Grace So Well Becomes Us

bright sweaters

Before turning in each night, I used to spend time selecting and preparing my clothes for work the next day. The pants or skirt, shoes, shirts and jewelry didn’t need to match but they had to make sense in an attractive but calming manner. They needed a touch of verve–scarf, eye-catching necklace, pewter-metallic shoes. I could have dressed in jeans if I really wanted to. My “casual business” attired mental health agency serves everyone from white collar adults mandated to treatment for DUII to addicted younger adults who violated probation to homeless men and women trying to hang on, to change tough times into better ones. I didn’t want to dress too well or lackadaisically, as how I presented myself could be a boon or a barrier. But once I got to work, I forgot the external presentation. My work is from the inside out and my demeanor or facial expression is far more critical. So it was as much a habit to prepare my clothes carefully for thirty years as anything. But jeans didn’t seem best for work–it was stretch-cotton, ankle-length black slacks that suited me.

I started working in my thirties after my five children were ensconced in school. My first good job was assisting older adults who were disabled by such medical conditions as stroke and Parkinson’s’ disease. Soon I became manager of a large home care services department. I wore high heels and dresses or skirts and tops daily. Our budget was tight so I often shopped at Goodwill to supplement my newer clothes. It was not fashionable to buy second hand clothing but it worked out well. Dressing up for work was a joy after years of wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were both needed uniforms. I had a household to manage; my husband often travelled and I had my hands full.

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(Painting, “Venetian Clothesline”, by Mindy Newman)

I don’t work for a paycheck, as I quit my job in November. (I write,  which most people would say isn’t work, though it feels like it despite no monetary reward yet.) My counseling (or just employee) days may not be entirely over. Thus, work clothing still takes up the bulk of closet space. To be honest, two closets, large ones. I have accumulated a lot of variations of the themes of colors, styles, needs. There are shoes in stacked boxes and sweaters folded nicely in boxes. Off season clothing is in another room. I have more clothes than I know what to do with, yet I hold on.

I wear jeans daily now, with fleece when it is colder or knit tops when the breezes tease us with springy scents. No one see me for days except my husband or a family member who stops over.  So I dress easy. My daughters have told me I have so many t-shirts (with long and short sleeves) I could dedicate a whole closet to them. On my feet, sippers, though I hate to admit it, shoe snob that I’ve been in the past. They do feel great schlepping around my place, writing for hours at the computer.

Today I spotted a pair of white flats at Macy’s as I was lugging a bag of sale towels. I tried to get to the exit–what did I need shoes for?–but they beckoned me. They were on sale. Up close, they appeared comfortable yet stylish, the perfect combination. They had a cut-out motif that made them look feminine without being girly. I tried them on. They looked lovely in the mirror; I could walk without wincing. In warm weather, when extravagant flowers decorated emerald lawns and I could walk to church or stores without needing hiking boots to stay dry and warm, they would look…enchanting. They were be pretty and sturdy at once, my thinking insisted. And if I worked again, they would accent my professional duds.

So I bought them and took them home, put them on the closet shelf for a spring day. Maybe Easter.

shoes_girls_white_dress

I mused further. I had gotten a new pair of white shoes each Easter as a child. With white gloves, shiny Mary Janes and a pretty dress my mother made, I was all set for church, followed by the family playing music and a  roast beef dinner. Memories of that Sunday table came alive, from the crystal water goblets to the lilac tablecloth. I could nearly smell the steaming biscuits and taste the fruit salad with poppy seed dressing.

Had that been what stopped me as I had made my way out of the store earlier? With spring not far off, a longing for another time and place? My mother dressed beautifully, mostly due to her own creative skills. It was she who taught me appreciation of fine fabrics and elegant lines, how a good seam looked and held, how shorter or longer hems made a difference per eye and each occasion. She would have loved ogling the shoe racks with me; her high-heeled feet looked beautiful into her eighties.

