Two of Many Women

I was inspired by a colleague this week. I watched her work with someone nearly broken, a woman who still says she cares for the man who harms her. She is ambivalent about what to do. I had thought my co-worker might be soft-voiced and exceedingly careful but was illuminated by her ways and means. They are of a different culture than I am and I had asked for assistance, her insight so I might better understand. I watched her at work.

She was first polite, with few words. But soon she became bold and frank. She was insistent while respectful in her pleading for change. She didn’t cover the truth with easy lies or elaborate good will. The reality is: this person could lose her life to domestic violence. My colleague had seen it happen and so she was clear: “Save yourself, your children. You are a good woman and you need to stay alive.”

And then there is another client I work with whose face has visited me all week. She is slipping back into a lifestyle that demands violence as a ticket to live. It is this or possibly not survive, and she mostly believes it can still work right now. It is what she knows, and it is her default when she wants to give up. With her I am calm and gentle. I have to wait. I note the signs of her anger and speak about the depression that keeps her numb and listen for the moment when she will stop fighting life, herself, me, everyone. When she will remember how much she wants a little peace, a small kindness. Then she may look at me with eyes unguarded, the door open a crack, for at least an instant. I will have to be ready to respond. It has happened before. It can happen again. I know who she thinks owns her; she is hostage to this belief. But I am not afraid of her anger , just for her weary and scarred life. I am patient as one must be with any badly wounded creature, so that she will raise her head and see a hand not to maul but to accept.

So, four women, two of whom care and want to make a difference, two of whom are riddled with confusion but have so much to offer this world.

Later when I took a long walk after work and saw the century old trees shimmer in the light and heard the birds carousing, I thought, “this, this, this wonder!” But then the women came to me with their sorrow and need and a poem made itself with each step: This this this wonder that you survive….

Two Women…

This this this!

Wonder that you survive brutality.

I see you kneel:

your heart like a cup dipped

in shallow bitter waters.

But the well is so deep

you cannot see the bottom

where light spreads itself over the universe.

You have been tricked with blindness

that dark fruit of ceaseless disregard.

Let me see you stand

and reach into the sweet unknown

pull up that mysterious power that loves you.

It speaks your lost, blameless name.

This this this

wonder that you

survive brutality.

I see you kneel,

one day will see your cup running over

I will see you rise up

with blazing-white wings

and your eyes will not weep

o yes your eyes will so shine

                                  Love should not hurt. Help stop domestic violence.

Gathering ’round the Tree of Life

I awakened this morning feeling something nameless but haunting. Familiarly rich with uncertainty. There seemed to be sunshine leaking from behind the clouds and I awaited a surge of happiness. It was the first day of my three day week-end. It was also Good Friday,  soon to be Easter, and that meant a time of gentle meditation on the death and then resurrection of Jesus. I thought of Easters past and for some reason, the memory of white patent leather shoes and floral, full-skirted dresses saddened me further.

But it wasn’t the particular day, it was me. I mused over the inhospitable territory of my thoughts and feelings as I completed my morning chores. I read over Psalm 100 about joyousness and God and thought as I scrubbed, laundered, tidied. I worried that this would be one of the rare days when I had nothing to write. Stories crept about in my mind, seeking higher ground as I toiled but still, relief was fleeting. The gloom partly diminished but my internal light was thin so I got my camera and headed out, hoping to be inspired.

The truth is, springtime, with all its extraordinary wonders, has not always been the best time for me. Growing up in the Midwest, it signified dreaded stormy weather and sent my family scurrying to the basement when tornado warnings sounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the long winter rains carry us on an upsweep of windy drizzle, tantalize with a pause or two,  then resume with a ponderous, damp trudging into April and May. The bright hyacinths and tulips sometimes seem to mock through gauzy curtains of rain.

