and one grey with red squiggles and he hadn’t even realized. And was she in recovery or had he been direct too soon?

Tommy rushed by, hands thrown up in the air. “What a fashion plate! You’ve sure got what it takes, ole boy!”

Melissa passed, a hand clutching her phone. “Still not smoking?”

“Does everyone know?”

“Of course!”

“Yeah, then.”

“Kudos!”

Then moving at her own cheery pace came Marianne, arms stuffed with manila files.

Tommy roared past from the opposite direction. “Aren’t we way, way beyond the Stone Age, Marianne? Can’t we eliminate actual files now?”

“Come along, Rick, can’t dawdle, groups to lead, people to lift up,” she said.

“I may not be your man. I’m in serious need of rejuvenation. By the way, are you now my supervisor? All the free advice you keep giving me!” He held out his arms in wonderment.

She affected looking aghast. “Who suggested that? Is there a raise? Naw, just an office manager. But Jazz is almost begging to see you.” She trundled on then spun around, almost losing the stack. “Rick, you know you’ll do what you do so well. You’re genius with tough ones. Success is relative, more to come. And be very good to Nell; she’s a keeper here.”

Rick switched direction and followed. One more time, that’s all it took, another try with Jazz, another hour to stay smoke free, another chance to reconsider the beauty of surprises. He’d been ready to sneak out, light that cigarette, set fire to his own cravings–and who knew what else? It felt like this, the nicotine withdrawal: repeated small implosions, risk of explosion. Bam. He breathed through his nose as if meditating–if that even worked.

Did she like soup, he wondered–because that was a specialty, making something simple, bringing out flavors and goodness from little to nothing. He’d learned that out of necessity but while it was useful it also generated happiness deep inside him. He liked life simplified; it offered more meaning to him.

He swung open the lobby door and found Jazz slumped in a chair, tears snaking down her cheeks, marring thick rosy make up, tears gentling her face despite deep lines and scars from years gone so bad she had nearly quit living.

He squatted, hands folded.

“Jazz, come along with me, let’s go have a talk, okay?”

“Why not,” Jazz sniffed.

After she wiped her face, Jazz grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, didn’t let go. He did not shake her off. She’d never come with need so naked. He appreciated that aching humility that felt like shameful defeat. He was careful with her. And Nell, savoring pieces of tangerine at her desk, noted that.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Properties of Light

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Winter Solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere experiences the shortest amount of daylight, is upon us in two days. Oregon will get about 8.5-9 hours of daylight–and it is all because the Earth spins on a tilted axis.(The Southern Hemisphere will enjoy the longest day of their year.) It is an event that means a great deal to some. For me it signals the first day of winter; it is then we experience peak darkness, as well. This has triggered more thoughts on light and dark and what they mean to me. I consider natural factors that can  or do generate a greater synthesis and balance of all life. As the shortest day comes into the fore and rain has begun to be a constant soundtrack in life here, the matter of light seems all the more magnetic.

Properties of light draw my mind and spirit as well as my eyes. I have an animal and aesthetic sense that my vision readily notes. All creatures are responsive to light’s many effects. Panoramas as well as details pique my interest–and my human eyes, of course, require a greater degree of light to better observe. (Though a sighted person I am a bit familiar with less sight via myopia; I wear contacts or glasses.) A propensity for types of light aids me as a creative person. I sense and watch life unfold early morning until night (with/without camera) and muse over its command, its variability. If I awaken at odd times at night I consider the possibility of light, then remove sleeping mask so consciousness awakens more. I wear the mask because light is so far reaching and vigorous it is as if its vibratory energy charges me–then I stay awake. I have a warm spot for darkness, as well–another aspect of the world of light, since it is absence of light to one degree or another. However, on earth we are unlikely to experience it in totality. At least, physically.

How does a supremacy of light alter thinking and deeper being? The physics of light relate to mental and spiritual well being. We all know someone who experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder, for example, and seek help via artificial light that mimics what is natural. Or know how hanging out in shadowy space a long while can motivate a move into natural light to perk up, feel clearer. Or when people who’ve suffered and felt lost and then undergone a serious change of direction–and share how they’ve exited darkness and emerged into light. We equate clarified understanding with light, as well as improved general wellness: we “feel clear headed, feel lighter.” Those who literally live in deep darkness long periods have negative effects like blindness and bone and muscle weakness. They don’t fare well emotionally, especially if alone. Humans are built to experience and utilize light.