I thought more about the sale shoes. I don’t need them, as I have a pair of white ones. Unless I get another job I will likely be barefoot when the buds unfurl and sunshine makes me want to dance. Or I will be wearing my Teva sandals when I hike in earnest. What makes me want to adorn myself with something I do not need besides our insistent culture of acquisition? When has the way I dressed made such a crucial difference? There are times I have needed to be “appropriate” or even “impressive”, but only in the eyes of this world. I love color and design, yes, but I can make art if that is so necessary to my peace of mind. Clothes are a very small part of everything.

easterdress

In fact, who I am is not very present in what I put on my body. It is a simple truth, but hits me soundly. I may be missing my work a bit– the camaraderie of working with others toward a common goal–or fancying the past. But who I am and will be is right here within me. The whole me, who does not have daily, professional support or even criticism. I long ago discovered I am not dependent on others for a secure sense of self, my “identity”. Who I have been, as a seven year old excited for Easter, a young adult struggling with challenges or a counselor who leans toward my client as his suffering is laid bare in exchange for a little peace–it all has origins here, within the invisible. My soul. We all have one, and no clothes or other accoutrements are needed to alter, hide or even adorn it.

I had a dream last night, a strange one wherein I was surrounded by people who were more like beings of another sort, without recognizable feature or form, yet full of vibrant, clear energy. No one spoke or said they loved me but I knew it by the way I felt as I floated among them. It was so powerfully magnetic that it pervaded every inch of me. One of them communicated without spoken words: “You are very pretty”, and I put my hands to my face and loudly protested. I  knew better. But they smiled at me, and the realization came that they might see me differently. And if here, in this dream place, I looked even a little as they did to me, I truly lived in beauty. How did these beings see me? I thought to educate them, and explained that my life wasn’t like theirs, it had been hard and not without significant failures. No one cared much. The love actually felt stronger; everyone shared it. When I finally heard “We have to leave you now”, I was terribly sad. I wanted that love to never end. But I awakened, deeply rested and at ease, and the awareness of whoever/whatever they were is with me still. We all need reminding of Divine Love. Everlasting love.

4689979273_dfe6487107_z iris

So maybe that is what the shoes are about, odd as it sounds. I remembered my childhood at the store, and Easter coming. I love shoes, it is true. But at the center of all this is the knowledge that I inhabit not just flesh and bones, but a soul. In fact, I am certain I was first and will last be that, alone. Everything in between is just filler. Tasks and travels. A chance to make good on the love we are given. Grace makes the difference. The grace of God, and also the grace we can cultivate in our daily lives with others: fluency in our conversations, finesse in our diplomacy, benevolence in interactions with those we do not understand, forgiveness of those who mean harm. We can train ourselves in discernment and decorum. We can live in graciousness, which becomes us all. The perfect raiment for this world, as well.

Still…I know you may be wondering about those sale shoes, which is where this piece began. One thing has led to another, and I’m thinking it over. There is a decent chance I’ll keep them for Easter and beyond. They look fun to wear, which matters, too, as long as I live in this body.

(Photo of the gorgeous iris–“A Graceful Dancer”–is attributed to Dorothy Mae.)

Whatever Is This

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Sometimes a poem will come fully and clearly. It is startling, a spark from the subconscious or the vast peripheral consciousness. They are not always good poems but they still count. I was taken by this poem as I walked in the rain while darkness fell gently. It finished itself as I sat typing without thinking at my computer. It gave me a dreamy comfort and yet I felt alert, focused so I followed it as though a winding path. I decided not to edit it. I hope you will find something here that speaks to you. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get it to save in a format with paragraph breaks between every three lines just as it was written…If anyone can help, please let me know how to do that.)

Whatever  Is This

Whatever is still wears stillness as its skin.

Whatever moves finds energy uncoiling.

Whatever breathes seeks air, earth, fire, water.

Whatever cracks leaves the healing to itself.

Whatever sighs scatters petals on the wind.

Whatever falls intercedes for the beginning and end.

Whatever breaks truce barters with people.

Whatever feeds the world fills it with rust, gold, blood, dust.

Whatever lives in safety camps inside the soul.

Whatever maligns falls over the edge of heaven.

Whatever dreams disturbs science with intuition.

Whatever fades resurrects another beauty.

Whatever creates makes a loose harness for freedom.

Whatever enters the heart of power shakes fear from bones.

Whatever sings unleashes the medicine of love.

Whatever waits needs its own welcome.

Whatever knows loss enters the cellular dance.

Whatever hopes reflects a tear in the light.

Whatever seeks knows the source of all warmth.

Whatever opens disables the lock on the door.

Whatever misses wonder leaves without a backward glance.

Whatever surrenders solves the puzzle.

Whatever lives floats upon the beautiful river.

Whatever is most truly needed will answer your secret  prayer:

This.

Is.

The.

Way.

Home.