Spring has often been the time when difficulties have spiked, also. Among them were raging tonsillitis that left me helpless and lonely in the hospital as a child;  abuse becoming a complicated misery made monstrous by a teen-aged haze of drugs. There was an incandescent love that failed, making springtime the premiere time for love seem like a terrible joke. I much later experienced a second stent implant in my artery when the first one failed and after, a very slow return of fitness. And there was loss of both my parents. I recall writing a poem at around fifteen in response to the so-called glories of spring. There is one line I still recall: “Beauty bites the broken heart.” Such angst and despair were sharpened by the abundance of spring. And so each April can bring a reminder of trials as well as a plethora of creativity.

Meanwhile, the rain held off all day. I started to snap pictures randomly and kept noticing trees, their small tender leaves unfurling, their fragrant pink and white blossoms shaking in the breeze. Bulbous, mossy roots captured my attention. Lithe limbs reached toward  heavens crowded with clouds. As I took photographs, sudden blueness leapt up and danced across the sky. All shone under the fine heat of sunshine that lingered on my shoulders, face, hands.

It was being lifted, my ratty cloak of self-sorrowing. Each step brought a line of poetry, a wafting of song, a simple prayer or two–certainty that this day, this time was good and could be better: “May my hands be useful, my words be balm; may my heart be open, my soul be free. May my mind be clear, my body be true.  May I welcome life and shape it in love.”

I strode down the center of a street and ogled the arching branches above. The trees watched over me as I rambled. They always have, since the first time I bravely climbed the big maple in the back yard as a child. Everything looked better from up there. I could see the bigger picture, all the way past crisscrossing streets, across the busy tree nursery to neighbor houses, into the dazzling, ever-changing skies above. Humanity lived on while I observed and took notes. The rough maple branches held me steady and gave me a seat upon which to wait and rest as I watched, imagined, pondered, problem solved. It let me cling to its smooth and scarred skin when crying and supported me as I sought solitude. I  could speak and not be heard by anyone except the whispering maple, and so I told it my best secrets. That tree took me away from the clanging, messy, unpredictable world below. It made me stronger and more courageous as I navigated its crooks and found favorite footholds, its brittle and sturdy branches. At the uppermost limbs, I hung on with one hand and held my left, flattened hand above my eyes and squinted into the radiant light. I felt like a hearty sailor in the crow’s nest, a bold adventurer. I was a girl who knew her way or would find it. Nothing could stop me.

But, of course we know the reality: things do stop us, at least temporarily. There is a vast and complicated web of stories in this world. We often weave them without thinking and at times walk into each others without a second glance. Even at our best, we make logistical errors, utilize surprisingly poor materials. We promise completions that cannot be finished for one reason or another. And regrets can work their way in and erode the most stalwart of souls.

But still, we can always gather around the tree of life. The idea might have sprung in part from the old maple but it graces many works of art, religious texts, poems and prayers worldwide. I know it is a compass and anchor. A shelter. Touchstone. It is the font of wisdom from which I gain knowledge and find succor.  To many, myself included, it is the divine mystery but I also see it as a community of those who are united by shared strength, hope, and experience. Call it the place of gathered lessons that every person carries on their journeys, then can teach. Perhaps it is the great collective unconscious. For me, the tree of life is like finding God alive and available right here on earth, rooted in ordinary fecund soil, rising to the celestial beyond, granting us all manner of needs while sharing the elegance and drama of creation. Within and around this tree, the truth unfolds. And it  thrives within me as long as I care for it–steady light, breath of air, affirming touch, love and respect for its power.

Last week-end I went on a short trip to Seattle with my youngest daughter, Alexandra; we met her sister, Naomi, an artist who had flown in for a ceramics conference. We enjoyed ourselves, walking and talking, eating and seeing fabulous art, laughing. We went to Pike Place Market one afternoon, perusing the variety of delights. Among the flowers, fish and hand-crafted items, I found silver earrings that had as their a design massive tree. They reminded me of the pewter necklace given to me by my husband a few years ago: another immense tree. I promptly purchased the earrings. It felt right, being with my daughters and enjoying our time together. When I returned home I thought of another tree of life that adorned a table runner, and took a picture of them together which I share with you.