If I was a scientist, I could explain with confidence exactly what/how/why the eye sees, but at best I can refer to what is generally noted. It all is connected to the properties of light. The primary ones include speed (at 300,000 kilometers per second; it holds the universal title for prowess). There is reflection, which photons provide while bouncing off mass/other particles. The color property…rudimentarily, it appears the more light, the more color–or at least, better perception of it. Visible wavelengths of light vary; we view different colors due to this. And surfaces make a difference; some absorb more light than others. Consider the smooth surfaces of quiet water, or shiny metals or glass. One may be momentarily blinded, or taken aback by an often lovely phenomenon. When it is due to the sun’s shining upon all, it seems a true magic act.

I could keep on in this vein, as the natural realms are so interesting. Such as regarding the several sorts of light–nature’s scattered or focused light, unnatural kinds such as ambient or spotlight or mood lighting. Nature provides us with abundance of light properties even via its creatures. Bio-luminescence: the light of fireflies, jellyfish and more fishes, and some fungi to name a few.

In Michigan, one of the great delights was watching lively fireflies woo potential mates with light (a chemical reaction in lower abdomen) from June through August. I sat there for hours when not chasing them with my Mason jar, trying to briefly capture one or two. In Mendocino, California, my sister and I once strolled along a beach admiring the night skies when along water’s edge the sand glowed in blues and greens. My feet sank into the glowing sand and I was left agape. It felt it another sure sign of a Divinity that created this planet. The awe of sharing a realm with  bio-luminescent phytoplankton stayed with me. I thought what we have in common, plankton and humans: each is full of complex energy of light, reflective of Divine illumination, contributors to the earth’s grand diversity.

And we can see light moving and beaming in people–especially when they are happy or living in their potential, as though brain and soul maximize those qualities.  We see see it gleam in the wise or those who greatly love. We are drawn closer.

And think how gifted humans are –we have part of God operating within our cellular structure since we are made of the same as stars (which ultimately emit starlight fro far away). We can aspire to remarkable things thanks to a well of inspiration we each possess if we are attentive. We have developed expansive knowledge each century; we can reach for past wisdom to gain more revelation. We have within our innermost selves tools to rebuild what is in disrepair, to create out of what has been diminished. Beauty and strength reawaken from devastation due to our inclination, our vision, our efforts.

I am not a real gardener but I can see a metaphor for my life as I consider our African violet plant. It sits on our coffee table, generally. It began to fade although I was watering it, tending to it carefully, picking off parts that looked unhealthy. Leaves began to wilt and decay, as if I had fussed over it too much, so I backed off watering and didn’t often touch. That helped but then I got busy with other things and the dirt got overly dry, even cracked, and tiny blossoms withered before opening in full. I moved it to a windowsill as sunshine grew warmer and away when it was cooled by lowering temperatures or gray skies. I wanted so much to keep this plant healthy. My husband cared, too, as it reminded him of his beloved grandmother who kept them in a bay window. I loved her, as well, and understood.

The one thing that is clear was that the entire plant has reached in earnest for any light. No big surprise, you think; that is its nature. Still, to see that. It was like looking at a lovely ballerina stretch, point her fingertips to sky. However, it soon appeared lopsided as delicate stems and leaves lifted and leaned toward the wide window–straining for ever more sunshine as summer ended. or so I thought, so I kept moving it here and there to see what was useful. I suggested to it that it hang in there, be its beautiful self despite my ignorance. It remained lopsided now despite changing its position. But blossoms bloomed, each a velvety rich purple. It gives us a small happiness. I am more at ease about its care now. This plant and I are learning how things work together, it seems. I give it the benefit of the doubt, let it grow its own way; I will not neglect it or push it too hard again.

The African violet challenge reminds me of how my spiritual life continues to grow and change. I have to be careful but not too careful that growth is squelched by my circumventing, over-attentive intensity. I need to better allow God to nudge and direct me, internally and externally, as I live day into night. And let others in my life give me more clues. I do trust that despite my anxieties and failures and wounds, there remains the ubiquitous constancy of God. That is, Divinity, Divine Love, Creator, Maker of All, Healer, Great Spirit, Perfect Mind. Yes–here it is–the Everlasting Light.

The more I learn about nature and basic physics, the more I realize God’s presence. I tend to experience little separation between Divinity and life in the here or beyond. As above, so below, as the old maxim goes. That is, unless I put a division between us like a fortress wall. Which I have done–due to weariness or cynicism bought on by heartbreak or substance abuse or assortments of pain that took me to a hard limit. This impulse to turn away from Light has occurred despite never disbelieving in an essential holiness of life and wholeness. I cover my mind and spirit with perseveration or distractions of no merit and the light cannot easily get in. I can become petty and sour, critical of small things and angry over others of negligible value in the big picture. And I too often defend and justify and rationalize my character weaknesses. This, rather than face myself in the revealing truth, the certain cure of facing the light.