Copyright December 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Solitude Which Longs for Me and I, It…

Last week-end, I did  something wonderful that I so often do: I took to nature and filled up. I was hungry for the smallest mundane and stunning wonders. It has always been vital to move within a canopy of trees and meditate by running or still waters. To lay my head upon flower-jeweled grasses or lay my hand atop the chill, ancient bulk of rocks that line a trail.

Sometimes it is more crucial than others.

All the work-week long I sit in small rooms and attend to people who bring me eruptions of tears; stories that unravel like epic histories with no beginning or end; silences that throb with such swirled feelings and accompanying consternation that all they can do is… wait… for more language to tame the rawness of the telling.

Grief they carry in on their backs and then hold it tightly as though afraid it will vanish and leave them lonely. Invisible murderous things done by word and hand. Gaping voids where love once lived and then was misplaced or forgotten or ruined.  They seek healing, small stitches over wounds that feel good instead of bad, like fine, strong embroidery that will hold for a lifetime and eave no more scars. They hope for magic, the one key that will make the doors spring open and reveal the reward for the suffered moments of lives derailed.

And I am only one woman sitting in a chair by the window, the light falling across folded hands, my eyes seeking theirs, my heart by turns breaking for them and beating strong. I can honor their tellings with respect and attention. I can assist them with escape from lifelong addiction into new freedom from slavery. I can lay compassion before them and hope it is discovered, caught, taken home at the end of the hour. But I am only an ordinary woman sitting by a window, the delicate spring light falling across my shoulders, illuminating their bewildered faces. I listen because that is what I choose to do. I do not flinch, unless you count the closing of my eyes when the pain requires a prayer for mercy. Anyone knows I cannot save lives, unlike the EMTs or surgeons and others fitted with skills and tools I do not have. The only answer my clients receive is that they can and will learn to save themselves. Or will not, as they ultimately decide. I can and will stand watch over them. Steady them when they allow me close. Tell them: risk this step.

I wait to see who braves the 0bstacles in order to move toward a richer life. And who does not. The suspense keeps me alert, drives the quiet detective work. It keeps me awake some nights, revisiting clues, the storylines of these wandering souls: Let me be a good, sturdy signpost, I pray.

And so when the weekly work days are done, I go to the woods or the marshland; the hills and mountains; the coastal spaces. When I call out from my center, the waters answer, mountains echo, and  creatures like salamanders, crickets or redtail hawks, deer and coyotes take note but continue their work. I am coming for cleansing, for replenishment and to learn, a pilgrim on my own journey. They see me arrive before I see them; they hear me as I slow to interpret flowers and currents. My breathing quiets. Their noses test the drift of air and find me there.

And I am welcomed.

I  finally can stop thinking and begin to emulate a mossy hillock or a luminescent stone caught in seafoam. My ragged life rises and falls with my steps, gets stronger, brightens with refocused vision. It slips along the edge of a pond and stretches in the sun beside snake and snail. It is put on pause by orange starfish clinging to a basalt wall. Yet, too, my life becomes blissfully smaller, is condensed and rolled about so that it changes. I can feel it. The dirt, ferns, bees let me pass over trails. The brush of wind against arm and cheek lifts my spirit above treetops. My feet familiarize themselves with sudden ruts, delight in empty shells or broken branches; they greet valleys or agate-strewn beaches. A banana slug ignores my dance around its path. The birds offer a lyrical call and response and it is as though God, yes, God actually breathes Breath into emerald-hued air.

As I move through shadow and light, all that I brought here, all that is compressed by sorrow, distorted by anger–all that makes humans haunt each other and themselves–has been left to the ether. It has abandoned me to the deep solace of an earthly refuge. I am anonymous, unimportant, yet held close as though I belong just as spider and trillium. And as in that other life–the one that is full of people who create both good and ill will–my intent is to do no harm, to meld with the design.

A  moment longer by a river. The water tells me: Do not let the thorny banks encroach. Let life open, soften, deepen you. Bring your thirst, fill up, for there is enough for all. This holy solitude longs for you as you for it. Rest. Then be fearless in love.

The music of the gentling waters comes to me like a symphony and I reach within to a still, small point. Vanish in plain sight.

Then through the lattice of branches and leaves flow many voices: children making their way and laughing, grown people finding their footing. Locating beauty and being amazed. I move quietly and disappear into the sun-dappled sanctuary, taking with me the pleasure and sanctity of many living things, and peace renewed. Reluctantly, I turn to go. As the world returns to my consciousness with all its transformative, difficult knowledge, I am ready. Until I seek the embrace of solitude once more.