But the question as my day closes–now that I am feeling realigned and more at ease– is how I can ever forget to sit at that tree, at the Master’s feet, in the magnetic compassion of God? How can I forget that there will always be shelter and direction given if it is sought?  It is what keeps me nourished. What enables me to give back. So I write this to remember once more that in this life I have the choice to create good will,  seek clarity of mind and soul. Make things a little better for me, for you.

Come, gather ’round the Tree of Life. Sit with me and rest, then climb higher up the branches. Tell me your story as we survey the lay of the land.

The Genuine Article

The air is redolent of all things inviting: brown sugared yams, buttery potatoes and the sweet tang of cranberries; tender fowl, golden rolls in a generous mound. Mincemeat, pumpkin and Dutch apple pies cool in the kitchen under the slightly opened window, which ushers in a gust of crisp air.

The dining room and table stun. Tall white candles draw the eye to the center of the long orchid tablecloth; an elegant flower arrangement brightens the room from atop the buffet. Each of seven white china plates, delicately rimmed with rosebuds, marks the preferred places of our family members. Crystal goblets offer a melodious ring when I run my damp finger around the rims. Music beckons, perhaps an Aaron Copland symphony resonant of a gentler, happier America or stately Brahms.

My mother wipes her hands on a floral apron. “Come to the table.”  We hold hands and pray, then eat and talk. It is very good food; it seems to taste even better because it is the holidays and everything is beautiful. The conversation is congenial and calm. The pie seems made in heaven, each bite a notation of love given and received.  

And so it often was, growing up in the family home decades ago. My parents are now gone but I recall the traditions easily, and the people with an abiding love. But it does not come back to me like a Thomas Kinkade card, bigger and more vibrant than life. And I do not pine for those years,  the meals prepared and people gathered in a certain civilized manner, the atmosphere charged with all that familial bonds awaken, both memorable and forgettable. I don’t mourn for the past. 

In other words, I am not prey to nostalgia.

The dictionary tells us nostalgia is a longing that is bittersweet, a melancholy tinged with a gauzy remnant of cheer. It is a longing for things, places and people long behind us. Nostalgia is a form of homesickness and creates a revered experience for many. Clearly, it originates from a powerful need.

But for me, nostalgia is an artificial filter, causing one’s memory to pause and re-route to a place and time that never quite existed. It is easier at times, perhaps, to ressurect the past and recall it as the one time and circumstance that was without fault than to live with what we have. We want that safe, wise, all-inclusive moment because it feels as we think life should feel, must feel: fool-proof and unshakably right and good. We want to savor again every piece of homemade pie. And we want the reassurance that all this will be available next year and the next, if only in the secret drawer of our childhood or youth. It is like an equation we can count on no matter what–but in exists only our mind’s eye, in our dreaming and desire, not in actual fact.

I suspect nostalgia keeps us tethered to a past that may not even have been what we think. Maybe some will insist “then” was somehow more attractive than “now”. But can’t it keep us set apart from the current time, these people, this moment-in-the-making of possible wonders? And could it be a sign of an impoverished soul to keep recreating a perfect (nostalgic) slice of life?

So: imagine now a smallish dining room off a smaller kitchen. The heavy oak  table is decked with a tablecloth–the same one my mother used, it’s true. Many small candles encircle the top of the old oak table, and a trail of light flickers in the living room where more candles radiant a generous glow. Brought by each Thanksgiving dinner invitee are pots and platters and bowls filled with food to please all appetites. Deserts line up like lovely prizes on the kitchen counter. There are recyclable plastic eating utensils artfully laid out beside the disposable plates.  The table is so full that I have to make room for glasses and cups as I brew coffee and tea. The Martinelli bottles are frosty cold and a daughter smiles at me as she pours sparkling apple drink.

In the living room are seats enough for about seventeen people; more people sit on the floor. We balance our plates and swap stories. We remark on our uneven lives, discuss our culture as we see it, books and music we love or ponder, projects people are working on, even the nature of God. Laughter and sated appetites cushion the growing darkness. Faces older and younger are illuminated by candle light. Something spills and towels are brought to the scene. One grandchild fusses at another.  The music is likely not heard; it is drowned out by the lull of human cacophony. 