The increased lack of natural illumination as night falls has its layers of meaning, its wonders. An urban lifestyle makes moonlight and starlight far less easy to access. I value the darkness I experience, though, and shadows that transform all with gradations of light until the curtain of darkness sweeps across my view. They each inform and comfort me, and if I had my way I’d stay awake more of the night. But the animal I am has a need of rest and so I turn out my bedside lamp and close the shutters and put on my sleep mask to finally slumber. Often at dawn I awaken despite desire to sleep more. There comes fresh light slinking and glinting, delving past eyelids. I lean toward the window at last without the eye covering and behold the day breaking open. I am thrilled that I be able to awaken, get up to stand firm, to begin play and work.

As Christmas nears, I meditate more profoundly on the Light that Jesus talked about: the warmth of a burning, shining light of Love. An embracing, unconditional love to claim, to grant ourselves as well as to others. To receive from and return to God who made us via miracles of science and metaphysical genius. This is the true Light I seek each day– as long as I am willing to be more like an African violet, free to accept the power it gives, to benefit from yet give something back, to allow any inherent splendor to come to fruition. Transformation happens one we say yes. We are made to be charitable, intelligent creators and givers; we have the power to effect change that helps rather than hinders. Let’s not mistake glitter of this season nor glossy affectations or promises of temporary gain as signs of a loving kindness that sticks. It’s not what we need here and now, and not for the wailing bowl of this scooped out, injured earth. We each can do better by taking a risk to reveal who we are, and be open to little miracles. To see what might happen that can work better–work well.

As the darkness takes its turn in lieu of sunlight, as shadow slips over hands and face, I ask myself again: how much better can love be reflected towards those I know, and those whom I know little, and those whom I have not yet met? What generous properties of light can I somehow put into practice? That is my renewed task and privilege, a labor of care, working with manifestations that share one potent design.

Step forward into the light. Bring to each other your gifts. Let charity flow.

 

**************************************************

Readers and fellow bloggers,

I thank you for showing up to read my writing and to share thoughts at times. I’m grateful to be writing WordPress posts since December 2010! That is 681 prose posts. And that does not include the now-closed Poetry for the Living and Visionary Views blogs I posted for over a few years, as well. It has been great fun, and excellent for honing skills, as well. It’s always surprising to me when I note that I have well over 15,000 followers, and I am deeply appreciative.

I hope for your well being and for many moments of grace to manifest in your lives, however you celebrate these holidays. For peace and for kindness, first and last.

I have one more post this Friday–then I will join you all again in 2019 as we continue to create and share in this community of folks.

To those of Christian faith as well as you who like to  celebrate this time: from my home to yours–have a Merry Christmas!

Warm regards, Cynthia

*******

“God did not create evil. Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of God.” –Albert Einstein

 

 36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (Holy Bible, Matthew 22:36-39)

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Winged Nights

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Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.

Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.

Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.

Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”

Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.

He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.

She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.

It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.

No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.

Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.

Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.

The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.

As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if  it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.

He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.

The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.

Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.

******

Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.

The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.

It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.

After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.

Triumph.

Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf  no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.

His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.

On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.

He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.

After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.

The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.

The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs.  The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.

He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.

“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”

Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.

“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.

“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.

As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.

Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.

“What’s going on here?”

The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.

“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”

But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.

******

His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?

He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.

After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.

A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.

“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”

At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.

“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.

“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”

“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.

He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”

But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.

“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”

“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.

She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”

He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.

The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.

But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.

He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: Farewell to Heart Concerns (for now!) and Beck’s Tree Farm

 

Well, I came through the heart angiogram just fine and am about back on my feet, after a fine conclusion: the third stent implant is not needed! Now I happily turn my attention to the Season’s preparations once more and must think about where we will get our fresh tree this year.

Beck’s Tree Farm was visited over the years as it was our favorite place to get a tree. It was bought later in life by a charming and friendly couple who finally retired from the business; now new owners apparently have other plans. We quite enjoyed the woolly sheep, our endless walks across muddy fields to discover the very best tree which we (or, if our son wasn’t there, a helper) cut down. Such panoramic views were beheld, including glimpses of Mt. Hood. The air was crisp and sweet. It was fun, felt magical to us.

Here are a few pictures from 2013 and 2015 of the annual trip out there with our son, Joshua and his children, Asher and Avery. Happy memories, indeed! (Now Asher is 13; Avery is 16, soon to graduate early from high school.) You will note Joshua is wearing a more  typical Northwest attire even in winter: shorts (if at all possible) with a heavy fleece-lined flannel and sneakers (or hiking shoes). Of course, the Santa hat is required for these Christmas forays!

No matter where we discover our next and best piney tree, then decorate and light it  up, it will be more good times shared. I can’t imagine anything better. Though I may have a less than perfect heart, it is beating strong and true, overflowing with love for my family and friends as we gather around table and tree.