I stand back. Here is a place full of  something good, a gathering of people of different politics, skin color, heritage, dreams, needs. We weather times that sneak up behind us to dump bad news; times that break open promising opportunities; times that whittle us down and refashion us into something more, richer. Times seemingly built of ordinary days and nights, only to surprise us again. And during festive celebrations we rest here together, the group changing as one leaves, another joins. The circle moves and breathes like a patchwork creature made of care. And the messiness that accompanies it is beautiful to me.

It is on the far, far side of artifice or perfection, this motley crew of my family, and my place is nothing fancy. The food is simple and enjoyed as a complement to our talk. The rituals are a mix of new and old, as well as flexible. I prefer it that way, not the way of the past, no matter how good it looks in retrospect. I, along with many other folks, already had those moments; that happiness mixed with life’s hardships has come and gone. Nor do I need a projection of what might be one day. The future is only a moment away, but yet to be.

It is this time I am living, this moment I am given to become intimate with and believe in, share with the others. I long for nothing but this day, this life, and all that each one can bring, no matter what it is. I am already home, here, now, and it is the genuine article, the only one I will offer when you come though my door.

The Heart Chronicles #17: A Heart that Flies

Today I was thinking about the ways poetry has helped my heart become better literally and figuratively.

I became lovestruck by the fourth grade. We were instructed to write a poem after having been read children’s poetry from a big anthology. My classmates wiggled impatiently in their seats, stared out the window, tapped their pencils, whispered of other things. But I sat with head down, pencil racing across the paper as though in a trance. I saw on the vast canvas of my mind an old man on a raft; it was raised aloft by the sea’s heaving green waves. He was sailing toward a place that he loved, a far away home that drew him forward, but he was tired. A flock of seagulls called out, soaring and diving. The old man, though both hearty and wise, thought he might not make it. He raised his eyes to the strong-winged birds and they brought him sea plants. He tied them to the raft and the seagulls took the other ends into their mouths. The wind blew mightily. The seagulls pulled the raft with the old man on it to his beloved destination.

It was a rather long poem, the teacher said, but she liked it. Still, just where did that poem come from? I had no good answer. It had just visited me and I got to write it down. That year it was chosen to be read at a conference on childhood education and creativity. That seemed a bit odd to me,  as the best thing was the happiness I felt in the making of my first real poem. That it had given pleasure to others was a pleasing side note.

And so I continued to write poems as I grew up. I liked to write plays and stories but poetry was the strongest voice, the one that took all the feelings, thoughts, ideas and crystallized them one by one. I read Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser,  Elizabeth Browning, Rainier Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, ee cummings–the list grew each year as I was left amazed by their prowess. A poem was the undiluted experience, the truth of one moment, a sage that taught me what I needed to know. They brought to the light many things that were wandering in the shadows. A poem could, and did, change my thinking and clarify my feelings, even alter the course of my life. 

Writing poetry has saved some part of me more times than I could recount. It has at times been the one companion or help available regardless of the time of day or night,  state of my love life,  health of my body,  or life circumstances that brought me plenty or paltriness. Many kinds of writing have upheld me but poetry’s brevity has perhaps taught me more.

After I was diagnosed with heart disease, I found I could write little other than poems. Most were not shared; they were vulnerable poems, poems needed to cleanse and heal myself, akin to prayers.  There were not the words for big stories at first, nor the energy. What I could not explain in speaking with others, I could say easily in poems. The deepest or hardest experiences would often have no voice at all if not for them. When I grappled with losses spanning the years–of health, of love, of family or friends, or of simply time, itself–a poem would rescue me from self-pity, self-importance, self-abnegation. It freed me and brought closer the center of all that I loved, to God and a sense of the numinous. More clearly part of the whole, I rested.

I read today about several meanings of the phrase “the flying heart”.  The winged heart symbol of the Sufi movement is reflective of the belief that it lies between the body and the soul, a conduit between matter and spirit.   Egyptian symbology indicates that wings are the symbol of spiritual progress and the heart was the only organ not removed from a mummy–an emerald stone was placed upon the chest to assist the journey from matter to spirit. In Christian scripture there are phrases that refer to a person’s spirit being lifted by wings of the heart. The Old Testament mentions the heart 814 times; it is seen as having higher intelligence than the brain. Psalms instruct us to “lift up your hearts.”  This is what poetry can do for me: my heart can fly and, in so doing, it can make more rapid connections to mind, matter, heart and spirit.  I become humbled and liberated by the truth I am made to discover. 

And so, I offer you one poem that surfaced as my heart dis-ease was still healing.


Lake Language

These are damaging times,
when all the words left seem
too little or self-important,
and since I had ridden the tail end
of the procession of grief,
not one syllable could tell me anything good.

So, I left for the lake, its imperishable
silences and soundings,
its mutations ranging from deep to deeper,
the sterling surface exhaling blues and greens
while I slept, innocent.

That next day the sun rose like a crown.
What seemed to be rain drops
were branches shushing the world.
Leaves flew across
my face,  burning with color
and clinging to my shoulders in
an impromptu cape that streamed
all the way to paradise.

Every small mystery bounded the trails
so I wouldn’t lose my way: 
moss and lichen clinging to
heavy nurse logs,
black beetles in shining armor,
bees feasting til the very last moment,
streams rumbling ancient warrior ground.

I would have danced among the cedars,
risen on plumes of scented mist,

but the lake called,
waves glimmering and thrusting toward
the shore, stones turning over
like happy creatures,
clouds drinking at the edge,
its enormity clearer than light,
its pure glacier heart warming in my hands

(Poem written at Crescent Lake in the Olympic National Park, 10/02)

What Counts is Being Here Together

Tired, pensive and grateful: these come close to describing my feelings as I write tonight. Frankly, I had thought of skipping this post or maybe copying and pasting an already-published excerpt of my novel and leaving it at that. I am not deluded about the importance of these posts to others.

However, I love to write. I actually need to write, especially since life has so much to tell me.

And the last couple of days have been filled to overflowing. I just returned from two days attendance at the Northwest Institute of Addictions Studies conference. Each summer, it is given in partnership with the Addictions Studies Program at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Counseling. There were various sessions offered, as usual, presented by local, state and national experts. The topics ranged from adolescent opiate abuse, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, health care and the need for integrating addictions services, and the complicated challenges of treating gamblers. I chose my sessions and gained some good information despite too-cool or too-stuffy rooms and long hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I have been to a lot of conferences over the span of twenty-five years. I even gave my own trainings in the distant past. And it’s seldom the information that interests me so much as the people, familiar or not.

As I settled in the first day, someone said my name. Sitting down beside me was a fine-featured woman. We had worked together thirteen years earlier with adolescents at a large outpatient mental health program. I had been at an outlying satellite office but still recalled her as being efficient, smart and a lot younger and more educated than I was. She told me she had burned out quickly so left the organization to raise a family and re-think things.

“But all those kids–I want to work with them again. So much is at stake for them. I think I can still help.” 

She was earnest and amazed by the new research about teens and addictions. I wished her well and ran into her later when she was deep in conversation with a presenter. Her enthusiasm was infectious. 

I saw another past co-worker in the hallways not once but three  times. We had worked with indigent, often homeless adults in city center but E. had left to work at the state level, doing more research-driven work that impacted policymaking. I had just read something she had written. We chatted easily although it had been seven years. She had recently retired.

“I think about it,” I admitted. “But I’m not sure I’m done with this work.”

“Oh, I’m starting a private practice,” she assured me and we laughed.

At one session I struck up a dialogue with a fiftyish, burgundy-haired woman who had driven six hours from a more rural area to Portland. She had worked with teens exclusively and was looking for more effective tools with which to treat them.

“They might be some tougher than when I started out twenty-five years ago but I’m tougher, too.”

I nodded; I understood what she meant. And the way she held herself and spoke convinced me. But as she spoke of her clients, her face softened with compassion and her eyes brightened.

Across a large room I spotted a man with whom I’d worked at a Native American treatment facility. I couldn’t catch his eye so I started to turn–then he waved and smiled.  I thought about the couple of years I spent with tribal members from all over the western states. They brought with them devastated lives and longing for their traditions. I have kept the beaded necklaces and bracelets some gifted me in a special box.

During lunch today I took a break from the throngs and sat by the hotel pool, eating my almond butter sandwich and soaking up the sunshine. A man sat down with his salad and quietly ate. I closed my eyes and was about to doze off when I glanced at him. His name tag informed me he was K. and worked at an agency near my place of employment. He was a mental health clinician so I closed my eyes again. I primarily address substance disorders and related issues. My impulse was to avoid a heavy conversation about mental health versus addictions treatment. But it is unlike me to not talk to someone who is sitting beside me, especially at a conference or other sociable gathering.

“How are you enjoying the sessions?” I asked.

We were off and running. He shared with me how he had only gotten into the field about eight years ago after a successful business career. He’d  thought he’d found something he loved and it turned out he was right. We covered the gamut from the problems inherent in diagnosis and the skills we try to bring to treating our clients, what works better and what seems to fail, and what surprises we have had. A couple of laughs were shared. We’ve had separate yet common experiences helping people to help themselves. I have outlasted him only because I have been at it longer. I recognized in his crinkly eyes a familiar gleam of passion for the work and we concluded we both will keep at this as long as we are able.

“Do you think you’ll find a way to do this even when you retire one day?” he asked as we wrapped it up.

“I can’t imagine not getting out there and being of some service,” I admitted. “Youth at risk, those waylaid or homebound by illness, people with hard luck and living in shelters, and, of course, alcoholics and addicts–there is so much going on that could use more helping hands.” I paused. “Or maybe I’ll write about it all. Probably both.”

“Yes, one way or  another, there’s work to do,” he agreed and warmly shook my hand. “I’ll keep you in mind when my clients need addictions treatment.” 

It was near the end of the day and I had one last session to attend on gambling. I looked forward to it but I was winding down.

“Hey Cynthia!”

I turned around and there was D. striding toward me. Over six feet tall, a bit heavier than the last time I had seen him, he exuded confidence and well-being. I grabbed his hand but he pulled me into a hug. We caught up briefly before the presenters began. He now sat on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, still advocating for addicted persons albeit in another manner. I wondered what that was like for him; he said he enjoyed it. I asked him about his two children, how he was doing. It was a too-brief chat, as had been the case all day. But we’ve had many such exchanges over the years; I will run into him again.

 Truthfully,we don’t have to say much. He was barely twenty when he came to the field as a wide-eyed, fledgling counselor at the locked residential facility where I worked. Our clients were gang-affected or affiliated youth; kids who lived on the streets; kids carrying anger and trauma with them from morning til night, addictions their only escape. Yet those addictions  brought them to us, and DB and I sat with them, sorrowed with them, tried to protect them and each other awhile as their pain escaped like boiling water. D and I and the other counselors encouraged each other. It was not a very safe place but it was a place we chose to be.

We kept watch. We bore witness. If needed, we gave permission for them to tell their own truths. And we asked them to hold on while we cared so that they could discover and practice a better way.

Sometimes it all worked. And many times it did not. But D and I and the others kept at it because it was what we wanted to do. Or perhaps it chose us,  in the end.

As I leave the conference I recall K. asking me an odd question.

“Do you still remember them years later? I mean, do you think about your old clients and wonder if they are okay, if they got better, how their lives turned out?”

Yes, I told him. I remember their eyes, their dreams, their stories, the way they struggled to become whole and free. I remember their losses and triumphs.  They have left with me something of who they are, some more than others. Their lives never stop moving me.

And, too, I remember the dozens of counselors I have worked with and the conversations, large and small, that have made a difference to me. And the dignity of silent understanding when needed. Seeing them once more is a comfort: we just keep getting on with it.

What matters most is that we really are in this together–all just people in the end, lost or found or somewhere in between.